...and now, by request...
I received one of those notes the other day. The kind that worship pastors or leaders receive from time to time but on a regular basis:
“Please, please, may we have more hymns!”
I received almost the same anonymous note in the same handwriting nearly six months ago. Only this time, the author mailed it to me; again, anonymously.
My policy has always been to ignore anonymous notes because they are often intentionally hurtful and I have no way of interpreting (not knowing the context) or responding to them. The intent of this older lady (I know the approximate age and gender because of the style of the handwriting) was certainly not hurtful. But she is frustrated and persistent! I only wish I had her name so that I could respond personally. Lacking that opening, I have taken the note as an opportunity to share my sense of calling as a worship designer/leader/pastor.
In direct response to her, I would have asked, “What do you mean by ‘hymns’?” I’m almost certain that she attends our traditional service in which we rarely sing anything but hymns. Obviously, we don’t share the same language. My hunch is that by “hymns” she means the well-known ones that she traditionally sang or Gospel Hymns. I am more than happy to sing well-known traditional hymns like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty or Immortal, Invisible when they fit the flow and progression of the service. We are fortunate to have Hope’s hymnal, Worship and Rejoice. It is full of wonderful new and modern hymn texts set to traditional tunes. We sing a lot of those, which I suspect frustrates her.
Gospel Hymns are songs that typically have several verses and a repeatable refrain. We don’t sing a lot of Gospel Hymns (though we do from time to time) because they are typically testimonial personal songs that were written purposely for evangelistically-oriented services. I know that Gospel Hymns are the preferred genre for Baptist-type folk over the age of seventy. It’s what they grew up on. (So did I.) Gospel Hymns are the genre that resonates in their soul. I was not surprised a couple of months ago when several of us sponsored a hymn sing at a local retirement home and all but two of the songs chosen to be sung were Gospel Hymns.
The desire to “sing the old songs” is primarily sentimental, an urge that I strongly resist in designing worship services. Sentimentalism seeks to retrieve a feeling that we had in the past arising out of a meaningful experience. Most hymnologists or liturgists reject sentimentalism outright in corporate worship. I generally agree, but because those meaningful experiences are often monuments to God’s work in people’s lives, I think there is a place for some sentimentalism within the Body of Christ. Sentimentalism as a function of spiritual memory is not a sin; it’s part of human nature. But being a universal experience in fallen human nature, sentimentalism can also be insistently self-serving, in which case it does become sinful.
For those readers who are confused by what I just wrote – I’m arguing with myself. I do it all the time. It’s part of living with tension. Don’t worry. It will work out. There is a place for singing sentimental songs for Christians, though generally not in corporate worship. And I will unveil what I think might be a helpful proposal at the end of this blog.
But on to more foundational issues…
The Role and Responsibility of Those Who Plan Worship Songs
Martin Luther once wrote, “I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart…the devil flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God.” A high and lofty role for church music, indeed! Perhaps even more to the core of my conviction, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to “let the word of Christ dwell richly within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16 NASB).
What we sing does matter in the spiritual formation equation. Song repertoire is one of the most powerful shapers of our spiritual understanding. In the Church’s song we express the story and truth of the full Gospel and do it in a way that engages our whole being: body, mind, and spirit. All that we do in corporate worship should form us into maturing disciples of Christ, whether it is singing, prayer, giving of our offerings, hearing the spoken Word, the Lord’s Table, even greeting one another. Singing is only one of several meaningful elements within Christian worship. And I affirm, along with Paul and Martin Luther, that it is a wonderful gift and powerful medium in proclaiming God’s Story of which we have been cast as players.
Most people in the free church/revivalist tradition do not understand these dynamics. I have been told all my life that the role of music in corporate worship was “to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the message.” That’s what Ira Sankey did for D.L. Moody. Homer Rodeheaver did it for Billy Sunday and Cliff Barrows was the warm-up for Billy Graham.
I reject that role.
I do not disagree that music has the power to move people. That is one of its fundamental gifts. But music in corporate worship is more; much more because it carries the Gospel itself, with all its transforming power. Like the sermon or even the Lord’s Table, the song of the Church has intrinsic worth. When we prescribe and limit the role of worship music to “preparing hearts to receive the message,” we strip it of its formational power and prostitute it as manipulation. And yet for many church folk and even ministers in our tradition, that is exactly what is expected of a worship leader or church musician who selects the songs for corporate worship.
There are not many who ask the preaching pastor for a favorite sermon or a message on a favored topic. I know it happens, but probably not as often as favorite song requests are submitted. I’m not suggesting that the songs we sing are more important than the Word that is preached. It is not necessary or helpful to compare. Worship always springs from God’s Word. But just as the sermon has worth because it is God’s Word and has transformational power, so the song of the Church also has worth because, it too, often carries God’s Word and has transformational power. The point it simply this: to preach is a pastoral burden and responsibility; selecting the music we sing is nothing less. Selecting music and designing corporate worship is a pastoral role and responsibility that worship leaders need to embrace and the Church needs to understand.
Sounds like clericalism – only the professionals should do it – a premise that Baptists have always rejected. Frankly, that’s why I’m writing this post. I want us to understand the vital importance of selecting the music we sing and empower others to do it. While I have labeled that task as “pastoral,” I don’t mean it in a professional sense. It is “pastoral” in that it is a role that has a responsibility for the spiritual nurture of the church. My role as a “pastor” is to equip others to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12). If I could have it the way that Paul describes, I would love to share and lay this burden on others who understand the weight and nature of the role of worship planning.
So what to do with requests? I listen and consider if the song can serve the Body of Christ in shaping us into more mature disciples. My first criterion is the text and whether or not it is biblically true and secondly, whether or not it has value as literature. Sometimes I’ll even use poor poetry if the theology is exceptionally strong. But I know, in the end, the song won’t have staying power because of its literary flaws. My next criterion is whether or not it is a good song musically – especially the singability of the melody. Third, I try and determine if the song is in the musical vocabulary of our people. Or if it is not, does the value of the text/music justify using it even though it will stretch our people? I don’t use many of those songs. Finally, especially with contemporary music, I have to determine whether or not our band can play it effectively. All of those criteria are carefully and prayerfully measured before I choose to use any song.
What about those “hymns?”
OK. What about sentimentalism – singing those favorites? What about the lady who is pleading for more hymns, however she defines them? There is a place in the church for sentimentalism because it causes the singer to relive a moment or a time that often was formational in their spiritual walk. I don’t do it in corporate worship because the focus is on the individual rather than God. But I think as a pastoral gesture – that is, caring for and nurturing the souls of those in the church – it would be appropriate to have casual hymn sing-a-longs where people get together and choose their favorites to sing. As a musician and a person who knows a lot about hymns, I could also add some stories or history to enhance the experience.
I’m a pastor. In a sense - a spiritual father. I have a responsibility to “feed the flock” good food. To be kind and nurturing to those for whom I am responsible before God (I Peter 5:1-3). I think sponsoring hymn-sings from time to time might alleviate the frustration of my anonymous friend and those like her as well as serve a spiritual purpose.