The Potentially Pernicious Power of Pesky Pronouns

A pastoral reflection on the use of “I” and “we” in corporate worship.

Pronouns have always interested me. I listen very carefully for them in many different settings. In conversation between friends and/or lovers pronouns can be very revealing. There is a subtle but critically important difference in meaning between a happily married person saying “I want that for my house” and “we want that for our house.” It might not seem such a big deal on the surface, but as someone who has done his fair share of pastoral counseling, I can assure you, it’s a tell.

Years ago when I was in seminary, the first wave of exorcisms were being focused on the liturgical linguistic of American Protestantism. Worship elements, particularly hymns, with first person singular pronouns were suddenly verboten with very few questions asked, all on the theory that if “I” sang “I” it undermined the integrity of the all-important “we.” To be fair, this came in response to the excesses not only of previous generations of hymn writers but also to the emerging contemporary worship culture. But as with anything from luxury sedans to vegan restaurants, the overindulgence of one era becomes the bane of the next.

In the case of a whole class of innocent pronouns, suddenly abandoned in a rush to create the illusion of community, a whole school of hymn writing, not to mention the psalms, was mothballed. And the result, I would argue, was far from the desired response. The presence of an inescapable and unchallenged “we” in prayers, responses, and hymns, created a heightened state of personal irrelevance and the ability to “hide” psychologically speaking from God and our fellow humans within the undulating and unaccountable, yet totally inclusive liturgical “we.” Within the “we” there is no specific need for a functioning “I.” I can come and go as I please, checking in or checking out as my personal comfort dictates. Hardly what was intended by the revisionists.

To test this theory, I (singularly and personally) altered the language of the Prayer of Confession in the liturgical life of the congregation I was serving throughout a designated season.

Almighty and merciful God, Almighty and merciful God,
we have erred and strayed I have erred and strayed
from your ways like lost sheep. from your ways like a lost sheep.
We have followed too much I have followed too much
the devices and desires of our own hearts. the devices and desires of my own heart.
We have offended against your holy laws. I have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone I have left undone
those things which we ought to have done, those things which I ought to have done,
and we have done those things and I have done those things
which we ought not to have done. which I ought not to have done.
O Lord, have mercy upon us . . . O Lord, have mercy upon me . . .

Now before anyone gets their cassock in a kerfuffle, I know that confession is the action of God’s people on behalf of the church and the world. However, I also know that there is a screaming need among God’s worshipers to be seen and known. The proof: after a few weeks of confessing, corporately but in with first-person pronouns, in a somewhat proud and reticent congregation, my pastoral counseling load began to skyrocket.

My point? Balance. Balance between the individual who needs to be nurtured in their personal apprenticeship to the Savior and the congregation of individuals that can be formed into a community by Word and, more importantly, Sacrament. Balance. Balance between our need to be known and accountable and our opportunity to be welcomed and commissioned. Balance. Balance between the dangerous self-focused world of the unchallenged “I” and the equally dangerous selfish anonymity that can be found in a liturgy of unchecked “we.” After all, the same book of psalms that reminds us that “. . . we are his people and the sheep of his pasture” also says in the very next instance, “I will sing of your love and justice . . .” May this be our goal, and let it begin with me.

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at reformedworship.org. He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).