I’ve had a few good conversations this past week, with friends who plan and lead corporate worship, about evaluating the songs we choose to sing together in our churches. I think these conversations ultimately edified all parties involved, though not everyone ended up in mutual agreement. It all serves as a good reminder to me of some of the dividing lines right now in corporate worship, as well as a reminder of the reasons we pick the songs we do at our church. It might not be surprising that my conversations centered around the merits of Hillsong’s “Oceans” and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves,” and whether or not these (and songs like them) are good choices for gathered, corporate singing.
First of all, “Oceans” has proven much more popular than “How He Loves,” though both have been pretty huge the past few years. “Oceans” has really been the “silver bullet,” “hip new thing” of the past year, placing as one of the top 10 most-searched-for, and most-downloaded songs of 2014 from the CCLI database; and judging from what I read on The Worship Community and what I see and hear about from other local worship leaders and churches, this song has been played quite a bit the past year. It really resonates with lots of folks, and I’ve gotten quite a few suggestions for it too. But we don’t play it at our church for corporate worship. Here’s why. Please don’t write me off as a curmudgeon.
Just know at the outset that I really do love both “Oceans” and “How He Loves.” My heart has been drawn to worship Christ through listening to, and being led to sing along to these songs. I think they’re beautifully written, and pretty well-crafted in melody and in lyric. But these are two very current examples of a “type” of song that I find unhelpful to include too often in the gathered worship repertoire of a local church.
The problem I do have with these songs, is that they’re so heavy on metaphor and figurative language, that meaning is obscured. This is a problem in corporate worship. As a worship leader, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable leading songs that don’t speak clearly enough for themselves, at face value, through their lyrics. The category lines are a little fuzzy here; but certain songs make me feel the need, if I’m the one leading the singing, to explain the meaning of the lyrics every time we include the song in a worship set. I think songs like this are potentially dangerous for Christians, in a corporate singing context, because the time will inevitably come when the worship leader decides not to, or forgets, to explain the lyrics. And I’ve learned that poetic metaphors are not, I repeat NOT always clear to everyone present. When the metaphors aren’t clear, our fallible human intellects and emotions are “prone to wander” and take our thoughts places the songwriter didn’t intend. Or, in a more worst-case scenario, we can erroneously fill a self-centered and/or heretical meaning into lyrics where the meaning is fuzzy or veiled to begin with.
Again, “Oceans” and “How He Loves” are two popular songs that aren’t wrong to sing and worship with. But I think there are definitely better songs to build into our churches’ regular rotations – songs that are clear, and where the Gospel truths are rock-solid and gloriously expressed. Like I said to a friend (who thankfully agreed with me!), I think “Oceans” is a song that might be best worshiped-with on an individual basis, at home or in your car, when you know exactly what you mean when you sing along – not in a corporate setting with a couple hundred people gathered and singing together. If you’re interested, Thabiti Anyabwile’s book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church has a super helpful chapter on evaluating the lyrical style and content of church music.
I don’t think that was too curmudgeonly. I hope not.