Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 19, 2008

It’s About Substance

I’m going to wander a bit in this post, but I will get to my point!  🙂

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of working with two other WELS pastors on the committee that has introduced Christian Worship: Supplement (CWS) to the congregations of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  The last project from our committee was a children’s Christmas service that I just finished putting together this week (one of several reasons for my blog’s recent silence).  This service will be published next year by Northwestern Publishing House and will incorporate several hymns from CWS.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve had the chance to put Christian Worship: Supplement to work at Gloria Dei congregation, as have many other congregations around the WELS.  And now, after some initial delays, the Accompaniment Edition of CWS is available for purchase.  The Accompaniment Edition contains the organ accompaniment parts for the services, psalms, canticles, and hymns (plus piano and other instrumental parts on the Accompaniment Edition’s CD).  In addition to the music, there are short descriptions of each hymn that provide background on the composers, text authors, and the theology and/or circumstances surrounding each hymn.

While paging through the Accompaniment Edition, the description of hymn #727, “There Is a Higher Throne,” caught my eye.  The text and tune, copyrighted in 2003, are prepared by Keith and Kristyn Getty.  (I’ll come back to this text and its description/comments in a moment).  Keith Getty, who hails from Ireland, is the composer of several contemporary hymn tunes found in CWS. Many of Getty’s hymns were prepared together with British hymn writer Stuart Townend (e.g. CWS hymn #752, “In Christ Alone”).

The Getty/Townend hymns in CWS are considered by many to be within the general sphere of “Christian Contemporary Music” (CCM), although to my ear they still have a slightly different sound than the typical CCM song.  Many members of the WELS Commission on Worship and other WELS worship leaders, present company included, have expressed caution about the CCM genre.  So if that’s the case, why did the Getty hymns make the Supplement?  One word: substance.

For better or worse, some have characterized the CCM genre as “7-11” songs: You sing seven words and repeat them eleven times.  All good humor has an element of truth to it, and in my experience there is more than a little truth to that observation.  But the repetition of a few words is not necessarily the issue, either.  For example, Christians have historically sung “Alleluia!” several times before the Gospel is read as an expression of joy in anticipation of hearing the words and works of Jesus in the Gospel accounts.  I’m not aware of anyone who perceives that as mindless repetition.  So the issue I’m concerned about is not the repetition of a text, but its function in worship (as in the “Alleluia” before the Gospel) and/or its substance (as in hymn texts).

In my essay, Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship, a section in part three deals with the substance concerns of CCM hymns.  I won’t rehash that argument here.  In this post, I’d like to point out the excellent — and intentional — substance found in the Ketty hymns.  That leads me back to my original thought.  The following comments, quoted from Keith Getty in the Accompaniment Edition of Christian Worship: Supplement, grabbed my attention (emphasis mine):

“I grew up singing hymns in a family where they were greatly loved; in fact, much of what I understood about the Christian faith was engraved in my mind and heart by those lyrics. … When we sing to God we join with people of God from around the world and from every generation — singing to Him, about Him, what He has done and our response to that.  What we sing, however, is so important because, to a degree we are what we singWhat we sing provides a grammar by which we understand and express our faith” (CWS Accompaniment Edition, page 107, cited from www.gettymusic.com).

How much of our faith is formed, fashioned, and fueled (how’s that for alliteration?!!) by the songs we sing?  Quite a bit, I suspect — especially if it’s been a while since someone has stepped into a Bible Class.  How much of Christian doctrine do we know from hymn lyrics and hymn titles?  I’ve heard many appeals to hymn texts for doctrinal support in religious conversations.  How many people recall comforting, gospel-proclaiming hymns in tough times, or especially near the moment of death?  I’ve ministered to people on their deathbed by singing hymns to them.  My point is simply that hymns have a way of teaching truths and nurturing faith far more than they are often given credit for.

You cannot overdose on the gospel.  You cannot get too much of Jesus.  You cannot hear too often of the forgiveness of sins, the Word who became flesh and preached the Word to his people, the Lamb of God who took our sins away by his death, or the King of kings who proved his victory over sin and death by his resurrection.  You cannot marvel at the mysteries of the Word of God too much.  You cannot ponder the miracle of your baptismal adoption too much.  You cannot receive Christ’s body and blood and have his forgiveness applied to your heart too much.  The gospel cannot strengthen your faith too much.

If that’s the case, then we have a strong, evangelical reason for putting the evangel — the gospel — into our singing.  It’s not that we have to.  It’s that we get to.  We want to!  What better way to respond to the blessings of Christ than to sing about his blessings!  What better way to thank God for the gospel of his forgiving grace than to sing about his forgiving grace!  What better way to praise Christ than to proclaim what Christ has done for us!

When it comes to the music and song texts of worship, discussions often veer away from the main point we should consider.  Repetition of texts may or may not be an issue.  Musical style may or may not be an issue.  But substance should always be the issue.  We have one hour each week to nurture the faith of the majority of our members.  We don’t have time for ambiguity. Let’s use that hour wisely and give our people the gospel richly — in Scripture, sermons, sacraments, and even in song!

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Responses

  1. AMEN. And if I may comment on repetition:

    1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
    His love endures forever.
    2 Give thanks to the God of gods.
    His love endures forever.
    3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
    His love endures forever.
    4 to him who alone does great wonders,
    His love endures forever.
    5 who by his understanding made the heavens,
    His love endures forever.
    6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,
    His love endures forever. (Ps 136)

    Etc. Etc. Etc.

    -and-

    Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Rev 4:8)

    I love repetition!


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