Matt wrote in to ask:
What do you think about singing songs that have a lot of me/we/I content. Is it wrong to sing a lot of songs that talk about us? A couple come to mind right now: “We stand and lift up our hands…” “I love you Lord…” etc…I think there’s value in having some songs with personal language as we sing/speak to God, but is there a balance that we should seek in using songs that speak of we, me, or us?
Lyrics in worship songs can be generally categorized as objective, subjective, or reflective. Objective lyrics tell us something true about God that helps us know him better. Most, but not all, hymns from the 18th century tend to focus on objective truths. Like this one:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea
A great high priest, whose name is love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
(Before the Throne of God Above, words by Charitie Lee Bancroft)
Subjective lyrics express responses to God such as love, longing, conviction, or adoration. Don’t assume a song that uses a lot of first person pronouns is subjective. Psalm 86 uses the personal pronouns “I, me, and my” thirty-one times in seventeen verses. But you’re never left wondering who the focus is. Also, subjective doesn’t necessarily mean man-centered. God delights in strong emotions that are a response to objective realities. These are subjective lyrics:
And I, I’m desperate for you
And I, I’m lost without you.
(chorus to Breathe, by Marie Barnett)
Reflective lyrics describe what we’re doing as we worship God. We bring our offering, we praise, we sing, we lift up our hands.
We stand and lift up our hands…
We bow down and worship him now.
(from Holy is the Lord, by Chris Tomlin)
These three categories aren’t hard and fast divisions, and many songs contain all three perspectives. All three are an aspect of singing God’s Word. But objective truth about God’s glory in Christ should be the main part of the songs we sing. If it isn’t, our songs will eventually drift into emotionalism and self-absorption. We lose sight of God and get caught up in our own emotions. We start to worship our experiences, become focused on how well we’re doing what we’re doing¸ and are more impressed with our feelings and actions than God’s.
If I’m leading, or even when I’m in the congregation, I often fill in what a song leaves out. Many songs, both traditional and modern, don’t say everything we want them to. So if I’m singing, “I stand in awe of you,” I might interject something like, “Your mercy is great,” or “You’re my Creator,” or “You’re seated on the throne.” On the other hand, in the midst of a song packed with truth, I might express “We love you, Father,” or “You are my joy,” or “There’s no one like you.” The thing is, we don’t have to settle for one or the other.
A lot of times I see churches react to a perceived imbalance and end up being unbalanced themselves – either all emotion or all theology. God wants us to enjoy both. Our songs should reflect the passionate God-centeredness of the Psalms, filled with emotion, struggle, and personal language, but leaving no doubt as to the Creator-Redeemer around whom everything revolves. Praise God, there are an increasing number of songs, both old and new, that help us the balance in tension.
Book update: I’m starting to receive edited chapters back from my editor. He said Crossway wants to cut 1/3 of the book. I thought that would be the case, but wanted to have too much to draw from rather than too little. Appreciate your prayers.
Bob – thanks for those explanitory interjections. It so helps to focus people. Much more meaningful than the oft heard “Here we go”.
Great to hear that someone else has been pondering stuff like this, just as I have.
I am looking forward to the book. I hope the cuts are streamlining, not cuts in content. For most of us in the worship ministry, less is not necessarily more. :-)
Crossway wants you to cut a third of the book out? Yikes! That’s like asking someone to decide which of his three children he wants to donate to science.
what?!? we’ll take the other 1/3 here!! :D
In your session on “Roles and Goals of the Corporate Worship Leader” at the 2001 PDI Worship Leader’s Conference, you mentioned that we’re not leading people “into worship” or “into the holy of holies”, but “into a fresh awareness of who God is, what he has done, and how that affects our past, present and future.” I dig this, but wonder about the holy of holies part.
Hebrews 9-10:22 calls us to enter the Most Holy Place confidently. John Frame says “The Most Holy Place was opened to us at the death of Christ, when the veil of the temple was torn in two” (In Spirit and Truth, 27).
If God is enthroned on and abides in the praises of his people, and if he is wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, then it seems that there is an actual, spiritual experience of “entering into” the holy of holies when we gather and praise him. That being said, it seems that we as leaders in corporate worship have a kind of priestly duty to bring God’s people into his presence, his Most Holy Place, like the Israelite musicians of old.
I don’t know. Am I just way off on this?
P.S. Can I publish the other 1/3 of your book pseudonymously?
Yes yes. the church should find a variety of ways to express a variety of feelings and thoughts spoken from a variety of hearts, but always keeping the Objective Truth as the main focus, not our personal and fickle experiences.
Bob just came across your blog by chance you have encouraged me no end. I am leading worship tomorrow and feel far from the lord yet I know that he is faithful, that his name will be praised and as you wrote that our purpose is to remind me and all those attending of who he is and what he has done to put our trust in him anew. Praise God.