The virtues of interdependence are largely forgotten in our times. Even where there is very little grass to cut, most of us need to own a mower. Thousands of people hit the highways each day, generally one per car, all going to roughly the same places. Inside each vehicle, the experience is highly customized—temperature, lighting and music are all adjusted to the liking of the solo passenger.
Manufacturers and marketers love this, but we’re losing touch with something along the way. We’ve come to think of ourselves as a collection of self-contained units, all able to get what we want without inconveniencing anyone else.Live this way all week and you’re bound to bring the same expectations into your weekly worship gathering.
If everything else we consume is bite-sized, individually packaged and tailored to our needs, why not our worship experience as well?
We demand personal, individualized expression. And wherever there’s demand, supply is sure to follow. On offer from the worship music industry is a preponderance of songs whose adverbial bias is tilted strongly toward the individual and personal.
As I study the repertoire of my own congregation, the trend is obvious. The text of the most prominent songs we sang in the previous nine months reveal a 6:1 ratio of individual personal adverbs used over words that indicate corporate expression like “we,” “we’ll,” “we’re” and “our.”
Even when we do stand corporately, we sing as individuals, and the way we sing is a metaphor for the way we go about our lives as the body of Christ. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with individual expressions of gratitude and worship; that has its place. But is that place standing with several hundred others engaging in the same individualized activity?
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the words we put into people’s mouths when we lead in song. People are more likely to leave a worship service with the words of a song, rather than a sermon, stuck in their heads. The sermon does matter, but in the short-term our minds cling to what’s easiest to remember.
I do hope we’d rather lodge in people’s minds a clearly worded song like “In Christ Alone” than the ambiguously worded “Draw Me Close.” Lyrics like “You’re all I want / You’re all I’ve ever needed / You’re all I want / Help me know you are near” could easily be mistaken for a romantic ballad by someone who hears them in the wrong context.
This of course is not inherently sinful; after all, the Bible does use male/female “romantic” language at times. But as Keith Drury puts it in his chapter of the excellent book The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship: “None of us alone can be the bride of Christ; only together collectively are we His bride.”
Thus, the Church could use more lyrics expressing the love relationship between Jesus and the collective Church, replacing “I, my and mine” with “we, our and ours.”
In this group context, the romantic aspect—even the marriage metaphor—can be wholesome, biblical and proper.
Begin to use this “romantic” language in the context of individualized expression and things start to get a little weird. The lack of clarity may not be intentional, but it does have consequences.
Songs of individual expression have dominated in recent years. This is a result of both what the worship music industry supplies, and the choices of song leaders. We should avoid overcorrecting by banning the words “I” and “me” from our repertoire, but certainly there are songs written as individual expression that can be modified slightly to reflect a more corporate and congregational tone.
We should desire more body coordination and less isolated, individual movement. Changing our song lyrics to reflect that desire won’t cure the problem, but surely it’s a suitable token of our intentions.
Worship is about God, but that doesn’t mean it has no effect on us. We sing, “it’s all about you, Jesus,” but we say it in a way that makes it rather obvious that it’s about us, too. And it is about us too, because worship—if it is true worship—will cause us to be transformed more to the likeness of Christ, both as individuals and as His Body.
Here’s a letter to the editor that came in to Christian Week after this column was published in print there:
Before I offer a mild critique of Michael Krahn’s last column, I want to encourage him in his work. I believe it is very important to think about how we worship God and I appreciate how he shares his thoughts on the subject with ChristianWeek readers.
Like Krahn, I am a musician and songwriter and I am sure he will agree that composing a song from a corporate standpoint can be difficult. I really only know how “I” feel. I don’t like to speak for anyone else when I am worshipping God. I really don’t like to speak for God either and refuse to sing songs that are written as though they are from God, unless I’ve amended the words into third person.
This phenomenon of individually expressive worship songs is nothing new. It can be traced back as far as Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”). I often wonder if he appreciates his songs being sung almost 300 years later. He apparently wrote his songs in response to a growing discontent with traditional hymns, but that is another subject.
Krahn also singles out the song “Draw Me Close” by calling it ambiguous and that it could pass for a romantic song. Now, I must admit that I got the exact same impression when I first heard the song a few years ago. It’s kind of like an 80s romantic rock ballad. But who cares? Does Krahn think that God doesn’t know who I am singing to? The One who can read all of my thoughts surely knows who I am singing to. I guess the only danger in composing that song is that people will be tempted to use it out of context. There is an art of worship, and a heart of worship. We can’t fool God.
In the end, though, Krahn is correct. Worship in a corporate setting should be as such. We are a body. The bride of Christ.
From a songwriter’s perspective, I would prefer to avoid “I, we, my, our, me and us. I find it better to use You, and direct it to Him (God). Because that is who it is all about. Either that, or load the songs with biblical truths about Him.
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