Pastor's Blog

Traditionalists complain that contemporary worship music is too much about “self” and “personal experience”.  But I demonstrated last time that hymns – even some of the most famous and best-loved hymns – are also about personal experience and self.

That shouldn’t be surprising.  Evangelicalism is a reaction against dead orthodoxy;  it’s primarily about personal religious experience.  So we should expect its music, both old and new, to reflect that to some degree.

The problem is that our experiences with God – or at least our perceptions of our experiences with God – differ, because no two of us are exactly alike.  I know the place I struggle is when a song is written from a perspective that I don’t share or an experience that I’ve never had, and I’ve found that to be the case with both hymns and contemporary worship.

One of the beloved hymns is At the Cross.  It’s a great hymn – but the chorus goes like this:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away –
It was there by faith, I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.

My burden of guilt was rolled away “at the cross” and I did receive the sight of faith when I converted – but I’m sorry, it is not true that “now I am happy all the day.”

How about this one . . .
                Jesus, Jesus, Jesus – sweetest name I know. 
                Fills my every longing;  keeps me singing as I go.

This is not my personal experience.  Jesus doesn’t fill my every longing by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, many times he insists that I not fulfill my longings.  And I haven’t found Christianity to be a faith that causes me to want to skip and whistle my way through the day.

Does that mean the song is a lie?  Perhaps there are people who do experience the Christian faith this way.  I wouldn’t want to deny that.  It’s just that I don’t experience it that way.  So I don’t share the experience or the perspective – so the song is kind of empty for me.

Does that mean a church shouldn’t sing it?  Nope.  The church should sing it.
Does it mean that there is something wrong with me?  No, it just means that others perceive or experience their relationship with God differently than me.
Does it mean that there is something wrong with those who do have this experience?  No, it just means that I will struggle to relate to their perception and their experience.

Just as I struggle with the perspective of some of the hymns, I struggle with the perspective in some of the contemporary worship songs.  Does that mean the writer’s perspective or experience are invalid?  If it violates revealed theology I may have something to complain about – but more often than not I’ve found the problem isn’t theology;  it’s perception and perspective.  I might not share the song writer’s perspective, so I struggle to relate to the song.  But that doesn’t mean that the song is of no use to the church in worship.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit play many different roles toward us, don’t they?
They save, instruct, guide, convict, rebuke, correct, love, discipline, and care.
We relate to them as Savior, Comforter, Friend, Provider, Protector, Judge, Defender, and King.
And we can sing about all of these, and sing to God, thanking and praising Him for all of these roles.
Some songs we can sing with better understanding than we can others.
But when we can’t sing with a full heart and a full understanding – should we feel angry and ostracized, or should we listen (or sing with the brothers and sisters that we love), rejoicing with them in things that they have tasted – and which perhaps someday we will taste as well?
That takes conscious effort – but I think the latter is the approach that love takes – and loving one another is the hallmark of the faith according to Jesus.

The most typical complaints I’ve heard traditionalists lodge against contemporary worship songs have to do with the lyrics -- too repetitive, too shallow, theologically weak, or too much focus on self or personal experience.  I want to talk about that last one because I think it’s the most important.

Evangelicalism by its very nature is about personal spiritual experience.  Evangelicalism is largely a reaction against dead orthodoxy, against formal religion removed from life, removed from real connection to the real God.  Evangelicals often insist that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.  If that’s not the drumbeat of the theme of personal spiritual experience, I don’t know what is.

Personal experience cannot help but be about self in some way.  Self has the experiences.  And when I express myself, I talk about my experiences.  I can’t speak as knowledgeably about the spiritual experiences of others as I can about my own.  Shouldn’t we, then, expect an artist or musician to create songs born of and reflecting their own experiences?   We should expect her to convey what she saw or heard or thought or felt.

People often miss the fact that a good many hymns – many of the old favorites – are about personal spiritual experience.

”I come to the garden alone . . . and the voice I hear, falling on my ear . . .”
  And He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own . . .”

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee:  How great Thou art!  How great Thou art!”

“At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away;
  it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.”

“My Jesus I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;  for Thee all of the follies of sin I resign . . .”

“I once was lost, but now am found;  was blind, but now I see.”

To quote Captain America, “I can do this all day.”  All these hymns sing about me – about my personal spiritual experience.  And yet I’ve never heard a traditionalist complain about the hymns being too self-oriented.

Faith is not something removed from experience.  It is an experience and it is the living out of that experience.  Why would we not expect songs composed by a heart of faith to speak of personal spiritual experiences? 

I have more that I want to say about this – but not enough space, so I’ll continue next time. 

Let me remind you that what I’m really writing about here is learning how to love one another when we have different tastes in music.  Loving one another is the hallmark of the faith, and we can move in that direction better by seeing things we have in common and focusing on them.

Since personal spiritual experience is a common topic in both contemporary worship and the old hymns, perhaps both the old and the new share more than we realize.  Perhaps we’ve been too busy criticizing and fighting the unfamiliar instead of building love out of our common bonds.  Perhaps we need to work a little harder in that area.

For years our church has used one of the most popular hymnals in evangelicalism called, somewhat uncreatively, The Hymnal, published in 1986.  So it contains nothing written in the past 34 years.  I went through The Hymnal and categorized the hymns based on dates of origin.  Out of 602 hymns, there were:

276 hymns & choruses from the 20th century  (46%)
229 hymns from the 1800’s (19th century) -- the Civil War era  (38%)
62 hymns from the 1700’s (18th century) -- America’s founding  (10%)
12 hymns from the 1600’s (17th century) -- the Puritans  (2%)
8 hymns from the 1500’s (16th century) -- the Reformation  (1%)

The remaining three percent (15 hymns) were of unknown date, though I do know that one of them had roots back in the second century.

I have been at Mountain View since 1982, and if you exclude the Christmas carols, patriotic songs, and three traditional Easter hymns, I count about 177 hymns that we have sung in all that time.  Most of those we may have sung only once or twice – either because they weren’t familiar or the congregation didn’t seem to like them so our musicians didn’t do them again.  So in all of that time we used about 29% of The Hymnal.

Of those 177 that we have sung, I count about 140 with which we are comfortably familiar, which means that our repertoire of hymns and choruses is about 23% of The Hymnal.

Of those 140 familiar hymns that we know and love, the bulk of them were written between 1900 and 1945.  We hardly use anything written between 1945 – 1970.  There are several popular choruses and praise songs written in the 1970’s and 1980’s that we use.

Of the hymns older than 1900 . . .
We know and love a few hymns composed by Fanny Crosby (late 1800’s - early 1900’s).
From the 1700’s we enjoy and use a little cluster of hymns by Isaac Watts and by John and Charles Wesley.  Of course everyone knows and loves Amazing Grace from the late-1700’s.
And there is always “A Mighty Fortress” by Martin Luther from the 1500’s. 

Why am I cataloguing this information?  Because one of the complaints of my fellow traditionalists is that we are losing the rich heritage of the traditional hymns by using contemporary Christian music.  But the simple fact is that that is the way church music works.  Our hymnals don’t preserve an ancient tradition.  Most of the hymns aren't even old.  NONE of the music from before 1500 was familiar enough or popular enough to survive (apart from a traditional Gloria Patri – and who uses that in evangelical churches?).  Only 13% of the hymnal – 82 hymns from between 1500 and 1800 were loved enough to be preserved in The Hymnal of 1986.  And we don’t sing or know most of them, and many times, after we sing them, we know why we don’t know or sing them!

Every time publishing houses come out with a new edition of a hymnal, they eliminate older hymns that have fallen out of use.  They have fallen out of use because people no longer have use for them!  They are replaced with newer songs that people enjoy and use. 

I say all of this to provide some perspective to us traditionalists.  We often overstate our case and wring our hands about how great the old music is, and how awful it is that we don't use it any longer.  But the fact is that the best of the old music survives and continues to be with us.  The cream rises to the top and gets passed down to the next generation.  

It’s just the way people are when it comes to music – church music or otherwise.  The rich tradition of the church’s hymnody remains with us;  there just isn’t as much worthwhile enough to pass down as we may think there is.



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