Quite often during the day, you might find me humming, "How great is our God, sing with me!" Right now, you'll find my iPod blasting, "If you've got pain, He's a pain taker/ ... He's a chain breaker!" Powerful songs, indeed. Today, many sounds of praise are sweet indeed.
History tells us every new touch of God brings about a fresh touch to our worship experience and, for more than a few years, I've had a front-row seat to the proceedings.
The first time I sang a gospel song, I was standing on a chair. These songs were in my blood. And as many of us in the "Lifelong Gospel Singer Fraternity" will admit, the songs of Zion took hold in our hearts when we were young.
My beginning years were influenced by the infectious energy and excitement of the Southern gospel quartet sounds, the high tenors, the smooth bass singers, the hot black gospel, the jazzy piano licks, mixed with a special love for those big-voiced, Pentecostal altos. Talk about exciting! (And since everything else was a sin, it was good entertainment too.)
Later in my journey, my gospel-singing and choir-directing years moved me into a third area of worship expression. The old-timers used to call us "song leaders." But, thankfully, a more prestigious title was later bestowed upon us. We became "worship leaders."
From small hotel meeting rooms to giant arenas, I've seen God do great things in moments of corporate worship. Yes, He really does inhabit the praises of His people.
Growing Worship Influence
Throughout church history, the practice of lifting our voices in praise has been a vital component of music. With each move, the worship influence has grown.
Coming out of the early revivals and Holy Spirit moves of the late '50s, many congregations started singing choruses. These usually four-line affirmations spoke of our love for Jesus, our expression of faith and our need of His help. The songs were relatable and easy to learn.
As worship influences expanded, saints also began reaching into a deeper revelation of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19b). We started to sing songs from our hearts. Some called it "singing in the Spirit." These were songs that could not be found in any book, and through this kind of singing, God's presence was so very sweet.
As the societal climate evolved, our praise sounds changed too. In the late '60s and early '70s, transformation happened in our worship. We heard about some folks from California who were singing praises with a new fervor. Man, they had guitars!
Even commercial pop music reflected the changes, as Top 40 radio stations beamed to our transistors, "O happy day/ when Jesus washed my sins away" and "Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee" on playlists sandwiched between "Let It Be" and "Light My Fire."
In the middle of this, we also found a new sound and rhythm coming to the church that intrigued us. We started to ask each other, "Have you heard Andrae Crouch's new album?"
Then we started hearing second- and third-generation cassette copies of people singing and praising from New Zealand. In fact, some of them sang lyrics straight from Scripture.
In many churches, praise musicals replaced traditional cantatas, inviting congregations to lift their voices and participate in worship. We loved the new variety of music. We sang, we lifted our hands, and God moved.
Missing Meaningful Experiences
Mixed with these new experiences, one form of worship seemed destined for the endangered species list. Hymns just weren't hip anymore. Besides, hymnals were bulky, filled with archaic language and wouldn't fit on our newfangled overhead projectors.
No, I'm not a "get off my lawn" guy, but even then, while enjoying all the new blessings, I felt strongly about the loss I witnessed. Over 40 years later, I still feel it. Generations have missed majestic musical settings, important doctrinal truths and well-crafted, inspired lyrics that speak to the deep needs of man and of the "deep, deep love of Jesus."
Another loss is prominent: the loss of harmony. Hymns had harmony and even helped teach us to read music.
Harmony is an actual, on-earth exercise of the heavenly spirit. Family members come together, each finding a part, to create the burst of color, affirmation and fellowship. Harmony is a God-thing.
Also, in some of the more casual worship experiences of today, we have intentionally avoided the grand, majestic sounds of praise. Some believers have said they want to avoid sounds that may be interpreted as "too militant."
But there is an undeniable power when, as one, congregational voices raise a thunderous, "O that with yonder sacred throng/ We at His feet may fall/ We'll join the everlasting song/ And crown Him Lord of all!" Boom! Demons flee. Faith builds.
The casual nature of today's worship experience also has led to losing a sense of tradition, a sense of dignity, a sense that what we are doing today is part of our history and our future. We belong to something grand, godly and majestic.
Sharing With Future Generations
But we don't sing these songs simply because they are old. Rather, as my friend Bill Gaither told me, "We sing them because they are great; they have stood the test of time, and they carry so much of our history."
I want to share with the generations who have missed the truths that have sustained me. There is the comforting, "Oh, what peace we often forfeit/ Oh what needless pain we bear/ All because we do not carry/ Everything to God in prayer!" Or the quiet, loving moment, "My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou/ If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, 'tis now."
In dark times, these words remind me of my moorings: "When darkness seems to hide His face/ I rest on His unchanging grace/ ... On Christ the solid Rock I stand." And in morning devotions: "All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided/ Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!"
In our future: "When we've been there ten thousand years/...We've no less days to sing God's praise." In remembering the depth of His sacrifice: "So I'll cherish the old rugged cross."
Commendably, some songwriters have used lines from our heritage repertoire. But our kids and our churches need to learn more than eight bars of an old song. They need to look at the verses that broaden the message and dig deeper.
Perhaps it might be time to pre-teach the worship team about these songs. Tell the story. Explain the lyric. Give it context. Start with one hymn a month. Sing it a few weeks in a row. Adapt the tempo a bit if needed. Then, talk about some of the great writers. Although Fanny Crosby was blind, she was "Watching and waiting, looking above"; there was the talented Isaac "Joy to the World" Watts, who was pretty hip in his day; the Wesley brothers cried out, "O for a thousand tongues to sing/ My great Redeemer's praise!"; and then there was Horatio Spafford, who, in the midst of his most tragic loss, affirmed, "It is well with my soul."
And although modern hymnology has omitted much of it, we can't miss the songs of the cross and the shedding of Jesus' precious blood. It happened. His sacrifice sealed our salvation, and we must never lose our awe and appreciation.
A few years ago, some talented moviemakers depicted John Newton's journey and the birthing of "Amazing Grace." This song and "How Great Thou Art" are now considered our most beloved hymns, part of Americana. But there is more.
Now it seems we have regressed from corporate praise to an audience watching a few slim, hip musicians, amid fog and lights, telling us the sky is blue. Pass the coffee, please.
Today we need a fresh touch that allows us to embrace the fullness of the God-intended worship experience. My prayer is, "Lord, let it happen!"
I have wondered what five hymns I would want our kids to know. The debates will always swirl, but here's my take (unranked): "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," "Amazing Grace," "Blessed Assurance," "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
Since it's hard to pick just five, here are 10 honorable mentions too: "Crown Him With Many Crowns," "Holy, Holy, Holy," "How Great Thou Art," "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Joy to the World," "O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "The Solid Rock," "Praise Ye the Lord," "The Old Rugged Cross" and "There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood."
What made your list of all-time favorites? Whether you agree or disagree with my choices, the church still needs hymns.
Let our kids be blessed. Let harmony fill the air. Let the singing begin.
Michael Green is pastor with his wife, Linda, at The LifeGate (thelifegate.com) in Metairie and Mandeville, Louisiana. He is also a speaker, singer, producer and writer. Find him on Twitter (@MichaelGreen77).
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