I don’t usually write about religious or spiritual matters. You always risk opening up debate when you do because there is such a wide variety of beliefs and practices but I have always believed when God sends an idea your way, no matter how it got to you, it’s something you should listen to.
This morning, a friend whom I have known since I was a child posted something on Facebook about how much she enjoyed the messages of Dr. Charles Stanley and Dr. Benny Tate, both of whom are powerful messengers of God, but she also mentioned how much she missed the old hymns and music that she used to sing. She felt that the new contemporary Christian music was missing the powerful messages conveyed in the old hymns which so many churches have abandoned these days.
I knew immediately what she meant and in the comments that followed, I saw a range of discussion on the merits of both forms of worship music, one form that tells the stories of the Bible in one way and another form that tells them in a different way. Let me say one thing though…whichever form of worship music one prefers, whether traditional or contemporary, I do firmly believe that they are divinely inspired and designed to lead others in the worship of God through music.
As for me, I was raised in the United Methodist Church and have been a member of that denomination my entire life. Church forms some of my earliest memories and has been a consistent force throughout my existence and a large part of that experience is the traditions that accompany worship. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and I can remember sitting with my grandmother in church services that he preached at churches in Rome, Augusta and Clarkdale, his last three appointments. While I don’t remember a lot of what he said so long ago, I remember the music we sang, standing for each hymn while my grandmother held the hymnal so I could see the words to the songs.
She didn’t really look at the page much herself and I marveled at how she seemed to always know the words to each verse as she sang, the book open really more for my benefit than hers. We also sang certain pieces every Sunday, such as “Glory be to Father” and “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”, and we always recited the Apostles Creed and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
When I attended my home church in Jackson, there too we sang the old hymns and the consistency of the Doxology, the Gloria Patri, the Creed and the Prayer were an ever-present part of those services as well, and still are today. Some Sundays I would attend church in Jenkinsburg with my other grandmother and my great-grandmother, both of them also United Methodists, and though the congregation was much smaller and the music flowed from a piano and not a pipe organ, the words were the same, the messages consistent and the feeling of both sung and spoken word was always there. You could feel the power of the Holy Spirit in the beauty of it all.
I’m not sure when I actually began to know the words we sung and spoke by heart each Sunday but it seems I have known the spoken Creed and Prayer my entire life so the point at which I actually learned them exceeds how far back my memory can go. The hymns, learned at the side of at least three generations of ancestors, took hold some time in my single digit years and have become part of that vast repository of music that is stuffed in my overtaxed brain.
For me, the act of worship became something stable and consistent in an ever-changing world. No matter what went on outside those red brick Gothic revival walls I grew up in, I could always count on consistency in worship, just as I could count on consistency in God. Church reminded me of that every Sunday, providing assurance that even though our lives change, our bodies age, our values shift and our priorities reorient, that our God and his love for us is unchanging, ageless and eternal. Over thousands of sermons heard by me, preached by a dozen or more preachers assigned to us, that message was made clear and it was reinforced by a spoken Creed, an offered Prayer, the Liturgy of the Word, the power of a pipe organ, the joyful sounds of a piano and several hundred hymns, most of whom were written by a man named Charles Wesley, who with his brother John founded the Methodist Church.
Listen to what John Wesley said about how hymns should be sung in church, taken from my first hymnal that was printed in 1964 and written by John Wesley in 1761:
- Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
- Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
- Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
- Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it’s being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
- Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you might not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
- Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
- Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you singing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Ok, so that is some pretty heavy instruction on how one should sing in church on Sunday mornings but the message is very clear despite all the wordiness and embellished language of the time: when we sing, our song should glorify God, even if God didn’t see fit to grace everyone equally with a perfect singing voice. I’ve seen an average group of singers come together and make spectacular music together every Sunday and there is a lesson to be learned in this as well: when we worship together collectively, we can accomplish so much that we can’t do by ourselves.
I attended my first contemporary worship service many years ago and had a bad experience that I am sure tainted my views on that form of worship. The preacher was bad, the music was loud and unorganized and the entire service seemed chaotic. To be fair, this was 20 years ago and contemporary worship was still in its infancy, at least in this part of the country. We so often let one bad experience form our views on things and I’ll admit that was largely the case here. I will also admit though that I have been to some very beautiful and uplifting contemporary services in the years since and while I have not strayed from the traditional forms of worship that I love, I have gained new appreciation for contemporary Christian music over the years.
I enjoy listening to it in the car when I drive. Upbeat music, that actually carries a message I can appreciate and relate to, makes for a positive experience and might someday keep me from road raging at another driver, most certainly a very un-Christian act. Many of the songs carry words of hope, encouragement and can be very thought-provoking.
Just yesterday I heard a song called “Someone Worth Dying For” and found it to be possessing of all of those things…hope, encouragement, thought-provoking. The words are quite beautiful:
Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?
Yeah, I want to believe, I want to believe that
I’m not just some wandering soul
That you don’t see and you don’t know
Yeah I want to believe, Jesus help me believe,
That I’m someone worth dying for
Isn’t that something we all want to believe and that we all want to know, deep down inside, that we are all someone that was worth Jesus dying on the cross for? While this particular song doesn’t tell a story in the way that the old hymns I love does, it certainly carries a powerful message and speaks to divine truths that all Christians seek to know and understand. Even though it is different than the form of music I prefer to use in worship, I certainly can’t ignore the message in whatever form it happens to come to me in.
Traditional worship appeals to me for its consistency in an inconsistent world. We all cling to that which is known in the face of that which is unknown and we seek certainty when we are uncertain. When I stand and sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, I not only feel the presence of God close to me but I also feel the presence of people who once stood by me when I sang those songs and who taught me, both directly and indirectly, how to worship God. I find that very comforting. When I hear “He Touched Me”, I think of my grandmother and her four sisters singing that very song in perfect harmony at family reunions long past and they live once again.
When I walk into the sanctuary and see the old familiar red hymn books on the backs of the pews, hear the powerful sounds of the pipe organ, see the images and icons on the stain glass windows and the cross hung high in the center of the chancel loft, I feel at home and at peace. When we recite the words of the Apostles Creed, I feel a bond with generations of Methodists who once sat in those pews but are now sitting before God in Heaven. When we sing a hymn, I enjoy being able to sing at least the first verse while I’m scrambling to find the page in the book and in some cases, not even having to pick up the book.
Yes, I know Christianity is oftentimes about stepping outside of your comfort zone and that is something I do more now than I used to do but sometimes you also need your spiritual batteries recharged and coming back to the places you know, singing the songs you grew up with and reciting the words that affirm your beliefs can be wonderfully refreshing and spiritually restorative.
My beliefs are just one set of beliefs though and in these troubled times, I can appreciate anything that gives hope for the future and peace in the present, that gets the young back in church and off the path to destruction. Whichever your preference, when it comes to the Church, you actually can have it both ways.