Guest Post: I Wonder Where "We" are, Too
Last week, I shared some thoughts on language in corporate worship music and liturgy. I closed with the following questions:
How would your worship look different if you changed the "I's" to "We's"? How would it feel different to say litanies collectively rather than individually? What would it change about your congregation's understanding of community to move to collective language when you gather for worship?
And finally, what artists are out there writing congregational worship music rather than individual prayers or praise? I'd love to hear it, and I'd love to sing it with a gathered community.
And wouldn't you know, I received some responses! One of the folks who shared thoughts is Eric Drew, a songwriter, coach and Director of Worship for the UMC in Greater New Jersey. I invited him to share more of his thoughts in today's guest post. Enjoy (and be sure to check out his music)!
I am a contemporary, Wesleyan worship songwriter. That means that I am a United Methodist through and through; I love the UMC, its traditions, liturgies and theology. It also means that I'm a big fan of the sounds that Elevation Worship, Bethel, Hillsong and others are producing for worship music.
And living with a passion for those two things is lonely.
As I try to create and share in this unique place of worship music, I am grateful for Rev. Melissa Cooper's post, "Where is the 'We" in Worship?" It is a question that the church must ask.
The words which we pray, say and sing in our congregational worship are so important. I agree with many critical bloggers about contemporary music, we have been going through a season where it has been easy to share and use music and lyrics in congregational settings that does not always meet thoughtful, theological criteria.
But Church, here's the thing: the huge majority of those bloggers, as well as us as pastors, leaders and readers, simply got on the bandwagon of bashing and judgment without taking a moment to listen, understand and engage.
I can't take credit for the phrase, but one of the most important values to me as a worshiper and songwriter is that we must create instead of criticize. So here I'll talk about myself as a songwriter and artist. I'm just trying to be faithful and provide new voices and sounds for the church to sing as we worship.
As a songwriter, I think a lot about the voice of the congregation. Historically and practically, this voice has many dimensions. Here are several that are important to me:
Vertical and Horizontal
Here I ask myself if we're singing to God or to one another about God (or something else). A vertical position would have us as the congregation worshiping and singing toward God. An example would be, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee."
A horizontal position sets us as a congregation singing toward one another. One example from a friend and mentor of mine would be, "Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we stand side by side. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide."
As a songwriter, my tendency is to use the vertical dimension. I like to use the pronoun "You" so that the community is aware that we're singing to God (vertical). Will I write or sing horizontally? Sure. But my tendency is to write and sing worship songs that are vertical.
Me and We
I agree with Rev. Cooper when she observes that it feels like an exaggerated amount of contemporary worship music is "all about me." Using "I" in worship leads us to a very personal expression. There are historical examples of this as well, such as, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine."
The "We" dimension comes from all of us. "Our" is another pronoun that fit in this category, so an example of "We" (or, all of us singing together") in worship could be, "How great is our God. Sing with me, how great is our God."
As a songwriter, I balance toward the "We" side of the equation. I think there is a place in worship for personal expressions (and you'll find them in my music), but generally I want to acknowledge that we are a corporate gathering, literally one Body of Christ raising our voices together. I love that we (not just me) are singing.
There is a lot writen about inclusive language (especially in the last 40 years), but I do not intend to join a debate about this here. I can only share what inclusive language means for me as a songwriter.
As I interpret the history of the church and worship music, God has been referred to as He (the male pronoun) and Father exponentially more than other images, names or pronouns. I hope that my music can help expand our vocabulary and thinking around the God to Whom we sing. To do this, I try hard not to use "He" but rather clarify if we are singing about God or Jesus. When we get wishy-washy with language and pronouns, it can be easy to begin making statements that either don't make sense or aren't true.
Why not use Father? Honestly, I have a friend who interrupts each sentence of prayer with "Father God." I love the guy, and maybe it's meaningful for him. For me, it feels automatic and limiting. Yes, God is referred to as Father in scripture and throughout church history. But again, I would love my music to be expanding our vocabulary and imagination about God.
Diverse Sounds of Worship
Especially in my tribe (the United Methodist Church) there is a wonderful emphasis that we are a global church. This connection with our sisters and brothers from other lands who use other languages and sounds is a great blessing.
As I'm preparing worship for gatherings large and small, it has been helpful for me to wrestle with how to provide a familiar language and sound to all the people gathered. Oftentimes that includes people whose first language isn't English and who embrace worship with very difference styles, sounds and approaches. This pushes and expands me, my faith, and our corporate worship.
As a songwriter, my sound and style fits into categories which aren't particularly global. I know that. I'm in the middle of several projects and trying to expand. And honestly, there are so few people in my little niche that it feels like someone has to do what I'm doing.
These are some of the dimensions and voices meaningful to me as a worship planner, songwriter and artist. I don't think there is one right or wrong way to sing or write when we're approaching worship. There are faithful disciples of Jesus worshiping, singing and writing songs from all of these perspectives and more.
So as a follow-up to Rev. Cooper's post, I would invite you to listen, plan, sing and write thoughtfully. As you're doing this, I'd also encourage you to look for songwriters and artists who are doing the work of wrestling and discerning with how to use new sounds of worship in a theologically responsible way. There are a few of us. I'd love to hear from you, and you can find more information on my website.
What other voices, dimensions and characteristics of worship music and lyrics are important to you?
Eric Drew is a worship leader, songwriter, coach and the Director of Worship for United Methodists of Greater New Jersey. . He is passionate about bridging the rich traditions of the church into a new generations, spaces, and sounds. In 2017 Eric released his first full-length album of worship music, Center of It All. More information is available at www.ericdrewmusic.com