A Critique of Christian Songs

I have a vivid childhood memory of our red hymnbook with the title “Sacred Songs & Solos” and the signature of Ira D Sankey, the organist and soloist associate of D L Moody. 

During sermons I discovered delights like “Where is my wandering boy tonight?” and “Throw out the life-line”. But there were better ones like “When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there”. Don’t tell my sophisticated friends, but I’d still like to sing that one today!

Music is one of the greatest gifts of God. And whenever there is a new move of the Holy Spirit singing is one of the main evidences. As Paul puts it: “Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”  

I like that last sentence: we not only sing, we also make music to the Lord. So instrumental music is truly part of our offering of worship.

About a hundred years ago in Essex there was a local revival centred on a group who called themselves the Peculiar People. (Not a popular name today, although I am told there are those who say there are still some very peculiar people living there!). The title came from Titus 2:15 (AV) where the Lord is said to “purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works”. Peculiar means special.

There were scenes of great religious excitement and remarkable healings. And how they sang! One hymn with nine verses was sung for 29 minutes!
That reminds me of a story about William Grimshaw, an outstanding and dynamic Evangelical Vicar of Haworth, Yorkshire from 1742. He had a habit of leaving church during the Sunday morning psalm to discover absentees and drive them into church. J C Ryle refers to a tradition that “he sometimes used a stick or horse-whip on these occasions, and that he occasionally gave out the 119th Psalm to be sung in his absence from church, in order that he might have a longer time for prosecuting his search after the disorderly.”  That’s got to be one of the better motives for lengthy singing!

Around the same time, the Wesley brothers were used in the great revival from which Methodism emerged. Charles wrote some wonderful hymns which will outlast many modern songs.

The Pentecostal Revival in the early days of the last century produced another abundance of songs. Then in the last sixty years the charismatic movement has produced a mass of songs, from the very good to the excruciatingly awful.

Graham Kendrick is one of our best modern song writers. Some of his work has rightly taken its place alongside the long-lasting hymns. I have a broad taste in songs. Sometimes very simple songs can be taken up by the Holy Spirit and used in the most profound way. One such, many years ago, was “O, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”

Sometimes the music may be beautiful but the words are not meaningful. I am yet to find someone who understands that modern song “Holiness unto the Lord, unto the King …”  To me the words make no sense. I wish they did because the tune is quite beautiful. But it is amazing what Christians will sing without understanding or without noticing the meaning. 

We must ask how much our worship experience is spiritual and how much is it aesthetic (purely an experience of beauty), nostalgic and mood-inducing?

All music has these elements. They are not wrong in themselves. But hymns and worship songs can easily become a sing-along: an end in themselves inducing a mood of heightened excitement and enthusiasm which is not in itself spiritual. In excess it can induce an altered state of consciousness. 
True spiritual worship may or may not be aesthetically satisfying and emotional but it will include a heightened consciousness of and response to the Lord.

But it is vital that our spiritual lives are based upon the word of God and the fulness of the Holy Spirit – not upon songs. I have a real worry that songs can replace the word of God as the foundation of our spirituality. However good the songs are, they are not an adequate foundation. Our worship services should reflect that.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction