When Paul wrote the great “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13, he probably never realized how much it would be quoted in weddings. (And perhaps how much it would stay relegated to weddings alone, and ignored otherwise!). But I love the imagery he uses:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NET).
It comes as no surprise to most of us that love takes time, and in many ways, people know you love them by how much time you spend with them. If I give my wife only a few minutes a day, it’s obvious that there is a problem – or going to be one very soon. To be honest, I often love my news feed and my Instagram more than others, given how much time I spend with those things. But the point is that you ‘can’t hurry love’ (as Phil Collins once sang).
Yet when we look at the life of our churches sometimes, you would think we think you can – because instead of creating environments that slow things down enough for us to truly love each other, we create fast environments filled with things to do. And we call it Kingdom.
I think, if I were to make this scripture above a little more contextual for today, we could say: “if I build churches with the most amazing outreach events and evangelism projects, and am constantly making sure I am busy doing the work of God and at every meeting, but have not love, I am nothing.” Many leaders will nod their heads at all this. Many of us will insist that we must spend lives with personal devotion times with Jesus that take time. No 15 minutes with Jesus stuff. But if you are creating a church environment, as a leader, where you’re always keeping people busy, can you lament that they’re always too busy for Jesus and community?
It’s not always about time, but space. We often don’t give ourselves, and those we lead, time to even think. Sure, I know that many of us are our own worst enemies, filling up any free time with other things and clogging up our thoughts with social media feeds… but still, there is something about many of our city churches where we seem to have adopted the driven nature of our city.
In Tim Keller’s book, Center Church, he speaks of how a church can often either over-adapt to its city culture or under-adapt. If it under-adapts it is frequently misunderstood. For example, a charismatic church that waves flags and has corny dancing teams to trumpet-led 90’s worship music in an American mega city might be under-adapting. I think a church can sometimes over-adapt in some things and under-adapt in others. For many of our churches in cities today, we over-adapt to our city culture when we become places of busyness. The city is busy enough. Where will people find rest? The home is frequently not the place. They’re supposed to find rest in Jesus and find Jesus in their church community, and that rest then goes into their home.
There are times when we embrace a culture and times when we are to be counter-cultural. In the case of being busy, city churches need to be counter-cultural. But people are often finding communities of busy people that have little head-space and consequently heart-space for depth and relationship, because that community is too busy trying to do ‘good things’ and be ‘missional’ through event after event and church service after church service. Look, I really love you, but I committed to pouring tea tonight and leading the prayer meeting, so no time to chat about what’s going on in your life and your heart, and no time to hear what’s on mine. We’ve got a job to do, don’t we?
Little space in our lives makes for little hearts. Love slows down. Perhaps in rural churches they need to speed things up a bit (I imagine it takes quite a bit of work to get people to do new things in those contexts). But in city churches, we need to really slow down. Otherwise, all we become are communities of noisy gongs and clashing cymbals, and pretty much nothing else.
When we select the songs and hymns for corporate worship, there are plenty of weak, cowardly, and even evil reasons to motivate our choices: sheer familiarity, a pledge of allegiance to a certain tribe within Christianity, a desire to attract or placate certain constituencies in the church, or the desire to appear moderate, balanced, and relevant in the eyes of man. Since what we sing is an offering to the Lord, our selection should be guided by the question, is this hymn good? Good, not in the sense that it brings me pleasure, but good in that it does well what it was meant to do. It is well-crafted, excellent, beautiful, and useful for worship. Whether or not I like what is good does not change what is good, it is simply a commentary on me. If I do not like what is good, I have a biblical responsibility to learn what it is, and to come to love it (Phil 1:9-11). How do we determine if a hymn or song is good? I suggest a start might be these five questions.
1) Is it truthful?
Truth is what corresponds to reality. Music and poetry are creations of God, and can depict reality as God has made it, or falsify it. The lyrics of the songs sung must be doctrinally correct and orthodox, while allowing for poetic license. Hymns are not doctrinal statements put to music, nor should they be. They are poems, using metaphor, rhyme and meter. These poems, given their form, must nevertheless communicate Scriptural truth.
While music does not communicate propositions, it communicates sentiments, emotions and affections. In this way, the music can falsify what is being sung in different ways. It can communicate a mood or a sentiment contrary or unlike what the text purports to speak of, e.g. galloping when speaking of ‘sinking deep in sin’ or waltzing at the thought of Jesus returning, or skipping or rocking at the thought of God’s holiness. In such cases, not only is the music inappropriate for the text, it misleads believers into associating those emotional states with the truths being sung.
Music can also trivialize a profound truth, exaggerate an emotion, distract from the subject matter, and encourage a narcissism when singing. All these responses are possible due the actual form of the music. The form chosen must communicate affective truth, inasmuch as the lyrics must communicate propositional truth.
2) Does it evoke ordinate affection?
God is a unique Being, and there is a kind of love that corresponds to knowing His being, and a kind that does not. The music and the poetry should, through the meaning of their form, evoke appropriate joy, fear, contrition, thanksgiving and delight. Church leaders must discern between kinds of joy, or kinds of fear, and know when particular music evokes those affections.
When hymns and songs sung are merely an exercise in self-gratification or entertainment, the emphasis is no longer one of responding to the Being of God. Ordinate affection arises from the commitment to know God as He is, to submit to Him entirely, to grant Him appropriate responses, be they foreign or uncomfortable to us. This is the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.
3) Is it a worthy offering (Psalm 33:1-3)?
Worship music is not primarily offered to man for his enjoyment, though he is invited to worship the Lord with gladness. The One who hears all and understands all music and poetry, deserves our most skillful and excellent musical and poetic offerings. This means selecting the best hymns that are beautiful and most expressive of God’s manifold glories. Though cost, skill-level, and spiritual maturity may limit or hinder the quality of what is offered, we should always aim to do the best with what we have, and to keep improving.
4) Can mature believers understand and use it (1 Corinthians 14:15)?
Paul desires that believers sing with understanding. On one level, every human being is capable of perceiving beauty, being made in the image of God. People’s levels of appreciation may differ, but no one is deaf or blind to transcendence. When music is true, good, and beautiful, it will speak to all men everywhere. At the same time, our current cultural impoverishment means that many find serious and beautiful music and poetry impenetrable. When the good is no longer familiar, the church faces the hard task of making it familiar without causing people to choke on what they have no capacity to swallow. The solution is not to give people regular ‘hits’ of pop music and banal lyrics so as to placate their cravings (for this will only feed habits that ought to be left to die), but to expose the church to great works, explain them, and allow people to get used to them through repetition and regular use. Works that are simpler or more familiar (yet still beautiful or helpful), should be mixed with those that are more ornate in their beauty, to give beginners and the immature some ‘rungs on the ladder’ to climb up. As elevation of thought and beauty increases, accessibility must be maintained through regular explanations, regular exposure and regular use.
5) Does it respect both tradition and contemporaneity?
Traditional and contemporary are regrettably misunderstood and misused terms in the music debate. Traditional hymnody ought to mean the music and hymns which belongs to the genuine Christian tradition, having equivalent sentiments, regardless of differences in era, doctrinal tradition, or culture. Contemporary hymnody ought to refer to music and poetry written by Christians in our era, that continues these affections, universal to Christian experience over two millennia, and reports them according to 21st-century experience, in equivalent forms that answer to the 21st-century imagination. Instead, traditional is commonly used to mean hymns older than fifty years (including trite, useless hymns from the 19th century), and contemporary is used to refer to pop/rock forms of music.
Used in these uncritical ways, a church should be neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘contemporary’ in its musical choices, for there is no virtue in simply using older hymns for the sake of their age, or using pop/rock as a deferring nod to relevance and contemporaneity.
When the terms are used correctly, Christian leaders should aim for both in corporate worship. The church should honor and enjoy its heritage, by knowing, learning and singing the hymns and songs that belong to the genuine Christian tradition. This should ideally represent a wide spread of eras and even doctrinal traditions, to celebrate the true catholicity of the faith. This both honours our elders, and keeps us exposed to the examples of our forbearers’ worship. It reveals our own blind-spots, and the excesses and weaknesses of our own era.
At the same time, the contemporary church must use its own voice, and its own words, to worship God, for this is commanded of us. Contemporary hymns and songs and music that represent art good enough to carry the weight of worship ought to be used. Songs written in our era should not be used simply because they are familiar; they should be used because they are genuinely good, whether or not they are familiar to us. If they are genuinely good and yet not familiar, they ought to be used until they become familiar.
by Ryan Dueck | 764 words
15 February, 2014
Originally published at ryandueck.com
Every so often, usually between 5-9 pm on a Saturday night when I am lurching toward the finish line of another sermon (or grinding my teeth in frustration at the sermon that just won’t come together), a terrifying thought pops into my head. All of a sudden it occurs to me what a laughable, horrifyingly presumptuous thing it is to get up in front of a group of people and presume to speak on behalf of or about God.
This sounds just a touch melodramatic or self-important, I know. But I don’t mean for it to. I don’t mean to convey the idea that people who prepare sermons somehow have a more important vocation than the person who swings the hammer or sets the bone or drives the cab or empties the bed pan. It probably has a bit of an odour of false humility, too. I can assure you that this, too, is not the case (at least no more than usual). This is not me saying, Yes, we preachers have such a weighty (and important) burden to bear… Could you please spare a thought for those of us who have to tramp up and down the mountain each week to receive a divine word for the unwashed masses. No, no, no… Not at all.
It’s not that I’m necessarily afraid of being wrong (although sometimes I am afraid of this, and I probably should be more often). It’s not even that I’m afraid of being boring (which is far worse than being wrong these days) although this, too, is an occupational hazard when your job is to keep alive an old, old story that has been talked about by a great many people over a great number of years, and which a great number of your listeners already know very well. My kids (among others) unburdened me of the illusion that everything that comes out of my mouth is riveting and insightful quite some time ago.
I suppose the root of these Saturday night sledgehammers to the head is really nothing more (or less) than something like, How on earth could anything so small ever say anything about something true or useful about something so big?! This flash of vapour presuming to speak about the one who underwrites all of existence from second to second? This grain of sand talking about the one who flung the constellations into the sky, who thought up mountains and oceans and deserts and… well, everything? This little finite, fallen, fragile creature who loves so intermittently, who believes so limply, who obeys so erratically, speaking about unspeakable things like divine love and forgiveness and mercy and salvation… Absurd.
When all this comes rushing in on Saturday night, I usually end up thinking, You fool!Do you have any idea what you are doing?! Do you have even the remotest clue of what it means to open your mouth and talk about God?! Perhaps you should just stop writing and stop talking! Perhaps just shutting up would be the best thing you could do for God tomorrow.
And, thus encouraged and emboldened, I lay my head down to sleep .
The only comfort that I can take in these moments where it seems preposterous to say anything about God is that God has said something about God, and that that something looks and sounds like Jesus.
And so, when I have just about managed to talk myself out of talking about God, I think about Jesus. I try to imagine him looking over my shoulder as I assemble my wordy artifacts. I imagine him smiling or putting his arm around me. I imagine him standing beside me when I get up in front of people and presume to speak about him. I imagine him raising his eyebrows from time to time (um, well, not really, but nice try kid) or laughing a little. I imagine him forgiving me in advance for whatever combination of hubris, truth, error and goodness might happen to come tumbling out of my mouth. I imagine him turning my words into something better than they are for those who hear. I’m sometimes even brave enough to imagine him saying something like, “Well done. You did your best. My church has heard far better sermons over the years, but it has also survived far worse. I’m proud of you for giving it a shot.”
And then, as I am mentally collapsing into relief, Jesus says, “Oh, and don’t forget that my voice has other ways of going out into the earth besides words.”