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.