As someone who has been a part of leading congregations in worship through music for over ten years, I cringe when I see people angrily denouncing modern praise songs because of their lack of lyrical depth.  People have argued back and forth about these kind of love songs to God — some have denounced these as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.

In my ministry to Asian American youth and young adults, I have seen a great need for the recovery of godly intimacy in many of their lives.  It is extraordinarily difficult for people who are afraid of their dads or never speak to them to sing highest praises to their heavenly Father.  While it might not be right to project our brokenness onto God, it still happens.  And even in cases where there might not be dad-issues, the honor/shame culture in which so many of us have been raised tends to make us closed off, unable to connect deeply with God or with others.  It is virtually impossible to forge a deep, abiding love for God or for others if we are disconnected from God.  Music can play a vital role in establishing an intimate, life-changing, life-giving relationship with God.

Certainly, we must always exercise wisdom and discernment.  We do not want to devolve into a “me-first” consumer mindset.  Worship is rightly directed to God, first and foremost.

I bring all of this up because, in my never-ending search for worship songs that would be appropriate to sing in our church’s context, I recently picked up the new Hillsong United album, All of the Above.

A quick tangent:  The title, “All of the Above,” seems to refer to an image on the cover and inside the liner notes of the album.  There are five young people wearing plain white t-shirts, each one with a large handwritten phrase.  These include: love, truth, hope, justice, and others.  It seems that the phrase “all of the above” is intended to show that our calling is not to pick and choose or have an either/or mentality, but that following Christ includes all of these things — a “both/and” kind of faith, if you will.

Although I know that United songs are hugely popular in youth circles, I have never been that much of a fan.  Not necessarily a critic, but just not a huge follower.  Their musical evolution has been pretty interesting to follow — the Brit-rockish chord progression of “Everyday” to the Blink 182-esque feel of “The Reason I Live” to the modern rock strains of “Salvation is Here” to the emo/punk riffs of “Take It All.”  One thing that has always thrown me for a loop is how their uptempo songs have developed a kind of punk rawkish flair, but their more contemplative songs still remain in 80’s Monster Ballad territory.  I’m not judging them, mind you — I will sing along to “Heaven” by Warrant and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison any day.  It just seems kind of odd, that’s all.

I noticed one kind of troubling thing while listening to this album’s lyrics, though. It’s not so much about the simplicity of the lyrics — which, I might add, is not always a bad thing.  Another tangent:  I used to really dislike singing “Trading My Sorrows” by Darrell Evans.  Not only because I would inevitably picture a person going to the checkout counter with a package of sorrow or shame and trading for “the joy of the Lord,” but because I could not understand why the chorus consisted simply of “Yes, Lord” repeated nine times. Then a friend put it into perspective for me.  We say, “No” to God all the time.  Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves to choose God’s ways — emphatically, nine times over, even.

Anyhoo, what raised my eyebrow was the opening line to the second track, Break Free, which says, “Would you believe me, would you listen if I told you that there is a love that makes a way and never holds you back?”  This is extremely similar to the opening line to another United song called (interestingly enough), Free, which asks, “Would you believe me if I said, that we are the ones who can make the change in the world today?”  This reminds me of how a number of different United songs use the line, “I wanna be with You,” or a close variation of that phrase.

And, on the track Lead Me to the Cross, they seem to reference two songs not written by United.  Leading into the chorus, the lyrics state, “Everything I once held dear I count it all as loss” which sort of compresses the opening verse to Knowing You by Graham Kendrick, “All I once held dear, built my life upon / All this world reveres, and wars to own / All I once thought gain, I have counted loss…”

The chorus of this song says, “Lead me to the cross where Your love poured out / Bring me to my knees, Lord I lay me down” which is oddly reminiscent of the chorus to an old Delirious? track, Oh Lead Me, “Lead me to the cross where we first met / Draw me to my knees, so we can talk.”

I am not accusing them of plagiarism.  I understand that referencing prior material can be a very powerful thing; it can recontextualize a powerful experience from the past into our present-day life experience.  I think Passion’s work to reclaim some of our old hymns works along these lines. It just reminds me of how difficult and what a high calling it is to write songs of worship that are engaging, thoughtful, singable, melodic, astute, deep and memorable.