Singing faith: Hymns both praise and teach
Church music is not just for worship. It also is a tool for teaching what a congregation believes.
By Ken Camp
Last summer’s controversy over removal of the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone” from a new Presbyterian hymnal over doctrinal differences on how to understand the atonement illustrates the importance of church music not only to celebrate but also to inculcate a faith tradition, says a Baptist music professor.
“I rejoice in the controversy,” Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, said of the dustup over a line in the song that says “as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” that divided the hymnal committee over theology.
While worship leaders seldom welcome controversy, York, who has published more than 40 hymns and served as project coordinator for the 1991 edition of The Baptist Hymnal, said the debate is evidence of increased interest in theology in worship songs, something that he welcomes.
“We’ve gone through a time when if it rhymed and said ‘Jesus,’ that was enough,” York said. “We’re finally back to giving attention to what we are saying,” York said.
Todd Wilson, pastor of worship and music at First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, also welcomes the serious examination of hymn texts.
“What we sing shapes our theology, and a careful reading of the text of any worship song is necessary for inclusion in the publication of a denominational hymnal or a weekly service of worship,” he said.
Wilson said church music should always reflect the congregation’s theology, but it also serves a teaching function. He cited the Apostle Paul’s instruction in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart to God.”
Wilson said the teaching function of music places heavy responsibility on worship leaders to examine the songs they select.
York said well-rounded worship demands consideration of both biblical truth and the full range of human experience.
“I don’t know if there are any biblical concepts that are not singable, but there are some that we don’t like to sing,” York said. “We don’t like laments. We don’t want to sing slow and sad in a minor key.”
York said the tendency to focus only on celebration, so guests will see the church as “a happy place” and the people of God as perpetually joyful, is a concept foreign to the psalms in the Bible.
“Shortcuts to evangelism and church growth have stolen 11 o’clock on Sunday morning,” York said. “It’s fun to sing praise and testimony of how God is at work in our lives. We also need to sing laments, or the cork will pop somewhere.”
John Jackson, minister of music for more than four decades at First Baptist Church in Farmington, Mo., said compared to “the incessant debate over what style of music should and should not be sung in the church,” the theology expressed in worship songs has received too little attention.
“Churches, pastors and church musicians owe it to themselves, their congregations and the lost communities they seek to reach to offer songs that contain sound doctrine and use those songs in contexts that reflect and complement the truth of the gospel,” Jackson said.
Bob Brooks, dean of the graduate school of ministry and director of the master of arts in worship leadership program at Dallas Baptist University, said each congregation “has its own musical vocabulary,” which will inform its approach to worship.
Cowboy churches, for example, may use classic hymns or gospel songs presented in a country-western style, Brooks said, while young congregations may have grown up with contemporary Christian music.
“We should celebrate the great diversity of the people of God,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. God calls you to be the church that you are; not some other church.”
Wilson said worship leaders need to take responsibility for studying the lyrics of hymns before selecting them for congregational singing.
“Sometimes, we have found that word choice in a text might leave the truth open for interpretation that is distant from the original meaning,” he said. “The context out of which the text appears will often shape word choice that could lead to misrepresentation of the original intent.”
“I have often researched the writing of various songs of worship and have found a greater depth of meaning, out of that context, that has heightened the rich truth found in the lyrics,” Wilson said.
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