Kurt Willems on ‘Our God is greater’
Here’s the song:
We’ve recently started singing it at our church, and I agree with Kurt that it is catchy, and lyrically true. In fact, I agree with much of what Kurt has written, but do not share his conclusions.
Kurt’s observations about the ‘post-Christendom’ nature of the West are very astute, and we certainly do need to grasp that fundamental shift. I also agree that it is largely a good thing that Christianity has been pushed to the margins, in that it is a pruning of sorts, and getting rid of nominal / cultural Christianity forces us to be more authentic and keep the main things the main things.
It is against this backdrop of cultural change that Kurt writes:
To call God “great” is more than appropriate, but calling God “greater” invites a competitive and confrontational tone. So, in this sort of cultural climate, I make the claim that singing songs about how “our God is greater” actually makes God less great.
I agree that it’s competitive – God does call for our obedience against other idols that would compete for his rightful place. So how does it make God ‘less great’? Kurt offers two reasons, the first being:
First, for followers of Jesus who feel the real world results of this shift from the “center to the margins,” singing about how our “cosmic dad” can beat up everyone else’s ideological parent reinforces the belief that the Christian story should be central in a society.
What Kurt is arguing against is not, as far as I can tell, the supremacy of Christ, or his Lordship over the whole world, or the desire that all people would come to love and follow Him, but rather he is arguing against theocratic ideas.
For centuries the Church used violence, power, and a sense of entitlement to “get their way” in public discourse. What if we flipped the script, forsaking these power clinching perceptions for washing people’s feet – especially feet that walk a differing religious or ideological path?
Things in the Kingdom of God are flipped – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty brought low. So I agree with Kurt’s perspective that the Kingdom is not about getting our way, but servant-love.
When we sing “our God is greater” we might (I’m not making a global claim here) actually be trying to live out of a Christendom shaped dream of yesteryear.
What Kurt seems to be concerned about, then, is that in singing this song, we can easily be calling for this kind of Christian culture (which I agree would not be good). But is that what is happening? Perhaps in the spirit of Kurt’s post might I suggest that while what he says is true, it might be unhelpfully projecting? It seems to me that the lyrical context is talking about God’s strength in adversity, that he is greater than any of the things in our post-Christian society which calls for our alliegence.
In fact, it seems an entirely appropriate song to sing from the margins of society. Take, for example, 1 John 4:4 (ESV)
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Or take the bridge: it comes straight from Romans 8, again speaking to the issue of persecution. Christians in the West are a long way from ‘tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword’ (Rom 8:35), but if we are in the margins, then I suggest that encouraging one another with the testimony of our overcomer is appropriate.
Kurt’s second point is:
Second, for outsiders peering into our churches, whether as curious visitors or as skeptics believing that we are a cancer to society, for us to sing “our God is greater” sounds coercive and arrogant. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t believe that our God is the greatest of all gods/ideologies, but wonder if in a pluralistic society if the path of loving humility might win others over more effectively.
My biggest issue here is that I think this entails a somewhat faulty understanding of the role of sung worship. As has been under discussion on Nathan Campbell’s blog, sung worship is a part of Word ministry. I suspect Kurt might not be so quick to suggest that we might want to not preach a sermon on 1 John 4 or Romans 8:35. What this means is that our singing is not for outsiders; it’s focus is not evangelism (though it ought to be gospel saturated) but the praise of God by God’s gathered people, and for God and the edification of His people. We sing to God and to eachother, to teach eachother and build one another up (this is partly what it means that worship is formative).
With this paradigm in mind then, I suggest that to sing to one another that our God is greater than all of those other things which seek to steal our hearts is actually needed, especially when we are on the margins and society has put up alters to a bunch of other gods instead. Money? power? sex? career? Our God is greater.
Our words, even when they are true, can damage our witness. We can make power-claims of our God or we can demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit from the margins.
…we won’t have to sing that “Our God is Greater” because our Jesus-shaped Spirit-empowered communities will give witness to the greatness of our heavenly Father without relying upon verbally combative claims.
I think this is ultimately a false dichotomy. Yes, the Spirit empowers us, but we are also called to build eachother up. If our Jesus-shaped communities are going to live out the gospel in the margins, serving & loving others, then there are going to be times when we need to remind eachother that our God is greater than the struggles we face, and the gods of contemporary culture which cry out for us to worship them.
I think it’s hugely important to be critical of the lyrics of the songs we sing, and that we often fail to evaluate them properly, and there are songs which encourage the kind of Christendom attitude which Kurt rightly warns against (Tomlin’s other song God of this City is one which I struggle with – again, true words but reminds me too much of the whole ‘Transformations’ movement, am I projecting?) but in this case, I think the concerns are contextual and not with the song itself.