Modern worship songs and psychotherapy8 min read

I had a realisation the other day. Over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly frustrated with modern worship songs but haven’t been able to articulate why it is that I’ve been unhappy. I just haven’t felt able to engage with them in terms of worship – I am finding more and more that I prefer traditional hymns.

It finally struck me the other day that the reason I don’t like a lot of modern worship songs is because it is psychotherapy: it’s there to make us feel better. Essentially – it seems to me – modern worship songs are designed to make us feel better about the problems that we face, by reassuring us that God is on our side.

Let me give a few examples.

Examples of psychotherapy in worship songs

One of the important things when analysing songs (as well as anything, really) is not just looking at what is said, but what is NOT said. Often the things which are left unsaid speak louder than the things which are included. Let’s keep that in mind for these songs.

The Lion and the Lamb by Bethel Music

This is one of the most popular worship songs that have been written in the past few years. The song is about the power of God, about how everyone will bow down before him. The chorus starts with these words:

And our God is the lion
The Lion of Judah
He’s roaring with power
And fighting our battles

I take it that ‘fighting our battles’ is a reference to verses like Exodus 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still”.

So why am I uncomfortable with this song? Because, in my opinion, it makes it seem like God is there to ‘fight our battles’: whatever battles we are facing at the moment, God is there to fight them. The problem with this is, it makes out that the biggest battles we face are ‘out there’ – with the things that are happening in our lives. it leaves out the fact that the biggest battle we face is within us: the battle of sin. The song does mention sin once (“For the sins of the world his blood breaks the chains”), but not in a personal way.

Our biggest battle is with sin, and the “battles” that we face often in fact are there as God’s loving discipline. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children” (Hebrews 12:7).

Yes, God does promise to work everything for our good – absolutely. But I feel that this song reinforces the idea that God is there as the background to the things going on in my life. He’s there to help me accomplish the things I want to accomplish – rather than about me submitting myself to him in every way, knowing that I am inadequate and sinful and can only accomplish anything at all by his grace.

Who you say I am by Hillsong Worship

This song is about joy in our identity in being adopted by God as his children. I think, for example, of 1 John 3:1, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” John was overjoyed at being a child of God. It’s a wonderful thing to remind ourselves that we are children of God. We are brought out of the kingdom of sin and darkness into God’s kingdom.

The song does have some helpful lyrics about this: “I was lost but He brought me in”; “While I was a slave to sin / Jesus died for me”. This is all good stuff. Then the chorus says:

I am chosen
Not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me
Not against me
I am who You say I am

This is very much focussed on our new identity. I think all this is well and good, and based on passages like Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

The problem, as I see it, is what is not said. Our new identity in Christ, in the Bible, is connected with putting off our sinful selves and putting on Christ – created to be like him in holiness and righteousness. It is, in a word, about repentance. This song talks about how things used to be, but it doesn’t talk at all about our need to pursue holiness.

Many of the verses are taken without surrounding context, for example 1 John 3 goes on to say directly after the verse I quoted:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

So his rejoicing in being a child of God rapidly turns into an encouragement to purify ourselves. He goes on to say “No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” In fact, 1 John contains much more of that kind of language!

Cornerstone by Hillsong Worship

I will just pick one more example. You may be thinking – “But hold on a second, isn’t that just an old hymn?” Well, yes it is. BUT I think Hillsong made an important change in the song which shifts the focus.

The Hillsong version adds a new chorus:

Christ alone, cornerstone
Weak made strong, in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm, He is Lord
Lord of all

Which replaces the old chorus:

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Do you see what’s happened there? The old hymn encouraged us to trust in Christ alone because all other ground is sinking sand. The hymn is about putting our faith in Christ through difficult times, and knowing that he alone can be our strength and stay when everything else fails.

The new chorus focusses on “Weak made strong”, which is looking is looking beyond Christ to the effects of these hard times on us. It’s saying that we just need to trust he’s making us strong through these hard times. Again, this isn’t a bad point to make, but changing the chorus in this way moves the focus from trusting in Christ alone to its effect on us. It puts us and our problems back in the frame.

The problem of a narcissistic culture

Here’s the problem. None of these songs are bad songs in themselves. I think sometimes they take Bible verses out of context, but in general I don’t think they’re heretical or anything like that!

The problem is not so much about individual songs but the culture which these songs exist in. We live in a very ‘me-focussed’ culture. We live in a culture where ‘safe spaces’ are needed in Universities, where we need to affirm someone’s identity or it will be taken as a personal attack, where people create carefully curated versions of themselves on social media. Our culture is, in a word, narcissistic – something that Jean M. Twenge has written about in The Narcissism Epidemic.

In a culture like that, what role does church and worship play? It becomes about self-affirmation: Jesus saves us, forgives us our sins, and then gives us a hearty slap on the back and tells us how wonderful we now are. Whenever we face problems we know that God is there for us, to fight our battles and enable us to continue. God is like a cosmic psychotherapist.

Our real deepest need

The thing that’s missing from these songs – and I think from much modern worship music – is the idea that we are (in the words of Philip Bliss’ hymn “Man of Sorrows”), “guilty, vile and helpless”. Over the last few years I have come to love the Book of Common Prayer. Something which I appreciate so much about it is its complete honesty about our sinful condition: without God we are dead in sin, unable to do anything. As the Morning Prayer confession says, “there is no health in us”. We do not simply need a bit of a polishing; we need resurrection. We should put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3), but instead walk in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).

This is why I have come to appreciate old hymns so much more: old hymns tend to focus on God, our sinfulness, how amazing it is that God has forgiven us, and on solid truths which we can cling onto even in the hardest of times. I find that far more therapeutic!

We need songs today which remind us of those same things – not songs which encourage us in our narcissism. Fortunately, there are some places which are producing much more meaty Christian hymns and songs – I like Sovereign Grace, for example, who’ve produced some lovely songs recently. One of my favourites is O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer.

I won’t go through it all now, but my suggestion is to listen to the song, take note of the lyrics, and see what the difference is between some of the songs I mentioned.

A prayer – what we are missing

Let me finish by quoting a prayer from The Valley of Vision, a collection of puritan prayers and devotions. I love this book, because it is full of heartfelt cries to God, to come to us in our need. This is a prayer, taken almost at random, called “God All-Sufficient”. I’d love it if more of our worship looked something like this.

O Lord of grace,
The world is before me this day, and I am weak and fearful, but I look to thee for strength;
If I venture forth alone I stumble and fall,
but on the Beloved’s arms I am firm as the eternal hills;
If left to the treachery of my heart I shall shame thy Nmae,
but if enlightened, guided, upheld by thy Spirit,
I shall bring thee glory.
Be thou my arm to support, my strength to stand, my light to see, my feet to run, my shield to protect, my sword to repel, my sun to warm.
To enrich me will not diminish thy fullness;
All thy lovingkindness is in thy Son,
I bring him to thee in the arms of faith,
I urge his saving Name as the One who died for me.
I plead his blood to pay my debts of wrong.
Accept his worthiness for my unworthiness,
his sinlessness for my transgressions,
his purity for my uncleanness,
his sincerity for my guile,
his truth for my deceits,
his meekness for my pride,
his constancy for my backslidings,
his love for my enmity,
his fullness for my emptiness,
his faithfulness for my treachery,
his obedience for my lawlessness,
his glory for my shame,
his devotedness for my waywardness,
his holy life for my unchaste ways,
his righteousness for my dead works,
his death for my life.

In that prayer we see that our biggest problem is ourselves and our sin – and yet, there we find the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Where we are weak, then he is strong. Now that’s worth singing about!

2 thoughts on “Modern worship songs and psychotherapy8 min read

  1. Yes! We despair at the shallow, poor quality songs that are considered to be essential for modern worship.
    The music is often incredibly bland and repetitive, often an almost exact copy of the latest pop music.
    I agree that there needs to be a mix, with something lively for the younger generation to identify with, but I think it’s wrong to insist on only modern songs.
    In our experience, there are nearly 50% of the younger generation who cannot stand the modern worship songs. Many are truly appreciative of good music.
    We also need to understand that some of the best traditional hymns are loved by many people of all ages, and may be the only part of a service that some newcomers will recognise. Endless new songs can be very off-putting.
    Finally, than you so much for introducing that new song, it is much better than most new ones!

    1. Hi Liz,

      I completely agree with what you say. I too think there is a need for a mix of songs, new and old, different styles. Look at the Psalms – from Psalm 119 to Psalm 117! In fact I think our songs would be so much better if they were rooted in the Psalms.

      Keith Getty wrote something in a Spring Harvest book a few years ago about how it’s important to sing hymns as they cross generations. Hymns will remain when contemporary hymns have faded. I think there’s a lot of truth there. Biblically rich songs with singable melodies will always be welcome and needed in church.

      If you like that song, you might also like ‘Turn Your Eyes’ – also by Sovereign Grace – and ‘What Gift of Grace (Yet Not I)’ by CityAlight. They’re both newer songs which are also among my favourites.

      Thanks for commenting and I’m glad it was helpful!

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