Today I was caught out very nicely by a fantastic blog post at The Gospel Coalition:
Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.
- Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.
- It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here.
- For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.
- There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God.” This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?
- Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.
- It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g., a desperate longing for God), then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.
- Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.
- Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.
- Finally, there are those songs that have like four or five lines that people just either have to repeat over and over again or just sing briefly and never get a chance to digest.
At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms.
Oh, wait. . . .
Why was I caught out? Because my reading of it was shaped by my own prejudice. ‘Here we go’, I thought to myself, ‘another lot of anti-charismatic conservatives, who haven’t read 1 Cor 12, having a go.’ And when I got to point 7, I got even more cross: these so-called evangelicals don’t even know their own Bible—this is a phrase from Ps 51. Then I clicked the links. Then I read the last line. Then I realised I’d been had!
There are lots of nice things about this post. It is nice that, contrary to popular belief, folk at TGC have a sense of humour. (If you go to the original, you can see that the author, Jeremy Pierce, has a particularly quirky approach to life and theology.) Sadly, this does not extend to all their readers. One commentator complained:
Yes, some are annoying, and I’m a huge fan on the hymns, but I’m guessing you are criticizing style more that substance. Also, you criticized a couple of songs that are straight out of the Psalms. You can take that up with God and David.
Attempts by fellow readers, at trying to make this guy understand what is going on, are so painful that they are almost as funny as the post:
Hi, Bob. It sounds like you didn’t click on those links in each of those items. Once you do, I think you’ll see the heart and tone of the article. 🙂
Bob: No, I clicked on them. Look at #7, which is a reference to Psalm 51.
Right, they’re all references to Psalms. That’s the point. He’s not citicizing the Psalms, he’s criticizing common criticisms of modern worship music.
Bob: I reread #7, and it’s a criticism of the words, the lament of David. That’s a problem. Again, there is a lot of criticize is many of the “new” songs. My issue is a lot are written from a very feminine point of view.
Try rereading it from the perspective of someone who heard that kind of line in a modern worship song. His point is that asking God to “not take his Spirit away” is a biblical line.
And here is another who missed it:
It’s a shame that the Psalms (God’s own songbook) would you not fit your criteria for a decent worship song, in more-or-less then #s 2, 4-8 of your list. Be CAREFUL, brother, that your standards are not more reflective of modern sensibilities than the Word of God itself. That’s a fine line.
Wait, I just clicked on your links. Is this entire article supposed to be ironic? If it is, then just discard my previous comment, and I will hold my shame 🙂
Not sure what it is you are saying. Am I to understand that these Psalms should not have in the Bible? If this was meant just for humor, then fine.
@Jon & Venice: The article is using sarcasm to challenge some common critiques of modern worship songs by saying that the songs are biblical because they are in line with the Psalms. Hope that helps. [bangs head against brick wall, I would imagine!]
At least I got there on my own by the end of the piece!
This post cleverly sheds light on criticisms of worship songs: quite often these songs are using biblical material—but the Bible takes us places that sometimes we do not want to go. I think this is especially true on the question of formality versus intimacy. It is worth noting that many traditional hymns, with their depth, poetry and rhythm, often owe little to biblical wording and less to biblical theology. Even when they do use biblical phrases, they can interpret them wrongly. The Wesleys’ ‘Love Divine’ ends with the anticipation from Rev 4.10 of the time when ‘we cast our crowns before thee/Lost in wonder, love and praise.’ Unfortunately, in Revelation that is a description of the present, not the future! And worship songs are often more biblical than we realise. I used to be annoyed by Delirious’ ‘Sing to the Lord with all of your heart’ and its line ‘We sing the songs that awaken the dawn.’ I thought it was a bit meaningless… until I realised it was from Ps 108.2.
That does not resolve the question about modern songs, of course. Even biblical words can be appropriated in a number of ways, and I do think the criticism that many songs ‘feminise’ notions of discipleship, in a way which puts men off, does stick.
And it is worth noting, too, that very often worship songs in Scripture engage in particular ways with their culture, taking stock ideas in culture and human experience and inverting them in the light of God’s extraordinary grace. This is particularly the case with the worship songs in Revelation, which parody and invert first-century elements of emperor ‘worship.’ These nuances are often lost in translation to our worship culture.
And that leads to a final observation. As the comments on the posting show, humour and irony are difficult to spot and interpret, even for people belonging to the same language group and culture. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how difficult this must be across divides of language, culture and time. Unless we think that Jesus and the biblical writers themselves had a sense of humour failure, I suspect we are missing quite a lot in our reading!