I AM not, for now, a parish priest, and this carries the benefit that, although I do take some Sunday services, I often have the freedom to explore churches around the diocese, and to gain a broader appreciation of different styles.
Even in a somewhat traditional diocese, modern guitar-led worship songs are becoming more widely used, and bringing welcome new energy. When I was a parish priest, we stuck by the choices of Common Praise and Hymns Old and New, but I am glad to be learning a new variety.
One detail of many of the most popular worship songs bugs me, however: the expression “our God”, as in the songs “How great is our God” and “Our God” by Chris Tomlin, and the earworm “Our God is an awesome God” by Michael W. Smith. A browse through The New English Hymnal and Common Praise confirms that the phrase “our God” is largely absent from traditional hymns. There are exceptions (“A safe stronghold our God is still”), but it is never dwelt on repetitively, even lovingly, as in the worship songs.
I HAVE no problem with the emotional pull of the style, even if I know that it is not for me. But I find the expression “our God” worryingly possessive, even domesticating, of the God who made heaven and earth. There is a sense of “God is on our side, not yours”: a God who endorses the agenda, even the prejudices, of the congregation. Haven’t we moved on from thinking God is English, like us (or American, since that is where most of the songs come from)? There is, at least, a degree of giving “simple answers to difficult questions”, as suggested by the composer Keith Getty (Features, 17 November).
We need some sort of standard to judge by, though, and, prompted by the line “If our God is for us then who is against us” (the “our”, crucially, has been added to Romans 8.31), that standard ought to be scripture. After all, surely these Evangelical singer-songwriters know their Bible much better than I do, and are just alluding to passages not at the forefront of my mind? So to the concordances we go, and they reveal an interesting thing.
The expression “our God” is found in the Old Testament, to be sure — especially in the phrase “the Lord our God”: a reference to the particular God of Israel, and so not, like use of the name Yahweh, a part of Christian worship. But “our God” is almost wholly absent from the New Testament (with a few striking exceptions), in favour of simply “God”, even in passages of strong argument.
In the Gospels, it appears once in a quotation of Deuteronomy 6.4, and in the Benedictus in Luke, and in one other place. It appears a few times in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and several times in Revelation, in the heavenly praises, so that one could argue that it is rightly brought into worship. Even there, it is a comparatively rare form of reference to God.
Those latter books are distinctive, however, in the New Testament, for their apocalyptic, end-times outlook, eagerly looking for imminent vindication. That tradition has never, and should never, be absent from Christian thought. But it usually comes to prominence in times of persecutions and conflict, offering consolation to suffering believers. It will be important for Christians today suffering violent persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere. It may also have inspired the embattled Luther to include “our God” (once only) in “Ein’ Feste Burg”.
THERE will be some who see the present time, with a Church in dispiriting (but not accelerating) decline, as one of crisis, justifying the summoning up of apocalyptic rhetoric. If the diocesan balance sheet is that bad, then surely only our God can save us. But I wonder whether the popularity of “our God” songs is connected with a different and rather unhealthy desire to feel that one is persecuted, even when the reality is nothing of the sort.
We are blessed in England today to live with unprecedented freedom to believe and worship as we please, especially within the one Established Church. Yes, there are tensions and tussles, but it is remarkable that one ecclesiastical polity can contain such a diversity of views. And I am confident that those who suffered to the shedding of their blood in past centuries would look with some contempt on the comparative inconvenience lamented by some today of being unable to maintain discrimination on grounds of gender or sexuality in engagement with wider society (as opposed to within the life of the Church).
I did not say where the other solitary reference in the Gospels was: John 8.54b-55a, where Jesus says fiercely to the Jews, “It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him.” That ought to be warning enough about claiming God as ours.
So sing “our God” if you will, but remember that he is not just yours; he is everybody’s — and that makes quite a difference.
The Revd Neil Patterson is the Director of Vocations and Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Hereford.