Hymns and Songs
Contemporary Songs are not traditional hymns. There
are differences that go deeper than merely whether the accompaniment is an
organ or a band. There are different purposes and consequently different
criteria regarding their usefulness.
Teaching or Proclaiming
A frequent complaint regarding contemporary songs is that
there is little meat to them. The content is sparse, repetition is
common, and very little doctrinal material is presented. Compared to the
church's rich treasury of traditional hymnody, that criticism is true. But
it's vital to keep in mind that contemporary songs aren't trying to cover the
same ground as the traditional hymnody.
Hymns teach the faith intentionally. Luther's
catechetical hymns and Gerhard's chorales are excellent examples of a doctrinal
reflection and confession, applied to life and faith. By singing the
hymns, the doctrine is not only confessed, it is learned. The hymn covers
the material with little repetition, but instead flows through a narrative
Contemporary songs aren't necessarily trying to teach
the faith, so much as proclaim
it. The point is to provide a vehicle for
praise or prayer. Instead of singing doctrinal discourse or narrative
content, the relatively simple message is sung repeatedly as a meditation.
The repetition serves as an opportunity to reflect on the point of the text so
as to deepen awareness, appreciation, and experience of the truth that is being
sung. The purpose of singing the song is to lead the worshipper to this
point of meditation and reflection, and so hopefully engage the worshipper in a
way that goes beyond the intellectual or cognitive.
I do need to point out that regarding the value of these
two approaches, I stand firmly on the fence. Both are needed.
Traditional worship could benefit from some affective meditation, and
contemporary worship could be enriched with more sung doctrinal meat. You
will notice that many of my songs sit on this fence as well. Many of them
contain far more doctrinal material and content than the standard contemporary
fare, while at the same time making use of a repeated chorus or phrase.
Praying and Singing
Many contemporary songs have a God-ward direction or focus. The text of
the song is itself a prayer or praise directed to the Triune God. This is
true for some hymns, but many hymns are directed toward other worshippers, or to
the self. Or to put it another way, many hymns refer to God in the 3rd
person, while the majority of contemporary songs refer to God in the 2nd person.
This is consistent with the section above, in that the ultimate purpose of the
contemporary song is meditation on God in the presence of God.
So prayer or praise directed to God is quite apropos.
This is not to say that 3rd person songs are less worthy of worship, but they
may not have the potential for engaging the worshipper in the emotional/affective
way that the contemporary song seeks to do. When I'm singing a 2nd person
worship song, I'm not singing about
God; I'm singing to
difference is as profound as that between telling a friend that I love my wife,
and speaking that love directly to her.
Worship as a Verb
The word worship
is used in different ways by
different groups of people. Those trained in Lutheran theology are used to
using the word worship
to refer to a two-way interaction with God.
Worship begins in God, who acts toward us and gives Himself to us. We receive
and then respond. There can be no worship for me unless God acts first.
Worship in this Lutheran sense is a lively two-way exchange. God is not
merely audience; He is actively at work in our worship. We are not merely
doers; we are receivers of God's gracious acts.
In the contemporary worship movement, the word worship
is used in a different sense. It carries a connotation of engaged activity
on the part of the worshiper. Worship in this sense is a verb. It is
something I do. And it is something that I am truly doing when I am fully
engaged, intellectually and emotionally, in the activity of singing and
praising. Worship is not passive. It is not merely receiving. It is
doing. In some circles you will even hear the word worship
refer to the act of singing praise, and doing so energetically and emotionally.
With these two definitions of worship at work, both sides
accuse the other of not truly worshiping. Traditionalists claim that
contemporary worship is human-centered, and that it downplays or denies that God
is present and working. Contemporary Worship practitioners accuse
traditionalists of not truly worshiping since they appear to be so passive and
not emotionally involved.
I'm not going to deny that there are some differences in
theology of worship at work here, but the main problem is the definition of the
. It's similar to the word sacrament. Depending on how
you define that word you are going to come up with a different number of
sacraments. With a Lutheran definition there are two, and with a Roman
Catholic definition, there are seven.
Both sides can learn from each other and be warned about
the danger of their respective approach. The danger in traditional worship
is formalism: Approaching worship itself as an ex opera operato
event, a mere going through the motions. On the contrary, worship is not merely an
intellectual exercise, but is rather to engage the entire person.
Contemporary worship reminds us of this. On the other hand the danger in
the contemporary worship definition of the word worship is the notion that
unless I feel a certain way, unless I'm energized by the singing and the
experience, then God must not be present or working. This is wrong.
God's presence and activity is neither dependent on nor is it indicated by the
level of our emotional fervor. Worship at its best should engage us
emotionally, but emotion is not the sine qua non
of the worship.
So both sides need to be less quick to judge and more quick
to listen, learn, and grow in the practice of worship.
Context and Content
In evaluating contemporary worship songs, it is important
to keep in mind the broader context of worship. The context of the worship
service is part of the meaning of the text of
the song. As mentioned above, many contemporary songs contain little in
the way of doctrinal content. That does not in itself make them
unsuitable. We should not assume that the content or lack of it makes the
song guilty until proven innocent.
For instance, a reference might be made to the Jesus as
Savior, but the means by which he has saved us is not presented explicitly in
the song. This is not a denial of the cross or the atonement, as is
sometimes suggested, but merely an assumption that the rest of the worship
service, the preaching, and other features will provide that content of meaning
to what is merely referred to in a shorthand way in the song.
The traditional liturgy relies on context to provide
meaning for some of its texts. The Agnus Dei uses a repeated phrase as a
prayer for mercy to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
No reference is made to how the Lamb does this, or even who the Lamb is.
Ripped out its context and presented to an assembly of unbelievers, the song
would be highly confusing. But in its context, sandwiched between the
Words of Institution and the distribution of communion, the meaning of the words
become highly specific and clearly point to Jesus as the Lamb, who by his shed
blood and body, takes away the sin of the world.
The same thing happens in contemporary worship as well.
For instance, the song "Here I am to Worship" praises God for being wonderful
and beautiful, leading us to bow down and worship (see definition of worship
above). Why is God wonderful and beautiful? The repeated phrase
"I'll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross" points to the
answer, without describing it in detail. The context of the congregation's
worship life, Christian education, preaching, and the faith of those gathered
for worship fill in the details. And then a song that never mentions Jesus
or Christ or Son of God by name becomes in the hearts of the worshipers a
powerful anthem of praise and thanksgiving for the redemption we have in his
Objective and Subjective
Another complaint often made regarding contemporary worship
songs is that they are overly subjective. They dwell too much on the
individual's experience of God, and not enough on the objective truths that are
the foundation of our faith. Too much subjectivity can undermine
certainty, and lead to a faith built upon experience and emotion, instead of the
events of salvation and the Word that proclaims it.
That is true. But as in many things in life, it's not
a black and white issue, but rather a matter of balance. The complaint from the
contemporary worship side is that traditional worship and hymns are too
objective. Traditional worship and its traditional practice seem designed
to stifle emotion and individual expression and response to the gospel. If
contemporary worship songs run the risk of over-subjectivity, then traditional
worship runs the risk of denying the reality and importance of the subjective
There needs to be both. As I've stated above, emotion
and fervor is not the foundation of our faith, but there is room to express and
celebrate it as a response to what God has done. And the music of the
contemporary worship movement is very well suited in our present cultural
context to provide a vehicle for that response for many people. If music
can be used as a vehicle for intentionally expressing the objective truths of
the faith, why shouldn't it be used to intentionally express the response to
those truths, even in an emotional way?