One of the biggest music hits of 2014 has been Happy by Pharrell Williams. At one point or another, you’ve heard it played on the radio, in advertisements, or during the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those songs that will inevitably get stuck in your head for days on end until you seriously consider reading a geology textbook just to distract yourself from the noise. So listen at your own risk!
It’s a fun enough song and I certainly prefer its message to that of musicians who expend so much “creative” energy objectifying women and sex. As Pharrell has continued riding yet another wave of success in 2014, some churches have chosen to jump on board by including Happy in their worship setlist. One church in particular blended the cups song from the movie, Pitch Perfect, in their professionally-lit, choreographed, HD-filmed performance. As soon as I started watching, I found it extremely unsettling, though I couldn’t pinpoint the reason why. Maybe it’s because it looks more like a music video than a sincere effort to prepare hearts for worshipping God, but that doesn’t sound very theological…
After all, what’s wrong with singing a song about happiness in church? There’s nothing inherently offensive in Pharrell’s song? And besides, don’t we receive a certain form of happiness when we come to know the Lord? What’s the big deal?
It’s important for the church to thoughtfully engage culture today. As the Body of Christ, we should cultivate the ability to rightly celebrate those who are using their God-given talents to create and cultivate inspiring works. Greg Forster explains it this way in his book, Joy For The World:
The foundation of all sound cultural engagement is the integration of two things. First we must begin with affirmation of the God-given goodness of civilizational activity. Second, the special transformation of our hearts by the Spirit must flow in our civilizational activity, so that we stand against all that is sinful and wrong in the world and pursue a more excellent way.
As I mentioned earlier, Pharrell’s song is an enjoyable track. I’ve seen it played during events like weddings and graduation ceremonies and it regularly draws people onto any available dance floor. Plus, its message shines in comparison to the wide range of garbage on the radio today. In the end, it’s a fun-loving contribution to modern mainstream music, but it doesn’t belong in church worship.
The church is the sanctuary of the Lord and when we gather it is for the communal purpose of praising the holy and sovereign God of the universe through confession, song, Scripture, prayer, and (often) communion. It is a sacred place reserved for undivided worship of God for his gracious work accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Singing Happy as a “worship” song in church says more about the nature of our worship than anything. Not once does the song attribute any direct praise to the Lord (though Christians may read that into its message). It’s true that knowing Christ can lift our spirits to experience life emotionally in ways we never could before, but making this song a part of the setlist focuses the congregation’s worship more on the gift than the Giver. Its aim is too low, set on that which is under the sun rather than the God who exists beyond it.
Our hope is not in our happiness because our happiness makes for a terrible god. Our hope is in Jesus Christ who set aside his divine privilege to become like mankind in every way possible. Though fully God, he temporarily surrendered his own eternal rights to experience the difficulties and sorrows that all human beings face today. He was tempted in every way, yet resisted sin completely. Though perfectly innocent, he voluntarily offered his life to his captors and was subsequently mocked, whipped, beaten, and nailed to a cross where he suffered as he slowly suffocated until his death. More importantly, he rose from the grave two days later and lives today as our Savior, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
When it comes to worship within the church, that should be the content of our praise. Happy simply does not communicate the reality of those truths. While it’s appropriate to play creative renditions of such a song at a conference or local talent showcase, the church reflects a subservient posture to its surrounding culture when it adds these kinds of songs to its preparation for being in the presence of God.
Happiness can be an active component of a Christian’s walk with Christ, but so can sorrow, mourning, impatience, doubt, and difficulty. If our worship is focused on a secondary benefit of our faith, we will lose sight of the primary object of our faith.
In the end, our hope is not in our happiness. Rather, our hope is in a person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God who gave his life as a ransom for many. Our worship needs to communicate that truth as we approach the sanctuary of the holy God who has spared nothing – not even his only Son – in his gracious pursuit of us.