We talk worship lyrics on the podcast. You listeners are always sending us lyric questions. This is maybe the most polarizing genre of episodes we make. I’m sure most of you all remember our episode on the contemporary worship song “What a Beautiful Name” back in episode 1077. Or on the lyrics of the worship song “Reckless Love” in episode 1202. Well, today a listener named Robert writes in to ask this more general question.
“Hello, Pastor John! I have noticed in my own church a rise in the ‘lover’ language in our contemporary worship songs. Scripture shows that marriage, and in some ways, sexuality, reflect something of Christ’s relationship with his people. Should we understand that in a purely corporate sense, or is it right for individuals to sing words like ‘I have felt your touch,’ or ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’? What place is there for the intimate, personal ‘lover’ language in corporate worship? And how much of this stems from allegorical interpretations of Song of Solomon?”
Pastor Through Song
What a tremendous need there is for prayerful, wise, mature, experienced, Bible-saturated, theologically deep leaders of worship. Being able to play a guitar or a piano and carry a tune is not enough to fit a person for one of the most important pastoral roles in the church. I think after the pastor who preaches regularly, the designer and leader of worship services is the most spiritually and theologically influential person in the church — for better or for worse.
I begin with this emphasis — this call for prayerful, wise, mature, Bible-saturated depth and discernment in that role — because, as with most beautiful and precious things, the remedy for unfitting, inappropriate, foolish, tasteless things in worship services is not a rule book, but maturity and wisdom and the gifts of discerning proportion and balance and beauty and effect.
So when Robert asks, “What place is there for the intimate, personal ‘lover’ language in corporate worship?” my answer is that each pastoral worship leader must discern whether the wording of a song and its context in worship will provide the mental and emotional setting for experiencing love language in a way that is pure and holy and in fitting proportion to other emotions as well.
“What a tremendous need there is for prayerful, mature, Bible-saturated, theologically deep leaders of worship.”
You can see the enormous need for wisdom here. This is not simple. The more sexual and individual the imagery of Christ and the people of Christ becomes, the more problematic it will be for corporate worship. First, it’s a challenge to transpose eroticism into spiritual affections. It can be done, but it is not likely that it will be done for most average people in corporate worship. Second, because Jesus Christ is male, a man, we can’t expect males and females in the congregation to relate in the same way to an individualized male Christ speaking to them in language that carries erotic overtones.
But I don’t want to give the impression that we should allow the lowest common denominator of spiritual sensitivity in the congregation and personal intimacy of fellowship with Jesus to dictate the limits of our biblical expressions of affections for God. Again, the call for wisdom and spiritual depth and discernment in the leader is so crucial.
Lion and Lamb in One
And here’s what I think the focus should be that would help solve these kinds of problems: Are the excellencies of Christ seen and savored by people week in and week out in worship in a way that guards every one of these excellencies of Christ from disproportion by keeping it in relation to its counter-excellency? I know that sounds complicated. It’s not. Here’s what I mean.
- We must sing of the excellence of his glory, but mingled with his humility.
- We must sing of his transcendence, and mingled with his condescension.
- We admire him for his uncompromising justice, but even more because he’s tempered with mercy.
- We admire him for his majesty, but even more because it’s a majesty in meekness — lion and lamb.
- We admire him because of his equality with God, but even more because he’s God’s equal yet he has a reverence for God.
- We admire him because of how worthy he is of all good, but even more because of how patient he was to suffer all evil.
- We sing of him because of his sovereign dominion over the world, but even more because of his dominion clothed in a spirit of obedience and submission.
- We love the way he stumped the proud Pharisees and scribes with his wisdom, and we love it even more because he could be so simple that children wanted to come near him and spend time with him.
- We admire him because he could still the storm with a word, and yet he refused to use his power to come down from the cross.
More Than Mere Music
So when Robert asks, “Is it right for individuals to sing words like, ‘I have felt your touch’?” my answer is yes, provided everyone knows that when you feel his touch you might be electrocuted. That awareness might keep the imagery of Christ’s touch from drifting into sentimentalism or eroticism.
“Teach your people who Christ is and what worship is.”
So much depends on what the words of a song connote in our particular personal experience. For myself, when I think of being touched by God, I think of 1 Samuel 10:26 — I really did think of that when I was working through this. “Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched.” That’s the kind of touch I want. That’s a very different connotation than the first night of the honeymoon.
My plea to pastors is that they choose with great care who will design and lead this all-important part of the worship service: prayerful, wise, mature, experienced, Bible-saturated, theologically deep people. And if there isn’t a person like that, then pastor, keep the leadership in your own hands until you raise up such a leader. And in the meantime, teach your people who Christ is and what worship is.