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Mr. Colson, I respectfully disagree

I mean that seriously. I have the utmost respect for Chuck Colson. I've read several of his books and thank God for the remarkable impact of his life and ministry.

But I strongly disagree with something he wrote in an editorial in the April, 2006, issue of Christianity Today. The article was entitled, "Soothing Ourselves to Death." I first read this article when it appeared on the internet and decided at that time to just let it go. But upon seeing it in print in CT, I had a change of heart.

Colson testifies to listening "stoically with teeth clenched" whenever "church music directors lead congregations in singing contemporary Christian music." I, on the other hand, not only listen but sing robustly and passionately. Now, it must be said that worship leaders greatly vary in their ability to lead congregations, whether they are singing traditional hymns or the latest Chris Tomlin song. I've had the privilege of ministering together and worshipping side by side with some of the most gifted and anointed leaders in the body of Christ. Rarely have I had to "clench my teeth".

But on this one occasion, Colson couldn't take it any longer. He says that one Sunday morning he finally cracked. "We'd been led through endless repetitions of a meaningless ditty called 'Draw Me Close to You,' which has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub. When I thought it was finally and mercifully over, the music leader beamed. 'Let's sing that again, shall we?' he asked. 'No!' I shouted, loudly enough to send heads all around me spinning while my wife, Patty, cringed."

Colson proceeds to bemoan the anti-intellectual tendencies in much of evangelicalism as seen, for example, in the replacement of theologically oriented radio broadcasts with more music, no doubt the kind that makes Colson "clench his teeth." Yes, he has a point. Biblical illiteracy is rampant and people are all too easily drawn to what feels good or what "soothes" the soul rather than what instructs and edifies the mind. I agree. But Colson's assessment of this song is entirely out of order.

I'm not sure what Colson has in mind by "endless repetitions" of the song. Does that mean they sang it twice or ten times or some number in between? Yes, some are inclined to repeat a song more than is needed or helpful. But repetition doesn't appear to be a problem for the four living creatures surrounding the throne of Christ (Revelation 4-5). Aside from that, I'm concerned with Colson's caricature of the song.

I happen to love "Draw Me Close to You"! Colson calls it a "meaningless ditty" with "zero theological content." That's a pretty serious charge, even if he's using hyperbole to make a point (which I doubt that he is). Personally, I'd be thrilled if it were sung in "nightclubs." Maybe then the inebriated and self-indulgent patrons would see an unashamed and extravagant passion for Jesus that would lead them to ask, "Who is it that inspires such love and devotion? Clearly people courageous and committed enough to sing in a nightclub of their personal yearning for this God and their intimate relationship with him have discovered something I have yet to find." But on to the song itself.

Before I examine the lyrics, one other comment is in order. My intention isn't to judge anyone's motives, least of all Chuck Colson's. But my suspicion is that many who express their disdain for contemporary Christian worship do so less out of theological conviction or from an objection to its alleged aesthetical shortcomings and more from a discomfort with the way in which such songs call for and facilitate personal engagement with God.

I love traditional hymns. But many of them, for lack of a better way of putting it, enable the soul to "keep God at arm's length." One can sing "about" God with theological precision and yet never engage the heart (see Mt. 15:8-9). There is a particular style of Christian music that never requires a person to honestly open their heart to God's presence and encounter him in a truly vulnerable and honest way. Singing descriptively is all well and good, even essential, but it isn't the same as singing "to" God in personal confession. In the latter we express our desire for him, our yearning for him, our thirst and longing and love and delight and joy in all that he is for us in Jesus.

The fact is, the primary appeal of contemporary Christian worship is that its lyrics and melody have the capacity not merely to stimulate the mind but awaken the spirit and stir the affections and intensify the expression of our hunger for God and our satisfaction in him alone.

Permit me to cite something I said in Chapter Ten of my book Convergence. Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise on Religious Affections, argued that the singing of praises to God seem “to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned," said Edwards, "why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections" (Religious Affections, Yale:115).

Some actually orchestrate worship in such a way that the affections of the heart are reined in and, in some cases, even suppressed. People often fear the external manifestation of internal zeal and love and desire and joy. Though they sing, they do so in a way that the end in view is the mere articulation of words and declaration of truths. But if that were what God intended, why did he not ordain that we recite, in prose, biblical truths about him? Why sing? It can’t be simply for the aesthetic value of music or because of the pleasure it brings, for that would be to turn worship manward, as if we are now the focus rather than God.

We sing because God has created not only our minds but also our hearts and souls, indeed our bodies as well, in such a way that music elicits and intensifies holy affections for God and facilitates their lively and vigorous expression.

The same may be said of how God operates on our souls in the preaching of his Word. Books and commentaries and the like provide us with “good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections" (115). So, with a view to affecting sinners and not merely informing them, God has appointed that his Word be applied in a particularly lively way through preaching.

Therefore, concludes Edwards, when we think of how public worship should be constructed and what methods should be employed in the praise of God and the edification of his people, “such means are to be desired, as have much of a tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the Word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshiping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means" (121).

When people object that certain styles of public worship seem especially chosen for their capacity to awaken and intensify and express the affections of the heart, they should be told that such is precisely the God-ordained purpose of worship. What they fear, namely, the heightening and deepening of the heart’s desire and love for God, and the expansion and increase of the soul’s delight and joy in God, what they typically call “emotionalism” or even “manipulation”, is the very goal of worship itself. For God is most glorified in his people when their hearts are most satisfied (i.e., when they are most “affected” with joy) in him (John Piper).

Now, what about the song in question? "Draw Me Close to You" was written by Kelly Carpenter. No, it isn't lyrically complex or theologically deep. Its musical simplicity is intentional. When I look my wife in the eyes and speak of my affection for her and my desire for her and how life would hold nothing for me apart from her presence, neither she nor I want it to be articulated in third person abstractions or in the prose I might employ in writing a scholarly paper or accompanied by a Gregorian chant.

Here are the words that made Colson clench his teeth.

"Draw me close to you, never let me go.

I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I'm your friend.

You are my desire, no one else will do.

No one else can take your place, to feel the warmth of your embrace.

Help me find the way, bring me back to you.

You're all I want. You're all I've ever needed.

You're all I want. Help me know you are near."

The song is intentionally written to be an intercessory cry for the awareness of God's presence, a plea that his loving embrace (spiritually speaking, of course) and the security of his affection never end. It is an expression of personal consecration and commitment. It is a declaration of the all-satisfying love of God and the soul's delight in it.

There isn't a sentiment or syllable in the song that isn't found somewhere in the Psalms as an expression of legitimate, biblical, heartfelt worship. For example, "But for me it is good to be near God" (73:28a). "My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord" (84:2a). "I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you'" (Ps. 16:2). Why? Because "in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (16:11). "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (42:1-2a). "O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (63:1). "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you" (73:25).

Perhaps it can best be summed up in the exhortation of James 4:8a, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."

Again, I don't know Colson's heart or his desires or needs. I do know mine. Perhaps the worship leader that Sunday was singing off key or was conspicuously manipulative. Perhaps he had indeed repeated the song too many times. Perhaps Colson was in an extraordinarily theological frame of mind in which a hymn of more doctrinal depth and stately form would have served him better.

But to call this song a "meaningless ditty" with "zero theological content" and use this as a platform from which to criticize contemporary Christian music as symptomatic of the anti-intellectual trend in the church at large, well, what more can I say?

In the final analysis, each individual must search his/her own heart and decide what form or style of music best facilitates what each believes is the aim of true biblical worship. I will continue to admire, read, and respect Chuck Colson. But I suspect when it comes to how we worship our great Triune God, I will also continue to disagree with him.

Longing for the nearness of God,