As a companion to the Word Like Fire podcast, I’m planning to use this blog to discuss various topics related to music in the Church, and hopefully spark some constructive discussions. I’ll also speak to specific issues that I’m keeping in mind as I write my own music.
Something worth talking about was brought up by Kevin (of the Sung Prayers Podcast) in an earlier comment- the prominent focus on the individual in modern worship music.
A while back, my wife and I were visiting a church. The lights dimmed, the music swelled, and words appeared on the projection screen:
“I got up really early this morning
Most days I’d rather be snoring
But I came, and I hope you’ll
Remember my busy schedule
And realize how lucky you are
That to praise you, I drove so far.
Oh God, I’m waiting for you to get here
I’m worth your time, and I kept my morning clear
So hurry up and talk to me or something
Before I decide I showed up for nothing.”
OK, I might be exaggerating a bit, but the overall message of the song was not so different. About halfway through, my wife and I were staring at each other in wide-eyed horror. It was an extreme example of something that had troubled me for a long time in a subtler way- a growing emphasis on “me” and what I’m doing instead of God and what He’s done. Along with this trend came the increasing tendency to reduce the enormous power and love of God to the level of a cozy, self-centered human relationship, what I’ve heard referred to as “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs (swap out the name Jesus and you’ve got a top-40 pop hit).
A part of this movement was probably a reaction to the perceived coldness of “mainstream” churches, and the lack of emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus. In fact, our God is a personal God, and it is important to reflect on what He has done in our lives, and on our personal relationship with Him. The problem arises when we embrace a faith, and a body of music, that is exclusively introspective. God becomes no more that what I can experience personally, and my emotions become the absolute indicator of God’s presence.
Singing in the first person (”I”) about how Christ has changed our lives is a good thing, but it is important to keep a balance. We need to also approach the awesome nature of God in a way outside of and detached from our limited human understanding- praising him without the need to refer to ourselves at all. We need to remember the Trinity, the multiple dimensions of who God is, that he is perfection, pure and complete, and needs nothing from us. And just as God exists in community, so do we as members of the Body of Christ. It is important to cry out to God as a community, “we,” remembering that we are a body and our praise does not exist in a vacuum. All of these methods of address (personal, congregational, and God-only) are found throughout the Psalms, and need a place in our musical expression.
This is an issue I’m paying close attention to as I write my own songs, but it is also a struggle. I come with the attitude of the singer-songwriter, and writing from a place of personal emotional experience is the easiest and most natural for me. In my more personal songs, I’m trying to still keep the focus on God more than myself, and on His power and my powerlessness. I went through a phase years ago where I would actually count the number of “I”s and “me”s in a song and compare it to the number of references to God, or “You”s. This can be an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it really reveals as much as I thought it did at the time. The real line isn’t between references to myself vs. God, but between what I’m doing and what God’s doing. Am I singing more about what I’m doing for God or what he’s doing for me? Is the true object of the song God or myself? Am I addressing God as Savior, Creator, and Sustainer or as a fuzzy feeling I get when the lights go down and the music’s loud?
This trend may be shifting for the better. Current worship chart-toppers like “Mighty to Save” and “How Great is Our God” have a much stronger God-focus than has been the norm, and I pray that this continues, expanding our tools and attitudes in our times of worship.