“Why New Churches Should Sing Old Songs”

I began my Christian and musical journeys the same year: 1975.  As a little five-year-old, the Lord saved me.  In addition, in His sovereign plan I began piano lessons.  Fast forward 37 years, and you will find a woman still in the hand of her Savior and a musician who recognizes that music is but a tool in her hand with which to honor Him . . . both vocationally and in the church.

Years ago, my husband and I were members of a wonderful congregation in which we sought to open their minds to the value of adding contemporary congregational songs to their regular selection of traditional hymns.  It wasn’t easy.  Today, many of us live in a church culture in which we must stand for just the opposite—reintroducing traditional hymns to the church’s modern repertoire.  This isn’t easy either.

There are Christian composers today who write beautiful songs with sound doctrine that are singable in a congregational context.  I am thankful for those people and the music they produce.  Unfortunately, such composers are few and far between.  And so, although I enjoy various styles of contemporary church music, I do advocate the use of traditional hymns in our churches and believe that they should be sung with greater frequency.

Why?  I have two reasons:

1.  “The hymnal is the layman’s systematic theology,”  said Dr. Jonathan Blackmon (our friend and associate professor of music at Missouri Baptist Univeristy) during one of our conversations on this subject.  How right he is.  Basically speaking, systematic theology is the synthesized study of what the Bible teaches on various topics. Of course, the hymnal is not exhaustive on what the Bible teaches, and you may find a few hymns “off” theologically. But, the point is that within a basic hymnal you will find expressions on the doctrine of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, sin, salvation, the church, evangelism, the Christian life, death, end times, and eternity.  Contemporary Christian church music as a whole simply does not hold a candle to the breadth of biblical truth that the hymns convey.  Music is a powerful means of education and memorization.  And so, if we want the Truth poured from our pulpits to steep long and well in the minds, hearts, and lives of our church members, then stir it vigorously with the hymns . . . over and over and over. 

2.  Modern Christians can receive priceless wisdom from their Christian heritage.  It is sad that most modern Christians have little or no knowledge of their brothers and sisters who have walked before them, nor of the encouragement, exhortation, and instruction that they have to give us today.  We are people with a history.  We are a people with a God who did not cease dealing with mankind when the canon closed and then became active again at the moment of the latest church plant or revival.  God has taught and applied the wisdom of His Word throughout the centuries to the lives of believers just like us.  They thoughtfully penned their lessons learned and set them to music so that the ultimate Truth would be repeatedly proclaimed and praised—by their own voices, by their contemporaries, and now by us.  And we say that is irrelevant?  Oh, no.  God’s Word expressed with such care and craft is never irrelevant.  

There’s one more thing I want to mention, especially if you are a church musician.  (And I’m speaking as a contemporary musician myself.)  Just like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London doesn’t need me to hold it up, most hymns don’t need you to musically hold them up, either.  Don’t rearrange hymns so that they become unrecognizable.  Leave the melodies alone—tell your vocalists to sing it like it is.  Leave the lyrics alone—quit adding new, flippant refrains and tags.  And when you rearrange a hymn in a contemporary style, honestly consider whether or not you are enhancing the mood and message of the lyrics.  I know it can be done well, but first ask yourself,  “After singing this hymn, what will be more memorable: the arrangement or its words?”  You will be pleasantly surprised how powerfully your congregation sings a great hymn of the faith when simply accompanied by acoustic piano or guitar.  Give them the musical space to sing boldly.  Listen.  Listen to your people sing.

Well, the name of this blogpost is in quotations because I wrote this post to introduce you to another with this title by Stephen Miller at The Gospel Coalition.  Enjoy . . .

“A B C D E F G

H  I  J  K  LMNOP . . .

You’re singing along, aren’t you? This catchy melody was responsible for teaching you one of the most foundational facts you ever learned.

That’s the way music works. It teaches. It forms us.

We don’t need scientific studies to know that music and melody fuses truth into our memories and intellects. We can all observe how melody infuses meaning, emotions, affections, and experiences into words. It takes lyrics to new heights and depths that they couldn’t go on their own.

As a church musician, I’m not trying to downplay the formative importance of preaching. But I couldn’t tell you the take-home point of two sermons I heard growing up, no matter how clever the preacher’s alliteration. But I still sing “Holy Holy Holy” word for word. I know “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” by heart. “The Solid Rock” is an ever-present companion for me in difficult times. Those songs have given me a vocabulary to express myself. I have learned the truth of God in a way that will stay with me for a lifetime. . . “

To read the rest of this blogpost by Stephen Miller, click here:  Why New Churches Should Sing Old Songs.

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

Almost twenty years ago, I was in an airplane descending to Heathrow Airport, London, England.  We were still far above the clouds, and the sun shone brilliantly.  No words can describe the beauty of the sun’s rays reflecting off the billowy clouds that stretched as far as the eye could see.  It was glorious.

From a previous visit to England, I knew that below the cloud line, the scene was probably quite different.  Most likely, a dreary rain was falling on London, and once on the ground I would see a forboding and gray sky.

As I considered this, I was also reminded of the trials that awaited me below the clouds.  I knew that in many respects, England was a dark, spiritual wasteland in which I would encounter various challenges while assisting missionaries and churches for the summer.  Yet, the glory of the sun above the clouds reminded me that no matter what happened below, God was still on His throne—victoriously and gloriously reigning over all.

I shared this story with my children this morning as we were considering how God providentially carries out His decrees, not only for individuals, but nations as well.  In Genesis, we find that God had foreordained every detail of Joseph’s tumultuous life for the good of the nation Israel.  After rising to second in command in Egypt and successfully preparing the country to endure a famine, Joseph said the following to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery years earlier:

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”  (Genesis 50:20)

God was sovereign over even the “bad” that occurred in Joseph’s life in order to accomplish His benevolent purposes.  Joseph did not look at his life-altering trials with anger, bitterness, or dismay.  He saw them as part of the intricately woven  plan of God’s good for His people. 

William Cowper (1731-1800) expounded on these truths as He wrote the words to the hymn titled “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”  As our family has been singing this hymn, I have been encouraged by the simple and beautiful language that Cowper uses to describe the Lord’s providence in our lives.  I especially take heart with knowing that the “clouds” I dread are “big with mercy.”  I share this with you so that you, too, may be encouraged as you read, sing, and ponder.  (These words can be sung to the tune “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.”)

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.

You fearful saints, fresh courage take: The clouds you so much dread are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.