No, that word “inclusive” does not mean what you (probably) think it means…not this time, anyway. The following has nothing to do with the gender of language, gender of leaders, sexual preference of anybody, or any of the other popular uses of the term. I have been thinking, lately, of how exclusive the choice of “worship” focus, language, and music often are. As with so many things, I believe the church has regularly misdirected worship in some important ways.
In this discussion I’m going to beg the question of whether the stuff we characterize as “worship” has any relationship to the biblical concept(s) encapsulated in the word…if you want to explore that further check out my mom’s excellent article on the subject. For now we’ll just work with the common English usage: that is, some combination of music, readings, and other material designed–purportedly at least–to focus the corporate body on God and his work.
Two songs I’ve heard in the past week illustrate my point. The first is the old hymn “Amazing Grace,” just sung at the funeral of my 102-year-old Grandmother:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now I’m found Was blind, but now I see. (John Newton, 1779)
The second I heard last Sunday at church, and yesterday afternoon at an Arby’s in South Carolina (KLOV on the PA system…ugh!), “Forever Reign” by Hillsong:
Oh, I’m running to your arms, I’m running to your arms,
Light of the world, forever reign!
The riches of your love, will always be enough. Nothing compares to your embrace,
Both of these songs are deeply meaningful to some people. Both even focus some people’s attention at least partly on God. But I can’t honestly sing either one.
“Amazing Grace,” of course, was written by John Newton who, before he believed in Christ, was captain of a slave ship, and a rather cruel one by his own account. When Newton described the grace of God having “saved a wretch like me,” he was acutely aware whereof he spoke. I have many friends who, having brought out of some pretty awful circumstances, likewise can testify to having been saved by Christ from some truly wretched things. It’s certainly biblical too, as the apostle Paul also looked back on his persecution of the church and called himself the worst of sinners (see 1 Tim. 1:12-16). But it is not universal. I make no claims to be a paragon of virtue, but I’ve had a pretty ordinary life in many respects and would not characterize any period of my own experience as “wretched.” I have never been as blind as the song implies, yet even now I’m unsure just how much I see. I do not discount the pilgrimage of those for whom “Amazing Grace” is a very real testimony, but it is not mine.
Likewise, “Forever Reign” paints the image of us running to the Father’s arms. I know that image intimately as I’m a daddy. I love it when my kids charge recklessly into my extended embrace…but I have never experienced anything remotely approximating that image with God. I know what a paternal hug feels like, and God may give those to some of his followers, but I’m not one of them.
I do not mean to suggest that those who do find these songs represent their faith, ought not sing them at all. It’s even appropriate to sing them publicly in testimony if true. But they’re inappropriate for corporate worship, I suggest, for the simple reason that only part of the assembly can sing them with honesty. Better by far would be to select songs–old and new–that emphasize God’s goodness, power, sovereignty, and works. These are true for all of us, do not depend on personal experience whether real or imagined, and most importantly direct our attention AWAY from self-destructive navel-gazing and TOWARD our creator and king. Just maybe, such a shift in content might remind us that we aren’t the center of God’s universe after all. And while we’re at it, maybe we’d make it just a tiny bit less likely people would feel the need to manufacture religious experience in order to fit into our molds.