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Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

From the “Good Timing” file.

Yesterday, I posted about the encroachment of emotional relativism into the church and its dangers. Today, a friend on facebook posted a link to an article on the condition of sacred music in the church today that sings a similar chorus.

The article, “With Hearts and Minds and Voices” by noted author and pastor John MacArthur bemoans the loss over the last one hundred years of didactic value in music sung and performed during worship services. He was very emphatic to distinguish the content of the songs versus the musical style.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the article was the history of hymns in the church, and the hows and whys of changes. His main thesis was that prior to 100 years ago, hymns were viewed as not just worship, but also teaching theology and doctrine to the congregations. Then, there was a transition to gospel music designed to be more evangelistic, so was more based on individuals’ responses to God rather than teaching about Him. Then came the transition to worship music and praise choruses that tend to focus on creating an emotional response rather than having the mind engaged also. He even goes so far as to call most worship music today ‘anti-intellectual.’

MacArthur also shows that the Bible teaches that music should be didactic and not merely emotional, and how until 100 years ago, most hymns were written by pastors and theologians versus today where as he quotes Leonard Payton, “So extreme is the case now that anyone who knows half a dozen chords on a guitar and can produce rhymes to Hallmark card specifications is considered qualified to exercise this component of the ministry of the Word regardless of theological training and examination.” Ouch, but there is some truth there.

While the article is strongly critical, he is not simply saying, “Old music, good. New music, bad.” He is actually arguing for a variety to be sung in church. This is something that has bugged me for a long time. For the last 20 years or so, congregations have been separated according to the musical style of the worship—you have your ‘traditional services’ and your ‘contemporary services.’ Why not play the best of all in every service? If it is good music, done well, that glorifies God and edifies the saints, then play it, regardless of style and genre. Evaluate the songs on their content, not style.

The idea St. Paul seems to be communicating in Colossians 3:16 when he proscribes the use of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship is exactly the point of having variety for the purpose of worship, evangelism, and edification.

I will add my own critique of the modern praise chorus. Even the ‘good’ ones, that are musically pleasing, doctrinally sound and/or put Scripture to music, have what I consider to be a serious flaw—the incessant repetition. Christ warns in Matthew 6:7, “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” Some might argue He is talking about praying, not singing, however, if we are not praying in all forms of worship, then what are we doing? Besides, a “praise chorus” is supposedly about praising God. That sounds like prayer to me.

Or, look at it this way. You have just done something extraordinary. Friends and those who saw you do it or heard about it come up to you and in unison say:
“Wow, you are great!
You are awesome!
Great are you!
You are great!
Great, great are you to be praised.”
(Repeat until hoarse.)

It gets old, real fast. The praise is nice, but it would be nice if there was some substance to it and not just some kind of pep rally.

Please understand, I DO like many of the choruses, but I don’t need to sing them 5-10 times in a row to get my point across to God. He and I are intelligent enough to communicate more efficiently and with more sophistication.

As an educator, I see the mental discipline of our culture in free fall. Due to an overemphasis on logic and cold rationality, this pendulum swing to an apparent rejection of intellectual rigor is leading even the redeemed children of the Most High God to embrace vapidity. For a people commanded to love God with our whole being, heart, soul, mind and strength, why are we embracing lesser things?

Recently, a friend was sharing how he has really been enjoying reading books by an Eastern Orthodox theologian (sadly, I do not remember his name). This theologian commented in one of his books that as he looked at the differences between the East and the West, there was one very striking difference (and he explicitly noted that he observed it in both the Catholic and Protestant churches in the West). He said that in the East, they are trying to seek out how much they can do for God, and in the West, we are looking to see what is the minimum God requires. Ouch. He is not proclaiming a Gospel of works, but an attitude of devotion versus a spiritual consumerism.

I think his observations relate to my comments here about music. We distill the deep things of God to musical sound bites, rather than savoring and enjoying the intricacies of the journey into the mind of God. As we do so, our capacity to comprehend Him and the blessings to be found therein diminishes. We become weak and ineffective, anemic. Is it any wonder that we feel defeated in our culture today?

Just today, another friend posted on facebook a C. S. Lewis quote, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

These comments are very general, and there are amazing exceptions. I want to encourage all of us (myself included!!!) to not grow weary and keep pressing on towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Explore the heights, depths, and breadths of our great God. We are finite, but that is quite a different thing from being fixed and unable to grow! How can His power, majesty and love be fully displayed in our lives if we are shriveled and dry? Are we new wineskins or old, new fabric or old?

Which scares you more:  paying your bills or facing the gates of Hell? If Christ intends us to demolish the latter, how then can we be enslaved to the former? We are the children, priests, ambassadors, and heirs of the victorious risen Christ! That is a LOT to sing about!! We’d better get started! We have eternity and that still isn’t enough time to go about repeating ourselves!

Day 19 Praise:  See above.


1 comment:

  1. Actually, I would go as far as to say "old music good, new music bad," at least with what my church picks from the new stuff. I've thought for a long time that so many of the praise choruses sound cobbled together from a few Bible verses + some "church words" + touchy-feely stuff. (And I don't listen to Christian radio anymore. Everything is so formulaic, plastic, and same-y.) I also think you're absolutely right about the (mindless) repetition. In short, I think there needs to be a new approach to creating & leading worship. I don't know what that should look like, but it's got to be better than what currently is.