As I move from conference to convention, from houseparty to church, and as we try and select music for our own church meetings, I am consistently left with a sense of dissatisfaction about our present music.
We can still sing the great hymns of Luther, Wesley, Isaac Watts, Bunyan and Newton with gusto and pleasure. However, much of that musical tradition is dated, and conveys to the outsider an antiquarian interest that matches our buildings. Yet, the 20th Century alternative does not seem to be a satisfactory replacement.
It is right that we sing and give thanks to the Lord in our hearts. We are the people who are happy, and happiness should be expressed in songs of praise to God (Jas 5:13). Music is a great way to teach the truths of the gospel, as well as to express the whole range of our emotions—especially the emotion of joy. When words are set to music, they are somehow easier to remember, and as we repeat them over a period of months, the truths become fixed in our minds.
Of recent years, there has been a shift from hymns to choruses, although the distinction between the two is sometimes hard to work out. The musical feel of the two patterns is quite distinct: congregations will automatically stand to sing a hymn and feel comfortable with the organ playing, but will sit for a chorus and feel more comfortable with a guitar or a piano.
There is more behind this shift than simply the desire to be ‘up to date’. Much modern chorus music emanates from the Charismatic and Pentecostal communities. On the whole, they use music to heighten emotional responsiveness to God as part of their false doctrine of worship in church life. Thus, there are often prolonged periods of repetitive and fairly mindless singing with the aim of moving the singers into an intensified experience of God’s presence. The words tend to focus on the reality of Jesus in our lives today and the strength of our emotions in responding to him. The Charismatic use of the Bible is typified in their selections of Bible verses to sing. There is scant concern for context or meaning; instead, the phrases have an illusive quality that gives us a sense of singing about the Lord when we’re really singing about our emotional experience!
All the same, the modern feel and cultural appropriateness of this music gives it a greater sense of relevance for the post-war generation, in their search for an existential experience of the supernatural.
Frequently, Evangelicals censor the more heretical of these choruses and sing the inoffensive ones that are left. We leave out choruses that exalt healing or the second baptism, or which persistently emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the work of Christ, and are still left with a collection of choruses large enough to keep us going.
But it is not good enough. We’re not singing our songs, expressing our understandings and emotions. We’re not using our music to express and teach God’s people in a way that is appropriate to the truth that we believe. For although some of the choruses are not wrong, they are often not really right either.
We may sing a chorus about the Lord Jesus and think, “Yes, well, I suppose there was nothing wrong with that, and the tune was quite catchy”. But do the words convey a biblical understanding and emphasis about who Jesus is and what he came to do? Do the words teach the things that we would want to teach if we were preaching a sermon about Jesus? Even the most cursory survey of modern Christian church music will reveal that it is not teaching the important doctrines clearly or even accurately. When we think of the central truths of Evangelical Christianity—the supreme Lordship of Jesus, his theological place in the universe, the meaning of his death for us, the truths of judgement and creation and repentance and obediencethese are not emphasized in modern Christian music. And they should be. Our congregational singing should reflect what God thinks is important. Our music should emphasize the things that the Bible emphasizes.
It is interesting how easily we can sing the hymns of our Evangelical forefathers with a real sense of being at home in the ideas. They believed the same things as us and expressed these things in the language and musical forms of their day. How hard it is to find modern choruses that genuinely capture Reformation theology! And we want to do more than repeat a few clichés. We want to think and stretch our minds in what we sing. We want to teach truths in a way that is worth the effort of repetition.
In the past, Evangelicals wrote hymns and choruses that clearly articulated their understanding of the gospel which had so transformed their lives. We were at the forefront of Christian music because we were at the forefront of the Christian movement. What we need now are hymn writers, chorus writers, poets and composers who are so dominated by the great truths of grace that they will express these in song. We may well need collaboration in this exercise, especially in their publication and in the copyright confusion that seems to abound. We may need to put composers in touch with authors and poets. We certainly need to put poets in touch with theologians and evangelists.
St Matthias Press would be only too happy to help and encourage, to print and to publish, the works of Evangelical song writers and hymn writers. The distribution and dissemination of good Christian songs is a crying need in our community. At present, we are teaching people false theology in the songs that we sing, and false views and values of worship in the music that we allow to dominate our meetings.
We need song writers. I hope there are many who will take up the challenge.