A lament for lack of sad songs
Hurricanes, fires and floods leave dozens dead. Mass shootings devastate schools, churches and public spaces. Leaders reel under accusations of corruption and misconduct.
And congregations sing songs of joy.
Though Ecclesiastes reminds us there is a time to mourn, many Protestant churches today experience few songs of lament, a tradition from the Psalms of exiled Israelites to the spirituals of African-american slaves.
Songs of praise often celebrate God taking us from our hurts; songs of lament recognize God with us in our hurts. Yet, at least in my part of the Protestant world, songs of lament seem to have vanished.
The current top 100 songs listed by the Christian song-licensing organization CCLI include scores of praise and worship songs. Just a handful that explore the hurting side of the human condition, the lamentations of the faithful.
Many Protestant churches have lost the habit of singing songs of lament. So when something goes wrong, they don‘t have familiar songs to express emotions of grief, sorrow and regret.
“Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem,” wrote Dan Allender, founder of a trauma and abuse therapy ministry.
A fast-paced culture with no much opportunity for reflection is one reason, songwriter/worship leader Sandra Mccracken said at the Sing! 2018 conference in Nashville, Tenn., which drew hundreds of pastors and worship leaders, many of them evangelicals like me. Mccracken said many Americans live distracted lives, where there’s little room for silence or contemplation.
With 26 percent of American adults online almost constantly and more than 75 percent online daily, disconnecting and slowing down is a challenge. Congregants tweet through the sermon and post pictures of the choir special during the service, often switching between a Bible app and social media through the sermon.
“One of the first ways we pass through this entryway into lament is silence,” Mccracken said. “In silence, we find that things are exposed we’d rather have pressed down. We‘d rather keep the radio on or some noise.”
George Robinson, who teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is also a musician. He sees industry trends as a result of unhealthy church liturgy among Protestants.
“The necessity of lamentation is nearly absent from church liturgy,” Robinson said. “That is ref lected in the worship music that has been popularized by the industry. Ironically, lament is a crucial element in our approach to God precisely because we are crying out to him about sorrows beyond our abilities to rectify.”
“Mourning is extremely personal, requiring vulnerability from the singer rarely seen in Western worship,” he said. “Lament is just too personal to be expressed in a congregational setting.”
Marty Duren is a writer, bivocational pastor who lives outside Nashville, Tenn.