It seems like every couple of years a new worship song reignites the debate over which songs are appropriate for congregational worship. Of course, there are the chosen few that make it on everyone’s list, like “In Christ Alone,” or “Cornerstone,” but these tend to be exceptions to the rule. Debates about songs like “How He Loves,” “Good Good Father,” or “Reckless Love” seem to be more commonplace. While many of these disagreements are unavoidable and reflect clashing theological traditions, there is another force at work in the way songs are appropriated in the church.
Namely, even though individuals come together to express their common faith in worship, worship remains the expression of distinct individuals
For example, while one congregant finds comfort in a God who “loves like a hurricane” another finds anger or confusion at the comparison having lived through a hurricane1. While one person finds the old English in a beloved hymn an important connection to the past, another is having trouble understanding the meaning and keeping up. Using the song “Reckless Love,” let’s explore this phenomenon and consider 3 different perspectives of meaning: (1) the songwriter’s, (2) the text’s, and (3) the participant’s. At the heart of the controversy is the song’s use of the word “reckless:”
"Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn't earn it, I don't deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah"
1. What is meant by the songwriter:
In an interview with Relevant Magazine , “Reckless Love’s” lead songwriter Cory Asbury discussed his intention behind the use of the word reckless:
... We’re going; “I’m completely against you” and He’s saying: “I don’t care. I’m coming after your heart and am gonna show you what love looks like on a cross, arms wide open, bleeding in this place of vulnerability and pain.” And he goes, no, it doesn’t matter what it takes. It doesn’t matter the cost. That while we were yet sinners. The reckless love of God.2
Cory intended to use “reckless” to convey a kind of love that stopped at nothing to save us, even if it involved paying an exorbitant price for undeserving recipients.
2. What is meant by the text:
Most people will never be aware of the intentions of a song’s author, and while the context of the chorus gives “reckless” the meaning of pursuit at great cost, it is unclear to some at first if this recklessness is thoughtful or thoughtless. This is the point at which people diverge into two camps: those that interpret “reckless” as “thoughtless,” and are dissatisfied with the song, and those that interpret “reckless” as in “reckless abandon,” and find in it the sweetness of the gospel.
First let’s explore the connotation of thoughtlessness. This view is reflected in some synonyms of “reckless”: careless, thoughtless, foolhardy, unwise, rash, negligent, inconsiderate, and inattentive.3 Merriam-Webster defines “reckless” as “marked by lack of proper caution, careless of consequences, irresponsible.” God certainly must not be compared to a reckless driver. Jesus submitted to the will of His Father having counted the cost. The love that compelled Jesus to become obedient to death, even death on a cross, was a love characterized by an intense commitment to the needs of those around Him. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”4
Now let’s explore the connotation of action “regardless of the cost.” This view is reflected in some of the other synonyms of “reckless”: audacious, daring, and without regard (as in regardless of the cost). Merriam-Webster doesn’t necessarily support this definition, however, more popular definitions might include something like this: “marked by defiant disregard for danger or consequences.”5 While this seems to be a deviation from reckless’ etymology, it nevertheless captures one of the more startling truths of the gospel — that Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing it would mean His crucifixion. There is an aspect of “reckless” that seems to express a very important doctrine of the redemption value (buy-back value) we have without Christ:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart. Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.6
This latter view describes Jesus’ act of self-giving love as reckless from a human perspective of value, appropriating in the word what Luther describes as the great exchange: Jesus freely takes on that which is not His (sin) and gives us that which is not ours (righteousness).
3. What is meant by the participant:
The final wrench in the worship song debate is that most people will determine the meaning for themselves as the song engages them in their own circumstances and not in some in-depth word study. It is ideal, after all, that each participant applies worship music to their own life, but in so doing a plurality of meaning develops. Let’s explore this further using the lives of two hypothetical people.
Finds “Reckless” Meaningful: Sally
Sally’s most formative relationships are merit-based, and that has resulted in ups and downs in her life. She was doubting her self-worth and then heard “Reckless Love” on the radio and was deeply touched that God would love her so unconditionally in Jesus. Her “worth” had nothing to do with it! She felt sought after, fought for, and loved — not on the basis of her achievements or looks but rather the work of Christ. The song had helped to boost her sense of self-worth, and she would play it on repeat in her mind and in the car during her morning commute.
Finds “Reckless” Confusing: Daniel
Daniel has strong opinions and thinks deeply about the things around him. Logic and common sense are the lens through which he makes sense of the world. When he sings songs during corporate worship he sees them through the same lens. One Sunday his church offered up “Reckless Love.” When he gets to the chorus he stops at the word “reckless,” unable to get his mind around it. He thinks: “God’s love isn’t reckless! I count on His thoughtfulness, plan of salvation, and wisdom! Jesus didn't go to the cross disregarding the consequence of death — He fully knew that His death would bring about the life of the world...” Left to his own imagination he is highly distracted and has a hard time reconnecting to the rest of the service.
The leader of congregational singing should ideally commit to four difficult practices: (1) seek feedback, (2) temper personal preferences for the sake of leadership, (3) tactfully clarify meaning, and (4) work to edify the whole church in the selection of songs.
Do not wait for individuals in the congregation to approach you, seek them out! You will find that often feedback will fall into 3 categories: The Nay-Sayer, the Enthusiast, and the Apathetic. Nay-Sayers are almost always thoughtful people. Listen to them! Give them a voice, and try to understand where they are coming from. Enthusiasts are encouraging people by nature, and well-directed encouragement is always needed in the church, but be careful not to let the Enthusiasts drown out other helpful voices. Thank them! Challenge them! Apathetic participants were likely not always that way. Be patient with these people! Invite them into the process, and do not impose on them a need to deeply care for these things. It may be that they appear apathetic because they think that nobody in the church cares about their opinion anyway. If you care, and care consistently, this might change over time.
Temper Personal Preferences
It’s important to keep in mind that your own experience of a song is not what shapes the congregational experience. While you have to start somewhere in order to lead, be careful not to hold on too tightly to your own preferences, and remember that your goal is to plan liturgy and song that is meaningful for the people you serve.
Tactfully Clarify Meaning
If you decide that there is a compelling reason to use a “song with issues” in worship, you must first go through the task of redeeming it on behalf of those for whom it is a problem. Try being very intentional about its use and placement as to help bring the church to experience it the way you intend. This can be done implicitly through contextualization or explicitly through some kind of segue.
Work to Edify the Whole Church
It’s ok not to use certain songs in worship — even popular ones. In deciding this, consider at what point you might be going too far to accommodate a song that does not belong in worship or might introduce unhealthy or even unbiblical ways of thinking. There simply are some songs that will never be appropriate for use in worship. Consider also what is at stake in the decision. Is it simply a preference over the way something is phrased, or is it communicating something specific about the character of God? You should always take great care to make sure you are leading your congregation to sing and internalize what is true, but you also don’t want to be so particular and critical that you end up missing out on some challenging themes that may create teaching opportunities.
The leader of congregational singing takes on a difficult and meaningful role in the church. They hold the tension between: (1) the often mutually exclusive desires/interpretations of the congregation, (2) their own preferences, (3) the directives of senior leadership, and (4) the doctrinal standard of their denomination. Sometimes in appeasing one group they appall another, but just as their work is difficult, it is important and meaningful. Let us continue to pray for one another, support one another, and encourage one another as we continue to refine our own planning models to best edify the people and glorify God in our churches. Asking what a thing means can be a more complex question than one might think!
1 “How He Loves,” McMillan, John Mark. 2005
-and-power/ (last accessed 3/24/20)
4 Matthew 26:53-54
5 https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/reckless (accessed 3/20/20)
6 1 Cor 1:18-21 (ESV)