What is the matter with our churches?

Posted on July 9, 2012

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Allow me, if you would, to critique the style of music used in the worship service of your church. This is not even an expose or a  criticism of what could be called “Contemporary Christian Music” utilized in ‘upbeat’ style service. I weary of being critical of something so patently un-biblical and worldly. And thereby just wrong. And if you expect me to define the words ‘un-biblical’ and ‘worldly’ you are likely part of the problem with what is the matter with our churches.

I would like to exercise some discernment with some of the good ole’ gospel hymns. I have been leading the song part of the worship in our church for over 12 years I think…..it has seriously been so long that I can’t remember how old I was when I started. There are some songs that we will not sing period, and others that I skip certain verses that are not doctrinally sound. For example; We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations uses this line, “And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth” That teaches postmillenniasm. Now, if you want to believe in that eschatology interpretation, that’s fine, but our church doesn’t and because it is in the chorus, we don’t sing that song. For the same reason we don’t frequently use the song, We’re Marching to ZionThe Church’s One Foundation, is another classic. Not only does it scream Postmillenniasm, it also reeks of Universal Church TheoryWhich is truly too bad, It is good song otherwise, makes good doctrinal points about Christ being foundation of the church. A song we skip a verse….everysinglelast time is This World is Not My Home. “I have a loving mother up in glory land.” I have a couple of problems with stanza three of this song. One; my mother is not ‘in glory land’ two; at what point she is, it seems like quite the trite way to say it. How about Mansion over the HIlltop. “I want a mansion, a harp, and a crown” I hate to be the one to break it to you….we aren’t promised a harp when we get to heaven…..

Around the end of the nineteenth century the content and general makeup of church music changed. And the change is essentially this. Men quit writing ‘hymns’ and started writing ‘gospel songs’. Which is not necessarily all bad, but neither is it all good. Perhaps we lost something for our worship in this transition. Let me illustrate the difference between the two.

Consider the lyrics to the hymn Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. Written in 1876.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

Observe the theological and doctrinal depth of this song. We see the really a fairly exhaustive list of the attributes of God, considering the forum in which they are being expressed. A pristine example of lauding the deep theological truths that surround a true and honest worship of God. Next, for an example of a gospel song. In the Garden written just about 25 years after our previous example. I use example close together in age to illustrate that our discernment must reach further then simply a year, but as well I am making a point that there was a transition at some point. We are judging content, not style here.

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

Refrain

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

Refrain

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

Refrain

What a banal existence of song writing. What exactly is this song telling us? Nothing of any real substance, and what is said contains little to no real and actual substance. It is a mawkish little rhyme about feelings and personal experience. Whereas hymns of a bygone era proclaim great truths about God, gospel songs such as this promote and contribute to raw sentimentality. Many songs that are common rote in many IFB church’s today lack any real substance and are infused with sappiness. Love Lifted Me, Take My Hand Precious Lord, It is No Secret What God Can Do.

Gospel songs replace teaching us doctrine and Giving us and attribute of God to worship have been replaced with songs of light, if any, doctrinal content. Songs of short verses followed by repetitiveness in the chorus. Gospel songs are, as a rule, more evangelistic than hymns.

“The key difference was that most gospel songs were expressions of personal testimony aimed at an audience of people, whereas most of the classic hymns had been songs of praise addressed directly to God.”    (Fools Gold p. 112)

Who do we have to thank for this transition? Ira Sankey. By all accounts a talented singer/songwriter that garnered his fame on the success of D.L. Moody. Mr. Sankey decided a simpler, more popular type of music would be more suitable for the efforts. And therefore he took from the popular music styles of the late nineteenth century and created a sub-genre of Christian church music termed the ‘gospel song’ Since then essentially no hymns have been written. The one exception could possible by How Great Thou Art. 

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Refrain

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Refrain

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”

Refrain

Even that being said though. It as well follows the gospel song patter of verses and refrains. Not only that, three of the four verses were written in 1886. In other words, it has been over seventy years since a true hymn has been written that has any enduring or staying power.

This is truly not meant to be a complete blanket criticism of all gospel songs. Many good songs have been written over the last several decades. Grace Greater Than our Sin is a good example.

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Refrain

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold,
Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.

Refrain

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

Refrain

Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?

Refrain

I think all would agree that songs such as this have truly deepened the worship of many churches.

The problem lies here. Many fundamentalist types, myself included, decry the insipid nature of mainstream christian worship. One could perhaps argue that where we find ourselves today, really can be traced back to the slope downward that started with the advent of gospel songs. Because what do we decry in ‘CCM’ today? A lack of depth? A lack of substance? A lack of clear truth? A lack of doctrine? I think this trend started, not 20 years ago, but rather almost 100 years ago, and we are not seeing a ‘maturing version’ if you will, of that tendency.

Prior to Sankey the men who wrote the songs of the church were theologians and ministers and pastors. Men who had skill in handling the scripture. Men whose desire, was not to sell a song, but to proclaim truth about God. With the not so subtle shift towards gospel songs what we have is anyone with a self pronounced penchant for poetry think now they can write sacred songs. Because now music was not meant to be a theological treatise, but rather an expression of “how I feel” As much as I disagree with Martin Luther on, when he penned the words to A Mighty Fortress is Our God. I scarcely think he was concerned with ‘feelings’.

Before the era which Sankey ushered in, hymns were composed and written with a purpose. To teach and instruct. To show doctrine and biblical principles in the forum of worshiping God. Not so anymore, this modern notion and mindset of worship removes truth and doctrine and focus’ on feeling and mindless exercise. A shift from preaching and teaching and an orientation to ‘pleasing the congregation’ or perhaps more aptly put…entertaining the masses. Leaving the christian in the average church, unmoved, unstirred and with a weak, insipid Christianity.

To say nothing of the recent advent of the ‘Praise Chorus’

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