Calling all worship-leaders
An appeal to anyone who has responsibility for choosing worship material: Give us breadth! Give us variety! Long hymns and short songs. Happy songs and sad songs. Bouncy tunes and peaceful tunes. Ancient hymns and modern. By Colin Sedgwick
Image | Tyler Callahan | Unsplash
O joy! O bliss!...
I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth. As usual, I flick the radio on - and what do I hear? People singing! Of course, it’s the regular Sunday morning service! And what gives me such delight are the words…
Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts,/ Thou fount of life, Thou light of men;/ From the best bliss that earth imparts,/ We turn unfilled to Thee again.
I know it well, from teenage years. It dates from the twelfth century, and was originally written in Latin, possibly by Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk of the Cistercian order. It was translated into English in the nineteenth century.
There are five verses, and they just get better and better, finishing with this beautiful prayer…
O Jesus, ever with us stay,/ Make all our moments calm and bright,/ Chase the dark night of sin away,/ Shed o’er the world Thy holy light.
I find myself asking “How long is it since I last sung that hymn?” I’ve no idea, but it must be many years. And I can’t help thinking, “What a loss that is! How sad that is!” True, the language is archaic, even in translation. True, there are plenty of Thee’s and Thou’s. True, there’s a reference to “men” in a way that jars in 2021.
But even given all that, I find it hard to imagine any Christian person whose heart would not be stirred by these ancient words.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not about to launch into an older person’s diatribe against modern Christian music. Far from it. No: over the years I’ve done my share of strumming (how pleased I was with the half-dozen chords I learned to play! – and how glad you should be that I didn’t keep it up).
But that moment, toothbrush in hand and mouth sputtering froth, I was acutely aware of how richly some of these old hymns have fed into my life as I grew as a Christian. And how I miss them now, even though they are still part of my spiritual DNA.
Paul tells the Christians of Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…”, to “sing and make music from your hearts to the Lord…” (5:19).
It’s interesting that he lists three different types of sung worship. Quite likely, of course, “psalms” refers to the Old Testament psalms – we know from various parts of the New Testament that the first Christians made good use of them in praising Jesus. But who knows what the difference was between “hymns” and “spiritual songs” (if any)?
Of course it doesn’t matter. But what it certainly suggests is that Paul expected a variety of idioms to be used. And if that is so, why should any type of material be regarded as not usable? (Didn’t William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, ask the question, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”) Yet experience of various churches suggests to me that the range of material has become sadly narrow.
There are churches (though I suspect not many in Baptist circles) where nothing is used but stuff that has stood the test of time: decades if not centuries. That’s not good. But in others, it is purely modern stuff, and that’s not good either: I attended a service once where nothing at all was sung but what had been produced “in house”, which had the effect of guaranteeing that outsiders were familiar with precisely nothing. (It was a church rich in very gifted musicians; but, hey, there was a congregation present, not just an audience.)
I suppose what I’m writing is in effect an appeal to anyone who has responsibility for choosing worship material. Give us breadth! Give us variety! Long hymns and short songs. Happy songs and sad songs. Bouncy tunes and peaceful tunes. Ancient hymns and modern.
Give us stuff that connects us with history long-past, like the one they were singing on the radio that day. Christianity existed before 2000! Christianity even existed before the Reformation!
I would add too – not too many “me” songs and hymns, please. There is certainly a place for what you might call “personal testimony” songs; but give us also plenty of stuff which focuses on the greatness of God himself and not just what has happened to me.
To limit the range too narrowly is to impoverish the modern church, and to deprive new Christians of what should be their birthright - like taking an urn of rich, nourishing milk, skimming a bit off the top and tipping the rest down the drain. What a waste!
If you decide to take up my suggestion, I would add another plea: Please don’t do so in order to “keep the older people happy”.
No! No! That would be patronising, and would completely miss the point anyway. No; if you decide to broaden the range, do it not in order to keep any group or faction happy; do it in order to keep the church as a whole healthy!
We taste Thee, O Thou living bread,/ And yearn to feast upon Thee still;/ We drink of Thee, the fountain-head,/ And thirst, our souls from Thee to fill… Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for the two thousand year history of your church. Please enlarge our vision and broaden our spiritual horizons by the moving of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com
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