Dear Writers of Worship Music

I was listening to an hour of worship music on a Christian radio station while driving this morning.

OK, to be honest, I didn’t listen for nearly that long. By song four I turned off the radio and directed the following indignant words to the invisible songwriters:

“Oh my goodness, what PLANET are you people from?”

All four songs were of the “how I feel about God” genre. Of the “I feel deep love for God” genre. “I only care about you” was the line that tipped me over the edge.

I actually care about a lot of things other than my relationship with God. I care about my family. I care about my friends. I care about my health, my job, my hobbies. I care about injustice, about kids in detention, about the millions of displaced people suffering from persecution and conflict. (It is refugee Sunday today, hence this is dominant in my stream of consciousness).

I believe God cares about these things too. Jesus noted the most important commandments are to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. The prophets spoke again and again about justice and peace and caring for the orphan and widow. The heart of God is to bless and redeem all of creation, and God invites people to partner with the Spirit in this redemptive work.

Were the songs I heard on the radio this morning really inspired by good theology, by the mission of God to bring all things under Christ? By the great themes of scripture? By the character of God as revealed in Christ? By the idea that we are called into community as members of the Body of Christ?

Or were they, perhaps, overly influenced by the spirit of the age, by individualism, by the centrality of personal experience, by mainstream “love songs”?

Music is an innately an emotive medium, so I’m not opposed to the mention of feelings in worship music. But in corporate worship I’d hope the words of a song could be sung with a measure of authenticity by those people who… like me… some days don’t have strong feelings about God. We would still like to be able to affirm the worth of God, to celebrate the works of God, and to give thanks for the blessings and mercy of God.

Is a song that only focuses on your feelings about God, dear songwriter, a little self-indulgent? (Is that harsh?)

Does your song help to teach the story of God? Does your song draw from the deep well of scripture? Does it affirm the goodness of God, even for people in the congregation who are sick, depressed, afraid, or bewildered? Does it reflect on our shared life as a community?

Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply appreciative of your musical talent. I am aware that writing music puts you in a vulnerable space: someone will inevitably not like your songs, and feel obliged to criticise them and you. You are doing your best to serve God with the gift you’ve been given. I truly do love to sing in worship; it is deeply meaningful to me.

But I want to let you know when I lead worship, I won’t be picking many songs that are mostly about your feelings for God. Songs that focus my attention on who God is, on the character of God, on the work of God, on the story of God, on the community of God… I’m more likely to choose those.

If you are called to write Christian music, God bless you. Your words will be remembered long after memories of a sermon fade. Precisely because your words are likely to “stick” in people’s minds, I think you have an important responsibility to be equipped to “rightly handle the word of truth”. I believe doing some serious bible study should be part of this responsibility. Even better, engaging in formal theological study, and pastoral studies, will give your music greater power and ministry effectiveness. And if academic study isn’t your thing, writing alongside someone with these skills would be really helpful.

Believe me, I’ll be choosing your songs often if you can write contemporary music that has theological depth and pastoral sensitivity.

Please be gracious to me if this sounds critical. I realise I’m letting off a bit of steam… but I really do care about good teaching in the church. And I think you probably do too.

What do you think? Let’s talk…

Comments

GSR said…
Well written Janet. I have had similar about individualistic worship and praise songs for years. As The Briefing (St Matthias Press - Sydney Anglicans) wrote some years ago, we are not meant to be singing romantic love songs, as if “Jesus is my boyfriend“... Publish your thoughts more widely. They are worth it. Greg
GSR said…
We are are definitely called to correctly handle the word of truth, not inadvertently distort it with mushy self-focused emotionalism.
GSR said…
We are are definitely called to correctly handle the word of truth, not inadvertently distort it with mushy self-focused emotionalism.
GSR said…
Well written Janet. I have had similar about individualistic worship and praise songs for years. As The Briefing (St Matthias Press - Sydney Anglicans) wrote some years ago, we are not meant to be singing romantic love songs, as if “Jesus is my boyfriend“... Publish your thoughts more widely. They are worth it. Greg
David said…
You may be interested in a blog post from Bruce Gerencser entitled "The Casey Black Story: How a Praise and Worship Song Led to a Loss of Faith"

http://brucegerencser.net/2015/09/the-casey-black-story-how-a-praise-and-worship-song-led-to-a-loss-of-faith/
Janet Woodlock said…
Interesting article thanks David. And I find it unsurprising that really ridiculous words would leave someone so taken aback and jolted out of a worshipful frame of mind... I find this happens to me.

I'm not opposed at all to thinking critically about faith. But I think churches should create safe spaces to do this, and not precipitate faith crises because our songs are nonsensical, and cannot be sung with authenticity.

David said…
Once you have left the faith you can't go back. The author of Hebrews makes this point.
Janet Woodlock said…
M Scott Peck made the point that people who seem to be "returning to faith" do so in a completely different way: http://www.whale.to/b/peck1.html
Janet Woodlock said…
M Scott Peck made the point that people who seem to be "returning to faith" do so in a completely different way: http://www.whale.to/b/peck1.html
David said…
It's about belief.

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/8233514?ir=Religion?ncid=newsltushpmg00000003
Janet Woodlock said…
In the context of corporate worship, that's another interesting grid to use. Are these lyrics helpful to people at both ends of the fundamentalist to liberal faith spectrum, and to those at various stages in between?

Some lyrics get in the way of a meaningful worship experience, which was the main point of the article.

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