This is the third in a series of articles dealing with downward trends in contemporary worship services. In this article we will consider music and worship.
Perhaps the most visible change in protestant churches since the reformation has taken place in the field of church music. In this article I am going to raise four concerns, relating to balance, content, technology and time, in church music.
During the past two decades hymns have been replaced by contemporary choruses in many churches. How should we view this significant change?
I believe we need balance. If a congregation sings nothing but hymns, it should be encouraged to include choruses as well. If, on the other hand, a congregation has completely discarded hymns, it should be encouraged to resume singing them. From a standpoint of common courtesy alone, to discard hymns that most older folk have known and loved all their lives is lacking in consideration. To cater only to the young is a mistake.
More than that, to discard hymns is to discard the church’s rich and diverse musical heritage. We should rejoice that we can sing a psalm by King David (“Psalm 23”, for example), written one thousand years before the Messiah, or that we can sing a hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”), penned twelve hundred years after the Messiah, or that we can join our voices with Martin Luther (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”), written at the beginning of the reformation in the sixteenth century.
To discard the rich heritage of Christian music that has preceded us is a serious mistake. The church’s glory rests not only in its modernity—that it teaches modern man how to be reconciled to God—but also in its antiquity. The church spans all times—it is both ancient and modern—at the same time. We worship the “Ancient of Days”, the “Lord Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Daniel 7:9, Revelation 4:8).
To discard hymns in favour of choruses is tragic for a number of reasons.
One is that hymns have been replaced by choruses that are often lacking in content. Contrasted against the psalms and great hymns, they lack in both depth and scope. As James Montgomery Boice writes, “The old hymns expressed the theology of the church in profound and perceptive ways and with winsome, memorable language. Today’s songs reflect only our shallow or non-existent theology and do almost nothing to elevate our thoughts about God.”
Secondly, hymns have been replaced by choruses that sometimes consist of little more than a repetition of phrases or jingles. Speaking of the repetitive nature of some choruses, Boice writes, “Songs like this are not worship, though they may give the churchgoer a religious feeling. They are mantras, which belong more in a gathering of New Agers than among the worshipping people of God.”
Now, perhaps Boice overstates the above points in order to make them. But there is truth in what he writes.
Thirdly,hymns have been replaced by choruses that are often subjective in outlook: I will, I believe, I just want, I promise, I love, and so on. This should be contrasted against the objective and God centred focus of many of the older hymns: “Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed”, “A Mighty Fortress”, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, and many others.
Lastly, hymns have been replaced by choruses that often concentrate only on the“likeable” attributes of God, and the comforting aspects of the faith. God is great, mighty, awesome and good. Yet, there is little consideration given to his holiness, his hatred of sin, future judgement, or salvation apart from works, through faith in Christ alone—topics that are thoroughly addressed in the hymns.
I do not wish to overstate this point. Not all hymns are superlative. Nor are all choruses lacking. There are hundreds of truly beautiful and doctrinally sound choruses being written in our own time. A few particularly fine choruses include: “Jesus is Lord”, “There is a Redeemer”, “As the Deer”, “Jesus, Name Above All Names”, “My Tribute”, “Amazing Love”, and many, many others. These wonderful songs should be incorporated into our already rich Christian musical heritage.
Drums and cymbals, keyboards, guitars, amplifiers, speakers, computer generated overheads, stage lighting—the products of modern technology—are often the most obvious and central features in many churches. Yet, God is not moved by “religious technology,” as J. I. Packer puts it. He is not stirred by the sound of a $5,000 electronic keyboard or the deafening beat of drums.
On the other hand, amplified contemporary music can have a powerful effect on human emotion (witness girls screaming and crying at rock concerts). Christians should carefully consider if that which is experienced in some churches is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit or the power of loud, repetitive, sustained, contemporary music. We should ask, “Is God at work or man?”Is the sensation that people sometimes experience due to accoutrements rather than to the sheer power of the Spirit and his word?
God waits to hear his name lifted through the preaching of his word, and through human voices united in praise and adoration. He listens to hear his character praised in song, his word boldly preached, and his people’s earnest prayers. It is then that he sends his Spirit to convict and convert the lost. We should earnestly desire more for God’s people than what we can generate with technology and effort.
Over the past two decades the time given to preaching and prayer has been steadily declining, while time given to music has been increasing. Is the re-arranging of our services significant?I believe that it is. It seems to reflect a loss of confidence in preaching, and a mistaken belief that music is the most important (or only) element of worship. This is a serious error, for scripture teaches that God has ordained preaching, not music, as the primary means of edifying believers and saving the lost (1 Corinthians 1:21, 2 Timothy 4:2). Music, as important as it is, receives little mention in the New Testament.
If there is an unwillingness to reduce time given to music in worship, then perhaps services should be extended so that adequate time can be given to preaching and prayer.
Music is a wonderful part of worship in which every person can participate, whether “musical” or not. But, when the church’s rich heritage of hymnody is discarded, or when the content and scope of music declines sharply, or when music usurps preaching and teaching and prayer, then perhaps it is time to pause and reconsider the balance, content and amount of music in our services.