Long before I began teaching the Bible as my primary pastoral duty, I served as a worship leader. You know, the guy with the Taylor guitar and the poor stage presence? The one who talks too much between songs, occasionally forgetting that he's not the preacher? Yeah, that guy.
As I look back over those years of leading the gathered church in song, one emotion tends to dominate. I'm not sure what to call it, but it is the feeling you get when you are cringing in embarrassment at your 17-year-0ld self. Some of this cringing comes from my own vanity, (remembering how dumb I looked with shoulder-length hair and a Led Zeppelin tee shirt) but most of it comes from the songs I used to choose.
Have you ever been in a church service and just not been able to keep singing a song? When you look at the words projected on the screen and think, "Really?" For me, this happens when the worship leader leads one of these four types of songs, songs we really should stop singing:
1. "When you think about it, it's really all about me."
"Like a rose, trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all." Now listen, I have no problem with saying that God is like a flower. God isn't a beer-swilling macho man, ego so fragile that he can't handle poetry. It is right and proper to say that God is beautiful; he is! In fact, the concept of beauty lacks an absolute referent without God. Similarly, I have no problem with speaking of Jesus "taking the fall" for us. Like the biblical authors, I am an imputationist.
Here's the problem: "You... thought of me above all."
Actually no. He didn't. He thought of the glory of the vindication of his own holiness, the majesty of his mercy. He thought of his glory burning like a supernova as multitudes of sinners-made-saints stand before his throne, clothed in Christ's righteousness, singing his praise. He thought of demonic hoards thrown down into Hell, put to open shame.
God ordained the cross first for God. The Gospel is good news for sinners, not because God magnifies us above all, but that through the cross, he unites us to himself. Just as God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt that he might tabernacle with them, God redeems us from slavery to sin that he might tabernacle in us. God, by being for God before he is for us, is able to be for us in the most significant way he could be.
2. "The white knights are here to save you, Jesus."
I'm thinking here about those songs where we tell God all of the things that we are going to do for him, presumably starting immediately after the benediction of the service. "I will go to the ends of the earth for you, Jesus! Seriously, I know I haven't ever shared the Gospel with a real person, but starting today, I'm going to literally transfigure into a cross between Jim Elliot, Iron Man (without the cussing), and the Apostle Paul. Like, FOR REAL this time."
Ok, hold up. Are you? I mean, are you really? Would it not be more faithful to the rhythms of Scripture to ask God for faith, perseverance, and boldness than to promise the same? Should we not rather confess our failure, our weakness, our fickleness, our proclivity to wander—and then petition God to reveal his glory by working through such weakness? Again, it is not sin to tell God you are going to do something. Of course it isn't. But if our songs make us into white knights galloping into the fray to rescue an embattled Jesus, we have exactly reversed reality.
3. "I am an enormous liar."
"I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my King!"
"And I faaaaaaaaaaaall facedown."
"So we raise up holy hands!"
-barely mumbles the guy standing very still, both hands in his pockets.
Any time I am singing that I am literally doing something, I should probably be literally doing that thing. Doing otherwise is called lying. You know who the Father of Lies is? That's right: Satan. A generally good idea is to avoid emulating Satan during our worship services. Additionally, as a parenthetical remark, most of these songs are enormously cheesy and just plain bad art (which is probably Satanic as well, I just can't think of a verse right now).
4. "I am passionately in love with you every second of every hour."
You know the ones I'm talking about. These are the songs that only the incarnate Christ can sing. "Oh God, my heart is a burning Sun of passionate emotions, iridescent with love for you!" To me, these songs turn us into moderately less talented Whitney Houston imitators. We stand there, lights dimmed, keyboard pad subtly coloring the background frequencies, belting out, "AND IIIEEEEEEEIIII WILLLL ALLWAYS LLOOOOOVVEE YOUWHOOHOOWOOOHOOIAAEEEEEAI!!!" and lying as we do so.
We don't perfectly love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don't. In fact, the more I meditate on this love, Jesus' one-sentence summary of the Law, the more I wonder if I have ever strung together 60 seconds of this kind of love for God in a row. Don't misunderstand me, here: The Gospel does transform us. It does change our affections. It does produce fruit. But how? By pretending that my emotions are in a constant state of Law-fulfilling passion for God? Or by aiming with all my might to behold the glory of Jesus' Law-fulfilling passion for God?
See 2 Corinthians 3:18.
Here's what I'm trying to say: Worship leader, give me songs I can sing when I'm not doing well. Give me songs I can sing with the crushing reality of my sin curing like concrete over my conscience. Give me Gospel-refrains I can sing through my own manifold failure, my fickle emotions, my foggy vision, my often laughably incompetent following of my Lord. Put his faithfulness under my feet. Put his glory on my tongue. Put his victory into my heart.
"Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea;
A great High Priest whose name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on his hands
My name is written on his heart
I know that while in heaven he stands,
No tongue can bid me thence depart"
Oh for more mouths to sing and believe this!