Evangelicals sing to You

by Bo Sanders

Three interesting conversations have recently merged in my little corner of the interwebs:

  • The Republican presidential primaries have brought to the limelight some very complex subjects like race, economics, and religion that are handled with stereotypical banter, generally at increased volume.

Santorum is an uber-Catholic, Romney is Mormon, Newt wants the Evangelical vote and all of this is contrasted to Obama’s social-justice-Jeremiah-Wright past. The religion aspect of this election year is going to be fascinating.

I point out that in our national militarism mentality and our cultural myth of redemptive violence, that PSA is playing a role in our religious silo that is spilling over in unhelpful and even harmful ways.

The author calls them evangelical – in contrast to pentecostals who speak in tongues – even though I am not sure that the Vineyard (which both of her congregations are) are wholly representative off all the different camps that come under that tent.

Last week I posted that I was ‘worried about worship’ and one of my concerns dealt with the epistemology behind the band-centered worship expereince. I said

“ Is this situation inflamed by an epistemology employed by evangelical and charismatic churches? I don’t know how else to say it but …. if you think that you are singing to God (vs. about God) and the God is actually listening to you and evaluating what is going on, then are you more critical of both the sour-notes and distracting ‘self’ behavior or overly elaborate performances?”

As I read the review of Luhrmann’s new book in the New Yorker magazine (“Seeing is Believing” by Joan Acocella) I was amazed at the obvious parallels to what I had attempted to address. Unfortunaly, the New Yorker requires that you subscribe to the magazine in order to read the article… so I can’t just link there for you. If, however you get the chance to pick up the magazine or copy it at the library, it is well worth your time.

Without the article to link to I will just offer a couple of related thoughts:

The three step plan to Hearing the Voice of God (the Father) is exactly – 100% – my experience of being raised evangelical. So many people that I talk to who were/are charismatic or evangelical have this exact same experience [she also mentions there lack of social service, lack of political involvement, and lack of theology]. The thing I still find shocking is that so many of those outside those groups do not know that is what it is like inside, and how often those inside don’t know that this is not everyone else’s experience of the christian faith.

David Bebbington in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) did a masterful job of find some common theme that ran through evangelical history. This was a tough job (not always obvious) and has resulted in much debate about if these can even be called one grouping in any coherent sense. I am leaning more and more toward saying that Evangelicalism is not an official membership but is rather a dynamic relation between experience and expression. These two things are facilitated by an epistemology that is more central than any doctrinal or theological markers. Over the last 400 years what has been defining is not the political involvement (it has changed) or what was believed (it has adapted) but the experiential component (enthusiasm) that manifests is a distinct expression.

I have been out of the worship-band culture (Hillsong, Matt Redman, etc) for 2 years. I recently preached at a church with a worship band. What stood out to me so forcibly was the word “You”. I didn’t know why at first but as the service progressed I was struck by how many (all) the songs were addressed to ‘You’. You are holy, you are famous, I need you, etc. It stands in stark contrast to songs sung to God or about God like: a mighty fortress is our God, Oh God our help is ages past, and even Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

I often get to hear Mainliners talk about the alien experience of stumbling upon a christian music station on the radio. I also get to hear visitors to our pipe-organ-hymns-only church wonder about the lack of intimacy and excitement. I think it has less to do with the music style and more to do with the epistemology of singing songs to a ‘You’ and all the assumptions that would accompany that subtle change.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this – agree or disagree

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14 comments
Tim M
Tim M

I'll take a different twist: I'm concerned about worship combined with your first point on politics. I'm extremely uncomfortable with this "us" vs. "them" theme that are showing up in new(er) worship songs. Combined with a heavy driving melody, I begin to feel like I'm either in national political convention or the battle cry scene of "Braveheart." Since when does it have to be "Our God is stronger" or "our God is higher". When did evangelism become a middle-school boys p***ing contest of faiths? This brings in directly the point of not knowing what is going on outside or inside, depending on your context. It lacks credibility and honesty when we allow for such narrow perspectives. I know that I'm fortunate to have attended a very diverse middle and high school, where I had friends of at least 6 other religious faiths. We could talk openly without any fears of alienation. 20 years later I long for that openness again as I ponder the God who created the whole world and chose to place people in diverse cultures. That openness rarely exists inside the church walls, at least the ones I've attended. Sadly, the more I attend, the more closed in I feel.

Nate
Nate

@Bo: I'm not sure myself; that's why I asked you! :) More seriously, I suppose, having spent my Christian career in evangelical-churches-who-don't-call-ourselves-evangelical (gotta love us Stone-Campbell people!), I appreciate both the best of hymnody from three hundred years ago (which is to say those hymns that have survived three hundred years) and the best of contemporary worship song (which is to say, the stuff that won't be solely punchline material twenty years from now). This might be a cop-out on my point, but since the Psalms seem content to shuttle back and forth between vocatives to YHWH and proclamations to the nations and exhortations to the neighbor and addresses to one's ownmost nephesh (did I just slip some Heidegger-in-translation in there? perhaps...), and since the Psalms don't apologize for it, I leave songsmiths a fair bit of latitude. I'm open, as always, to the possibility that the toleration for which I congratulate myself is in reality intellectual laziness. :)

Robin Vincent
Robin Vincent

The Worship part of a church needs time to evolve and space to continue to change - and we all need to chill out a bit and let it happen. If you dip into a worship service only occasionally then you're going to get a snapshot of something but not the whole picture. As someone who "does worship" is many different ways and forms if we were to take on board all the criticism of worship band culture then we would be tying ourselves up in knots trying to avoid "you" songs and "i" songs and not be too performy, allow for mistakes, but also play perfectly, but not too loud, but not so quiet you can't lead, with complex and interesting music which is simple and repetitive for people to learn but not be boring. At some point you've got to play some songs so people can sing together - might be easier to put on a CD. I believe that worship is a pursuit - in our lives and in our churches we need to be actively involved in it. The first thing any worship band needs to do is understand how utterly unworthy they are to lead anyone else into worship. They need to be self-aware of the clichés, of the jesus my girlfriend songs, of the personal and corporate nature of worship and to know that they are just part of the body of christ like everyone else. We need, i feel, to relieve ourselves of the burden of being "worship leader" or a "lead worshipper" and admit that our love of music and playing instruments drives us far more than our desire to please god. Then we can ask - anyone want to sing a song?

Nan Bush
Nan Bush

As a lifelong Mainline person, I can say that on my occasional visits to "Praise" services, I find the music...well, the kindest word is *thin.* The words are usually badly written, repetitive, and shallow, and the rhymes don't rhyme. Just poor quality. Pretty much ditto for.the music--the kind of melodic lines that a mildly talented high school kid might produce, singable but uninteresting, and shallow; what carries it is the repetitiveness, just like any hypnotic. People get into the rhythm and go riding off on an emotional junket. Maybe it's worshipful, maybe it's just easy emotionality that feels like it's worshipful. As someone else said, I miss a sense of awe or wonder, and thoughtfulness. It doesn't have to be Bach, but some genuinely melodic Welsh hymn tunes or something from the St. Louis Jesuits could be a welcome change. I understand the desire of many people to get away from formality, and to finding relationship with God. However, it's worth remembering that God is not just a good buddy with whom to be all casual all the time.. The approach doesn't have to be super intellectual, but some thoughtful recognition of mystery, and that God/spirit isn't all an easy walk in sunny weather would be really worthwhile.

JoeyS
JoeyS

Having been on the leading end of this sort of music I have a lot of discomfort with it as well. I still lead music at churches from time to time. Most the music is just bad. Poorly written, lacking historical roots and theological depth. The "You" is an attempt at familiarity but is devoid of awe. I think there is merit in singing "to" God and singing "about" God and being educated through music but I think it needs to be done responsibly. My counselor once told me a story of a couple he was doing pre-marital counseling with. Neither had ever set foot in a church but wanted to find one. Her mother was Catholic so he sent them to the local Catholic church first. The next week when he asked how it went the man replied, "No story" - meaning that there was no sermon. After realizing that was something they valued he sent them to a local evangelical church. When he met with them again he asked how it went. The man replied, "Well, we got there a little early and lots of people were shaking our hand and smiling at us. It was a little awkward. The whole place filled up with friendly people. Then we all stood up and sang Karaoke for a half hour." I still laugh at that story.

Dustin Brown
Dustin Brown

The 'you' focus of these songs is not what bothers me so much. What really gets me are the 'I' songs, and the coercive nature of so many worship songs. "...and I life up my hands..." and everyone's supposed to follow along. It just eerks me. But the thing that scares me the most is that coming from one of these sort of traditions, I have a really hard time defining (or experiencing) worship outside of this context. Anyway, just some thoughts. Thanks for the great post, Bo. You're my hero :)

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

Yo Bo I like 'you' songs and miss them when in MLP worship services. My prayers are heavy 'you' style and I sing a bunch of 'you' songs in my own devotional life.

Nate
Nate

Quick question, Bo, before I give this more sustained thought--what distinction would you make between the vocative "O" in "O God our help in ages past" (I assume that was a Freudian typo when you misnamed the song) and the second-person "You"?

dmf
dmf

the Lurhmann is fascinating because she fleshes out some of what Caputo is gesturing towards when he says how we are literally conditioned to believe what we believe (and think via Erhman how Jesus came to understand his own mystical experiences within a local apocalyptic tradition), so let's say that William James was quite wrong to suppose that a methodist wouldn't really care if he was worshiping the effects of his un-conscious mind rather than the affect/intentions of his Maker how might we approach such phenomena without simply re-presenting anthropo-logos? To my thinking this aporia is why Caputo's hermeneutics of not-knowing is a better bet than attempts at some grand theory of everything. here is Lurhmann giving a talk on her research: http://vimeo.com/20204758

Mike
Mike

So perhaps the use of the second-person singular pronoun 'you' is excessive, but is it wrong? Isn't one of the primary purposes of worship to respond do God? Perhaps the most famous worship song of all time - Psalm 23 has an important epistemological arc to it. It begins with the knowledge of God as shepherd (he), but moves towards the profound awareness of the personal investment, attention, and concern that God had for us as individuals, which seems to make it more personal and intimate which results in the use of "you/your" in v.4 (I will fear no evil for YOU are with me). It seems that worshiping a personal God by using the pronoun YOU is accurate and biblical if not a bit excessive at times. Moreover, in such a consumer society I think music style is more important than ever. But just like the bluring of the lines in pop-music (see the recent Country Music/Pop/Rock/RnB Awards) I think borrowing from rich tradition and relevant experience would be a helpful correction for most worship experiences.

The Misfit Toy
The Misfit Toy

One Easter a co-worker showed up at the modern-worship church I attended. Afterwards he was visibly upset. His concern: "What the heck was that thing you were all doing with your hands? I felt like I had suddenly been transported into a Nazi sing along, all those people saluting God."

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

@ Tripp and @ Mike I did not say that it was bad , Only that A) it is notable and should not be assumed B) when every song is You oriented, I think that .... It can become unquestioned or taken for granted @h Nate I would chalk it up more poetics or device. I don't think it carries the same level of expectation and imagination as 'You'. What your thoughts?

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Whoa. That will really make ya think. As a chronic-hand raiser I have had to attempt to explain "what that was all about" several times. So how did you handle it ? (hopefully better than I did) -Bo