I thought I’d add a little bit more to my comments the other day about how we handle worship song and hymn lyrics. It’s worth me emphasising here that I’m personally very cautious about changing and adapting things not least because it’s often been done badly. However, I believe there is a case for adapting and updating hymns and songs As well as the example I gave here, I also wrote a little while back about thy hymn “Blest is the one whose bowels move”.
However, the focus of my original article wasn’t so much on whether we should change old hymns. In fact, I only referenced a slightly older one to show that I wasn’t just having a grumble about modern stuff and hankering after a golden era. My concern was more with songs written in recent times and specifically with the use of a particular phrase “have your way.”
When it comes to contemporary worship songs, it’s not so straight forward with contemporary songs still in copywrite and so your only option may be to leave some verses out if you want to include a song. So, my point here is addressed more to those called to write worship songs. It’s a plea that they would think carefully about the words they choose when writing lyrics. After all, Wesley and Watts had no control over how language usage would change but contemporary writers should know exactly how the lyrics they choose are liable to be heard.
Why do the words we choose matter? This applies not only to the words in the song lyrics but in our Bible translations, our linking comments, prayers, preaching, even in the notices. They matter because we are embodied worshippers. What do I mean by this? Well, sometimes we can talk as though when we come to worship, we leave our bodies, our minds, our day to day experience at the door an we switch into worship mode, our spirits are caught up in praise and everything else disappears. But that’s not what corporate worship is. We turn up and our minds and bodies are involved. Worship is physical, not just spiritual. This means that we turn up with all that we are and all that we’ve been through. It also means that we turn up together. We cannot just switch off from all the other people around us and nor are we meant to. Romans 12:3-8 says:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members,[e] and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,[f] with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Thinking of others more highly, or above myself surely includes the point that I can agree not to sing one phrase of about 5 words in a song if by doing so it enables my brothers and sisters to join with me in singing the whole song as an act of worship. Being embodied means that we are connected to each other in the church. Worship is not disembodied and it is not individualistic.
Being embodied also means that things like sex matter too. Is it worldly and sinful to hear a song lyric and pick up on its normal everyday linguistic associations if those associations are sexual? I want to suggest gently that no it isn’t. The reason I’m urging care when we use song lyrics that carry sexual connotations is not because I consider sex worldly and sinful but rather, the opposite. The Song of Songs, as we’ve also seen in previous posts first of all shows us that the language of sensuality and sexuality is good and appropriate. Sex is a good gift from God. Indeed, Song of Songs shows us that intimate, sensual language can be used spiritually to describe Christ’s relationship to his bride, the Church.
Indeed, we may go further and note that in other Biblical literature such as prophets like Ezekiel and Hosea that sensual and sexual imagery is being used sartorially. It is possible and okay to find humour in it too.
Because of that, we should both be ready not to shirk away from such imagery but also to handle I carefully. Because sensual language is used in Scripture I want to be careful that it is heard right when I preach and when I sing in worship. The problem with so called “Jesus is by boyfriend” language in songs is not that romantic language has no place in our worship but that it narrows it down to an individualistic thing and reduces it to something far shallower. Jesus is not my boyfriend. Jesus is our husband, the bridegroom of the church. The problem with “have your way” language if understood in sexual terms is not that it is too sensual but that it lacks sensuality, it lacks sensitivity, hence its associate with abusive sex.
Language matters because we are embodied worshippers and so too does imagery. That’s why Scripture makes it clear that we are to take care so that we help rather than hinder each other in our worship. It’s why Scripture forbids the use of images and statues that can distract us from true worship of the living God. It’s why at the same time Jesus provides us with things that will help us in our worship that are deeply sensory: water, bread, wine.
So, whatever our role in worship, whether it’s leading the congregation in singing, playing musical instruments, preaching or singing as part of the congregation, let’s be mindful of the words we use and how we conduct ourselves so that we can help each other to worship.