Matthew R. Perry

Man-Centered Praise Choruses?

In Church Life, Theology, Worship on March 21, 2006 at 2:45 pm

This Sunday, our church will commission five of our members who will be on-mission to New Orleans to help in the clean-up of the Hope Church in Waldheim and in other surrounding areas.  The name of the team is NO LiMiT (New Orleans, Louisiana, Missions Team) and the key verse around their trip is Psalm 147:5:  

Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
       his understanding has no limit.

The entire Psalm is about the greatness and worth of God’s power, provision, protection, and His proclaimed Word. 

Whenever I study the Psalms, I always turn to the three volume commentary on Psalms by James Montgomery Boice (1938-2003).  His commentaries along with John MacArthur’s are infinitely pastoral in tone but scholarly in depth and content.  Dr. Boice in his notes on Psalm 147 quoted Marva Dawn from her wonderful work Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down on how many of our praise choruses actually exalt the worshipper rather than the One who is worshipped!

For instance, one song by Rita Baloche called “I Will Celebrate” goes as follows:

 I will celebrate, sing unto the Lord
Sing to the Lord a new song (repeat)

With my heart rejoicing within
With my mind focused on Him
With my hands raised to the heavens
All I am worshipping Him
((c) 1990, Maranatha Praise, Inc.)

Notice the subjects of the sentence — in this short chorus, the worshiper is the subject a half dozen times.  All the while, we do not know anything about this God we are worshiping from this chorus (and thousands of hymns and choruses like it sung across this land), but we know all about what the worshiper is doing and singing and saying and feeling. 

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what is supposed to be happening in worship?  Psalm 147 only uses two pronouns to describe what the worshiper is doing.  But almost two dozen times does the Psalm recount who God is, what He has done, and what He desires for His people. 

So give me “Holy, Holy, Holy” and this wonderful hymn over all the others.  Let’s know the God we worship.  Let’s tell of His might and sing of His grace!

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

What do you think? 

  1. At Harvest Community we recently reviewed all of our worship songs for this very reason. The pastor, myself, and the worship leaders sat down and read through the lyrics of about 50 songs to see who the songs were glorifying. I must confess, that when songs have a catchy tune or just really good music, it is easy to not really examine what is being said. For instance, we no longer sing the song, “Above All”. The chorus ends by saying “you took the fall, and thought of me above all.” Well, that’s not exactly true. Christ did think of us, but Ephesians 1 tells us that Christ went to the cross, and saved us “to the praise of His glory.” His glory was thought of first and foremost. Not us. I think that we need songs that are “crawl up in daddy’s lap and tell him you love him” songs but I do believe that we need to be singing songs that worship God as Lord as well as Daddy. There is definately a lack of solid praise music out there. When I write music for the Josh Martin Band I ask the guys to read the songs through and let me know if I am writing something that is not true or could be possibly taken the wrong way. I don’t want to add to the all the man-centered songs out there. Don’t get me wrong, I think that guys like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redmon, and David Crowder are releasing good worship songs but there are few out there like them. Especially here in america. we are the only people who would take a mirror to the grand canyon.

  2. I certainly wouldn’t argue the fact that many of modern praise songs are seriously lacking in spirtual depth. I’m not sure why this is. I don’t think it can be blamed on the genre. But perhaps it could be blamed on the songwriters themselves.

    Regardless, I’m not sure that your standard above would rule out certain psalms as being “man-centered” as well. For instance, Psalm 119–

    “How happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who live according to the law of the Lord!
    Happy are those who keep His decrees
    and seek Him with all their heart.
    They do nothing wrong;
    they follow His ways.
    You have commanded that Your precepts
    be diligently kept.
    If only my ways were committed
    to keeping Your statutes!
    Then I would not be ashamed
    when I think about all Your commands.
    I will praise You with a sincere heart
    when I learn Your righteous judgments.
    I will keep Your statutes;
    never abandon me.”
    (Psa 119:1-8 HCSB)

    Now, one could say that the object of attention in David’s psalm is God’s commands/Law. However, like “I Will Celebrate” that you quote above, Psalm 119 is from the point of view of the writer. Even in “I Will Celebrate,” the focus is on singing to the LORD a new song, focusing my mind on HIM, raising my hands to the HEAVENS, worshiping HIM.

    There’s a difference between the centeredness of a writing and the writing’s perspective.

    Based on the argument by Marva Dawn, is the worshipper being exalted in Psalm 119? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t think that’s the case in “I Will Celebrate” either. It’s a matter of the perspective, the point of view from the writer/worshipper. I can describe my devotion to my creator from MY point of view.

    However, your POINT is well taken that we need to be careful that our worship NOT exalt the worshipper instead of God.

    From an ancient text, case in point, is the non-canonical Psalm 151–

    “I was small among my brothers,
    and the youngest in my father’s house;
    I tended my father’s sheep.
    My hands made a harp;
    my fingers fashioned a lyre.
    And who will tell my Lord?
    The Lord himself; it is he who hears.
    It was he who sent his messenger
    and took me from my father’s sheep,
    and anointed me with his anointing oil.
    My brothers were handsome and tall,
    but the Lord was not pleased with them.
    I went out to meet the Philistine,
    and he cursed me by his idols.
    But I drew his own sword;
    I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.”
    (Psa 151:1-7 NRSV)

    That psalm is SO human-centered that it’s easy to see why it does not receive canonical status in most of our churches (I believe the Orthodox church recognizes it). Psalm 151 is not a song of praise to God, but one to the power of David, told in first person (though I doubt he actually wrote it).

    That’s an explicit example of the types of worship songs we want to avoid in our churches today.

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