Hymns vs. Contemporary Worship

Sometimes we can think that the issue of the older hymns vs. more contemporary songs (often praise choruses) is overblown. Music is subjective, so they say, and how can anyone say one is better than the other? Isn’t it personal opinion?

I’ve said elsewhere that not all hymns are created equal (I’ve never been in a garden alone with Jesus), and that there is some absolutely phenomenal new stuff coming out in contemporary songs. But despite these caveats: no, music isn’t wholly subjective and beyond critique.McLuhan Mug Remember Marshall McLuhan?

The medium is the message.

Dr. Lester Ruth is especially helpful for driving this point home. Dr. Ruth is now at Duke (formerly Lily May Jarvis Professor of Christian Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary), and he has tried to show conclusively the differences between song forms. He examined the top contemporary songs from CCLI for 13 years for language on how these songs spoke about the Trinity, the atonement, God’s divine saving work, and other doctrines unique to Christianity. Here are some of his findings:

  • The songs have more instances of human activity than divine (just under 500 instances of human activity and just over 300 for divine);
  • A few of the songs have no references to divine activity at all;
  • Interaction among the Persons of the Godhead is pretty minimal, as I have already noted;
  • The doctrine of the atonement (what it means for Christ to die) is largely underdeveloped (it’s interesting to note that I can find only one instance of the verb “crucify,” which is in the song “Above All”);
  • There is little remembering God’s activity prior to the first coming of Christ and remembering divine activity in the second coming of Christ;
  • The most used verb attributed to God is “come,” which is connected with God more than the words save, love, or die.
  • There are as many instances of the songs speaking of us loving God as they do of God loving us.
  • The atonement is underdeveloped in its Trinitarian aspects.
  • God’s saving activity is often truncated and not noticed with regard to Persons of the Trinity, or action in distinction to status. In other words, contemporary songs sound less like Ephesians 1 and more like how we might want to describe God.

Perhaps Dr. Ruth would advocate different conclusions than I would, but these are strong concerns to take into account when thinking about “the latest and greatest” in worship music. Take a gander at his articles for more of his research and the data:
Don’t Lose the Trinity! A Plea to Songwriters
Is God Just Hanging Out on the Sofa? Initial Wonderings about the Inactivity of God

We have at least some idea of what kind of Christians hymn singing produces. But we have yet to see what kind of fruit a generation raised on contemporary worship will produce, and how they in turn raise the next generation and shape the church of Christ after them. These are important factors that ought to be pondered when changing any main aspect of Christian worship.

The ancients said, lex orandi, lex credendi, or “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” In other words, what a person says in prayer or singing will ultimately shape the individual’s belief. What we sing on Sunday mornings becomes the content of our faith, and the God we describe in our singing will become the God we believe in.

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