Sunday, 9 November 2014

Singing Contemporary Worship Songs Eschatologically

One of the problems I have with some contemporary Christian worship songs is the apparent dominance of ‘I will . . .’ language. Sometimes, these words are used in ways that, if I sang them, simply wouldn’t be true:

I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God.
I will sing my praise to you with the lyre, with the lyre.

© Ian White, 1987

I appreciate the allusions to Scripture, but I can’t play the harp or the lyre, and so I’m made out to be a liar if I harp on about playing them. But this use of ‘I will . . .’ isn’t really an issue for me. My reservations arise more from songs such as this one:

I will offer up my life in spirit and truth,
pouring out the oil of love as my worship to you.
In surrender I must give my every part;
Lord, receive the sacrifice of a broken heart.

© Matt Redman, 1994

Or this one:

I will only worship you,
there’s nothing I want more than to be with you,
more and more I love you, Lord.
The only one I bow before,
I worship you with all that you’ve put in me
this is what you made me for.

© Nathan Fellingham & Adrian Watts, 1997

The sentiments, I’m sure, are genuine; but, personally, I can’t really sing these songs without realising how rarely – how I never, in fact – live up to these words. No matter how much I intend to offer up my life, no matter how much I desire to worship God alone, I just can’t (or won’t). And so, unlike the earlier song about harps and lyres, singing these kinds of songs trouble me more than those that simply adopt biblical phrases or imagery.

But recently I happened to hear, for the first time in years, David Ruis’s I will worship with all of my heart (© 1991), and I found myself listening and (dare I say it?) worshipping. I don’t have a problem with this song; but why not? It follows a similar kind of lyrical pattern to the Redman and Fellingham/Watts songs mentioned above; so, for consistency’s sake, I should have at least some reservations about singing the Ruis one. But I don’t.

I have to admit from the outset that I suppose a large reason for singing I will worship is that I find the tune tolerable; all right, I like it. To take Redman’s I will offer up my life as my foil, I don’t like its melody. This means I’m already more inclined to give Ruis a listen than Redman. But it occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, I interpret Ruis’s song eschatologically; that is, while at the moment I cannot sing the words ‘I will worship with all of my heart’ entirely truthfully (and surely nobody can claim genuinely to worship with all of his or her heart, soul, strength, mind, or being), one day I will be able to sing this in all truthfulness and sincerity. And so, by singing ‘I will worship with all of my heart’ now, I reason that I’m expressing my desire to worship wholeheartedly and am somehow participating, through the Spirit, in the worship of the age to come. Of course, this means that I should also be able to sing I will offer up my life and I will only worship you from the same kind of eschatological position, so it’s only my musical tastes that prevent me from singing these songs.  It may also mean that, in the age to come, I’ll have a new-found ability to play the harp and lyre . . .


  1. Interesting stuff Mr T. I have very mixed views on contemporary worship songs at the moment, many of which I do only like because of the music, and often despite their rather dubious lyrical and theological content.

    With the 'I will give you absolutely everything' / 'You're everything to me and I don't need anything else' type songs, if I sing them at all it's aspirationally... which I suppose is a bit like singing them eschatologically. And I'll quite often change the words to 'may I' or 'let me', so it becomes a prayer rather than a declaration.

    I can see the place of these great promises of utter and eternal devotion, but I think they often need to be interpreted rather poetically and not taken too literally...

    But I look forward to hearing your lyre-playing in the age to come.

    1. I guess 'aspirational' could match 'eschatological', Harvey, though I'd see the latter as being something more objective and grounded in the Spirit's action. 'Aspirational', to me at least, seems grounded more in our own hopes, desires, and intentions.

      But when it comes down to it, and putting it cynically, I can't help but wonder if what we see as true worship basically boils down to whether or not we like something. Sigh. . .

    2. You're right of course about the difference between eschatological and aspirational... but I think I do sing them aspirationally rather than eschatologically, to my discredit.

      I certainly find it easier to worship through some songs than others, and I'm sure that a lot of it comes down to taste and style. But then I think that music can in itself help bring us into God's presence (which is probably a deeply pagan idea but never mind), so in some ways the lyrics and the tune can almost operate independently. Maybe.

  2. I don't know if it's a deeply pagan idea (though I suspect you jest by using this phrase), but for me it raises the question about instrumental music and how it's used in a service. There's also the kind of dissonance that comes through a mismatch of lyrics and music, too - think of something like The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma. Granted, we don't sing this too often in church, but for me, anyway, it has fairly depressing lyrics set to a fairly bouncy tune. In a church service, is this kind of dissonance to be encouraged or is it entirely out of place? Hmm.

    1. I don't *really* think it's deeply pagan, but the idea that music can help usher us into God's presence might raise a few Christian eyebrows - only the Word of God / The Holy Spirit / Jesus can do that! ;)

      Lyrical/musical dissonance is an interesting question... one worship song that I particularly hate is 'I'm gonna trust in God', which contains the line 'Oh when the cares of life seem overwhelming and my heart is sinking down' to the most tritely jaunty little tune imaginable. I'm not sure dissonance is wrong and I think it can be used creatively (as with the Smiths perhaps), but often it's just there because of poor craftsmanship.

      As I think we've talked about in the past, I would love to see a wider range of topics and emotions explored in church music, with space for darkness and anger and lament and even fairly taboo ideas - even if not in congregational worship perhaps.

    2. 'Even fairly taboo ideas' - what do you have in mind here?