Another Song About Me?

Written by Jason Winton : March 18, 2008

worshiphand.jpgI wanted to let you all in on a conversation I was having this afternoon with some friends of mine about worship music. To fully disclose my bias—and it’s probably not much of a secret to those that know me—I have been trying to make sense of my evangelical worship tradition (not merely about the music) for a while now—maybe ever since I was a kid. In fact, I distinctly remember my 7-year-old self sitting in the front row pew of Neighborhood church in Redding, Calif. singing along with the “song director,” Pastor Joe, learning to mimic his fluent hand gestures, seeing myself as co-directing our choir of voices, and wanting to be just like him. Despite the pull I often felt then (and continue to feel now), my experiences with worship music in an Evangelical setting have been too often painfully distracting about the most important things. I love to sing and to freely express myself in music and song and lyric—especially at church—however, the more I’ve encountered the limits of those very worship songs I have grown up with, the more I’ve wanted to move beyond their tunnel vision of American Christianity. The real issue, for me, isn’t simply a resistance to a style of music, but instead a search into, around, through and beyond some of the most fundamental questions/doubts I have had about what some are calling the contemporary “worship industry.” More specifically—and aside from the ominous commercial tones that come from such a term—I have been bothered and saddened by the apparent domestication of our gospel to sappy pseudo-psychological, over-spiritualized, and hyper-individualistic worship songs. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to get a conversation started about the kind of culture we’ve created/are creating as we sing our songs in worship?

This most recent reimagining of worship music started when my friends and I fed some homeless folks at the Jesus Center (a local soup kitchen and recovery house offering hospitality in Chico, Calif.) and it has stayed with me since then. Both during and following that event, I began reflecting about the worship songs I had sung there and I suddenly realized how very limited (in terms of theological and moral imagination) my song choices had been. That is, as long as I stayed within the boundaries of our most popular contemporary worship songs, I sensed there would be something very important and needful missing. These songs, generally speaking, seemed to almost always fall short of or even distort what the Bible clearly included in most (if not all) of its sacred narrative. At the Jesus Center I found myself wanting something more from the songs and, frustratingly, I pretty much knew I would be searching for it without much hope of finding what I was looking for.

It was there that I started wondering and asking questions like these: Could it be that our songs lack the real stuff of life—especially in their spiritualized (i.e., disembodied) themes? Will their messages be a truly authentic alternative for the lives lived by most of the homeless folks at the Jesus Center (who in a lot of ways may not be as interested as you or I in having a deeply personal/intimate mental or emotional worship experience)? I persisted with more questions: God must have had more in mind for our worship music than the self-centered stereotypic songs about how much we love God, how much He loves us (spiritually, that is), and how great it is to be saved, right? How has this sanitized version of God’s all-inclusive dreams for the world crept its way into our worship services? Will we ever get beyond self-absorbed mental massages and romantic (self-congratulatory?) love songs about Jesus? Or will we ever get into deeper missional stories about Love’s embodiment within our local households and communities?

The majority of the contemporary worship songs I have come across seem to exclusively offer a dualistic (that is, unearthly) and individualized (that is, private) version of the Bible’s message, which, unfortunately, set theological (that is, practical) limits to one’s real relationships-in-community as well as how we understand the world God finds utterly loveable (see John 3:16). The social, contextual, and/or historical notes and themes found throughout the Bible’s poems, narratives, letters, and prophecies—along with our current struggles and longings for community—turn out to be strangely absent and/or passive in our contemporary music. It’s as if God were only interested in our personal well-being (i.e., prosperity), on the one hand, and our disembodied soul in heaven (i.e., abstract security) on the other! Especially for our homeless friends—who may just want to get something to eat or to find a “fix” that will satisfy their addictions (or perhaps to give us middle-class White folks a few awkward moments!)—the language of self-love probably rings a bit incomplete. After all, do our songs really include them? When we apparently (and unwittingly) baptize/mythologize a Jesus who dresses himself up in the American Dream, how could we expect anything different? When we present God as someone who ultimately only shows concern for our individual mental (or spiritual) state and wants nothing more than to tell us how His sacrifice made possible a salvation after we’re dead, why would homeless folks give a shit? It’s not that I’m questioning the goodness of our worship music per se, just that something significant occurred in me as I sang some of my favorite worship tunes in that context.

Truthfully, though, I’m a hypocrite. In fact, I say God concerns himself with our whole lives as members, participants, and co-creators in His Kingdom. I try to embody Jesus’ revolutionary and holistic Way (Luke 4:18-19). But most of my favorite Evangelical worship songs were created in a spiritual vacuum of sorts (more or less Gnostic). So, when it comes to what the Empire is selling, I am one of the first to get in line—quickly seduced by the consumer culture of greed made spiritual through poor lyrics.

This realization of mine begs certain questions for me to wrestle with. For example, how different could my worship culture be if the songs I sing grew locally out of a particular context instead of from foreign impositions by placeless psychology or self-help reading? In other words, can we create art that is both spiritually incarnational and deeply sacred? The Hebrew and New Testament scriptures seem to demonstrate local and traditional (i.e., native) ways to prophetically reimagine culture and truth in light of God’s ongoing dreams for His creation. How can we embrace this model, on the one hand, and get past the cultural/political/economic traps set for us on the other? Who would want to be known for a culture (famous for their artistic expression) which ignored or, worse yet, tacitly endorsed the very tools used for destroying neighbors and communities? I know I must sound crazy—and I’ve likely exaggerated my case in order to make a point—but what I’m getting at is this. Maybe it’s time we write some new worship songs that are more shaped by Christ’s mission in our place. Want to experiment with me?

Author Bio:: Jason is married to a beautiful Peruvian gal named Julissa (who, incidentally, knows how to make the best ‘comida peruana’ in the whole wide world!). His current life consists of grad school, work, and procrastination–the real work of any serious student!

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    I think it's funny how worship songs come across, oftentimes, as hyper-sexual.

    Jesus, lover of my soul???
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    The original "Jesus lover of my soul" is several hundred years old. I'm all for the careful use of erotic language to talk about our relationship with God. But when it becomes trite and filtered through the narcissistic tendencies of 21st century USA, I get a bit queasy.
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    I think some of the individulistic songs are ok, especially if they help people stand before God as an individual during worship. What we need is a balance. As usual, it's not either/or here, but both/and. Some songs should be thrown out all together to achieve what you are aiming at, but perhaps some of the older songs we tend to rail on actually do serve a purpose.

    The first step would be to use the imagination and create songs in particular contexts rather than always playing the latest Chris Tomlin track or David Crowder rift. These songs are good, but that's not the point. I may be in the minority, but I actually think the last 10 years have brought about a decent change in worship lyrics and emphasis that wasn't there a decade or so ago. But there is still room to grow, and I think it starts with local artists and local church families coming together to create a worship environment/music that is contextual and relevant to their particular fold.
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    Thanks for the wonderful article. I have a feeling that the rootedness of there being more than just a "personal relationship" between God and us is happening primarily at the academic level. It is being taught by frustrated professors who want their students to understand what the bible actually says. In the American church, where average men and woman gather everyday, most do not have the exegetical tools available to them to understand scripture in the deep way that you have described above. They do have exegetical lenses, they are simply different than the ones that we "learned" students have because we have had the privilege of years and years of theological training in our fields. I have this feeling that there are enough people writing about change (myself included), but the average man or woman who goes to these churches is not surfing the net for good blogs on the subject of reading Jesus Manifesto.

    The average man or woman is working, taking care of a family, attempting to do their best to keep a hold on their own spirituality (much less the spirituality of others). When they come together for these "small groups" the Bible study that happens is within their context. They don't have language to describe the word in the beauty and depth that Jason has described above, so what are we supposed to do? If we tried to take these messages into the church, they would probably be shot down by a skeptical elder board or pastor who doesn't want to change from the way things have always been. If we try and introduce all of these new terms that we have learned at seminary or Christian college, we will be accused of invading the sacred world of the church will too much secularized university non-sense that makes the Bible too "heady."

    What can we do, then, practically to change the life-blood of the church. Do we change it from the inside? If we cannot change it from the inside, do we leave the established church? If we leave the established church, are we given up on all those people (most over 30) who simply have a different mindset about the bible? Is their mindset wrong? These are all questions that I have no answers to, but I want to start a meaningful dialogue about them.
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    i'm struggling with the individualism big time..
    it makes picking some music for sundays extremely taxing.

    i think i trashed about 15 songs for good in just this week alone.
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    Danny, not to plug my own writing, but did you check out the piece I did a few weeks back about the "fringe" vs. the "mainstream?" If not, check out the discussion between Mark and myself (mostly, with a few others thrown in as well). We hit on some of the things you are trying to think through and figure out. Of course, we didn't come up with an answer, that would be too easy!
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    Micheal Cline: Good point about some of the older more individualistic worship songs! Fashionable music, after all, will cost you something (even it gets the label “emergent”). Reminds me of somasoul’s funny piece this week. Have you ever noticed how Catholic hymnals are full of songs and music that cover very broad and rich biblical ground? I went to a spanish mass a few years ago (on Easter no less) and was blown away by the depth and authenticity as they sang about creation, the nations, hope, and justice. Where do you find the best contemporary worship music?

    Danny: Do we leave the established church? I’m not going to. At least not yet. Is their mindest wrong? Yes and no…we all are in a way. I just get tired of hearing song after song about me.
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    Hey Mark,
    When you get the editors you want, how about someone for music that could link a good song a week with maybe a critique on the band, song, etc. Some of the music video you've posted, I can't make out the words.

    I have been struck in reading the psalms by how much anger and anguish there is. I've never gotten that emotional diversity in a church service. Most of the time worship is considered a "celebration". There have been periods of time in my life where I just couldn't connect with the "happy all the time" fascade that many (particularly immature) Christians feel they need to project. I needed a place I could cry out to God in anger. It seems to me that many of the songs that draw from the psalms kind of pick and choose only the hopeful, joyful refrains. But those joyful refrains are much more meaningful when contrasted with the rough earthy cries of the rest of the psalm.

    I know there is a lot more variety in Christian music these days than what I get at Church or on the radio. Is there a good website I can visit to find the variety and depth I'm looking for?
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    Hey Maria. I'll give it some thought.

    Interestingly, on Sunday (Palm Sunday), we did singing a bit different. We sung Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (The song was made popular by Rufus Wainswright's version on the Shrek soundtrack...though Jeff Buckley's version is one of the best songs ever. Serious.)

    The emphasis of the evening was that the Triumphal Entry was something of a mockery. We sang this song to express our sense of broken, fickle, failure before the Lord of Song:

    I heard there was a secret chord
    that david played and it pleased the lord
    but you don't really care for music, do you
    well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
    the minor fall and the major lift
    the baffled king composing hallelujah

    hallelujah (4x)

    well there was a time when you let me know
    what's really going on below
    but now you never show that to me do you
    but remember when i moved in you
    and the holy dove was moving too
    and every breath we drew was hallelujah

    hallelujah (4x)

    well, maybe there's a god above
    but all i've ever learned from love
    was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
    it's not a cry that you hear at night
    it's not somebody who's seen the light
    it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

    hallelujah (4x)

    I did my best, it wasn't much
    I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
    I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
    And even though
    It all went wrong
    I'll stand before the Lord of Song
    With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

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    By the way, you can hear Jeff Buckley's version here:

    Seriously. This song (and his song Grace) are amazing.
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    I really enjoyed your aritcle. And the posted comments all have valid point. The hyper-sexual thing is pretty clever. To put my two cents in, I believe whatever or however a person is better to understand their relationship with God can't be wrong.

    Royality free music at
    Royality Free Music

    Accompaniment Backing Tracks at

    Accompaniment Backing Tracks
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    Thanks J, once again you still the heart and mind of us all. Take worship out of the normal Sunday morning services and what do you have. Hopefully some folks out there singing to God in a real way. Not influenced by culture power-points or fancy band settings. Just us sharing to God our love and relationship with him, and sharing of the love that has been poured out, for all those around us to share.

    Worship whether us or God focused, is beautiful when your sittin in the jesus center and the homeless gather around to sing some oldies or one maybe they wrote on their own. God always sees the heart. That is where i must daily place myself to be true in my heart of worship. Whether sitting with family friends, strangers or the community at large.

    As always we still have a lot to learn. May we always stay "teachable".
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    Hey J>>Tim and I led worship at the Jesus Center a few years ago when I still lived in Chico. Remembering back, my experience was much the same. We started playing the songs we usually did when leading worship at a church or youth event, and it just felt like the songs fell flat...not so much with the people...but in my own heart, because they felt so irrelevant. I remember struggling to find a song that "fit."

    Also...I can relate to what Darny wrote about the average church-goer and the things on their minds...that feels like my life these days. It just goes to show how different the average church goers life really is from the homeless. Maybe if there were some songs out there that were different, it would connect the two.

    On another, but similar note, I've been searching for a church to go to out here in the Twin Cities...and finding it really difficult. Ironically, when we visit a church that sings a song that is familiar to us (i.e. one of the popular songs of the day), it's nice. At the same time, when those songs get sung week after week, they begin to feel boring and shallow. My take is...even if this thing gets figured out on the fringes, its going to take another 30 yrs for it to hit mainstream. And by then, it will be outdated anyway. So what do you do?


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