Pastor's Blog

Another issue that troubles us traditionalists about contemporary music is the emphases we find in contemporary artists – and perhaps more especially emphases that seem to be lacking.

We are very accustomed to singing about salvation – God sending Christ to save us from sin.  These hymns reinforce what we believe to be the core ideas of our faith – that the problem is sin;  that the solution is the grace of God, the shed blood of Christ, and forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death. 

Sometimes we take these ideas for granted, and what younger people often don’t understand is the costly battle that was fought to prevent these ancient doctrines from being lost to the faith.

In the 1800’s educated European elites began denying the existence of the supernatural.  Anything supernatural was merely ancient superstition. 
                …The Bible wasn’t from God, it was just another human book.
                …Jesus was just a man, a popular human teacher. 
                …Belief in miracles was abandoned as unscientific and irrational.
                …The shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sin was dismissed as tribal superstition – and
                Christ’s death as a sacrifice was discarded as primitive and inhumane.  The doctrine of hell was
                discarded for the same reason.
                …The notion that there was only one way to God was deemed uncompassionate.  The new  
                doctrine was that all religious roads led to heaven.
Theological Christianity was replaced with experiential spirituality.  Liberalism says that if you feel a spiritual experience is truly divine – it is.  It is not to be judged by theology.  All experiences are valid and should be accepted without judgment or criticism.  The important thing about all religion is to be tolerant of everyone’s doctrines and experiences.  Be nice.  Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings with negative energy.

These changes in Christianity didn’t take place overnight, nor did they take place without a fight.  There was much debate and argument into the early 20th century.  But by 1940, it was clear that the traditionalists (aka fundamentalists, conservatives, evangelicals) had lost the battle.  Liberalism forced conservatives out of the denominations, seminaries, mission boards, and churches.  If you believed in traditional Protesant teachings, you had to build a church, a denomination, a school, a mission board, from the ground up.

And that’s exactly what conservatives did.  Mountain View Chapel is one of the many churches that sprang up preaching the traditional truths of the faith.

Can I bring this back to contemporary worship music?

Today’s worship music doesn’t focus on the doctrines of salvation from sin that we fought and sacrificed for.  It’s not that contemporary artists deny those doctrines.  Most affirm them – but they are not the topic of their songs.  They focus instead on the theme of personal pain – sadness, anxiety, worry, isolation, loneliness – rather than sin, and on Jesus as our comforter and friend, rather than our sacrifice and savior.

Traditionalists acknowledge that we have “a friend in Jesus”.  Our concern is that this emphasis on “relevance” and “experience” is just a stealthier and subtler way of crowding out the uncomfortable but powerful traditional doctrines of the faith.  That’s why so many traditionalists engage in “worship wars”.

While I want to battle division in our ranks, I don’t want to forget that the enemy is more subtle than “any other beast of the field”.  He can appear as an angel of light and can gently twist good into an evil in such a gentle way that we don’t notice it.  That’s why we’re called upon to be sober and vigilant regarding him.

The liberal churches opted for relevance thinking that they were saving Christianity from extinction.  But the opposite seems to be true.  The more relevant liberals became, the more quickly their churches and denominations have died.  They ignored the problem of sin and left themselves without a need for a Savior.  And with no Savior, there is no message.

I don’t think we need to rid ourselves of songs about spiritual experience.  But I strongly believe that we need to “beef up” the other side – songs that remind us about the great old truths of the Christian faith.

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.

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