Have you ever printed off the lyrics for your Sunday set and read them aloud? No melody, no accompaniment, just the words in your speaking voice.
It’s a unique experience that I’ve encouraged many worship leaders to do over the years. Words and phrases will strike you differently. It can freshen up an old song in a way that brings it to life. But there’s a lot of funny stuff in there also. The “oh’s” and repeated “Alleluia’s” are a lot more meaningful when they’re sung. And that’s the key. Songs are works of art (most of them anyway) that are meant to be sung.
As a worship leader, I’m grateful for the widespread engagement around the theological accuracy of many popular worship songs by both publishing organizations and bloggers alike.
However, it is increasingly common for many to become nothing more than biblical watchdogs, analyzing every word in a song next to a KJV Bible and a dictionary.
Unfortunately, it is also common to blindly ride the train of popularity without ever stopping to consider the implications of lyrics about God and his work.
I have begun to notice that there is little engagement with popular songs that is both critical and charitable.
What do I mean? Uche Anizor’s timely book, How to Read Theology, argues for a way of engaging with theology that is both critical and charitable. Doing theology well requires that we hold these in dynamic tension rather than oscillating between them according to our whims and preferences.
Think seriously about the content of the songs you sing (and everything else you do, for that matter). But also be charitable; give the benefit of a doubt. Remember that the authors of these songs are unlikely to be academic theologians. They’re artists, and good art often pushes boundaries.
What I want to do in this blog – and in my life – is to think critically about lyrics, while assuming a posture of charitability toward the songwriters and worship pastors who lead these songs week in and week out.
The two songs I’m going to address today are paired because the lyrics in question are directly about the character of God and our experience of Him.
This is both an important and an impossible task. By definition, our language will never adequately speak of God. And yet we must try to do so in a way that is truthful and faithful to the Christian tradition because what we think and sing about God has consequences.
But, good theology isn’t just true. It also needs to be creative and provocative – just like good art.
Being provocative for the sake of being provocative isn’t virtuous. But if speaking about an infinite, eternal, boundless, and mysterious God is always just beyond our grasp then shouldn’t we always be looking for new ways of faithfully speaking about Him? Provocation should be taken seriously as a task of both our songs and our sermons.
A few years ago Cory Asbury’s Reckless Love exploded onto the “worship scene.”
It seemed as if overnight it became among the top worship songs sung across America. And almost as quickly there was a widespread debate over the use of the word “reckless.” Some saw it as unique, creative, and edgy, while others claimed it was untruthful and misleading. At the height of the controversy, Cory took to Facebook to clear up his intentions for using the word “reckless.” In my opinion, his post actually weakened his case and further muddied the already murky waters.
But we need to ask: is God’s love reckless? Well, not technically.
Reckless means “without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.” We might simplify it as “thoughtlessness” and “carelessness.” By definition, those words are about the exact opposite of God and the love from which He cannot be separated. God’s pursuit of the one, while leaving the 99, is thoughtful, calculated, and intentional. But, as others have pointed out, another connotation with “reckless” is the word “foolish” and that, I think, gets at the heart of the picture Cory intended to invoke.
I did a quick Google search to see how others had addressed this topic and one thing that seemed to be missing from the conversation is the understanding that this is phenomenological language, which means from the perspective of being.
In other words, God’s love is not actually reckless, but it is experienced by some as reckless. This is key.
Scripture (and other more “accepted” songs) use phenomenological language all the time.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul uses “foolishness” to describe the cross and the gospel. Is the cross “foolish” technically? No, of course not. But it seems foolish to those who are perishing. Paul – among other things – is using phenomenological language.
There’s a popular song out now where the tag repeats, “You keep on gettin’ better.” Is that true technically?
No. God’s character and essence have never changed, but how we experience the goodness of his character and essence does change. It seems to us like the longer we walk with God the better He gets! And this is one way to hear and sing about God’s love as “reckless.” To us, it’s foolish!
Many of Cory’s dissenters have proposed swapping out “reckless” for “selfless.” That’s a perfectly fine substitute. It’s technically true, yet, I must say that it lacks the provocative punch of “reckless.” I’m grateful for Reckless Love because it has become a lightning rod which has forced us to wrestle with what God’s love, how it pursues us, and the various ways that we might experience it.
Another line that has been more subversively avoided comes from What a Beautiful Name.
The second verse begins, “You didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus, you brought heaven down.” Truthfully, I never thought this line was controversial until a friend of mine said he loved the song except for the second verse.
What seems to be troubling to those who find this line problematic is that it can portray God as being needy or that it places humanity at the center of the gospel.
Christians have always largely agreed that God has no need and therefore does nothing out of or from a place of need. So if, in fact, God has no need – and has never had a need – then Creation’s existence is a witness to God’s desire for it to exist. Humans exist because God wants us and delights in our existence. Loosely defined, heaven is “God’s space.” Our existence infers that God did not want his space to be without us. Why else would there be anything at all?
I actually think the trouble with this line isn’t the theology of the line itself as much as what it implies about us.
It is shocking that God would want to share the boundless loving communion in the trinity with creatures. It doesn’t sound right and it doesn’t feel right. In a similar way that saying “God is humble” just seems untrue this line seems untrue. But I’m convinced it is exactly true.
So why am I writing this?
My goal in these recent posts has not been to convince you to sing or not sing any song or phrase, but rather to insist that we must think broadly and deeply about what we’re singing and the impact our songs are capable of having on people’s lives.
If you prefer to sing neither of these on theological grounds, that’s your (and your pastor’s) prerogative. But remember: just because something feels or sounds wrong doesn’t mean it is.
Think, pray, and discern. This is where pastoral ministry begins.
You may also be interested in these related posts!
- “You’re Never Gonna Let, Never Gonna Let Me Down!”…Right?
- “Worship Leader” or “Worship Pastor”? Our Language Tells on Us
- Why Should Worship Leaders Even Care About Theology?
- 5 Things Volunteers Do that Annoy their Worship Pastors More than Anything
- Grow Your Worship Team with these 6 Proven Recruitment Strategies (Post-Quarantine)