Reflection #29 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 29 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #29: Where lyrics in contemporary worship music (cwm) are concerned, erring on the side of charity honors God.

downloadToday’s post comes in the form of a (slighted edited) response to one of my former students, a wonderful, thoughtful worship leader who honestly wants to do well by both her Lord and her congregation.  In essence, she asked what to do with popular cwm songs that contain lyrics that some consider theologically problematic.  Here’s what I suggested to her.

I’ve tried to become more gracious on this subject as I’ve aged and less inclined (in my better moments) to fan the flames of righteous indignation.  If a song is out-and-out heretical, that’s a different story, but there aren’t many songs that fall into that category.  Most of the songs to which you’re referring have one or two suspect lines, and the rest of the song is fine.  Here are a few examples and suggestions for usage.

By the time I hit my 40’s, I knew darn well that I never have and never will “surrender all” to Jesus.  Hence, I stopped using “I Surrender All” except when the pastor specifically requested it (usually for an altar-call-type setting) or unless the content of the sermon that morning made it clear that, with a bit of context, the song worked better than anything else the congregation knew.  So I tried to preface the song by acknowledging that this bold statement (echoing Peter prior to the rooster’s crow) probably works better as a prayer than a declaration: “Lord, You know my heart.  At this time, in this place, I want to surrender all to You.  Search my heart and know me, and give me the strength through Your Holy Spirit to lay both my burdens and my crowns at Your feet.  Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”

I don’t think I ever led “Everything Glorious” in a congregational setting, but, if I had, I would probably have pointed out that, in our culture, we have enough high-profile Christians who behave as if they really believe they are glorious (“You make everything glorious, [so] what does that make me?”).  What this going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket culture needs to see is a lot fewer examples of Christians strutting around gloriously and a lot more examples of Christians exhibiting humility and servanthood and grace and mercy, especially for those with whom they have fundamental theological, philosophical, and/or political disagreements.  The one, and pretty significant, exception I might make here would be if I were leading worship for a group of survivors or folks in recovery who know all too well how “unglorious” they are and need to be reminded that their Father sees them through the prism of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and, indeed, as Nancy Honeytree reminded us in the 70’s, “clean before [their] Lord [they] stand, and in [them] not one blemish does He see.”

The objectional lyric du jour in cwm, of course, is the use of the adjective reckless associated with God in “Reckless Love.”  “Overwhelming” love?  Of course.  “Never-ending” love?  Yes, thank God!  “Reckless” love?  Well, not if you use both the denotation and the connotations that 2,000 years of Christians have associated with that word.  But here’s the rub.  That kind of language absolutely resonates with this current generation, for all kinds of reasons that folks a lot more sociologically savvy than I have noted of late.  I get the idea and why it’s appealing; it comes from the same theological bent that produced John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, which also caught a lot of flak when it was written.  Hence, were I still leading for a congregation that because of demographics or inclination (i.e., boomers who want to be hip because they think that’s what they need to do to keep their children from scattering to the megachurches at their earliest opportunity; that’s a post for another day), I might use the song, but I certainly would put that word reckless in some context, and I’d sandwich the song between two others that feature God to a much greater extent than “Reckless Love” as both Object and Subject of worship.

The primary takeaway here is that we American Christians live in a culture that is increasingly dismissive at best and hostile at worst to all that we value.  Since very few unbelievers will give us the benefit of the doubt, surely we must extend it to each other (Gal. 6:10).  Hence, I choose to bless Judson VanDeVenter (“I Surrender All”), David Crowder (“Everything Glorious”), and Cory Asbury (“Reckless Love”).  I will choose to believe the best about them and not question their motives or their theology–and to whatever extent I might have issue with a line or two, I will pray for them and songwriters everywhere, that clarity would be a hallmark of their songs’ lyrics, words worship leaders will choose to put on the lips of the people of God.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): the value of worship education.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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