Over the past 20+ years, I have been blessed with a number of opportunities to lead/accompany worship in song – mostly (but not always) from behind a keyboard of some sort.  During that time, I’ve born witness to (and scars from) numerous “worship wars” dealing with style (primarily) and substance (on occasion).

Putting together a worshipful and effective musical worship service is not as simple as grabbing some songs from a hymnal/binder/web-page and running with it.  Lyrical content, style, instrumentation, flow and theme are some of the key elements that have to be considered in effectively leading corporate worship.

It is in this vein that I’m thinking about starting a new (likely infrequent) series: “Worship Music in Review”.  (If it flops, #1 might be the only edition.)

For this edition, I’d like to look at a currently popular song from Passion 2010, which is being incorporated into some churches’ worship services, Chris Tomlin’s “Our God”.  Before we go on, watch the embedded video (if you don’t know the song) and read the lyrics.

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VERSE 1
Water you turned into wine
Opened the eyes of the blind
There’s no one like you
None like you

VERSE 2
Into the darkness you shine
Out of the ashes we rise
There’s no one like you
None like you

CHORUS
Our God is greater
Our God is stronger
God you are higher than any other
Our God is Healer
Awesome in power
Our God
Our God

REPEAT VERSE 2

CHORUS

BRIDGE
And if our God is for us
Then who could ever stop us
And if our God is with us
Then what could stand against?
Then what could stand against?

CHORUS

CHORUS

BRIDGE

CHORUS

Structure: As modern worship music goes, this is fairly standard in structure (only two verses, a chorus and a bridge) and it has a fairly tight range.  This makes congregational singing easier, since you don’t have as much worry about, in terms of range.  (For contrast, consider “How Great Thou Art?” – where if you start on the wrong pitch for the congregation, most will drop out – or screech – at the end of the chorus.)

Structurally, most of Chris Tomlin’s worship music fits into both “modern” and “blended” structures, since it is structurally similar to so much of what congregants hear on the radio or in other venues outside of worship.

This particular song would likely fit better in the middle of a worship music set (if at the beginning of a corporate worship service) than as an opener, since its introduction and opening verses (and the first chorus) are rather subdued.  Only when it moves to the bridge does the percussion crescendo and a double-time feel kick in.  From this point out, the energy and focus of the song moves between the chorus and the bridge (which I have some issues with, and which I’ll look at here in just a bit), and it can then drop off and allow for an acoustic/A Capella close.

Stylistically, this song could also fit after a sermon/communion/offering meditation, since its start is subdued (which allows for a smooth transition between the left and right brain of the participant) and then builds in emotional import and intensity.

Lyrics: For me, the lyrical content of a song is the one aspect that trumps all others.  If the song does not lyrically make the cut – or is theologically dodgy (think “Above All” or “In the Garden”), chances are I will never use it in a worship setting.  While I generally do not have a problem with most of Chris Tomlin’s music, “Our God” has some high spots and some problematic sections, which are a mixed bag for me.

The verses and the chorus have a positive theme that I’ve found missing in much of church music (including hymns) – the exclusivity and supremacy of God:

Our God is greater
Our God is stronger
God you are higher than any other
Our God is Healer
Awesome in power
Our God
Our God

The one fully Biblical source of pride we have – in the power, majesty and exclusivity of our God in comparison with the false idols of this world – is fully front-and-center in this part of the song.  I’m sure that there are worship directors who would steer clear of this song, just because of the postmodern aversion to absolute truth claims and exclusivity.  That is an impulse that should be avoided.

However, what kills this song for me is the bridge:

And if our God is for us
Then who could ever stop us
And if our God is with us
Then what could stand against?
Then what could stand against?

It is not that this is wrong, theologically.  In fact, it is pulled directly from Romans 8:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?

What is missing for me is twofold: 1) The focus of the bridge is no longer on God, but is on us and our “invincibility” when we are with God; and 2) It is without context (from the rest of the song).

Just as biblical verses can be taken out of context and misapplied, so can these verses be abused within music (perhaps even more so, since music works on a deeper, subconscious level of the mind that reinforces and guides behavior without the need for clear logical connection).  In this case, one of the characteristics of the Western church has been its misappropriation of God as being “on our side” in matters of war, politics and personal conflict.  Without grounding in the context of Paul’s words, the congregation – and its individual congregants – are left to supply their own context, which may or may not be what was intended by Paul’s writing.  How so?  Let’s look at the remainder of Romans 8:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the context of Paul’s writing, it is clear that Paul is not declaring that God will clear away the physical and spiritual forces that oppose and oppress us.  Rather, he is affirming that those forces of opposition and oppression cannot separate us from the love of God.  This song does not provide any context for this key – and very important – distinction.  This is a distinction that we in the western church consistently get wrong (particularly churches with degrees of word-faith or prosperity focus), and that I take pains to avoid when choosing worship music.

If this potential error was simply part of a bridge that was clearly not the focus of the song, I might have fewer reservations, but the prominence of it (with the build before the first bridge, and the centering of the bridge in the climax, with the seven-beat musical exclamation point repeatedly tagged after it) is very problematic for me in choosing this one as a regular worship song.

In a way, the song becomes almost schizophrenic – in conflict with itself in determining its message.  Which is sad, since the verse/chorus structure was so promising.

The Verdict:

While I think this song is strong, instrumentally, and has a focus (in the verse and chorus) on God’s exclusivity, which is sorely needed in the church, I do not think I would ever want to use it in a standard worship set.  Rather, if I was going to use it at all in a worship service, it would require someone (a pastor, worship leader) to provide the missing context that would soundly connect the supremacy and exclusivity of God with the power of His love to prevent anyone from separating us from Him.  If this context was provided, though, I think this song could be very powerful in a “special music” setting, to emotionally underscore a teaching message about the power of God’s love in saving us.

Interestingly, another song from the Passion 2010 worship set that also uses the latter section of Romans 8 as its core, is probably a better choice – Healing is In Your Hands.  Even with supplied context around Romans 8, I would probably choose this song over Our God.

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Comments

This entry was posted on Monday, August 16th, 2010 at 10:59 pm and is filed under Arts & Culture, Musings, Religion/Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Comments so far

  1. Darren on August 20, 2010 7:03 am

    I am sorry but I have really had a hard time being at peace with your “worship review” post on the song Our God. When I read your review what I hear are words intended to impress people with a profound knowledge and insight of leading worship. I think the utltimate goal of worship has been missed in your review in favor of “music legalism”.

    In the verdict of your review you write, “I do not think I would ever want to use it in a standard worship set”.

    We recently had an extremely powerful worship set at our church with this song being a part of that. I see and experience the Spirit of God moving on one hand and how easily you dismiss this song as a tool of worship on the other.

    Let’s be careful about making boxes.

    In Christ,
    Darren

  2. Chris L. on August 20, 2010 11:12 am

    Darren,

    I hear you, and have already had some discussion on this in the blog I crossposted this article from. Let me also provide you with a little bit of context:

    1) My general reputation in the blog-circles in which I run, is one of being a “classic liberal” (i.e. in favor of liberty), and in allowing a wide range of thought (and disagreement) to fall within the bounds of “Orthodox Christianity”. This has driven – and still drives – the discernmentalist blogosphere nuts. If you read the other blog I’ve linked to above, you’ll likely see that “leniency” is an accusation that comes up against me more often than “legalism”…

    2) Even so, I believe that there are points where Biblical discernment IS required… For example, on the topic of homosexuality, I’m taken to task by the “right” because I’m critical of the way the Western church has treated homosexuals and topics of sexuality. I’m also taken to task by the “left”, because I’m still pretty insistent that the Bible is clear, in both the NT and OT Scriptures, that homosexual practice is clearly defined as a sin.

    3) I don’t have any “profound knowledge” of music – I just have 20+ years experience in varying degrees of music ministry (from being in charge of worship services to being a performer under other leadership), across multiple styles – all of which have times where they fit and don’t fit. As such, I’ve got some experience in trying to choose between “what works” and “what works best”. Yes, it is possible to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect, but with the wide range of choices now available – in all styles of worship music – there’s not much of an excuse for laziness on the part of worship leaders in simply choosing music that evokes an emotive response over music that is more holistically appropriate.

    4) Historically, I’m very used to receiving criticism for being too liberal in the song choices/styles I would include in worship sets, and (until I wrote this article) I’ve never been accused in being too legalistic in what songs I would choose. So that’s actually odd, for me. Even so, I think it is important (as within Christian teaching) to apply a level of discernment in the song choices we, as Christian musicians, make – especially since we have so many good choices. There’s no driving need to try and find a way to insert whatever happens to be in “Top 40″ Christian music this week into our current worship lineup.

    5) When I say “I do not think I would ever want to use it in a standard worship set” – I am not saying “It would be wrong for you to use this song in a worship set at your church”. I’m not a member of your church community, so I do not know what their accepted orthodox teachings are, or what their community struggles are with. I will confess, though, that my own church and its denominational tradition, has had a history (at times) of conflating “If God is for us, who can be against us?” in terms of His grace and salvation with “If God is for us, who can be against us?” in matters of temporal conflict. This particular song, Our God, in its presentation, somewhat encourages that conflation, rather than separating it. As such, I do not think I would ever want to use it in a standard worship set at my church.

    6) Maybe you missed it in the article, but I really like the song, and I think it can be used in a way that focuses on God’s exclusivity – which is under-appreciated in a lot of modern worship music (and in postmodern Christian teaching). Even so, I think that – as a worship minister – I would want to be very explicit in setting that context. As such, I would be more likely to place it in a “special music” slot, where it has been given the appropriate contextual setting by the teaching portion of the community worship service.

    With these things in mind, I’m glad you disagree and are willing to discuss it. Now, though, I would ask you some questions:

    1) What is “worship”? What percentage of “worship” is music? Teaching? Living?

    2) What is the “ultimate goal of worship” music? Does it extend beyond the 10-15 minutes it is sung in a community worship service?

    3) Does music in worship have any role in teaching?

    4) How do you define an “extremely powerful worship set”? How do you see and experience the “Spirit of God moving”? How does this “Spirit of God moving” in worship manifest itself in the 10,065 minutes of the week in which there is no community worship singing?

  3. Brian on March 6, 2011 4:49 pm

    Chris,

    I agree with your take on the chorus. They are awesome lyrics – God is greater/stronger/higher and these words really capture that for me. I also agree that the bridge is disconnected, and without the necessary context to make it theologically sound – at present it is about my invincibility with God on my side.

    What I found interesting is that you accept the lyrics of the verses as sound. Allow me to take them apart piece by piece and see if they can be justified from the bible or theology:

    Water you turned into wine – John 2
    Opened the eyes of the blind – John 8 (and others)
    There’s no one like you – Ps 86:8, Jer 10:6 etc
    Into the darkness You shine – John 1:5
    Out of the ashes we rise – ???

    When I read “out of the ashes we rise”, I hear the mythological creature, the Pheonix. The closest bible references I get are tenous at best.
    1) Out of the miry clay – ps 40:2
    2) ashes to ashes – Gen 3
    3) beauty for ashes – Is 61:3

    Does anyone else wonder what we are singing here?

  4. Chris L. on March 7, 2011 11:36 am

    Brian,

    First off, I’d note that I tend to follow the Normative Principle of Worship rather than the Regulative Principle, so I don’t have a problem with using metaphors that aren’t a direct pull from Scripture.

    Out of the ashes we rise – ???

    I would tie this back to the concept of the “new man” vs. the “old man” (via Paul), or being “born again” (via Jesus to Nicodemus). And yes, I believe the Phoenix imagery might be at use here (which was symbolically used by a number of early Christian writers, including Clement of Rome), which symbolically represents resurrection/new life. (For the sake of full disclosure, I have a son named Phoenix, following this reasoning).

  5. Frans K. on March 30, 2011 10:42 am

    Sorry I’m not gonna share any wisdom.
    I just want to thank you all for what you’ve written.
    I was looking deeply into this song because I think it carries something with it that is right for my church at this time.
    I’ve learned from reading all of your opinions and responses.

    Thanks again!

  6. MC on November 15, 2012 7:33 pm

    We occasionally sing this song in church and I get a little knot in my stomach with the “out of the ashes we rise” line because of the Phoenix myth. I suddenly feel like we might be singing to a strange god. I just skip that line and throw in the name of Jesus to make sure I’m not out of line. I really do like this song though!

  7. Chris L. on November 16, 2012 6:08 pm

    Actually, MC, early Christians were known to reference the phoenix and use it as a symbol of resurrection. I believe Clement of Alexandria was the first of the early church fathers to reference this.

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