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Hurricanes, fires and floods leave dozens dead. Mass shootings devastate schools, churches and public spaces. Leaders reel under accusations of corruption and misconduct.
And congregations sing songs of joy.
Though Ecclesiastes reminds us there is a time to mourn, many Protestant churches today experience few songs of lament, a tradition that stretches from the psalms of exiled Israelites to the spirituals of African-American slaves.
Songs of praise often celebrate God taking us from our hurts; songs of lament recognize God with us in our hurts.
Yet, at least in my part of the Protestant world, songs of lament seem to have vanished.
The current top 100 songs listed by the Christian song-licensing organization CCLI include scores of praise and worship songs—but only a handful that explore the hurting side of the human condition, the lamentations of the faithful.
Many Protestant churches have lost the habit of singing songs of lament. So when something goes wrong, they don’t have familiar songs to express emotions of grief, sorrow, and regret.
“Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem,” wrote Dan Allender, founder of a trauma and abuse therapy ministry.
A fast-paced culture with little opportunity for reflection is one reason, songwriter/worship leader Sandra McCracken said in a recent presentation, “Singing Songs of Lament,” at the Sing! 2018 conference in Nashville, Tenn., which drew hundreds of pastors and worship leaders, many of them evangelicals like me.
McCracken pointed out that many Americans live distracted lives where there’s little room for silence or contemplation.
With 26 percent of American adults online almost constantly and more than 75 percent online daily, disconnecting and slowing down is a challenge. Congregants tweet through the sermon and post pictures of the choir special during the service, often switching between a Bible app and social media through the sermon.
The rest of the week is a constant stream of music, TV or Snapchat.
“One of the first ways we pass through this entryway into lament is silence,” McCracken said. “In silence, we find that things are exposed we’d rather have pressed down. We’d rather keep the radio on or some noise.”
Hymn writer Keith Getty, organizer of the annual Sing! worship conference, lays some blame on the church music industry.
“To be honest, I think part of it is the industry influence, which makes us want to feel good,” Getty said. “But that’s also a modern, commercial church approach where a song’s role or a church service’s role is to somehow make us feel good.
“A lament is more difficult—harder to get into. Most of our songs are on a superficial level, where a lament takes us down a journey that can no longer be superficial.”
George Robinson, who holds the Richard and Gina Headrick Chair of World Missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is also a musician. He sees industry trends as a result of unhealthy church liturgy among Protestants.
“The necessity of lamentation is nearly absent from church liturgy,” Robinson said in an email. “And that is reflected in the worship music that has been popularized by the industry. Ironically, lament is a crucial element in our approach to God precisely because we are crying out to him about sorrows that are beyond our abilities to rectify.”
Protestant church goers can hardly be expected to sing songs of lament if worship leaders do not use them, said Mike Harland, director of worship at LifeWay Christian Resources, a publisher of music for churches.
“Mourning is extremely personal, requiring vulnerability from the singer rarely seen in Western worship,” he said in an email. “Lament is just too personal to be expressed in a congregational setting.”
Hymn writer Anne Steele did not skip over lament to reach praise.
In “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” she pictured hope in despair: “Thou art my only trust, and still my soul will cling to thee though prostrate in the dust.”
“In the omission of lament, we miss an important truth in worship: Jesus comes near the brokenhearted,” said Harland. “We miss the opportunity for intimacy with him because we refuse to come to him in our loss.”