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Sorry Church Music

       I really would like to hear some sorry church music this coming Sunday.  Honestly.  But, chances are, since I'm going to be in the worship service of an Bible-believing Evangelical church, I won't.  What a shame.

       What I will hear will vary slightly depending on whether or not it is a contemporary worship service (which is most likely) or a traditional worship service (I'm probably in a small church) or a mixture. If it is contemporary, it will be dominated by songs praising how wonderful God is and how much I long to experience Him more deeply.  If it is a traditional service, it will be dominated by testimonial gospel songs about how great it is to be saved and how we can’t wait to get to heaven.
       There's nothing wrong with songs of praise or testimony or seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus.  I would really sound like an odd person if I said something like, “I'm tired of singing songs of praise.” 
       Well, I am.  Both.  I am an odd person and I am tired of the steady stream of praise music.  How could there be anything wrong with filling up a Sunday gathering with songs of praise?  That is what this blog post is all about.
       One good way to explain my point would be to draw an analogy from our personal prayer times.  When you pray, I’m sure you give God praise.  I’m sure you express your love and admiration for Him.  And, of course, I’m sure you thank Him for what He has done and is doing and will do in your life.  None of us can imagine a rich prayer life without praise and worship and celebration.  
       After all, the Our Father (Pater Noster) begins with praise: "Hallowed by Thy name." And, as it was memorized and used multiple times a day by Christians by the beginning of the second century, it also concludes in praise with the doxology, "For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen." 
     But, between these two bookends of praise, Jesus constructs a model of prayer that includes other themes.  Surrender and submission.  Thy will be done.  Appeals for God's help in our daily needs.  Give us this day.  And, importantly, an acknowledgement of our sins linked to a prayer for forgiveness being granted as we have forgiven others.  Then there is an acknowledgement of our weakness to resist temptation as we pray for God's protection from evil. 
       A prayer life that is nothing but praise is not so much rich as it is pathetically self-righteous.  Cowering just out of sight in this all-praise and only-praise approach to God is the assumption that praising God will ultimately benefit us.  Praise will bless our lives and lift our spirits.  It’s like telling our parents how wonderful they are over and over. We naturally expect to be rewarded for this steady stream of affirmation.
       That is not entirely wrong.  There is a skin of truth in this assumption that praise is also a means of being blessed.  But that skin of truth is stuffed with a lie. Drawing close to God does not happen just because we praise Him.  Biblically, closeness to God is a painful and often costly place to move.  Receiving blessing after blessing is not a reward we get for reminding Jesus He's a great guy.  Real worship, like real prayer, must fill in the space between the bookends of praise with words of repentance, confession of sin, acknowledgement of our moral weakness, our fears, and our doubts. 
       In other words, a worship service in which we offer God nothing but praise reflects an appalling refusal to see that the thing standing between us and God is us.  We are like a bride who has neglected her husband, flirted with other men, broken promises, gone long periods of time without giving him a second thought.  And then she shows up and flatters him by telling him how great he, assuming that is all that is needed to restore and strengthen the relationship.
       But, the most damning, realization is that the real reason we do not sing songs of sorrow and repentance is that we honestly do not feel we need to sing them. Face it.  If we did, then we would.  If even some of us did, we'd make it a point to do something.  We’d write some sorry music.  Or, we’d help the worship team to find some sorry music.  Or, we’d point out to someone that we need to start including those sorry moments in our weekly gatherings.
       The truth is we must all feel perfectly fine with just walking in and praising God in song after song.  All the while, giving hardly a thought to the sinful things we have said and done and failed to do that contradict the happy praises we are happily singing.  In one uplifting worship song after another, we offer up words that incidents of our past week utterly contradict and feel no shame.  We refuse to hear the discordant unresolved conflict between the music of praise and the chords and notes of our daily lives that clash in the chaos of atonal noise.
       Let’s hold up a clear mirror for once and see the truth.  There are many Sundays we have no business whatsoever happily worshiping God as a community until, as a community, we have joined together and cried out, "I'm sorry.  Lord, forgive me.  Lord, save me.  Lord, have mercy."  But, when you search for a song for such a moment, you only confirm that sorry music is the great gaping hole in Evangelical worship that no one seems much to mind. 
       There may be no link between our apparent lack of awareness of personal sins or absence of shared grief over those sins and the staggering number of scandals among church leaders we pretend are only epidemics for other traditions.  Maybe the absence of planned contrition and confession has no impact in undermining our already tenuous grip on genuine holiness.  Maybe these are all symptoms of a church that is rapidly growing larger and disappearing at the same time.
       Well, okay.  There you go.  If you think I'm wrong, then, honestly, you may be a much better Christian than I am.  And you may worship at a church of people who are at least as good.  I admit it.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't fit in.  Because I need to learn to weep in order to have the right to laugh.  I need to bow to the ground in shame to be able to lift up holy hands in praise and dance the joyous dance of the redeemed.
       But, if you think this lack of sorry music and sorry moments in worship is a tragedy, then you and I have to begin looking for some way to get some really sorry times back in our worship.  You know this realization is not new:

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.
Submit yourselves therefore to God.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning
and your joy into dejection.
Humble yourselves before the Lord,
and he will exalt you.
James 4:6-10


merry said...

I agree that this is type of music is overlooked.

Do you have some suggestions of "sorry" music for use by a contemporary church band (Hillsong United/Elevation style)? The person responsible for selecting music is very partial to that sound and is more likely to take suggestions if it fits that sound.

Rob Harris said...

Insightful comments, Tom. You have inspired at least one songwriter in Nashville to try his hand at writing some "sorry" songs. Thank you. said...

Hmmm, makes me think of the crazy idea I had to write an album of blues-based worship music, using Psalms mostly. A couple of friends thought it was inappropriate to focus so much on the past, on the negative. I'm thinkin they might have been full of crap.

Tom Lawson said...

Rob! How are you? I've seen your sweet wife on FB from time to time, but had not linked up with you for awhile. Drop me a line when you've got time and let me know about your family and life in Nashville.

Tom Lawson said...

Yeah, your friends are full of it. But don't blame them. It's the siren call of McChurch. The apostle Paul had no problem going back over (and over and over) his past. It was not destructive self punishment. Just awareness of sin and grace. Some of the greatest Christian music in history has been sad.

Tom Lawson said...

I wish I knew more. Graham Kendrick has written some pretty reflective and theologically rich songs. I think others might have, but I don't have any come to mind. That's where some prodding to our talented musicians and songwriters might help us all.

Brad said...

Good thoughts, Dr. Lawson. I had this same thought a few months ago when some friends on Facebook were complaining about the darkness of a Skillet concert. It's like we're afraid to allow any room for lament in our liturgy. That is, ironically, a very sad state of the church. For a little glimmer of hope, however, I think Dusin Krensue of Thrice is breaking new ground on "sorry music". This song laments the weakness of marriage in our society:

twotentom said...

I was thinking that our worship should be more reflective of King David, where he has both lamented and rejoiced, face in the ground repented and jumped around in his underwear praising! The Psalms give us a tremendous guideline for music in the temple! But if I'm waiting for some music on Sunday to tell me what I need to discuss with God, weather I should praise Him or be repenting, well, in my opinion, I need some Godly mentoring.... Besides I have six other days of the week in which God desires to hear from and interact with me! I'm not supposed to wait until the designated hour on the designated day, and have the designated team lead me in the designated repentance and or praise songs. After all, how the heck do they know where I'm at in my relationship with the Father? I need to be daily sorry and daily rejoicing in what the Lord has done is is still doing in my life. Plus when I'm in church, and the worship is going on, I'm in communication with Papa God either praying or singing. So let the music play, and I'll just pray, and then sing, and then pray and then sing......

Matt said...

I like the link between prayer and worship.

I think God appreciates honesty. Psalm 23 coming on the heels of Psalm 22 is what I think of during prayer, and now I will think of it during worship.

Tom Lawson said...

I think you're right. Our sorrow, our prayer, and our praise flow from into the other. It is not always logical. Life and love rarely are.

Brent McCrory said...

Great post, thanks.

This is an issue we have tried to address, but it needs continual attention. My wife has written two laments for us to sing as a church as well as a song "We Are Your Church" which reflects God's work among us. It is quite moving for me to recall the reason for those songs (i.e., difficulties) as well as how God has worked in and through them.

Next week was already planned to look at this issue in a sermon (of a series "What If...") and I am grateful for this post (this week will focus on the need for transcendence in our worship service). I will certainly share this blog with my wife (Melissa) as I am sure she will find it helpful too.

grace & peace - Brent

Curly-T said...

I'm glad you have so many to agree with you.
I don't. At least in specific.
In general I agree with you - we should bring our sins before the Lord each week, we should mourn those mistakes. And we should end with shouts of praise that God has forgiven them.
But I attend a church of 25 people. I'm the youngest at age 30. The next yougest is 45. All the others are in their 60s. And there is NO joy in their worship. They sing testimony hymns as funeral dirges. They do not smile, they do not laugh.
Outside of church, things are great. But they find no joy in worshiping God.
And so for them, I can't choose (Yep, I lead worship) sad songs. They're already sad. They've been taught you can't laugh and praise and smile all at the same time. They need a reminder that serving the Lord is a joy.

But otherwise, I get what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Curly T. There has been way too much sorrow in our songs at the church I've attended for the past four years. It was as if God never forgave, or loved us, only wanted us to grovel in self-hatred all the time. It took three years of effort, but, after I joined the worship team, I finally got the direction to change towards joy (with God's help). As scripture says,"The joy of the Lord is your strength." Without that joy, I can't fight all the sad and hurtful things waiting for me during the other six more days of the week! For me, prayer with other church members (we have a time set aside for members to pray with people trained in doing prayer ministry), and confession; that's when to express sorrow and repentance.

Anonymous said...

I think of 2 songs that minister repentance to me...Kind and Merciful God (1973) has a beautiful lamenting melody and words that specifically convict the heart (lyrics only on CCLI). Speak O Lord asks God to take His truth, plant it in our hearts and apply to our lives. Both are beautiful songs and are 'sorrow songs'.

Tom Lawson said...

to Curly T and others -

Good feedback. In my experience, the kind of worship you are describing is not sad. It is just not joyous. It's not much of anything. Either joyous or sad both share the requirement of intense emotional involvement in the worship. Singing somber slow songs slowly is not the same thing as genuine sadness in worship. It's closer to boredom.

But, our culture's general addiction to happiness still suggests we ought to be cautious about trying Sunday after Sunday to make worship happy. Karl Marx suggested that religion was just a narcotic people used to feel better.

Bob Lawson said...

The songs are there, probably better stated as contemplative rather than "sorry." Lent's coming, so you can get a song like "Lamb of God" by Twila Paris or the modernization of an old Anglican hymn "My Song Is Love Unknown" from Robin Mark. Hillsong's "With All I Am" is another good one, diametrical to, say, "God Is Great." If the worship band has to go crazy, with multiple electric guitars and a double sheet of plexiglass in front of the drummer, of course, none of this will ever fly.

Dan Thornton said...

Hmmmm. Reminds me of a conversation years ago with a very musically talented, fun, devout Catholic friend who was giving me a tour of his Catholic church. (We had just finished playing Dixieland music for Mardi Gras in the basement.) He asked, "Do you know why Catholic service music is always solemn?" "No, why?" I asked. He said it was because solemn works for any emotion. Some worshippers may be joyful, others mourning, and the music works. Like the graduation song, or wedding march, solemn music (awe-inspiring and somber are both adjectives) supports varied emotions, rather than trying to change the emotions. Hmmmmm.

Tim Hayward said...

Some sad songs were asked for. Here are a few that come to mind...

Give Us Clean Hands (Charlie Hall)
Lord Have Mercy (Michael W. Smith)
Awakening (Passion/Tomlin)
I Need You (The Swift)
Less is More (Relient K)

I hope some of these help!