In the same vein as my previous series on hymns, I am planning a series on contemporary worship songs. To that end, I am asking each of you to share with me those contemporary songs from church that you have found most inspiring, that have spoken most deeply to you. This will allow me to compile a list that I can begin to work from as we look for how God can be glorified through them.
As you search the internet it is amazing how many articles you can find on this subject. What strikes me about them is that my experience confirms what they say. And while some may want to say that we are making an issue over contemporary vs traditional, I think they miss the point. The reasons that Thom Schultz gives in his article are clearly not a stylistic preference issue, but an issue of application and presentation. (Schultz does a fair job of further explaining this in his follow-up article listed at the end.) It is this application of the music that has driven people from their involvement, not the style of music. People want to be engaged in the worship and not simply observers, but to often the music is presented in such a way that it discourages people from joining in. Maybe it is time we re-evaluate how we are presenting the music portion of the worship service, and some times the rest of the service as well.
Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing. And most of those who were singing barely moved their lips. The only voices I actually heard were those on stage with microphones.
That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring.
Even when the chipper “worship leader” in contemporary churches bounds on stage and predictably beckons everyone to “stand and worship,” the people compliantly obey the stand command, but then they turn into mute mannequins.
What’s behind this phenomenon? What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.
Spectator set-up. Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to…
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A well played organ is an incredible thing to hear. In college one of our professors had received his Doctorate in organ and was amazing. There are those who view it as an ancient instrument that is out of date, but these people do not realize what they are missing. In college we had mandatory chapel, but the minute it was over everyone scattered. Yet I remember one time when he began to play the organ for the postlude and almost no one moved. They sat their and listened to the entire piece. The music filled the room in a way that no electric instrument could. And to sing a piece of music accompanied by an organ is beyond compare the blending of a human voice with the organ is unmatched. It is sad to realize how much people today do not understand its beauty. I remember one day standing at the back of the chapel, during some remodeling, speaking with a student. The student expressed how he thought the organ should go as well because is was dated and no longer fit in. I was appalled at the thought. Thankfully, wiser minds won out and the organ remains to this day. Yes organs have been sadly silenced in recent year, but there is still a place for them. Some great point are made for keeping the organs in the blog:
There’s a song in the air!
There’s a star in the sky!
There’s a mother’s deep prayer
and a baby’s low cry!
And the star rains its fire
while the beautiful sing,
for the manger of Bethlehem
cradles a King!
There’s a tumult of joy
o’er the wonderful birth,
for the virgin’s sweet boy
is the Lord of the earth.
Ay! the star rains its fire
while the beautiful sing,
for the manger of Bethlehem
cradles a King!
In the light of that star
lie the ages impearled;
and that song from afar
has swept over the world.
Every hearth is aflame,
and the beautiful sing
in the homes of the nations
that Jesus is King!
We rejoice in the light,
and we echo the song
that comes down through the night
from the heavenly throng.
Ay! we shout to the lovely
evangel they bring,
and we greet in his cradle
our Savior and King!
Words by Josiah G. Holland, 1872
Music by Karl P. Harrington, 1904
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:8 – 14
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved
Joel 2:32, Acts 2:31
We have all most likely heard the expression, “music in the air.” It means that there is a sense of joy, excitement and anticipation that seems almost tangible. It is as if there is and electrical energy that is flowing through everything. It is this idea that Josiah Holland uses to launch his hymn, “There’s a song in the air!”
With this in mind Holland paints us a picture of the source of that song. He writes, “There’s a star in the sky! There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a baby’s low cry! . . . for the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!” Contrast this with many of the Christmas songs that we hear this time of year. We hear songs of love, caring, family and friendship. The world can sense the song in the air and feel the effects, but in the end they miss the source. The true source of the song in the air is the birth of the Christ, the King in the Manger.
Holland continues, “There’s a tumult of joy o’er the wonderful birth, for the virgin’s sweet boy is the Lord of the earth.” This child born so long ago, is the reason for the song. Just as the joyous song filled the air through the voices of the angels declaring “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14), so the song echoes through ages and down to us today. The Lord had come to earth.
This Christmas hymn then reminds us that the song which was began that first Christmas, this song that has echoed through the ages, has also reach around the world. The hymn declares, “and that song from afar has swept over the world.” The message was intended not for a select group but for all people as the angel said “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)
At Christmas, and all through the year, “There’s a song in the air” It is a song that can be sensed by all, but to those who truly listen to the song, to those who look for the real source, there is a joy beyond comprehension. For God has promised in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” For those who seek Christ, He is waiting. As Joel 2:32 tells us and Luke quotes in Acts 2:21, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So for those who know the Savior born that night, let us join together this Christmas season to “greet in his cradle our Savior and King!”
Read more about “There’s A Song In The Air.”
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!
Jesus! the Name that charms our fears
and bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life and health and peace.
He speaks, and listening to his voice,
new life the dead receive;
the mournful broken hearts rejoice,
the humble poor believe.
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
your loosened tongues employ;
ye blind, behold, your Savior come;
and leap, ye lame, for joy!
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim
and spread through all the earth abroad
the honors of thy Name.
Written by Charles Wesley, 1739
Music by Carl G. Glaser, 1828
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
It is hard to imagine what it will be like. I have had the opportunity to sing in many different settings in different countries. I have had the opportunity to sing solos, to sing with small groups and to sing in choirs. But one of the opportunities that will always stick with me was attending a Promise Keepers conference and having the opportunity to be one voice among thousands and thousands. You see, the excitement was not how beautiful it sounded, but the realization that I was part of something that big.
This is the vision that Charles Wesley presents to us in “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing.” Wesley presents us with the vision of a mass choir of voices joined together in worship of our Savior. This image lends itself to our understanding of the vision presented to us in Revelation 7:29 when John write of seeing “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
This image is almost beyond imagination, but if that is not enough, what really strikes me is found in the fourth verse where we find these words. “Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold, your Savior come; and leap, ye lame, for joy!”
You see this worship of Jesus will not be limited simply to those who are good singers. It will not even be limited to those who can sing and hear. No, it will include all. To worship God brings us beyond our limitations. It brings us to do what would seem impossible. This is how we are driven by the love and passion for God.
So, in my humble attempt to worship God I lean on Wesley’s word when he writes, “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim and spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy Name.”
Read more about “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing.”
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.