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A Call for More Sorrow in Church Music

I really would like to hear some sorry church music this coming Sunday. Honestly. But, chances are, since I’m going to be in the worship service of a Bible-believing Evangelical church, I won’t. What a shame.

What I will hear will vary slightly depending on whether or not it is a contemporary worship service (which is most likely) or a traditional worship service (I’m probably in a small church) or a mixture. If it is contemporary, it will be dominated by songs praising how wonderful God is and how much I long to experience Him more deeply. If it is a traditional service, it will be dominated by testimonial gospel songs about how great it is to be saved and how we can’t wait to get to heaven.     

There’s nothing wrong with songs of praise or testimony or seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus. I would really sound like an odd person if I said something like, “I’m tired of singing songs of praise.”     

Well, I am. Both. I am an odd person, and I am tired of the steady stream of praise music. How could there be anything wrong with filling up a Sunday gathering with songs of praise? That is what this post is all about.     

One good way to explain my point would be to draw an analogy from our personal prayer times. When you pray, I’m sure you give God praise. I’m sure you express your love and admiration for Him. And, of course, I’m sure you thank Him for what He has done and is doing and will do in your life. None of us can imagine a rich prayer life without praise and worship and celebration.      

After all, the Our Father (Pater Noster) begins with praise: “Hallowed by Thy name.” And, as it was memorized and used multiple times a day by Christians by the beginning of the second century, it also concludes in praise with the doxology: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”  

But, between these two bookends of praise, Jesus constructs a model of prayer that includes other themes. Surrender and submission. Thy will be done. Appeals for God’s help in our daily needs. Give us this day. And, importantly, an acknowledgement of our sins linked to a prayer for forgiveness being granted as we have forgiven others. Then there is an acknowledgement of our weakness to resist temptation as we pray for God’s protection from evil.     

A prayer life that is nothing but praise is not so much rich as it is pathetically self-righteous. Cowering just out of sight in this all-praise and only-praise approach to God is the assumption that praising God will ultimately benefit us. Praise will bless our lives and lift our spirits. It’s like telling our parents how wonderful they are over and over. We naturally expect to be rewarded for this steady stream of affirmation.     

That is not entirely wrong. There is a skin of truth in this assumption that praise is also a means of being blessed. But that skin of truth is stuffed with a lie. Drawing close to God does not happen just because we praise Him. Biblically, closeness to God is a painful and often costly place to move. Receiving blessing after blessing is not a reward we get for reminding Jesus He’s a great guy. Real worship, like real prayer, must fill in the space between the bookends of praise with words of repentance, confession of sin, acknowledgement of our moral weakness, our fears and our doubts.     

In other words, a worship service in which we offer God nothing but praise reflects an appalling refusal to see the thing standing between us and God is us. We are like a bride who has neglected her husband, flirted with other men, broken promises, gone long periods of time without giving him a second thought. And then she shows up and flatters him by telling him how great he is, assuming that is all that is needed to restore and strengthen the relationship.    

But, the most damning realization is that the real reason we do not sing songs of sorrow and repentance is that we honestly do not feel we need to sing them. Face it: If we did, then we would. If even some of us did, we’d make it a point to do something. We’d write some sorry music. Or, we’d help the worship team to find some sorry music. Or, we’d point out to someone that we need to start including those sorry moments in our weekly gatherings.     

The truth is we must all feel perfectly fine with just walking in and praising God in song after song. All the while, giving hardly a thought to the sinful things we have said and done and failed to do that contradict the happy praises we are happily singing. In one uplifting worship song after another, we offer up words that incidents of our past week utterly contradict and feel no shame. We refuse to hear the discordant unresolved conflict between the music of praise and the chords and notes of our daily lives that clash in the chaos of atonal noise.    

Let’s hold up a clear mirror for once and see the truth. There are many Sundays we have no business whatsoever happily worshiping God as a community until, as a community, we have joined together and cried out: “I’m sorry. Lord, forgive me. Lord, save me. Lord, have mercy.”  But, when you search for a song for such a moment, you only confirm sorry music is the great gaping hole in Evangelical worship that no one seems much to mind.     

There may be no link between our apparent lack of awareness of personal sins or absence of shared grief over those sins and the staggering number of scandals among church leaders we pretend are only epidemics for other traditions. Maybe the absence of planned contrition and confession has no impact in undermining our already tenuous grip on genuine holiness. Maybe these are all symptoms of a church that is rapidly growing larger and disappearing at the same time.     

Well, OK. There you go. If you think I’m wrong, then, honestly, you may be a much better Christian than I am. And you may worship at a church of people who are at least as good. I admit it: I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t fit in. Because I need to learn to weep in order to have the right to laugh. I need to bow to the ground in shame to be able to lift up holy hands in praise and dance the joyous dance of the redeemed.     

But, if you think this lack of sorry music and sorry moments in worship is a tragedy, then you and I have to begin looking for some way to get some really sorry times back in our worship.  You know this realization is not new:

“God opposes the proud,

but gives grace to the humble.

Submit yourselves therefore to God.

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Cleanse your hands, you sinners,

and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Lament and mourn and weep.

Let your laughter be turned into mourning

and your joy into dejection.

Humble yourselves before the Lord,

and he will exalt you.”

James 4:6-10