Here’s a very long piece I wrote for the Cedarview magazine – The Chronicle. Enjoy….
“You’re all I want. You’re all I’ve ever needed.”
“I’m desperate for You.
“Hold me close. Let your love surround me.”
“My soul longs, even faints for you.”
“Beautiful one, I adore. Beautiful one I love.”
No, these aren’t lyrics from the Top 40 love songs. These are lyrics from songs that we’ve sung as a congregation here at Cedarview. I could just as easily sing any of those lyrics to my wife as I could in a praise song to Jesus. Is there anything wrong with that?
I’ve been reading a lot about the use of romantic imagery in worship song lyrics. David Murrow’s “Why Men Hate Going to Church” identifies romantic imagery in worship songs as a major turn-off for men (pardon the pun). A recent book entitled “The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship” devotes two chapters to this issue. This is an issue we must grapple within our own community at Cedarview.
In Murrow’s book he claims that men have a difficult time relating to Jesus with romantic imagery. For instance, men don’t typically refer to each other as “beautiful.” We live in a hyper-sexualized society. Much of the humour in pop-culture is centered on sexual double-entendre. We are programmed to listen for them. Many wholesome words and expressions in our language have been rendered unusable because they have taken on a strong sexual connotation. This tendency to be wary of sexual connotation causes the red lights to go on for many men when they sing (or stand silently while their wives sing) many of our contemporary worship songs. Of course some men have no problem separating the romantic connotations from the sincere expressions of worship contained in these songs. For other men it is a major barrier to entering into the worship.
As a worship leader who wants to engage men in meaningful worship, what should I do? One option is to do away with all overtly romantic lyrics in worship songs. This “scorched earth” approach would solve the problem for some men, but it would also rob the church from some wonderful songs that allow many of us to voice our love and adoration for Christ. A second approach would be to ignore the problem. One could argue that this barrier is the problem of some men and of our society. I suppose that is true, but I also think that ignoring the needs of a significant population of our church isn’t what Christ had in mind for us as believers. I think that balance is the key. If we look at the Psalms we see a very wide variety of expressions of praise – some quite intimate and sensuous (for example, “as the deer pants for water, so my soul longs for you”). But these intimate utterances are placed among a wide variety of other expressions, including telling of God’s salvific works, describing God’s attributes, petitioning God to act, proclaiming truths about God, etc. The intimate and sensual lyrics in the Psalms seem to be the exception rather than the rule. When I’m looking for new songs for us to sing at Cedarview I try to keep this balance in mind.
Are there any ill effects of overly romantic worship songs among women? In her chapter in “The Message in the Music”, Jenell Williams Paris writes about the effects of the western romantic ideal that is often superimposed on our spirituality. This phenomenon is reinforced by an abundance of romantic imagery in modern worship music (I should note that romantic imagery is not merely a modern development. Over 200 years ago John Wesley penned “Jesus, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly”. Don’t expect to sing that one on a Sunday morning any time soon). In this romantic view of our spirituality Jesus is cast as the leading man and we humans are cast as the leading lady. The leading man does all the work and the leading lady is very passive. She merely pines for the leading man to sweep her off her feet. This is hardly the kingdom-building partnership that Jesus calls us to. Another problem with this model is the romantic ideal of “riding off into the sunset together.” Christ does not sweep us off our feet and then take us away to live happily ever after. He comes into our life and empowers us to bring redemption to the broken and pain-filled world around us.
But aren’t we all the bride of Christ? I have heard more than one young single woman say that “Jesus is my husband.” As a theological statement this is not completely correct. The church is the bride of Christ – all of us together are a single bride of Christ. Jesus doesn’t have a harem. However, I think the sentiment that is perhaps expressed in that statement is that Christ’s grace is sufficient for all our desires and longings. That is certainly true. Blurring the lines between human romantic relationships and our relationship with Christ leads us into some dubious territory.
The songs we sing have an enormous influence on the nature of our relationship with God. There are dangers when we overly romanticize this relationship. There are also dangers when we overly intellectualize this relationship. May God grant our worship leaders and composers great wisdom and powerful anointing as they shape our worship experiences. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.