Should worship songs be sadder?

Cover image from Gungor’s forthcoming album “I Am Mountain”

On the Community Bible Experience Facebook page I recently saw this re-tweet from Michael Gungor:

“Approximately 70 percent of the Psalms are laments. Approximately 0 percent of the top 150 CCLI songs (songs sung most in churches) are laments.”

His statement was that simple. But the original tweet proved so controversial, drawing so many protests and criticisms, that Gungor had to follow up with a post on the Church Leaders blog, explaining at greater length why he felt “worship music should be sadder.”

I was already thinking about expanding here on a comment I made on his post, and then our time of worship this past Sunday featured Gungor’s plaintive song “Dry Bones,” beautifully accompanied by three young interpretive dancers from the church.  This was all the encouragement I needed to share the following further thoughts here!

As I said in my comment, in response to those who apparently didn’t want to hear anything like a biblical “lament” in worship because, as one person asked, “Why would we have to lament? We have Jesus!”:

“Some of the misunderstanding about ‘laments’ may arise from a false impression that they are just a means of bewailing unfortunate circumstances. What are often called ‘laments’ are also known as ‘psalms of supplication,’ in which the psalmists offer a cry for help and a description of their troubles, but then strive to work through to a statement of trust (‘God, despite all that’s happening, I still trust you’) and to make petition for deliverance and vow praise to God for that anticipated deliverance. So-called ‘laments’ thus combine a realistic acknowledgment of difficult circumstances and troubled emotions with hard-won expressions of trust and praise.”

In other words, as I explain in my study guide to Biblical lyric poetry, these “laments” or “psalms of supplication” present a number of different elements; they’re not just complaints.  Not every psalm has all the possible elements, and the ones that are used can be presented in a variety of orders, but a basic pattern can be recognized.

Psalm 54 illustrates this pattern briefly and well:

Cry for Help:
Save me, O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.

Complaint:  
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.

Statement of Trust:
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.

Petition:
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.

Vow of Praise:
I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, LORD, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

As this psalm illustrates, within a typical “psalm of supplication,” the cry for help and description of troubles certainly make up a “lament” in the popular sense of that word.  And while in many cases the psalmist is able to work through to a statement of trust and vow of praise, as happens here, in other cases (such as Psalm 88, which I call “one of the darkest psalms in the Bible”), we never see the psalmist get there.

And so Gungor’s point is very well taken that too many worship songs skip a realistic acknowledgment of present troubles and jump right to the hoped-for (or imagined) happy ending. And so, I say at the end of my comment on his post, “It would be great to hear some fully-orbed ‘praise songs of supplication'” (if calling them “laments” is too susceptible to misunderstanding) “that work honestly forward from the most difficult circumstances and emotional struggles to statements of trust and promises of praise.”

In fact, if we really want our worship music to mirror the broad range of reflection on experiences offered to us in the Bible, perhaps we should even have some songs that don’t actually show the songwriter reaching the place of expressed trust and promised praise.

Could our worship handle that?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Should worship songs be sadder?”

    1. Thanks for the link to this thoughtful and timely article, which indeed speaks to the same themes as this post: “Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.”

  1. This is such a beautiful article. Worship music has got to be more realistic in my opinion. The Christian life is hard and there are times when we cry out saying “Why?”, there are times when we are angry with God, there are times when we are almost literally being carried by Him. Then there are those times when we acknowledge His presence even when there isn’t a silver lining and this is what makes some songs so powerful and touching in my opinion. The hymn “It is Well with My Soul” is a perfect example of this. A song so beautifully written in the midst of loss and pain and that’s what makes it so inspiring. A different example would be “Be Thou My Vision” which was written in tribute of St. Patrick’s devotion to Christ in spite of there being a threat to his life.

  2. Contd… I think worship music should cover a broader human experience because these could address an issue one lonely individual sitting in a corner somewhere wants addressed and that could make all the difference. So yes, sticking to the same line of thought I think that songs that involve tribulation and a hope in Christ through such a period, are going to be remembered better.There are however contemporary christian artists who are doing these things. This song by Kutless for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqOkZiOb9u0

    I think the Church as an institution presents a lot of difficulties when it comes to this. Not everybody who goes to church is a christian (it is true), also a lot of people I think are quick to place things in their own self constructed realms of what constitutes negativity and thereby shun this sort of music without a second’s thought. Finally there are people who are suffering seeking songs like this. Since people from all walks of life do attend church it might be difficult to bring this in (although I feel it is ideal) and this is turn brings me to question that has made me do a lot of thinking lately. Is the church supposed to be an institution (like a prayer house or hall) which calls for people to come and be part of (but can have several limitations), or is it something we take to the people (like Paul did, thereby bringing more souls to eternal reconciliation)? I’m not saying one is better than the other but I’m more inclined towards the latter and I’m sure it has it’s own share of diificulties

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