Disclaimer (oooh.. one of those posts? Yep!)
What this post is NOT:
1. An exhaustive comparison of two vast arenas of thought and content
2. An invitation to debate (dialogue, sure, but not argue)
3. A means to criticize someone's preference in church music
What this post IS:
1. A defining of some misleading terms
2. Some thoughts on the importance of blended worship
3. A reminder that we as a church need to prioritize and stop fighting over petty issues
If you're involved in church, or if you are on social media, or if you have a pulse, you're aware that for whatever reason, music has become one of the most hot-button, controversial topics among Christian people (or at least American Christians who have the freedom to quibble over this stuff while those in foreign countries fear for their lives.) I'm not sure why this is, but literally every time I get online I see another gripping headline that claims to have the answer to the seemingly incompatible sides of the issue. "Throw out the hymns!" some cry, while others insist, "Get rid of that contemporary stuff!"
I'm not here to convince you that one style or type of music is the best one (because that would be impossible and also I like blog traffic but I don't want to wade through dozens of angry, finger-pointing comments.) What I would like to talk about is something that I think we should strive for in our music AND in every other aspect of life, and that's balance.
We can and should be "extreme" in some areas. Extremely passionate about God's love, extremely grateful for God's grace, extremely awed by His holiness, extremely involved in sharing the Gospel. But sometimes we take areas that should be balanced to extremes, and our preferences (not biblical principles, just "what we like") fall into that category. And I hope you realize what I mean here. Taking any old style of music in the name of "balance" and calling it good is not the issue. "Well, here at ___________ Church we like to really strike a balance between spiritual and carnal so today we're featuring our favorite worship songs and a little Top 40. BALANCE!" Um, no.
I'm talking strictly about church music (as in, music performed/sung in church by the congregation and/or groups, not what you listen to personally or the lifestyles of these songwriters or anything beyond the songs themselves as they relate to church. Also, I'm assuming from the get-go that when we discuss these songs being used in church, it will be in a Christ-honoring, appropriate way. No need to debate technique or stage setup or lighting. See? The rabbit trail is endless.)
So, like I said, this topic is eeeeverywhere online, and while "both sides" of the argument have a few valid points, what I'm really tired of is generalizations like these:
"All hymns are boring."
"All contemporary music is shallow."
"All hymns are rich in intellectually stimulating lyrics."
"All contemporary music connects you straight to Jesus."
"Hymns are outdated."
"Contemporary music is worldly."
"I can't connect with any hymns."
"I can't connect with any contemporary music."
Wow... those are a little over the top, am I right? And before we go any further, it's important to take a page from C.S. Lewis and define the terms we're discussing here. Most of the time when people talk about hymns, they're referencing songs from at least a few generations ago and sometimes a few hundred years. And usually "contemporary Christian" refers to anything from the 90s to the present. But if we're being fair (and moving away from generalizations, which is part of the point of this post), let's define these in their strictest terms.
According to Webster's, the word hymn means "a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God." And the word contemporary, strictly speaking, means "living or occurring at the same time." (In other words, a contemporary work was written during my lifetime, or yours.) So obviously, we have to acknowledge that there are many, many "contemporary" songs that fall under the category of hymns, and there are many hymns (by definition) that may not have been written in my lifetime, but they're certainly current, at least with older generations.
Anyway, that seems like a lot of bookish talk but it's important to define those terms for a couple of reasons. Number one, it means that just because something isn't found in "the hymnal" doesn't mean it isn't a hymn. (Is it a song that praises God? That's the definition!) And it also means that, according to its definition, there were lots of songs written decades and even centuries ago that- hey!- were contemporary at the time. Guess what? "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was contemporary when Martin Luther wrote it in the 14th century. The "ancient" hymns didn't just arrive in a time capsule, you know? They were new at some point.
SO what's the point of all this? I guess so far, I'm just trying to point out that it's important to get our terminology straight. If you have a problem with a style of music, be specific. "Hymns" are spiritual songs (and we're commanded multiple times in Scripture to sing them) and "contemporary" means current. That's all.
So now let's address those blanket statements. Recently I read through the comments of a post discussing these two "styles" of music (again, misleading, but I digress) and some of them blew me away.
"Hymns are so lifeless and boring. I don't even understand a lot of what they're saying."
Really? Lifeless and boring?
"When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul." (1870)
"Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all." (1707)
"Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?" (1738)
"O, God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home!" (1719)
And then on the flipside, there's this:
"I just don't get anything out of that contemporary stuff. It just says the same thing over and over."
Hmm... do these sound shallow and empty?
"These are the days of Elijah, declaring the Word of the Lord, and these are the days of your servant Moses, righteousness being restored. And though these are days of great trial, of famine and darkness and sword, still we are the voice in the desert crying prepare ye the way of the Lord! Behold, He comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun, at the trumpet call! So lift your voice, it's the year of jubilee, and out of Zion's hill salvation comes!"
"Blessed be Your name, when the sun's shining down on me, when the world's all as it should be... blessed be Your name, on road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering blessed be Your name."
"Jesus Messiah, name above all names, blessed redeemer, Emmanuel, the rescue for sinners, the ransomed from Heaven, Jesus Messiah, Lord of all!"
"I come broken to be mended, I come wounded to be healed. I come desperate to be rescued, I come empty to be filled. I come guilty to be pardoned by the blood of Christ the Lamb, and I'm welcomed with open arms, praise God, just as I am."
Of course, I could give examples of hymns that are boring, newer songs that are shallow... and vice versa. (Not every song in the hymnbook is as intellectually stimulating as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and not every modern hymn is as rich and deep as "In Christ Alone.") I think we all know this, but somehow there's a disconnect between what's clearly true and what seems okay or popular to say.
More important than style or semantics, though, is what Jesus says. Does the Bible explicitly outline Charles Wesley over Keith Getty, other that exhorting us to sing praises to God? Colossions 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Patch the Pirate theme verse for the win... I can recite the club pledge for you if you want. =) Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs- that's fairly broad and I think there's quite a bit of room under that umbrella. (That's the idea here... the content of these songs and not the way in which they're performed... again assuming that their "performance," for lack of a better term, is appropriate and honoring to God.)
Here's what I'm saying... between these "two sides" (and there's a whole lot of style/preference/genre included there, but I'm narrowing it down since that's what most arguments on the topic do) there is a balance to be found. Ideally, a church service will feature what some people call "blended worship" which incorporates both new and old songs. (Our music minister has really mastered this and should probably teach classes about it. Oh wait... he does! That's a really great thing.) Why avoid all old songs or all new songs? It's safe to say that God Himself is a fan of balance, of different styles, and of "mixing things up."
We don't have to look any further than Scripture itself to see this proven. God used over forty men to write the sixty-six books of the Bible, and it's pretty clear that not every book is the same style. Does the book of Psalms stir my emotions? Does it repeat itself a lot? YES! Should we dismiss it as shallow and repetitive? NO! Does the book of say, I Chronicles do those things? No. Does it deliver a lot of intellectually challenging information? Yes. Do we toss it out as boring and irrelevant? NO!
The same is true of music. I understand that the Bible was inspired and therefore infallible, but God still chose to use men to write it and allowed their styles to shine through very plainly in the text. He also made each of us different. That leads me to believe that God wants the content and style of our praise to Him, as long as it is biblical, to be as varied as we are! (Once again, this is not a standards/genres/evils of percussion instruments topic, for goodness' sake. Leave that to the professional forum stalkers.) Why miss the blessing of a beloved hymn OR the blessing of a song that can bring thoughts to mind in a fresh way? It doesn't have to be one or the other.
Oh, and I alluded to this at the beginning... but don't you think it's a little silly to be arguing over these issues (and the arguments are out there... in abundance) when our brothers and sisters in Christ in foreign countries would love to have the freedom to sing ANY songs- modern or ancient- above a whisper without fear of extremely dangerous repercussions. Hmm... that makes this issue and quite a bit of what we deem "important" in church seem petty, doesn't it? Arguing until you're blue in the face about a song(s) you prefer is not defending the faith, okay? Facing execution by claiming the name of Christ or answering someone's attack at the gospel is defending the faith. Defending our preferences is not "defending the faith." Okay, (that) rant over.
So... let's be balanced. I have songs and styles I prefer.. we all do. But the blanket statements and unfair generalizations need to stop. They don't benefit or edify anyone. If we come to church having already met with God and worshiped privately, our corporate worship will "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," whether the songs we're singing were written in 2014 or 1714. And that joyful noise, that "melody in our hearts," is what it's all about.