If you've ever taken a friend to church, then you probably know the feeling. The intense wave of awkwardness that overtakes you as the minister says something about 'hedges of protection', or when the Old Testament reading is particularly Old Testament. Church can sometimes be an oddly jarring place for a first time visitor, especially for one who isn't a Christian, and nowhere more so than in the songs that we sing.
Every culture and subculture has its own language register, and the church is no different. I'm not suggesting that we should ditch every song that isn't written in plain English (we'd have to throw out most of the classic hymns if we did), but perhaps we should try to be a bit more aware of the people who might be in our congregations when we belt out some of the more, er, poetic worship lyrics. Here are just a few examples of some lyrics which – while many of them are brilliant in their own way and perfectly apt for use in Christian worship – might be confusing or even alienating if there are visitors present.
1. I've tasted and seen, of the sweetest of loves (Holy Spirit you are welcome)
It's hard not just to get hung up on the grammar here, but if we can possibly get through that minefield, this is quite a strange thing to corporately own up to in a congregational setting. I'm not convinced we've all tasted and seen of the sweetest of loves, unless of course the writer is referring to Marks and Spencer Chocolate Bread and Butter pudding. In which case, I'm fully on board. Either way, if you're new to church this is a very odd thing to be asked to say, let alone sing.
2. O Lord, your loveliness, changing all my ugliness (O Lord your tenderness)
Graham Kendrick is arguably our greatest living psalmist, so one needs to be a little bit careful here. But there's no denying that it's a bit weird to talk about the 'loveliness' of God, and no-one really wants to be made to reflect on their own ugliness in church; it's one of the few places that there aren't any mirrors.
3. Oooh, oooooooh, oooh. Oooh, oooooooh, oooh (You're Beautiful)
I'm torn here, because I think Phil Wickham's intimate spiritual ballad is one of the best worship songs of the last decade. However, I also think wordless ooh-ooh-ing can be a bit unsettling for visitors. As a newcomer it's hard enough to join in when you don't know the tune; when they take away the words as well you're left floundering like someone who's been air-dropped into a German rock festival.
4. We're giving it all away, away (Go)
The problem with singing this kind of song in a church is that the newcomers might actually take you at your word. So in this case, it's not that you shouldn't sing the song, but that you'd better be able to live up to the lyrics. If you really are the sort of Acts 2 congregation who shares everything, embrace the poor, and live lives which "shine like the morning", then by all means roll out this rocky number. If not, then you might quickly come across as a bit fake.
5. Oh I feel like dancing, it's foolishness I know (I could sing of your love forever)
I appreciate it's a soft target, but the sight of watching a congregation stand stock-still as they sing about dancing with joy "like we're dancing now" is always painful. More importantly though, no-one actually talks like this. If in your everyday life, someone straight-facedly told you they felt like dancing, even though doing so would be pure foolishness, you'd ask them to get back in their time machine to 1878.
6. Are you washed in the blood, in the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb? (Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow'r?)
Speaking of 1878, here's one for those of us who still long for our church to embrace Songs and Hymns of Fellowship Book One. This classic hymn of Elisha Hoffman is an example of what I like to call Vintage Jargon: the sort of words that we Christians take for granted – but if you view them through non-believing eyes sound nonsensical, or even as in this case, terrifying. To those who understand, this is obviously a glorious and biblical image of redemption; for those who don't it's a scene from Stephen King's Carrie.
7. Dip your heart in the stream of life (All who are thirsty)
This is an especially hard one because it could be perceived as an evangelistic song. But for me at least, the words are just too loaded with Christian jargon to make sense to a newbie. And if I was still on the fence, "as deep cries out to deep" would definitely push me off it; to those outside the church that sounds like some sort of conversation via underwater sonar.
8. Love like a hurricane. I am a tree. (He loves us)
A little bit of metaphor goes a long way. And in John Mark McMillian's glorious and tragic anthem, there's more than a little bit. Never mind whether your church plumps for an "unforeseen kiss" or a "sloppy wet" one*, this song asks the newcomer to grapple with love hurricanes, bending trees, oceans of grace and the whole question of portions vs prizes.
*The theological question of whether the way heaven meets earth is more like a sloppy and wet or merely unforeseen kiss, is surely worthy of a book by NT Wright at some point.
9. And dry bones are responding with the fruits of new birth (I hear the sound of rustling)
They don't write them like this any more (and that's probably a good thing). I remember singing Ronnie Wilson's Christian answer to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds as a teenager exploring faith, and wondering if everyone else around me really understood what he was going on about. Aside from the sprouting skeleton, there's also a body waiting expectantly (remember I was 14), watchmen on a tower and a church that's disconcertingly "ready for war". The chorus, which starts "my tongue will be the pen of a ready writer", remains a puzzle.
10. I hear the fool say there's no God, time and time again (Almighty God is here)
If there's one way not to win an argument or convince someone of something, it's to call them names. If there's a way to take that even further, it's to get them to actually sing those names about themselves. That's essentially what kids worship genius Ishmael did in these lyrics, which over time seem to have been softened to "I hear the lost". The original version does still work of course, but only in the rare scenario where Mr T is singing it.
There are many other examples I could have picked, but the point isn't about these specific examples, but rather the principle. When we're picking songs, especially at times when visitors are present or even the intended focus of the service, let's remember to think through the lyrics we're asking them to sing.