Taking the ‘I’ out of Worship

In a previous post I argued that popular contemporary Christian music is not Jesus-centred but self-centred. I came to this conclusion by comparing New Testament (NT) hymns with today’s music and without question the former is Christocentric and the latter is egocentric.

By egocentric worship I specifically mean a predominant theme in popular Christian music where the primary subject of song lyrics is how God relates to and resolves the subjective concerns of the individual. What makes it egocentric is the focus on the individual and not primarily on Christ.

The subjective concerns of egocentric songs fall into two broad categories in Christian popular music: the affective and the effective. Affective egocentric songs are about the individual’s emotional state. Now I am not really referring to the emotional reactions a song might engender even though that is certainly part of it. Much has already been written about the overt emotionalism of popular Christian music. I recommend Jonathan Aigner’s incisive article Masturbatory Worship which aptly describes the problem with the self-indulgent quality of these songs. By “affective” what I am specifically referring to is lyrics that are more introspective and foreground the internal state of the individual.

While affective songs are about pathos, effective songs are about progress. Effective egocentric songs are about how God empowers the pursuit of personal ambitions and goals in the world. Again with this category I am referring to the lyrical content, in this case lyrics that have a “positive”, “motivational” message which is couched in religious language.

Now affective and effective themes are not mutually exclusive. What is common to songs which have either or both lyrical themes is that they focus on the individual. In a sense they are the two poles of the egocentric spectrum, one going inward and the other outward. While egocentric songs are the most popular, the type of egocentric songs, whether it is more affective or effective, seems to vary based on socio-economic circumstances.

For example, in Ghana popular indigenous language and English songs tend to skew towards more positive, motivational lyrics. Introspective, affective songs are not very popular. Where you tend to hear such songs are in young, urban, upwardly mobile, charismatic churches. Such songs are almost always from the West, particularly Hillsong-type music, where you have to be educated to competently understand and therefore enjoy the English language lyrics. English is the official language in Ghana but the everyday language of most people are indigenous languages. Popular Christian music in Ghana is therefore mostly in widely spoken indigenous dialects which no matter your educational background you can understand. In a developing country such as Ghana it is unsurprising that songs tend to have an optimistic, motivational message, being sung in languages that the lowliest people in society can understand. In contrast, affective songs are sung in places where people have relatively higher socio-economic status and therefore have some leeway to be somewhat introspective. That is the same reason why affective Christian songs overwhelmingly originate from and are popular in the West which is economically far more prosperous.

Even in the West, socio-economic disparities seem to influence what type of egocentric music that is made. The genre of contemporary Christian music (CCM), which is represented by the likes of Hillsong, Chris Tomlin and Lauren Daigle tends to be more affective. It largely originates from and is popular among a more economically prosperous demographic, that is white Christians, who constitute the overwhelming majority of CCM artists. The genre of urban gospel music, which has popular artists like Travis Greene, Tasha Cobbs, Marvin Sapp and Kirk Franklin, originates from and is popular in black American churches. Urban gospel music tends to be more aspirational and is popular in a demographic that is less economically prosperous. Accordingly, the most popular Western music among Ghanaian Christians is urban gospel, which is also far more popular than CCM in more affluent churches.

These observations about egocentric Christian music, whether it is effective or affective, shows that our songs to an important extent represent our worldview. With this outlook expressed through song, our vision of reality is centred on our first-person experience of the world and our self-oriented interpretation of it. It is quite natural to see things from our perspective however, worship is not about ourselves and it is about acknowledging one who is greater. Dr. Matthew Gordley writes the following about the purpose of NT hymns,

It invited participants to embrace a particular view of reality centered in the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (p. 36, New Testament Christological Hymns.)

Their songs espoused a Christocentric view of reality and so should our songs if we are making authentically Christian music. They located the centre of reality outside themselves and found the locus in Christ which was evident in the songs. Therefore, there was a certain objectivity to their worship since they were acknowledging a reality beyond themselves, which left little room for a subjective perspective in lyrical content. In the proper grammar of worship it is all about the object of worship and not the subject who is doing the worship.

The recognition of a public reality allowed for the group to participate in worship, regardless of their private experiences or circumstances. The singing of Christocentric songs helped foster community which was for them a key feature of Christian identity in the world (John 17:20; Acts 4:32; Philippians 2:4-5.) This communal scope is sorely missing in our songs. It is not really “us” singing but a collection of “I’s.” With egocentric songs the goal of worship is to strongly subjectively identify with a song. The measure of good worship is how the individual feels. When worship is viewed as a priestly activity, that is something an ordained body is called to do, each member playing their part in service of the greater whole, individual satisfaction is certainly not the standard. It is rather about the group as a whole performing its ordained function as the one called it intended (1 Peter 2:4.)

Having more objective worship is very important. It affects our disposition towards how we express worship. With egocentric songs you have to get into the right mood for your worship to be of value. With Christocentric songs, emotions still matter because as we can see in NT hymns, they employ imaginative, poetic language which is clearly designed to be affective, however emotions are demoted from prime place. This allows us to sing to our Lord even when emotionally we are not in a good place because we acknowledge a greater reality beyond our private circumstances, no matter how disorienting and painful it is.

Since we like to feel good it is no surprise that almost all our songs are about “positivity.” However, biblical songs spanned the full range of human emotion and experience, including joy and lament. Christocentric songs allows us to rejoice but they also give us the space to grieve in the Church but we do not mourn like those who have no hope. Our worship is not swayed by the vicissitudes of life because as a Church we are built on the Rock.

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