Song vs. sermon

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. {Col 3:16, NAS}

The singing of songs is not insignificant. In the 17th century a Scottish politician by the name of Andrew Fletcher surmised that “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Hyperbole? Maybe. But no one can doubt that the statement contains a large measure of truth. For this discussion we’ll rework Fletcher’s comment for a church context: “if a man were permitted to make all the songs he need not care who should preach the sermons for the church.”

On that sobering thought we turn to Col 3:16 and make two observations. First, the result of Christ’s word richly dwelling in us is that we teach & admonish one another. Second, music is the means by which we teach & admonish (at least in this verse). From these observations we should assert the following: (1) if teaching/admonishing is the result of Christ’s word living in us, the teaching/admonishing will be true to Scripture (2) if this teaching/admonishing is done through song, our songs will be true to Scripture (3) a church is to sing for the sake of sound teaching.

In light of all this it strikes me that a huge disconnect exists when we demand biblical precision in our preaching while defending poetic license in our singing. We sing We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb/And the word of our testimony, everyone overcome. Does it matter that such language is a biblical reference to martyrdom (Rev 12:11)? Let’s all die a martyr’s death–everyone overcome! We confidently declare I’m trading my sorrow/I’m trading my shame/I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. The message sounds more like Peale than Peter & Co. (1Pet 2:19; 2Cor 4:7-10, 16-18; 12:10) not to mention the assumption that God doesn’t give sorrow (Job 2:10; Lam 3) & that all our sorrows can be erased in this life (Rev 21:4).

A song can’t teach everything but it will always teach something. If preaching mishandles biblical content & context the long-term health of the church will suffer. We would do well to consider that our singing may present a similar health threat. “What the song means to me” is an insufficient standard by which we make our song selection. The justification is myopic, sacrificing the good of one another for the sake of my song. So sing well and sing wisely.

Must (All) Church Music Be Happy?

I’m recently returned from Maine where our family was spending time with my in-laws. My wife and kids are still there, no doubt draining the bank account dry as they feast on lobster and whoopie pies while I toil away in the blistering GA heat–but I digress.  We had to drive this year and since 24 hours of drive time (GA to ME) w/ 6 kids is enough to try the patience of Job we planned to stop in Maryland as a halfway point to visit with our former pastor—whose last sermon before retirement was the Sun we visited—and some college/seminary friends.

The intrinsic weight of a farewell discourse (or sermon) fosters a certain level of anticipation in anyone who has ears waiting to hear, and while the sermon didn’t disappoint I found the song selection to be almost as instructive as the message. The pastor had been asked to select the music for his last service and among the songs the congregation sang were four hymns: Amazing Grace, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Day by Day, and Like a River Glorious. Lately I’ve been haphazardly taking note of the general tenor of much of today’s Christian music (inside and outside the church) which is why the following stanzas stood out:

Amazing Grace Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead me home.

Day by Day Day by day, and with each passing moment / Strength I find, to meet my trials here / Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment/I’ve no cause for worry or for fear / He whose heart is kind beyond all measure / Gives unto each day what He deems best / Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure / Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Like a River Glorious Every joy or trial falleth from above / Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love / We may trust Him fully all for us to do / They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

With a few notable exceptions, it strikes me that today’s church would find it difficult to write anything that resembles the mindset and message of those lyrics: that life is full of dangers, toils, and snares; that God gives pain and pleasure, toil and rest; that every joy and trial comes from above. No, those sentiments are more fitting for yesterday’s Christian. The poor pre-modern (or pre-post-modern) pilgrim who was known to encounter the Slough of Despond or battle with Apollyon or resist the pleasures of Vanity Fair or persevere in the dungeon of Giant Despair.

But if there are Christians whose lives still resemble a pilgrimage more than a picnic must all the music they sing be happy?