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Context Matters: A Case for “I” in Worship

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

 

[In my previous post, I explored how The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss” helped me understand that a congregational song’s theological content can only be interpreted correctly if we understand the context in which it is sung. Today’s post can be read as a continuation of that discussion.]

Pronouns

If you went into the worship supply closet at Resurrection Covenant Church (the congregation where I have served as the worship pastor for the last eight years) —well, first you should watch your step, because it’s a mess in there and you might hurt yourself. But if you managed to avoid the protruding bass amp and the rogue music stand, you’d see a battered filing cabinet. If you pulled out the first two drawers, you’d find folders full of chord charts or lead sheets for almost every song we’ve sung over the last ten years. If you started flipping through the folders, you’d notice that many of the songs’ official versions have been amended in one way or another. On some, a word or two are changed to make the song’s lyrics gender inclusive. Others have an alternative chord scrawled in to replace one that just didn’t sound right (or sounded boring). Yet, the most frequent change you would notice would be the songs’ pronouns: scores of “I’s,” “me’s,” and “my’s” are hastily cross out with corresponding “we’s,” “us’s,” and “ours’” scrawled above.

In my first few years of ministry, I was something of a pronoun zealot. Armed with a firm belief in the harmful effects of individualism and consumerism on congregational life and a v5 Precise pen, it was my personal mission to banish I/me/my from vast swaths of congregational song. Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

While I still believe the “we” is essential in congregational song, voices from other social locations have helped me understand that even the “I” we sing—perhaps especially the “I” we sing—is contextual. Before we as worship planners and leaders can know what “I” means in a hymn or praise song, we need to explore more basic questions: Who is singing? Where? Why?

 

Who Is Singing?

One of the first lessons I needed to learn as a worship leader and planner—especially as a straight, white, male worship leader—was that my experiences and social location weren’t normative (an obvious lesson perhaps, but one that needs to be stated again and again because it is still sorely missing from many theological and liturgical discussions). The way I understand “I” is conditioned by my race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, to name but a few.

Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

My first lesson on this journey came in seminary from the pages of James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues. In the midst of his brilliant exploration on the central place of the spirituals and blues in the black religious experience, Cone briefly explains how the “I” functions differently in these songs. Rather than an affirmation of the solitary individual disconnected from community, he argues that “[t]he ‘I’… who cries out in the spirituals is a particular black self-affirming both his or her being and being in community, for the two are inseparable” (61). Thus for Cone, the black “I” is always (1) an affirmation of the self in the midst of the malevolent forces of racism and dehumanization; and (2) understood as an “I” in relationship to the broader community. The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

Around the same time I read Cone, a Korean classmate of mine decided to teach our seminary community a similar lesson through a chapel service he and a few fellow classmates planned to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The songs he included in the service were replete with I/me/my language, and at the bottom of the bulletin he included an explanatory note. While I no longer have the exact verbiage, he explained that because his cultural context was so focused on the communal and familial, the “I” became a necessary assertion of one’s own commitment to Christ. For him, the Korean “I” is a countercultural statement of faith.

The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

While these two examples focus on race and ethnicity, there are obviously many other cultural contexts that will determine the meaning of “I.” For example, how does “I” function differently—how is it interpreted differently—among women? the upper class? refugees and immigrants? people in the LGBTQ community? Obviously, this work only becomes more complex once we take into account the many ways these different cultural contexts intersect in individuals and communities, but the basic message remains the same: what “I” means depends on the “I” who sings.

 

Where?

Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.” The “I” sung in a gated suburb is different than the “I” sung in a densely-populated urban region, which are both different from the “I” sung from a relatively isolated farming community. For example, in Kathleen Norris’s memoir Dakota, she describes how her rural community still loves to sing the gospel hymns where “I” language predominates, like “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Often these hymns are criticized for their sentimental focus on the individual’s relationship with God, but as one of Norris’s colleagues noted, “Church intellectuals always want to root out the petistic hymns, but in a rural area like this those hymns of intimacy are necessary for the spiritual welfare of people who are living at such a distance from each other” (166). And as many rural farming, mining, and manufacturing communities experience economic uncertainty and shrinking populations, their “I” is a reminder of the God who is always near.

Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.”

Why?

Lastly, to understand what “I” means, it is necessary to understand why the “I” is being sung. That is, what is the liturgical and/or pastoral purpose of the pronoun? In my evangelical context, this is what first led me to change so many of the “I’s” in prayers of confession or songs of thanksgiving to “we’s.” My congregations were often well versed in the concepts of personal sin and individual faith, but had little concept of social sins or corporate faith. I believe this is still too often the case in many contexts, but I also understand now that broadening the scope of faith is just one of the many pastoral needs of congregations. Even in the most individualistic of contexts, there will be people there who have been worn down by personal tragedies, poor theologies, or abusive relationships that need to hear not only that God loves humanity generally (“Jesus loves us”) but that God loves them specifically (“Jesus loves me!”). They need more than a benign and aloof God who doles out provisions from a distant heaven, but the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the lost one, the Woman who overturns her house to find the missing coin, the Father who runs to meet his wayward son. For those teetering on despair, the “I” is a reminder of God’s pursuant, unrelenting love for you, for me.

 

Conclusion

To be clear, our churches will always need the “we” in worship. Indeed, I continue to wonder if late-stage capitalism will make the “we” all the more important across contexts as these economic forces attempt to homogenize all humanity into the one primary identity of consumer. Yet, we can no longer live under the false assumption that “I” (or any words we sing or pray) means the same thing to all people in all places in all situations. Context matters.

Though expressed differently in every context, our worship must affirm the community and the individual, the corporate and the personal. Perhaps this is one of the lesson of our two most basic Christian creeds—the continual movement between the “I believe” of the Apostles’ Creed and the “We believe” of the Nicene Creed. We need “I.” I need “we.” May our songs reflect our faith.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Context Matters: A Case for “I” in Worship”

  1. Nancy L Fox says:

    Context does matter…if you are mourning a loved one for example…’I Come to the Garden Alone’ reflects an individual’s grief which those who identify can relate….it’s personal and yet appeals to many…however, ‘we’ as a group who worship God should be inclusive to the masses like “We Gather Together” which brings us all closer together to worship God…

  2. Glenn says:

    Both/and. Excellent post, thank you!

  3. Thanks for addressing the bias against “I” songs. I agree that a given text can have two perfectly valid perspectives according to the pronouns used, and both the singular and plural versions can be valid for congregational singing.
    You don’t need to resort to cultural peculiarities to justify singular pronouns in worship. Every human being relates to God from the context of his/her personal experience. This is not arrogance or putting self ahead of God or community. It’s simply the way we’re built. We seek community and thrive in it, but we’re individual units, not some kind of Borg collective.
    This plays out in worship in several different ways.
    ~ We focus on our personal relationship to God in private prayer with “I” songs.
    ~ We focus on the relationship of God to the human race, or to our community of faith, in corporate worship with “we” songs and prayers.
    ~ And we each bring our personal experience of God to be explored and understood and formed in the congregational setting. “I” songs can serve this purpose beautifully. These are songs of witness, often expressing awe, gratitude, penitence, or surrender, not arrogance or self-centeredness. (Granted, some “I” songs do live in the self-absorption zone, but many more do not. Any category of religious music has its good and bad examples.)
    Of course, on any given day not every “I” song will apply to every person in the pews. But we can sing them in fellowship. Maybe today most of us are not the “I” who needs to pour out a song of personal pain, but we all will be strengthened by singing in solidarity with the ones who do. The “I” song of joy can celebrate God’s individual blessings with those who are in a place of joy right now and also give hope to the ones who aren’t. This kind of sharing builds bonds within the community of faith, as well as expanding our relationship with God.
    As a hymn text writer, I sometimes write texts that purely extol the nature of God, with little or no reference to the singer, and sometimes a text is so corporate in theme that only the “we” pronouns will do. Occasionally I write two versions to capture both the individual and the group perspectives. (See “Thus Far the Lord Has Helped Us/Me” on YouTube for a good example of perspective shift.)
    But at the end of the day I suspect my most God-serving pieces are the “I” songs. Personal witness and personal meditations, written in hymn form to inspire and encourage others, as my Holy GhostWriter sees fit.
    Hmm… I’ve rambled on too long. God bless!

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