Crown Him with many crowns,
The lamb upon the throne:
Hark! How the heav’nly anthem drowns
All music but its own!
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of Him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity.
Lyrics: Matthew Bridges (1800–1894), Music: George Job Elvey (1816–1893)
Last Sunday I had the privilege to preach in an Assemblies of God church. It was my first time there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The worship team looked young and I feared that there would be the usual servings of Bethel and Hillsong music. I was pleasantly surprised that their set was a carefully chosen blend of new and old music and the main worship set ended with “How Great Thou Art”. The music both led and helped my heart express my joy and wonder at my King. But too often such mature blended worship has been the exception rather than the norm.
This is not a defence for hymns over the new worship music. There are good and lousy hymns just as there are good and lousy new worship songs. My appeal for blended worship that utilises the best music of all genres and eras — and that includes good hymns — is based on at least three concerns.
First, when we include hymns in our worship we are reminded that Christianity is a historical faith and that God has been working in a church that is over two thousand years old. The church didn’t begin with Hillsong, or Azusa Street, or even the Reformation. Our God reigns over history. This both strengthens our faith and humbles our hearts. It’s not just about us and our time. Yes, new encounters with God will lead to new music and I fully support this. But not if it leads to worship song amnesia, reducing God to only our tiny portion of history. He is much bigger than that.
Next, and I know this is a generalisation, but the newer worship songs seem to focus more on the immanence of God, a God who draws near, while more hymns focus on the transcendence of God, the God who is high and lifted up. A lonely generation cries out for a God who draws near, and He does! After all He is Immanuel, God with us. The danger lies in understanding God mainly from the experience of our encounters with Him. We sing “God is good” because He is good to me. But we all know there are times when God’s presence and blessings are hidden. Does that mean we then conclude that God is not good? We know that God is good because of how He has revealed Himself in history, in His dealings with Israel, and through the life and teaching of Jesus. God is good irrespective of how I experience Him at any given moment. God is good and great because He has revealed Himself as such in the Bible. So I don’t conform my knowledge of God to fit my experience. I allow my knowledge of God as revealed in the Word to shape my experience. And songs that focus on His transcendence help me do that.
And I long for blended worship that includes older songs to ensure that all in the congregation feel a sense of belonging. If a church is intergenerational, and that is my ideal for a church, the different age groups in the church would have come to the Lord at diverse times when particular songs were sung. Sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and you will see the eyes of parishioners of a certain generation light up. It touches a deep spiritual memory within them that lifts up their hearts. Similarly, other groups light up when you sing “Majesty” or “How Great is Our God”. I appeal to worship leaders — exegete your congregation. What are their age groups? What songs would especially touch their hearts? Don’t just choose songs that mean a lot to you. Don’t inadvertently make certain groups in the church increasingly feel this is no longer their church. This also means that the older members should learn the newer worship songs and there are many good new ones.
My understanding of the selection of church music has been guided by Paul’s teaching in Colossians 3:16,
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (NIV)
The early church treasured the Psalms though they were written hundreds of years before Christ. Indeed, it was their main song book. They were not discarded or forgotten because they were old. They also sang hymns that were probably newly composed in response to the life and work of Jesus. Songs from the Spirit may be spontaneous songs that the Spirit inspired on the spot. Paul and the early church practised blended worship in their choice of songs! We should learn from them.
He shall return in robes of white
The blazing sun shall pierce the night
And I will rise among the saints
My gaze transfixed on Jesus’ face
O praise the Name of the Lord our God
O praise His Name forevermore
For endless days we will sing Your praise
Oh Lord, oh Lord our God
Writers: Benjamin Hastings, Dean Ussher, Marty Sampson (2015)