Meaning What We Sing
Have you ever found yourself in the awkward position of desperately wanting to sing and affirm the words of a powerful worship song while secretly, honestly wondering if you can really do what the song says you will do?
This was the experience of the author of a piece I recently read (http://ow.ly/QfUhT). In it, she reflects on singing (among others) Chris Tomlin’s “I will follow” (‘as long as it’s not too far and close to a clean flush toilet’) and concludes that it would probably be more realistic to sing “I surrender 10%.”
This has prompted me to wonder – to what degree should our worship songs reflect our best aspirations for our capacity for faith and to what degree should we strive for more ‘everyday’ worship songs? Should we eagerly make bold claims about how we will respond in faith in worship or should that give us pause, especially in the face of biblical narratives that dampen human good intentions? For example:
After Joshua’s noble declaration “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” the people eagerly answered, “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (see Joshua 24:15-24).
Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same (Matthew 26:34-35). We all know how that turned out.
I know that I’m not the only one thinking about these things; Nick Page writes in his book And now let’s move into a time of nonsense:
“‘When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.’ We make much more outrageous statements in song than we would in speech. Who among us has not vowed to make history? … I can’t help thinking if we were asked to say [these statements], rather than sing them, we might think a little more carefully about what we were actually promising.”
I don’t have a final answer on this, but here are some arguments for and against ‘extravagent commitments’ in worship; maybe we can continue the conversation in the comments below.
They encourage growth – when ‘I surrender all’ is played, it prompts me to re-evaluate my priorities. After all, Jesus did say that His followers needed to deny themselves, in some cases literally surrendering all. Singing ‘I surrender all’ puts my actual faith life face to face with Jesus’ call and pushes me to rely on the Spirit to actually make good on the vow.
They are theoretically true – I would like to think that if I felt an unmistakably divine push, I would eagerly and willingly follow God anywhere, whatever the cost. And while I fall short of it, it IS my desire that in ‘every breath that I take / every moment I’m awake’ I want the Lord to have His way in my life.
The Psalms make them (sort of) – My assumption when I started writing this was that the book of psalms was full of huge statements that promised utter surrender and commitment. When I got into it though, I discovered a pretty common trend. There are many instances where the psalmist commits to doing something, but those commitments are consistently in the context of acknowledging that God had already acted.
“And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD” (Ps 27:6 ESV).
“I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul” (Ps 31:7 ESV).
“With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good. For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies” (Ps 54:6-7 ESV).
“I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble” (Ps 66:13-14 ESV).
That ‘burnt offering’ and ‘freewill offering’ language is probably as close as the psalmists get to ‘I surrender all,’ but notice, ‘big commitment’ is always tied in the next sentence to God’s deliverance – the reason for the commitment. ‘I will follow’s’ ‘All Your ways are good/All Your ways are sure’ gets at this, but to really reflect the pattern of the Psalms, ‘I will follow’ would have benefitted from explicit reference to our redemption by Jesus’ death.
They disconnect Sunday worship and daily discipleship – This is big. On Sunday morning, we often find ourselves making extravagant commitments, pledging to accomplish radical tasks in order to appropriately respond to God’s gracious gifts. In reality though, Monday morning rarely brings a trip to a far off country to preach the Gospel; more often than not, Monday means ‘back to the grind’ and frankly a mission field that is at least as important as those implied extravagant destinations. What if we had songs that would allow us to commit ourselves to faithfully representing Jesus in our workplaces, using our break times to show what it means to be a child of God. It’s not nearly as romantic or poetic, but it’s much closer to many of our life situations. Maybe songs like that would help us in the pursuit of faithful living sacrifice worship on a daily basis.
Having worked through these ideas, permit me to present to you two takeaways for worship planners and songwriters.
- Insofar as they push us to re-evaluate the degree of our faith commitment, ‘aspirational, extravagant commitment’ worship songs are helpful. To really reflect the biblical trend, though, those commitments should be clearly rooted in and made in response to the Cross, as that is the motivating and compelling power to act on the commitments.
- Our current ‘canon’ includes songs with produce a breath-taking reflection of God’s infinite mercy towards us and includes songs which help us to approach God committing ourselves to loving Him as limitlessly as He has loved us. I submit though that it would be helpful to add to that canon songs which help us to commit to responding to the infinite grace of God in the finite nitty-gritty of daily work-commute-play-sleep. In that living is after all where true, spiritual, reasonable worship happens.
Graham is a long-time worship leader with an M.Div. (Heritage Seminary) and a passion for seeing the God of the Bible receive the praise He deserves. He is now the preaching pastor at Langford Community Church in Southwestern Ontario. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.
 Nick Page, And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why worship songs are failing the Church, (Authentic Media, 2011), 25-26.
 Methodology – Using BibleWorks, I searched within the Psalms for Hebrew imperfect verbs with a cohortative sense in the 1st person common singular form. (That’s the grammatical description of ‘I will follow’).