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.

 

When Traditional Values Create Toxic Churches

*Contains References to Domestic Violence & Rape*
Christianity cannot be rightly categorised as either inherently progressive or inherently traditional. There IS, however, Biblical overlap with both progressive and traditional ideals. For example, like the Bible, traditional cultures place high value on the family unit, while progressive cultures, like the Bible, affirm the intrinsic dignity of all people. It is likewise possible to wrongly assimilate as “Christian” either traditional or progressive cultural values that are in actuality antithetical to Christianity (like the traditional belief that women are property of their husbands or the progressive belief that being true to yourself is the highest goal). To give proper credit: I was introduced to this way of comparing and contrasting various cultures with Christian teachings a couple years ago in several Tim Keller sermons. I’ve found it very helpful.

In my experience, theologically-conservative Protestants tend to focus almost exclusively on ways churches can err in adopting certain aspects of progressive ideology; one might call this the “left boundaries” of Christianity, and it is important! But I contend that of equal importance is to recognize ways that Christians or churches err when they incorrectly adopt certain traditional ideologies as in line with Biblical truth; these could be called the “right boundaries” of Christianity.

This post will focus on instances when those right boundaries have been crossed. I’ve observed that these errors most often to relate to authority, sexuality, gender roles, and politics.

One final note: all of the following warning signs are based on real-life situations in theologically-conservative Protestant churches (and most involving well-known, well-respected pastors). These are things that have been actually said! Actions that have actually been taken! This isn’t hypothetical; these are real issues affecting churches today. 

So without further ado,

A Pastor or Church Might be Toxic if…

  •  The pastor teaches or implies that all Christian parents–if they want to be truly godly–must homeschool their children.
  • Church leaders silence all criticism as “gossip” or “lack of submission.”
  • Churches shun former members.
  • The pastor never apologizes.
  • Church leaders speak of certain political candidates as having the potential to “bring our country back to God.”
  • The pastor boasts that his wife has never refused him sex.
  • A pastor believes it is permissible–even godly–for husbands to discipline their wives with spankings if they fail to perform tasks (such as washing the dishes) in the way their husbands prescribe.
  • The church strips couples of small group leadership when the wife works full-time and/or the husband stays home with the kids.
  • When wives bring allegations of rape, abuse, or adultery regarding their husbands, church leaders respond with dismissiveness or even blaming.
  • A pastor believes that marriage cures pedophilia.
  • Church leaders fail to report the crime of child abuse to the police and then discipline church members who DO report child abuse to the police.
  • Church leaders believe that minors can be partially responsible for being sexually abused.
  • A pastor teaches that oral sex may be the best evangelism tool to convert a non-Christian husband.
  • Church leaders urge blind trust in the leadership, instructing congregants not to read blogs that detail alleged abuses perpetrated by the church.

So there you have it! A dozen or so instances of unbiblical, unhealthy, and toxic church beliefs or practices! My purpose is not to hate on the church. Rather, I urge discernment in recognizing unhealthy patterns in our churches for the sake of the peace and purity of the church; for the sake of the health of its members; and for the sake of its witness to those who embrace other belief systems. I hope that I have also made an introductory case for the idea that traditional cultural ideas (not just progressive ones) can be anti-Christian. Note, however, that “patterns” is the key thing to watch for; having one or two of these characteristics does not necessarily make a church toxic.

So in summary: the church is meant to be a beautiful display of Christ, and it is tragic when it falls short of this beauty–yes, when it embraces untrue aspects of progressivism, but likewise when it accepts faulty facets of traditional culture.

– Hannah Conroy
(The views expressed are the author’s and may not reflect the views of other blog contributors.)