I have found myself struggling more and more with the worship songs I come across in different churches. I struggle for all sorts of reasons, and no doubt some of this reflects me and my issues...
This week I listened to a song on a newly released Hillsong album. I want to commend this song to you, and give some reasons for why I think it's great, and hopefully that will be a constructive way of adding my voice to the conversation around worship music.
Here's a video with the song and the lyrics:
King Of Kings:
In the darkness we were waiting
Without hope without light
Till from heaven You came running
There was mercy in Your eyes
To fulfil the law and prophets
To a virgin came the Word
From a throne of endless glory
To a cradle in the dirt
Praise the Father
Praise the Son
Praise the Spirit three in one
God of glory
Praise forever to the King of Kings
To reveal the kingdom coming
And to reconcile the lost
To redeem the whole creation
You did not despise the cross
For even in Your suffering
You saw to the other side
Knowing this was our salvation
Jesus for our sake You died
And the morning that You rose
All of heaven held its breath
Till that stone was moved for good
For the Lamb had conquered death
And the dead rose from their tombs
And the angels stood in awe
For the souls of all who’d come
To the Father are restored
And the Church of Christ was born
Then the Spirit lit the flame
Now this gospel truth of old
Shall not kneel shall not faint
By His blood and in His Name
In His freedom I am free
For the love of Jesus Christ
Who has resurrected me
So, why do I like this song?
1) It tells the big broad story of the gospel
Narrative is really helpful for conveying meaning and understanding, and I agree with
David Lose, as he wrote this in his book - Preaching at the Crossroads:
The challenge... is not primarily the need to bolster biblical literacy, as if knowledge of biblical quotations, places, and names were the issue. Rather, we need to develop in our congregations a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story such that it can inform, shape, and assist our daily living. We struggle, that is, not simply with a lack of biblical knowledge but rather with an impoverished biblical imagination.
I think we need to train ourselves into seeing and imagining the world we live in through the lenses of the Bible. This includes all sorts of practices, and singing together through this narrative story is a great practice.
I'm not saying that every worship song needs to go methodically through a narrative arc of creation, fall, incarnation, cross, church, new creation... But we should come away from the body of songs we sing over time (and ideally the songs we sing on any given weekly church gathering) with a clear sense of this narrative story. Such a clear sense, in fact, that we're so familiar with this story that it 'informs, shapes, and assists our daily living'. We need to train ourselves to 'live into' this story.
2) It portrays 'us fitting into God's story', not 'God fitting into my story'
I'm worried about the narcissism that a lot of worship songs are colluding with and contributing towards. Again and again we sings songs that reinforce a story where 'I' am at the centre of all things. Our self-centredness is part of the problem that God's wants to save us out of, so that we can live our lives orbiting around God, living in his story.
Think of the story of the Bible: Adam and Eve fail to live out God's mandate, and then God reboots the covenant relationship with Abraham's family, which eventually becomes the people of Israel. This people (plural!) also fails to live out what God calls them to be - a blessing/light to the nations of God's love and righteousness. Then Jesus, does what Israel fails to do; Jesus becomes the New Israel, and all humanity is invited to become a part of the New Israel through faith in Jesus and his life, death and resurrection.
So, salvation then comes through being a part of a redeemed people through what Jesus has done. We need to be careful using language like 'Jesus is my personal Lord and saviour' if we're making it say what the Bible doesn't say.
This song doesn't get to 'I' until the third to last line. It starts with 'us' and 'our' need, moves to Jesus' cosmic redeeming acts, and then places the individual in that story.
Also, I love the cosmic scope of this song: 'To redeem the whole creation'. We are not saved from this world; we are saved for this world. It will one day be renewed and renovated into the New Creation, but our ultimate hope is not that we will one day leave earth to go to some ethereal, immaterial heaven. But our hope is in life after life after death (NT Wright's phrase), which will mean living in resurrected bodies in a renovated, redeemed cosmos.
(If that's a crazy new idea to you, beloved reader.... yes... I agree! It is a crazy idea! But that's what I believe started, in a sense, when Jesus rose from the grave in bodily form).
3) It is emotional, without a momentary experience being the main goal
Some songs seem to me like the main goal of singing the song is either to have some sort of momentary emotional or ecstatic experience right then, or to get the 'breakthrough' of what we want in our lives through our singing of the songs and 'declaring' things. Having these things focussed on and emphasised so centrally in our worship seems misguided to me.
In this song, the 'telos' (the ultimate goal, aim, destination) is centred around Jesus, his incarnation and redemptive, cosmic work through the cross and his resurrection. I find this song emotional, but that doesn't feel like the end in itself. This song seems more concerned about reforming how I view and engage with the world, than making me feel happy for a couple moments.
4) It puts 'victory' within the biblical context
Sometimes I wonder what the 'victory' is that some songs are singing about. Is it any challenge we face? Any suffering or inconvenience in our lives? It seems odd, to me, to presume 1) that we might not face these things, or that 2) singing about victory over them is somehow victory over them.
Victory in this song (King of Kings) is not victory over any discomforts I may be experiencing in my life... Victory is not 'victory over my financial problems' or 'victory over my horrible boss' or 'victory over my difficult children'.... (we can, of course, discover the person and presence of Jesus in the midst of all these situations)
"For the Lamb had conquered death"
Victory in this song sits within the biblical framework, where victory is Jesus' triumph over sin, Satan and death through his loving, sacrificial death on the cross. In this context, and in this Biblical story, we celebrate victory in that death and evil will not have the last word! Jesus has absorbed the full fury and power of evil, and he rose again on the third day. And, by faith, we believe that we will rise again after death and live in a cosmos where sin and evil has been judged and dealt with in some final sense.
Whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts above, I hope this blog post causes you to think carefully and intentionally about sung worship. I think these are good questions for us to have as we work out what and how to sing our worship together:
is this song helping shape and transform me to be more Christlike, and to 'live into' God's big story?
does the 'narrative', or 'perspective' of this worship song resemble that of the Bible's overarching narrative, or does it more resemble the prevalent worldview(s) in culture I live in?
If singing worship songs together shapes who we are becoming, and who we are becoming shapes the world (to a greater or lesser degree), what sort of world is this song creating?