To play, or not to play (“Oceans”)?


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.

11 thoughts on “To play, or not to play (“Oceans”)?

  1. I love both songs and sang How He Loves at my sister’s funeral but don’t like either in a corporate worship setting. In the past two years our church has done both. Once each. We have four rules for what we select. 1) God honoring. Beyond doctrinely correct, it should be about him, not us. 2) Easily understood. We have a lot of peopke in our church with no church background. 3) Easy to learn. Again, we have far more drug addicts that doctorates in our church. 4) Corporately singable. Oceans especially fails on this point.

  2. I think you successfully avoided being a curmudgeon :). I especially agree on the distinction between what is better used in private as opposed to public corporate worship. We’re pretty well assaulted by a me-focused world throughout the week that the last thing we need is to focus on individualistic songs during corporate worship. I am a fan of John Mark McMillan and “How He Loves”, especially when I heard the song story. Based on the lyrics of the song, it really is not what you’d think. You may have already seen it, but if not, it is here:

    As a worship leader, I think this is always a good topic of conversation. The songs we sing together influence our lives, and as such should be chosen very carefully.

    1. Thanks for the response A.J. I have heard that song story behind “How He Loves” – you’re right, it does shed more light on that song, that makes it even more solid and meaningful, in my opinion. And yes, I’m a big McMillan fan too, really. 🙂

      Thanks again – really appreciate the comment.

  3. Tastefully done. I do lead “Oceans” on occasion, but when I do it is mixed in with VERY SOLID, CLEAR, GOSPEL-CENTERED songs (Village Worship, Citizens & Saints, etc)… I’m happy to hear someone else say they found the lyrics a bit unclear, because the first time I heard it I told a worship pastor friend that I wasn’t really sure what the song was about. Now, as it regards “How He Loves”, given that I was PROBABLY the 2nd person in the whole of the USA to lead the song on Sunday, & the one that told EVERYONE ELSE they need to use it, I obviously haven’t ever had any problems with it’s lyrics in any way. I think the key is to use a variety of types of songs – no song has to say everything, as long as it’s not untrue. Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Hey, yes, again, I do really like “Oceans.” And if done in church, definitely best when mixed in with some more concrete, rich stuff. Also definitely agree that “no song has to say everything,” which I think is the other way to be unbalanced in corporate worship – where every song is so heavy, the set turns into information overload.

  4. Thanks Graham. Really appreciate the kind words. I agree with you on the “theology of close enough,” or maybe also the “theology of the well-intentioned” wins the day a lot of the time. If someone’s intentions were good, or if they just really love Jesus, well then we can’t judge any merits of their song, or art, or whatever. Anyway, again, thanks for your comment!

  5. Josh,

    Thanks for the post. I whole heartedly agree that “Ten Thousand” is by far the most under-apperciated masterpiece of John Mark McMillan. It consistently moves me to tears and bolsters my longing for the resurrection. I think they call that glory. Furthermore, to your point, “Ten Thousand” is a perfect example of a song best suited for personal edification. A pervious generation would have called this “special music” and would have sat quietly as a soloist performed it. Thankfully our generation is discovering that church music primarily belongs to the pews and not to the platform.

    Of your comments on metaphor, I am less convinced. The reasons for my hesitation are both biblical and historical. Biblically speaking the psalms, often considered Israel’s hymnal, are filled to the brim with metaphor, simile, chiastic structure, parallelism, and other figurative elements that are not always clear to everyone present. These ancient corporate tunes speak of beasts, trees, sheep, beds, and beards, and formed the heart of the people of Israel. The Church, historically, learned to read and sing the psalms in light of the reality of Jesus and continued this tradition for centuries. This foundation acted as a grammar and vocabulary to the world class hymns of history. The most well known example is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Now this is not to argue for a 16th century cadence or for a traditionalism in our corporate worship; however it is to argue that the fault of “Oceans” is not in its use of metaphor but in its lack of biblical grammar.

    To correct this the Church must love the Psalms and desire to write songs like lakes. Songs of great depth and dazzling clarity. Songs that teach people to see.

    Thanks again for the post. This dialogue will only bring life to the Church.

    “to understand a proverb and a saying,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.” (Proverbs 1:6)

    1. I do agree. I do love metaphor, and God definitely seems to love it too, and seems to have designed it to be an avenue of communicating His glory. And you make a good point that with “Oceans” (and maybe not as much with “How He Loves”), part of the problem is that lack of biblical grammar. McMillan songs tend to be more “Psalm-like in their use of metaphor and imagery, as I’ve thought about your comments here…

      I do also think that the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, etc., make a much more skillful use of metaphor and figurative/imaginative language than some of our uber-popular modern songs, “Oceans” included. When I read the Psalms, I get a much clearer sense of what God wants me to experience in and through the imagery, than in “Oceans,” where it’s all sort of vaguely applied and open to individual interpretation. The same is true of “A Might Fortress,” where the metaphor is very skillfully applied, and enriches the meaning rather than obscures it.

      Glad you jumped in on this buddy. Thankful for your friendship.

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