History of Hymns: "You Are Good" by Israel Houghton
By Nelson Cowan
“You Are Good”
by Israel Houghton
Worship & Song, No. 3014
In an unprecedented turn of events, this week’s History of Hymns series takes us into the former arena of the Houston Rockets, now home to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. Founded in 1959 by John Osteen with humble origins, Joel Osteen assumed leadership in 1999 due to his father’s death. Since then, Lakewood Church has grown to approximately 43,000 attendees with a strong multiracial identity. In addition to pastoring the church, Osteen also has a strong media presence both in TV broadcasting and in the publishing industry, frequently coming under negative light for being a preacher of the “prosperity gospel.”1
Our hymn writer for the week, Israel Houghton—a multiple-time Grammy and Dove Award winner—has served as a worship leader at Lakewood Church for 15 years, beginning in 2001 through early 2016. Alongside worship leader Cindy Cruse Ratcliff, Houghton has led Lakewood Church in a hybrid musical style of black gospel, pop, rock, and folk. Houghton often performs with the accompaniment of “New Breed,” a musical team of predominantly African-American vocalists and instrumentalists. Since 1997, Houghton has released 13 albums, writing notable songs such as “Who is Like the Lord” (2001), “Friend of God” (2003, co-authored with Michael Gungor), “Not Forgotten” (2005), “Jesus at the Center” (2011), and this week’s hymn, “You Are Good” (2001).
Houghton was born in Oceanside, California, in 1971. As a biracial man, Houghton was immersed in racial tension from a young age, even being physically shoved by his maternal grandfather for being black. Reflecting on the difficulties of his racial, religious, and cultural identity, Houghton notes,
When you read Psalm 139, it throws out all the ‘I’m here accidentally’ stuff that I believed for so long. I felt like an accident. I felt like a mistake. But when you understand, ‘I’m fearfully and wonderfully made; I’m skillfully crafted; how precious are your thoughts toward me; how marvelous are your works,’ when you start considering all that and going, Ok, I didn’t just sneak into the earth, I was created for something great, the more I dwell on that, the more I meditate on that, the more I share that with people who want to hear it, the better I feel about why I’m here.2
Houghton’s life of trust in God and faithfulness permeates the lyrics with which he constructs his hymns. Like many other songwriters from Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Charismatic (PEC) traditions, Houghton draws heavily upon the language of the psalms. “You Are Good” is no exception.
The opening line, “Lord, You are good and Your mercy endureth forever,” echoes the declarations of Psalms 136:1 and 100:5. Interestingly, Houghton uses the King James Version of “endureth,” but when placing the psalm in a second person address, he switches back to modern English for the ease of worshipers and aesthetically pleasing vocalizations. Thematically, the remainder of the song is a riff on the goodness of God and the human response to worship God because of God’s goodness. In the pre-chorus, the hymn includes us, the worshipers, as in-line with the “people from every nation and tongue,” the people across all generations who worship God’s goodness. Differently framed, we are a part of God’s salvation history! In the chorus, the worshipers declare, “We worship you, Hallelujah! We worship you, for who you are…and you are good!” The bridge continues reflecting on the steadfastness of God’s goodness with the simple phrase, “You are good all the time, all the time you are good.” Importantly, this hymn is fully corporate, meaning there is no reference to “I” or “me” throughout the text. As such, “You Are Good” makes an excellent gathering hymn, provided it is surrounded by other hymns which describe the character of God and/or humanity’s relationship with God in fuller detail.
In only examining the text, one could easily come to the conclusion that this hymn is theologically superficial and basic. While it may be true lyrically, the syncopation of the stanzas, the dramatic build of the pre-chorus, the harmony-laden explosion of the chorus, and the spiritedness of the bridge all coalesce to add theological depth to the hymn. Houghton’s recording also relies heavily on a horn section to add color and improvisatory character to the arrangement. In terms of style, “You Are Good” is a gospel-pop fusion that works well across multiple racial settings. The hymn is high-energy and sonically multi-layered and complex, which points to the depth of God’s goodness and mercy that spans from generation to generation.
When the CCLI Top 100 vetting team analyzed the hymn, not a single person marked it as “strongly Wesleyan.” However, many commended the song for its simplicity as a Gathering or Sending hymn. Of note, one commentator suggested the removal of the portion of the bridge which says “yes, you are / yes, you are / yes, you are / so good, so good.” I agree with this commentator to take it out, but for a different reason: it should have never been included in the first place. All too often, ad-libbed lines from PEC worship leaders are considered “official” lyrics, which ends up adding more fuel to the fire about the shallowness of PEC hymns. In reality, these ad-libs are sung, extemporaneous prayers not intended for lyrical publication. It is roughly the equivalent of publishing a pastor’s extemporaneous prayer and calling it her official prayer.
The vetting team also honed in on the need for a full band, but the hymn works for multiple skill levels. The theology of the text is inseparable from the theology of the tune, which is why a piano-only version of the song would not work as well.
As evidenced by this hymn’s long reign on the CCLI Top 100 list, “You Are Good” is an excellent hymn of praise and thanksgiving that both lyrically and instrumentally emphasizes God’s goodness to all people from every nation and tongue. It would make an excellent addition to your congregation’s worship corpus.
1 For an interesting article on worship and the prosperity gospel, see Kate Bowler and Wen Reagan, “Bigger, Better, Louder: The Prosperity Gospel’s Impact on Contemporary Christian Worship,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 24, no. 2 (2014): 186-230.
About this month’s guest writer:
Nelson Cowan is a PhD student in Liturgical Studies at Boston University School of Theology with a focus in Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Evangelical expressions of worship and mission. He is in the process of becoming a provisional elder in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.