Content warning: God-talk, Christianity, worship music, conservative evangelicals, intimate partner violence, child abuse, bullying, various types of -isms and shaming. Nothing graphic or detailed, but no mincing words, either.
I debated whether or not to write this. I’m still tired from a weekend at a youth event with kids from our church, so my words are running together a bit. Aside from that, this involves one of my kids. I try hard to keep them out of my public writing, and I do ask their permission first when I want to include them. Usually it’s positive stuff like their accomplishments (hey, I get to be a proud mama sometimes!). This time, it’s not so positive, and my Mama Bear claws were/are unsheathed. So there you have it—full disclosure on why this made me furious enough to blog about it.
First, the good stuff. Our weekend trip was great. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I haven’t been to a youth event in years, and my experiences with them are…not good. I recall lots of negativity: wearing kids down until they’re “broken” enough for an altar call (yes, that’s really what we were instructed to do at one camp); assuring youth that they are damaged, sin-sick wretches; providing lists of sins and how they can keep themselves pure. I pretty well figured it wouldn’t be like that, since my older one has gone on this trip before. I was pleased to find that it all had a healthy tone which was outward-focused. And no altar call!
That said, the one thing which rattled me was how upset my older child was after singing a particular worship song.* I’m gonna say it—that song needs to be stabbed to death with a thousand knives, set on fire, and never, ever played at any youth function again.
At first, when my kid was upset, I let him go. He was with a friend, and he talked with a couple of other trusted adults who care about him. Eventually, I caught up with him and asked if he was willing to talk to me as well. Even after he told me why the song affected him, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I actually ended up asking him if there was more than he was saying because it wasn’t making sense to me. I finally began to piece it together: He is fine. He isn’t hiding some secret he’s ashamed of. (Explaining how I know this would break my child’s trust on private things he’s shared.) No, he’d merely absorbed the negative message of the song and had come to (temporarily) believe that he was unlovable for who he is.
In a nutshell, the message of the song is, “You don’t fit in, people will never love you, and only God actually tolerates your existence. You’re so lucky God loves you!” On the surface, maybe it sounds okay to express a very real feeling of not fitting in. Except this is a twisted way to achieve that, and it makes God sound exactly like the kind of controlling lover who isolates and assures you they are the only one who will ever love you.
Let me just link the words for you. I had to look them up myself, and I cannot even with this song. It’s full of victim-blaming (verse one, which implies child abuse of some type), fat-shaming (verse two), and equating being hurt to being a literal murderer (verse three). All of this is wrapped in a lovely package of telling people they are so terrible that no one could possibly love them except God. And who knows exactly how God plans to show this, since God’s primary vehicle is people. But hey, I guess it’s enough to say “God loves you” while walking on by, right?
While I appreciate the acknowledgment that people in various situations can feel alone and unloved, telling them they literally are alone and unloved seems…well, unloving. In the case of my kid, he ended up dwelling on the fact that some kids at school have targeted him for homophobic and ableist bullying. You know what this song taught him? That the bullies are right, he’s too weird, and no one actually loves him. This, despite the fact that on a day when he isn’t listening to that song, he’s very well aware how many people adore him—“weirdness” and all.
This is exactly the type of thing that evangelicals** use to break people down so they can get in there with their message of “hope.” It’s othering at its finest. Convince people they’re worthless (oh, excuse me, “unworthy”) in order to deliver the promise that God (but not them personally, of course) will love them. At least, God will love them if they make some effort at changing. This is how I got sucked into an evangelical black hole and why I’m still trying to recover, nearly seven years after waking up to the harm done in God’s name.
This is not a healthy message. It’s not even a Christian one. In particular, I’m incensed at delivering a message to our youth which suggests that the hurt they’ve experienced makes them so ugly to others that only God could look on them without being disgusted (and also implies that being abused or being fat are sins equivalent to murder). It offers no real help, no suggestion for where someone could turn. No encouragement to fellow humans to be a shoulder to cry on and a loving presence in someone’s life.
I’m sure this song is powerful for some folks. I’m equally sure someone is going to come over here to comment that I’m intentionally missing the point or that one song can’t deliver everything. If only it were one song! A whole lot of worship songs are in the same vein, designed to evoke a particular feeling for the sake of “winning souls.”
Can we just not? This isn’t a message I want my kids hearing. It’s certainly not the message they hear in our church week after week. Like me, my older child’s spirituality is heavily bound in his love for music, so it’s much more likely he’ll absorb incorrect theology from a song. We need to do better for our kids than this warped thinking. People are not worthless, broken wretches who don’t deserve love from other humans. God is not an abusive lover who isolates us from each other in order to “fix” us.
*I’m not giving old hymns a pass on this either, but my most negative worship experiences have involved pop-Christian songs. There are certainly plenty of examples of hymns with dreadful and equally damaging theology.
**I’m using “evangelicals” to refer here to predominantly white conservative evangelical protestant denominations, mainly Calvinism/Arminianism-based. My denomination, ELCA, has “evangelical” in the name but isn’t an Evangelical Denomination. It’s still considered liturgical and isn’t by any stretch of the imagination Calvinist/Arminian.