I’ve long been a fan of Leonard Ravenhill, the British revivalist. Ravenhill can pack more punches in five minutes than the average megachurch pastor delivers in five years. We need more men like him.
If you listen to enough Ravenhill, the first unusual aspect of his preaching is that he continually sprinkles his messages with lines from hymns. What’s most amazing to me is that he’s probably doing this off the cuff. In other words, those hymns are deep inside him.
When we begin thinking about ways in which the Church in America can improve its education of the Body, most people look past music. I don’t.
“Shooting at the walls of heartache, bang, bang, I am _______________.”
If you’re over 40, I’ll bet the majority of you can fill in the blank to that lyric. Yep, it’s “the warrior.” I have a bazillion pop/rock songs from my youth filling my head. Fact is, I wish I could get rid of most of them, but there they stick.
Likewise—and in a far more edifying way—I believe our Christian hymnody is critical to transmitting truth that sticks with people.
When I was sitting down to write this post, the first hymn that popped into my head was this one:
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation,
By water and the word:
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Frankly, that’s a theology lesson in two verses. If you know that hymn, you’ve got a solid base of truth in your noggin.
Compare that to what CCLI says is the number one church worship song today:
Come, now is the time to worship
Come, now is the time to give your heart
Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God
One day ev’ry tongue will confess You are God
One day ev’ry knee will bow
Still the greatest treause remains for those
Who gladly choose you now
It’s a good song. We sing it in our church. We played it just a few weeks ago, in fact. But you can’t escape the reality that just doesn’t say as much. In addition, it swaps the meaning of the word you between the refrain and the verse. I mean, just who is you ?
We could fisk old hymns and new worship songs forever, probably, but reading through old Methodist and Lutheran hymnals shows a far more rich theology than flipping through the average Vineyard, Integrity, or Hosanna worship song collection.
I believe there is a solid place for contemporary worship songs that are God-directed and contain more “emotional” lyrics. I remember the first Vineyard worship song CD collection I picked up. I was blown away. And honestly, it made me look at the Vineyard more seriously. It’s one reason why I spent 16 years in Vineyard churches.
But as is so common with American Christians, we pushed the pendulum so far the other direction on hymnody that we lost the rich base of hymns that were theology lessons in four verses and a chorus. Too much of what we sing today is devoid of theology beyond “God loves me.” Yes, that’s an essential truth, but c’mon…
One will argue that today’s songs are more directed toward the Lord, and while some of that is true, it’s missing a greater truth. A hymn like “The Church’s One Foundation” is like the stones the Lord asked the Hebrews to pile beside the Jordan to remember their crossing into the promised land. Hymns that aren’t directed right at God have a place because they remind us of who we are and what the Lord has done. They are the stones of memory that bolster our foundation in the truths we believe.
It saddens me to no end that my son’s generation will grow up oblivious to hymns like “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” “For All the Saints,” “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “And Can It Be,” and on and on. I might sing them at home, but if my son hears them nowhere else, they will become artifacts, just like my dad singing opera arias is an artifact to me. My son may recall a nebulous, nostalgic mood, but the hymns will have otherwise lost their intended meaning.
I will go so far as to say that music’s staying power places it above nearly every other mode of communication. I may not be able to remember the content of a sermon I heard preached two months ago, but chances are high I’ll be able to recall and sing most of the new worship song that debuted that same Sunday morning.
And that’s why this issue of theology set to music matters. If the average Joe in the pew remembers a dozen hymns packed with spiritual goodness and depth, perhaps he’ll recall their truths in the time of testing in a way that he may not have responded based on other, less sticky, sources.
If we want to build a stronger Christian, then let’s write better songs that highlight the core doctrines of the Faith.