There’s been plenty of criticism of worship songs in this modern era — frustrations over the repetition of theologically shallow declarations, of phrases that speak to our emotions rather than calling us to submit ourselves to God’s lordship in our lives.
Our worship should usher in a posture of praise and adoration of the majesty of God, reminding us of our need for redemption and calling us to a deeper devotion to the Lord. Theologian and pastor John Piper described the “essence” of worship — no matter its form — as “a heart that treasures God above all things.”
Scripture backs up that definition. The Bible tells us to sing songs as a way of recognizing God’s “unfailing love” (Psalm 89:1) and his “wonderful deeds” (Psalm 105:2), as an expression of joy (Psalm 132:9), and to show our gratitude for the Lord (Colossians 3:16).
Keep that in mind when you listen to “Hymn for the 81%,” a song written by South Bend, Indiana, worship leader Daniel Deitrich, who said in an interview about the song that worship music “should give us hope.”
“Worship music teaches and shapes us, so what we sing about really matters,” he said. “There are a ton of great songs that help us praise and thank God, but worship music should also help us lament, reflect, confess, celebrate, challenge and push us outside the walls of the church to be the hands and feet of Christ.”
Deitrich’s song, though, fails to do much of that. He wrote the song in response to the 81% of white evangelical Protestant voters who supported President Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle. Many of the “worship” song’s lyrics turn affection away from God and instead feed the undercurrent of division that has plagued the Christian community in recent years:
They started putting kids in cages
Ripping mothers from their babies
And I looked to you to speak on their behalf
But all I heard was silence
Or worse you justified it
Singing, ‘glory, hallelujah, raise the flag’
Your fear had turned to hatred
But you baptized it with language
Torn from the pages of the Good Book
You weaponized religion
And you wonder why I’m leaving
To find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls
Throughout the song, Deitrich made one reference to the “cross” and one to “Jesus.” The rest of his lyrics are focused on an ambiguous “justice” that he never really defined.
At best, Deitrich’s song is a personal prayer — an intimate plea to God for understanding in troubled times when clarity has eluded him. He even described writing the song, particularly the “angry middle finger” bridge he ultimately dropped, as a “cathartic” experience. And there’s scriptural precedence for that: the apostle Paul prayed and sang hymns to God when he was in prison (Acts 16:25).
But that’s for him alone, in the quiet solitude of his own prayer life, not as a worship song in a corporate setting. The same criticism leveled against the modern worship songs that ring through our churches today can be leveled against Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%.”
The song upends the posture worship is intended to inspire. It turns our vertical stance acknowledging our submission to the majesty of God into a horizontal stance — one that takes justice and redemption out of the Lord’s hands and sets our eyes on those around us, on our own understanding of what is and should be.
Deitrich’s words are not elevating or edifying; they are divisive. Our worship and discipleship should be challenging, but it should be challenging in ways that call us back to Scripture, not to our anger at one another.
Our worship, too, should call us to action, but that action should be inspired by an adoration of who God is and who we are as broken sinners in need of salvation.