But I don’t speak Swahili…

Why do modern worship songs use the same narrow vocabulary?

A friend recently posted a comment on Facebook wondering why so many modern church worship songs us all the same limited, narrow vocabulary.

“If God is the creator of all things and all creativity expresses His magnificence, why do modern worship songs all use the same limited, narrow vocabulary?”

This is the second of (at least two) attempts to answer that question – the usual caveats apply, ‘My experience may differ from yours and this is only my take on things right now; I reserve the right to change my mind in the future’

When I write (whatever I’m writing) I do so because I have something I want (or need) to express.
Sometimes when people create something part of their aim is that others will have to work a little harder than usual to understand what they are trying to convey, but I don’t think this often applies in the arena in question – the objective seems to be to try to capture a feeling or a thought that the singer might identify with and allow them to use that in their worship of God.
Given that a songwriter might be trying to convey something to a potential singer it would be reasonable to expect that the songwriter would try to draw on situations, language or imagery that the potential singer would understand.
But that’s where, in the specific ‘Church worship’ situation, something odd happens because there is a shared language and experience in the ‘regular’ churchgoers knowledge of the Bible that provides all sorts of imagery and words that are just not part of everyday life for everyone else.

For example, the book of Psalms (a rich mine for writers of modern church worship songs) has all sorts of imagery about warfare in ancient times – in Psalm 61 the writer is asking God to lead him to a high rock, a strong tower which is a refuge against his enemy. The writer goes on to say how he wants to live in God’s tent forever and hide under the shadow of His wings.

Most people without the shared ‘church’ experience would wonder why anyone would want to live in a tent (even God’s tent) forever – but those with that experience would know that when the Psalms were written God’s people, the Israelites, had no churches or temples in which to meet with God. In fact they had a history as a nomadic people and would remember a very special tent (know as the Tent of Meeting) where God’s presence would be present whenever they set up camp. So to live in God’s tent forever would be to stay in His presence for ever.

So it comes down to whether the song-writer is writing for people who already attend church (who have that shared understanding) or for people who don’t.
By and large the genre of ‘modern church worship songs’ is peculiar to people who attend church but I think my friend’s comment does offer a challenge for songwriters to stretch the genre beyond that limited scope – to write songs that might have meaning and significance outside church – and, of coruse, the same applies to any area of creativity.