Thursday’s rant – no more ‘God in the Sunset’ worship songs!

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Much of our worship seems to reject the incarnation. Karl Barth, when writing to address the growing atheist movement in the early part of the 20th century, answered their criticism that ‘there is no such thing as a God up there’ with the words, ‘quite right.’ He reminded the church that we don’t believe in a God like that either. The only God we know of is the one who came to meet us, who asked us to call him, Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ That has not changed.

The incarnation is not only a story for Christmastime, it is the foundation of all our God-speaking and God-living. The only God we know is the one who came to meet us.

Yet, many of our contemporary worship songs seem to step all around acknowledging the primary place where God has made himself known in our world, in Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, they talk about loving Jesus, serving and surrendering to Jesus. But as far as letting Jesus be our window to the heart of God, not so much. More than that, they also reject what we could call God’s secondary place for revealing himself. People are made in the image of God. People form the body of Christ. People are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Yet can you think of a single contemporary worship song that enables us to express our belief and experience that God resides in the people singing alongside us, or even the ones who didn’t bother to come and sing?

Instead we push God further away. We don’t seem comfortable with the idea that God is in us, and in other messy, wayward people. So we try a different route. Instead of Immanuel, we get,

‘God of wonders beyond our galaxies’ – God of wonders

‘We could try to count the stars
You already know them each by name’
– King of wonders

From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation’s revealing Your majesty’
– Indescribable

Not a close God, but a bigger, further-away God. This fascination with finding God in nature seems to come at the expense of encountering God within fallen humanity (which is where he asks us to look the hardest). Note it is only ever the glorious parts of creation that are said to speak of God. No one is writing songs about oil-spills. We’re being mighty selective about where God can be found. Where does that leave us when our lives look more like an oil-spill than a sunset? Is God still with us?

This last song, ‘Indescribable’ goes on to make a familiar-sounding claim in the chorus.

‘All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God’

We are fascinated by the power of God. Perhaps because we cannot experience it in our own lives, we push it out into the galaxies, the mountains and the sunsets. We sing ‘above all else’ and ‘glory in the highest’, seemingly unaware of the God who ‘emptied himself and became nothing.’ The incarnation was not a phase that God went through. The Spirit of that same self-emptying Jesus is the one who resides within each follower now. And yes, this Jesus is now glorified with the Father, but by his Spirit he is also still up to his armpits in the muck of human pain and degradation. Perhaps we cannot experience the power of God in our lives because we are looking for the wrong sort of power. Perhaps God is closer than we are willing to believe. Perhaps God is still letting this world crucify him in order that he might still redeem it from its brokeness and corruption. Maybe the lamb that was crucified before the foundation of the earth will be crucified until after it is gone. And this story plays out in the life of every person who loves him. Paul claims that he is crucified with Christ. It is not an event, so much as an ongoing reality. The Christian life has been said to be ‘cruciform’ or cross-shaped.

While we keep writing our songs about a big, powerful God whose going to help us live big, powerful lives, I think Jesus stands out in the foyer, inviting us to become little and childlike again. God is not going to win this world from the top down, but from the bottom up.

AUTHOR: Malcolm Gordon
9 Comments
  • Peter Bristow

    So you want “I come to the garden alone” refrain “and He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells I am His own”? I guess the same “problem” emerges in the hymnal “Immortal, Invisible” – surely there is a place to remember that God is transcendent as well as immanent. However it is always with me that Jesus is God-with-us and that by His Spirit He never leaves or forks even when we richly deserve it. We seems to swing between keeping God at a distance and then cuddling up to Him in a Jesus is my boyfriend sort of way. Guess it’s up to songwriters to write them, and worship leaders to find them – those songs that balance transcendence and immanence.

    July 11, 2013
    • Hey Peter, yeah it has to be a balance. But I’m also asking questions of the nature of the immanence and transcendence that we express. They might seem mutually exclusive, but both exist in Jesus (who is with us!) As you rightly point out, the overly familiar language of some contemporary music is an attempt, albeit an unsatisfactory one, at expressing God’s presence with us. Sigh – its a tough one!

      July 11, 2013
  • Jannah

    Interesting, interesting, interesting…. again you make me think Malcolm. 🙂

    July 11, 2013
    • Malcs

      Mission accomplished!

      July 11, 2013
  • Paul

    I can’t help but think of 1 Corinthians: “God’s nonsense is wiser than human wisdom” (1:25) Though this refers to the cross, i think it is true in what you say about both immanence and transcendence. Once again we stray toward the golden calf; the god we think we want, the god-in-our-image, the god we can understand and safely box up. He’s big and mighty and oooo scary… and I don’t have to deal with the troubling possibility that he’s present in the guy sitting behind me who smells like cigarettes. Or he’s lovely and sweet and all flannel-graph friendly and would never turn over tables in a temple or rub me up the wrong way about my hobby horses. As much as it’s uncomfortable, we need those reminders or we miss the foolish wonder of the Word made Flesh, full of grace and truth.

    July 11, 2013
    • Malcs

      Yes we’re acting like God’s PR company aren’t we. Good words Paul.

      July 11, 2013
  • In one of my uni classes I set an assignment where students do some theological analysis of worship song and hymns – esp. around Christology. One student turned up this article, which notes that there are often competing Christologies even within the same song. Have added it to next time’s reading list.

    Goodliff, Andrew. ‘It’s all about Jesus: a critical analysis of the ways in which the songs of
    four contemporary worship Christian songwriters can lead to an impoverished Christology”.
    Evangelical Quarterly, 81, no. 3 (2009): 254-268.

    July 16, 2013
    • Hey Stephen, thanks for the link – I look forward to diving into the article. And great work getting your students to reflect on the theology of our sung worship, which is more formative than any other shared spiritual practice in my opinion. Keep it up.

      July 16, 2013

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