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Are Pronouns Making Our Worship Lonely?

One of the many reasons I couldn't be a worship leader... I don't fit in skinny jeans.
One of the many reasons I couldn’t be a worship leader… I don’t fit in skinny jeans.

I’m not a worship leader. My butt is too big for skinny jeans. My high school piano teacher told me to quit trying to learn. And no one would knowingly hand me a microphone to sing into.

That means that at least once per week I’m lead in worship. And that means that while the worship leaders are up there singing songs and talking and doing their thing, I’ve got lots and lots of time to think down here.

So accept this as a personal lament, not indictment. I’m sharing it while longing, praying, and seeking something I don’t even know exists.

Singing Into Loneliness

Confession: Worship can be a lonely experience. Those 15-20 minutes are often my most lonely of the week. While I can remember times when worship felt communal, for the past several years I’ve felt like I’m standing in a room completely alone. In reality, I’m standing in a church or conference, or youth ministry event, or whatever that’s not empty but often full of people I love… but the experience is often so individualistic– it feels lonely.

There are external, pop Christian cultural things, that increase my loneliness. 

  • Lighting – Bringing the house lights down and the stage lights up is a psychological isolator. 
  • People in their own space – Standing in a room with lots of people who have their eyes closed or are in their own personally preferred worship posture has always felt weird to me. Having my eyes open and my hands at my side often makes me feel insecure, as if I’m not doing it right.
  • Sound is mixed for a band – I’ve mixed sound a ton. The simple reality is that there is no way to mix current worship music any other way than you would mix for a concert. But when all you, as the worshipper, can hear is your attempt to sing along to the worship leader and the worship leaders voice in a solo’d out way which feels like I’m in the car, alone, singing along to the radio. You might as well be alone. 
  • You have to participate or it gets way worse – While I can remember significant moments of worship when I stood in silence and took in the worship experience, I’ve not been able to do that in a long time. In fact, not participating kicks the loneliness factor up about ten fold. When I try I’m left feeling judgmental. I notice who is not standing. I notice who is lifting their arms extra high. I start to notice that everyone has their eyes closed in an almost trance-like state. Conversely, fighting judgmentalism forces me to focus purely on me… which makes me even more lonely.

Maybe Its the Pronouns Making Our Worship Lonely?

Lately, I’ve been able to isolate the source of this worship-loneliness-thing for me. Pronouns.

Me, I, you, your, mine. Go ahead and go through a few worship albums. You’ll hear a whole lot of personal pronouns. Since I first noticed it I can’t help but identify it over and over as it’s in all the popular worship tunes.

So many songs focus the worshippers attention on their own personal relationship with God, their personal deficiencies, their need for God, and God’s infinite perfection. Theologically true? Probably. But affirming the insecurities of every worshipper doesn’t feel healthy either.

Actually, in Christ we can work towards conquering these things… we write a new story… together we can become the bearers of Good News. In Christ, we can celebrate our collective overcoming of deficiencies to live life to the fullest.

At the core of the Gospel is the truth that you can’t do it alone! That you need Him and together we need Him. That you can find a new family, a new community. And that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 isn’t singular, it’s plural… on purpose!

The Longing for Collective Worship

Perhaps this is selfish? But as I reflect about the tens of thousands of people who walk away from their faith to find something else I wonder if pronouns make that easier? Eyes closed, focused on self, no one would notice if I just opted out of this lonely experience. Would they? 

I know as a worshipper who struggles with feelings of loneliness that I fight hard to stand there, to experience my most lonely moment of the week, and I have to discipline myself to keep coming back each week for more.

It makes me long for something less lonely…

I wonder what worship would be like as a collective experience? I wonder what it’d be like to stand with my brothers and sisters in Jesus and lift our voices in worship proclaiming that I, me, mine are cheap compared to the power of we, us, ours? Would a faith standing together in one voice, stronger together than a solo, be so easy to walk away from? Would a celebration of what God has done this week draw us closer to God than a lament about our inability to be perfect?

What’s the solution?

I don’t have one. Maybe you do? 

 

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

37 replies on “Are Pronouns Making Our Worship Lonely?”

Yesterday after worship I commented to my daughter that I hate worship where every single song focuses on “me” and not one focuses on God. It’s not corporate worship if every song focuses on me. It’s personal worship.

This is very characteristic of our culture right now: everything individualized, personal, one-on-one. We talk about community, but we are actually more individualistic than ever.

The only worship I have been able to get into these last few years has been with a certain group of people that I know well, and a certain singer/guitarist who doesn’t need lights or amps to do her thing.

I also hate the handshake gauntlet, for what it’s worth.

These two things together ensure that I am at least ten minutes late to any church service.

The handshake thing is so deeply buried in church culture that I think people would find new significance of it if they embraced its historical roots.

Do you think this individuality makes it easier for people to walk away from their faith? I am left wondering if people come to church looking for participation in something larger than themselves and leave when they discover it can be a celebration of self.

This is interesting Adam. I think some of the more powerful worship moments for me, the ones that give me the chills, are in fact when the soloist backs off and the entire church lifts it voice together in song. Beautiful…especially on the songs that we all actually know the lyrics of! ; )

you have hit the nail-on-the-head (again!); i reject most of the ways in which singing is a meaningful experience for the performers on stage but fails to translate into reality for me on the ground floor; scripturally, most ‘modern’ songs are bogus (ie, pseudo-scripture); it’s a feel-good attempt as a band-aid ministry designed to ‘warm-up’ the audience into passivity (aka: sheeple); in the NT we see the rejoicing, the awe-inspiring praise AFTER the ministry of discernment in powerful word/teaching that delivers us out of bondage; without real shepherds can there really be real praise?

I get what you are saying though not sure I’d use all of those same words. My sense is that this “me-focused” stuff is more a reflection on American culture and our understanding of ecclesiology than it is of something more sinister. The thing about microphoning a service is that it clearly communicates who is talking and who isn’t being heard.

Thanks for your words, Peter. I am a Presbyterian minister at a UMC congregation leading their music program and specifically overseeing the traditional worship service. I have truly enjoyed using the UMC hymnbook in worship and marvel at its broad scope of music styles and options. In Reformed tradition of worship, we see worship as (1) God acts, (2) We respond. I have found when we embrace that concept in worship, the corporate sense//the family of God feeling is much easier captured. Many of the hymns do reflect the sense of the family of believers, traveling together on that path of worship and seeking God’s presence.

Our contemporary service has settled into a much more user friendly//everyone welcome style of worship. Previously, it was very “entertainment” oriented–lighting just so, format just so, put God’s word in here, maybe a prayer there, singers with one hand in the air and the other patting their hearts. I’m afraid it was delivering that isolated, “I’ve got it, do you?” message that this article shares. Too many people are already feeling isolated and lost, only to come to church and have the division even more pronounced.

A concern I have as a divorced father with two children is how the church is so focused on married households. There is nothing that makes me feel more of a failure than to hear a minister go on and on about church member’s anniversaries, or hear how marriage is God’s plan for all humanity. It would be nice to hear how, even in the midst of failed marriages and relationships, God can (and does) fill us with the grace and hope to begin again, that we can be whole even in our singleness, and that He loves us in our brokenness and loneliness.

Worship for me is God first and foremost. And in that celebration of God, I find my place; I find my space; I find my sense of worth; and I see/feel myself as part of God’s family. It is a challenge to create a worship experience where God is glorified and worshipped, and where those gathered feel connected to Him and to their brothers and sisters. Hymns, songs, psalms, prayers, anthems, welcoming language–each part can blend to break down the walls of isolation and lonliness, and provide a warm, welcoming, spirit-filled time of worship.

Sounds like I’m making a joke but I’m not. A bunch of years ago when I was living in Pasadena going to Fuller there was a lot of buzz about a local church that operated worship like a drum circle. Everyone facing inward (and each other) everyone with an instrument (regardless of skill you can add whatever feels right) and there was no defined leader (only a rhythm and beat). I didn’t fully connect probably because I have hang-ups about the way I think worship works for me (meaning I’ve been programmed)

Great reminder

I will say that I think presbys seem to have a better handle on worship compared to their non-denom friends. I really enjoyed worship at your church. They did a lot to keep the “us” feel.

Great observations, and I’ll add my own personal peeve: My middle-aged, English-teacher self longs to to hurl my big, mean, red pen at the hipster-trendy slides with all the personal pronouns in lower case . . . .

There are some elements of a more traditional style of worship that still work for me. Responsive readings, unison prayers, some favorite hymns….and yes, a significant part is the communal language. To sing “They’ll Know We are Christians” or “We are One in the Spirit” has always been a part of my faith journey.

The other place I find this to be a strong feeling is the celebration of communion. I have experienced communion in some churches that seemed so corporate – or so individual as to lose meaning. At our church we stress both the community and the individual. We speak of the bread as the body of Christ – and break a piece off the common loaf. People then eat individually. When we serve the wine in small cups, all are ask to hold their cup to all are served – we then drink together.

Small stuff – but it does matter.

Thanks for sharing

Fallout from a consumeristic culture perhaps. Yes, I was just commenting on the pronouns too. Feels stale to sing about me…even dissociative….like this: “I’m around you but thinking of me”…weird

Some questions to ask are…Why do we go to church? (“do church”)….it’s not primarily to worship (which can and should be done everywhere) …it has much to do with being the bride of Christ, that is being a people group community through human history since the cross. The church is what GOd is up to…it’s not a place where we sing and pray–though that happens there too.

How much of church and what we like is categorized by experience? (“I like the way I feel at this church, but that church is flaky. It feels funny,” etc ) Is that wise? Are we missing a bigger picture? (I think we are)

I don’t have a solution to offer…but something tells me simplicity could help.

When I first started going to church there was far more emphasis on the church as a community and a collective. Since the eighties it has become far more individualistic. I’m in the UK and I see this as an American influence. It has also all become about power and glory, which frankly doesn’t appeal to me and doesn’t make me feel connected to Jesus. It doesn’t sound to me like the writer’s reasons for feeling alone are the real ones, though they may add to it, but it seems like he’s feeling detached from what’s going on and that may be more a form of ennui that he doesn’t wish to acknowledge. Maybe he should try a different spiritual tradition for a while, take up contemplative prayer or meet in a small group where people are really honest with each other. I go to a Metropolitan Community Church now and there is that community emphasis again in the hymns/worship songs.

God is not limited in space and time; he perceives all at once.This means that when we worship we join with all saints past, present, and future as well as the angels and all of creation. If this isn’t showing up in worship, something’s wrong.

Hey Adam, non-denom worship leader here! I appreciate your thoughts and think those are some great points. One way I’ve tried to create a corporate feel in worship is to make sure I allow some time in the song where we stop playing so loudly and singing into the microphones and encourage people to sing out together. I don’t do it on every song every time, but I try to work it in regularly. Have you been in services where they do this? Does it make your loneliness feel worse or does it encourage you to suddenly hear all the voices of those around you raised in unison?

@twitter-258961950:disqus Thanks for your comment, not sure how we know one another, but welcome! And I have had a number of FB conversations today about this topic, that’s great, love that worship leaders take their task so seriously. As I mentioned in the post, the thing I’m able to point to is the “me and my relationship with God” language of many worship songs as opposed to a “us and our communal relationship with God” tense of the language. So, to your point, it’s the words themselves that seem to bring out the loneliness.

I think @google-18d1c79644cba39256a01cb1b73ffcc1:disqus brought up another easy example of this in how many non-denoms do communion. When you take away the communal nature of the bread/cup… you remove the “communal” from “communion.”

Many moons ago Kristen and I visited a Ukrainian Orthodox church in Chicago. It seemed really cool, but we didn’t understand a word of it. (Except the amens and alleluias in the prayers/music.)

This is a great reflection. The concerns you raise are precisely why I have always found myself attracted to worship services that might be considered high church. It always bothered me when I could only hear the band. It was a was another way of preventing me from participating. I think liturgy that emerges from the tradition of the church protects us to some extent from making worship so idiosyncratic that it becomes isolating. Also, if done right, it is more participatory. I also think singing hymns from across the tradition as well as some of new stuff gives us a sense of connection with the communion of saints throughout space a time. I realize that in saying this that I also need to acknowledge that high church worship styles can be isolating for different reasons. The danger comes from when tradition becomes traditionalism. Tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Worship informed tradition always has the danger of becoming idiosyncratic to a generation if it is not handed on to the next generation to be adapted for their experience.

It’s possible! Of course, if you start a conversation about this in the Methodist/Wesleyan community, you may get a lot of different answers. There are a variety of opinions about this, and lots of people move more in the direction that you have described in your own worship experience, especially because they are reacting to the traditionalism that they have experienced.

Love the witty and edgy way you bring this topic to the forefront! While I whole heartily agree with your list of contributing factors to the problem, I was never able to label the result as “loneliness”. You hit the nail on the head! No wonder I prefer to change diapers and snuggle babies than to have “the worship experience”! Honest intimacy reflecting on the power of our loving creator God. Maybe we should allow the “least of these” to be on stage next week?! Maybe they could teach us how to come to Him “as a child”… too radical 🙂

The things you point out as isolating are some of the exact things I love about worship at some churches. The introvert in me likes to be in a room full of people but still feel like it’s just me and God. I love to sing at the top of my lungs but not be drowning anyone else out. I like to be in my own space. And sometimes I like to just sit and not even stand or sing. A couple years ago I took one of those “how do you best connect with God” surveys/quizzes, and corporate worship (not surprisingly) ranked lowest (contemplative practices were highest). That doesn’t mean I don’t or can’t participate in corporate worship, but it’s difficult for me. And, maybe the use of “I” or “me” in so many of the songs is one reason I don’t find it easy to connect.

I miss hymns. Growing up Southern Baptist we sang hymns and I’ve always thought they had way more substance than “This is the air I breathe…” Over and over and Over. They have actual verses with information and everything. Worship these days seems like masterbation. You do it to get the warm fuzzies.

My first semester of college, I felt exactly like this! It seemed that ever church I was “testing” out had a big, loud band. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what I did have a problem with was not being able to hear people around me joining with me in worship. Back home, the band is a little quieter because our church is smaller. So one of the best spiritual experiences for me was hearing everyone, young and old, tuned or completely out of tune, join in singing to our Creator. It makes me feel part of of something bigger than myself, because it is. Jesus didn’t just love me, He loved everyone else too and as a whole, we are His bride! I finally found a church were all they use is an occasional acoustic guitar and this little box for percussion sounds. I feel like I went the other extreme but it works! 🙂

I don’t really know how to respond to Beth. It is personal worship done in a corporate setting. No one else can repent on my behalf. no one else can praise on my behalf. nothing between me and God – pardon the personal descriptuion – can be done on my behalf before God except prayer. In fact, if worship done properly – and it’s hard to do properly in today’s over-liturgical settings, but not the more free worship settings – it will include time for prayer on behalf of others and praise to God. I think the litany has done more to further idiosyncracy in worship. And by the way, worship is a culmination of the worship in your life during the week before the day of rest and reconciliation to God. If your in it a service where all you can do is be hypercritical, then there are only 3 reasons for that. 1. You are there to set some things straight with your critique – this may or may not be recieved but if you need to share a word from God by all means do it! 2. You are not prepared for a genuine worship experience and thus distracted in the service like you are in life… and so you become hypercritical because that’s waht restless spirits do. 3.You are completely ready for God to pour Himself out on you and it doesn’t matter what the songs are or the setting, you could find God in a cardboard box with a zither and a vibraslap and be blessed on the sabbath. Let’s all think about that for a minute. Some people want the litany to bear the responsibility for what they should bear themselves. Some people want an emotional experience that “feeds” them weekly – the seekers modus. And yet most people just don’t care because it is simply the routine of their “tradition” or family or whatever. Read Isaiah “Is this the fast I have chosen for you? …to come here and bow your heads like reeds in the wind. We make so musch of our critiques and raise them up like idols and yet we forget that we are the makers of what we scoff at. “There will come a day when you will worship neither on this mountain or an that mountain. My true worshippers will worship in truth and in spirit” – Jesus

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