This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm that twenty-first-century churches, like the churches of every age, must worship God in their own words, with their own voice. We add the qualification that these expressions must both embody ordinate affection and build on the tradition that represents it, while also answering to the twenty-first-century imagination. We further affirm that all people are to sing with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15) and that good music or poetry may be simple. Finally, we affirm that church music ought to be beautiful.
We deny that musical choices should be made to appease or attract a particular constituency in the church. We deny that the average Christian is capable of appreciating only the simplest kind of music. We deny that good music or poetry worth loving can be shallow, trivial, banal or clichéd. At the same time we also deny that Christians should worship with forms that are incomprehensible to them.
The command to teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is given to all believers of every age. We are to sing to him in 2014, and not only using words written in 1614. We ought to sing to him of our experience in our era, using our own words.
While the sermons of Spurgeon and Edwards are delightful and continue to bless believers, we rightly expect modern preachers to expound the Scriptures to us in their own words, using their own gifting, applying the Word to us in 2014. A church that preached only sermons from a supposed golden age of preaching would be attempting to pickle the religious experience of that time for use at every time. Preaching does not work that way, and neither does singing.
Singing beautiful and truthful songs of yesteryear should always be part of Christian worship. Nevertheless, the command to sing to God in the present implies that believers will be working hard to craft hymns and songs that build upon Scripture and the genuine Christian tradition while nevertheless reporting the experience of believers today. Put simply, if we preach and pray using our own words now, we ought to sing our own poems and compose in our own music now.
The difficulty, as we see it, has to do with the age in which we live. Just as our civilization is experiencing a general decline in the level of reading, writing and speaking, so we are experiencing a decline in sacred music and poetry. Promising signs have appeared during the last two decades, and some of the modern hymn writers have breathed fresh air into what had become a sad repeating jukebox of gospel songs and popular choruses.
Comprehension is fundamental to worship (1 Cor. 14:15). What Protestant would object to Christians reading and worshipping in their own language? In the same way, church music ought to be enjoyable and palatable for the ordinary Christian. The problem is that the general decline of discernment regarding beauty and form has led churchgoers to confound the accessibility of hymns with their value as popular entertainments. Nevertheless, all Christians, regardless of education or background, are capable of apprehending beauty and experiencing the transcendent. Beauty is comprehensible to all, but not everything that is familiar or easily recognizable is beautiful. On the other hand, not everything that is beautiful will be grasped easily or become familiar quickly by the average musical palate.
Because popular music has become sonic wallpaper, people are most familiar with its predictable, formulaic and clichéd musical tricks. These are usually shallow, trivial, and incapable of carrying the weight of worship or expressing the depth and range of feeling that belongs to Christian piety. Simply because people find these expressions familiar and accessible does not mean that they should be most readily used. Rather, present-day composers need to hold the genuine Christian tradition with one hand and the twenty-first-century imagination with the other, seeking to compose in our day a kind of hymnody that will teach the church how to worship God ordinately. We see some indications—perhaps a cloud the size of a man’s hand—of the beginnings of some useful, serious, hymnody that will employ the idioms of our day to evoke affections fitting of our God.