Song Discussion: Oceans

Over the years, one of the questions I’ve had to answer the most goes something like this:

“Why don’t you guys ever lead us in [insert song here]? Do you not like it?”
I still get this question frequently, and I must confess that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. I hate it because I’m well aware that my convictions on these matters are frequently considered disagreeable by others, and I don’t want to be perceived as nothing but a fussy old grumpy bear. On the other hand, I love it because I get a chance to share those convictions with people who are curious, and I always find the discussion that follows very fruitful and enriching.

Such discourse is extremely valuable, and it is for this reason that I am sharing my thoughts here. Even if you disagree with me (which is very common), it is my hope that you come across something new to consider when thinking about how worship leaders should approach song selection for corporate worship.

I served as the college worship associate at First Baptist Woodway in Waco, TX from Fall 2013 to Spring 2015, and during that time, people were asking me almost exclusively about Oceans. The song was everywhere, and they wanted to know why we hadn’t yet added it to our rotation. There didn’t seem to be any explicit biblical inaccuracies or crazy theology, so it wasn’t clear to others why I had chosen (along with my pastor) to keep it on the sidelines.

In a single sentence, the reason why we didn’t use Oceans for corporate worship at FWCM (and why I still don’t use it now) is because Oceans is not well-suited for corporate worship at all. I know this is a bold claim, and I do not make it lightly. After all, in just a year’s time, Oceans became a cherished anthem for congregational gatherings in churches all across the world. So why challenge that?

It is my belief that every word and action of the church, if not explicitly instructed or stated by the scriptures, should be infinitely questioned, challenged, and reconsidered. You might say this is a “guilty until proven innocent” ideology. When it comes to song selection, careful consideration and study, along with a great deal of prayer, is required to determine whether or not a song should be added to the rotation. Congregational worship songs must not allow for flippant words and irreverent tones, nor should they lack focus and clarity. In order to be certain that the songs we sing are appropriate for corporate worship, we must challenge them constantly and seek the guidance of the scriptures and of the Spirit. So it is with hymns of old, and so it is with Oceans.

First, a distinction. Just because Oceans is ill-suited for corporate worship does not mean that it is heretical, useless, or even ill-suited for personal worship. There are many beautiful and moving songs written all throughout the history of the church that would be simply inappropriate for congregational worship. This should not be too controversial a claim, but it has far-reaching implications. If you agree that such a claim is true, then you agree that there is some set of criteria that must be met for a song to be usable in corporate worship. Enumerating these criterion in their entirety is beyond the scope of this post, but an understanding of the broader construct they form is worth cultivating.

This construct is, essentially, a filter. When songs are put on the table for consideration, they must pass through the filter of criterion largely unscathed. Some of the criteria (the “beginning” of the filter) is mostly objective and leaves little room for exception. Other parts of the criteria (the “end” of the filter) are largely subjective. These subjective criterion are worth consideration, but are far less important than the rather unforgiving objective bits.

Let’s look at the first and most important part of the filter - the lyrics. When I’m considering adding a song to the rotation, the first thing I like to do is print out the lyrics or simply read them without listening to the music. This is a crucial step. Music is powerful - it can manipulate your emotions and skew your judgment. The perfect note at the perfect time in the perfect melody can move you to tears, but it can never turn a false word into truth. The real value of a song, when considered for use in congregational worship, is in the words.

Alright – so why not Oceans?

Red flags rise quickly when this method is used for Oceans. Let’s imagine the song as a narrative and seek to identify a protagonist, using only the lyrics of the song as a reference. Any critical analysis would clearly yield me, the singer, as the result of our search. The stubborn among us could undoubtedly concoct an argument that God is portrayed as the primary protagonist, but I suspect this argument will almost exclusively be rooted in the second verse and contain a healthy dose of wishful thinking. God is one of the “good guys” in this narrative, to be sure, but He is not the main character. Is this shack, then, being built on the rock, or the sand?

Additionally, the lyrics spend more time constructing and maintaining the metaphor of the ocean than they do exalting God in light of biblical truths (“…And keep my eyes above the waves”). Vague descriptions of a melodramatic venture out into the “waters” dominate the landscape of words dotted with personal pronouns (“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander”). Are we worshiping God, or are we worshiping the journey with God on which we imagine ourselves?

The way I see it, we have about thirty minutes per week in our services to gather together as a body and offer our worship to God. That’s not much time. How, then, is it best spent? When we’re joined in this way, we should seek to proclaim explicit, clearly-stated, biblical truths about who God is, what He has done, and what He will do. Songs that are centered around these truths rarely, if ever, leave room for misinterpretation, and that makes them wonderfully useful in a congregational setting. If, as a body, we hold multiple interpretations of the songs we’re singing, then we’re singing as a disjoint and confused body in need of solid truth. We need not wander, then, from the atoning work of Jesus on the cross in order to confidently proclaim what we know to be true about our Redeemer.

Unfortunately, Oceans makes almost no mention of Jesus at all. It is not until the bridge that the lyrics mention Him (“…in the presence of my Savior”), and even then it’s little more than a quick nod in His direction. As people who have been reconciled to God by Christ alone, our response should be overtly Christ-centered, not self-centered. If we cannot be absolutely certain that our songs place Christ in the spotlight of our affections, how can we claim to be worshiping Him? It is clear that Oceans makes mention of God, but it is unhealthy (and frankly, incorrect) to equate this with worship of God. If we really believe that we are but simple and humble servants of a King full of infinite glory and majesty, will we really make so much mention of ourselves in the lyrics of the songs that we sing in corporate worship while relegating Him to the occasional name drop?

Selecting songs for this special purpose in the church is a massive, weighty responsibility. All throughout scripture, our God affirms again and again the importance of the words that we speak, and when we select songs for corporate worship, we directly place words on the lips of our congregation. From a simple reading of the lyrics, I can comfortably conclude that Oceans will not fit into a rotation of songs for corporate worship. The music is beautiful. The melody in particular is unique, yet instantly singable, which is a rare and desirable balance. But the content of the song simply does not match the task at hand: worshiping our God as a unified body of believers.

Of course, each church is going to have its own set of criteria based on its own context and its own congregation. I do not intend to imply that these criterion are rigid or universally applicable. Their inherent flexibility, however, should not be abused and considered license to sing whatever is convenient. Question. Challenge. Reconsider.

There’s a meaningful conversation to be had on this topic, and by all means - let’s have it!


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