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Songs That Speak

by Tim O'Hearn

I recently heard on the radio a current singer of the genre now known as Christian music discussing one of his songs. He was a preacher’s kid, and once asked why they always only sang the same old songs. Why didn’t they sing songs that spoke to him? It is a valid question, and one of his answers was that as he grew up he started writing and singing songs from his heart. Not everyone can do that successfully, however. For most people the question remains.

(Author’s note: this article is more of a discussion of how I see music in the church, rather than a discussion of what the Bible says music in the church should be. Also, this discussion is mostly about the words, since some music may be excellent but people are not even aware there were once words to it.)

There are a couple of possible answers to this singer’s question of why the church doesn’t sing songs that speak to him. Some relate to the listener, and others to the songs. The listener

One answer, particularly if it is a child asking the question, is that you are not letting the songs speak to you.In congregational singing, the words are speaking to “us,” not me. There is a reason that the “old” songs are still around. They have stood the test of time. Hundreds of songs have not, and we have yet to see which of the contemporary songs will do so. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a new mass practically every week, yet even the most ardent Bach fan is only familiar with a small portion of the music he wrote. When you write that much music, even if your name is Bach, some of it is not so good, and some may even be downright bad. Only the good stuff lasts. So it is with the more popular hymns. They last because, for the most part, they are good; they “speak to” a majority of people over the years. If, then, they have stood the test of time, perhaps some do not hit the mark with a listener because he is not listening. “They have ears but they hear not.” (Ps 115:6)

That is not to say that all the older hymns will address every individual’s concerns. Some songs may not apply at the time, but may become beloved after other circumstances. Not every song on every contemporary album becomes a hit, but even the “B sides” may be popular with a few people. They obviously had meaning to the writers. This is true with any written work. I have tried three times to get into Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment. Both are great novels, but not for me. Some songs may be great for the majority of a congregation, but not for some people (regardless of age). Even if this is true, however, some of the older hymns should be popular among young people. It is my experience that this is true; even some song leaders as young as ten years old will choose a mix of older and contemporary songs.

In one other sense, the song writer I mentioned at the first has a valid statement. “The older songs don’t speak to me.” What he fails to realize is that in congregational singing, the words are speaking to “us,” not me. A congregation sings as a congregation, a corporate entity. In singing we are to be “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” (Col 3:16) This is a group teaching, just as when a preacher targets his sermon to one person the majority gets ignored. Most contemporary Christian music on the radio is very personal. There is nothing wrong with that. It does mean, however, that most of these songs are inappropriate for congregational singing. The songs

On the other side of the coin, though, there may be a fault with some of the songs. Americans in general think the plays of Shakspere are boring. Part of this is because they are forced to read, rather than hear/see the plays. Part of this is because language has changed in the past 400 years. It is the same reason that we have newer translations than the King James Version of the Bible. The same principle is true with songs, as well. Even though they have an excellent and biblical message, some of the older songs should be retired because their language is outdated. (When was the last time more than a handful of rural church members actually brought in sheaves? Or even know what a sheaf is?)

Until the middle 1800s, even American English retained a separate first person singular pronoun: thou instead of you. Even after the various forms of “thou” disappeared from common speech (except among some groups such as the Quakers and Amish), they were retained in hymnody. Many of the older popular hymns still use the distinctive second person singular pronoun. Thus we have O, Thou Fount of Every Blessing or I am Thine, O Lord. Even some contemporary writers try to use these words, often without an understanding of proper grammar. Thus you get phrases like “thou were,” rather than “thou wert.” A popular version of As the Deer mixes archaic and modern. “My soul pants after thee. You alone….” When the language gets so old, or so ungrammatical, perhaps those songs should be removed from the repertoire. “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Cor 14:15)

Other songs have been popular, but discerning people realize that they contain a faulty message. Sometimes it isn’t theologically significant. In The Days of Elijah, for instance, the lyric speaks of “David, rebuilding a temple of praise.” To be scripturally correct it might be better to say that David was “preparing a temple,” since you can’t rebuild something that you were specifically forbidden to build in the first place. Other songs may have had their day, but people have realized over time that they really had an unscriptural message. Fortunately most of these songs have quickly died out. I knew a person who did not like to sing In the Garden because she objected to the validity of the lines, “And the joy we share as we tarry there/ None other has ever known.” After all, Jesus said, “And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (Jn 17:13) His full joy is for everyone, not one individual. Others object to the reference to a “double cure” in Rock of Ages, since this is based on a purely Calvinist construction of justification. Nevertheless, while some songs may be un-scriptural, most that last are, fortunately, not anti-scriptural.

Is contemporary music any better? As said earlier, we will have to wait for the test of time on some songs. Nevertheless, there seems to be a certain trend toward dumbing down the audience. There is one contemporary version of an older hymn that throws out a perfectly good melody for one that consists of basically four notes (a glorified bass line). Much of what is written today is strong on emotion and weak on doctrine. Many people are being raised on a diet of water instead of “the sincere milk of the word.” (1 Pet 2:2) The greater tendency is toward laziness in writing lyrics. Some people refer to some of the newer songs as “7-11” songs; the same seven words repeated eleven times. Nor is this far from wrong. I have a (bad?) habit of listening to some songs and counting the repetitions. One song refers to “these four words” and then follows it with twelve words (four words repeated three times). The record so far is nine “on the move”s, only three of which are preceded by “God is.” While “God is on the move” may be a perfectly valid sentiment, repeating the phrase that many times in one chorus is lazy writing, and lazy writing in hymns and spiritual songs tends to lead to lazy listening and even lazy following.

That is not to say that contemporary song writing is worse than the older hymns. It is probably an indication that we are more exposed to the good and bad before the bad is weeded out. There are some excellent newer songs. The claim has been made that more people have sung the music of Chris Tomlin than any other song writer. Part of that is because his music is sung by whole congregations of people; but part is because he has written some very good songs. He himself could probably list a number of his songs, though, that have not become popular; they just were not that good, either musically or lyrically. Some of the songs being written today will last (hopefully some of them with better vocal arrangements). Others will disappear. That is evident even in a short time of listening to Christian radio. Songs that hit the top 40 today may never be played again after they have had their week or two of fame. Others have been played long after their “top 40” status has disappeared.

I said I was talking mostly about the words we sing. There is one aspect, though, in which the music itself must be addressed. With the advent of Christian radio, most of the popular songs today are written for a band. One problem with this is that these songs do not translate well into congregational hymns. Many of the older hymns were either written for four-part harmony, or were written as melodies and adapted to such harmonies. Many of the contemporary songs are written with a band in mind. There are pauses for instrumental licks. In some cases there is no thought to harmonic arrangements, and inWe will have to wait for the test of time on some songs. some cases not even to a melody singable by the average person. Because of the popularity of the recorded arrangement, even transposing it down into a more acceptable key makes it sound strange. There are pauses for instrumental licks which make for awkward pauses if the song is rearranged for congregational singing without instruments. (Yes, there are still many of us in various traditions that opt for a capella singing.)

So what does all this mean? There are a few things a church can do to meet the needs of all of its members. These suggestions are tailored to the Church of Christ because that is what I am familiar with, and because those churches have long had a reputation for good singing and scripture-based teaching. First, a church should understand that their members have different needs. They should include a good mix of older and newer songs, based on the age and ability of their membership. In a tradition in which there may be a different song/worship leader each week, this shouldn’t be hard (especially if young men are taught to be leaders.) Second, teach what is good; not just what makes good music, but what is also good from the scriptures. It is as easy to sing a lie as it is to preach one. Third, just because it is popular on the radio doesn’t mean it should be sung in the assembly. There are some very good songs that are good for private singing that just do not fit the assembly setting. Our songs should “speak” to us, and it would be wrong to leave out a large portion of the membership in that singing. But it is equally wrong to concentrate on ourselves to the exclusion of others.