Hymn Wars: What our contemporary worship lacks

There are some internal Christian disagreements that raise their head just when you least expect them to.  Worship wars is one of them. There has been a long history of seeing the contemporary music of your era as deficient to tradition and compromised. At the same time, those writing newer hymns and songs have determinedly sought to combine Biblically based lyrics with the music of their time.

In a lot of evangelical churches now, you wouldn’t think twice about singing a contemporary worship song or two followed by a more traditional hymn.  Indeed, some of our most popular contemporary songs have taken the lyrics to older hymns and reintroduced them with new music and additional words.  I suspect many people coming to church, especially those converted from outside of Christian culture wouldn’t necessarily notice the difference.

However, from time to time, the battle does go live again. There was a recent skirmish of sorts on Twitter only this weekend.  It started with this comment and follow up.

Now, I want to declare my hand up front. I love the older hymns, in fact they are probably in the main my personal preference. However, I also enjoy contemporary worship as well. I do think that songs written in the last 5-10 years have something to offer in terms of a “nowness” and a freshness to our worship.[1]  My initial response was to suggest that in fact, contemporary worship does cover a wide range of themes.  I also suggested that we would do better to recognise what it contributes than to decry what it misses. If our current repertoire has gaps in it then we can write new songs or draw from the past. It isn’t actually that big a deal.

In any case the heavy weights got involved, including Daniel Johnson who is currently researching a PHD on the hymn writing of Isaac Watts. This was his take. 

It led to him being asked for his opinion on why this is the case to which he responded.

I think Daniel makes some good points but I also wanted to share some personal thoughts.  I want to suggest that if the older hymn writers were first and foremost pastors – indeed, I would say they were pastor-theologians – then if there is a deficiency in our contemporary worship diet then perhaps that lies with us as pastors, theologians and preachers.  We may do okay at speaking in prose but where is the poetry. 

If there isn’t a sense of poetry as we preach then we are unlikely to write poetry that becomes hymns and our congregation members are also unlikely to as well.  Now, that’s not just about having the ability to turn words into stanzas with metre and rhyme (although that obviously helps), rather it is the sense that what we say should have a melody, our words should sing.

Part of the problem is that we have become so effective and efficient at our teaching. We learn to identify the main theme and we have trained ourselves to get quickly to application for the weeks ahead. Those are both good things to aim for. However, do we also allow ourselves to be caught by the beauty and wonder of Scripture. Do we have space for curiosity as we puzzle over and wrestle with a particular word, phrase, verse or event?  Whilst making the main point, do we ever have the luxury of pausing to examine a side point?  Does our application ever include “mediate on, think about, know, enjoy … this great truth.”

If those things are absent from our preaching, teaching and writing then they’ll be absent from our hymnology too and we will be all the poorer for it.

[1] I think if it is over ten years old it is difficult to regard it as “contemporary” – so really it needs to be surviving as part of a tradition worth preserving. I also think that the 1970s and early 80s were a shockingly bad era –but that is a matter of personal taste.

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