September 22, 2014 by Austin McNair
Last week I read a post called “Stop Singing Oceans.” Oceans is a beautiful worship song and, in the article, the author tells us to not sing the lyrics if we are “not living the life.” But I think the allure of her main point comes from a place of guilt, not grace.
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders. Let me walk upon the waters, wherever you may call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander. And my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my savior.”
Above are the lyrics that the author is particularly nervous about. In her words, “If you ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to where your trust is without borders, do you really mean that?” This is a good question considering how often Christians sing some pretty bold lyrics towards God. There are many songs which fit into that category. Here are some others that I love:
These are songs in which the singer is being very forthright in their commitment to participate in all God has for them. So then let’s consider the question again: Should Christians be singing certain songs if the way they live their lives doesn’t quite correspond with the heaviness of the lyrics they’ve sung?
Why Do We Sing?
One reason why this question makes me hesitate is because it places too much value on the rational mind and not enough value on how we subjectively interpret art. The question assumes that singing is a rational activity where the singer is constantly engaged with an objective understanding of a song’s meaning. But isn’t singing more than that?
Music is art, and like all other art forms, there is a subjective conversation happening between the art itself and an individual’s consciousness. Consider one of the songs I posted above: While one person could be singing a well-meant “All I need is you” as a declaration of commitment to God, the person standing next to them may be singing “All I need is you” from a place of need. Two experiences from the same five words.
We sing music because in ministers to the deeper realms of our imaginations where information and rationality cannot reach. We sing songs because we believe that it can partner with the Holy Spirit to shape us in places that outside of our rational control. Music touches the murky places of the soul.
Grace Over Guilt
“Stop Singing Oceans” carries a fear that if we sing something that we do not mean all the time then God will be displeased. But that sounds a lot like slavery and guilt. God has set us free from that. He’s well aware that we often do not live up to everything we say, but there is grace for us.
Dallas Willard said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”
In grace, God partners with our effort. So am I lying when I sing “All I need is you” when obviously we all want multiple things out of life? I don’t think so. Because in those moments, when I can taste the goodness of his Kingdom, the lyric is true – ALL I WANT IS HIM.
Do not feel guilty for singing songs. The lyrics may be heavy, and you will not be able to live up to them all the time, but let’s pray that God uses those words to form us from the inside out to become more like His son.
Oceans and Leading Worship
Back to Oceans. In the lyrics, we ask the Holy Spirit to lead us to a place where our trust extends so deeply into His will that we would faithfully to cross any barriers God wants us to overcome. Those are beautiful words and I want to be a part of a church which passionately seeks to grow towards meaning them. Our lives may not be there yet, but with God’s help we are moving there. And the can song helps.
So while I disagree with the main point of the article, I want to finish by acknowledging that I think it does raises a good conversation for worship leaders. When it comes to designing a worship service and selecting songs, are we keeping the following questions in mind?
- Was this song chosen because its popular or because it fits in with the theme of the service?
- Does the congregation understand what the lyrics mean and why you chose the song?
- Are people seeing how what we are singing fits into the greater narrative of the Christian story?
More than anyone, I think it is the worship leader’s responsibility make sure people understand what the lyrics mean. But after that let’s leave it in God’s graceful hands. We should not be trying to enforce which songs people can sing based off of how they live their lives. That is not our role. Our role is to faithfully walk with Jesus as best we can and to empower others to do the same.
So keep singing Oceans, and let’s pray that we become a people who would follow Jesus across any border to bring God’s love to the world. Amen.