Worship: It is and it isn't about you

July 20, 2010

I’m not much of a Rick Warren fan, but I’ve always appreciated his best-known catchphrase: "It’s not about you."
The evangelical worship life I grew up with was chock-full of “I”
language, with less room for substantive statements about God. (An
occasional “we” would have been welcome as well.) A hobby horse among
evangelicalism's critics, these individualistic songs and speech
patterns have been much criticized from within as well, resulting in some real improvement. (The most recent Top 25 Praise & Worship Songs album leads off with the theocentric "How Great is Our God.") The Purpose-Driven Life, whatever its problems, played a significant role in this shift.

I agree with CCblogger Debra Dean Murphy, however, that the “it’s not about you” argument as applied to worship presents an incomplete picture. She offers James Alison as a counterpoint to Warren (a not altogether fair fight), drawing from Undergoing God:

needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory.... It is entirely
for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we
don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of
worship [one invested in the world's violence].

”Yep,” concludes Murphy. “Worship: It’s about us.”

do you think? Are the two ideas in conflict, or are they talking about
different things? Is it simply a question of balance?


Larry said... God does

Larry said...

God does not need our material offerings, however, we need to make them in order to release the hold they have on us. Whether or not God "needs" our worship, our praise, is really not the point. God asks this of us no doubt for our own benefit as Alison contends, however, I choose to be agnostic about whether God "needs" our praise. Wasn't it James Weldon Johnson in God's Trombones who hears God say, "I'm lonely, I'll make me a world."

Rev. Philip Hunt said...

Rev. Philip Hunt said...

Worship does need to be God centered. Worship is not the time each week we show up to be entertained. Does worship need to reflect us? Yes! Different people worship in different ways. Blended is really the way to go.

Rhiannon Jane-Barton said...

Rhiannon Jane-Barton said...

I believe that worshipping God is putting Love first in our lives. I also feel that praising God is giving Him/Her/It all the "credit" for our lives and the Grace and Gifts in them. So, it's about ALL OF US...EVERYWHERE, including all of Creation

Ellie said... I think it

Ellie said...

I think it is a circle/cycle. We come to church bringing the joys and troubles of the week to offer on the altar. God picks them up and feeds us with his body, giving us the strength and courage to take him into the world. In the process, we accumulate joys and troubles... . and the cycle continues. Besides, worship is about community gathered around God.

Stephen said... "The

Stephen said...

"The evangelical worship life I grew up with was chock-full of “I” language, with less room for substantive statements about God. (An occasional “we” would have been welcome as well.)"

Really? It was always an interesting thing to say that evangelical worship in the 1990s at the sort of church I assume you grew up in was me-centered as evidenced by the preponderance of personal pronouns. Take, for example, this chorus to a Mark Altroge song that was sung incessantly by my church at the time:

I stand I stand in awe of You.
I stand I stand in awe of You.
Holy God to whom all praise is due
I stand in awe of You.

Thirty words long and five of them are “I”! Add to that the annoying repetition, and it is pretty easy to make fun of it out of context. And yet, even out of context, it is obviously not about me. If the chorus doesn’t convince you, look up the words to the verse. And, though I don’t know about the church you grew up in, the context in my church was a community of believers and not-so-sures from all walks of life lifting up their voices together in awe of a Holy God who, none the less, loves each one of us.

On the other hand, if you have to change the gender-neutral terms in older hymns to gender-neutral terms that are currently on the approved list, such as changing “mankind” to “humankind” or “people,” isn’t that a human-centered approach to worship?

Steve Thorngate said...

Steve Thorngate said...

I've no particular beef with "I stand in awe of you." (We did that one at my home church a lot back then, too--perhaps a similar place.) And you're right that the fact that "I" is the subject of each sentence in the chorus doesn't by itself mean that the song's not about God. Of course, that's not really a yes/no question, and the language and even grammar we use work on us in subtle ways. So I'd maintain that repeatedly using "I" as the grammatical subject even when "God" is the actual subject can serve to reinforce such tendencies as, say, thinking of God primarily in terms of our own lives and perspectives.

Not that there's no place for that; it's more a question of balance--which gets a bit closer then we are right now to the actual point of my post. My goal in bringing up as a side point this chestnut of a debate was not to rehash it so much as to observe that the situation is much improved--Warren's catchphrase has become a commonplace in evangelical and mainline worship alike, making Alison's argument all the more provocative.

Not sure where you're going with your last paragraph. Humankind is more human-centered than mankind? Just because it refers to roughly twice as many total humans?

Stephen said... Not sure

Stephen said...

Not sure where you're going with your last paragraph. Humankind is more human-centered than mankind? Just because it refers to roughly twice as many total humans?

The point, which I thought I made clear, was that mankind, particularly in the context of the hymns and religious writing of an earlier time, has always referred to 100% of the total number of humans. Modern dictionaries still make that the primary definition. In short, mankind = humankind. But I end up tripping over it in hymns I have sung all my life because some people's human-centered sensibilities require that it be changed.

My primary point, no matter how passe the debate, is that the preponderance of possessive pronouns doesn't necessarily make worship me-centered any more than the lack of them would make it God-centered.

Steve Thorngate said... I

Steve Thorngate said...

I think the basic difference between you and me here has to do with theories of language: you're promoting the more traditional view that the intent of a writer defines the words' meaning, while I'm more interested in the words' effect on the hearer.

At any rate, this whole inclusive language diversion would be a good point if I were arguing for never ever talking about people in worship. But my point is more about balance and priorities in our worship language, existing as it does in a limited span of time, and about HOW we talk about God. Of course we talk about people too, and I think it matters how we do that as well--and that language that excludes people (and again, its writers don't get to choose whether it does) is a much bigger problem than having to learn to sing "though the eye made blind by sin" instead of "though the eye of sinful man" or whatever.

Michael_SC said...

Michael_SC said...

Perhaps the problem with these evangelical lyrics is more the unimaginative and boring repetition, rather than the "I" or "me"? There are biblical examples chock-full of "I": Take Psalm 3 for example: 8 verses, 16 instances of "My", "mine", etc. For new songs, certainly tone down the self-referential language, but above all, write better lyrics.