From the very dawn of history God ordained praise, or worship for himself. All creation sang of his glory and the people worshiped him.
Worship is the soul of religion. It is the “breathing of the spirit after God. In the Christian’s act of worship two goals are achieved. God is glorified and man is enriched. It is true that we do not increase the greatness of God in our worship. But we know that God is pleased when we worship; and by our worship we testify to the world of His glory. However, in worship, not only is God praised but man is enriched. God has commanded us to “Seek my face.” By seeking God’s face, by worshiping this God of infinite perfections, by exalting him in our thoughts, we become more like him. The apostle Paul said this in II Cor. 3:18: “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” A man’s conception of God shapes his conduct and eternal destiny. That is why his worship must be God-centered.
A close examination of popular sacred music will reveal, however, that much of it is man-centered. It emphasizes man’s subjective experience of God rather than God himself. A casual perusal of a Praise Book of Hymns and Choruses reveals the following titles: “A Melody in My Heart”, “Christ for Me”, “I Believe the Answer’s on the Way”, “I Belong to Jesus”, “I Haven’t Words to Tell”, “I Hid My Soul”, “I Know a Fount”, “I Love to Hear His Voice”, “If You Want Joy”, “I Surrender All”, “I’ll Be So Glad”, “I’m in Love With the Lover of My Soul”, and many more. Compare these to the following titles taken from the Psalter Hymnal; “Jehovah, My God, on Thy Help I Depend”, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving to Thee I Will Bring”, “Help, Lord, For Those Who Love Thee Fail”, “In God Will I Trust”, “The Spacious Heavens Declare”, “The Lord My Shepherd Holds Me.” The purpose in listing these titles is not to condemn the first grouping and laud the second, but simply to point out two things: 1.) The first grouping emphasizes num’s response to God and the second grouping emphasizes God himself in his Person and his work. 2.) The first grouping often neglects to give God the credit for his work in our hearts and the second grouping always acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all things. It is very important that we realize this difference because with our definition of worship as an act of the soul by which God is praised and man is helped (notice man does not help himself) we conclude that the type of hymn illustrated in the first grouping is an inferior avenue of worship and the second is a superior avenue of worship.
God is worshiped in various ways: by the reading of his Word, by prayer, in the preaching of the Word, by the giving of tithes and offerings, by songs of praise. He can and must be worshiped each day in our homes. However, the church is the official gathering place of God’s people for worship. It is the songs of praise in the church, or church music which we will discuss briefly here.
What is “church musicr Negatively stated, it is not a time-kiIJer, a performance or entertainment. Consequently. the term ‘:special music” -which connotes a performance -should not be used in connection with the worship service. Positively stated, church music is, as one author has literally and aptly described it, “bride of Christ music”, And although this unusual de6nition may appear a bit awkward, it nevertheless establishes the plumbIine by which to evaluate all music used in the church. This music must be worthy of the bridegroom; it must be unquestionably faithful to His Word, or to phrase it differently, it must be theologically sound in text and tune. Walter
E. Buszin comments on this in his lecture delivered at Valparaiso University Church Music Seminar. He said:
“If theology and church music are to be in perfect agreement with each other and the one complement the other, the text-based music of the church must share the objectives and obligations of Christian theology. Notes and tones are added to texts not to weaken but to strengthen these texts as bearers and interpreters of their message.”1
Some of the so-called “gospel songs” are good examples of the effect which romanticism has had on religious music. It is difficult to formulate a definition of the “gospel song” but Dr. Louis Benson produced one which is very comprehensive. He says:
“The Gospel hymn continues the form and manner of the old spiritual and is equally charged with emotion. It has a contagious melody, pathetic or ringing, a frequent march or dance rhythm, and that peculiar thinness of effect which comes of continuing the harmony unchanged through the bar. It makes use of solo effects, of repeats, of burdens and climacteric catchwords ….It is, in other words, the conventional type of music appealing to the crowd…”2
Some objections have been raised against the “gospel song” and it is profitable to consider them.
1. ) Some “gospel song” texts are oversimplified. Compare, for example, the song “Christ for Me” with the hymn, “O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire”:
Christ for me; Yes its Christ for me; He’s my Savior, my Lord and King; I’m so happy I shout and sing;
Christ for me. Yes its Christ for me; Every day as I go my way; It is Christ for me.
It is plain that lines 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 of the first song say exactly the same thing. It is only line 3 which contains a meaningful concept of Christ and his relationship to the believer.
O Christ, our hope, our heart’s desire, Redemption’s only spring! Creator of the world art Thou Its Savior and its King.
This hymn is not repetitious. Every line is packed with comfort for the believer as he contemplates Christ’s work in creation, redemption and his kingship over all.
Our church leaders have a genuine obligation to use only hymns which nrc not boring, but meaningful and challenging to the congregations. Considering the average education and culture of congregations, leaders must be careful not to use hymn texts for choirs and soloists which lack the logical development and spiritual challenge that congregations need for the building of their spiritual lives.
2.) Some “gospel songs” do not display complete fidelity to the truths of Scripture. Many distort the truths of Scripture to a lesser or greater degree. A brief consideration of a few of them demonstrates the truth of this statement.
WHERE HE LEADS ME I WILL FOLLOW
I’ll go with Him through the garden. I’ll go with Him through tile garden. I’ll go with Him through the garden. I’ll go with Him, with Him, all the way.
I’ll go with Him through the judgment. I’ll go with Him through the judgment. I’ll go with Him through the judgment. I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way.
It is difficult, first, to determine the meaning of the terms garden and judgment. We will assume that garden refers to temptations. Second, it is difficult to determine whether it is Christ’s or the singer’s garden and judgment experiences which is referred to in this number. If it is Christ’s garden and judgment experience, is it not a bit audacious on the part of the singer to think that he can or could have been of any assistance to Jesus in His garden and judgment experiences? If it is the singer’s garden and judgment experiences, the text should read, “He’ll go with me through the garden.” The repetition and ambiguity of this song make it an inferior vehicle of praise.
Consider now the beloved hymn, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” This is one that has been honored by long use. It is possible that some singer of this hymn might receive the impression that Jesus is reluctant to hear his cry, or that he might even be overlooking the singer’s need of mercy and salvation. Jesus said, “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.”
The hymn “I Come to the Garden Alone” is one which is not only extra-Biblical in character, but is also preoccupied with environment, sounds and moods. It describes a mystical experience with Christ, particularly his physical characteristics of voice and walk, that is void of any concrete Biblical truth concerning a confrontation between Christ and a sinner. It is a hymn which is unfit for our worship of God.
The popular song, “I’ve Got a Mansion” is one which sears the sensitive soul of any person who is a lover of truth.
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below A little silver and a little gold; But in that city where the ransomed will shine I want a gold one that’s silver-lined.
Though often tempted, tormented and tested And like the prophet, my pillow a stone; And though I find here no permanent dwelling I know He will give me a mansion my own.
Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely, I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven-bound. I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city; I want a mansion, a harp and a crown.
I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, In that bright land where we’ll never grow old; And someday yonder, we will nevermore wander But walk the streets that are purest gold.
In verse one, the author reluctantly consents to a life of poverty here below. He lays down in line four his demand for a “gold one” that’s “silver-lined”. The term “gold one” has no immediate antecedent, so grammatically it is difficult to determine that to which the author is referring. Assuming, however, that it is a gold cottage, silver-lined, which the author demands, we see a boldness and lack of humility which should not characterize any creature. We also see here a gross misconception of heaven as a place where we will have our selfish desires gratified instead of a place where we will be praising God! How different is the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which reads: Question 1—What is the chief end of man? Answer—To glorify God and enjoy Him forever! Verse two, line four bears out the same selfish desire of having a “mansion my own.” Lines one and two of verse three deal with personal feelings and line four of the same verse add two more demands, a harp and a crown. The impertinence, the brazenness of this song disqualifies it for use by any child of God in any situation. It is difficult to understand how it has ever made its way into any “gospel song” book.
There are scores of choruses being sung with unparalleled religious fervor in Sunday Schools across our land which deserve our attention.
Heavenly sunshine, heavenly sunshine Flooding my soul with glory divine; Heavenly sunshine, heavenly sunshine Halleluia! Jesus is mine!
Climb, climb up sunshine mountain Heavenly breezes blow; Climb, climb up sunshine mountain Faces all aglow.
Tum, tum from sin and doubting Look to God on high, Climb, climb up sunshine mountain You and I.
Do Lord, O do Lord, O do remember me; Do Lord, O do Lord, O do remember me; Do Lord, O do Lord, O do remember me; Way beyond the blue.
Many other choruses could be cited here, but these are sufficient to point out the ambiguity of words such as heavenly sunshine, sunshine mountain, way beyond the blue; the irrelevance of concepts such as “heavenly breezes”, and the complete lack of logical development and spiritual depth of any of them. There is a wealth of music for children and young people which truly nourishes and edifies. The Children’s Hymnbook and Hymns for Youth compiled by the National Union of Christian Schools are two fine examples.
3.) “Gospel songs” in general lack a deep consciousness of sin and awareness of Christ’s primary task of atoning for man’s sin. They speak often of “tears wiped away,” “burdens lifted”, of the easing of sorrow and pain. Certainly these are benefits of the salvation wrought by Christ on the cross. But they are not the primary task of Christ. The psalmist David shows extreme vexation of spirit on account of his sin. He displays intense thankfulness to God, not first of all for dispelling discouragement, easing sorrow or pain, or wiping away tears; but he thanks Cod for salvation from sin, for the profound grace of God in his life. As a result of this basic atoning work of Christ, his tears are removed, his sorrows are assuaged and his pain is eased.
Our pastors, choral directors, organists, Sunday School teachers and any other leaders of the flock of God must take a more careful look at the music offerings in the worship service and other church-related programs. There is more poor theology or outright heresy propagated through the music of many churches than would ever be tolerated from the preacher in the pulpit.
Why do people love to sing or play these inferior hymns? It is usually the tune which attracts the affection of singers. And this is exactly what a hymn tune should not do. The purpose of a good hymn tune should be to strengthen the text, to bear and interpret the message of the text. That is and always will be its purpose. It is a tremendous challenge for the composer of a hymn tune to manipulate tones and rhythms in such a way that they will properly convey the message of and enrich the text.
There are many “bad” tunes which disqualify a good text from being an acceptable vehicle of praise. Many people will criticize an organist or choral director who, because of deep religious convictions and discriminating musical taste, will play only “good church music.” These same people will challenge the church musician by asking who is to decide whether a tune is good or bad. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the qualities which make a given tune “good” or “bad”; but to give encouragement to the conscientious church musicians, I include an imaginary conversation between an organist and his indiscriminate pastor found in The Complete Organist by Dr. Harvey Grace. The pastor asks, “Who is to decide that a certain tune is good or bad?” The organist replies:
“Most educated people are quite clear as to the difference between the good and bad in literary and pictorial art. In music, the distinction is equally clear to all who have received a musical training worth the name. They, surely, should be arbiters enough for you. Do you realise, too, that music has its grammar—a code of rules as definite in most cases as those governing language? You would be horrified if I suggested that the choir should sing a hymn, the first lines of which ran:
‘I is a awful sinner, And you be just the same.’
You would point out that although the lines contain a statement about which there can he no dispute, the diction is so crude, and the grammar so hopeless as to render the hymn unfit for use, and I should agree with you. Do you know that most hymn tunes of the popular type contain breaches of musical grammar quite as excruciating to a musician as the above lines are to you?”2
Some readers will wonder if an article on church music and theology is necessary in Reformed circles. Certainly the reformers insisted that church music in text and tune be absolutely faithful to the Word of God. But many years have elapsed since the days of the reformers. Selections such as “It’s Suppertime” and even “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” have been played at communion services in churches of Reformed persuasion. Quartets and ladies’ trios have rendered numbers such as “I Fell in Love with Jesus” and “I’m in Love with the Lover of My Soul” in churches of Reformed persuasion. Sunday Schools do teach choruses with questionable content in the Sunday Schools of churches of Reformed persuasion. It is time that church leaders on a local level in every city, village, and farming community examine very carefully the musical activity of their worship services, societies, Sunday Schools, Missionary Unions and even the Christian Schools to sec that all is being truly sung “to the glory of God.”
From the beginning of the world to the end, from Genesis through Revelation, God’s people have praised him with voice, with “psaltery and harp.” And on through eternity we shall continue to praise him. What will our song be?
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive all power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing…Blessing and honor, and glory, and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever…Amen.” (Rev. 5:12b, 13b, 14a)
Let this glorious truth be the theme for our songs here on earth too! “To God be the glory for ever and ever…Amen!”
1. Buszin, Walter, “Theology and Church Music as Bearers of the Verbum Dei,” The Musical Heritage of the Church, VI, p. 17. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House.
2. Benson, Louis F., The Hymnody of the Christian Church, p. 112. Richmond, Va., John Knox Press, 1956.
3. Grace, Harvey, The Complete Organist, pp. 35–36. London: The Richards Press Ltd., 1920, 1950.Mrs. Laurie Vanden Heuvel is the wife of Rev. Thomas Vanden Heuvel, pastor of Central Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Holland, MI.