The Interceders Encourager No. 55 - Contemporary Christian Music (2)
An Examination of the Words of Contemporary Christian songs,
plus a deeper look at old fashioned hymns and songs
In Encourager 54, we started to look at how the music in most church services, especially in the Western World, has changed dramatically over the past decades, and moved away from the way that Christian worship has been offered since its inception, nearly two thousand years ago.
These changes have been seen in both the words that are used and the musical accompaniment that has backed up the words. We have looked at the music, so we will now look at the words.
A. An examination of the words of contemporary Christian songs
The words of contemporary songs are criticised on 8 counts.
1. The words of the songs are too subjective. They dwell too much on the individual's experience of God, and not enough on the objective truths that are the foundation of our faith. Too much subjectivity can undermine certainty, and lead to a faith built upon experience and emotion, instead of the events of salvation and the Word that proclaims it.
Behind this lies a profound change in people's thinking. I have noticed for some time that most people when giving their testimonies of how they became "Christians," do not speak of coming to an understanding of the reality of God and the awfulness of their sin, but merely speak of being dissatisfied with their way of life, and/or of being attracted to something that other people had. Truth is no longer regarded as objective. Everything, including faith, is merely a matter of personal preference. People believe certain things and do certain things merely because that is their preference. It is up to each person whether or not he or she accepts.
Our forefathers, such as the Puritans, the Independents and the Early Methodists, would cringe at such attitudes. In fact they would not have understood such a division between truth and belief. To them, Christianity was objective truth made personal. But in our day, the two have become divorced or partially divorced. Most Christians have become afraid to say, this is the truth, face up to it, it is a matter of life or death; but have accepted the world's thinking, that we should all "live and let live," a mentality that is completely alien to the New Testament.
2. The words of the songs are anti-intellectual. It is claimed that the songs appeal only to the emotions and not to the mind; that they are lacking in depth, thereby'dumbing down' the whole concept of worship. There are certainly exceptions to this, but generally, the content is of a much lower standard poetically, intellectually and Scripturally than older hymns.
3. The words of the songs lack reverence and respect for God, making our thrice holy God more human than divine. Again, this is not always true, though there is an element of truth in the criticism.
4. The songs are too transitory. They are too much like worldly music. The world is always wanting the latest song. Older ones will not satisfy. The Contemporary Christian Music movement has fallen into this same trap, showing that it is more concerned with pleasing the world than acting according to Biblical standards.
5. The songs are directed at the wrong purpose. The words and the music have been lowered to the level where they produce enjoyment for the congregation, whereas true worship is directed at the worship of the transcendent God. Obviously, there is an overlap, for it is a joyful thing to praise the Lord, but the criticism is that the joy is sought, rather than the Lord, with joy being a by-product.
6. The words of the songs are escapist, unwilling to face reality, majoring on subjects that are easy to sing about, and avoiding difficult situations and problems such as the challenge of self denial, the difficulties of living in a pagan society and the threat of persecution.
I remember Brother Yun, the miracle man from China, who knows what real Christian living is all about, having paid the price to an incredible extent, when he visited churches in the West, said that the worship songs in the West are too shallow and artificial, not facing up to reality.
7. Most of the words of the songs are very poorly written, in comparison with the great hymns of the past. The impression is given that the words have been written in a very lazy way, with the writers taking little care to rhyme the lines, or even metre them correctly, nor even to make sure that all the words fit in with the notes of the music.
Such songs are not fit for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All the songs written for our great God should be of the highest standard, written and rewritten many times if necessary. But many, if not most, of the modern songs are far from that. They are representative of today's younger generation, whose standards of spoken and written English are appallingly low. Songs written for our great and awesome God should be of the highest standard; the result of years of study and prayer and the highest inspiration, as all the great hymns of the past have been.
8. Most of the words of the songs are too repetitive. Part of the problem of the songs being poorly written is that often the same words are repeated many times during the course of one song, which are similar to other songs. In addition, the songs themselves are sung repeatedly.
This is treating people as if they are all of very low intelligence. It has been shown that the human mind shuts down after three or four repetitions of the same words. Therefore, no Christian church should go down that road. "We want people to learn, but we should not use the tricks of the devil as in repetition, in order to teach people what is the truth. For, obviously, God never wants us to use trickery to get His word across. We are always to be open and honest, and use the means He has provided, His Word and the Holy Spirit, conveyed clearly and directly into the human heart." (Christian Berdahl)
Good, strong hymns rarely repeat words. They may express a similar thought in different ways, but they do not repeat the same words. We only have to look at the master hymnwriters such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and William Williams, to find evidence of this. The true inspiration of the Holy Spirit produces new thoughts expressed in countless different ways.
9. The subjects of the songs are too limited. It is said that they offer an unbalanced expression of the Christian faith for there is a severe lack of breadth in the subjects covered. They emphasise joy and exultation at the expense of so many other aspects if Christian life and service.
It would benefit most churches to look at the different sections in the old hymn books, for the tragedy is that where churches have chosen only songs with modern words, they have thrown out the strength, the firmness and the variety of the subjects covered in the best old hymnbooks.
We will look at just one example, the 1889 Primitive Methodist Hymnbook, which started with hymns to God the Father: His Being and Attributes, His Works, His Providence and His Grace. It then has hymns extolling God, the Son: His Advent and Incarnation, His Life, His Works, His Example, His Sufferings and Death, His Resurrection and Ascension, His Priesthood and Intercession, His Kingdom, His Names and His Praise. God, the Holy Spirit, His Person, Work and Offices. The Holy Trinity: The Holy Scriptures. Man: his Fallen Condition and his Redemption. Warnings and Invitations. Repentance and Turning to God. Justification by Faith, Regeneration and Adoption, Consecration and Holiness, Steadfastness and Growth in Grace. Declension and Recovery. Privileges, Support and Guidance. Communion with God, The Communion of the Saints, The Duties of the Christian Life: Work and Watchfulness, Trust in God, Contentment and Resignation, Prayer and Supplication. Hymns on The Church. Hymns on Baptism and the Lord's Supper, Hymns for the Lord's Day, Morning and Evening Hymns, Hymns for Watchnight Services, for the Opening and Closing of the Year, for Harvest Thanksgiving Services, Hymns for Family and Private Devotions, for Mission, for Sunday Schools, for Covenant Services, for Weddings and the Home, Hymns for the Nation and for Travellers, Hymns on the Future State, on Death, Judgment, Resurrection and Heaven, and Final Rewards.
To this, we could add the central section of Wesley's Hymns (1780 Edition): Describing Formal Religion, Describing Inward Religion, Praying for Repentance, for Mourners convinced of Sin, for Persons Convinced of Backsliding; for Backsliders Restored; for Believers Rejoicing, Fighting, Praying, Watching, Working, Suffering, Seeking for Full Redemption, Interceding for the World.
What a wonderful list of subjects, which, tragically, most churches these days, know very little about. Part of this problem has been caused by songs being put in alphabetical order in songbooks, which disguises the paucity of the subjects covered. If today's songs were to be put under subject headings, the lack of breadth and all the missing subjects would be much more clearly seen.
Stuart Murray has suggested that four particular areas should be concentrated on much more in our hymns and songs. Firstly , the life of Jesus, His teachings, His character, His fight against temptation, His going about doing good, His fulfilment of prophecy, His expulsion of demons, His opposition to all hypocrisy and deception, His judgment of the cities of the lake, His rebuking of the churches in Revelation 2-3, etc. Secondly, the Acts rather than the Attributes of God; all that He has done in the Bible, in history since then, and what He is doing now. Thirdly, the honouring of all three persons of the Godhead, and Fourthly, worship being linked with everyday life, as the Bible makes clear. The devil is constantly trying to make religion just a performance, unrelated to morality, and he has succeeded to a huge extent. The songs of God's people continually need to be linked with concern for living pure, holy, dutiful, law abiding, hardworking, caring, compassionate and evangelistic lives in this sinful, suffering world.
10. The words of the songs are too shallow The words should enlarge people's understanding and vision of God, and His word should be heard clearly throughout the song, illuminating, revealing, convicting, confronting, rebuking, challenging, stirring, exhorting, motivating, bringing to submission and service. But this is not the case.
As we noticed with Brother Yun, there is a lack of depth and reality in the words of most contemporary Western songs. They are not true to the call and claims of Christ. They have little or no mention of self-denial being at the heart of Christianity, but, on the contrary, there is much emphasis on self-fulfilment. There is very little on the cost of real prayer and fasting, on seeking after holiness, without which no one will see the Lord, on sharing one's life with others, on sharing the love and life and graciousness of the Lord Jesus with others, on the acceptance of persecution, on being one with our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ . I see very few songs that are real, earnest, heartfelt prayers of concern for others, as they sing in China and other places of persecution. Instead, I see huge complacency, as if there is no world going to hell.
Christian Berdahl points out one example of this when people sing, "These are the days of Elijah." When people sing those words, what picture of God are they painting? A picture of a holy God? No, they are not. They are painting a picture of a party God. There is no fear of God as Elijah had. If they really believed that now are the days of Elijah, that would mean the days are for pleading with God to come down in power to do an astounding, convicting work in the lives of others, so that they fall down before him and acknowledge that the God of Elijah, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the only true God, before whom we must fall in awe and reverence, and before whom, all the unbelievers around us, especially those of other religions, should fall before Him and acknowledge Him as the one and only God."
But does singing this song cause people to do that? My experience is that it never does. This shows the need for reality, and the need for us to call the churches to wake up out of their complacency and their copying of the world, and stop singing songs that they don't mean, and songs that don't make them think seriously, and songs that don't cost them anything, (praise should be a sacrifice, Heb.13:15), and start singing songs that have real depth and substance, and sing them with sincerity and earnestness.
In spite of all the faults that we have outlined, the supporters of contemporary music songs complain that traditional worship hymns are too objective. They assert that these hymns seem designed to stifle emotion and individual expression and response to the gospel. If contemporary worship songs run the risk of over-subjectivity, they say, then traditional hymns run the risk of
denying the reality and importance of subjective experience. There may well be some truth in this criticism, but it also shows great ignorance of how hymns have been composed and sung in the 4
past. If you look at the great revivals and awakenings, you will realize that it is impossible to assert that the hymns of the time limited the people, cramped their style and stopped them from displaying their feelings, for all the great revivals used the hymns that were written to display far greater and deeper feelings than anybody in this country could possibly do today. This is specially true in the case of the great Welsh hymns, which we have noticed from the testimony of Joseph Kemp, were sung in a higher and more intense way than he thought possible. The old hymns, specially those born in times of revival, still have a life, a quality, a depth, a relevance and a balance between subjectivity and objectivity that no other songs have.
However, those who sing only old hymns should remember that all hymns were new at some point in the past; and that since its inception, especially in times of revival, the Christian Church has spawned 'hymns and spiritual songs,' showing that the Holy Spirit is always wanting believers to produce hymns and songs in a relevant style for each generation. Therefore, in principle, nobody should object to new hymns and songs,
Therefore, for such people to say we will only have the old is to deny and resist the constantly renewing work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, for others to say we will only have the new is not only rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit in all the preceding centuries of the Church, but is also a terrible slur on all the great hymnwriters of the past, who took far more time and trouble over composing their hymns than today's writers, especially as most of the older hymn writers were far more godly and spiritual than anybody alive today.
For, as we have seen, most of the Contemporary Christian Music songs do not compare favourably with the great hymns of the past. Many or most, fail the tests due to being poorly written, being too subjective, too limited, too repetitive, too transitory, too shallow, too demeaning of God, lacking in breadth and depth, unwilling to face reality, and fashioned for the enjoyment of man rather than the worship of Almighty God.
It is clear that a huge cleansing, clearing and editing job needs to be done on many or most of these contemporary songs, to make them worthy to be used in the worship of our Thrice Holy God.
Even though the Church should always live in the present, never in the past, it must hold on to old fashioned values, and preserve the best of the past. The slovenly standards of the pop world, its clothes, its language and its music, need to be decisively rejected.
Even though churches should always be open to the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in producing new hymns and songs, such hymns and songs must all be theologically and Biblically strong, and of the highest standard, correctly metred and rhymed, as befits songs worthy of the One whose standards are far above ours.
Even though the songs should be using up to date language, for God is always concerned about the Church being relevant, yet we should still use hymns written in old fashioned language, as it reminds people of the great hymn heritage we have inherited, and also gets people thinking more deeply about Bible doctrines and applying them. Where the words of some older hymns have been updated, I have noticed that in almost every case, the updating weakens and waters down the writer's intention, so that the hymns lose their incisiveness, their power and their directness.
B. A deeper look at old fashioned hymns and songs.
We have looked at the criticisms of Contemporary Christian Music, as regards both its music and its words. We will now look at the criticisms of old hymns and songs. There are five main objections to them.
1) The words of traditional hymns are too old fashioned.
2) The tunes of traditional hymns are too old fashioned.
3) The music is played on old fashioned instruments.
4) The worship is formal and dead.
5) The worship is not relevant to today's generation. It turns people off. This is why old fashioned churches are closing down, and new, lively ones are opening up.
There is a lot of truth in these criticisms, so let us look at them carefully.
1. ) It is true that the words of many traditional songs are old fashioned, and the thoughts need to be expressed in more up to date ways. It is also true that many hymns and songs written in the 19th
and 20th centuries are theologically weak and repetitive, and do not deserve to be retained, though, as we have already noted, the words of many modern songs are even weaker theologically and even shallower and more repetitive, so there is even more justification for them to be rejected.
The solution lies in retaining the words of the greatest, the grandest, the best, the most magnificent and the most heart searching of the hymns of the past, notably the hymns written in times of revival, that have far more content and depth, (and there are hundreds of them).
2) Similarly, it is true that many of the tunes of old hymns are old fashioned, uninspired and uninspiring, and, therefore, should be discarded.
3) As regards the music being played on old fashioned instruments that, again can be true, if the instruments sound old and are not well played. However, we have already seen that far more objections can be raised against the pop group instruments that are used in many churches today, with their associations with worldly pop and rock music. Musical instruments for Christian services of worship should be very different from those.
What then are the alternatives that would be more spiritual?
The musical accompaniment should be as simple as possible. It could be an ordinary piano or a keyboard, possibly with one or two other orchestral instruments, or it could be the instrument that incorporates all the other instruments in one, the organ.
I am well aware that in previous centuries the organ was criticised as being a bag of whistles, etc., but organs have come a long way since then. In modern organs or keyboards, you do not hear any blowing or squeaking or whistling. The sound is produced by almost silent electric blowers, (or even electronically), so all that is heard are the clear notes that come out of the pipes or the speakers. The organ has been called the king of instruments, for it incorporates all the others. It can create the most amazing spiritual atmosphere of beauty, of peace, of anticipation, of triumph and victory. That is why I think the organ, in spite of the opposition to it in the past, is the most suitable means of musical accompaniment in a church service, and the most spiritual.
For many years, it was considered the trendy thing for churches to get rid of their organs, and replace them with worldly music group instruments. When they did so, they thought they were bringing their churches into the modern age, but in truth, they were bringing the world into the churches. Churches should think again about this. Hopefully there will be many churches that will seriously reconsider their position, stop imitating the rebellious, anti-Christian music world, and get back to instruments that are more spiritual and more suitable for the worship of Almighty God.
4) Regarding the criticism that traditional churches have no life in their worship, are cold and dead, are not relevant to today's generation, and turn people off; this comment has to be taken seriously, for it is true in too many cases.
We will look at this problem, along with the criticism of CCM churches, that their songs, like modern, worldly pop music, are directed at the body rather than the mind.
We need to look at the totality of the human being. God has made us all physical creatures, as well as mental and spiritual creatures. Therefore if our worship is to be wholehearted, it should involve our bodies as well as our minds and our wills. We are not stuffed dummies, though you would think we were, the way that some anti CCM people give that impression. They sit like stuffed dummies when they pray, never getting on their knees or on their faces before the Lord. They stand like stuffed dummies when they sing, never raising their hands to the Lord. Our spiritual forefathers, especially those who experienced revival, would have rejected them as cold and lifeless. "Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices."
The Bible does not condone such lifelessness.
a) It tells us to kneel before the Lord. There are wonderful instances in the Bible of this. We read of Solomon kneeling before the Lord at the dedication of the temple, of Elijah bowing down to the ground in earnest prayer on Mount Carmel, of Ezra falling on his knees in prayer for the people, of Daniel getting down on his knees three times every day, of the Lord Jesus kneeling down to pray, of the apostles Peter and Paul doing the same. Above all, we read of the great promise of God in
both the Old and the New testaments of God declaring that every knee will bow down to Him. It seems that many of today's church goers would have a real problem with that, as they cannot be bothered to kneel down to pray, even when a kneeling pad is provided.
Let us make sure that kneeling is part of our worship.
b) It tells us to clap our hands to the Lord, (Ps. 47:1).
c) It tells us that our worship should be joyful, e.g. Ps.95:1-2, Ps. 97:: 1& f, Ps. 98: 4-6. etc.
d) It tells us to raise our hands to the Lord. There are no less than 17 references in the Bible to raising hands to God, 13 of them dealing with prayer, (confession, petition and intercession), one to verifying a promise; and just three to lifting hands in praise and worship, recognizing the greatness and holiness of our God. This is a reminder to those who do not raise their hands in praise or prayer that the Lord expects you to do so, and to be responsive to the Holy Spirit, who is seeking to get you to do so. It is also a correction to those who raise their hands in praise but not in prayer, that the Lords expects you to raise your hands in prayer far more than in praise.
Many hymns, especially those written in times of revival, reflect these and other attitudes: e.g.
"While in afflictions furnace, and passing through the fire,
Thy love we praise, which knows our days, and ever brings us higher.
We clap our hands, exulting in Thine almighty favour:
The love divine, which made us Thine, shall keep us Thine for ever."
ii) Being real with God:
"Ah give me Lord the tender heart, that trembles at the approach of sin:
A Godly fear of sin impart, implant and root it deep within;
That I may dread Thy gracious power, and never dare to offend Thee more."
We all need to be more real with God, and ask Him to deal with us in His way, which is obviously what happened in times of revival.
iii) Sighs and Tears:
"Ah Lord, if Thou art in that sigh, then hear Thyself within me pray:
Hear in my heart Thy Spirit's cry. Mark what my labouring souls would say:
Answer the deep unuttered groan, and show that Thou and I are one."
We are on to a level here that is far deeper than any modern song.
iv) Unceasing prayer:
"Shepherd Divine, our wants relieve, in this our evil day.
To all Thy tempted followers give the power to watch and pray.
Long as our fiery trials last: long as the cross we bear:
O let our souls be cast, in never ceasing prayer."
I have never seen any modern song get anywhere near such thoughts. This is because we are not suffering from persecution as the Early Methodists were; and the reason for that is because we are trying to fit in with the world, and not confront it, as they did.
v) Praying for great faith:
"Give me the faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain.
Give me the child like praying love, which longs to build Thy house again.
Thy love let it my heart o'erpower, and all my simple soul devour."
Again, I do not see any modern song that comes anywhere near this prayer.
vi) Desire for Sanctification
"Breathe, O breathe Thy loving spirit into every troubled breast.
Let us all in Thee inherit,; let us find Thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty."
Where are the modern songs that deal with this problem?
vii) Missionary zeal:
"Eternal Son, Eternal Love, take to Thyself Thy mighty power:
Let all earth's sons thy mercy prove, let all Thy saving grace adore.
The triumphs of Thy love display; in every heart reign Thou alone;
Till all Thy foes confess Thy sway, and glory ends what grace begun."
I see no modern song that comes anywhere near this.
viii) Spiritual Unity:
"All praise to our redeeming Lord, who joins us by His grace;
And bids us each to each restored, together seek His face.
We all partake the joy of one; the common peace we feel;
A peace to sensual minds unknown, a joy unspeakable.
And if our fellowship below, in Jesus be so sweet:
What heights of rapture shall we know, when round His throne we meet."
No modern song on unity approaches the height and depth of this.
The more I read of the hymns that speak of the experiences of the Early Methodists, and of similar people since then; of their trials and tribulations, of their victory over them and their anticipation of heaven; the more I realize they are like the hymns that have been produced in China, which come out of similar revival and persecution situations. These are the conditions that produce the greatest hymns of all.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the songs that are produced in the West today, with its wealth, its covetousness, its love of ease and its lukewarmness are not of the same quality.
We should, therefore, be able to see that the problem of lifeless churches is not the absence of modern worldly music, for much of that is artificial and fleshly, emphasising physical life and the enjoyment of the soul, rather than the spirit. What is needed is the refining and purifying life of the Holy Spirit of God, not worldly or evil spirits, which are present in many churches today.
That true spiritual life was there in the Hebrides in 1949-1953, when they were singing just the psalms with no musical accompaniment at all, showing that the life of God in our services is not dependent on the singing of the latest songs, nor on the use of guitars or drums or any lifeless instruments being banged or beaten or played, but on faith and prayer, absolute honesty, sincerity and earnestness. This is what makes the difference between a dead church, (however lively it may seem to be with fleshly life), and a church that has the true life of God.
Where the Holy Spirit is working, producing reality, reverence, conviction , repentance, true joy, love, peace, unity and fellowship that are not dependent on anything else, such a situation is pleasing to God; one that He can use for His glory.
We will look more closely at this next time.
"The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve easy adjustment to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. " (A.W. Tozer)
"The chief danger of the church today is that it is trying to get on the same side as the world, instead of turning the world upside down. Our Master expects us to accomplish results, even if they bring opposition and conflict. Anything is better than compromise, apathy and paralysis. God give to us an intense cry for the old-time power of the Gospel of the Holy Ghost!"(A.B Simpson)
"Only when we are captured by an overwhelming sense of awe and reverence in the presence of God, will we begin to worship God in spirit and in truth." (Alistair Begg)