I grew up going to pretty traditional Baptist and Methodist churches. Worship consisted of red hymnals, a choir (sometimes), and a piano. On special occasions we might have what was colloquially called simply a “Singin’” where groups would come from all over and we would have a time of worship focused exclusively on music. In the regular Sunday worship skill and talent were not always highly prized unless you were lucky enough to have a pastor who had some talent of his own. The singin’s, however, brought in men and women who knew how to play and more than anything how to harmonize. Either way, though, it was easy to feel like you were being transported not only into the presence of God but simultaneously into the 1940s or 50s.
It was all good to me, though, for a couple of reason. First, I didn’t know any better. When I did experience what would sometimes be referred to as more “charismatic” worship I was like a deer in the headlights because it was usually accompanied by things like speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit. So, all in all a win for diversity of styles I guess… Secondly, though, I really did feel the Holy Spirit move in those times of worship. Have you ever read the words to some of those old hymns? They’re so deep and pregnant with meaning and emotion. There was a time when Amazing Grace was the Oceans of its day. Now it’s played so often and in so many different contexts that we don’t even hear the words anymore. It’s just holy elevator music.
It is a tragedy of modern worship, in my opinion, that we look back with such scorn at music we refuse to really let work it’s way into our hearts. This does, admittedly, have a lot to do with the delivery, the aforementioned lack of focus on talent and skill, but I think it also has a lot to do with a thoughtless and disrespectful attitude toward the past. I think that we would do well within the body of the church, even those that practice a very progressive style of worship, to consider the lyrics if not the songs themselves in our times of private worship if nothing else. Consider with me, briefly, the lyrics of the fourth verse of Amazing Grace:
“The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures”
Is not a large measure of the Gospel contained within those four little lines? If not the Gospel itself then at least the description of the change to a man’s or woman’s destiny is described therein. It is these things because it was written by such a man, John Newton. If you’ve seen the movie by the same title as the song you’ll have some inkling of what the power of God in his life brought about in the world. His conversion was the first tiny domino that fell in a long process toward the abolition of the Slave trade in England in 1788. The song itself is his autobiography set to music.
Next consider with me a verse from one of my personal favorite hymns, The Battle Hymn of the Republic:
“He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.”
The song starts with a positively apocalyptic view of the conflict it was written for, the US Civil War, but this third verse is as apt a description of how every Christian ought to think about their response to God’s calling on their life as it is that of the northern soldier of the time. In the final verse it contains the words, “As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free…” Again, I’m convicted of my place in His plan of salvation for others, I’m not just hearing a song written for some long past war I’m hearing a song that draws my heart to submission and worship.
Finally I’d like to share with you a verse from my absolute favorite hymn, it’s one I go back to often, A Mighty Fortress is Our God:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.”
This one was written by the great father of the reformation himself, Martin Luther. He struggled with his faith mightily for years within the Catholic Church until he found his calling to reform it. The song is line after line of reassurance of our place in God’s kingdom and under his protection. In a previous line it says that no power on earth is the equal of the devil, yet here he’s saying that one little word will defeat him, because the word comes in a power not of this earth.
You might wonder what this has to do with you. Maybe nothing. Maybe like me you think that both traditional and modern forms of worship have their place and are equally efficacious, if so I appreciate you reading up to this point and would ask that you share this message with friends and family. If you, on the other hand, are an exclusive proponent of one way or the other and spend any of your time poo pooing the one you’re not a fan of I want to tell you this, you are in some way claiming to own something that by rights belongs to God alone and that’s the movement of His Holy Spirit. You pronounce death or disunity on the houses of your brothers and sister over what? Music? Tempo and volume and talent and set lists? I have word for you from the Lord, brothers and sisters, it’s not all about you. It’s not your cup of tea, you say, fine. I grew up in very traditional churches and now my family and I attend a church with a much more progressive style of worship. We offer earplugs at the door to those who can’t handle the volume. I have felt the swell of emotion in both. I have been moved by words and the music in both places.
When the Old Paths sing Beulah Land in that four part harmony I swoon. I am kind of homesick for a country to which I’ve never been before. I also hope that just one time in heaven the angels around the throne of God strike their harps and the sound of an amplified electric guitar comes out. I hope they sing Good, Good Father AND He Walks With Me (even though that’s probably my least favorite hymn I assume the angel will do it right).
Except for the part about it not being all about you this is really all just one man’s opinion about the state of worship as I’ve experienced it. Take it as you will and as I intend it, in love. God Bless.