My wife and I saw a wonderful play last night in Los Angeles: The Trip to Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson as Mrs. Carrie Watts. In one of the scenes, Mama Watts who loves to sing hymns begins to sing songs of comfort as she journeys back to her hometown of Bountiful. She sings Blessed Assurance. As she sings, and another actor sing as well, the audience begins to sing along. From deep in the memory banks of us theatre goers, we sing, breaking down the wall between actor and audience. Then hauntingly, Mama Watts begins to sing another hymn: Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling. Once again the audience sings along wrapped up in the power of this gospel hymn.
Music is powerful. It touches the deepest parts of us. It expresses our joys and sorrow and fears. It shouts out in praise. It offers comfort. No wonder music opens us up to our worship of God, and also leads to the conflict of worship wars in congregations.
Wilbert Shenk reminds us that the World Council of Churches leader Hoekendijk once said, a bit tongue in check, that an awakened church that is authentic within the context of cultural diversity will have the following characteristics: 1) It has developed its own way of sharing its faith in Jesus with other people 2) It is composing and singing its own songs 3) It conducts ecclesial life in a culturally appropriate, rather than exotic manner, 4)It manages to spawn a heresy or two .
An awakening church produces its own songs. We have seen this over the sweep of church history: Martin Luther’s music in the Reformation, Charles Wesley putting his brother John’s theology to song, the music of American revivalism with Fanny Crosby and others, the music coming out of my pietistic tradition (Children of the Heavenly Father, Day by Day), the songs of the Jesus people and Calvary Chapel’s Maranatha music, the songs of the Vineyard and Hillsong. Music is powerful and helps to shape the church.
Paul tells the church in Ephesians 5:19: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts. Commentators are certain what Paul meant by psalms, hymns and songs, but here is my best thought.
Psalms refers to the book of Psalms, the prayerbook of the Bible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, NT Wright and others have encouraged the church and Christians to let the Psalms live again. Psalms should be a part of our daily lives as followers of Jesus. Psalms should be a part of the weekly worship of the church.
Hymns are the bedrock music of the church. Set to music, we sing our theology. The singing opens up another part of our mind and heart to the wonder of who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Ancient hymns, contemporary hymns and everything in-between. We sing and proclaim and pray.
Spiritual songs is the music of the heart. Sometimes simple words are used to express our love for God. What we find hard say finds expression in our songs–revival songs, gospel songs, praise choruses
We need to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in church. We need all three types of song.
Two more thoughts:
1. Our music connects us with our story–times with family or the family of God, remembering the music that was part of revival meetings, or a wedding, or a funeral. When we change up our music, or eliminate some music, it impacts our heart language. No wonder music issues leads to tough times in churches.
2. Worship leaders and pastors need to examine the songs we sing. Some songs have horrible theology–those songs simply should not be a part of worship in the church.
An old woman starts singing gospel songs in a play in downtown LA; something magical happened in the theatre. Music is powerful. It touches the deepest parts of our humanity. Music is a rich part of what happens as God’s people gather to worship. Our worship needs to be thoughtful–full of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.