When we gather to worship God in and through Jesus Christ, our hymns may:
- Address God directly, giving him our praise and thanks, confessing our need and making our petitions to him.
- Ascribe praise to God, recalling his mighty deeds, his divine nature and the story of our salvation proclaimed in the Bible. We sing for God’s glory in the presence of all creation. If we believe our corporate prayer flows into the one great act of worship at God’s heavenly throne, then we are singing for God, for the angels and the saints in glory, and for the people standing next to us in the pew.
- Call God’s people to faith and faithfulness. We address our brothers and sisters in Christ, pointing them to the God who has made himself known through Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ.
A single hymn may incorporate all three approaches. These demonstrably Christian, God-centered hymns contrast with what appears to me to be a more recent trend toward people-centered songs in mainline churches.
- We sing in God’s voice to other people, those actually or potentially present in the pews. This approach could be a version of approach # 3 listed above, calling God’s people to faith. In practice, these songs often strike me as overly sentimental and more focused on the human than the divine, at least the divine as he has made himself known in the story of Israel and the church.
- We sing in our own voice to other people, those actually or potentially present in the pew. Again, the tone is sentimental. The message is something like this: I/we love you no matter what. You are important to us. Let us love you. Trust us. References to God may be few and vaguely spiritual, disconnected from the biblical story of salvation.
Helping people feel welcomed and loved in God’s family is important, but I’m not sure singing love songs to them is the best way to do it. The songs themselves often range from creepy to cloying.
The triune God should be the center of our liturgical acts. We point others to God, not ourselves. Ritually asking people to trust us is setting them up for disappointment and heartache. God is reliable; we, too often, are not. And the God whom we worship in our hymns should not simply be an ethereal, compassionate deity whose comforting presence we might experience, but one recognizable as the God of the Bible.