Worship is about you, me, and us – but mostly God: reflections on the songs we sing

Worship is about you, me, and us – but mostly God: reflections on the songs we sing January 21, 2014

I grew up in the contemporary evangelical church. Many people in my life have noted that rather than completely cut myself off from my roots, I have a tendency to integrate what I perceive to be the good. Although that may have to be the topic of another post, today I want to reflect on one thing that I still appreciate about evangelicalism (in its contemporary form): worship music.

I’d be the first to admit that many songs written for the church today are lyrically shallow. Sometimes when I hear certain songs at an Christian event – be it chapel, church, or a conference – I wonder if the lyrics have more to do with you and me individually than they do “us” and God. It’s as though we’ve given into the subtle-but-real part of the American Dream, specifically, individualism. This independent spirit permeates much of what we sing in our churches and is the natural byproduct of a culture that thrives on autonomy. Perhaps singing “I” and “me” is more secular than many well-meaning and (may I say) Holy Spirit inspired songwriters recognize.

Words shape us. Throughout the Scriptures, the way words were spoken in worship, whether in song or liturgy, shaped the people of God. When we speak in communal terms we remind ourselves that Christ died for the largest created community (the cosmos), then for the church (all who gather together around King Jesus), and then for the persons who make up the collective whole. In short, redemption goes from the communal to the individual – our lyrics often reverse this pattern, thus reinforcing bad Western habits of independence over interdependence.

We would be hard-pressed to find an abundance of personalized lyrical arrangements in either Jewish or early Christian worship. One caveat from this generality certainly takes shape in the way the Jews appropriated the Psalms. Davidic Psalms, for example, were written by one person: (probably) David. The language of “I” or “me” comes through these personal reflections quite often. Even so, by the time these were used as songs and sayings for worship, the use of “I” was considered a corporate “I.” “I” represents Israel as a whole and is therefore communal for the ancient Jewish worshiping community. The problem for us is that when we use personalized language today, our minds don’t reach to corporate categories – but individual ones. That is the whole point of the post. “Me” in the Psalms isn’t a ‘one for one,’ not even close.*

Personhood matters. We don’t simply dismiss individual people as less important, but need to make sure that we do what we can to subvert our natural inclination towards autonomy. We might think of individuals as “persons in community” where each person is free to explore their unique humanity within the context of other Christ-followers. This actually humanizes an individual more as we help folks get back to the start: “It’s not good that the human is alone” (Gen. 2.18). Therefore, it could be said that we as individuals are only able to become fully human within the context of community. As I remember from a Brian McLaren book: “Faith is personal, but never private.” [Just a thought: I’m using the word “individual” a lot as it is an easy word to grasp… but it can deconstruct my point if I’m not careful].

God is community. Let’s not forget that even deeper than the human longing for community from the very beginning of the Scriptures is that reality that God exists in some sort of mysterious community. Call this reality Trinity if you like or the perichoresis or the Divine relational dance, but in some beautiful sense the Godhead exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s community reminds us that all worship is in a communal setting, whether we recognize it or not.

Community is the context of worship. Perhaps it’s time to start reflecting this in the songs we sing to and about God. Isn’t it odd that we get together in groups of 10, 20, or even 10,000 and sing as though “I” am the only person in the room? What would it look like to take our singing and wed it to our theology of personhood within community?

In our church context, that is exactly what we are experimenting with (admittedly, not always perfectly). Although we have yet to officially “launch,” we do all we can in our Core Team worship gatherings to creatively adapt lyrics to fit our theology of community (and other theological convictions). Worship is about “you” and “me” but it has more to do with “us” and the most to do with God. Certainly, we shouldn’t become worship snobs or legalistic about the nuances of language (especially when worshiping outside of our church homes), because all words fall short of the glory of God. Yet, all worship honors the Godhead – who is in fact a triune community – so perhaps it’s time that “we” start singing words that emphasize that we are in this human journey together. In doing so, we may find that our bad habit of individualism starts to fade from our sub-conscience a bit.

Below is a video I recorded and posted about two years ago about this very topic…

*Added for clarity.

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  • Dude, totally grokking you here… “I” language is helpful in certain ways as regards Christianity… but when we’re dealing with corporate worship, with realization of the human in context of community, etc… we definitely need WE language.. which is why my wife’s song based upon Psalm 133 is SUCH a good song… gotta convince her to record that sometime…

  • “Individualism” (I prefer the scientific terms of “autonomous” and “sovereign”) is not a bad habit, it is an integral part of our evolutionary heritage as the most egalitarian of the primates, as evidenced by both evolutionary biology and anthropology:

    “Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign. They generate their own subsistence with little or no assistance from outside sources. They bow to no external political leaders.”
    Elman R. Service (1975), Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: Norton. faculty.smu.edu/rkemper/cf_3333/Non_State_and_State_Societies.pdf

    “…remain politically autonomous as individuals … this egalitarian arrangement.”
    Christopher Boehm (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press. p. 194.

    When humans are in small groups within our evolutionary neurobiological limits of “the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships,” i.e., Dunbar’s Number, which is about 150, then we enjoy both close community and individuality.

    Denying either attribute of our evolutionary heritage, (a) close egalitarian community, or (b) individuality, is common in modern society, because our social group size limits are well exceeded.

    Our brains just cannot handle large groups, and the typical reaction is to deny community and emphasize extreme individualism (such as Right-wing libertarians) or vice versa by emphasizing extreme collectivism (such as with Left-wing communists.) Both Left and Right sides hate each other, and both are mistaken, humans need Left and Right together to walk.

    Robin Dunbar (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): pp. 469–493.