The Hit

I’ve been going through the top 40 hit lists from Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40 – each month there are either four or five lists of forty songs – multiply that by fifteen and you’ll find that there’s well over two thousand hits listed – thankfully quite a few are repetitive. One hit stood out for being from an unexpected genre: MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine“. This Christian song managed to be on the top forty list right up there with all those secular pop, rock, grunge, rap, and alternative rock hits of the day.

With all the vitriol and hatred against contemporary Christian music, many elder might not know that the odd song escapes from the Christian bubble and has an impact on others in a way that hymns just don’t. Sure, we all hear the odd hymn song – maybe on an episode of a t.v. show as a character is in a church or going through some emotional cross-roads. But they have a limited sphere of influence. For some, hymns are like classical music – a relic of a time gone by that other people like … but it’s not their cup of tea.

I’ve heard stories about how elderly people in nursing homes hold onto the songs of their youth, the tunes that they danced to, the hymns the worshiped God with, the melodies and jingle of commercials – if that’s so, then a song like “I Can Only Imagine” will be a good one to play when it’s this generation’s turn to be in nursing homes. Sure, some of us will respond to hymns – but not all.

But because contemporary Christian music can do what hymns cannot – reaching the airwaves of even the most secular stations, one would think that anyone who cares about introducing God to others would welcome the sort of music that does just that inside and outside of churches. And perhaps, we might find room for those secular songs that speak to something of God. A lot of David’s hymns were songs of angst and frustration: “Why me / How long / Don’t forget me” that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s a missing element, we have music that represents only the rainbows and sunshine side of life and the few songs that don’t (like “It is Well“) are only pulled out in immense tragedy. We don’t have a lot of music for being in-between or for the journey from the spiritual high to the spiritual low and finding our way back when we’re lost.

The more I try to create my playlist, the more I see that music is like a personal language, and the less we can write for others what their music is supposed to be or ought to be like. Looking at the variety of music from ages past to now – Gregorian chant, choir pieces, traditional hymns, bluegrass, gospel – the less it feels like God only wants one kind of music, one type of song, one particular hymn above all the rest. He has inspired music in all it’s form to praise him in his limitless capacity; perhaps we should see that music has limitless capacity to praise an infinite God.

Other People’s Music

Perhaps it was the fifth time I had heard “Walkin’ on Sunshine” or the sixth time that “It’s Rainin’ Men” blasted over the store speaker system that I realized how horrible other people’s music can be. Not in that “they have the worst taste in music” sense – but in the way that there are songs that are fine once in a blue moon become annoying when heard multiple times the very same day; songs that you barely tolerate once become much more difficult to stand as they’re continually repeated. The more I heard other people’s music, the more I longed for just one of my own played just once. But it also made me wonder if I really should share it, after all, what if other people don’t like my music any more than I don’t like theirs?

It makes me think of the worship wars and being the odd one out. Music is and can be it’s own personal language. For someone going through a tragedy, “It is Well” can help them cope, for one celebrating “It is Well” can be quite a bit of downer, particularly if you know it’s history. No two people take to the same song the same way. Even with contemporary music, “In Christ Alone” has it’s fans and it’s detractors. Ultimately, other people’s music really has no power over you. As much as I don’t like hearing the same songs over and over again in the course of a day, as much as I don’t like old-fashioned hymns – it ultimately falls flat. The thrill that others might get out of “Walkin’ on Sunshine” “It’s Raining Men” “It is Well” and other hymns is pretty much a “meh” for me.

Unless the Holy Spirit is a void entity in the world of contemporary Christian music, then the reality must be that God inspired both old-fashioned hymns and contemporary Christian music – and that both are ultimately God’s music. One would think that no matter which side each of us as people fell on, churches would be capable of celebrating both kinds of God’s music. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. Most churches are small and tend to pick just one – out on the rural areas such as this one, hymns tend to win hands down as the congregations are often older and haven’t much experience with contemporary music. It takes a spectacularly humble elder to set aside his or her own taste in order to accept their kids, grandchildren’s, and great-grandchildren’s preference in God’s music in order to facilitate the worship experience of the younger generation – and such elders seem to be a rarity indeed.

Being the odd one out is a special misery – where you realize that in certain churches you will never, ever get to sing your favorite song to honor God, in a chorus with the voices of those around you, lifting up your sacrifice of praise. You get to lift up other people’s songs though, ones that don’t resonate with you. You might, if you’re very lucky, get to do a special music of the song that you like – but you’d have to perform it alone with all eyes on you, and you’d have to sing it really well because no other voices will come to your aid. If you’re not a talented singer (I’m decidedly not) then you don’t even have that option.

Some days I really wish that the shoe was on the other foot, that the hymn-singing churches would have entire services with contemporary music where it’s done right. Where they get to miss out on their music and come to understand what it feels like to know that never again “In the Garden” or “Blessed Assurance” or “How Great Thou Art” will ever be sung again. Then I think twice and realize that I’ve gotten used to the misery of other people’s music and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I know that misery loves company and I just mostly wish I wasn’t so miserable – I just really, really miss my own music these days.

Shining Lights

Some time ago, I was curious about the Great Awakenings – the period of revivals that swept through America a long time ago. I learned that in the midst of revival, the churches fell into conflict. The Old Lights were the defenders of tradition, while the New Lights were caught up in the excitement of change. It never occurred to me to ask what that looked like in the churches on Sundays.

Traditionally speaking, worship services were designed to rely on logic and reason. The sermons would be planned out in advance to argue for a position and back it up with Scripture – to that end, they avoided emotions. The New Lights, on the other hand, accepted emotion over reason. They wanted people to get excited, awed, and even shocked as they accepted the movement of the Holy Spirit among them.

Back then, I wouldn’t have thought much about it. But it just so happens I’m a New Light soul in an Old Light church. Sometimes I get the feeling that Old Lights tend to look down on me because of that. Craving emotion, having to feel something, not being swayed by logic and reason, or fulfilled by doing things as they have always been done. I guess I seem immature to them.

I don’t really remember my churches from when I was very little, but I do remember that most of my churches sang contemporary songs. One of them tended toward Michael W. Smith songs such as Breathe, Hosanna, and Above All. It was all pretty low-key, we had skilled musicians perform for us, but no stage lights, no fog machines, nothing too complicated. The next church was a non-denominational church that actually had a stage with lights set up, they sang from the Top 40 worship songs list more often than not, so we’d often hear the same songs we were about to sing or had just sung on the local radio station and had become quite familiar with them. The next church fell some-where in between the two – but it didn’t last. Since then it’s been hymn-only churches.

The only hymns I really know are the old standards – the hymnal equivalent of the Top 40 list – and the Christmas songs that even my contemporary churches found time to sing in December. Even so, I don’t really like hymns. Every now and then, our church choir will sing a contemporary song that I do know – but it’s evident from how they sing them, they don’t really care for them in the same exact way that I don’t care for hymns. They sing with less passion for songs that have been written in the last decade and they sing with more passion for songs that are older than they are. It’s a typical symptom of mismatched worship.

It strikes me as a fallacy of human thinking to arrange our churches in such a way as to see to it that we’re all Old Lights or New Lights. That we’re all traditional or we’re all well, not traditional. I think when it comes down to it, we’re all complex mixes of new and old – each of us unique. So often we seem to make the mistake of thinking that other people like what we like because they grew up like we grew up and know what we know – but this clearly isn’t always the case, not anymore.

Most would tell me – “If this church doesn’t suit you – why not go to another?” That’s the problem. We’re only slightly mismatched – in another way, the church is the closest match for my theology. I might not be keen on tradition for the sake of tradition, but this church has a tradition of respecting women and men that doesn’t happen in other denominations to the same degree. Were I to find another New Light church to satisfy my need for emotional worship – I would be just as mismatched because they don’t hold with the same theology that I do.

The problem with mismatched theology is that it’s effects are more deleterious than that of mismatched worship and can poison our spirituality. Great music alone can’t overcome terrible teaching. But not getting the right kind of worship is no good either. I remember a visit we had made to a contemporary church in a neighboring county. The music was okay – but once ‘How He Loves’ got started, it brought me back to a time when worship felt pretty great. I hadn’t realized that I had been running on empty until I finally got something out of worship. I felt like the think that had been missing from worship was right there in front of me – waiting for me to accept it … to let it fill me up with joy.

Even traditional worshippers can relate – you know your favorite hymn? What happens when you get to sing it with everyone else? Do you sing it slightly louder? With more gusto? Do you leave the building humming that hymn? What about a hymn you absolutely hate? It’s just not the same, is it? Now me, as a New Light in an Old Light church, hymns take a little bit of my joy away – each and every Sunday. I thought that using my MP3 Player would give me a bit of my world – my music to bring back my joy. But I don’t always get a chance to listen to my music when everyone else around me is talking to each other so loudly. I thought that being able to stream a contemporary service in the evening would be helpful – but it’s just not the same.

I wish I could ask you to allow for blended services, but then you’d be just as miserable as I am. When I get to sing 10,000 Reasons, I’d hear the disappointment in your voices that we’re not singing How Great Thou Art. When I’m singing Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) I can tell that you’d rather be singing Blessed Assurance by the lifeless words you quietly mumble. While it’s acceptable for you to put me through mismatched worship, I just don’t want to put you through that because you grew up with hymns and I didn’t, they mean something special to you the same way that contemporary music is special to me.

Perhaps what both sides need is blended services with a music appreciation class as an option as a part of Sunday School – a time when both sides can sit down, learn a contemporary song, how it’s sung, and learn a hymn and how it’s sung – about the histories of both songs, the story of their inspiration. Who knows, we might find that were both New Light and Old Lights, we just weren’t ever encouraged to accept change and tradition without being threatened by everything they represent. Because no-one ever told us or believed that we could co-exist.

The Something Missing

Imagine, if you will, that when you arrive to church on Sunday you discover that the worship style that you’re used to has suddenly been replaced with a different one. Not only that, but an announcement is made that the change is a permanent one. Turns out all of the churches in the entire county agreed to make the change. “But you’re still free to sing the songs that you like as much as you want at home!” The pastor suggests.

So the first week you do just that – you play some songs that you find on YouTube and sing along the best you can. But something’s missing.

Going back to church, you have to put up with the new style again and it might grate on your nerves as you realize – that song that was your absolute favorite, that made you feel like God himself was right there with you while you were singing – you’re never going to get to sing it in church with the rest of the congregation ever again.

But you go home and sing your favorite song, by yourself. You sing it half a dozen times throughout the week, but something’s missing.

Yet another Sunday with the new style and it seems to add five minutes to the service. But one member opts to do a ‘special’ and performs one of the old songs that lifts up your spirit. It’s then that you realize that you’ve been drained a little bit of joy at a time each Sunday. But you don’t have to imagine that – if you’re in my neck of the woods then hymns are the fourth person of the trinity and they are not in any danger of being demoted from their lofty position. But hymns don’t work for me.

On Sunday, the choir sang a song from my past – Above All. I missed the song so much, I sang along as quietly as possible. I surprised myself that I got it’s lyrics quite correct as I have a tendency to mix them up and get them out of order. It had been years since I sang that song at church. It was different though – the last time everyone was singing that song together. I know, I could technically join the choir and sing one contemporary song during a performance for the church each month – but the thought of that is intimidating. Would you be particularly thrilled with the idea that the only way for the songs you like to be welcome in church was for you to sing them for the church while everyone else listens silently?

For us, something has been missing every Sunday that we go to church – Contemporary music. Sure, we get to sing it as much as we want at home but it’s not the same. It’s almost as strange as it would be to sing hymn songs at home all alone and never again at church. The obvious solution would be to go to another church. Problem is that the vast majority of the ones here do not do contemporary music either; and worse – their theology is the polar opposite of our own, so there’s no way we’re setting foot in that type of church again.

I fail to understand why a county that is 80% Southern Baptist is also 80% hymn-singing traditional Southern Baptist churches. (Then again, I refuse to attend a Southern Baptist church again, but it’s more of a question of style than denomination.) Why must every church be exactly like the one down the street? What’s terribly wrong with being the one church that does a blended or contemporary service and allows for egalitarian teachings? It’s not as if somebody who doesn’t like it can’t go to any one of the hundreds of other hymn-only churches. That same argument only works when there are other churches to go to that do contemporary or blended services. When there aren’t – you’re stuck … like we are and there will always be something missing.

The Something Wrong

a.k.a. “There’s something wrong with traditional hymns and I just figured out what it was.”

It was a Wednesday evening service. It was late – towards the end of the very last hymn-singing services that they would ever hold. The youth group was in the sanctuary flipping through the hymnals for songs that the praise band would play so we could all sing them together. #10 – ‘How Great Thou Art’, #317 – ‘Only Trust Him’ and #410 – ‘It Is Well’ had already been sung. “Why are there around 650 hymns in this book if we only ever sing about two dozen or so of them at the most – counting seasonal Christmas hymns?” I asked myself as I started at the last hymn and worked backwards looking through the lyrics for something meaningful. When I found the perfect hymn, I raised my hymn and confidently requested number 500 something. The praise band shook their heads when they realized that I had chosen one of the hymns they had never heard of in all of their life-times combined. They gave me another chance to choose a different hymn; #187 – ‘In the Garden’ was the one that we compromised on.

Some years later, singing hymns reached an all new low for me when we ended up at a church where we had no choice but to sing hymns a Capella for a few Sundays in a row. I couldn’t understand why everyone else had warm, fuzzy, happy feelings about singing these same old hymns over and over again when within me there was a growing sense of frustration, of dread, and while I was smiling on the outside, I was crying deep inside. I was desperately crying out for something, anything to fix what was wrong.

Contemporary Music proved to be as refreshing as an ice cold bottle of water in the middle of the desert, as restorative as Aloe Vera gel on burnt skin, and as wonderful as an evening spent gazing at the most starry sky I’d ever seen all wrapped into one experience. It helped me to learn that while I can’t read sheet music, I can still sing the notes even if I don’t know what they are. That I can actually sound good when I sing even if I don’t know how. That songs can be in words I understand because I use them day in and day out. (Granted, I like the word thither, but there’s not a lot of opportunity to use it daily.)

My current church is a hymn-only church. They do contemporary songs as a choir special on occasion. Since I’m expected to quietly sit and listen, I don’t get to join in and that takes some of the fun out of it for me. So I’ll be the one listening to my MP3 player with my favorite contemporary music on it. You don’t have to like my music and that’s okay with me.

I’m not asking that you completely get rid of hymns – I’m just asking you to get rid of certain expectations. I’m asking you to get rid of the expectation that I know the hymns that you know, that I grew up singing the hymns that you grew up singing, that your favorite hymn happens to be my favorite hymn, and that I once sang Kumbayah around a campfire at summer camp because that’s something you did.

I’m not the only one – on a scale of 1 to 10, my brother’s dislike of hymns was an 8 because they were old. My mother said that they were terrible musically, terrible vocally, and that they were old too – she gave them a 9.5. As for me, I’d have to say I’m at 9, I dislike them with the fiery burning passion of a thousand suns. Between the repetitive devotion to a handful of hymns, inclusion of hundreds of hymns only to ignore them, the difficulty of singing songs given an inability to read music, and then there’s that something wrong.

I don’t feel it so much at the current church, but the old church was worse about it. It was the primary reason I was happy to get out of there. It feels like being the person who is wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place. Like everyone can see that you just don’t belong and wondering how you could have possibly missed the memo. It feels like being a person who talks the wrong way. Like everyone thinks that every word you say is too slow or mispronounced. It feels like being a person who shows up at a party they weren’t invited to. Like there’s an awkward silence and a palpable tension in the air. All of this is felt in my core when the dusty old hymnals are pulled up from the pews and they creak open to the creases where the same song is sung so often that the book naturally opens up to that page. I look around and see joyful anticipation and happy exhilaration and glad elation. I feel none of those things. That something wrong is something I don’t think hymns can fix. Neither is pulling up stakes and going to another church an option. The ones that offer contemporary music feature the wrong sort of theology that we are trying to flee. The ones with the theology that we like feature old fashioned hymns. There is nowhere we can go – hence the MP3 player.

Listening to these songs at church is my way of trying to capture that same sacred experience – if only in part – that others seem to get from hymns that I don’t. I wish that I could share that experience – like the part of Winter Jam where there’s a stillness while thousands of believers all put their collective effort to praising God in the midst of such music. Hymns do not work for me, I doubt that my contemporary songs will work for everyone. I just can’t help but feel thirsty for more on Sunday mornings. More than unsung hymns. More than difficult to sing hymns. More than musically awkward hymns. More than old hymns. More than the same hymns over and over again. More than frustration. More than disappointment. I don’t want to be thirsty anymore.