Corporate worship is difficult. The many, many songwriters who tackle praise songs that we’ve talked to RELEVANT all attest to that. Finding words that are true, compelling, worshipful and relevant to the people singing takes a lot of work.
But it was still a little surprising to hear the lyrics to a recent praise song from a popular worship act, which begins thusly:
Welcome to the modern way
I’m trying to be somebody I’m not but it’s not what I want
And tell me there’s another way
Things stay more or less in this lane through the rest of the song: “I don’t want a stereotype to decide who I am / It never knew me anyway / I’m over trying to find the next hype ’cause the high never lasts / Imma go another way.”
I’m not here to dunk on this band’s whole entire catalog, which has a lot of good stuff in it. I am here to suggest that these lyrics aren’t exactly isolated. They’re part of a much longer trend of “worship” music that is mostly about gazing inward. Even when this song does eventually bring God into the equation (“We want the truth/ So much is missing / So give us the real thing / I know it’s You”), the focus remains on me, we, us, I — little personal affirmations.
Over the last few decades, church music has taken a lot of grief for copying mainstream pop trends, lifting from bands like U2, Coldplay and Imagine Dragons instead of pursuing real creative innovation. Some of that criticism is deserved, but something else has been happening under our noses the whole time. In addition to taking on the musical aesthetic of big time rock bands, some worship music is also copying their themes, replacing real worship with a lightly spiritual spin on self-help mumbo jumbo and me-centric navel gazing.
This isn’t to say there’s no place for reflecting on yourself or your own position when singing church music. The Psalms are full of bracingly real self talk, in when David and other Psalmists open about things like anxiety, doubt, depression and even rage. “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death,” reads Psalm 88. “I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength.” Imagine singing that on Sunday morning.
But what sets these Psalms apart is that the writers aren’t using their own writing as a mood booster. The Psalmist might mourn their loneliness, confess their fear or even sic God on their enemies, but you never get the sense that they’re looking in the mirror, trying to pump themselves up for the day. That was not the goal of the Psalms. It shouldn’t be our goal either.
Because worship isn’t about looking within ourselves to find the strength and resolve to do better. It’s about confessing our own inability to do just that. It’s about taking a deliberate break from making much of ourselves — something many of us could really use — and making much of God instead. The lyrics may be vertical (speaking directly to God, as in “Pour out your power and love, as we sing holy, holy, holy”) or horizontal (speaking to each other, as in “Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him, all creatures here below!”). What is a little harder to justify biblically is singing worship songs to yourself.
To be clear, this isn’t some “new worship bad, old hymns good” old-man-yells-at-clouds bit. Lots of new praise and worship music is beautiful, powerful and a great continuation and evolution of the ancient practice of corporate worship (and lots of old church music missed the mark pretty hard).
And self affirmation isn’t a bad thing. We can all use a few pep talks in our lives and if it comes with a soundtrack, so much the better. If turning on “Eye of the Tiger” before you go ask your boss for a raise works for you, be my guest. But if the Church wants to start competing with mainstream music for those sorts of You Go, Girl/Dudes Rock anthems, they are going to lose every time. What the Church can do that Top 40 radio cannot is actual worship.
Last week, we at RELEVANT took Jordan Peterson to task for a “Message to Christian Churches” that was virtually indistinguishable from fluffy self-help. Maybe the reason Peterson’s message has found so much traction in the Church is that we’ve been doing just that for awhile now — swapping out theology for pop psychology cloaked in spiritual language. God is worthy of better worship. The Church is capable of more. But to live up to that potential, we’ll have to start by getting our focus right.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.