My problem is not “contemporary worship.” Yes, I have a preference for the traditional style, but my issue is not style but genuine worship. There are contemporary songs that I believe still maintain a strong sense of worship such as “In Christ Alone.”
The argument for contemporized hymns is that they keep the substantive words but give it an updated sound that the people “like” and want to sing. But you see, the substance of worship as found in a song is not simply the words, but also in the music and how they blend and compliment each other to communicate the message. Many of the old hymns, when you silently listen to them, you can not help but hear the words, for the music itself portrays the message. Listen to the hymn, “Rock of Ages” for an idea of what I am talking about. The music needs to fit the words.
In the same way, simply adding a chorus to the middle of a hymn does at best little to aid the meaning and at worst causes it to become disjointed and confusing. In the case of what people know today as “O The Wonderful Cross”, Chris Tomlin adds the chorus, “O the Wonderful Cross” to the middle of the hymn “When I survey.” The problem is that the music completely changes it tone from solemnly reflective to joyous and feel good. In addition, the words themselves become disjointed as the words “wondrous” and “wonderful” are two very different things, with very different meanings. Now I have non question that the cross has become a wonderful thing to those who believe, but this is not the message of “When I Suvey” and takes away from that message.
Now, while I could continue, I would rather share with you the following blog post from “Ponder Anew”. I think that Jonathan hits the nail right on the head.
For the beauty of the earth For the glory of the skies, For the love which from our birth Over and around us lies. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night, Hill and vale, and tree and flower, Sun and moon, and stars of light. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight, For the mystic harmony Linking sense to sound and sight. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child, Friends on earth and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For Thy Church, that evermore Lifteth holy hands above, Offering up on every shore Her pure sacrifice of love. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the martyrs’ crown of light, For Thy prophets’ eagle eye, For Thy bold confessors’ might, For the lips of infancy. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For Thy virgins’ robes of snow, For Thy maiden mother mild, For Thyself, with hearts aglow, Jesu, Victim undefiled. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For each perfect gift of Thine, To our race so freely given, Graces human and divine, Flowers of earth and buds of Heaven. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
Words by Folliot S. Peirpoint, 1864
Music by Conrad Kocher, 1838
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1 – 4
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
Matthew 13:15 – 16
Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,
Everybody loves getting a present. To have someone surprise you with something new and unexpected. It may be something you always wanted or it may be something that you had not thought of purchasing for yourself. In either case, it is something that someone went out of their way to get for you.
The other side is true as well. Most people like to give gifts. We love to see the surprise on a person’s face. We love to see the excitement in their eyes.
Unfortunately there are exceptions to these situations. This is usually the result of the attitude of those involved. When we give a gift out of obligation, that is to say only because it is expected it takes the meaning out of it. Or when the person is ungrateful, the joy and excitement is lost.
Yes, we are to accept gifts gratefully. When we honestly stop to look at what has been given and the person behind the gift, being grateful is only the natural response. This is the call that is presented to us in Folliot Peirpoint’s hymn “For The Beauty of the Earth.”
From the very beginning, Peirpoint presents us not simply with a command to be grateful, but reasons why we should be grateful. He writes, “For the beauty of the Earth, For the glory of the skies.” If we will simply look around us at the splendor of the world God has created we will see a reason to be grateful. In fact, to not express our gratitude for creation, puts us behind the rest of creation for Psalm 19:1 – 4 tells us the nature itself expresses the majesty of God. It reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
The hymn goes on to declare, “For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night.” This echoes the theme of Ecclesiastes 3:11 where we read, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God’s beauty is revealed in time as he continues to bring forth the beauty of life.
Peirpoint continues by writing, “For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight.” This draws our minds to the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:15 – 16 where we read, “they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” Through the senses He has given us, we not only experience His creation, but we may know him.
But not only through nature or through the senses He has given us, He has revealed himself through those who declare His gospel. The hymn reads, “For Thy prophets’ eagle eye, For Thy bold confessors’ might.” Yes, God has spoken through those who declare His word. So Paul writes in Ephesians 6:9, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.”
Over and over again, Peirpoint presents us with reason that we have to be Grateful. God has given so much and revealed the love that dwells within His heart. When we stop to realize the gifts He has given, then we can not help but rise and proclaim, “our hymn of grateful praise.”
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Words and Music by Martin Luther, 1529
“‘I love You, O Lord, my strength.’
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
And I am saved from my enemies.”
Psalm 18:1 – 3
You know there are days when everything seems to go perfect and it seems nothing can go wrong. Then there are the others. Those days when it seems that nothing is going right. Those days when it seems the whole world is set against you. This is where David found himself just prior to 2 Samuel 22, in danger from enemies and pursued by Saul. It is here that he utters the words found in Psalm 18, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.”
Martin Luther, the author of “A Might Fortress”, as well found himself hunted and persecuted by the leadership of the church, but God delivered him. It is here that Luther writes the words to one of the most powerful hymns of all time.
A Mighty Fortress lays out, from beginning to end a clear portrayal of God’s ultimate victory over Satan and how no matter what struggles and threats we may feel, God is our refuge and strength to face whatever may come.
What I find really interesting, however, is how Luther chooses to end this hymn. “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill.”
A hymn that starts with the phrase, “A might fortress is our God” comes to a conclusion not that we will come safely through everything, but that we may lose everything (belongings, family and even life). How does this seem a victorious song? Because Luther ends with these words, “God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”
God has not guaranteed that we will not suffer loss, simply that His truth and kingdom will last forever and there is nothing Satan can do to stand in the way. What is this truth? I think it is best summed up in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” It is because of this that we can declare with Luther, “We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”
In church recently we had a visiting missionary comment on how 30 years ago, when he entered the mission field, he knew the songs sung in church. What is more, he commented that he could travel from church to church, not only in this country but in different countries as well, and find the same songs being sung.
He went on to comment how he had not known any of the songs sung that morning and if you go from one church to another on Sunday morning, you will find completely different songs.
This got me thinking that over the years I have visited a great many churches; some times simply as a guest, sometimes to preach and sometimes to interview. I have to acknowledge that I personally have also seen this change. This lead me to ponder a question, “In our striving to be ‘contemporary’ and ‘relevant’ have we lost a sense of unity and belonging which once permeated the church?”
Now before I go further, I know there are those who are saying, “Music does not define unity,” “There is more to feeling you belong than knowing songs,” and “We have to take into consideration the cultural context.” I understand these and agree. Please bear with me to the end.
First and foremost, without a doubt, our unity is found in Christ. Romans 12:5 says that “we who are many, are one body in Christ” and goes on in verse 16 to direct us to “Be of the same mind toward one another.” we also find in Philippians 2:2 we are called to be “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” and goes on in verse 5 to tell us to “have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus. Yes, unity and belonging are not dependent on knowing the music on a Sunday morning. It is found in Christ alone.
Second, certainly cultural context is important to engaging in worship. Now I personally have a musical background, having studied vocal performance and having many years of vocal and instrumental performance. Personally, I have a very eclectic taste in music covering pretty much all genres, though my favorite style is country. My reason for bringing this up is to make it clear that I am not, in this article, simply addressing the style of music being used. There is good and bad to be found in contemporary music in the church just as there is good and bad to be found in the old hymns. I understand that personal taste plays a role in your ability to engage with the songs being sung. Having said that, we need to remember that the end goal of a song of any sort is to engage the message communicated in the words and not simply enjoy the music. (Ideally the music should compliment and support the message of the words.)
Okay, so if our unity is in Christ and cultural context plays a role in our engaging with the music, what is my point?
Let me clarify that I did not say that we have lost unity. What I asked is if we have lost a sense of unity and belonging which once permeated the church?
You see my point in this article is not say that we have lost a unity within our local body. It is rather to say that we have lost that sense of unity with the church outside our local body and throughout history.
When I join with a body to sing “A Mighty Fortress” I can’t help but realize I am joining my voice with almost 500 years of believers. Think about it, for 500 years believers have been inspired, directed and worshiped through these words. Or “All Creatures Of Our God And King” (originally called “The Canticle of the Sun”) was written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225. The traditional music did not come around until 400 years later in 1623. But once again for 800 years believers have recited these words and for 400 years sung these words to the same melody. Think of it, joining our voices with all those believers who came before. A reminder that worship is not about us, it is not about me. I am not the center of worship.
Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not trying to say that we should only sing old hymns. There is a place for new worship songs and hymns that have substance, but we can not forget what has come before. To do this is to cut ourselves off from thousands of years of history and to cut ourselves off from the church that sits down the road. No, our unity is not dependent on our music, but music is a gift from God that can remind us that there is more to our faith than just ourselves. It is something that brings us together. It is something that we join in, with all other believers, past, present and future, before God as part of our worship.