Rant 3: No I don’t Want to Take the “I” out of Worship

A common complaint about recent worship music is that there is far too much focus on the first person (on the individual), and not enough focus on God, or on the community in which we worship. Strangely, the “proof” offered to support the perception of this as a “problem” is generally the number of worship songs that use the first person singuar in their lyrics. I actually think this complaint is, more often than not, both misdirected and misinformed.

Do I think we need songs that focus on who God is and what he’s done. Of course I do. That’s why we have so many of them.

Do I think we need more worship songs that use the first person plural to describe our communal relationship with Christ, as his gathered body? Absolutely. Please go write some right now.

Do I think that the majority of “contemporary worship songs” are self-centered because they use the first person singular? Nope. I think that’s a load of “something.” And here’s why:

I was taught, rightly I think, that I could have a personal relationship with Christ. As far as I know, the only way to express a personal relationship with Christ in worship is to use the first and second person singular in concert. So what makes us assume that singing in this way is selfish?  That’s reason one.

When we sing “I” as a congregation, the “I” gets twisted into a “we” anyways. It’s simple semantics. A group of individuals singing in unison is just that: a group. Singing “I” in unison, in the context of a worship service, is actually an amazing statement of unity that does not subsume the individual, but honours diversity. That’s reason two.

Guess what? The vast majority of Psalms use the first person singular. Should we throw them out, do you think? This is not a contemporary phenomenon. There is no era of Christian (or Hebrew!) music that did not use the first person singular. That’s reason three.

Now, I understand that we live in an individualistic society, and that therefore the church (especially in North America and Europe) must fight against the tendency to promote an individualistic faith. We are not to stand alone. We are to live, and move, and breathe within the community of faith that is, unified, the body of Christ. But I don’t think changing all the “I’s” to “we’s” is how we fight individualism (after all, as I already said, a group of “I’s” necessarily form a “we”).

With our use of pronouns in worship, as in so many aspects of the Christian faith, we walk a fine line. We do not want to be individualistic and lose the strength of community (as we fill in for each other’s weaknesses and compound each other’s strengths). We also, however, do not want to lose our individual strengths in a giant melting-pot body in which a hand can do as well as a toe when one is trying to balance on a high wire. To live that way would simply not be functional. Neither do we want to be a faith of mindless drones that act, move, dress, and speak in exactly the same way. To live that way would be to utterly fail to reach a diverse world.

In conclusion… please stop asking me if I don’t think there are far too many worship songs these days that speak of “I” rather than of “we.” I don’t think that. Not in the slightest.

17 Comments

  1. Reason 2 is all about context, isn’t it. We all hear this a lot and I always remind people that, in our church, we sing “I” in a room with 700 people.

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    1. It’s definitely about context. At some point I will write a post on why people need to go to church (even though you can worship Christ anywhere). The collective “I” into “we” is one reason. It sounds a whole lot different, and means a whole lot more when 700 people are singing it with you.

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  2. I led worship under a pastor who was always trying to change the “I” songs to “We” songs (and encouraging people to sing different lyrics than I printed). I was always pushing back saying that we need the personal and the communal and that in the Christian sense personal is never private. Churches often recite two ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed says we, but the older Apostles Creed says I. I think we need both.

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    1. I confess that I do sometimes change “I” to “we” in a song… but not often – and usually not the whole song. It is a useful tool to pull out when you want to clue people in to the point that their collective “I” is a “we.” But if one was to make that change with every song (or even with most), I think we’d lose an essential element of our faith. Two creeds. I like it.

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  3. Well, well. I finally disagree (in part) with you. I never expected this! I’m known to complain in just this way, but I would be disappointed if my complaint was understood to be about the pronoun itself – that would be to miss the point. It’s the whole trajectory of the “I” song (shorthand language) that displaces worship focus from honouring God to declaring our (heartfelt) feelings/commitments/loyalty to God. Now I know that as soon as I write that last sentence, it looks like the kind of thing that someone will say “well, what’s wrong with that…” And the answer is nothing – at least not in proportion. But I’m getting tired of worship sets where the overall majority of text is declaring something true about MY feelings, and MY commitments, and MY loyalty, and telling almost nothing about God’s story – for we know God in history (just like we know any other person). Some creative adjectives just don’t cut it (see “amazing God, beautiful God, powerful God” – all true, but not really distinctively Christian adjectives – they could be used of almost any god). Last point – all that declaration about the MY statements above often just makes a liar out of me. The truth is I won’t be faithful, loyal or passionate – I likely won’t make it to Monday (or out of the building) without falling flat on most of what I’ve just sung. Why not focus instead of what’s actually true – God’s faithfulness, my (imperfect) love for God, and his (ongoing) redemptive work, and leave the heartfelt but bogus “I” declarations (I will follow, I will ….) out of the picture, or at least place them in the minor role they deserve.

    There – my rant is over. Thanks for the stimulating post!

    Reply

    1. Excellent – a debate with Kim! *rubs hands together*

      As I understand it, you make three points:

      First: the majority of worship songs “displace the worship focus from honouring God to declaring our (heartfelt) feelings/commitments/loyalty to God.” My response to this would be to say that worship is, primarily, our response to God’s story – so you can’t take that out of the equation. Many, many psalms express personal feelings, commitments etc. Of course, many also focus on God’s story, and what God has done to deserve our praise. There are also many worship songs today that speak of God’s story and place our response to him in that context – of course, whether or not these are played frequently in a given church is another question entirely.

      Second: The adjectives we use (beautiful, amazing…) in our worship music are not distinctly Christian. I need further clarification on what you mean by this – and a few examples of “Christian adjectives” as I find myself at a loss here – especially since scripture also uses similar (if not identical) adjectives to the ones you’ve mentioned.

      Third: “I will” statements make liers out of us, as we are unable to live up to the commitments we sing on Sunday. I see your point here – but I would be loath to do away with these types of statements. I see them (and sing them as) a “reaching toward” rather than a “statement of achievement” (i.e. In this moment “I will honour you in all I do” – and I will strive toward this goal, knowing that it is only by your grace that I will meet it). Without these types of statements, I think we are tempted to aim too low. Yes, we need songs that are based in reality, but we also need a weekly push toward deeper faith.

      When it comes down to it – no one song can encapsulate our worship to God. So it is the choices of the worship leader that must strike ballance in this area. I’m looking at the songs that are out there in general – but what I say may not be true for the repetoir of songs utilized in a given congregation.

      Thanks for pushing back at me – a rant should never go unanswered by another rant! Please push back again!

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      1. Ok, here we go! You read me well – thanks! I don’t have much to say (as I begin, who knows where I’ll end up), but your last line under “First” sums it up for me – there are lots of songs, but few are actually used.

        Second – you got me there. I was short handing here – obviously there are no “Christian” adjectives – but I’m nervous when God is described in worship as amazing or beautiful – and here’s the rub – in a worship service without the backdrop of God’s story. I think we simply assume it, particularly those worship leaders who’ve been born and bred in church, and it’s just not true – many don’t know God’s story. And without it, we’re using words like “beautiful” and “amazing” that they do know, not only b/c they’re common, but also b/c they’re regularly used in particular ways in the advertising and marketing industry. And in that cultural context those words take on the hue of “super duper good” or some such semantic domain that it’d be fun to play with but I won’t b/c it would be too distracting. My point is that there is no answer to the question posed by the adjectives: why is God beautiful? What makes God amazing? Is it any different from how Tide cleans my socks….

        Third – I’m not completely opposed, as shown by my comments about placing them in a minor role. There’s a place. But I don’t find worship leaders know their place – assuming charismatic/contemporary worship here, with its repetition (and I’m not complaining about repetition) – we can liturgical have our ears repeatedly filled, song after song, not with praises for God’s great works, but our longings, commitments and (empty) promises. Personally, I’d like to see songs of commitment moved to the end of the service, particularly if a congregation sings after the sermon before the benediction. Aim high, once we’ve been filled with grace and faith, grounded again in God’s story. But we need to get the balance right – start the service with confession, proceed into praise, and end with commitment. I’m no liturgist, but that’s what I long for. Enough about me already – I’ve had to live with myself all week long. I need more, a bigger story, and a larger God.

        Back to you! :)

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        1. Hi Kim. Your point about words is well taken – but isn’t this a problem we will always have? Human adjectives in any language will never be big enough, never be deep enough to describe our God. So we are left with the words we do have – which do sound (and should?) weak when we use them to describe someone so far beyond them. All words become corrupted in some way through conotation – and I don’t think there is any way to completely avoid this. I appreciate the reference to Tide (although it doesn’t get my socks all that clean, really – I’m tough on socks). Maybe, as you suggest, the answer is to include greater detail – to use more combinations of words. Certainly in the Psalms when we hear that God is amazing we often find reams of examples of HOW he is amazing to go along with the statement.

          Your third point comes down to a topic that I frequently rant about: there is just no decent theological or liturgical training available for the vast majority of “worship leaders” out there. And without any kind of training – how does one choose songs and place them? Primarily with issues of personal preference and musical alignment in mind – and that is just simply not good enough. Not if we ACTUALLY want to lead people in worship.

          So it seems that perhaps we agree after all – but are talking on different semantic levels. It’s the demand to remove all references to the first person singular (and I have heard that demand countless times – with very little reasoned sense behind it) that I object to. I’m completely in sympathy with you when it comes to an overabundant USE of songs that speak of our emotions toward God rather than our relationship with him. Any further thoughts?

  4. I’ve just come across this interesting conversation.

    As a preacher and service leader, I believe that modern worship songs are hugely man-centred rather than God-centred, but this is regardless of the use of the first person singular.

    You can have God-centred songs with loads of uses of “I”. For example, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, And wonder how He could love me a sinner, condemned, unclean.” – God centred. “And can it be that I should gain and interest in the Saviour’s blood.” – God centred. “My Jesus, my saviour, Lord there is none like you…” – man centred.

    Many would dispute the last one, but they fail to see that the distinction is subtle and spiritual, and the only way you can tell the difference is to draw close to God and try singing them.

    Personally, I believe the number of well known Christrian songs that are worth singing that have been written since 1985 can probably be counted on one hand.

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  5. Thanks for the post, very thought provoking. I confess I’ve not usually been bothered by the use of first person singular in worship songs, provided the congregation is aware of the importance of worshiping God together as a community… however, the rant I’d probably go on would be about worship songs that narrate the actions of the worshiper (“I lift up my hands,” “I stand in awe,” “I sing your praises,” etc.) to the exclusion of actually saying anything about who God is or what he has done. If you decided to write such a rant, I’d love to read it. :)

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  6. I think we do agree after all! You know me too well to think I wouldn’t have some comment make though… :)

    I really do think that we can’t just pull out the “language is limited” card too quickly. It’s true – perhaps not everyone sees this as true, but well-trained and thoughtful folks like yourself know this intuitively. Yet I still want to make complaint here, for if language is limited, then why don’t we use more of it! I’m a little tired of the same tired adjectives appearing over and over in various worship songs, and I worry not only about the advertising connotations (what else do we describe with these superlative adjectives) but also worry about our limited vocabulary. I’m in danger of being elitist here, but I would like our worship leaders to sometimes just sit down with their set, and write out in a list what the songs are saying about God. Too often, it’ll be “great x 3”, “amazing x 10”, “beautiful x 2” – at which point do they ask themselves whether there’s too much of a good thing happening….

    Ok, I better stop there. It’s turning into another rant…

    Great post – I’ve been thinking about it all month.

    Reply

    1. Definitely didn’t mean my language comment to seem like a cop-out – I agree that we need an increase in creative writing. Part of the problem, however, is still in the song choices made, and how we lead them. A tired adjective, for example, can be freshened by a different context – or through the use of juxtaposition. That said, I agree that we do need some better corporate worship songs. It is, however, a very difficult task to write for corporate worship – to write good, deep, interesting music and lyrics that are simple enough for a group of people (and often musically uninformed people) to sing in unison. I have yet, I think, to achieve even one corporate worship song that I am pleased with. It doesn’t take much to slip into the realm of tired adjectives and well-worn musical phrases. An aweful lot of songs end up in the bin.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Kim. I thoroughly enjoyed thinking this through with you.

      Reply

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