We're Asking the Wrong Questions
Lately, several of the blogs that I read regularly have gotten caught up in the debate about music in the church. Specifically, the question often being posed is: "What songs should the Church be using in its worship services?" Despite the insistence of the participants in the debate that they are not pitting "old" against "new", I'm really having trouble seeing it as anything else. It always ends up coming back to that.
I have read numerous comments about how "theologically rich" the old hymns of the Church are, and how we should not turn our back on 2,000 years of heritage in music. I have also read comments about how today's "worship music" is mostly based on shallow, repetitious, self-centered statements. In a recent thread of comments on a particular blog, several people have taken to referring to today's contemporary worship songs in a derogatory manner as "Jesus is my girlfriend" songs.
One person commented that we should compare the first 100 hymns in a Baptist hymnal to the next 100 songs played on a Christian radio station. This misses the whole point! When hymnals were compiled, they were done so by a committee of editors who searched through many, many songs and chose representative ones to preserve. But how many hymns have been sung in churches through the years that never made their way into a hymnal? In the same way, many songs that are sung today will never make it into the "canon" of enduring songs of the Church. But many will. And for good reason! Because they are valid expressions of God's revelation to us. So comparing the "best of the best" from generations past to the next 100 songs played on the radio today is not a legitimate comparison. I personally made the comment on another blog that I hate the "old vs. new" debate because it seems unfairly biased toward antiquity! We know from Scripture that Paul wrote more letters than what have been preserved for us. Does that mean the other letters were somehow invalid or wrong??? You see the problem with this argument?
What I have felt very strongly in reading these comments, however, is that we are asking ourselves the wrong questions! We need to simply be making a commitment to only ever sing songs that are true and consistent with what God has revealed to us. That can be a song that is hundreds of years old, or it may be a song that someone wrote yesterday.
With that in mind, here are some questions that I would like to pose, and perhaps even endeavor to answer in the future:
- Is "test of time" a valid criterion for judging anything with relation to our function as Christians? And a related question: Is "test of time" valid for everything, or only for certain things?
- Is congregational singing an absolute necessity in the function of the Body of Christ? And if so, what role does/should congregational singing play in theChurch?
- At what point can a song be a personal expression of one's relationship with Christ, and at what point should it be limited to a corporate expression? Who determines the appropriateness of a song for the church to sing, and should their judgment be widespread for the Body as a whole? Or should it be a judgment for their particular local body of believers?
- Who says that we need to preserve 2,000 years of heritage anyway? I'm not saying we don't need to, but I'm just forcing the question here, because I think it's a fair one. It seems to me that this debate gets into very dangerous territory of "tradition" being a criterion for validity.
- And for those who want to rely so heavily on preserving 2,000 years of musical heritage, I would ask: How much gregorian chant do you use in your services?
Here's the problem the way I see it: We have no record of church services in the New Testament that even included corporate singing. I'm not by any means saying it didn't happen, and I'm not saying that it shouldn't happen today. But we really need to start with that to begin to understand what role (if any) corporate singing has in our worship today. Paul tells us to sing with "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" to God (Eph. 5:19), and to each other (Col. 3:16), but doesn't mention corporate singing specifically. He may be referring to corporate singing, but not necessarily. His instructions in the context of both quotes seem more directed to individual Christian living in relation to each other. And when he mentions hymns in the most detailed explanation of a "service" in 1 Cor 14, he again relates it to an individual bringing a hymn to the service, not specifically denoted as the pastor or minister of music leading everyone in a song.
So what is the ramification for the debate today about music? Quite simply, let's make sure we're asking the right question. If we "force" 3 or 4 songs on a congregation each week, it is inevitable that we will get into a debate about style and personal taste. And if there is such a heritage that we must "preserve", how in the world are we going to preserve 2,000 years of history in just a few songs each week, and how in the world are we going to try to pick new songs to add to that heritage for future generations? That sounds like an impossible task for anyone to undertake.
Until next time,