Hymns and the Power of Music to Teach

15135599_616521598527352_154431443_nMy kids are both in High School now, but when they were toddlers I made up a little song for each of them that taught them how to spell their names.  My mom did the same for me when I was a small child.  The reason I did this was that information set to music is among the easiest to remember (WSJ 2013).  I’m sure you have experienced the annoying phenomena of a pop song from 20 or even 30 years ago getting stuck in your head.  You can hear it perfectly as if it were on a radio, and if you are anything like me, it will be a song that you did not even like!  

This is the power of music to teach and to plant information in our memories.  It is a wonderful and powerful tool.  This is why it is important that churches use discernment when selecting the music for the worship service.  

You don’t have to be around a church setting for very long to pick up on the issue of music selection.  Although I was not born again until well into adulthood, I did grow up in the church and remember the ‘discussions’ people had about the music choices: not enough hymns, not enough organ, too loud, not loud enough, too rock and roll, and the list goes on.  As a kid I didn’t really understand what all of the fuss was about.  Now that I am a believer, I get it.  And like any regular church attendee, I have my own ideas of what constitutes appropriate music selections.  For today’s essay I would like to examine the common complaints and controversies surrounding worship music, and give you my two cents on the topic for your consideration.

Music is an important cultural aspect to most young people.  A lot of folks, myself included in my teen and college age years, have a lot of their identity wrapped up in the music that they listen to.  People identify with the ideas and emotions expressed in music.  Because music is so integral to the young person’s life, they have a vested interest in the music that they sing at church.  Many want music that is appealing in sound and style, and that their generation can identify with.  I understand this point of view; I remember that perspective.  This holds true for the older generations as well.  I am in middle adult hood, and the older I get the more I am drawn to things that I cherished from the past.  I can see why the older generations desire music that they are comfortable with and have fond memories of.  I understand and empathize with both ends of the spectrum.

Personal preference is a powerful dynamic in the church music conversation, but it is not the most important one.  At the beginning of this post I talked about the fact that we remember information that is set to music more readily and easily.  The hymn writers of the past knew this, and utilized that mechanism to teach congregants doctrine.  You can be sure that you learn as much on a Sunday morning from the lyrics you sing, as you do the sermon that you listen to.  Hymns are rich with deep theological truths.  An example of this is the hymn by Reginald Heiber, ‘Holy Holy Holy’:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

This wonderful hymn teaches us about God’s attributes: holiness, mercy, might, creator, immutability, Trinity.  The second stanza depicts the setting in Revelation chapter 4.  This is solid theological truth; doctrine communicated through music.  Let’s compare this to the contemporary and popular song ‘Oceans’:

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior
What is this song teaching, exactly?  If you were unchurched, and visited a church service where this song was sung, would you have any concrete understanding of Biblical truth? The answer is no. Besides its nebulous message, it is essentially two stanzas that are repeated ad nauseum, designed to stir up emotions and focus people on their ‘experiences’. Never a good strategy for teaching people sound doctrine.
Most contemporary Christian music is written for performance, where as hymns were written in four part harmony for congregational singing; they are designed for participation.  Many contemporary Christian songs are written from a first person perspective, more of a testimony of the song writer, and are fine to listen to in the car or while you are working out.  It is nice to have clean and uplifting music for entertainment and enjoyment.  But when these performance songs are used in a church service you end up with the congregation singing lyrics that are about themselves (“I, I, I, me, me, me” *barf*), are set to complex rhythms that are awkward for your average church musician to perform and attendee to sing to, are filled with vague or unsound concepts, and more often than not designed to stir up emotions verses teach doctrine and focus people’s minds on God and who He is.  There are some great contemporary worship songs out there, and most of us hymn advocates are not against mixing it up with more contemporary sounding tunes.  But if you are a worship leader in your church, or just a concerned member, I would encourage you to place doctrine at the top of the priority list over style or popularity.  Let’s leave the fun performance songs for enjoyment in the car or on the ipod.  
I am very blessed to attend a church where the Worship Pastor does a wonderful job of selecting modern worship songs, uses his discernment to educate us as to why we are or are not singing a particular song, and also makes sure we sing a proportional amount of hymns.  He has struck a great balance.  I hope the same holds true for you, my readers.  If not, pray for your leaders and if you have opportunity to help influence the music selection make sure that sound doctrine is the basis for and priority in music selection.  Educate your congregation about the power of music to teach and the importance of ensuring you are teaching Biblical truth.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Resources for further study:
Bob Kauflin has written an excellent article Singing Songs from Questionable Sources



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