Keeping Your Hymnal Isn’t Good Enough

KYH

[This article is a response to Tom Raabe’s article over at The Federalist. You can read his article here.]

Let me state my position right out of the gate, I’m in favor of using hymnals in church. The only time I think we should use screens in church is if the pastor wants the congregation to learn a hymn or worship song that isn’t already in the hymnal. My purpose in writing this article is two-fold. I want to point out the fundamental flaw in Raabe’s argumentation, the fundamental flaw being that Raabe is presenting an opinion as fact, and my second purpose to show that because he is presenting his opinion as fact, his conclusion has some very large gaping holes in it that a post-modernist could easily toss a basketball through.

For example, at one point, he says that we shouldn’t use screens in church because “they’re ugly.” His opinion is subjective. This is like a 4 year old protesting eating his greens because “I don’t like it” even though you know good and well he’s never tried them. It doesn’t matter how correct your conclusions are if the basis for your conclusions is nothing more than your subjective opinion, then all it takes for you to go down the wrong is for someone to convince you to change your opinion.

I could easily tell you that it is my personal opinion that grass is green, and while my opinion may be correct, the fact that it is my opinion doesn’t make grass green.

Part 1: When Your Confirmation Bias Doesn’t Reflect Reality

First of all, Raabe is using old data to make a claim that the worship wars are over and that contemporary Christian music industry has won. The data he is using spans from 1998-2012. 2010-2014 is the time when millennials started branching out and finding their own churches (assuming they even stayed in church), and as a result the data changed.

Thom Rainer points out in a 2014 article that millennials aren’t really as concerned about modern worship styles as Raabe would have you to believe.

You see, most Millennials don’t think in the old worship war paradigm. In that regard, “style” of worship is not their primary focus. Instead they seek worship services and music that have three major elements.

  1. They desire the music to have rich content. They desire to sing those songs that reflect deep biblical and theological truths. It is no accident that the hymnody of Keith and Kristyn Getty has taken the Millennials by storm. Their music reflects those deep and rich theological truths.

  2. The Millennials desire authenticity in a worship service. They can sense when congregants and worship leaders are going through the motions. And they will reject such perfunctory attitudes altogether.

  3. This large generation does want a quality worship service. But that quality is a reflection of the authenticity noted above, and adequate preparation of the worship leaders both spiritually and in time of preparation. In that sense, quality worship services are possible for churches of all sizes.

Now, the evidence doesn’t look so bleak, does it?

Drawing from my own experience, I remember being out of town for a couple of weeks and my wife and I visited a church that had both a traditional and a contemporary service. We decided to go to the traditional service for the first week, and then go to the contemporary service the next to compare and contrast the difference between the two.

We noticed immediately that the traditional service had twice as many people as the contemporary service and more than half of the congregants were 18-35 year olds. The contemporary service had half as many people as the traditional service and most of the congregants in that service were in their 50’s or older.

I’m a millenial and I am a pastor so I can tell you that what millennials are looking for is a worship experience that is grounded in the history and tradition of God’s people. We long for a history that doesn’t just go back 50-200 years because that’s not good enough. That’s not ancient enough. We crave meaning from a tradition that goes all the way back to the early church. We want to worship with the Apostles.

Part 2: Careful, Your Theology is Showing

Even though Raabe insists that we keep our hymnals, one thing he’s not taking into account is church’s that have shoddy hymnals. I’m not going to blame him for that because he probably comes from a background where he’s never encountered a bad hymnal. If that’s the case, then he’s obviously never attended any small rural churches in the Bible belt (which again, isn’t necessarily his fault).

I grew up in and pastor in a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to sing whatever you want as long as it comes out of the hymnal regardless of whether or not that song has any theological leg to stand on because after all, our hymnals are infallible, right? Wrong.

The reason songs like “If I Could Hear Mama Pray Again,” “America,” and even our own national anthem still have a place in our hymnal and are still being sung in our churches because one of two things is happening: we’re either assuming that our hymnals are infallible and therefore, all songs are acceptable or we just don’t care enough about what the songs are implying to give a hoot.

  • On a completely separate note altogether, it’s interesting that most of the people who sing songs about Mother in church on Mother’s Day (If I Could Hear Mama Pray Again) and sing songs about God allegedly shedding His grace on a country that He didn’t show to any other country (America the Beautiful) on the Sunday before July 4th are the same people who bemoan the idolatry of the Roman Catholic Church because they kiss statues and pray to saints. But again, that’s another sacred cow for tipping over at another time.

Keeping your hymnal and training those coming up in your church to sing the songs that you sing instead of using modern music and screens only works if your church intentionally sings the truth about who God is and what He is doing in the world through His people therefore, simply keeping your hymnal isn’t good enough if you’re hymnal isn’t any good.

You can tell what a church believes by listening to what they sing. If they avoid the hymns that speak truth about God’s judgement or holiness and sing only songs about flying away to some sweet by and by then that’s a sign that the church is assuming a problematic eschatology that stems from an even more problematic view of God and His people.

Singing about Heaven and the eschatological consummation of all things is perfectly fine as long as you’re assuming the same vision of the consummation described in the Scriptures as opposed to some dispensationalist nonsense view of Heaven dreamed up by John Darby, C.I. Scofield, and more recently John Hagee.

Part 3: The Climactic Finish

A while back, my church and I was challenged by our Wednesday Night Bible Study curriculum at the time to go through our hymnal and see much how often the hymns we sing reflected Biblical ideas about God.  We were limited on time (because that part was only the introduction to that evening’s study), I think if we had probed hard and had been honest with ourselves and honest with the Scriptures then we might have come to the conclusion that while a lot of our hymns have a solid foundation there are others that should never see the light of day again.

 

Savior or Prom Date: A [Hopefully] Calm Postlude

Savior or Prom Date2

In order to make sense of what I’m about to say, you’ll want to read my first article here.

I don’t want to come off as some kind of theological Superman. I don’t want to sound like I’m telling you that if you just listen to me then everything about worship in your church will be better and all your worship woes will be solved and your worship wars will be over.

However, I would like to say that maybe I was too angry in response. Maybe my tone wasn’t that great. I’m not going to apologize for what I said because I feel like this issue is something that needs to be addressed, but maybe I could’ve used more tact.

Now that the apology is out of the way, let me say that I’m not sure what needs to be done, but I know that as long as the Christian music industry is just trying to turn a profit instead of trying to make sure that they are devoted to theological clarity in song then we’ll see our mainstream churches turn to such music.

Ultimately, this is an issue of the heart. Worship leaders are often drawn to songs and gimmicks that have about as high a view of God as they do. As long as we have people in positions of leadership who will not place a priority on teaching the whole council of God through the medium to which they are called (in this case, music), then you’ll always see anemic Christians trying to feed other anemic Christians. This is why I believe that we should use the same qualifications that we would use to seek out a pastor (Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 2) and use those to seek out worship leaders.

Pastors who are passionate about the Gospel and passionate about feeding the flock of God will not allow their congregation to settle for anything less than music that teaches us about God, about His Word, and about His Church.

Ultimately, if we want to measure the worship in our church against the worship of the New Testament, then we just to read the Scriptures and be honest. Does our worship look anything like how the early church would worship if they any of them were still on earth today?

Savior or Prom Date?

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

Colossians 3:16, NIV

We may not think about this way, but according to this verse in Colossians, singing together in worship is one of the ways that we teach and build up one another. So, the two primary things going on when the church is singing together is education and edification. We are learning about God, and building up one another in the faith. This is important to remember that reading is a very recent concept within human history. According to one source[1], 1960 was the first year that the literate population outnumbered the illiterate population in the world. So, if someone can’t read, how do you get them to retain information? Through song.[2] 

Most of the hymns that were written over 150 years ago weren’t simply written because someone felt inspiration hit them one day, and they just had to get it down on paper. They were written out of the necessity to educate local churches which is why some of our most prolific hymn writers have also been pastors. 

For Example, William R. Newell, is someone that we might not know by name, but he’s more famously known for a hymn that some of us have probably sang in our lives: 

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

At Calvary, William R. Newell

Newell was not only a hymn writer, he was a pastor and Bible teacher at the Moody Bible Institute. You can read more about him here

In our current time most of us can read now. This is good news, but modern hymns and worship songs aren’t written anymore to teach us about God, about the doctrine of the Church, or rich theological truth. Which is why K-Love’s Greatest Hits consist mostly of songs that describe Jesus more like a prom date rather than the Son of God lay waste to His waste to His enemies, and rule and reign for eternity with His bride on the earth. 

I would describe most of the music that comes out of the modern Christian music industry [3] as junk food for the soul. It’s okay in very strict moderation, but overindulgence can lead to a poor theological health. There are better choices out there. 

  • Instead of Hillsong try Indelible Grace
  • Instead of Chris Tomlin try Bob Kauflin and Sovereign Grace Music
  • Instead of Bethel and Jesus Culture try Keith and Kristyn Getty

Let’s be honest, when you went to church and sang this morning, did you sing mostly about how God makes you feel, or about what God has actually done for you in Christ? Did you sing about God’s justice and holiness as well as His love and mercy? Was Psalm 2 anywhere near your worship set? That’s the one where God’s wrath flares up against those who do not submit to Christ’s lordship. 

Was the worship set at your church this morning a biblical reflection of the character of God that feeds the sheep or was it simply a show to entertain the goats among us? You’re either feeding the sheep or entertaining the goats, you will not and cannot do both. 

Footnotes:

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/literacy 
  2. My wife was a Pre-K teacher for five years and she will tell you that one of the best ways to educate children is through song, and adults are no different. She taught 3 and 4 year-olds who couldn’t spell their own name, but they could spell colors because they sang songs about them.
  3. As a result of the Christian music industry pushing these wares into the market, most skinny jean and v-neck t-shirt clad ‘worship leaders’ are usually looking at the Christian Top 40 for this Sunday’s worship set instead of seeking out that which would be most educational and edifying for the congregation.