This question comes from Cheyne, in response to the post Expressing Love to God. I’ve edited his question for the sake of brevity.
“Last year, I heard a well-known and respected speaker discuss Psalm 16:11 (“at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore”)…The impression I got from his message was that to know Jesus far exceeds any other pleasure we could experience in this world…The comments you made in your post seem to indicate that expressing one’s feelings for the Lord is not a biblical form of worship. Could you clarify your position?”
I’ll certainly try. It’s not expressing our feelings for the Lord that’s unbiblical; it’s how we might express them. It’s unwise and potentially harmful to simply say whatever we feel, because the words we use both shape and reflect our view of God. Is God my personal romantic lover? No. Does He love me as no one else can, intimately, personally, and eternally? Yes. But that love is mine through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3-6), and is expressed to me not only as an individual, but as part of the body of Christ. When I lead congregational song, I want to pursue, as much as possible, a view of God that emphasizes both his nearness in Christ and his complete otherness. Skip Ryan, in Worship: Beholding the Beauty of the Lord, speaks to this:
“There is a very creative tension where real worship takes place – the tension between God’s transcendence and His immanence. We see it in the beautiful combination of both so fully expressed in how the Lord taught us to pray and worship: ‘Our Father who is in heaven.’ ‘Our Father’ is close, loving, intimate. Yet He is ‘in heaven.’ He is different.” (p. 29)
This leads to Cheyne’s second question (edited):
“Shouldn’t the makeup of the local fellowship or community (and ultimately, the pastoral leadership) decide whether a song containing such lyrics is appropriate for that venue?”
Cheyne then refers to the song “What a Friend I’ve Found” which contains the line “more intimate than lovers.” He makes the point that while that line may not do well in a Bible belt congregation, it seems to be effective in engaging a highly unchurched culture with the Gospel message.
Two thoughts. First, I say AMEN! to pastors taking responsibility for the songs the church sings. One of the things I hope to do through this blog is encourage local pastors and congregational worship leaders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet. 5:2-3 ESV) Pastors are ultimately responsible to make sure the songs the church sings paint a big picture of God with biblically faithful, heart affecting, Gospel-centered lyrics. Still, factors such as the age and maturity of a congregation, the religious climate of the culture, and the present song diet of the church, all play a part in determining what songs should be sung in a particular context.
Second, if some percentage of a group I’m leading happens to be unbelievers, I want them to hear about the immensity of the sin that has separates them from God, the reality of the Savior who came to die in their place, and the joy that comes through receiving the Good News of the Gospel. If we all sang that Jesus’ love is “more intimate than lovers,” and that “it would break my heart to ever lose each other,” (another line from the song) I’d be concerned that their view of Jesus would be filtered through a very human lens, and end up being less biblical and amazing than it is. But then, I’d have the same concern if there were no unbelievers present. It would do more than “break my heart” to lose Jesus; I would be eternally condemned. I think I understand what the writer wants to communicate. I just don’t think it’s done in a way that serves a congregation.
I have no desire to put out a list of “approved” or “banned” songs. It wouldn’t be helpful or possible. There are some songs I don’t think a church should ever sing, many I think every church should sing, and a large number that could go either way, depending on the situation. However, I’m convinced that the more we seek to sing theologically informed, Christ-exalting, congregation-edifying, soul-moving songs, the less thought we’ll have to give to all the others.
May your love for and knowledge of the Savior grow deeper and more satisfying in the new year.
Bob — Good post — I have entertained some of the very same questions from people that I have encountered.
I also agree with your observation — “However, I’m convinced that the more we seek to sing theologically informed, Christ-exalting, congregation-edifying, soul-moving songs, the less thought we’ll have to give to all the others…”
I have found that to be true in the life of our congregation…
bob, this comment may be unfair to you, as I have only read a couple of your posts … but your views here puzzle me a bit. My take on the whole intimacy with Christ deals much more with the bridal paradigm than it does with sensuality. You said: “If we all sang that Jesus’ love is “more intimate than lovers,” and that “it would break my heart to ever lose each other,” (another line from the song) I’d be concerned that their view of Jesus would be filtered through a very human lens, and end up being less biblical and amazing than it is.” I feel the composer is making a dead on fact that Jesus’ love is ‘more’ intimate than lovers. Unfortunately my human lens can be polluted by theology as well as a myriad of other things that make up my tidy system of beliefs. Perhaps the composer was trying to convey a hyperbole here (as the scriptures often does) to make a point and it was successful enough that it made several listners actually think about the words they were singing. I think we could all agree that agape is a much greater expression than eros the former being so self sacrificing and atoning. I guess my point here is “my” theology based on scripture allows a picture of intimacy with Christ that may be ‘out of the box’ … but surely should not make it weird and unpresentable to any congregation. Heck, it might even open up dialogue. In my experience of being a senior pastor and a worship pastor … we need more expressions of worship that carry the worshipper from their comfort zone to a deeper, more authentic or intimate relationship with Christ. my thoughts, for what they are worth.
Great Q&A! One thing that I’ve noticed is that leaders often don’t discuss/explain lyrics that could be misconstrued. For example, I’ve noticed many churches sing songs with lines about being “in love” with God. Per papa g’s comment, is this phileo, agape, eros? I can see that there are contexts (scripure parings) where a song about being “in love” (e.g. sold out, dedicated, etc) would be appropriate, but too often we as leaders don’t take the time to clearly explain how the lyrics can draw us together to worship with one God with one heart. I guess that begs the question, does scripture say anything about unity of mind/heart/soul when we are worshipping? Do we all need to mean the same thing when we are worshipping? Perhaps this could be a future Friday Q&A. Thanks again Bob. I’m enjoying and greatly benefiting from his blog!