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.