From the simple chorus "Jesus Loves Me" to the classic Charles Wesley hymn "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," Christians of all eras have sung about God’s love. Even when well-informed by Scripture, worshippers naturally use the language and symbols of their cultures when speaking of God’s love. Since romantic ideals predominate the language of love in the American culture, many have argued that romance is overrepresented in our contemporary praise and worship music.
Biblical writers describe God’s love in many ways, none of which are romantic. In the Old Testament, the foremost name for God is “I AM,” emphasizing God’s sheer existence and everlastingness. God is often called lord, king, or warrior—a righteous leader. God is described metaphorically as animals including lion, lamb, eagle, and hen, implying strength, tenderness, and protectiveness. Family terms are also used for God, including husband, brother, father, and mother.
Though erotic love (eros) was present in biblical times, it was different than American romantic love. The Song of Solomon shows us that eros was honored, but it was just one kind of human bond, not the be all and end all it is in our culture. In biblical cultures, marriage relationships were formed for political or financial gain, for joining extended families, and for procreation. Intimacy could grow between a husband and wife over time, but passionate love would not be cultivated before marriage, nor developed in isolation of an extended family context. Even more importantly, however, romantic love was not ascribed to the relationship between God and God’s followers.
The American romantic ideal
Sociologist Ann Swidler found that many white, middle-class Americans she interviewed believe in the American romantic ideal found in romance novels, Hollywood movies, and our imaginations. Though they also critiqued the unrealistic aspects of this ideal, Swidler found that it still shaped expectations for their own loving relationships.
In this ideal, lovers come together in sudden passion, each finding an idealized lover in the other. Their love enables them to overcome obstacles and transforms each of them into more virtuous people. Romantic love separates individuals from society, because the lovers need nothing but each other. Their union is often made in defiance of social or family expectations. In romantic stories, the man is cast as strong, active, and initiative-taking, while the woman is needy, passive, and ultimately receiving of the man’s initiative.
In order to find out how contemporary workship music used the American romantic ideal to describe the relationship between God and humans, I analyzed lyrics of the top 25 praise and worship song lists from 1989–2005. I examined their portrayal of the roles of God and of humans in the divine-human relationship, and of the difference love makes in the life of the believer and the world.
While romantic love serves to illuminate some aspects of the divine-human relationship, an overreliance on the American romantic ideal in worship has drawbacks. I offer applications to encourage worship leaders and worshipers toward greater faithfulness to Scripture and stronger discernment about contextualizing the Word in American culture.
Portraying God as the “leading man”
The romantic “leading man” pursues the woman, overcoming obstacles to win the heart of his beloved. He takes risks to save the woman from a dire situation. In romantic praise and worship songs, God takes this leading male role.
In songs that describe divine actions, most refer to Jesus’ initiative in saving humans. Jesus is praised for “Taking my sin/ My cross my shame” (“You are My All in All”), and honored for having “set me free” (“I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”). God also initiates emotional intimacy. For example, in “Draw Me Close,” the worshiper longs for God to say “that I’m Your friend.” “The Heart of Worship” describes God this way: “You’re looking into my heart.”
Lyrics frequently climax with the enjoyment of interpersonal intimacy between God and humans, mimicking the romantic ideal of total fulfillment found between lovers. The static image of a believer resting in intimacy with God suggests that God’s primary purpose in the world is to enjoy romance-like relationships with individuals. “Draw me Close,” for example, ends, “You’re all I want / Help me know You are near.” “When I Look into Your Holiness” ends, “When my will becomes enthralled in Your love / when all things that surround / Become shadows in the light of You.” Other purposes of the divine-human relationship are minimized, such as spiritual growth, mission, acts of service, or even salvation.
In their pervasive portrayal of God as leading man, these romantic praise and worship songs encourage people to view God primarily in terms of God’s ability to deliver an experience of emotional fulfillment. Worshipers imagine a divine partner who is the ultimate boyfriend—a strong, benevolent, wooing man. While this is not entirely inappropriate—a heartfelt relationship with God is important—it can also be limiting if it is not balanced with other biblical portrayals of God’s love.
God’s activities include more than personal salvation and interpersonal intimacy. To name just a few, God also created the world, formed a nation and a church, and continues to work through people for justice. These actions are related to God’s loving character, and reach beyond an individual’s experience of inner fulfillment or even salvation.
God’s intimate relationships with people in Scripture, such as Jeremiah, Miriam, or Moses, were not primarily for the personal fulfillment of the individuals, but rather, to empower them to work for God’s purposes in the world.
Portraying humans as the “leading lady”
A leading lady complements her man by being weak, passive, and in distress. In romantic worship songs, humans take this feminine role. In “Draw Me Close,” worshipers sing, “Draw me close to You / Never let me go…You are my desire / No one else will do / Cause nothing else could take your place / To feel the warmth of your embrace.” And in “Breathe,” worshipers sing, “And I / I’m desperate for You / And I / I’m lost without You.” The human stance before God is one of longing and begging. Humans and God are paired in a distress and rescue motif in which humans rarely initiate action or do good.
While a stance of humility is essential in worship, the overemphasis of human worthlessness may limit worshipers from becoming agents of change in the world and in their lives. As in our world, people in Scripture engage with God in a variety of ways. Moses argued with God, Jeremiah accepted his calling and acted boldly, David lamented, and Mary became an active participant in the Incarnation. These love relationships with God offered strength and purpose to live, not intense emotional feelings as an end in themselves.
The most active things humans do in these songs are individual religious acts that are done in a church, such as, “I worship You” (“When I Look Into Your Holiness”), “I lift up my hands” (“Thy Lovingkindness”), or “I lift my voice” (“I Love You Lord”). While religious responses to God are valuable, most people spend only a few hours a week at church. Worship songs might also speak of the workplace, family, or society, and corporate acts of worship and service.
Even more problematically, these songs suggest that personal fulfillment is the apex of being a Christian. “Better is One Day” says, “For my soul longs and even faints for You / For here my heart is satisfied within your presence.” Human identity does find completion in God, but the repetition of this theme to the exclusion of service and community may promote an excessively personal vision of faith: that feeling satisfied in life and experiencing romantic feelings of love toward God are marks of Christian maturity.
“Riding off together into the sunset”
Romantic lovers “ride off together into the sunset,” finding completion in each other. Connections to family or society become either unnecessary or even harmful, when others present obstacles to the lovers pursuing their relationship. Rather than exploring how God’s love binds us to the church and to communities, popular worship songs more often describe individuals becoming less and less connected to life on earth as they pursue God.
“When I Look into Your Holiness” describes a person losing touch with society, “When I look into your holiness / when I gaze into your loveliness / when all things that surround / become shadows in the light of You.” Detachment from earthly surroundings is sometimes even considered evidence of true worship. In “Surely the Presence of the Lord,” the worshiper knows she is worshiping because she “can hear the brush of angel’s wings” and “feel that same sweet spirit.”
Many romantic praise and worship songs conjure a sense of a person united with God, floating somewhere in space, with no earthly context. This overemphasis is problematic because worshipers will soon return to real world contexts in which faith needs to make practical sense. As Christians learn to engage social justice issues such as war, AIDS, poverty, and disaster relief, they should find a fullness of personal piety and social action in their worship music.
Romantic worship songs encourage an intimate, heartfelt relationship with God, and such a purpose should be conserved. But when it comes to love, romance is not the whole story. Love is also about commitment, hard work, change over time, and, at times, confusion and doubt. The widespread use of romantic language in praise and worship music presents worship leaders and worshipers with important challenges.
Here are a few ways worship leaders can bring greater depth and width to the portrayal of God’s love in worship music.
- Increase reliance on Scripture in song lyrics. God’s love cannot be pinned down to a simple definition, and the hundreds of scriptural metaphors for God help us begin to envision its vastness and perfection. Images of God could be broadened to include scriptural images from the family, the natural world, and community life. For example, worship songs could enhance a heartfelt relationship by depicting God as the Savior (Acts 13:23), the good shepherd (John 10:11), or a sure foundation (Isa. 28:16). Worshipers will be more faithful to scriptural attributes of God, and reduce the tendency to apply pop culture images and ideas onto God.
- Broaden the language of love beyond the romantic. Songs about love should also include expressions of the commitment, hard work, and long-suffering of real love lived over time. The well-known appropriation of Greek words for love, including eros, storge, agape, and pragma can also offer ways of describing different facets of love.
- Expand the role of humans beyond passivity, weakness, and sinfulness. Scriptural images of God often carry complementary images of humans—Creator and creation, father and child, teacher and student, and friends. In all these examples, God is clearly greater than humans, but humans are also active participants in the divine-human relationship, doing important works of creativity, justice, and mercy. The personal, private, and “otherworldly” part of the spiritual life is not the whole. Worship music should reflect more of spiritual formation—the shaping of a person in relationship with God, living life in this world.
- Exercise greater discernment toward American culture. It is important to become aware of ways in which worship music may superficially “christianize” elements of our culture. Developing worship music that expresses the wonderfulness of God’s love in ways that connect to culture without capitulating to it will be an ongoing adventure.
Music is a powerful instrument for helping people experience the scope and everlastingness of God’s love. The near-exclusive use of the American romantic ideal in love-oriented worship songs uses only a fraction of what Scripture teaches about God’s love.