Why Hymns: Part 1 – Gospel Story

I’ve touched on this a little on my previous post and I’ll expound on it a little more here.  I believe worship should proclaim the Gospel story as much as possible.  We as human beings are inherently forgetful.  We need reminders.  We need structure.  Singing the gospel story over and over again reminds us of who God is, who we are in relation to Him, what He’s done, and how we should respond.  We need to be reminded of this, constantly!

A lot of hymns do this exceptionally well.  The stanzas all build up thematically going from human’s sinfulness to God’s saving grace and finally looking forward to the new heavens and earth.  The well known hymn Amazing Grace depicts this beautifully as it speaks of the grace that a ‘wretch like me’ is bestowed upon.  It then looks forward to when our ‘flesh and heart shall fail’ and ‘mortal life shall cease’ having hope in our future dwelling with God.

Expecting all hymns/worship songs to speak of the gospel story in its entirety is probably an unreasonable expectation, but at the minimum, parts of the gospel story must be incorporated and fleshed out in our worship.  If all we are singing is the love of God, we miss the serious depravity and sinfulness of man.  On the other hand, if all we sing is the wretchedness & sorrows of man, we can lose sight of the hope and assurance we have in Christ and his work on the cross.

This is why hymns are so valuable to the church today.  These hymns flesh out the gospel story in such deep and profound ways.  Flip through your hymnals or search online sites (like Cyber Hymnal).  You’ll find the topics that these texts cover are substantive in both breadth and depth.  From praise/adoration to confession to assurance of faith, hymn writers of past have wrestled with many of these Gospel issues.

We sing hymns so we can be reminded of the Gospel. I believe worship and the songs we sing are formative (whether we realize it or not), so feeding our souls with these hymn texts regularly will be beneficial to the body.

Why Hymns? – Intro

As somone who’s grown up in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement and am still somewhat immersed in it at my current church context, I’ve realized a natural tendancy to distant myself away from this style of music.  It’s not that I want to become different for the sake of being different, to try to be ‘hipster’ so-to-say.  It’s also not an attempt to exhibit an attitude of musical snobbery, thereby starting a war by pitting the old vs new.  Perhaps it’s the mass-produced feel or often formulaic approach (lyrically & musically) that’s so prevalent in contemporary Christian music which in turn causes me to look elsewhere.

But even more importantly, as I’ve been following the resurgence of interest in the hymn movement or ‘Re-tune hymn’ movement, I’ve realized more and more believers are yearning for something more authentic, more substantive, and more connected to history.  Hymns bridge present day with the past in such real and theological rich ways that many of the contemporary worship songs do not.  They touch on themes that cover a vast array of themes from praise/adoration, the human condition, sorrows & lament, death, assurance, etc.

As a huge proponent of using hymns in a modern context, in the next few posts I’ve decided to outline a few reasons why I believe we should utilize hymns in personal and corporate worship.  These reasons are not new and innovative in any way and have been covered extensively by the likes of Bryan Chapell, Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace, or Zac Hicks of this new(ish) hymn movement.  What I do hope to accomplish with these posts is to provide a basis for why I’ve chosen to utilize hymnals from my experience as a lay worship leader coming from a predominantly CCM environment.

The United States have helped lead the way in ushering this re-tune hymn movement and there exists an explosion of really great churches/artists applying new music to old text and the Psalms.  Here in Canada I believe it’s still in its infancy, but I do see small pockets of churches who are coming onboard and doing really great things.  Hopefully we will be able to follow suit in enriching our view of who Jesus is through these rich hymns from a modern day context. 

State of Evangelical Worship

One of the things I look forward to when going out of town is visiting other churches in the area. Having to visit and worship with Christians in a different city, context, tradition, etc reminds me that the Church is so much bigger than my immediate local congregation back home.  I do believe in the one ‘Catholic’ church (not in the Roman Catholic sense) in that we who profess Jesus as Lord are part of. 

My wife and I were in Kelowna, BC and had decided to visit a local church at one of their evening services. The service was geared towards young adults which was evidenced by young, bearded worship leaders, rock-style stage setup with two electric guitars, dark auditorium lighting and the majority of congregational members in their 20’s.  

My wife and I both knew going into this service that it was geared towards young adults as we had researched before attending.  We ourselves were not too much older than most and thought why not check out the service.  

The service itself started promptly with an opening song driven heavily by the electric guitars, drums, and thumping bass. It was followed by a young lady praying passionately and then a set of songs after. The pastor then started speaking which was followed by a time of prayer, and finally few more songs to end the service. 

A few things I noticed as we walked out the service:

  • Service was very missional focused. It was obvious that impacting the community and the world was a big focus. 
  • Praying seemed to also be a priority. There was ample of time made for the congregation to respond in prayer.
  • I did not recognize much of the music that was sung. In fact I only recognized one song, and even that song, I only vaguely recognized it.
  • Most of the songs, heavily reliant on drums/guitars/bass, were quite repetitive.  Lyrics were generic in nature (I.e. lots of ‘Lifting our voices’, ‘We praise your name’, ‘We are hungry for you’, etc).
  • Scripture was not read once during service. There were anecdotal mentions to stories in the Bible but nothing explicitly was referenced. 

To be fair, the pastor did mention that this service was a little unique in that it was more of a prayer evening for their various ministries.  With that being said, this service was truly indicative of what seemingly is the trend in mainstream evangelical worship circles today, namely moving/emotional music yet vague in structure and lacking in purpose.  Its zeal for experiencing Jesus, prayer, and reaching out to others while all extremely important in our walk, must be grounded in something. This something must be the Bible and to be more specific, the gospel.

As my wife and I were trying to sing along with the songs, I found it in fact more distracting and difficult to worship when most of the lyrics were pretty much all the same, vacuous of meaningful thought.  I do believe this type of repetitive worship is not inherently bad in itself (see Psalms 136 for repetition ad nauseum!) and does have a place in worship. The problem is when it’s the only form of worship. 

As a self-identifying present day Evangelical, I find that we have lots of work to do in changing our approach to worship.  There is freedom in how we worship, but surely there are also guidelines as well (just ask Uzzah in ref. to 1 Sam). Whether we do this liturgically or in a more modern context, our job as worship leaders is to not take lightly how we do worship by grounding it in the Word of God. 

Escapist Worship?

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all my friends, I’m coming too

Coming for to carry me home

As a Canadian, 27-year-old reading the lyrics of this popular African-American Spiritual from the screen of my 15″ Macbook, sipping imported coffee at a local coffee shop (rustic chairs, vintage light bulbs, and baristas with skinny jeans/beanies all-inclusive of course), you can imagine how hard it is for me not to accuse this song of being escapist.  The constant cries to “carry me home”, or to quote another popular hymn “I’ll fly away, When I die Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away” oozes of escapism from this present world.

There is merit in the accusation some of the hymns we sing are escapist in nature.  After all, as believers, we believe God is establishing his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.  We believe Jesus will come back to earth and make things right again, but that life’s toils are not for naught. To merely dismiss this world and its problems seems to minimize life in the here and now.

However, when one considers the origin of these Spirituals, new light can be shed on the whole escapist charge.  Wallis Willis, often attributed as the author of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, was an African slave who worked in adverse conditions.  The gospel message resounded to these African slaves and to make the days bearable, they were allowed by their masters to sing songs while they worked.  The lyrics make reference to not only escaping life here on earth, but also life in the immediate context of slavery.  The constant mentions of “Jordan” or meeting on the “Other Shore” are often thought of as symbols of crossing into the status from slavery to freedom as much as it is this life and the next.

Moreover, the Bible does make room for ‘escapist’ language.  The Psalmist talks about “trouble and sorrow” passing away, and how we will “fly away” (Psalms 90).  Genuine displays of joy, anguish, doubt, and fear are undoubtedly littered in the Psalms. Paul also spoke about desiring to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1) as a means to look forward to life after death.

No one should deny or minimize the hardships here on earth, however, I do believe looking forward to the glorious hope when all things will be made right has a place in our personal and corporate worship.  Amidst contemporary Christian music of today whose lyrics are often time shallow in content, written generally by the privileged, the very real and raw cries of these African-American slaves is a breath of fresh air in worship.

Sunday’s Set List

As I prepped for worship this past Father’s Day weekend, I was drawn to the lyrics of Charitie Bancroft’s popular hymn “Before the Throne of God Above”.  I thought it was a good hymn to utilize for Confession and Assurance of Grace.  The hymn is littered with Scriptural references with the main idea of approaching the throne of God through a “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4).  It’s a beautiful traditional hymn speaking of our need for a “Sinless Savior” to satsify “God the just”.

Our short set this week was:

  1. I Saw the Light – Hank Williams
  2. Before the Throne of God Above – Arranged by Patriot Sails
  3. All Creatures of Our God & King – Arranged by Wen Reagan

Creative Resurgence in Christian Music

I’ve been encouraged lately by the resurgence of Christian music that is lyrically meaningful and musically relevant to the context of today.  Music that pays homage to the past, but at the same time recognizes the need to add our own voices to the present.  Honest, theological, and moving.  There seems to be a shift from today’s mass produced pop Christian music that glosses over much of the rich Biblical truths or simply shallow in its honesty.

Below are some of my current groups/artists who have been influential in my search for fresh and creative Christian music:

Indelible Grace
Led by Kevin Twit, this group was probably one of the first in spearheading the re-tuning hymns movement.  Part of the Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), this group started out singing hymns during fellowship from different hymn writers and later blossomed into multiple albums of traditional hymn covers, re-tuned hymns, and originals.  Kevin Twit had been an incredible wealth of resource for myself, and if you have time should check out some of his seminars on History of Hymnody.

Sandra McCracken 
A student of Kevin Twit, Sandra branched off from RUF to pen gospel/hymn based albums.  Her latest album Psalms consists of re-tuned hymns and originals portraying a raw range of emotions prevalent in the Biblical text.  The music is simple and folk-like with deep truths being propounded.

Mars Hill Music
The famed church of Mark Driscoll was actually doing great things on the Christian music scene.  Led by Dustin Kensrue, Mars Hill had different bands at different times including “The Sing Team”, “Ghost Ship”, “The Modern Post”, “Kings Kaleidoscope” and “Citizens & Saints” .    Their musical style is akin to more of the grunge rock/alternative type which makes sense seeing they are from Seattle – home of the indie music scene.  Their covers of traditional hymns are masterfully thought out in a style that is modern and relevant.

Westside Music
Heavily influenced by Mars Hill Music, their commitment to the hymns of past coupled with fresh arrangements is a breathe of fresh air.  Every chance I’m visiting in Vancouver, I always look forward to attending Westside’s worship services.  I particularly enjoy their commitment to the Communion Table every week – something that’s rare in Evangelical churches.

Sufjan Stevens
Though not explicitly ‘worship-material’ nor necessarily ‘Christian-Themed’, his songs evoke a sense honesty that is rare in Christian music.  Though dark and often explicit in nature, he touches on faith, life, depression, love through hauntingly beautiful melodies/instrumentals.  His latest album “Carrie and Lowell” is perfect depiction of this as he explores his past and struggles being raised by his mom who was dealing with schizophrenia.

Who are some of the groups that you are listening to?

Why Gospel Centered Worship

Throughout different stages of my walk, I’ve often reflected on what worship means.  Being raised in an Evangelical setting influenced heavily by the Pentecostal movement of the 90’s (i.e. Hillsong, Vineyard, etc), worship was generally expounded as phrases which include, “Ascribing worth to God”, “Worship 24/7 – not just Sundays”, “Relationship with Jesus”.  All valid and noble truths.  As a worship leader, my main concern was to generally choose songs that were at a minimum Scripturally sound with the aim to aid the congregation in drawing closer to God.

I had heard of the term ‘Gospel Centered Worship’ before but had not given it much thought as to what it meant let it alone how it would apply.  As my interest in hymnody increased throughout the years, so did my interest in how the church conducted worship in ages past.  Aided with materials by the likes of Bryan Chapell, Matt Boswell, and Kevin Twit, I was enamoured with how different churches throughout history by most part held to the same liturgical structure in their worship services.

What is gospel centered worship?  Bryan Chapell in his book “Christ-Centered Worship” contends that these seven elements are consistent with gospel centered worship:

  1. Recognition of God’s Character (Adoration)
  2. Acknowledgement of our Character (Confession)
  3. Affirmation of Grace (Assurance)
  4. Expression of Devotion (Thanksgiving)
  5. Desire for Aid in Living for God (Petition and Intercession)
  6. Acquiring Knowledge for Pleasing God (Instruction from God’s Word)
  7. Living unto God with His Blessing (Charge and Benediction)

Our worship to our creator needs to have the Gospel as its focal point grounded in Christ’s work.  Others may object to this idea of worship as being too constrained.  Worship is between God and I, and how I worship should not matter. I think this is misguided as I believe God has set out his intentions via guidelines in not only a practical sense as in 1 Timothy 2 for a public worship, but also through key concepts/principles (see Isaiah 6 for Isaiah’s worship to God).

Furthermore, I think it will do us harm if we worship without taking the entire Gospel as our main focus.  How many times have we seen someone solely focus on one aspect of the Gospel at the expense of the other.  If all we do is worship God through “Adoration”, yet neglect the fact that we are sinners or in fact keep living in sin, our worship is not in truth.  Conversely, if all we focus on is “Acquiring Knowledge” (God’s Word) in our worship, it can be easy to lose the joy of expressing our devotion and praise to our King.

The Gospel is not merely a guideline for our worship, but it forces us to respond in each of the ways highlighted above.   Only by understanding firstly who God is, then who we are, and finally what Christ has done, can we truly worship God in spirit and in truth.