Last week I looked at the 25 most used Praise & Worship songs in 2012 and asked the question: who is talking to who? I looked at whether the songs were being sung from the voice of 'I' and 'me', or from 'we' and 'us'. What we found was that most of the songs were from the 1st person singular to the second person singular, so they are mostly sentiments between 'me & God'.Today I'm going to talk about why I think that's a problem, why we need to be aware of it, and I will finish with a note on our scriptural song book: the Psalms.
So What's The Problem Here?
I want to argue that one of the reasons that I (and many others) find P&W so vapid and sickly is partially due to this intensely individual perspective being used so much in our worship gatherings.
I have already discussed what I think the point of singing together on Sundays is: to connect to God and to connect to each other. If one of our goals in worship is to connect people to God, then it seems like most P&W has focused on that in such an American/Western way. The me and Jesus mindset is so prevalent in the US today that many of us are blind to any other type of Christianity.
Unfortunately our faith is not only about us and God. It is also about us and our neighbor. Our eternal salvation is linked to the Church universal, just as our immediate salvation is linked to God's people here and now. Stated simply: God often meets us and relates to us through his people. I see that one of the important tasks of our music on Sundays is to bring our people together as we become closer to God. It seems that this is not a concern for modern popular P&W music.
Therefore, when our worship music emulates the love-ballad nature of modern pop music by emphasizing only the relationship between me and God we're missing out on something important: each other. I have found that singing 'we' and 'us' songs helps us subtly shift the focus off of ourselves and onto the larger community in which our faith is fostered and expressed. Of course this doesn't fix all of our self-involved tendencies but I have found that it does help.
The analogy that I like to use is that of Parallel Play. This is a technical way of talking about how young children aged 1-4 play along side each other without really engaging or interacting with each other. They're too self-involved to realize that others exist or have something to contribute to their experience. So it might seem for us to gather together in a dark room, close our eyes, and sing our hearts out to God oblivious to those around us.
There is a time and place for this but is our worship gathering, the only hour or two we all have together each week, the best venue? I would argue not.
What does this Mean for my Worship Gathering and our Song Selection?
Ultimately I want us to allow our faith to inform and critique the rabid individualism of our culture. The most powerful moments we have of sung worship each week at Servant Church are when we can all hear each other, something greater than the sum of our parts combines, and 150 voices converge to one. We make sure our instruments aren't so loud that we can't hear the congregation (aka 'the choir'). This energy combined with songs that come from 'us' and 'we' form songs more powerful and uniting than those that come from a room full of 'me's and 'I's.
Because we are aware of all of this we make sure to keep the 1st person singular songs to a minimum, limiting it to 1 or 2 of our 5ish weekly selections. Keeping it at that 20%-40% max (compared to 76% of the top 25) has helped us draw most everyone in, even the people who don't like the style of our music, or my voice, or whatever. It is unifying both practically and theologically.
Perhaps you have heard the old hymn Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior. I loved this hymn but didn't want to use it very often due to the inward focused lyrics. So what I did was simply shifted all of the pronouns that were in the 1st person singular to 1st person plural. Voila! I give you Pass Us Not O Gentle Savior.
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Now, it doesn't usually work this neatly with every song, but in this case it has become one of the most sung, beloved, and powerful selections we sing together. What a humble and unifying prayer!
Take notes at your worship gatherings for a month. How many of the songs you sing come from a voice of I or me? How many of them come from us and we? Compare this to the 76% that represent the most used songs these days. Can you, one of your pastors, or worship leaders be aware of this trend? If you are able to try something else do you see any change in involvement, participation, or impact on your community? I'm interested to hear your experiences.
A Note about the Psalms
After my post last week several people asked what a similar analysis of the Psalms might look like. In preparation for this post I began going through and making notes of who was talking to who and what I found was dizzying. Unlike pretty much every song we might sing in worship today, the Psalms change person seemingly at random. Therefore when I began making notes for each individual psalm it became easier to note which voices weren't represented rather than which ones were. Some suggest that this could be reflecting the responsive nature of the Psalm between an officiant and a congregation. If anything like this is true then I think it makes even more sense for us to be aware of how our songs use pronouns and what they say both orally and theologically. We will look at the Psalms more in depth in later posts.
In two weeks we will look at some strategies on how to make the music and the worship gathering topic match up a bit better.
This is part of a series called Sunday Noise which is aimed at helping pastors, lay leaders, music directors, and worship leaders begin to think critically and creatively about the music in their worship gatherings.