She was a nineteen-year-old college student who came from a broken home. “Ashley” survived a childhood of parental neglect. Her mother was preoccupied with dating various men; in fact, she had five children fathered by four different men. She had little interest in meeting Ashley’s basic needs, not to mention developing a genuine and meaningful mother–daughter relationship.
So imagine Ashley’s surprise when her mother wanted to visit her in college. Imagine her further surprise when her mom suggested she go to church with Ashley during the visit. Ashley was a devoted Christian who attended a large, contemporary church in her college town. Her mother, on the other hand, had never made a profession of faith nor attended church. They had never discussed God or religion. Ashley was shocked, but beside herself with joy, and she looked forward to Sunday.
Well into the worship service, Ashley noticed that her mother was sobbing during the extended time of singing. She stood with both hands held high toward the heavens with tears running down her face. Ashley was stunned and perplexed. What was going on?
Later, on the way home, Ashley asked her mom what she had been experiencing. What had caused such powerful emotions to surface? Her mother replied, “I always knew I was good. I guess I just needed to hear it said over and over. Just repeating it to myself like that made me weep.” Ashley was speechless. Her mom had not realized that the “you are good” lyric was meant to be in reference to God.
This true story graphically illustrates one of the significant issues we have uncovered in our work with the vetting of CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) songs: the ambiguity of divine address. Many of the songs do not name any divine being; others use references to God in a confusing manner. Either way, there is widespread uncertainty as to whom, exactly, the people of God are singing. That is precisely why Ashley’s mom was having a self-esteem moment instead of a God-worshiping moment.
In this brief article, I hope to ask and address three important questions:
(1) What is the problem? (2) Why does this matter? (3) What is the solution? Much more can be said than is possible here, of course. Nevertheless, I hope it will serve to raise our consciousness for the sake of greater clarity and faithfulness in our worship.
What is the problem?
A significant number of top 100 CCLI songs are unclear about who is being addressed. This generally occurs in one of two ways: either the song fails to provide any explicit reference whatsoever to the Christian God by use of name or title; or biblical titles are used, but without providing enough context in the lyrics to be clear about who is being addressed.
First, many songs make no reference to God. They depend entirely upon pronouns to deliver the message of the song. In these cases, “you” is the one most often addressed. However, “you” has no referent. “You” could be anyone divine, human, or for that matter, demonic. Of course, most people in a worship setting assume that we are singing to God or some divine Person of the Trinity. Yet without a name, we are running on assumptions. As an example, one popular worship song, “One Thing Remains,” speaks of extravagant love that “you” gives the worshipers. “You” has love higher than the mountains, stronger than the grave, constant through all change, never runs out, never fails, and so on. Yet God, who is Love, is not mentioned. This is ambiguity of divine address.
Second, many songs do include biblical titles for God, but those titles are used in a confusing way. The words “Lord” and “King” are the two most prominent titles among the CCLI songs. If “Lord” appears in a song, which Person of the Godhead is intended: Lord God or Lord Jesus? If “King” is used, does the songwriter mean to address God the Almighty King or the King of Kings (Christ)? Not only is the referent unclear, but the references are also mixed up within the song itself. For instance, “Only King Forever” repeatedly establishes Almighty God as the “only King,” but intertwined are the words, “we trust forever in your name, the name of Jesus.”
Why does this matter?
Clarity of divine address in Christian worship songs deeply matters for several reasons. It matters:
- because corporate worship is about relational identity. In worship, we express our identity as a particular people with a particular God, the one true God as revealed in Scripture (I Pet. 2:9-10; Ps. 100:1-5).
- because it’s more than a name. Names/titles for God cannot be separated from the Divine Being (Ex. 3:13-14).
- because in our polytheistic world, where many people view any or all religions as viable, references to the Christian, triune God distinguishes worship as truly Christian worship (John 4:21-24; Acts 17:22-23).
- because the center of gravity for our repertoire would shift intentionally toward a substantially more God-focused body of song (Rev. 19:5-8).
What’s the solution?
The solution to ambiguity of divine address is multifaceted. However, here are a few suggestions:
- Choose wisely from within the databases of songs you use. Avoid ambiguous or confusing songs. Select songs that are clear in divine address.
- Call on songwriters to write with clarity in terms of naming God.
- Write songs that are clearer about whom we gather to worship.
- Disciple your musicians in thinking carefully about how God is named (or not) in our songs. Disciple worshipers in the same way.
- Fortify the identity of the Christian God in worship by carefully preparing your prayers and other worship words to remove ambiguity.
In my work with hundreds of emerging worship leaders, I will occasionally be asked, “What’s the big deal? Everyone knows we’re singing to God.” I sometimes ask in return, “Why not? Why not name the Divine Being of the Christian faith?” I know of no good reason.
For Further Reading:
Cherry, Constance M. The Music Architect: Blueprints for Engaging Worshipers in Song. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.
Cherry, Constance M., Mary M. Brown, and Christopher T. Bounds. Selecting Worship Songs: A Guide for Leaders. Marion, IN: Triangle Publishing, 2011.
Woods, Robert and Brian Walrath, eds. The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.
This article was created as a resource to support the CCLI Top 100 Vetting Project at Discipleship Ministries. To use the interactive tool and learn more about the work of this team, visit https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/ccli-top-100.