Pushing Back a Little on Andrew Wilson’s Worship Rant
Andrew Wilson has a post up today at Think Theology in which he rants against some of the worship music going around churches these days. Good points all around, and I generally agree with him. I would like to concur on some of his points and push back on some others:
1. Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. Wilson say that songs with “I love you” or “you are more beautiful than ever” statements to God that can simultaneously be said to one’s spouse are out of place in worship. I agree with this point wholeheartedly. In my experience as a worship leader and as one who evaluates new songs about every week, I think this type of language has a lot to do with the age group writing our contemporary worship songs. Most of them are very young, and in our worship culture we tend to prefer that young, beautiful people lead us from the stage rather than seasoned, older pastors. And so the ones leading every week are also the ones more prone to author new songs for the congregation. The songs are marketed by agencies who want to put young, beautiful people on album covers and in concerts and in interviews, and thus the songs they have written become mainstream. The problem isn’t really with young, beautiful people as much as it is with personal experience: most of these songwriters have very little experience as a Christian from which to draw when they write songs. They struggle to empathize or even communicate what they feel. And a bigger point is that most do not know how to express love to/for God in a biblical way because they’re not trained in the Bible. And so their worship songs sound a lot like Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop songs: cliche-driven and devoid of meaning. The result is “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. This does not meant that there isn’t a gem from time to time that is written by a young, beautiful person. I can think of several. But it’s rare. (As an aside I might also ask: doesn’t the modern, contemporary gathering itself—with its lights and its youth and its ambiance—give way to this sort of songwriting that emphasizes boyfriend-Jesus songs and that lacks theological depth?)
2. Random lists of superlatives. Wilson says that listing superlatives about God (you are so glorious, wonderful, powerful, etc.) brings about a flat sense of diminishing returns to those of us who are singing. But isn’t this what the psalms do over and over? Isn’t this what Moses sang in Exodus 15? How many times do the psalms say that God is “my fortress” or “refuge” or “rock” or “salvation”, or that he is “glorious” and “mighty”? Several times, I would say. I don’t think Wilson can stress this point because the testimony of the Bible over several millennia gives us people who continue to pray and sing superlatives about God. Songwriters should write songs in the stream of the biblical songwriters and authors. As a worship leader, I have no problem choosing songs that stress these aspects of God’s character because God stresses these aspects of his character.
3. Lack of Trinitarianism. Wilson argues that our modern worship songs lack praise of all three persons of the Trinity. They are functionally binitarian or unitarian. But this point assumes that these songs are sung out of context. You could argue that the Book of Psalms are unitarian in that they primarily offer praise/lament to God the Father. But the context of Scripture demands that a greater meaning should be applied to the psalms. Similarly, in the context of a church service—where the people of God, redeemed by God in Christ, are joining together in the power of the Spirit to glorify God—the songs are thicker in meaning due to that context. When we praise “God” we likely mean “Father and Son through Holy Spirit.” The context demands more, just as the context of the Old Testament can be understood now only in light of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and of his sending of the Holy Spirit for the mission of the church.
I would also push back on the notion of praise to the Holy Spirit. I understand the need for holistic worship, but where does praise to/for/of the Holy Spirit take place in the New Testament? Anywhere? Is this the example we have from the apostles, to offer praise to the Holy Spirit? No one ever addresses the Holy Spirit in prayer, or bows down to the Holy Spirit, or ever serves the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is never the object of worship in the Bible. Philippians 3:3 states that we “worship by/in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.” And yet I understand the tension here, that Father, Son, and Spirit are all equally divine in one essence and so should be worshiped equally. This is theological deduction, but is that deduction warranted in the New Testament? The New Testament is adamant that we worship in the Spirit, through the Spirit, and by the Spirit, but it knows nothing of worship “of the Spirit” (see also Block, “For the Glory of God” on this point).
So I don’t think the element of Trinitarianism is missing in modern worship songs, if by that we mean addressing or worshiping the Holy Spirit. What is missing in my opinion is accurately describing the Triune God in our our liturgies, the prayers, introductions, confessions, etc., or especially in the arc of the service. Worship leaders would be wise to make their leading more theological and trinitarian, yet without the worship of the Spirit.
4. Assuming shared experience. Wilson seems to imply that we shouldn’t sing certain songs that assume that everyone singing those songs have had the same experience, a “come to Jesus” moment, as it were. Wilson says “this cultivates an unhelpful sense of inferiority or exclusion amongst a group of people.” I disagree. This gets to ecclesiology, but in my view the worship service is a gathering of believers, and thus the first-person narratives in some of our hymns (Amazing Grace, When I Survey, And Can it Be, etc.) have rich meaning in a corporate setting because we’re repeating the gospel to one another. The shared experience of worship—and in particular singing—is what Paul encourages us to do in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. We “sing to one another” and “make melody in our heart” because we have and assume a shared experience. Even if my experience is not in line with “I awoke, the dungeon flamed with light,” I resonate with that experience because it expresses what happened in my soul when I was redeemed. Additionally, I can glory in the cross of Christ by turning to my brother or sister and hearing her sing of that experience even if I don’t share it exactly how he/she does. Contrary to Wilson’s point, I think in singing some of these songs and in hearing the testimonies of God’s people actually helps unify the church instead of cultivating exclusion. So perhaps we should ask, what do we actually gain from hearing/singing dramatic binary stories? Do we actually gain something from reading or singing David’s account of his repentance in Psalm 51? What about the desperate longing for God that David writes about in Psalm 63? Is that intended to be only about David and for David? I don’t think so. Worship leaders and/or songwriters aren’t asking their congregations to sing lies. I hope that what they are doing is writing under the influence of biblical songwriters like David. Isn’t that what they should do?
Wilson’s post is good, I would just disagree on some of the things he stresses. His overall point, however, is well-said: worship leaders must think hard about what they write and about what they lead people to say or sing. It’s not a frivolous affair, something to toss off like it has no importance. The worship gathering is a display of God’s glory. So we should give due diligence in our preparation/songwriting/song-choosing so that the glory of God in Christ through the work of the Spirit is our aim and the end result.