Why We! Worship

Taylor Swift is back with another infectious country pop jam, launched by a frenetic music video full of puffy clouds, pastel gloop, and that guy from Panic! at the Disco. Speaking of unnecessary exclamation points, this new one is called "ME!" and features clever rhymes like "I'm the only one of me // baby, that's the fun of me" and insightful lyrics such as "There ain't no "I" in "team" but you know there is a "me."

Swift announced the single as "a song about embracing your individuality and really celebrating it and owning it." While this song's intent is to be empowering, I can't help but question the shallowness and self-centered nature of the sentiment. Even the song's title raised an eyebrow before I heard it.

Pause. I know: I'm being a little unfair. It's just a pop song. You don't write an in-depth food critique of a fast food value meal, you just inhale it in roughly 3min30sec and move on. And surely I, a 31 year old male, am not the target market of this, or any, pop radio confection. Could I make a similar critique of any other self-focused (ie, all of them) song on the pop charts? Yes. Is this particular song more positive than any of the others? Also yes. (And did I internally "awww" at the cute kitten in the video? Yes. Yes I did. Do I now know that Taylor adopted said kitten after the video shoot? Yes. Yes I do. My cold heart still beats on occasion).

Image result for taylor swift me kitten
I could easily slip back into some more Top 40 focused cynicism, but my main point here is not to bash our hometown gal from down the road Nashville, TN. My main point is to bash myself.

Even without being egged on by some catchy melodies and beats, I think about myself constantly. Not on purpose or anything. Just run of the mill unintentional narcissism. Here's a sample of early AM internal monologue, in question form:
  • What am I eating for breakfast?
  • What's the first thing on my calendar at work?
  • How do I respond to that email I've been avoiding?
  • What am I packing for lunch?
  • Should I go for a run after work or is it going to be raining?
  • Should I go for a longer run so I can eat more?
  • What's for breakfast again?
And so on. When left on autopilot, my brain just floats through a mostly self-focused Q&A session and day preview/review that is stuck squarely from the perspective of yours truly. Perhaps your grey matter performs similarly, but hopefully without as much of an alarming focus on food like mine.

While self-reflection has value, I'm convinced most of us (me!) need help veering in the opposite direction. I'm convinced that when Paul talks about praying continuously in Thessalonians, he's giving advice that's meant to flip a switch to send our trains of thought down the right side of the tracks. No, I have no theological exegesis to back this up, but it's useful for me to think of prayer focused on God as a way to quit focusing so much on myself.

Pause. I'm not the specific target market in this case either. Here's a LITTLE exegesis: Paul’s message is definitely not talking to just me individually in 1st Thessalonians 5. He's talking to the church as a whole, specifically the "brothers and sisters" in Thessalonica. The collection of believers, in this little Greek town by the sea.

In fact, most of the Bible is addressed and meant to be engaged with not as an individual, but as a member of the church as a whole. This is a tough concept for us (post)modern Americans to grasp. It's tough for me to ever move beyond my own internal monologue, and it's even harder for me to see the "great cloud of witnesses" past the haze around and inside my own head.

Here's why worship is powerful: it clears the air. It takes our thoughts upwards to something and someone much greater than ourselves.

But our own Christian radio charts are chock full of our own little versions of ME!, even if the intent is also good. So many of our worship songs keep that eternal focus viewed directly through the narrow frame of our own individual eyes (or I's). I'm not gonna call out any artist or song, but so many worship lyrics start and end with how that eternity affects and improves our own individual life.

This is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it's Psalmic. It's perfectly natural for a songwriter to write a song from their own perspective. And this is, after all, the good news: that an eternal God does care enough about you and I to step out of the cosmos and into our own little worlds.

But sometimes I fear that we personalize the gospel at the expense of the identity of the church as a whole, that subtly our 1st person language has overwhelmed the need for some 3rd person perspective. This yearning for a collective focus for the church together has spurred many conversations between Pastor Vince, worship leaders, and worship team members in the past couple of years. And even now, when you hear an "I" swapped to a "we" in a chorus sung at RCC, it's likely coming from this perspective (rather than just being some neat little trick to change things up a bit).

I'm not saying we should abandon all personal pronouns and start talking in the third person, scornfully casting aside all worship songs using "I" language as a way to pull a bit of eternity into our perspective. (And even though “ME!” is not for me, I'm not saying Taylor Swift and her pop peers are the problem either). My problem is my own inherent default selfishness. My problem is my own constant battle to see another perspective other than my own. My problem is my own heart.

True worship is, after all, an internal pursuit of the heart. But the key is to remember that the most important heart isn't mine, it's His.

-Ben Smither, RCC Worship Leader