The Universal Message of UNITED’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”

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Hillsong United is one of the world’s most popular praise and worship groups. Since its inception in the late 90s, UNITED–as the group has stylized its name for a new generation of worshipers–has created some of Contemporary Christian praise and worship’s most enduring anthems, including “Everyday,” “Mighty to Save,” “Best Friend, “King of Majesty,” “Scandal of Grace,” “The Stand,” and, most recently, “Touch the Sky.”

It is their single “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” that may define the group’s sound for pretty much the rest of their career. The carrier single of their album “Zion” has defied conventional Christian Song chart performances and redefined the worship genre since its release in 2013.

Exactly how successful has “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” been? Here are a few of the song’s most noteworthy accomplishments:

  • As of this writing, the song has spent 173 weeks on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart. That’s literally more than three years on the chart. To put that in perspective, the record for most weeks on the Hot 100 is Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” at 87 weeks, literally half the time spent by “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” on the Christian chart.
  • Since its release, it has, spent more than a year at number one. That’s more than 52 non-consecutive weeks at No.1. The record after that is 26 weeks, apparently, belonging to Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water.”
  • It was the top song of the year on Billboard’s year-end Christian Songs countdown in 2013. And 2014. And 2016. The only year it wasn’t the top song of the year was in 2015, when Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water” was the year-end champion. And that year, it was No.2.
  • “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” actually entered the Billboard Hot 100–the ultimate song chart, which combines song performance across the USA on all song formats–and peaked at No.83, no small feat, given its theme.
  • On YouTube, the official lyric video has been viewed more than 74 million times. A live performance on the YouTube channel of RELEVANT, a Christian magazine, is pushing 40 million views.
  • The song has gone double Platinum in the US (sales of more than 2,000,000 copies), and pushed “Zion” to become UNITED’s best-selling album ever.
  • The song has been covered on the “The Voice”, endorsed by Selena Gomez, and is still one of the most performed songs in churches all over the world, according to CCLI.

And as of this writing, it’s still at No.2 on the chart. With a bullet.

So what is so powerful about UNITED’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” and why does it seem to resonate with worshipers worldwide the way no other Christian song of this generation has?

First of all, there is a universality to its its theme and message of persevering faith. When Taya Smith sings the opening line of “You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown where feet may fail,” we can understand that there is a fear and hesitation that lurks underneath the lyric, that we may encounter something with which we are unfamiliar. The declaration, however, that follows in the chorus, is enough to still our frantic hearts:

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

The faith it takes to declare that we will call upon God, and focus on Him instead of our circumstances–as evidenced by the rising waves of the ocean–is the faith that we all long to have in moments of weakness. We then declare dependence on His grace and sovereign hand to guide us, and our once wavering faith suddenly finds itself a wee bit stronger. By the time the bridge comes around, we are ready to proclaim the power of our Savior to deliver:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

Gone is the timid, initial hesitation that comes when God first calls us, and in its place stands an invitation, not from God, but from us, calling on God and the Holy Spirit to lead us into whatever He has planned for us, not by our strength, but His, fueled and bolstered by a faith made stronger in the presence of God.

It’s a lyrical and thematic triumph that speaks to a new generation desperate to search its inner being for a stronger, more resilient faith. The kind of faith that moves mountains despite its mustard seed size. The kind of faith that stands in the face of roaring waves or raging fire, standing firm because its foundation is merely that of the Creator of the Universe.

Most worship songs today tend to be wordy, filling in every available note with one or two syllables, ideally to accommodate whatever the songwriter would like to communicate about the width and depth and breadth of God’s majesty. “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” flies in the face of this, and leave a lot of singing space that allows the worshiper to focus on Christ and the implications of the lyric. It allows for personal prayer, for the mind to wander and explore the expanse of God and His awesomeness. That is very special.

I also think much of its success is attributed to a female vocal. When a truly special song is given a female vocal, it lends itself to a raw honesty and beauty that sometimes cannot be captured by a male vocal. Referencing artists like Kari Jobe (“Healer,” “Revelation Song,” “Forever”), Brooke Fraser-Ligertwood (“Desert Song,” “What a Beautiful Name”), Laura Story (“Mighty to Save,” “Blessings”), and Darlene Zschech (the entire early Hillsong Worship catalog), Taya Smith has taken her angelic voice and delivered a haunting vocal that makes the song instantly likeable and singable, especially in churches where female vocalists need a song to communicate an openness to commune with and worship God.

Songs like “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” come along once in a generation or two. This lyrical and melodic masterpiece that songwriters Joel Houston, Salomon Ligthelm, and Matt Crocker have crafted will soon become a worship classic if it has not been one already.

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