Contemporary Christian Music
“The great issue here is that music is one of the most effective ways in which our souls are moved and in which our minds are informed.
At Taylors, South Carolina, on March 12, 2OO3, at the Greenville Seminary Conference on Worship, Dr. Robert Godfrey gave an address on Contemporary Christian Music. He began this address by expressing his appreciation of the opportunity to speak on the “least controversial subject at our gathering.” He said that it seems the last thirty years or so have seen the most dramatic and speedy changes in Protestant worship in any time since the Reformation. Surely the principal mark and symbol of that change is the change in the music of the church. The development of what has come to be called ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ (CCM) has become an amazingly widespread phenomenon. It has spread through very different denominations from conservative to liberal, from Pentecostal to Reformed. It has invaded the precincts of both liturgical churches and free churches. Dr. Godfrey said that his wife teaches at a Reformed Christian high school, and that all they hear now in chapel is CCM, and if she raises any questions, she is labelled immediately as one out of touch with young people and insensitive to the needs of evangelism.
Even where CCM has not completely swept the old hymnody and psalmody away, we are often confronted with what has become known as ‘blended worship’ a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and in Dr. Godfrey’s judgment, ” not much of anything.”
Confident that he would not be speaking to too hostile a crowd, Godfrey offered a brief definition of contemporary Christian music, viz., “four notes, three chords, two hours.” CCM’s pervasive character as well as its numbers of strong supporters means that those of us who have reservations about it need to give to it a careful and serious examination. “Ridicule, however personally satisfying, is not usually a way to convince other people of our position,” Robert Godfrey joked.
We must begin, he said, by removing from the table certain false issues that sometimes come up and sometimes distress us but are not at the heart of our argument. The speaker said we should not oppose CCM because it is contemporary. There is nothing inherently superior to old music, nor does newness render music inferior. We should not oppose it either because it is unfamiliar. For most of us who are non-musicians, what we principally like is what is familiar, but unfamiliarity is not an adequate argument against this music. We probably in fact sing a lot of bad things with which we are familiar and like, even though musically they couldn’t be defended. We can’t object, either, because some of the lyrics are heretical. Heretical lyrics are no more a problem in CCM than they are in some forms of historic hymnody. The only thing you can sing and be sure it’s not heretical are psalms. Further, it’s not the issue whether we sing off the wall or from hymnals.
WHERE DOES THIS MUSIC COME FROM?
So, what are the issues? The first issue of importance is to take a hard look at where this music comes from. We cannot conclude from its origin that it is wrong, but doing so can clarify for us some of the theology and piety that inspired it. Music isn’t neutral. It expresses both in lyrics and melody something of the orientation of the author as to what the truth of religion is and how we ought to practice it. Because movements are rarely brand new and have their roots in traditions, if we step back from the current scene, we are likely to see that contemporary Christian music is just a new stage in the evolution of Revivalist hymnody. Revivalist hymnody, which became more and more prevalent as the nineteenth century wore on into the twentieth century, was music that was more lively, more enthusiastic, and correspondingly, often had a declining level of theological content in the texts of the hymns. A modern nineteenth century Revivalist hymn, “He Leadeth Me,” is extraordinarily repetitious, and that is one of the main complaints about CCM. In comparing the text of this hymn with those of some CCM songs, it is found to have a certain piety, some sentimentality, and a certain devotional quality – all similar to CCM.
If there is a somewhat dramatic shift in the development of CCM, that shift probably took place with the rise of Pentecostalism. The more immediate forebear of CCM is the Pentecostal movement of the twentieth century in particular. In its drive for religious energy, experience, and excitement, its promoters did indeed think in new ways about music and sought to take the Revivalist tradition of hymnody and make it even more exciting and engaging. Amy Semple McPherson, for example, Pentecostal founder of the Foursquare Gospel Churches and theatrical tent revivalist, was a pioneer in many of the notions of music and worship that have become widespread beyond Pentecostalism in our time. In the 1920’s, she had a praise band at her church, and in it played the young Anthony Quinn. She wrote choruses that were sung in her church. When she got criticized by the press, she wrote a chorus that went,
” You may talk about me just as much as you please;
She pioneered also with drama, with illustrated sermons on the stage. “This is why,” quipped the church history professor, “we study history – to find out what Presbyterians are like today.”
What originated as part of a natural expression of the piety and theology of the Pentecostal movement in the 1920’s has become generalized far beyond those origins and should give us pause to ask if this kind of music which is good for Pentecostal churches, is likewise good for non-Pentecostal churches. Can you take the piety of one group that has emerged rather naturally and spontaneously out of the theological and religious life of that group and just set it down on another? “I don’t think you can very well,” answered Professor Godfrey, “but that’s what’s happening far and wide with us.”
Dr. Godfrey also pointed out the influence of nineteenth century Romanticism on our culture – a movement away from rationality toward experience, and particularly to a mind-transcending experience. He believes that that Romanticism is part of what has informed some of this musical development.
Looking beyond just its origins, Robert Godfrey moved on to looking at the character of this music. The range of what is found in CCM is somewhat broad, but there are certain issues that seem to be common to most of it. One of those is that it often promotes itself as being a more intelligible form of music. Dr. Godfrey believes that what is really meant by this is that the music offers immediate access; it doesn’t take study, reflection, or effort to enter into this music. He argued that there is an abstractness to the defense of CCM’s intelligibility. “How simple does it have to become? Does it have to be intelligible to the two-year-old in church? If someone walks in off the street completely unaware of anything Christian, must the hymnody of the church be fully intelligible to that person?” Rather than keeping this an abstract idea, we need to be biblical in our thinking, he argued. “How intelligible is the Bible?” There are some difficult concepts and words, and it does require some measure of study. He concluded this point by questioning whether or not intelligibility is really the point, saying that what may actually be sought is an immediate accessibility and experience.
CCM also commends itself for being simple, but the question Dr. Godfrey posed is whether it might instead be simply shallow. He indicated that a preponderance of the CCM songs he has heard, have the feeling of having been “dashed off.” One wonders if the poet had spent more than five minutes stringing together some familiar phrases of Christian piety. There is no sense of its having been crafted.
CCM often presents itself as being memorable because of its simplicity, but it seems in fact more often just to be repetitive. Dr. Godfrey recalled instructions to “sing ‘Alleluia’ with your eyes closed and your hands raised eleven times, and you’ll have a profound experience.” That ” Alleluia,” he said, is memorable, but is it the praise to God that He expects of us?
Often CCM presents itself as being an expression of genuine emotion, but the fear is that it often appears to be emotionally shallow and often sentimental. “I don’t know about you,” said Dr. Godfrey, “but I refuse to sing love songs to Jesus.” The term “love song” has a particular orientation and focus that implies a romantic relationship, and this seems an uncomfortable mixing of categories and is fundamentally distracting and unhelpful. Even songs about Jesus being “my best friend” make the churchman’s flesh crawl. It is a movement away from biblical imagery, opting for means of saying things that are problematic in their character.
THE PURPOSE OF CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN WORSHIP
Then there’s the question of the purpose of Contemporary Christian Worship. For many it is to enliven the life of the church, to make it more evangelistically successful, to “reach out.” President Godfrey expressed the fear that CCM is perhaps not as much a “half-way house” for those coming into the church as much as it is one for those coming out. It is interesting, Dr. Godfrey pointed out, that George Barna, the Church Growth Movement guru, now finds in his polling after 20 to 40 years of intensive church growth in America that attendance is in decline in America. This is not a surprise, contended Dr. Godfrey. Where the worship of God and therefore God Himself has been trivialized, people get the message: “This isn’t really important.” Many churches that have adopted a contemporary approach find that very soon their evening service is gone and in many, many cases, attendance begins to decline. He noted: “Of course those are not the stories that get written up in the church growth magazines.” Even in his own experience in California, he said he has seen numerous church plant efforts following church growth methods fail, bringing great spiritual damage and great financial cost to the churches. But, he said, there is not much recording of these failures. One study of Reformed church plants, a doctor of ministry project done over a decade ago, compared church plants that had followed church growth principles to those that had followed more traditional approaches. The finding was that the traditional approach was much more successful than the church growth approach. “That may he because Dutch people don’t have rhythm,” Dr. Godfrey joked. But even Barna’s statistics show us that the church is not growing in America.
The purpose is noble – to grow and invigorate the church, but the underlying notion of what it takes to do that is a purpose that’s very troubling. Charles Kraft from Fuller Seminary wrote an article in Christianity Today defending CCM and why he thought it was so important. Professor Craft said, “True worship usually takes a lot of singing to create an atmosphere of praise and worship.” Here, said Dr. Godfrey, is the notion that you can’t have worship without the right atmosphere being created. “It is the new music sung with eyes closed for ten, fifteen; or twenty minutes at a time that makes that experience possible,” wrote Professor Kraft. Dr. Godfrey questioned the nature of such an experience in view of Professor Kraft’s criticism of worship that is too much about ” information.” Dr. Godfrey countered that traditional worship is not about information; it is about God speaking to. His people. The speaker acknowledged that low standards in preaching and worship do exist. “When I was younger and less self-controlled,” Dr. Godfrey joked, “I used to complain that sometimes it seemed as if the only response looked for in a Reformed sermon was, ‘Wow! I never knew that Hebrew word meant that!”‘
Professor Kraft complained further in his article, “We sing hymns so chock full of rational content and information that they are unmemorizable. Let’s stop being enslaved to the present rationalistic, intellect-centered approach to church that characterizes much of Evangelicalism.” Dr. Godfrey pointed out that though the Fuller professor’s urging to get above the mind is a religious point of view, it is not a Christian one. It is instead Hindu and consequently bespeaks great danger for the movement. This is, Dr. Godfrey admitted, not likely what CCM’s advocates intend or have even considered, and yet it is the underlying reality of what drives this, making music a new sacrament.
Dr. Godfrey acknowledged himself haunted by the words of Robert Dabney who, speaking to what he saw as dangerous musical trends of the nineteenth century said, “Millions of souls are in hell because they were unable to distinguish the elevation of animal feelings from genuine religious affections.” It is easy to manipulate emotions, Dr. Godfrey said, so that people think they have had a profound experience, and if it takes place in the context of religious language, they’ll think it’s a profound religious experience. But is it, or is it only emotional manipulation?
Charles Finney, a nineteenth century revivalist, said, “The only way to wake up the dominant moral powers of the soul is through excitement.” As Calvinists, of course, we don’t think souls without regenerating grace have any moral powers, dormant or otherwise, Professor Godfrey responded. The whole Revivalist tradition since Finney has followed Finney’s advice. Amy Semple McPherson relied heavily on mood-controlling excitement to move her listeners. This just doesn’t fit our theology and our piety, Dr. Godfrey pointed out. This is not how people are saved.
THE BOOK OF THE PSALMS
How are we finally to establish a standard to evaluate what has come from this movement? The Bible must always be our standard of truth, and we ought to be particularly interested in using it as our standard when it comes to evaluating music because the Bible has a whole book of songs. We evaluate our sermons and our prayers according to the Bible, and yet God has not given us a book of sermons or prayers in the Bible. He has, however, given us a book of songs. Godfrey said he is not entirely sure why God did that but that his best guess is that He saw the human propensity to run amuck when it comes to song because the emotions aroused by song are so significant. It seems to Dr. Godfrey that Reformed people should all agree that the Psalter has to be the standard and the measure of our singing praise. If God has given us 150 songs, they must surely give us some indication of what sort of song pleases Him.
In contrast to CCM’s origins, the Psalms come from God and give us models and articulations of how we are supposed to talk to God in our worship. The character of the Psalter is such that it gives us an inspired balance of the elements we should have in our praise. Referring to Psalm 146, Dr. Godfrey pointed out the balance between subjective statements of the worshiper and objective statements about God. Responding to the argument that hymns should teach theology, Godfrey replied that the function of the Psalter is not as much to teach theology as it is to show the relationship between God and His people.
Another balance we find in the Psalter is that between the individual and the communal. How much of my worship should be my individual response to God, and how much should be my being a part of a community?
There is another interesting balance in the Psalter between what is taught and what is not taught. A charge made against exclusive psalmody is that it is not adequate to teach the fullness of the New Covenant – that the name of Jesus is not included in the Psalter, for example. Dr. Godfrey countered that according to that standard, the Psalter is not adequate to the Old Covenant, either. If you only had the Psalms, there is a lot of Israel’s history and religious life that you could not reconstruct. The Psalms, Dr. Godfrey said, are not primarily didactic in character. They are not intended to tell us everything but are meant to give praise to the God of the Old and New Covenants. The new song in the Psalter is the song of redemption; the old song is the song of creation. Both have to be sung in His praise, but the new song is already in the Psalter.
Not only is there the issue of those things not taught in the Psalter but also the issue of things that are taught there that are neglected in our hymnody. Creation, for instance, is a much more prominent theme in the Psalter than it is in our hymns, and it is a great theme. The Psalms more prominently address, also, the theme of the wicked. In every song except two, there is some explicit reference to the wicked as those who stand against God. The Psalter is full of an antithesis between the righteous and the wicked, between those who are in covenant with God and those who reject Him. It is a constant reminder to the people of God that you are either with God or against Him. We see also in the Psalms explicit references to God’s covenant and His faithfulness to His people, another relatively neglected topic in hymnody.
The Psalms are specific about God’s mercies as well, making reference to the oppressed and hungry and God’s setting prisoners free and giving sight to the blind. These are themes that are not often explicitly addressed in our hymnody. “He lifts up those bowed down; He loves the righteous.” Most of us, Dr. Godfrey said, don’t even think of ourselves as righteous. We’ve become kind of hyper-Calvinistic on that point. God’s grace makes a difference; when we’re measured against the standard of the world, there’s a difference. When we think of these sorts of specifics, our attention is drawn to the Savior who came to do these things. The balance and depth found here is unmatched in modern worship songs and even in traditional hymnody.
One of the things that strikes us about the Psalms is that they are a bit strange and not immediately accessible. But this, the professor contends, is due to the fact of their being so carefully crafted. This carefully-crafted character of the Psalms stands in marked contrast to the ” dashed off” character of so much of CCM. If God inspired His song-writers to give such careful attention to the crafting of these Psalms, how is it that we think it is acceptable to just string any old sentiments together and offer them for worship?
We find also in the Psalter the full range of human emotions. We live in a happy time. If you’re a Christian, you have to be happy, and the function of the church is to make you happy. The only legitimate emotion, we are told, is the emotion of joy. Joy is an important emotion and a proper response to the saving work of God. But, it is not the only experience of the people of God. God has given us words also to express frustration and anger and deep sorrow and lament and grief over our sin and the condition of the world and many other legitimate, true emotions.
Dr. Godfrey fought with tears as he told of a pastor friend who visited an old woman in a nursing home who had been neglected by her family. She asked her pastor to read with her Psalm 88, “the bleakest psalm in the Psalter,” Dr. Godfrey said. It is the lament of a lonely, tormented heart, and God gave these words to an old lady in a nursing home so she could know that her experience and suffering were not unique amongst the people of God. He gave voice to her life so that she could talk to Him. “It’s a wonderful thing,” Professor Godfrey averred.
The speaker noted that the Psalter does not give us tunes. In giving us criteria for the selecting of tunes, he said they should be singable and able to support the text, expressing the range that the text expresses. Additionally, the instrumentation of the tunes must not overwhelm the singing. “And we have to be honest here. That can happen with an organ as well as with a drum.”
The great issue here is that music is one of the most effective ways in which our souls are moved and in which our minds are informed. And, with what are we moving our souls and informing our minds? Dr. Godfrey told of the funeral of an elderly congregation member where her granddaughters recollected how their grandmother had committed all the Psalms to memory, having sung them throughout her childhood. The granddaughters could never stump their grandmother in challenging her to name the Psalm from which they quoted verses, even when they mixed them up to try to trick her. “Now, beloved,” Dr. Godfrey asked, “Here’s a woman who sang Psalms predominantly throughout her life and hid the Psalter in her heart. Was that a blessing? Was that a good thing? Or would she have been better off just singing ‘Alleluia’ eleven times? It’s not a close call, Beloved.” We are impoverishing our souls by not using one of the best ways of learning the Word of God, namely by singing it. For Reformed people not to love the Psalms and learn them and sing them is a major tragedy for us spiritually. Our best strategy is not for us to spend a great deal of time criticizing contemporary Christian music but to spend it learning the Psalter and singing the Psalms and rejoicing in the Word that God has given us. “And I suspect,” said Dr. Godfrey, “there will be something kind of contagious about that.”[as reported in “Presbyterian and Reformed News”, January-March 2003. www.presbyteriannews.org]
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