Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Church Music

The lyrics of the hymns and praise and worship songs of the church are, outside of the Bible, the way most people establish their belief system, which is reflected in the way they think about and live their faith. The lyrics may be good or bad, perceptive or trite, and may or may not teach sound theological concepts. Christians should carefully consider what they are singing because it shapes their theological perspective whether they realize it or not.

S.T. Kimbrough, Jr. stated:

“The hymns of the church are theology. They are theological statements: the church’s lyrical, theological commentaries on Scripture, liturgy, faith, action, and hosts of other subjects which call the reader and singer to faith, life, and Christian practice.”

A Look at the Theology of a Few of the Most Famous Hymns

Let’s look at a few of the most famous hymns of the Christian faith to determine the theology concepts that they are teaching us:

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is about God the Father’s great faithfulness.

In “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” the lyricist, Charles Wesley, or the singer of the hymn is amazed by the love that is exhibited by his God, Jesus dying for him.

“Holy, Holy, Holy” praises not only “Lord God Almighty,” but also “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

One of the most famous hymns textually and melodically, “Amazing Grace,” is about a wretched sinner receiving the “grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved” (also see “Amazing Grace {My Chains Are Gone}” below).

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is the famous Martin Luther hymn that is most often sung to the powerful German tune, “Ein feste Burg.” When most worshippers sing this hymn, they are most likely thinking as much or more about Jesus as about God because they consider them one. The second verse mentions “the right man” being on our side, “the man of God’s own choosing” – obviously a reference to Jesus.

Even in “How Great Thou Art,” when the lyrics of verses one and two speak about the God who created the universe, most Christian don’t see any problem with including Jesus because, according to John’s gospel, Jesus was with God from the beginning of time and helped create everything. The chorus mentions “my Savior God,” and the third and fourth verses are definitely about God sending his Son and Christ taking the believer to heaven.

My hope is that congregations think only or at least primarily of God when they sing “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but I’m not confident that is true because of the prevalent belief that Jesus was co-existent with God from the beginning of time.
Many other very familiar hymn texts are primarily or exclusively about Jesus: “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” “Victory in Jesus,” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” to name a few. Many hymns that seem to be primarily about God include mentions or verses about Jesus.

A Look at the Theology of a Few Famous Praise and Worship Songs

The psalmist urges us to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1). What did the psalmist mean? The lyrics of hymns and praise songs should be in the language of the time – the vernacular of the people. Every age must use the best texts and the best music of the past and present to express the gospel to their congregation of seekers and believers.

A lot of contemporary worship music raises some questions, however. Does this generation have special needs that cannot be met except through Hallmark-card-theology? Is it enough to mesmerize the worshipers with a popular “7-11 praise song” (a praise song in which the same 7 words are repeated 11 times)? Should we base our decision about where to go to church solely, or almost completely, on the music (i.e. praise and worship songs accompanied by a band vs. hymns accompanied by piano or organ)? Is worship really better if we sing “Shout to the Lord” accompanied by a band than if we sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” accompanied by piano or organ? Is choosing a church based upon the music saying that the presentation is most important thing in a worship experience? If our secular culture prefers “the devil’s music,” should we simply make a Christian version of it to appeal to secular culture? If growth occurs in the churches that use praise and worship songs, is the music responsible for that growth? If so, should we be suspicious of that growth and ask if the emphasis is misplaced?
Let’s examine the theological concepts that are presented in a few of the top praise and worship songs licensed by CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) for the week of August 24, 2011:

The lyrics of “How Great Is Our God” praise the Trinity: the “Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son.”

“Mighty to Save” declares that “my God is mighty to save,” but the God in the lyrics is Jesus: “He rose and conquered the grave… for the glory of the risen king.”

“Our God” sings about Jesus turning water into wine and opening the eyes of the blind. This God is greater, stronger and higher than any other; he is a healer with awesome power. Obviously, the writers’ God is Jesus.

“Blessed Be Your Name” is blessing “the Lord,” but even though it is not clear whether the lyrics are blessing God or Jesus, it is most likely that it is blessing both since most of the congregations that sing these praise and worship songs are evangelical and fundamentalist in their theology.

The lyrics of “Here I Am to Worship” are a bit ambiguous as far as whether they are about God or Jesus until, “Humbly you came to the earth you created; all for love’s sake became poor.” Theologically, it says God came to earth in the form of Jesus and Jesus co-existed with God from the beginning of creation.

The chorus of “Revelation Song” is “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come,” and the verse is about the lamb who is worthy and who was slain… the King of Kings… King of heaven and earth, King Jesus. One might think that the first part is about God, but the second is definitely about Jesus, so the writer is most likely equating them.

“Everlasting God” is relatively ambiguous lyric-wise, but like the others is most likely referring to Jesus as “the everlasting God” who doesn’t faint or grow weary.

“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” combines the famous Christian hymn written by English poet and clergyman, John Newton, which was published in 1779, with new or extra lyrics about the “unending love” that set the singer free from their chains.

There is no doubt about the subject of the lyrics for “Jesus Messiah.”

It appears on the surface, at least, that the lyrics of “Your Grace Is Enough” are about God: “Great is your love and justice God of Jacob.”

In the following lyrics from “A Mighty Fortress,” God is most likely both the Father and the Son, equally divine deities (see “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” above):

“Our God is a consuming fire, a burning holy Flame, with glory and freedom; Our God is the only righteous judge, ruling over us with kindness and wisdom… A mighty fortress is our God, a sacred refuge is Your Name; Your Kingdom is unshakable, with you forever we will reign.”

Similarly, when people sing the refrain of “Awesome God,” if they think about it at all, they consider God the Father and Jesus the Son the awesome God:

“Our God is an awesome God; He reigns from heaven above;
With wisdom, pow’r and love, our God is an awesome God.”

Another theological problem with this lyric for me is “He reigns from heaven above.” God is here, now, around us, and in us; God is not in some distant heavenly realm. Also God is not necessarily a male. Otherwise, I thoroughly agree that God is awesome!

Difference Between Hymns and Praise Choruses

The following story humorously describes the different between hymns and choruses:
An elderly farmer went to the city one weekend where he attended the big city church. When he returned home, his wife asked about his experience.

“Well,” the man said, “it was good, but they did something different. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”

“Praise choruses?” his wife questioned. “What’s that?”

“Oh, they’re sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

Her husband explained, “Well, if I said “Martha, the cows are in the corn” that would be a hymn. But if I said: “Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, Martha, Martha, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the cows, cows, cows are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, the corn, corn, corn.” And then, if I repeated the whole thing two or three times, that would be a praise chorus.

On another occasion, a young Christian traveled from the city to the country where he attended a small town church. When he returned home, his mother asked about his experience.

“Well,” said the young man, “it was good, but they did something different. They sang hymns.”

“Hymns?” asked his mother. “What’s that?”

“Oh, they’re sort of like regular songs, only different,” answered the young man.

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his mother.

The young man explained, “Well, if I said: ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn’ that would be a regular song. But if I said: ‘Oh Martha, hear thou my cry; Incline thine ear to my words; Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear to the righteous, glorious truth. For the way of the animals who can explain; In their heads is no shadow of sense. Yea, those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight have broken their shackles, and their pens eschewed; Then goaded by the minions of darkness They on my sweet corn have feasted. We must wait for the sweet by and by When all foul corruptions of earth are done; Where no vicious animals make my soul cry, And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.’ Then if I were to do only verses one, two, and four and do a key change on the last verse, that would be a hymn.”

Conclusion

If we are not careful, methodology – what we choose to do – can become theology – what we believe about God and what we believe God endorses. The danger comes when theological malarkey is made up to justify the methodology.
Contemporary worship that takes place in many churches today is “focused on God without ritualizing it…” It is meant to “exalt Jesus.” Notice that the previous quotes contend that God is the focus of worship, but Jesus is to be exalted – they are considered inseparable, they are one.

“The focus for all praise and musical worship is God. Praise is God-centered… The themes are God in His holy heavens, set apart, inaccessible, unreachable, completely and highly exalted above all creation.” Notice that the author of this quote thinks that God is completely removed from humanity; God is in heaven where he – male – is inaccessible and unreachable. That certainly isn’t my concept of God.

Obviously, I do not equate God and Jesus; I believe they are two completely separate entities (please see “Are God and Jesus the Same?” in my article about Jesus). One of the earliest and most widespread Christian heresies, Docetism, affirmed that even though Jesus appeared to be human, he was really God. Even though the concept is heretical, it is still alive and well in the Christian church and is prevalent in many, if not most, of the church’s hymns and praise and worship songs. If God created Jesus, then Jesus is separate and distinct from God. Jesus called God Father – i.e. God existed prior to the son. As much as I might preach about what I think is a dangerous theological idea, perhaps even a heresy, I feel fairly certain that my thoughts land on deaf ears and closed minds.

As we mature in Christ, we should look for more meaty theological concepts in our worship music. Shouldn’t our worship be focused on pleasing God, rather than on pleasing the secular world? Shouldn’t we become more eclectic in our choice of worship music (high church, traditional, contemporary or a little bit of all of these)? Are churches that only sing hymns telling the younger generation of praise and worship song lovers, “You are not welcome here” and visa versa? On the other hand, do the churches that only sing hymns think they are appropriate because Jesus sang these hymns (of course, he didn’t)? Are all hymns stale? Many hymns are theologically sound and the same can be said of many choruses (p&w songs), so the most important factor is choosing the right ones.

Since what we sing in church shapes our theology, we need to be especially aware of what we sing.

Review & Commentary

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