Some [congregations] sing only Gospel hymns—hymns of invitation, hymns of commitment, initial commitment to Christ, hymns that are more suited to the young in faith. They sing the milk of the Gospel. That is essential, but if that’s all one sings, one needs to ask, how do you nurture that young faith? There are some who sing only solid, classic, hymns, hymnody that takes four or eight stanzas of solid theological, systematically well-argued, deep stuff by which, definitely, if you take that material seriously, you can grow. (Music in Christian Worship: At the Service of the Liturgy, Bert F. Polman, 71)
This passage has been sticking with me for the past week, reaching out to me during quiet, thoughtful times and gently but persistently confronting almost three decades of personal perceptions about music in the church. I’ve never before been introduced to the idea that, just as different music is suited to different times of the liturgical year, there are different songs that speak to us at different points in our spiritual life, beyond the changing tides of fashion and specifics of personal taste. Yet, as soon as I read this, it made complete sense and almost immediately began to transform my thoughts on church music, especially of music that I didn’t particularly connect with in worship.
What, then, does this mean for the leaders and musicians of the church, who are charged with faithfully and responsibly choosing music for the worshipping congregation?
Let me back up, and start with a disclaimer about where I am coming to this conversation. I was raised United Methodist, as many of you may know, and I know the United Methodist 1989 hymnal frontwards, backwards, sideways and upside-down. I even played out of the UMH during my position as the organist for a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in high school– the arrangements were, in my very teenager-y opinion, simply better than those in the old red Lutheran hymnal. Oh, those wonderful years when we thought we knew everything…
In 2001, when I was in high school, the United Methodist Publishing House released The Faith We Sing, full of the songs that my parents’ generation loved back in the 70’s and 80’s, along with some of politically-correct arrangements of older hymns. I have a copy of this as well, but have found far less use for it, full as it is with material that was dated even before it was published.
For two years prior to grad school, I was the music director/organist/pianist/choir director of a small Methodist church in Richmond, which was a primarily traditional service. I’m currently serving as an intern at a church with a traditional worship style on Sunday mornings, and leading the contemporary band for one of the campus ministries on Tuesday nights. Some find this a strange dichotomy, but through the years, I’ve never had a preference for the style of music in church. I’ve had music that I loved, and other music that I didn’t like as much as others, but I was never able to put my finger quite on why, other than the latter simply did not speak to me spiritually.
I think the quote above is the”why”. Excluding, of course, the music that I took issue with over theologically suspect lyrics, I think I was simply in a different point in my Christian journey.
Think of some of the beloved old Gospel hymns of invitation and commitment:
- Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Just As I Am
- In The Garden
- Precious Lord, Take My Hand
- Take My Life and Let It Be
There’s nothing wrong with these hymns. (Well, other than some of the sticky theological things with In the Garden.) These and other hymns like them are important because of the role they can play as beautiful, emotional expressions of commitment– for new and old Christians alike to come to Jesus, or to reaffirm their commitment to give their lives to Christ. But if I find myself in a service consisting nearly or completely of hymns like these, I start getting annoyed at the fluffy, emotional lyrics. After a while, the emotions begin to seem contrived, and the worship starts to feel false. I personally need some intellectual engagement in my music. I need some theology.
Think of some of the beloved contemporary songs of praise, adoration, and worship (which CCLI has divided into three separate categories, and I’m not sure exactly why):
- How Great is Our God
- Blessed Be Your Name
- Hosanna (Praise is Rising)
- Lord I Lift Your Name on High
- You Are My All in All
- You’re Worthy of My Praise
- I Stand Amazed (My Saviour’s Love)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with these songs. They are important ways to acknowledge our love for the omnipotent God, and can be a powerful way to bring a people to worship. But if the whole music set consists of songs like this, I start to speculate if there’s a room full of Christian musicians, and a hat filled with 20 words, and they just pull those words out of a hat in different orders and see how many different songs they can make with those same words. If you rely solely on these shallower songs to evoke a superficial emotional reaction from your congregation, you end up with a hollow congregational faith, a foundation built on shifting sands. Again, in addition to the praise, I need intellectual engagement in my music. I need something deeper.
Now think of some of the theologically dense hymns in our Christian hymnody:
- If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
- Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
- Holy, Holy, Holy
- Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire
- I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath
These are the hymns I’m naturally drawn to, because these are the texts I can engage with. However, a church with a diet of nothing but these dense hymns is a recipe for a congregational faith that is rich in intellect and poor in spirit. Ignoring the emotional needs of the body for the sake of the mind is a similarly hollow kind of faith to that of the exclusively praise & worship set: the decision to follow Christ is an emotional, spirit-led choice, not an intellectual one, and that cannot be ignored in the music of the church.
I’ve been wondering if a part of the “worship style wars” of the church stem from these kinds of disagreements. In Music As Theology, Maeve Louise Heaney speculates that the differences between the two camps could stem from differences in the levels of musical education, and through that a different viewpoint and experience of music in general: “One side perceives and accentuates the intellectual enrichment to be found [in music], the other the pleasure involved in its reception.” (p 141)
I think she has a point, and I’d like to suggest a second part to her idea. Just like the kind of music we enjoy and can engage with is shaped by our musical journey— defined by our experiences listening to and learning about music– the music that we feel like we can engage with in worship is representative of our Christian journey— defined by our faith-life experiences, our relationship with Christ, and our ever-evolving understanding of God.
If we, as church musician and leaders, want to take this seriously in our responsibilities for faithful musical selection, we need to be attuned to the spiritual journeys of our congregants, and to choose music with which many can engage. Ours is a hospitality-based ministry: we can show the love of Christ through music in a way unique from any other ministry. On any given Sunday morning, there will be someone of every different point in their Christian journey in the pews; we need to deliberately incorporate a broad mix of the dense and the shallow, the praise and lament, the intellectual and the emotional, the hymns of invitation and the hymns of theological growth.