Despite what the title implies, this post is not an “epic battle of hymnody.” I was talking to a young worship leader recently about how I choose songs for my worship repertoire, and thought I’d share my answer to his question here. There are many ways in which leaders choose songs. Some use very detailed and helpful tools for evaluating songs, such as this handbook and rating system that helps identify the theological, lyrical, and musical strength of particular songs. Some use hymnals or the CCLI “top” lists to choose songs. Others just go with their gut.
Whatever method you use, at some point every leader has to decide what to include and what to exclude, based on certain factors. One very prevalent consideration is the use of metaphor.
You may remember from high school English class that a metaphor makes a comparison without using “like” or “as.” Metaphor can be used in a single line of text or can be the central idea around which a song is built (more on this later). When we sing that God is our rock, we aren’t saying that we literally worship a geological formation of minerals, but that God is as strong and secure and steady as a rock. You get it.
The Bible is rich with metaphor and we should not be shy about using this tool. However, there are some cautions to keep in mind. First, we need to be aware of the context in which we are using metaphor. To use the above example, I would probably not use a rock metaphor for God if, say, I were on a mission trip ministering to people who worship rocks and trees. The use of that metaphor for God might be confusing.
Second, we want to be careful not to assume too much about how our hearers are understanding our metaphor. This goes back to context. When Jesus is identified as the perfect Lamb of God, ancient Jews would have immediately understood this to connect with the religious sacrificial system of their time. Today, however, the metaphor of the Lamb probably needs a bit more explanation for it to make sense to people. So we need to look for ways to make metaphor more effective by helping people understand what we mean.
In my conversation with my young worship leader friend I compared two songs and the strengths and weaknesses of each. I’ll share some of those thoughts and let you decide who wins. Begin!
“Oceans” by Hillsong United is one of the most popular songs in recent years. Masterfully melodic and beautifully performed (usually), this song rivals the best that Coldplay has to offer in taking listeners on an intuitive, emotional journey from start to finish. As the title suggests, the song is built around the metaphor of an ocean (or oceans). The metaphor is used in a negative sense, with the oceans being obstacles and oppositions to overcome and rise above:
I will call upon your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace
For I am yours and you are mine.
The strengths of this song are undoubtedly its artistic creativity, aesthetic beauty and dynamic builds and crescendos. In the right context, the song is a powerful exhortation to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord and embrace the challenges we face as opportunities to grow (one instance stands out when this song was sung at a funeral for a dear friend. I couldn’t sing through the tears). However, when considering how we might use this song for corporate worship I would suggest that there are a couple weaknesses. In the first line of the song the lyrics speak of being called out upon the waters, walking “where feet may fail:”
You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown
Where feet may fail
And there I find you in the mystery
In oceans deep my faith will stand
This hearkens back to Peter’s “get out of the boat” episode in Matthew 14. But this is a somewhat incomplete comparison to Peter’s experience, thus assuming that listeners will fill in the details. The song lyrics do not specify why we would walk on the waves, except that perhaps we want to overcome our challenges (who wouldn’t want that?). In the Matthew 14 account, Peter steps out of the boat because he sees that Jesus is walking on the water. He is able to walk on the waves only as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus rather than “above the waves.” So the song is a little confusing. If I’m a completely ignorant listener (I don’t know the story of Peter), I probably think that determination is what keeps me above the waves, not keeping my eyes on Jesus. I also probably think that I, the ever-present subject of so many songs these days, am the most important part of the equation. This lack of clarity, along with the vague references to who it is we are singing to/about, make the metaphor a little less effective (I won’t mention the fact that this song tends to feel really good emotionally but is in fact a prayer asking God to lead us into challenge and difficulty with our eyes on him, which doesn’t usually feel good).
Let’s compare “Oceans” to a redux of a classic hymn “Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus,” recorded by the folks at Sovereign Grace music. This song also uses an ocean metaphor, but in the positive sense. Instead of being a formidable obstacle to overcome, the ocean represents the incomprehensible scope of the love that Jesus has for us:
Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of your love
Leading onward, leading homeward, to your glorious rest above.
The strengths of this song are the lyrically beautiful and comprehensive description of the story of Jesus’ love for his people (the gospel). The song celebrates not only the fact that Jesus loves us, but goes on to explain the why and the how of that love:
Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus
Spread his praise from shore to shore
How he came to pay our ransom
With the saving cross he bore
How does (or did) Jesus love? The cross, a definitive past reality that affects us in eternity. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ work didn’t end at the cross, but he continues to stand as our intercessor and advocate:
How he watches o’er his loved ones
Those he died to make his own
How for them he’s interceding
Pleading now before the throne
While this song is strong melodically, it probably doesn’t earn as many points as “Oceans” in musical dynamics (but more complicated isn’t always better). Some may point out another potential weakness as the somewhat archaic “hymnish” language and some complex theological concepts that are presented and will need more explanation. While I’m at it, I personally like when songs reference the Trinity, the beautiful gospel reality that the Father sent Jesus and we participate in and experience his deep love by the Holy Spirit. This song focuses mainly on Jesus without much mention of other members of the trinity.
Now these are just some thoughts, and I reminded my friend that no song is perfect. Every song (and style) has strengths and weaknesses. If you try to fit everything important in a single song you would either end up with a really long song or one that no one would want to listen to (not to mention sing). There are so many great songs out there that you will probably, like me, have a harder time choosing which ones to leave out.
The point is we need to think about what we are singing and try our best to mean it when we sing it and teach it when we need to (which is most of the time). Choose well!
(image credit: http://benmulligan.com/the-bay-in-black-and-white/)