I’m just going to put this out there … praise music is almost never my scene. I love God and I love music, and I even love worship, but music tends to provoke a lot of analysis from me. Maybe it’s somewhere between being an English major and seminary training, but my impulse to dismantle the lyrics for both beauty and solid theology can be distracting for me. And while some praise music is right on in both departments (and strong musically), a lot of it seems to fall short. Some of it just doesn't speak to me, and that's just a matter of taste, but some if it is just sloppy theologically and if you're going to walk away from tradition, I tend to think it should be with an eye on improvement.
I help wrangle a youth group of middle school children who went on a retreat recently, and they chose to sing the song “Sanctuary” for the talent show. It’s a gorgeous song, musically and lyrically, and the kids sing it with beauty and heart. I was, as usual, incredibly proud of their bravery and enthusiasm. However, it broke my heart a little to hear one of them say to another “Yeah, I really like that song, but I have no idea what it means”.
Wow. This song of such weighty promises (Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary… I’ll be a living sanctuary for you) and bold love is heart-warming to hear, but I think we owe it to our kids to dive into the meaning behind it, and to pose those questions to one another. It didn’t even occur to me that they didn’t know what they were singing, but how often do we impose that kind of analysis on our own worship? What do we mean when we promise to be a sanctuary for one another? How do we live it?
And it’s certainly not just the kids. How often do we get up and sing a song in church and not give a second thought to the words we’re saying? “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the one I love… Bind my wandering heart to thee”. “I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart”. “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”.
I do like the idea toward which praise music is inclined. Traditional hymns just don’t connect with a lot of people today or, worse, they re-open old wounds for people hurt by the church in the past. If church was the place your parents forced you to go, or where you felt judged, hated, or any other negative emotion, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t feel overwhelmed with joy at glorifying God with songs that take you right back to those memories.
Fortunately, God is bigger than any one worship style. Whew.
As is my usual, I am intrigued by secret option C, the re-appropriation of secular music for worship purposes. It does not work for every congregation or service, and it certainly doesn’t work for every song, but a few years back a good friend introduced me to the BBC’s Manchester Passion play. It took place live, all over the city of Manchester, with a talented group of singers and actors co-opting contemporary Mancunian music to tell the story of Christ’s last days. Parts of it are ridiculously cheesy, but for the most part, it’s a powerful re-telling. Hearing Christ sing The Stone Roses’ “I am the Resurrection”, Judas lamenting with The Smith’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, or Pilate and Christ singing “Wonderwall” to one another are each slightly surreal experiences but they do some remarkable work. They make these characters rise up from dusty pages and transform into human beings, a much shorter distance from our selves. “And maybe… you’re going to be the one that saves me.” After all.
Expect a few more Florence + the Machine-esque entries from this girl, as I appear to be a bit fixated on that idea right now.
Any style that works for you, I ask that you join me in a commitment to thinking. Faith is not meant to take the place of your brain. In theory at least, they should work together. Think about lyrics before you sing them, prayers before you repeat them, Scripture as you read and hear it, and the words you trade with people you love. Communicate deliberately – with others, with your own heart, and with God.