TagPraise and Worship

Why Sunday Music Must Be As Unlike Pop Music As We Can Make It

If the amount of time given to the singing of praise and worship songs,

and the central position of the praise band on “the stage” is any indication,

many North American churches are implicitly asserting that singing of praise songs as the main way we interact with God in our Sunday services.

This means we’d better get it right.

We have all heard people, including some worship leaders, speak as if the term worship was synonymous with singing.  Even the title “worship leader” suggests the reduction of worship to singing.  Worship leader is an appropriate title if said worship leader also leads the congregants in the many other aspects of worship.  For instance:

  • prayer
  • scripture reading
  • the offering
  • the reading of the law
  • confession and assurance of forgiveness
  • the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed
  • funeral announcements
  • pleas for volunteers for the Sunday School
  • and anything else besides singing that also constitutes worship

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.

But isn’t this just semantics?  Although it may seem like I am being petty, this is some serious stuff.

Little things like

  • using the terms singing and worship interchangeably,
  • and calling song leaders, worship leaders,
  • and removing all sign of the sacraments from the stage,
  • and calling that area “the stage”
  • and calling that area “the auditorium,”

are hugely important because we do them habitually.  The things we do habitually, change us–they shape what we do and the way we think and who we are.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are liturgical animals.  He argues that our lives are not given direction by what we think, or even what we believe, but by what we love.  According to Smith, “what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love, or what our love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding and orientation” (26–27 Desiring the Kingdom).   Smith then argues that our loves are shaped and directed by “liturgies”–habitual practices.  Traditionally the church used to orient our identities toward God and the community of faith through all sorts of liturgies: the physical spaces of worship, the sacraments, the church calendar, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, offering  “Peace.”  Fish on Friday, the rosary, daily prayers, and many other regular and repeated practices linked the spiritual realm with daily life.  In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies . for being liturgical animals, we’ve simply adopted new ones.  We’ve replaced the old ones with new ones.  And the new ones are largely modern and secular: Starbucks and McDonalds, Saturday hockey and Sunday football, Homecoming and Holloween, Twitter and Snapchat, You Tube and Netflix, craft beer and green-coloured smoothies, inclusion and saying “I feel,” when we mean “I think.”   These are not just things we do, they shape who we are because they are regular, habitual–they are liturgies.

We have replaced sacred liturgies with secular liturgies.  This ain’t good if you believe that a spiritual reality is meaningfully interacting with the material one.

Why do people have such a hard time with faith in our culture?  Because our rituals direct our passions and desires to other things–other ultimate loves.  There is some (a lot of?) anxiety in the North American Church about people, especially young people, vacating the pews.   To retain their members, and attract new ones, many churches have attempted to become more culturally “relevant,” but this has exacerbated the problem.  Being culturally relevant usually means importing secular liturgies into the church.  The Starbucks’ Coffee culture, showing movies on Youth Nights, dress-up parties on Reformation Day and the singing to the instrumentation and stylings of popular music are examples. The problem is that secular culture does these liturgies better than the church does, so the church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.

According to the Westminster Confession, one of the functions of the sacraments is as a “visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.”  The authors of the Confession understood the importance of having a different experience at church than in the world.

Our rituals used to be different than those of the world, but in some churches, even our sacraments are being secularized.  For the health, and perhaps survival, of the North American church, we need to be different, not the same.

Here are some questions that might be a part of a discussion around how to make the singing part of worship, unlike the secular liturgy of the popular music concert:

  • How can we increase the involvement of the congregation in the singing part of worship?
  • Is there a way to teach the worshipers how to harmonize?
  • Should we sing more hymns?
  • Should we sing different hymns (than just the 5 we do now)?
  • Should we sing hymns in their original forms, same harmonies and no modern (and inferior) additions?
  • Are volumes and mixes supporting congregational singing, or drowning it out?
  • Can we use different instrumentation than a typical rock and roll band?
  • Can we develop different song structures besides the verse-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus pattern?
  • Could we create a new genre of Christian music for corporate worship?
  • Is it necessary for the worship band to be front and centre?
  • How can we utilize lighting to take the focus off of the musicians?
  • Can we resurrect some traditional liturgical forms or elements of worship?
  • Can we invent new liturgical forms that are different than secular liturgies?
  • How can we emphasize God’s action in worship and the sacraments?
  • Can we move toward thinking about the sacraments as more than ceremonies of remembrance?
  • Can we mention, or even link our sermons to, the church calendar?

This list includes just some of the ways that we could bring more sacred liturgies into the Sunday service.  Do you have any ideas you could add to this list?

 

 

The Focus of Worship

Chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford

Traditionally, Christian worship has been arranged around two things, the Word and the sacraments.  These were the means by which human worshipers interacted with the transcendent God.  In churches with the more contemporary feel, a new means of encountering God has been given center stage.

In the Roman Catholic worship service, the sacraments are emphasized–particularly the Eucharist.  The primacy of the Eucharist is obvious; the altar from which Holy Communion is served is front and center.

After the Reformation, the new forms of Christian worship still emphasized Word and sacraments, but their importance was inverted.  The sacraments, reduced to two, were moved to the side.  The pulpit upon which sits a huge Bible takes center stage.

From Sacrament and Word to Band

More recently, North American Christianity has apparently undergone another reformation; this one much quieter than the first, but it is not insignificant.  The modern church has cleared the stage of the Word and Sacrament and replaced them with the worship band.  Some might argue that the Word and the sacraments are still central, it’s just that the physical representations of these things needed to be moved to make room for musicians and instruments; it’s not a shift in meaning, but merely a physical shift made from practical considerations.

My core assumption here, and why I think all of this matters so much, is that the physical environment and liturgies of worship have profound effects on the worshipers. and how they think about the God who we worship.

When the Word is the focus of worship we find a very active God.  In the scriptures, God interacts with his creation and with his people.  He speaks, breaths, commands, warns, condemns, promises and whispers.  He causes water to come from rocks and turns it into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus is the Word made flesh; he healed, walked (even on water), taught, ate, fed, died, rose and ascended.  The Holy Spirit is also active as we read scripture.  He guides, comforts, indwells, guards, intercedes, baptizes, restrains and combats. God is active in the sacraments as well.  In baptism, he makes promises and in doing so he creates a people.  In Communion, Jesus extends the elements to us and says “take and eat,” “take and drink.”  When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we cannot help but understand our God to be active in worship, and in our lives.

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the things that we repeat every Sunday.  With the weekly repetition of the Eucharist, Catholic worshipers come to the profound understanding of the unifying presence of Christ in his body the church and the Grace we receive by his death.  With the Protestant emphasis on preaching, the weekly reading and exposition of scripture help the faithful to understand the centrality of the Word in our life.

When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.  Or at least there is a danger that something very important could change.

Properly understood, the Word and the sacraments point to Christ and they present our interaction with an active God. When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.
Who is active in the singing part of the service?  It seems to me the human beings are the primary actors, and this is a problem.  We can be receiving a weekly reminder that God is passive. One might argue that, just as in the sacraments, both God and humanity take part.  But this isn’t so obvious in practice.  Singing is something we do–we are active, but we think of God as listening–possibly smiling during the choruses or seriously nodding if the song has a confessional element.  When worship is primarily singing, God is relatively passive.

Things get worse when the band steps out of the worship leading role into a performance role making both God and congregants passive.  Now the musicians and singers are the only ones doing anything in worship.  Almost every worship leader that I know would recoil at this suggestion because they are forever on their guard for this shift, but just because they don’t intend it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t or it cannot happen in the minds of the congregants.  It really is a no win situation; if the worship leaders are not a little animated then it seems like they are not engaged and worship lacks energy, but if they move around a little bit, they are accused of drawing attention to themselves.  Perhaps this conundrum is a symptom of the deeper issue.  That the worship band shouldn’t be front and centre in the first place.

The problem is that from the central position, the Praise and Worship band is almost identical to secular performance bands.  It’s a minuscule shift, then, for the congregation to move into the role of the audience.  This shift isn’t unavoidable, but it requires some deliberate effort from the individual worshiper to experience the Sunday worship music in a different way than they would a concert.  And churchgoers aren’t usually doing this work.

I am certainly not saying that singing praise and worship songs in church is a bad thing, we may have gained much with this shift in focus, but perhaps we’ve lost something too.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I have some discussion questions that might help us address these issues.

  • How can we do communion and baptism in ways that help us to see God’s activity in them?  If we’re calling them ordinances instead of sacraments, should we rethink that?
  • Can we put the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage, with the praise and worship band?
  • And can we preach from something other than a music stand?
  • How can we do worship music in such a way that it’s as unlike a rock concert or dance club as we can make it? Can mix our volumes in such a way that the voices of the worshipers are heard?  Can we reduce the lighting on the musicians?  And can we turn down the bloody bass!?

This last point will be the subject on my next post:

 

 

 

Bad Theology in the “New” Doxology?

Praise 1New doesn’t necessarily mean improved.

This is certainly the case for “The New Doxology” by Gateway Worship.

The first verse of the new one is the same as that of the old one, but they’ve added a chorus.

This recent fad of taking some of the greatest hymns of the Christian faith and adding a little ditty of a chorus, presumably, to make it more palatable to a contemporary audience, is not bad in itself (unless, of course, as the cynic in me wonders, it’s just a cash grab–to produce a popular song without having to go through the trouble of writing one).  We like to sing choruses these days, so it’s fine to write one for the ol’ classics.

But at least make it a good one!  By “good” I mean that it ought well crafted poetically and it should be Biblical.

This is where “The New Doxology” misses the mark.  It has us singing bad, or at least weak, theology.

The original song, published in 1709 by Thomas Ken, emphasizes the extent of the praise that the Triune God deserves as the source of all blessings.  It is a call for all “creatures . . . below” to praise him.  Importantly, “creatures” doesn’t mean animals, but all things that were created.  “Creatures here below” is the entire physical creation–which he called “very good.”   The inclusion of the “heavenly hosts” in the injunction emphasizes that there is nothing that is not called to praise him who made it.  The scope of this particular line is cosmic.

With man’s sin, everything fell, so the Fall is cosmic too.  But God set into motion his plan to redeem everything–a Cosmic Redemption.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 19:28, where he speaks of the “the renewal of all things.”  In Colossians, Paul says that God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20).  We see the consummation of this Biblical theme in Revelation 21:1, with the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.  Genesis to Revelation point to a Cosmic Redemption–not just of human souls, but human bodies as well; not just of humans but of trees and mountains as well.

All this is packed into the old doxology.  But to make the new doxology we’ve added this:

Praise God, praise God, praise God, Who saved my soul
Praise God, praise God, praise God from Whom all blessings flow

In the light of the original hymn, which talks of creation in it’s broadest possible sense, the new chorus speaks of redemption in it’s most limited sense–God is the saviour of a single soul.  If it was a single believer, perhaps we could argue that, as we move from verse to chorus, we move from cosmic to individual.  That’d be kind of cool, but this chorus is not talking about a whole believer, but a piece of him.  The cosmic nature of God’s redemption has been reduced to a single human soul, simply so that we could use it as a rhyme for the word “flow.”

Christ Tomlin is up to much the same thing.  He added a ditty to one of the greatest (and most popular) hymns of the faith, Amazing Grace.  Besides the new bridge showing a complete lack of understanding of how metaphors are supposed to work (the line, “And like a flood His mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor; floods don’t reign, kings do), he brought back the sixth verse of the song, which had been dropped from hymnals, presumably because of its theology.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine

Here again salvation is brought to the level of the individual; the rest of creation will “dissolve” and “forebear” to do what it was created to do.  It seems to me, if God is only able to redeem human souls from all that he made and called “very good,” the devil will have won and “all creatures here below” can give up their praising, for they are all doomed.

The idea that God saves only human souls to live with him in a spiritual heaven is contradicted by the Bible.  So where does this idea come from if not in the Bible?  Plato.  Plato believed that the physical world was distinct from and inferior to the rational world of Ideas.  When Christianity interacted with Greek culture, the ideas of Plato became Christianized.  The world of Ideals sounded a lot like heaven and we accepted the idea that physical and spiritual things are separate, and we took on the idea that the physical world is evil.  These are Greek ideas, not Biblical ones.

To sing of “The God who saved my soul” we are in danger of reducing God to a mere saver of souls.  Are we perpetuating the pagan idea that material things are not “good.” If so, we are reducing God’s concern, and consequently ours, from all things to just some things.

It was my impression, from listening to many sermons and podcasts of several different denominations, that the reductive “souls only” redemption was fading out.  After all, we no longer sing the old hymns that promulgated the idea.  But we’ve got  song writers stepping in to mess up the theology of a new generation of Christians.

If the good folks at Gateway actually believe that Christ redemption is for individual human souls then my critique still stands for the chorus still contradicts the verse.  For those congregations that believe in a cosmic redemption, please, let’s just use the “old” doxology, or write a chorus that represents the greatest of all blessings–Redemption–in its cosmic scope.

For more on this vision of holistic salvation:

 

Cervantes and Praise Songs

Praise 1

I find it difficult to praise Him, while singing Hillsong’s “Praise Him.”

I’m reading Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel De Cervantes. I came across the passage today where the Cannon discusses the inferiority of the popular books of chivalry whose authors write “without paying any attention to good taste or the rules of art.”

I’m not sure if the views expressed by the canon are those of Cervantes, but they are close to mine when it comes to much of Christian art, particularly that branch that gives us the songs we sing in church each week.

In this passage from Don Quixote, the canon is speaking of drama, but his comments apply to all art forms, I think, including praise and worship lyrics.  I have made some changes, that I am sure Cervantes would not object to.

The praise songs ” that are now in vogue . . . are, all or most of them, downright nonsense and things that have neither head nor tail, and yet the public listens to them with delight, and regards and cries them up as perfection when they are so far from it . . . . the [lyricists] who write them, and the [worship leaders] who [perform] them, say that this is what they must be, for [congregations] wants this and will have nothing else. . . .

Apparently there is no point to “go by rule and work out [lyrics] according to the laws of art” because these “will only find some half-dozen intelligent people to understand them, while all the rest remain blind to the merit of their composition. I have sometimes endeavoured to convince [worship leaders] that they are mistaken in this notion they have adopted, and that they would attract more people, and get more credit, by [writing praise songs] in accordance with the rules of art, than by absurd ones, they are so thoroughly wedded to their own opinion that no argument or evidence can wean them from it.

“I remember saying one day to one of these obstinate fellows, ‘Tell me, do you not recollect that a few years ago, there were three [songs sung in the churches] of these kingdoms, which were such that they filled all who heard them with admiration, delight, and interest, the ignorant as well as the wise, the masses as well as the higher orders?'”

“‘No doubt,’ replied the [worship leader] in question, ‘you mean the “Blessed Be Your Name,” the “10 000 Reasons,” and “Revelation Song.”‘

“‘Those are the ones I mean,’ said I; ‘and see if they did not observe the principles of art, and if, by observing them, they failed to show their superiority and please all the world; so that the fault does not lie with the public that insists upon nonsense, but with those who don’t know how to [write] something else.”

The song that inspired this post is Hillsong United’s “Praise Him.”  I’m not qualified to judge this song musically, but I think I know a formula when I see it–it has that progression that almost all of the popular praise songs have these days. My problem with this song is the lyrics are so general.  I will commend its writers that the clichés they employ are at least on the same subject, but they aren’t really about anything except there’s lots of praising going on.  There is nothing in the lyrics that engage either the mind or the imagination. Without this engagement, even if the music is really excellent, the experience is, at best, merely emotional.  Under these conditions, my worship experience is about as meaningful as watching clothes tumble in the dryer.

I believe that we should bring God our best–not just our best music, but our best everything–this includes our lyrics.

I leave you with just a few lines of Josh Garrels’ song “Colors” which are about praising Him.

So let all the creatures sing
Praises over everything
Colors are meant to bring
Glory to the light

Diamonds don’t burst inside us and wildfires don’t search or sing.

Praise 1Barrak Obama said in his Inaugural Address, “As we consider the road that unfolds before us…” (2009).

This is an error called a mixed metaphor; they can be funny.

Cher reportedly once said, “I’ve been up and down so many times that I feel as if I’m in a revolving door.”

Here’s a healine: “Ahmadinejad wields axe to cement his position” (Independent, 14 December 2010).

OK, they aren’t hilarious, but they are amusing in appropriate places.  I don’t think we want them in our praise and worship songs.

“Like a rose, trampled on the ground you thought of me…”

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns . . . ”

There is such beauty and power in language, and to neglect them in one of the most important language acts in which a human being can participate is a problem.

There are wonderful songs that we sing in church where every line is worship and revelation: “Blessed Be Your Name” “Revelation Song” and “10,00 Reasons” are examples of such songs.

Then there are those songs that trade in cliché, clunky diction, vague purpose, awkward syntax and mixed metaphor.

They are not usually all bad. I can usually sing them without too much discomfort, but is this something that should happen in communal worship? I often feel as if I am too critical, but I cannot reject what I know about the potential of language as a vehicle for worship.

What am I to do? Get off my high horse and realize that to heaven even Mozart sounds inferior to a toddler banging on his 8 note Fisher-Price piano? I do try. I try to focus on the one we are there to worship. I try to look past the lyrics to the intention of the writer. I try to absorb the sincerity of the singers that surround me. Sometimes I just block out the sounds and talk to God. Perhaps, I should be more than content with this, but I love to sing–and it’s a powerful and symbolic experience to participate in communal singing.

Is any of this the responsibility of those who write praise and worship songs?

My theory is that the priority of many (not all) song writers is to engage the heart of the people during worship sets.

I have a theory as to why: many song writers encounter God by music through the heart, so they write songs that would bring them into worship, but this one approach is too narrow.  Not everyone enters worship through the same door.

The best praise and worship songs are not reductive they engage the heart, mind, soul and body. The best songs have a specific focus and therefore unity, the sense is communicated through carefully selected words and often echoed in the music, syntax and diction aren’t forced and sometimes surprising, figurative language is effective: it has a deliberate effect.

The mixed metaphors are funny when someone says, “It’s like pulling hen’s teeth.” But they do get in the way of some people being able to praise and adore the most high God.

The song “Multiplied” has two in the first verse:

Your love is like radiant diamonds

Bursting inside us we cannot contain

Your love will surely come find us

Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

Is there a problem with Revelation Song, or with me?

Praise 1I love “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle. But there’s this one line that I wonder about every time I sing it.

All the lines but one contributes to a the feeling of being overwhelmed by the incredible vision the Apostle John describes in the heavenly throne room where innumerable voices of the heavenly choir sing,

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Rev. 5:15

and

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come. Rev. 4:8

It also includes similar images and language from the Old Testament including Psalm 98:1

Sing to the Lord a new song

and

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. Psalm 96:13

The reference to the “mercy seat,” which is the cover on the Ark of the Covenant–the seat of God, relocates the mercy seat to heaven, and links the reverence of the Old Testament Father to the eschatological Son. Other lines have a similar feel when they echo Ephesians 1: 20-21 where Paul reminds us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” The splendor of the scene is reinforced with multi-sensory images of “living colors,” flashing lighting and “rolls of thunder.” The song is so good it takes me there, and I even get to join the choir with all creation. I love that!

The last time I was in Revelation, I didn’t just read it, I experienced it. At least a part of my experience was enhance by just having read Discipleship on the Edge by Darrell W. Johnson, which is a commentary on the book of Revelation. The combination of this book, The Book and the Holy Spirit was incredible. I felt that I was in the heavenly throne room.

The “Revelation Song” brings me back to that place, until I get to the line “You are my everything and I will adore You.”

That line evokes a feeling that was not a part of my original experience in the throne room when I read it.

The splendor of the scene before me evokes so much awe that subjective self is almost lost in the object of worship. Then comes the adoration line, and I shift the focus to my own feelings of adoration, which, is inconsistent with what the song so excellently expresses in every other line.

Let me say again, I love this song.

Can someone offer a way for me to understand that line so that I can enjoy the song even more?

 

The Dom in Salzburg — It’s not about ME

153Attending mass in the Salzburg Cathedral was the most memorable experience of a wonderful trip to Europe this summer.  The building’s interior was beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  The music included organ, orchestra and, I think, more than one choir.  Add to that, awareness that this was the very church at which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was christened.   In his role as Court Organist, Mozart composed much of his sacred music almost exclusively for this Cathedral.  

I had two very strong impressions during this mass.

The first impression–It’s not about me.

The organ, choir and orchestra are placed behind the congregation.  This placement reinforces the idea that I am not the primary audience for their performance. 

Back home, it’s not about me either, but the praise band occupies the same place as a performance band, so I have to remember that they aren’t there to please me.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the style in which the third song was presented.    Nor does it matter that I don’t “feel” like praising God today, he’s worthy of my praise regardless of how I feel.  The sermon’s relevance to me is not the standard by which it ought to be judged. Everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God.  But back home, sometimes I forget.

In Salzburg Cathedral, I had no trouble remembering that this service wasn’t for my pleasure.

The whole thing was in German, and I don’t speak German.  I ended up thinking about how the audience of every service, is God; he speaks German.  He also “speaks” Evangelical, and Reformed and Catholic.  I imagined how rich God’s experience of worship must be when he is being praised simultaneously in every language and cultural expression that there is and ever was. 

And the benches.  Even in this most beautiful of churches, the uniquely carved benches are quite uncomfortable.  The seat is set at 90 degrees to the back, which has a board running across it as a elbow rest for the kneeler behind me.  This makes it very uncomfortable to lean back.  These seats were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.  It certainly is not about me. 

Second impression–the mass and the cathedral represent the very best of human ability in craftsmanship, beauty, engineering, art and music.

Putting my two impressions together:  the excellent music and building, which I so  enjoyed because of their excellence, don’t exist for me at all.  That I can see, hear and enjoy them is pure grace. 

The grace I receive through the worship service in my home church is no less than that with which I was overwhelmed that Sunday morning is Salzburg; the only difference was my awareness of it.

 

Praise Songs: Pronouns

Praise 1Should we ban the use of he pronouns “you,” “I” and “me” in our praise and worship songs?

Of course not, but the songs we sing on Sunday are full of them and they shouldn’t be.  They reveal how we understand God and others and the world, but they also reinforce the self-centeredness that comes so naturally to us.  Rather than lead me into a reality where I am not the centre of the universe, many songs carry the same message as television commercials.

Let’s start with “you.”   There is no inherent problem with this word.  But there is something we’ve lost along with the word “Thou.”  It’s not really the word “you” that’s the issue, but a tone of familiarity and intimacy that I am wondering about.  I think some of our songs consistently reflect an intimacy which might be going a little too far down the continuum, toward the “Jesus is my girlfriend” extreme.  On one level, the intimacy is appropriate because the Holy Spirit is within us.  But we can’t lose light of the fact that we are also addressing the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe.

As for “I” and “me”–one of the main idols in our culture is individualism and we are hardly aware of our ritualized devotion to this false god.  In the West, everything comes to us through the filter of individualism.  It would be a very good idea for every Christian to become very intimate friends with someone from a non-individualistic culture (traditional African and Middle Eastern perhaps) and listen very carefully to how they understand the Bible.

I am barely aware of my own devotion to the god of individualism.  But I catch a glimpse of it in many praise and worship songs.

Worship should be God focused, so it follows that worship songs ought to be focused on God and not on me.  So then the question is, how often ought we see the pronouns “me” and “I” in song set?   Notice that even if I am singing a line that says, “I love Jesus,” I am still singing about myself, or more accurately, my feelings.

Keith & Kristyn Getty & Stuart Townend wrote a song called “Come People of the Risen King” which is sung as a people of God, rather than a person of God.

Come, people of the Risen King,

Who delight to bring Him praise;

Come all and tune your hearts to sing

To the Morning Star of grace.

From the shifting shadows of the earth

We will lift our eyes to Him,

Where steady arms of mercy reach

To gather children in.

 REFRAIN

Rejoice, Rejoice! Let every tongue rejoice!

One heart, one voice; O Church of Christ, rejoice!

Come, those whose joy is morning sun,

And those weeping through the night;

Come, those who tell of battles won,

And those struggling in the fight.

For His perfect love will never change,

And His mercies never cease,

But follow us through all our days

With the certain hope of peace.

Come, young and old from every land –

Men and women of the faith;

Come, those with full or empty hands –

Find the riches of His grace.

Over all the world, His people sing –

Shore to shore we hear them call

The Truth that cries through every age:

“Our God is all in all”!

This is not to say that there is no room for a song that communicates a personal response  to God.  Of course there is.  Nor am I suggesting that we can’t sing songs that use the words “me” or “I.”

I am suggesting that when we are selecting songs to sing in collective worship, we need to primarily focus on God and not ourselves or our feelings toward him.  This shift in focus will be reflected in the pronouns.

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Praise Songs: Central Purpose

I teach senior English and early in every term, I assign a paragraph.  Usually it’s some simple literary analysis.  I don’t even need to look at them to know that 60% of them will read like a tangled fishing line.  For many, the best we can hope for is that all the sentences will be about the same subject.  This will only be possible if the student remembered the concept of the “topic sentence” that has been taught since at least the forth grade.  But even with the topic sentence, many papers show no logical development, as if the ideas were just tossed in the air and caught on loose-leaf paper in the order that they came down.  Thankfully, this is a problem easily fixed, at least temporarily.  I wish I could impress on all students, even the very young, that all writing needs to be organized–not just the writing one does for an English teacher.

Praise and worship songs are not an exception to this principle.

 I think every great piece of writing, whatever the genre, has some purpose and every detail serves this central purpose.   It’s should be no different with a praise song.

 Like this one: “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman

Verse 1:

 Blessed Be Your Name

In the land that is plentiful

Where Your streams of abundance flow

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed Be Your name

When I’m found in the desert place

Though I walk through the wilderness

Blessed Be Your name

 

Chorus:

Every blessing You pour out

I’ll turn back to praise

When the darkness closes in, Lord

Still I will say

 

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your name

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your glorious name

 

Verse 2:

Blessed be Your name

When the sun’s shining down on me

When the world’s ‘all as it should be’

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed be Your name

On the road marked with suffering

Though there’s pain in the offering

Blessed be Your name

 

Praise 1This song has one central purpose: God is worthy of my praise regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself.

The verses come in pairs.  The first set uses the same metaphor–human experience of life is as varied as terrestrial landscapes.  Sometimes we experience life as a fertile and productive valley where “streams of abundance flow.”  At other times, life is as desolate as a desert wilderness.  The second set of verses repeats this idea.

The chorus declares that regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself, I will praise God, and then, in the second  part of the chorus, I get to do just that.  Those who just got the big promotion or were told by their child, “You’re the bestest mom in the world” will, through the singing of  this song, turn these blessings into praise.   Those who discovered that their marriage was in trouble,  or were told by their doctor it’s “not the good kind” will praise God no less, simply because He is worthy of it.

The best songs we sing in church have a single purpose.  The means by which this purpose is achieved — structure, symbol, metaphor, allusion, etc.  — all support this end.

There are some praise and worship songs that read like a bad high school paragraph.  I find it really hard to a song that hasn’t settled on a purpose, because I don’t know why I am singing it.

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Praise Songs and Higher Times

Praise 1I know that I said I would look at praise and worship songs as an English teacher, but I’m cheating and looking at praise and worship songs wearing a philosophical hat.

In a recent post, David Murrow explains “[w]hy men have stopped singing in church.”  He says that there are some positives in the switch from hymnal to the projection of lyrics onto a screen in front of the sanctuary, but he concludes that “the negatives are huge.”

One of these negatives is that “[s]ongs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

[W]e went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows (Murrow).

 I experienced some frustration this past Easter for this very reason.  The songs that were chosen for the Easter service were all appropriate thematically, but almost all were new to me.  I’m pretty quick to catch onto songs, so it wasn’t really an issue of not being able to sing them.   I am obviously not the same as the men who don’t sing in the Murrow post.  But there was something else  that I realized that we’ve lost since hymnals have become obsolete.

 And it has to do with the way we view time.

 In our culture, we understand time to be exclusively chronological.  So much so that many who are reading this are saying, “Well, what the heck else would time be?”  Chronological time, or “secular” time, is the idea that one thing happens after another.  There is no meaning behind this ordering of events–it is ordinary time.

 Higher time (kairos) is infused with meaning.  It doesn’t replace ordinary time, but complements it.

Higher times “gather and re-order secular time” (Taylor 55).  If you think of chronological time as a long rope, higher time takes that rope and ties it in a knot so places on the rope that are usually further apart, are now touching.  These “kairotic knots” (54) meaningfully reorder time.

 So, your birthday 2013 is closer in kairos time to your birthday in 2012, than it is to the other days that lie between them.   This is because your birthdays all share the same meaning and the ordering of kairos time is one of meaning.

 In the secular world, this is the only sort of time there is and I think we lose something if we view time as a mere sequence and neglect this other way of experiencing higher time.

 What does this have to do with praise and worship songs?  I think the songs we sing in church can go a long way in helping us to experience higher time.

 Back when we sang from a hymnal, we’d sing the same songs every Easter  In this way, the songs helped to connect all this Easter with every Easter I was alive for.  But all these Easters were connected to every Easter all the way back to the first when Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, “Whom were you seeking?.”

 The principle is the same with Christmas. We also sang the same songs at every funeral, and after the offerings were collected.  The songs linked these events too each other in higher time.

 The modern, secular view of reality is an impoverished view.   This view of reality ought to be countered at every point if people are going to experience a life of fullness available in Christ.  Certainly, the songs that we sing can help us to experience time as meaningful, but all aspects of communal worship can be looked at.

Perhaps a little more attention given to the traditional church calendar is worth a look.

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Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors

 

 

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