“I” Trouble: The “We-I Balance” in Corporate Song (Part 1)

I was stirred by the blog entry Corporate Lyrics at Worship On Your Face (The Prostrate Chronicles) by Steven and it got me thinking about the subject again. The following passage from the book I just finished stopped me dead in my tracks:

At a worship service I attended a couple of years ago, my attention was drawn to the enthusiastic worship leader. He opened our time with prayer, asking God to meet us and draw us together in the Lord’s presence. Then he turned around to face forward, standing just in front of the first row of worshippers with his eyes closed and the band playing. He lifted his hands and offered his joyful praise to God. That’s when I really took notice, for as he sang so rapturously, he kept stepping all over the feet of the people behind him. Not just once or twice but repeatedly throughout the singing in the two-hour service, he kept “tromping in the spirit.” No apology. No sign of acknowledgment. He was just praising God while oblivious to his neighbor.

This illustration metaphorically and practically depicts a significant part of our problem. I have no doubt the worship leader would say that what he was doing was unintentional. He was just so caught up in his own experience of worship that he lost track of others. In worship, he lost his neighbor. That’s exactly the problem. For all of our apparent passion about God, in the end much of our worship seems to be mostly about us. We presume we can worship in a way that will find God but lose track of our neighbor. Yet it was this very pattern in Israel’s worship life that brought God’s judgment. Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor.

The passage is from The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice by Mark Labberton. I recently finished it and it was well worth my time. Let me assure you; it’s not a book for the faint of heart.

Mark Labberton’s story touches on a topic I have been thinking about again quite frequently: The dominate use of “I”, “me”, and “my” in our worship songs.

I believe the songs we sing in worship are formative. As Gary Thomas states in his book Holy Available

What we do affects how we think. There is no getting around this truth. Right living supports right doctrine; right doctrine helps us to keep living right. We desperately need both.
I say what we sing affects how we think. Songs influence our faith: what we believe and what we live out. How do the songs we sing shape our faith? Is our faith God centered? Is our faith self-centered? Is “I” trouble a significant problem? Is one of the reasons we struggle to be the church because corporate worship is more individual than corporate? The contemporary church uses fellowship as a verb, something we do (drink coffee, eat donuts, …). The early church used fellowship as a noun: “devoted … to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42); a group of people who they were committed and dedicated to. Where is our commitment and dedication?

We say and sing “It’s all about Jesus”, but is it really? Is it really?

I wanted to know how we are doing, so I decided to find out.

I devised a simple way to measure our “I” trouble, so I could get more than just a subjective idea of where we are at. To do this I defined a number that I call the “We-I Factor”. I evaluated each song we use and gave it a 1, 0, or -1 as defined below:

1 (We) The song uses “we”, “us”, or “our”. Example: Hosanna - Praise is Rising (Paul Baloche and Brenton Brown ©2005 Integrity's Hosanna! Music/ASCAP/Thank You Music). The song could also be one where we direct the words to each other as encouragement or exhortation. Example: Go Forth (Robert E. Mason ©1982 Integrity's Hosanna! Music/Sounds of Vision)

0 (Neutral) The song is neutral. It is most likely directed to God with no reference to us. The ideal “God in the Spotlight” song. Example: Thou Art Worthy (Pauline Mills ©1963,1975 Fred Bock Music Company, ARR. UBP.)

-1 (I) The song uses “I”, “me”, or “my”. Example: Shout to the Lord (Darlene Zschech ©1993 Hillsongs of Australia, Integrity's Hosanna! Music/ASCAP)

Sometimes songs don’t fit a category clearly, so a judgment call is required.

For a set of worship songs if I add the “We-I Factor” for each song, I will get a total that reflects the “We-I Balance”. Since we normally do six songs on a Sunday morning, the possible results would fall on a continuum from 6 to -6. The following chart lays out the possibilities:

The numbers will give a clearer picture of where our current balance point is and provides an opportunity for us to monitor progress towards a more appropriate balance point. Where the balance point should be is a judgment call. In my opinion routine 6-song sets with a -5 or -6 “We-I Balance” would suggest very individual centered worship and “I” trouble.

This certainly is not the only way to evaluate the songs in a worship service, but if you are serious about the state of corporate worship in your song selection; this is one way to take a closer look.

My goal is not to eliminate “I” songs but to balance their use with “we” and thus promote through song choice worshipping together as the gathered body of Christ instead of promoting nearly exclusive individual worship in a corporate setting.

The song record doesn’t lie. Next week I will report the results of my evaluation of the songs we have been singing at our church. It will include a playlist evaluation as well as 18 consecutive Sunday setlists. A real world example using real world data!!!  (Part 2)


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