John Mayer and Advent
What Should Worship Sound Like?: Dusting Off an Old Story

A Question of Accessibility

Back in Nov., I got an insightful email from a congregant about a phrase we sang in a song during our weekend church services.  The song was "Give Us Clean Hands" by Charlie Hall. 

See if you can find the phrase in question.  Here are the lyrics:

Give Us Clean Hands
Charlie Hall

We bow our hearts we bend our knees
Oh Spirit come make us humble
We turn our eyes from evil things
Oh Lord we cast down our idols

Give us clean hands give us pure hearts
Let us not lift our souls to another
Give us clean hands give us pure hearts
Let us not lift our souls to another
And oh God let us be a generation that seeks
That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob
And oh God let us be a generation that seeks
That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob

©2000 songs (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing); sixsteps Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

What was the phrase in question?

The answer is "God of Jacob."  My friend wanted to know what that meant.  Here is what I said to him:

Great question!  Quick history lesson:  Jacob was the third Biblical patriarch. His father was Isaac, and his grandfather was Abraham. Jacob, together with Esau, was born to Isaac and Rebeccah after 20 years of marriage, at which time his father was 60 (Genesis 25:26), and Abraham was 160 years old.

During Rebeccah’s pregnancy, "the children struggled together within her" (Genesis 25:22). Rebeccah questioned God about it and learned that she was going to give birth to two children. They would become the founders of two very different nations.  Jacob would be the father of the nation that God would bless, Israel. 

The phrase “God of Jacob” is a type of technical phrase used as a general designation of the God of the patriarchs [as mentioned before: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob]. Some references speak of the “God of my [your, thy, his, their] father” without mention of a particular father, while other references include the name of a particular patriarch [i.e. God of Jacob]. So the Bible uses the formula to emphasize continuity between the God who is revealed to Moses and the God who guided the patriarchs.

It is important to note that under the new covenant, in the New Testament, this formula is transformed to mark the continuity between historic Israel and Christianity [that’s us]. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the same as the God revealed to the patriarchs.  The promises made to Abraham established the concept of a people descended through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who would be in a special historical and spiritual relationship with God.

So in the song, when we sing “God of Jacob” we are recognizing that we are from a long line of descendants that have a special historical and spiritual relationship with God.  It’s pretty powerful!

I hope that makes sense.  Thanks for probing...

Upon reflecting on this answer recently, I realized that there is a follow-up question that begs to be asked.  Is it beneficial to sing songs with phrases that need that much explanation?  Don't we want songs to be more accessible? 

Well, yes and no. 

Yes, we want songs to be accessible.  The idea of corporate worship is that a local body of Christ-followers can come and worship together.  Most congregants aren't musicians, so it is important that most songs [note most] are memorable, in good keys, don't extend the vocal range too much, and are easy to learn on the first listen.

But no, if accessibility is the only criteria by which we choose worship material.  Of course it depends on how you define accessibility. 

As I mentioned before, melodic accessibility is very important. That is where good keys, melodic range, etc. comes into play. But what about lyrical accessibility? 

I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist church in the 70's and 80's.  We sang from the hymnal.  Fanny Crosby was our musical hero. Albiet there was a thing called the Jesus Movement happening on the left coast that would influence the worship music landscape in the near future, most of America in the 80's were singing "Blessed Assurance" with a piano and organ [unless you were in the Church of Christ...acapella only].  All of this is to say that lyrical accessibility was not considered much because it was accepted that those who came to worship God were believers and could understand the theological depth of the text.

In the 80's and 90's, lyrical accessibility became a high priority. Since there was a high premium on engaging the seeker, worship leaders everywhere combed through lyrics to make sure there wasn't a term or phrase that could confuse.  And I think worship songwriters noticed this trend and wrote to that end.    Sadly, much of the worship music from this period will not endure because it erred on the side of 'safe.'

But here in the 2000's, there is a growing [and promising] trend that I have noticed within the worship music spectrum related to this issue.  Progressive mainstream worship songwriters like Matt Redman, Charlie Hall, Brenton Brown, etc. have alot of depth to their lyrics. The reason I say mainstream is three-fold: 1) under-the-radar people like the folks at Indelible Grace have been doing this type of thing for some time now and 2) if more mainstream writers are moving in this direction, it signals a shift in what is acceptable and accessible in lyrical content and 3) younger generations are more tolerable of broader lyrical content.

So practically speaking, I think in the area of lyrical accessibility, it is important to have a balance of those songs that say one thing very simply, those that are deeper in nature [particularly theologically-which includes updated hymns], and then songs that marry both. 

One of the best examples of the latter is Tomlin's "How Great is Our God."  The verses of "How Great..." are some of the richest 'hymnlike' lyrics I've seen in a while ["The splendor of the King, robed in majesty...] but the chorus is the repetitive and very accessible title of the song.

As for songs that have more depth, one of the benefits, as seen in my interchange with one of our congregants, was it challenged him to not just sing words he didn't understand, but to seek more understanding after the worship service.  And I know what your next thought is and no, I don't think this he is the exception. 

My impression is that our congregants [and seekers for that matter] are smarter and more sophisticated than we make them out to be.  That is why I think we need to embrace the shift in lyrical accessibility to include deeper content.

Here is the irony to me.  For example, it is known that hymns, or theology set to music, have long been a vehicle for learning the deeper things of God.  Isn't that what worship is about?  Jumping headfirst into the mystery and beauty of God?  Yet, we have waffled on the issue of lyrical accessibility for almost two decades.  And honestly, the depth of our worship is malnourished. 

So back to the follow-up question: is it beneficial to sing songs with phrases that need explanation?  The answer is yes.  If it is kept in balance, there is nothing wrong with singing the phrase 'God of Jacob.' 

In fact, it just might engage church-goers into a deeper worship experience!