In this blog series my goal is to explore some of the issues that many people in American Christendom seem to have with Christian music these days. It is in no way meant to be a fully exhaustive commentary on the recording industry or state of corporate worship in American churches. My goal is simply to use my experiences in both the Nashville recording industry and church world to shed some light on a few of the more common topics. Since this is a series, I strongly encourage you to start with the first post in the series and catch up as each post builds on the arguments of those that precede it. As always, my prayer is that in discussing our differing opinions we can be brought to a deeper place of unity as described in John 17:23.
Hymns vs. Contemporary (and other such battles)
Many a pastor/worship leader has died a cruel and lonely death on this battlefield. Before I dig in, I would like to point out that it is incredibly telling that the use of songs (i.e. vessel) to worship the Creator of the Universe can cause so much tension and even dissension in His Church. Isn’t worship supposed to be solely about the Object of our worship, not those doing the worshipping or the vessel being used? Maybe this is a subject best saved for further discussion in a later post.
There are a number of arguments on both sides of this debate, many of which I will not have time to ruminate on in this post. I will, instead, touch on a few that I have encountered personally. It will help the readers of this post if you knew in advance where my allegiance lay. My musical tastes tend to prefer “contemporary” instrumentation, but I could not care less about the date on which the songs were written that these instruments are playing. However, I also recognize that my personal musical preferences matter little when I worship God. Though I often fail in this endeavor, God is all that matters when I worship Him through the vessel of song.
So, let’s dig in, shall we? The arguments I delve into below are in no particular order.
Contemporary Worship is theologically weak/inept/incorrect/lacking/etc.
I will agree with the “pro-hymn” crowd in that anything that is blatantly theologically incorrect has no place in a worship gathering. Of course, that begs the question, “Whose theological interpretation is the ‘right’ one?” My answer is a resounding, “YES”. In all my years of worshipping with other believers I can scarcely think of maybe two or three songs that I felt strayed from solid theology. More often than not, I have seen people jump on the “bad theology” bandwagon without actually applying critical thought or bothering to seek out the author’s original intent, the latter I consider to be of upmost importance. Take the Biblical authors for example. Is it not incredibly easy to just grab a “lyric” (i.e. verse or passage) completely out of context and see it as bad theology? Try it. Thumb through your Bible, grab a random verse, and build your entire opinion of the authenticity and accuracy of that author’s theology based solely on that verse or verses. I would bet that if you tried hard enough, you could develop some very peculiar views of Paul, Moses, David, and so on. You could even develop a distorted view of Jesus.
Let’s put it to the test. Pretend you have never actually read the Gospels and are unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus. Now, read the following from Luke 14:26:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (ESV)
How does that theology sound? So to follow this Jesus guy I have to hate everyone? That sounds like an awful religion! Of course, a deeper understanding of the context of this passage provides a rich understanding of the kind of dedication and love for Christ we must have. Do you see my point in this? Most Christians get the fact that we should not prooftext scripture, but we are guilty of applying that to just about every other facet of our lives. If a quote, lyric, or other creative work crosses your path and rubs you the wrong way I challenge you dig deeper and seek out the context and understanding of the original author’s intentions.
The reason I traveled down that tangent was to illustrate that we are far too guilty of throwing around the “sloppy theology” tag without truly digging in. All that said, there is a counter argument that I find very valid. Why does a worship song have to be filled with brain stimulating theology to begin with? Think about it. What is worship? Obviously, it is not something confined to a public singing service. According to dictionary.com worship is defined as:
“reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred; adoring reverence or regard”
There are times when I sit down and write out detailed and eloquent statements of the love that I have for my wife. These are most commonly found in birthday or anniversary cards. I also have expressed this in songs that I have written for her. Despite how much she enjoys these, I know for a fact that she derives just as much pleasure from me sincerely and simply saying, “I love you.” Three simple words can mean as much as a sonnet or a song. Is our God any different? Sometimes it is good to shower Him with praises as eloquent as the greatest writings of the most storied poets, yet is it any less meaningful when my three-year old son says, “I love you, Jesus,”? I think not. When being tempted by this argument, I strongly caution you to return to what worship is all about. It is not about tickling our ears with great wordsmithing. It is about our Lord and Savior. I believe that any expression of honest, passionate worship (however that may look for the individual) is music to God’s ears.
Hymns are too old fashioned and won’t attract new believers
My initial pushback to this is that worship belongs to our Savior, not other believers (or “potential” believers). As a worship leader, I recognize the innate entertainment value of a song service. There is no way to deny the fact that the performance of music can and will entertain people. You can remove the “devil’s” instruments (i.e. drums, guitar, tambourine, kazoo) and there is still the potential for enjoyment. Place the choir or organ in the back, hide them behind screens, it doesn’t matter. Music is enjoyable and I don’t feel that we should hide from that. But that doesn’t mean that we should view it’s intrinsic entertainment value as the goal. Yes, it is an undeniable by-product, but we worship to worship God.
We don’t talk like that way anymore (like they do in hymns)
That is correct. It is a fact is that the English language is constantly morphing and it barely resembles its close cousin from even a century ago, but it is a terrible mistake to do away with hymns just because they throw an occasional “thee” and “thou” in there along with words like “Ebeneezer” and (gasp) even have the audacity to use such foul words as “ass” (look it up, it’s used more than you might think). Modern English speakers do not use the kind of florid language found in Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and most authors born before World War I. Should we toss those books out as well? Of course not! I hope my son’s grandchildren still read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Great Expectations even if they need an old-fashioned dictionary to understand some of the words. Likewise, I hope that we allow the wonderful hymns of centuries past to stretch us out of our comfort zones in a way that gives us a new vocabulary with which to praise our Lord. Though I just made an argument in the previous section that this new vocabulary is not a requirement, it is never a bad thing in my opinion.
Modern worship songs are just ten words repeated twenty times (or some variation of the numbers)
I have heard that very poor generalization far more times from respected pastors and theologians than I can count. To say that that is painting with rather careless broad strokes is a gross understatement. Though many do not appreciate the word-painting in John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves” they often denigrate the repetitive nature of the choruses while completely missing the incredible beauty of the verses. I could go on and on detailing numerous modern examples of beautiful poetry, but I actually feel that it is a waste of time. Since when does a word count matter when it comes to defining genuine worship? At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me say that there are few things that can stir my soul like hearing my son use those three simple words, “I love you.”
On the “word count” argument, let me challenge you with scripture. Consider the Revelation 4:4:
“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”
By my count that is sixteen words being sung (or spoken depending on your interpretation) all day and night for all eternity. Now that is a repetitive worship song (or spoken word)! Do you think God is sitting on the throne saying, “Now that’s not genuine worship. Give me some more ornate hymns written by Fanny Crosby or John Wesley”? Genuine worship is not about word count. It is about the posture of our hearts. I believe I have heard it sung once that there is no more beautiful name (or word for that matter) than Jesus. Simply repeating that one word over and over again in worship should be beautiful shouldn’t it?
When we make the battle in our churches about whether or not we should sing hymns or “contemporary” worship songs then we have already lost. Wouldn’t that wasted breath and energy be better spent joining in one unified voice to worship the Creator and Author of everything including the ability to write songs and sing them together as His Church?