Last week we took a more positive turn as we considered how our identity as consumers impacts our devotional lives. We continue in that positive direction as we consider our experience as corporate and individual worshipers in today’s consumeristic environment.
Throughout this series I have tried to provide a broader comparative historic context. The inclusion of songs in worship was present from the earliest days of the church. Paul incorporates what appear to be familiar songs in his writing, John shares songs in Revelation, and of course the Psalms provided a hymn book for the early church. The earliest house church discovered in Syria dates to the early 3rd century AD and is covered with beautiful frescoes (one of which I include below). The church from the very beginning was worshiping artistically.
While music was a vital part of the congregational worship experience, it developed slowly. Gregorian chant developed in the 9th and 10th centuries and then expanded during the 16th century. The Reformers (with Martin Luther leading the way) wrote songs commoners were able to sing along with.[i] A flood of church music was ushered in over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries as Baroque and Classical composers came on the scene and created timeless music for the church.[ii] But even with the advent of such a rich period of church music, it pales in comparison with what even the average church goer sings today. The pace of change in the repertoire likewise (while dramatically faster than what came before) also pales in comparison to today.
While choruses began to be sung by the church in the 1970s, it was Delirious and Passion (two bands) who ushered in a new category of worship music that has dominated the Christian music industry and our sanctuaries for the past 20 years. Today we have access to worship music every waking hour through any host of devices and platforms. Plus the music rotates with astonishing speed. Perhaps the most listened to Christian song outside of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) and Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” (1528) is Hillsong’s “Oceans” published a mere four years ago (2013). And yet for as enormous a hit as “Oceans” was, when was the last time you sang it in your church? The expiration dates of even the most influential songs today is extremely short.
That sounds like bad news, does it not? How many songs we sing today will we sing in five years? Ten years? Fifty years? Very, very few. There is certainly a loss with such a realization. However, if you grew up in Michigan at the turn of the 20th Century in a Reformed Church, while your hymnody would have been virtually static your entire life, you would have essentially been singing the fifty best hymns of the past three centuries of Protestantism.
And while hymnals are disappearing from pews faster than pews themselves are disappearing, they are being reincorporated with verve in today’s music. And while there has been much hang wringing over the depth of contemporary chorus writing[iii], I view most of the complaints as straining at gnats. There have absolutely been weak choruses written over the past two decades. But even some hymns that have hung around are weak lyrically (see “Jesus is Calling,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “In the Garden”). And there have been hymns and choruses in the past two decades that soar lyrically (see “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “Cornerstone,” or “Revelation Song”).
The availability and breadth of access we have to worship music (the world’s biggest worship band is 9,000 miles away from the US!) makes me grateful for the age we live in. We have an abundance of riches. But of course, there are downsides in this age of consumerism. May we not forget the millennia of saints who have blessed us with beautiful songs. And may our worship expand to those heavenly, multi-cultural and multi-lingual anthems we will sing one day at the foot of Christ.
Paralytic Fresco located at Baptistery at Dura Europa Church
Photo credits: (top contemporary worship photo) Jazmin Quaynor/Unsplash; (bottom Dura Europa photo) Marsyas/Wikipedia
[iii]Here is one of many articles: https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2014/September-2014/Theology-test-your-worship-songs