By now, nearly everyone in the evangelical community everyone has at least some small concern about the state of modern worship, among those are charges that it’s too cliched, too simple, too rockish, too sexual, or too vapid. But as we sing about “the air we breathe” and the “moves we make,”—not to mention the ubiquitous references to seas, storms, mountains, stars, and suns—one would expect a more powerful ripple of restlessness to be making its way through congregations and worship music-purchasers everywhere. When music sold on the premise that it either reflects, conveys, or enhances the spirit of God becomes so profoundly unaffecting, one must ask: are there certain ideas, images, and phrases—even ones taken from Scripture—that can no longer achieve their purpose? And if so, what are we to do with them?
Presuming that a songwriter’s job description includes discovering melody, rhythm and words to express emotions and ideas, his calling obviously goes beyond the practice of rewriting Psalms in simple English. Not only must the songwriter sense the movement of God that they hope to translate and share, but they must do so to an unusually sensitive extent—to the point that the movement can only be adequately conveyed (and even then not completely) through music and lyrics. If that’s what a true songwriter does, we can safely say that the modern church doesn’t have many of them.
It is also safe to say that, much like propagandistic slogans and facts recited by rote, modern Christian imagery has become the sort of religious “code language” of our time, holding a position as the unspoken requirement for being significantly spiritual or “church-friendly.” Or on occasion even “relevant,” but that’s another magzine entirely.
It might be cliched to say so, but Jesus hardly bowed down to accepted religious terms and doctrines so that he could gain respect in the temple. Instead, he challenged people and offended the institutional church so much that it rose up against him. He said things like, “If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” And “This people honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
And maybe the ancient religious-speak he condemned was something like the language that now pervades modern evangelicalism. God’s greatness is praised, but only with metaphors so threadbare and skin deep that they undercut the majesty they attempt to convey. We fail, to any casual observer, to give any indication that we find his greatness worthy of excellent praise.
Simple songs and straightforward lyrics certainly have their place in today’s Christian churches and homes, but exclusive exposure to artless lyricism is somewhat like endlessly reading reviews of music without ever experiencing music itself. And perhaps we also forget that we are made in His image which should, after all, mean that we are pursuing and imitating God—conclusion that experiencing modern worship would rarely lead one to draw.
Western culture is famous for its desire to for leisure and luxury, where the individual minimizes all possible infringements upon his personal comfort. But what does the carrying of that philosophy into worship lyrics say about our interest in God’s nature? All parts of scripture speak of a God who is majestic, dangerous, frightening, and powerfully beautiful. But when most lyrics written about him are ignorant of such things, it seems that their writers at best are unfamiliar with God’s deep and intricately textured nature, and at worst deny its existence. Christianity’s culturally-influenced desire to be comforted instead of challenged—apparently responsible for many of these songs—seem to inform God that we’re quite content with what we have decided we know about him, and have no further need to search (and be searched by) Him.
At the center of the empty space is an unwillingness, beyond throwaway phrases that reference weakness, to lyrically approach the problem of evil. While worship should generally focus on the grand aspects of God’s character, it cannot effectively do so without acknowledging the fall, without an admission that weakness exists and, more crucially, that we are filled with it. The absence of that confession is revealed in weak songwriting, as dangerous openness and honest confession is the lifeblood of the greatest, most true works of art. If an artists does not believe his own words—has not all but penned them in his own blood—then neither will those who are to participate in his creation.
For now, the true embrace of the depths remains on the fringes and outside of the church. Take The Innocence Mission’s “Lakes of Canada,” a subtly honest and moving song: “Oh laughing man/What have you won/Don’t tell me what cannot be won/My little mouth, my winter lungs/Don’t tell me what cannot be done … Rowing on the lakes of Canada.” There is not a religious term to be found, but its purpose is stark, icy, and inescapable. “I am a whore I do confess/I put you on just like a wedding dress/And run down the aisle/Run down the aisle,” Derek Webb sings, and as much as the song hurts, it’s also full of hope. We need songs like this: incisive, convicting, difficult to hear. It is certainly not the stuff of a culture that loves angels and heaven but is disturbed by darkness and judgment.
The true meaning of worship is “to bow down.” That’s when we truly glorify God, not so much when we’re singing of how wonderful He is, but instead when we actually present our weakness to him and revel in the power of his tangible, everyday redemption. There are certainly times when we should simply enjoy the presence and greatness of our God, but those times are made sweeter by the moments of struggle, pain, and doubt.
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