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.

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.

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?