Who Loves Us? or What’s Up With Worship Music?

I am a passionate worshiper. I sing loudly and feel the songs deeply. As a former drummer, I also dig rockin’ worship.worship blue

Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.

Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all  three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.

I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.

It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.

The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

 

Right off the bat we have 4 problems:

1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all.  It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.

Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship!  Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.

2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.

‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.

Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.

3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.

When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there?  It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.

Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.

4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).

Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.”  And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.

My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.

 

I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though. 

Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.

In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as  our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.

It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections. 

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24 comments
WendyNorrisMyers
WendyNorrisMyers

I was listening to a teaching podcast while running this morning and the pastor taught on how poisonous the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement is to our picture of God, which then led me to conclude that In Christ Alone is a bad, bad song.  I'll tell you, learning is tough!  So many implications to thinking through my faith.  It was so much easier when I attended a conservative mega-church that thought everything out for me!  ;)

Mountain Goat
Mountain Goat

@bosanders I wonder if you would have come to the same conclusions if you talked to the creator/artist of the work. Perhaps the greater problem is that we invoke someone's creation into a repetitive liturgy divorcing the symbol from its intention. The problem isn't that art/liturgy is reinterpreted but perhaps the colonial/patriarchal/evangelical-"biblical" assumptions applied to them--bastardizing them from authentic possibilities. 

Brother Corey
Brother Corey

It goes without saying that this is just my opinion here, but modern worship music is complete shite. 3 chord pop tunes with moronic and emotionally manipulative lyrics. It's the only way most Christians know how to 'experience God,' because they have not learned any of the actual practices and work to enable them to do so in an authentic way.

Greg Larsen
Greg Larsen

I hear both you and Heather in this one. Interestingly enough, when the UCC adopted the New Century Hymnal (inclusive language) my oldest brother, and English Lit. genius, thought the new lyrics to the older tunes ruined the poetic integrity of the original author's tunes. Granted, those hymns were indeed written in a time of great patriarchal influence. I'm curious, Tripp, if you were to re-write How He Loves to the perimeters you pointed out, what those words be? I agree with Heather, people's experiences of grace (and other Godly attributes) are going to be, at some times, extremely different. Even I couldn't articulate the exact same identity of grace that you or Heather have experienced. Yet, upon hearing both your stories would be most enlightening and faith forming for myself. As a solo pastor, picking and planning music for both contemporary tunes and choosing hymns from both the New Century Hymnal and our archaic, patriarchal Hymns for the Living Church (even the title suggests a sense of worship death) is both challenging and frustrating. Truth is, I can't be too choosy. If I used Bryan Sirchio's 6 Marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music (a read you may find adding to this conversation) I wouldn't find a single tune any of my parishioners would sing with me...unless I was at a new church start. Re-write those lyrics, Tripp! :-D

Exile Child
Exile Child

Worship music was something I wrestled with intensely in the late 1990's, and it was a factor in my deciding to leave the evangelical fold in early 2000's. I have too many thoughts about it to go into here, but I can say that Barry Taylor's approach to music and preaching is what saved my faith in the possibility of church. For years I attended Sanctuary and New Ground when he used to do it. At least half of Barry's songs don't qualify as appropriate worship, according to your interpretations above.

I think the complications of worship music begins with the narrow assumption that worship is something we actively give God, most often by singing songs of adoration and praise. I think worship has to do with orientation of the heart and mind, and that can potentially happen all day, every day, without even being conscious of it. Singing songs of praise and adoration don't glorify God, or worship God, in my estimation. What the songs/liturgy can do within the hearts and minds of those singing/thinking... that can potentially worship and glorify God. That being said, some of the poetry that moves people most effectively doesn't necessarily make sense, or consist of sound theology, or even mention the name of God, and isn't even written with God in mind by people who aren't Christians. I would even say that the direct approach of trying to give God compliments and adoration is extremely risky business, and might be most effective when used in moderation. Barry Taylor's song "Jesus Lover of my Soul" always felt risky when we sang it, because it was one of the few overtly adoring songs. Yet it seemed more of a cry for help than a praise. In that cry for help, my soul was being healed, and in my soul being healed, perhaps God was being worshiped.

susanst824
susanst824

Sometimes it feels like the purpose of worship music is to fill the 20-30 minutes before the offering.  And I'm more bothered by all of the war imagery in a lot of worship songs.  It focuses on the God who might kick our asses, but, oh, He loves us so.  But I might just be cranky this morning...


I think I get the point you're making, though.  Worship can be a manipulated experience (put your hands together, lift your hands, sing with me, etc.).  I don't know what the solution is.

ricklwilliams
ricklwilliams

I sent this post to the Worship Leader at my church, who is a pretty thoughtful fella.  He mostly agreed with the post; however, he lamented the fact that it's a pretty difficult task to choose worship songs that have a great melody and great lyrics.  If anybody has a couple solid suggestions, send them over and I will forward them along.

TanyaRiches
TanyaRiches

In my humble opinion, Randall Collins' interaction ritual theory helps with this, as he identifies that ritual generates group symbols. Clearly this song is not one of the symbols of your identity in the group. But it is for other people, so ..... what gives? That's my main question at the moment with all these circulating blogposts about worship.

Isaac FL
Isaac FL

I keep thinking on the podcast of the theology of rock with Barry Taylor, he mentioned that he used to teach a class called why music matters or something like that, I remember he saying I don't think music matters as much anymore.
I think it is because music in general is more a product, that is marketed, put on a nice wrapper and sold and worship/christian music has the same issue. If it sounds good it might sell, no matter if it doesn't say anything at all.
At some point worship music was singing about something that wasn't heard before, today there is no difference.
To me AC/DC has more to say about life and with more intensity, and that is old music.

Heather Haginduff
Heather Haginduff

Thanks. I like your critique. It's smart. Its reflective. It's also a product of the Enlightenment, which none of us can get away from, especially progressives. I kinda like this song exactly for its disorienting confusion of tense. It causes me to ask "Wait. What just happened? Who is talking?" That's the stuff of the Psalms (which often mix poetic devices without warning and make absolutely no sense). And being bent by mercy makes total sense to me through my experiences of God's mercy. I love when metaphor gets mixed up and isn't expected through the language that surrounds it. I'm not convinced that congregational songs and hymns are always supposed to make sense. I wonder if you have ever done this kind of critique to a traditional hymn? I'd be interested in what you find. But I don't play this song because I quickly got sick of it and because of its strong male imagery. But my church doesn't do much contemporary music and I have to be careful with what I choose. I think David Crowder is doing a better job of creating artistic lyrics than many of his contemporaries. And artist to artist, I am curious at how we can critique one another without killing the artist in all of us. This tends to happen a lot in Christian art, especially when it comes to worship. I am at a place where I want all art to flourish so that I don't have to censor myself, always thinking if a stranger or, God forbid, my friends will critique it on FB. Chris Tomlin (like Bach) has to write a song a week so that in 150 years, the top 5 will still be sung (like Bach). So let the crappy songs be sung by the crappy song leaders who have alway dreamt of being in a "real" band. Let it rip because God will accept even the crappiest praise.

BrianPDot
BrianPDot

As a closet non-theist who goes to church for reasons of social obligation to my family, I find these critiques fascinating. I've been in contemporary worship settings that have gone as far as 40 minutes without mention of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, or Jesus or even allusion to any specific Christian doctrine. When popular CCW songs borrow metaphor from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, my ears are even more heightened. In the spirit of Lex Orandi, I would suggest that what people sing and what they like to sing worshipfully than what the say in a more cerebral conversation where they articulate more so what they think they're supposed to believe. Anyhow, a hurricane is particularly interesting. Would make me think of a, say, Guabancex. Would think this song might possibly be a great worship song of a Puerto Rican Espiritismo. But no, I doubt none of the chain of author, publisher, worship leader and parishioner gave anything too much theological thought. People once thought worship was to have, among other things, a pedagogical aspect--that it was to teach a tradition's theology. I would suggest in this context, much of popular CCW reflects a emulsion of Moral Therapeutic Deism, some historic ideas around Jesus and a penal substitution, and various popular creative spiritualities (such as around hurricanes). The religion being taught and caught through lyrical form does have some alignment with a historic understanding of Christianity. Some. Another thought that people once had around worship was that it should be directed to a particular and distinctive deity or deities and tradition and stories around him, her or them. Would think that if such as the Trinity did exist and I were a member of said party, I'd kind of want to be referenced around who I am and/or what I've done, perhaps even in particulars of demonstrating of knowing me (vs. other gods). If, for instance, for ultimate good I were reconciling the world unto myself I might even desire specific mention of such things. But yet, if I were doing so counting not people's sins against them, perhaps then I'd just roll my eyes at this worship to somebody other than me. Sometimes, as a disbeliever, I've even wondered if I'm the one--at least a bit--actually hearing what could be the voice of God. I could be wrong, but if I were to make up a religion, it would have as its center a God of weightless Mercy, and even despite of and in the midst of and possible through the means of the storm. Not only might you be missing an opportunity (to presumptively) teach about God. You might actually more so be missing the opportunity to know Him through the act of worship.

tanyam
tanyam

I've never heard this song, but most of what you say perfectly describes my experience reading the Gospel of John. Too many metaphors. John 3 -- wind? birth? And what happened to "word" and "light?" Pick a metaphor and stick with it, John! 


Also, our ancestors sang straight through the Psalms, presumably through those that also sound deeply personal and about specific circumstances. In high liturgical churches, they still do this -- reading or singing the psalms straight through. Honestly, I'd rather deal with a hymn that doesn't match my mood  then a constant stream of bland niceties. But if you're criticisms are aesthetic, fine, I'm right there with you about most of these praise tunes. They make me feel like I'm covered in goo.

Mark Groleau
Mark Groleau

If I could like this a thousand times, I would. 'Guess I'll just "like" it once and share it. I've been making this argument about this song (I call it "the God-rape song") since the first time I heard it, and so far only one person - my wife - has shared my sentiment about it. Bo makes 2.

CollinSimula
CollinSimula

I totally get your critiques of it being "erratic" and "weird" and all over the place. But according to John Mark McMillan, the songwriter, the song was written in a place of deep deep sorrow when his friend passed away in a car accident. So the nature of this song is that it was written in a place of "erratic" thinking. I don't think he ever realized that the song would end up being as big as it is. I don't think it was really written to be a big church worship song, but people really connect with it so it just kind of took off. 

And the line "if grace is an ocean we're all sinking" is amazing and true. 


That being said, I get what you mean.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@BrianPDot I appreciate your writing in. Very interesting stuff. 


I would however contest a central aspect to your post ... though these songs are very therapeutic the God portrayed is not a removed Deistic god but a heavily interventionist one.  That would we be a fun side-converstaion  

-Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@tanyam I don't know about covered in goo ... many of these songs really resonate with people. My point is that is EXACTLY why we should be more careful with them ;)   -Bo

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@CollinSimula Thank you for the gracious reply. Like I said in the song-writers workshop is one thing ... public worship is another.  

I have no beef with the guy who WROTE it :)  I am concerned about why so many worship leaders SELECT it and how so many people SING it outside of that initial context.   -Bo

willhouk
willhouk

@CollinSimula I have never heard the story behind the song. That is tragic, and terrible and he wrote a beautiful piece of music out of that tragedy. But I kind of agree with Bo that the worship leaders could do a much better job picking songs, and writing songs. It's like no one wants to say what Bo just said. People are afraid to be critical of worship leaders and songs. But I think the genre needs a lot more creative integrity. People willing to say, no that doesn't make sense let's not do that.

BrianPDot
BrianPDot

@BoSanders @BrianPDot Perhaps the popular deistic tendencies manifest themselves in the commonness of generic terms for Him and absence of the doctrines and narrative elements associated with the histories of YHWH and God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Most of the lyrics I hear sung could be sung to practically any deity without changing a word. But yes, the abstract He is very much conceived as an interventionist, especially one there to help me/boast me, etc. when I need it. I think that the generic but therapeutic deity. Not suggesting the popular god of these popular songs isn't both transcendent and imminent. He definitely is commonly conceived as anything but remote. 

BrianPDot
BrianPDot

@BoSanders @BrianPDot Personally I find the most troublesome lyric of this song to be: "And how great Your affections are for me." Related, a couple decades after the fact, I came to realize I married for most of the wrong reasons. I married not because I loved my wife; I married her because she loved me. In fact, I think I loved that she loved me much more than I loved her. It was vanity as other person as its instrument. I now regret it and am merely beginning to learn what it means to love someone else. I wish I could do so much better at it. Maybe this, metaphorically, is my Cross. Maybe this is related to some of those other things that I wish sometimes would get sung about. What instead hear lots of lyrics about is praising God for his "affections... for me." No thanks. That's really not a religion I'm interested in exploring. It's not just a "Jesus is my boyfriend" joking that we've heard about for years. Kindly give care to that which goes on the Powerpoint projector. The 21st century is one of chaff's blaze.