One of the biggest critiques of modern worship is that it’s far too individualistic. It’s all about me and God: I sing about my worship of God for who he is to me. To a certain extent this is a caricature, but there is truth in it.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Modern (Western) culture is centred around the individual. We define who we are by reference to our “authentic” inner self, which is something we discover within our own inner worlds without meaningful reference to our relations with others. Swimming in the waters of modern individualism, it’s difficult for the Christian lyricist to move away from the individualistic language with which so many modern worshippers connect.
But sometimes I need you to.
I love the emphasis on personal experience that modern (particularly Pentecostal) worship involves. I see within myself a temptation to confine God to an abstract concept held at arm’s length – it feels easier, safer, and like I’m more in control than I really am (all of which are not actually true). But a personal experience of him drawing me near upends that illusion. I see myself as enfolded in his life, so much so that my real self is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3); it’s certainly not hidden inside of myself somewhere.
When that emphasis on personal experience is focussed primarily on individual personal experience, and when that emphasis is overblown, it becomes problematic. It contributes to that general drift away from community and all the problems that brings for our discipleship, mission and ethics.
One of the reasons that I think we shy away from more corporate language in our worship is the sense that I can’t say anything on behalf of another. I don’t have the right to speak for you, and so I’d better just stick to my own individual confession and expression of worship. Traditionally, it’s “we believe..” not “I believe…”, but the former feels uncomfortable for us in a culture of relativism.
Yet there have been times when I have desperately needed the community of believers to speak for me. Times when I haven’t been able to speak God’s praise, when I haven’t been able to confess his goodness. I’ve known deep down that it’s true, but some life experience has upset the mix of unbelief and belief (I’m thinking of Mark 9:24 here), and I just can’t say it out loud. Let alone sing it.
It’s in these spaces that the voices of those singing with me have carried my faith along with theirs.
We need to make space in our worship services for the person who just wants to come and be, and maybe cry. In those spaces the praise and worship that others bring on our behalf is life-giving, it connects us with a personal experience of God that is individual and communal at the same time.
So please, do it for me, sing “we”.