95 million page views on YouTube. Last time I looked, I think it was only 92 million. Regardless, it is quite clear that the Hillsong United song “Oceans” is one of the most popular contemporary praise songs ever written. If you’re the leader of a praise band, and you think that worship should look and feel like a rock concert, you definitely should introduce “Oceans”. It’s hard to argue with 95 million page views. 96 million now?
ROCK BALLAD OR CONGREGATIONAL STANDARD?
However, for those of us who are committed to the New-Testament pattern for song worship, who look to Colossians 3:16 rather than to rock concerts for spiritual guidance, the question remains unanswered. Just because a song works when played by a praise band for a crowd of swaying evangelicals does not mean that it will work in an a-cappella congregation. To argue otherwise is to insist that Michael Jordan ought to be as good at baseball as he is at basketball. Two different sports have different demands, and so do two different modes of worship.
In particular, there are two characteristics of “Oceans” that we ought to consider before we import it into our worship services. The first is content. After all, content requirements for a rock ballad and a Colossians 3:16 hymn are very different. Rock music doesn’t have to make sense to be successful. It just has to generate feels. Hymns, on the other hand, have to teach and admonish. A good hymn is a sermon in song.
“Oceans”, of course, checks all the rock-ballad boxes. It generates all the feels. However, it doesn’t fare as well in a line-by-line analysis of content. To some extent, this analysis is unfair. “Oceans” was written to be emotive rather than thoughtful (that’s why the singer spends a whole minute in the original repeatedly singing “Oh”), so demanding spiritual insight from it is about like demanding milk from a bull. Nonetheless, a song worthy of appearing in a Colossians 3:16 venue needs to play by Colossians 3:16 rules.
When measured by that standard, the content of “Oceans” is. . . OK. On the plus side, it’s about a readily identifiable passage of Scripture, the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33. However, it doesn’t do a great job of exploring the implications of the passage. “Love Lifted Me” uses the same text much more thoughtfully.
What’s more, like an Impressionist painting, the closer one looks at “Oceans”, the fuzzier it gets. Whoever writes lyrics for Hillsong United isn’t quite good enough in rhyme and meter to be precise. They mean to say, “Don’t let me look down at the waves under my feet so that I get scared and start to sink” (even though in Matthew 14, Peter looks at the winds, not the waves). However, what they actually say is, “Keep my eyes above the waters.” The first time I sang the line, I said to Lauren, “I think I would prefer for Jesus to keep my nose or mouth above the waters instead.”
Similarly, in ordinary English usage, trust has limits rather than borders, but “limits” doesn’t rhyme even halfway with “waters”. As a result, we find ourselves appealing for the Spirit to take us where our trust is without borders because “borders” and “waters” sort of rhyme (admittedly, the rhyme may be stronger in Australia). False rhyme plus forced rhyme is not a good look.
Finally, are the eponymous oceans in the song a good thing or a bad thing? In Matthew 14, sinking into the sea is definitely a bad thing. Throughout most of “Oceans”, they appear to be a bad thing. We are, after all, seeking to walk upon the waters rather than sinking through them. However, the song also implores, “Take me deeper than my faith could ever wander,” even though being taken deeper wasn’t exactly on Peter’s to-do list. The metaphor has become muddled.
As always, the point through all of this is not that “Oceans” teaches false doctrine and never should be sung. If “Oceans” popped up on the projector next Sunday, I would sing it and do my best to worship with it. Instead, it’s that we can do much better. All other things being equal, why sing the song with so-so content instead of the song with outstanding content? Is there ever a point at which we have fulfilled Colossians 3:16 sufficiently, so that we can substitute our goals for God’s?
Indeed, from a Colossians 3:16 perspective, the biggest problem with “Oceans” is not in “teaching and admonishing”. It’s with “one another”. Like many denominational imports these days, “Oceans” works much better for a praise band (or a praise team) than for a congregation.
150 years ago, this wasn’t a problem. Back in the day, the dominant musical paradigm was, “People singing with each other” rather than “People sitting and listening to somebody else sing.” As a result, even denominational hymns were written for people to sing together. In fact, I would argue that the likes of “All Things Are Ready” and “A Beautiful Life” work even better a-cappella than they did in their original religious settings.
However, somewhere along the way, we became a listening-to-music society rather than a making-music society (which kinda stinks for Christians who believe that God expects them to make music themselves). “Oceans” fits neatly into this modern worldview. Go listen to the YouTube with 95 million hits (or the one with 74 million hits, if you prefer). This is clearly a performance piece, performed by world-famous professionals.
A song for professionals is a far cry from a song for ordinary Joe and Jane in the pews. Most Christians can’t even read music, so songs for them to sing need to be as simple as possible. “Oceans” is not written to be accessible to people like that. The rhythm is complicated enough that even good sight readers will struggle with it (unless they’ve listened to the YouTube with 95 million hits, of course). The arrangements I’ve seen spend a lot of time hanging individual parts out to dry, even though most brethren prefer to seek safety in numbers when they’re singing.
Finally, unlike congregational standards such as “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, which makes few musical demands in exchange for lots of content, “Oceans” demands much musically in exchange for mediocre content. Good sight readers will be OK with this, but the musically untrained will get frustrated with sitting mutely in the pews trying to figure out what they should sing. They may eventually learn such a song well enough to sing it dutifully, but they won’t ever be enthusiastic about it. They’d much rather sing “Love Lifted Me”, which they already know well enough to use transparently in worship.
If somebody wants to argue with me about whether the content of “Oceans” is “good enough”, fine (though I’m skeptical that “good enough” should be our goal in any area of our worship and service to God). Content questions are one thing. Congregational suitability is another. Simply because we can sing a sacred song and be doctrinally correct does not mean that the congregation should try to sing it. On a practical level, we have to acknowledge the limits (borders?) of our chosen mode of worship. “Oceans” is beyond them.