Worship Mythbusters: dispelling popular notions that get in the way of authentic worship [1.2]

WMB 1.2 — A bit of a rewind with more developed thoughts. This is part of a series here.

MYTH:  Worship with hymns is more theologically rich than with modern music: Better said: “Hymns are rich in heritage and theological expression.”

There indeed are many hymns that are weak on theology, but we still sing some of them at Christmas.  There are many choruses that are fantastically rich with theology.  White, European songs from 300 years ago may not be relevant to all, but to some they are rich and represent a terrific expression.  How do I put hymns in their proper context without either discarding them or on the other hand actually worshipping the medium of using hymns?

I grew up in the church and am grateful to know many.  Some I have even recently discovered and others seem to speak to the deepest part of my soul.

I remember sitting at my desk one day when a hymn entitled, “The Church is One Foundation” played on my CD player.  What I recall is that the words and music from that song intertwined with a deeply powerful and personal encounter with God.  It as if God was actually speaking to me.  That day at my desk was a day I will never forget and has been a source of inspiration to keep going and serving the local church for the decade afterwards.  So, I love hymns and some have been an important part of my walk and faith. Hymns carry ethnic and cultural baggage.

Imagine a scene from the movie  “African Queen” with Katherine Hepburn where the natives were sweating from being dressed in their western Sunday best clothes horribly mimicking the words of an old hymn.  The struggle to get through the song represents what many experience when they walk into a church where these beloved hymns are echoed off of the hardwood pews.  It is like being invited to someone else’s family reunion.  You have no idea who is who and all the stories sound strange and awkward.

In stark difference to the scene in “African Queen” we find the real life of Hudson Taylor in China.  Taylor died his hair black, wore local clothing styles and learned to speak the native language.  Because of this, he gained access into inland China.  He was criticized for this but many were reached with the story of Jesus.

I see the way modern music works today as in the tradition of Hudson Taylor.  We are missionaries in a post-Christian America who must do what we can to speak the language, rather than condescending to those outside of our shrinking subculture of church life.  The insiders are even having trouble fitting into our faith communities, so it is no wonder why non-religious people who might have interest in our faith feel left out and most likely will be left out.

Our worship is dead if we only value the academic or intellectual side of our faith.

In spite of the problematic nature of ethnic and cultural baggage hymns carry, theology does indeed matter.  If our hymns, for the sake of argument, are better vehicles for theology, what are we to do with the implications of the songs themselves being so unapproachable?  Perhaps there is better academic theological expression from what John Wesley since he took from his doctrinal writings and included it in his hymns than say a modern worship leader might say.   Most modern songwriters do not write Bible commentaries like Wesley did.

What this implies is that the purpose of church music should be primarily theological education–that somehow we reinforce intellectual academic concepts as a the goal in our overall liturgy.  Academics is a form, and why should this be the primary backdrop for our practice and expression of worship?  Why should you need music appreciation to even be able to sing a song?

Many reading have already read or heard much of our societies shift from modernism to post-modernism. Modernism values the Enlightenment ways of thinking where beauty, story, art play a very small role in the field of ideas and practice in comparison to science, logic and reason.  Postmodernism tries to deconstruct this way of thinking by swinging the other direction.  The interesting thing is how both ways of thinking effect how we live out our faith and how we worship.

The modernism way of worship values what is thought and what is literal in our faith.  The postmodernism way of worship values the story and beauty of our faith. Kurt Bruner, writer of The Divine Drama, writes that in our gospel presentation we should be willing to be “both and” and that it is important to share both the “propositional” and “story” of the gospel.

I would not disregard theology and think that music for this purpose is a great idea, however, the context of it has to fit our culture’s way of thinking in order to even be understood.  This means emotion, beauty, authenticity should be included and valued.  It is not shallow to worship with emotion.  It is not against being theological in our worship to want to sing things that are from the heart.  Lets do both in our worship instead of polarizing to the extreme on either side.

Ephesians 5:16 talks about singing in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” which might be interpreted to mean that we should worship with music that is scriptural (right out of the psalms), hymns (creedal and theological) and spiritual (from the heart and in the moment).  Why limit to just one of these.  It is both biblical and culturally relevant to worship with your mind and your heart.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 to “sing with the spirt and sing with the mind” when talking about our expression of liturgy.  Again, a “both and” way of thinking may be a stretch for some.  However, not everything is black and white.  For that reason, I would not throw out hymns.  I am just against the idea of holding these legalistically above the freedom we should have to worship indigenously.

We can and should value hymns, but not at the cost of devaluing contemporary expressions of worship.

The hymns we find today have stood the test of time for a couple reasons I see.  One, they are beautiful or popular, or they represent a denominations creed and therefore will continue to be published in the hymnal of that group.  The last one is true since many groups banned hymns that did not reinforce their brand.  It is only in our current day where you might hear a Lutheran hymn in a Wesleyan church or a Catholic hymn in a Baptist church.  Somehow, we forget how contentious things were in regards to what music was allowed and what was banned. Non-denominational churches brought people in from varying groups so it was bound to happen.

If the purpose of some of these hymns is to teach something theological, then many hymns fail since they use music that is rarely approachable, especially with lyrics that require study to understand while carrying the baggage of denominationalism. The next generation does not relate to all three of these problems. Why impose an esoteric template over our worship?  Why should we fight for these as if they were theology?  To choose other music is to not choose another theology.  It is to choose to be in the new and changing culture and express our theology and worship there.  Indigenous worship is what we should be about.

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

48 comments

  1. This one was too easy Rich 🙂 All the others had a somewhat controversial feel but this shouldn’t be too much of an issue unless my grandma reads it.

  2. This one was too easy Rich 🙂 All the others had a somewhat controversial feel but this shouldn’t be too much of an issue unless my grandma reads it.

  3. This one was too easy Rich 🙂 All the others had a somewhat controversial feel but this shouldn’t be too much of an issue unless my grandma reads it.

  4. This one was too easy Rich 🙂 All the others had a somewhat controversial feel but this shouldn’t be too much of an issue unless my grandma reads it.

  5. I assume that you are typing about music in weekend gatherings or services. Shouldn’t we also mention that contextualization is important? Styles and practices that are liturgical or contemporary may be the best choice because of where we are and what communities we are committed to serve. If God sends my family to France to serve the people of Paris, would I not work hard to learn what is best for French people? Or would I play modern worship music from America because it is modern and what I like. Being modern OR liturgical for the sake of being modern or liturgical is the wrong idea. Then, all we are discussing is preferences. I chose to add this on because I assume you have seen some of this in your community. I know that this happens at my church.

  6. I assume that you are typing about music in weekend gatherings or services. Shouldn’t we also mention that contextualization is important? Styles and practices that are liturgical or contemporary may be the best choice because of where we are and what communities we are committed to serve. If God sends my family to France to serve the people of Paris, would I not work hard to learn what is best for French people? Or would I play modern worship music from America because it is modern and what I like. Being modern OR liturgical for the sake of being modern or liturgical is the wrong idea. Then, all we are discussing is preferences. I chose to add this on because I assume you have seen some of this in your community. I know that this happens at my church.

  7. I assume that you are typing about music in weekend gatherings or services. Shouldn’t we also mention that contextualization is important? Styles and practices that are liturgical or contemporary may be the best choice because of where we are and what communities we are committed to serve. If God sends my family to France to serve the people of Paris, would I not work hard to learn what is best for French people? Or would I play modern worship music from America because it is modern and what I like. Being modern OR liturgical for the sake of being modern or liturgical is the wrong idea. Then, all we are discussing is preferences. I chose to add this on because I assume you have seen some of this in your community. I know that this happens at my church.

  8. I assume that you are typing about music in weekend gatherings or services. Shouldn’t we also mention that contextualization is important? Styles and practices that are liturgical or contemporary may be the best choice because of where we are and what communities we are committed to serve. If God sends my family to France to serve the people of Paris, would I not work hard to learn what is best for French people? Or would I play modern worship music from America because it is modern and what I like. Being modern OR liturgical for the sake of being modern or liturgical is the wrong idea. Then, all we are discussing is preferences. I chose to add this on because I assume you have seen some of this in your community. I know that this happens at my church.

  9. Patrick, that is whole point of this post– “indigenous worship” which means of that culture. “Liturgical” as a form is one preference, but also might be culturally contextualized. The point here is that white, old European hymns are not universal nor indigenous. Our modern music is evaluated the same way.
    One point, is how you do these hymns. If you actually do them “originally” they are lower in key and in UNISON. They were meant to be sung and contextualized from the get go. But, they are not sacred in and of themselves. Nor is our modern music. As I said..INDIGENOUS worship is the higher value, whether talking about music or any other item in worship.

  10. Patrick, that is whole point of this post– “indigenous worship” which means of that culture. “Liturgical” as a form is one preference, but also might be culturally contextualized. The point here is that white, old European hymns are not universal nor indigenous. Our modern music is evaluated the same way.
    One point, is how you do these hymns. If you actually do them “originally” they are lower in key and in UNISON. They were meant to be sung and contextualized from the get go. But, they are not sacred in and of themselves. Nor is our modern music. As I said..INDIGENOUS worship is the higher value, whether talking about music or any other item in worship.

  11. Patrick, that is whole point of this post– “indigenous worship” which means of that culture. “Liturgical” as a form is one preference, but also might be culturally contextualized. The point here is that white, old European hymns are not universal nor indigenous. Our modern music is evaluated the same way.
    One point, is how you do these hymns. If you actually do them “originally” they are lower in key and in UNISON. They were meant to be sung and contextualized from the get go. But, they are not sacred in and of themselves. Nor is our modern music. As I said..INDIGENOUS worship is the higher value, whether talking about music or any other item in worship.

  12. Patrick, that is whole point of this post– “indigenous worship” which means of that culture. “Liturgical” as a form is one preference, but also might be culturally contextualized. The point here is that white, old European hymns are not universal nor indigenous. Our modern music is evaluated the same way.
    One point, is how you do these hymns. If you actually do them “originally” they are lower in key and in UNISON. They were meant to be sung and contextualized from the get go. But, they are not sacred in and of themselves. Nor is our modern music. As I said..INDIGENOUS worship is the higher value, whether talking about music or any other item in worship.

  13. Thanks so much for clearing that up. I think I was just clearing it up in my own head. I am glad we are on the same page here.

  14. Thanks so much for clearing that up. I think I was just clearing it up in my own head. I am glad we are on the same page here.

  15. Thanks so much for clearing that up. I think I was just clearing it up in my own head. I am glad we are on the same page here.

  16. Thanks so much for clearing that up. I think I was just clearing it up in my own head. I am glad we are on the same page here.

  17. It amazes me how difficult it is to bring music to churches that are relevant and theologically meaningful to multiple generations of worshipers. I especially like your inclusion here of Ephesians 5:16 that shows three kinds of worship. Nice job here–I’m putting together a wiki for my new worship team, and if it’s ok with you, I’d like to include your worship series here.
    PS–got any plans to be in the PNW this summer?

  18. It amazes me how difficult it is to bring music to churches that are relevant and theologically meaningful to multiple generations of worshipers. I especially like your inclusion here of Ephesians 5:16 that shows three kinds of worship. Nice job here–I’m putting together a wiki for my new worship team, and if it’s ok with you, I’d like to include your worship series here.
    PS–got any plans to be in the PNW this summer?

  19. It amazes me how difficult it is to bring music to churches that are relevant and theologically meaningful to multiple generations of worshipers. I especially like your inclusion here of Ephesians 5:16 that shows three kinds of worship. Nice job here–I’m putting together a wiki for my new worship team, and if it’s ok with you, I’d like to include your worship series here.
    PS–got any plans to be in the PNW this summer?

  20. It amazes me how difficult it is to bring music to churches that are relevant and theologically meaningful to multiple generations of worshipers. I especially like your inclusion here of Ephesians 5:16 that shows three kinds of worship. Nice job here–I’m putting together a wiki for my new worship team, and if it’s ok with you, I’d like to include your worship series here.
    PS–got any plans to be in the PNW this summer?

  21. Good point Rich. Some of the elders of our church believe that hymns are better because of the reasons you had mentioned. However, it’s always about balance.

  22. Good point Rich. Some of the elders of our church believe that hymns are better because of the reasons you had mentioned. However, it’s always about balance.

  23. Good point Rich. Some of the elders of our church believe that hymns are better because of the reasons you had mentioned. However, it’s always about balance.

  24. Good point Rich. Some of the elders of our church believe that hymns are better because of the reasons you had mentioned. However, it’s always about balance.

  25. Good Day Rich. I wish to weigh in. I didn’t read the post as closely as I could have, so hopefully I am not off topic, but if I might say….I went to a church from 1993 – 2002 where they had two different services. one “Contemporary” and one “Classic”. It came down to many things, but at the end of the day, the worship leader of the classic service was less than a fan of modern music, and the contmeporary guy thought old music was irrelavant. In fact the people who went to each of these services thought the other was just not right. It was sad if you ask me. Good Music is Good Music, whether it be 1 year old or 500. Does the music, both lyrically and muscially reflect the truth of God’s word. If so, what’s the problem. There are some deep thelogical thoughts and ideas in the Bible, and that should be reflected in worship music. But there are passages as simple as “pray continually.” That’s the whole passage, so why are we shocked, or why is it wrong to have songs of a simple-profound nature. I love tradition, and I love to explore possibility. There has to be a place for both. God is really, really big, and when any of start to say “This is the only way to worship God” well, we make God really small.
    My final word: Does the song speak to truth of God? If so, then get over yourself, because it’s not about you.

    Wible Out
    (Rack em)

  26. Good Day Rich. I wish to weigh in. I didn’t read the post as closely as I could have, so hopefully I am not off topic, but if I might say….I went to a church from 1993 – 2002 where they had two different services. one “Contemporary” and one “Classic”. It came down to many things, but at the end of the day, the worship leader of the classic service was less than a fan of modern music, and the contmeporary guy thought old music was irrelavant. In fact the people who went to each of these services thought the other was just not right. It was sad if you ask me. Good Music is Good Music, whether it be 1 year old or 500. Does the music, both lyrically and muscially reflect the truth of God’s word. If so, what’s the problem. There are some deep thelogical thoughts and ideas in the Bible, and that should be reflected in worship music. But there are passages as simple as “pray continually.” That’s the whole passage, so why are we shocked, or why is it wrong to have songs of a simple-profound nature. I love tradition, and I love to explore possibility. There has to be a place for both. God is really, really big, and when any of start to say “This is the only way to worship God” well, we make God really small.
    My final word: Does the song speak to truth of God? If so, then get over yourself, because it’s not about you.

    Wible Out
    (Rack em)

  27. Good Day Rich. I wish to weigh in. I didn’t read the post as closely as I could have, so hopefully I am not off topic, but if I might say….I went to a church from 1993 – 2002 where they had two different services. one “Contemporary” and one “Classic”. It came down to many things, but at the end of the day, the worship leader of the classic service was less than a fan of modern music, and the contmeporary guy thought old music was irrelavant. In fact the people who went to each of these services thought the other was just not right. It was sad if you ask me. Good Music is Good Music, whether it be 1 year old or 500. Does the music, both lyrically and muscially reflect the truth of God’s word. If so, what’s the problem. There are some deep thelogical thoughts and ideas in the Bible, and that should be reflected in worship music. But there are passages as simple as “pray continually.” That’s the whole passage, so why are we shocked, or why is it wrong to have songs of a simple-profound nature. I love tradition, and I love to explore possibility. There has to be a place for both. God is really, really big, and when any of start to say “This is the only way to worship God” well, we make God really small.
    My final word: Does the song speak to truth of God? If so, then get over yourself, because it’s not about you.

    Wible Out
    (Rack em)

  28. Good Day Rich. I wish to weigh in. I didn’t read the post as closely as I could have, so hopefully I am not off topic, but if I might say….I went to a church from 1993 – 2002 where they had two different services. one “Contemporary” and one “Classic”. It came down to many things, but at the end of the day, the worship leader of the classic service was less than a fan of modern music, and the contmeporary guy thought old music was irrelavant. In fact the people who went to each of these services thought the other was just not right. It was sad if you ask me. Good Music is Good Music, whether it be 1 year old or 500. Does the music, both lyrically and muscially reflect the truth of God’s word. If so, what’s the problem. There are some deep thelogical thoughts and ideas in the Bible, and that should be reflected in worship music. But there are passages as simple as “pray continually.” That’s the whole passage, so why are we shocked, or why is it wrong to have songs of a simple-profound nature. I love tradition, and I love to explore possibility. There has to be a place for both. God is really, really big, and when any of start to say “This is the only way to worship God” well, we make God really small.
    My final word: Does the song speak to truth of God? If so, then get over yourself, because it’s not about you.

    Wible Out
    (Rack em)

  29. It’s “The church’s one foundation”. I know because I made your mistake for years.

  30. It’s “The church’s one foundation”. I know because I made your mistake for years.

  31. It’s “The church’s one foundation”. I know because I made your mistake for years.

  32. It’s “The church’s one foundation”. I know because I made your mistake for years.

  33. The key word here is indigenous, I think a lot of people don’t think in this way, they think with the way they were raised and tradition, make your own traditions and burn new paths that our kids and their kids can argue about, BUT, don’t plow over the path of the past because we can still embrace and enjoy that of our past. Be indigenous to your surroundings, but also be a rebel and burn a new path that God puts on your heart.
    PS… I like the Jime Rome reference from Wible

  34. The key word here is indigenous, I think a lot of people don’t think in this way, they think with the way they were raised and tradition, make your own traditions and burn new paths that our kids and their kids can argue about, BUT, don’t plow over the path of the past because we can still embrace and enjoy that of our past. Be indigenous to your surroundings, but also be a rebel and burn a new path that God puts on your heart.
    PS… I like the Jime Rome reference from Wible

  35. The key word here is indigenous, I think a lot of people don’t think in this way, they think with the way they were raised and tradition, make your own traditions and burn new paths that our kids and their kids can argue about, BUT, don’t plow over the path of the past because we can still embrace and enjoy that of our past. Be indigenous to your surroundings, but also be a rebel and burn a new path that God puts on your heart.
    PS… I like the Jime Rome reference from Wible

  36. The key word here is indigenous, I think a lot of people don’t think in this way, they think with the way they were raised and tradition, make your own traditions and burn new paths that our kids and their kids can argue about, BUT, don’t plow over the path of the past because we can still embrace and enjoy that of our past. Be indigenous to your surroundings, but also be a rebel and burn a new path that God puts on your heart.
    PS… I like the Jime Rome reference from Wible

  37. Interesting stuff, man.
    These days, there seems to be so much emphasis on the need to revive hymns, because they are so theologically deep and linguistically rich — and there is some definite truth to that — but I appreciate the balance in your perspective.

    Simply put: Just because a song about Jesus is really old, it’s not inherently good.

    We write some theologically-weak and linguistically-tired songs today, and they wrote them 30 years ago, and 300 years ago.

    Either way, it’s just good to have a healthy perspective.

  38. Interesting stuff, man.
    These days, there seems to be so much emphasis on the need to revive hymns, because they are so theologically deep and linguistically rich — and there is some definite truth to that — but I appreciate the balance in your perspective.

    Simply put: Just because a song about Jesus is really old, it’s not inherently good.

    We write some theologically-weak and linguistically-tired songs today, and they wrote them 30 years ago, and 300 years ago.

    Either way, it’s just good to have a healthy perspective.

  39. Interesting stuff, man.
    These days, there seems to be so much emphasis on the need to revive hymns, because they are so theologically deep and linguistically rich — and there is some definite truth to that — but I appreciate the balance in your perspective.

    Simply put: Just because a song about Jesus is really old, it’s not inherently good.

    We write some theologically-weak and linguistically-tired songs today, and they wrote them 30 years ago, and 300 years ago.

    Either way, it’s just good to have a healthy perspective.

  40. Interesting stuff, man.
    These days, there seems to be so much emphasis on the need to revive hymns, because they are so theologically deep and linguistically rich — and there is some definite truth to that — but I appreciate the balance in your perspective.

    Simply put: Just because a song about Jesus is really old, it’s not inherently good.

    We write some theologically-weak and linguistically-tired songs today, and they wrote them 30 years ago, and 300 years ago.

    Either way, it’s just good to have a healthy perspective.

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