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I, Me, Mine - A Plea for More Songs About God in our Worship

"I know there's a balance... I see it when I swing past"

(John Mellencamp, Between A Laugh and a Tear)[1]

When you chat with pastors and theologians, one of the cultural sinkholes the church has to be aware of is an all-consuming move toward individualism. When I was a kid, it was exemplified by the Burger King slogan, "Have it your way." That's great from a consumer point of view, but church and faith are not commodities for sale. Yet, there is an increasing tendency to see Jesus in songs of worship as a product that has 'never let me down' - like an aspirin or hand sanitizer.

The Object Of Our Worship Is…

In two letters to the early church, St. Paul exhorted believers to “sing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Regardless of how you define each of those, one of the trends that has continued to develop in popular worship music is the predominance of what we might call 'testimonial' songs, or songs in which the singer is the primary object of the song. It's not that God isn't mentioned in the songs, but the fact that the main player in the drama is the person recounting what God has done for them.

Testimonial song isn’t just a trend seen in contemporary Christian song – we can also look at hymns across the last few centuries. Earlier hymn writers, like Watts and Wesley, wrote most of their songs about God, and how we fit into HIS story. Worship historian James White points out, however, that a change took place during the 19th Century. Influenced by the emotional nature of the camp meeting movement, hymn writers like Fanny Crosby began to describe their experience of knowing Jesus and the deep affection which it engendered. They came to laud how Jesus impacted ‘MY’ story. The primary subject of the song moved from being God to being ‘me’. As White mentions, "In effect, Charles Wesley's "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" became "My Soul, Lover of Jesus."[2] This type of lyric has, in fact, become a staple in a vast segment of contemporary Christian music, including the revivalist songs of the Southern Gospel genre.

Now, it’s not that these revivalist hymns aren’t great songs for which we have a deep affection! Nor is there anything inherently wrong in having them in worship services. But here’s a question: is there such a thing as having too much of a good thing?

A Bigger Gospel View

I remember hearing at youth rallies that if I had been the only person alive Christ would still have come down from Heaven to redeem me - a magnificent way to think about the love of God. The issue is that I am not the only person that Christ came to redeem! Yet, the Gospel has been so personalized that our most popular songs reflect the very sentiment above, rather than offering up a theology in song that shows us that there is a bigger story at play, one in which the major actor is God, not me.

So, is there an issue if we choose to sing too many testimonial songs in our services?

Consider this: if we build a song catalogue for our worshippers that only keeps reiterating what God has done for ‘me’, without including a theology of his character, we might only think of God as a god of love who wants to bless me, and ignore his attributes of holiness, justice, and judgement. We can breed a form of narcissism that sees the Gospel as primarily about what it can do for me. Educators know that we are formed by the repetition of a message. Of course, God IS love, but we need to see that his plan for redemption runs greater than just for our individual lives – it is a plan to redeem all of humanity, and in fact, all of Creation (see Romans 8:18-23)!

There is always a place for personal application of the Gospel and testimony in worship. Yet, we should take care not to let the preoccupation with our own subjective (inner) spiritual experience overtake our understanding of the objective work of God for all of humanity and the bigger picture of how we are brought into God's Kingdom – into God's story.

So, let’s take heed that if we prepare worship without that in mind and only feed our flock on a narrow diet of songs that evoke emotional fervour alone, we run the risk of growing saints whose faith is only supported by the transient feelings generated by their experiences.

[1] ©1985 Riva Music Inc. (ASCAP). From the Album, Mercury Records, 1985.

[2] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 126–27.

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