Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From (and For) the Mouths of Babes

A few Sunday’s back I led the congregation in the songs “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” by Martin Luther and “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” by Isaac Watts. The primary reason I chose these songs is a bit obvious by their titles; the Mightiness of God. Not only do the lyrics express the Mightiness of God, but the music enhances that idea with their majestic yet militaristic tunes. But as I was driving home from Springfield the night before, reflecting on the songs that would be sung the following morning, I felt I needed to explain the meaning of the words ‘bulwark’ and ‘Sabaoth’. After all, the song is almost 500 years old. But then I remembered who the intended audience was for both of these songs; children. I was struck by the thought so much so that I mentioned it Sunday morning and on a rather off-handed remark I asked that if these songs are the ‘high water-mark’ in congregational singing today and yet they were originally intended for children, what does that say about us today? I am still pondering that question and I am not exactly sure if my conclusions are solid. When I ask “what does that say about us today,” I believe it leaves us with a couple of challenges.

First, how do these songs compare to our children’s songs today? I don’t want to criticize the intention of those who compose our modern day children’s songs because I believe that many are very instructive in their simplicity for the very young. But unfortunately most children’s songs for today are only appropriate for ages 0-4. Such as “The B-I-B-L-E” and “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man”. They fall in line with other nursery songs such as “The Ittsy Bittsy Spider”. The resources today for children’s music are a little better than wretched. The CD’s you find at your local Christian bookstore are horrendous. First you have the nice lady who probably taught kindergarten singing all her songs in a goofy baby-talk voice. This works for babies and dead people. Second you have the lullaby edition that contains dreamy, sleepwalky, instrumental hymns that only adults (who grew up in the church) know. The only purpose for these are to soothe your baby to sleep. And last but not least it is the top 25 “hot” worship songs from CCLI sung by 12 over-enthusiastic kids. Let’s just say that if this album came with two CDs, you now have an extra Frisbee in case the first CD goes into the neighbors’ yard. Obviously, there is a glaring hole in the quality of children’s music in the church today. Why do we have to dumb down our children’s music? Children learn at an incredible rate. They are sponges that soak up everything around them. If they are exposed early on to the truth then they can only grow from there. I’m not saying we need to get rid of all our modern children’s music, but let’s expand it, and improve it vastly! How would the church look today if the past generation of children grew up on songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” rather than nursery songs until they entered youth group?

The next thing I notice is that though these hymns began as songs meant for children, they stood the test of time by matching beautiful truth with beautiful music. Obviously, ours is not the first generation to use these songs for congregational singing. They have been sung for hundreds of years. What that means for us (the church) is that we (the church, not the music industry) should be striving to produce similar music. Not similar in sound or style, but similar in substance and quality, musically and lyrically. Sometimes I wonder if the “worship” music industry is more of a curse than it is a blessing. If the blessing is the abundance of resources then the curse is that most of the resources are just pumped out for cash with little consideration for the local church. The reason I bring up the “worship” music industry is because there is such a stark contrast in the production of “modern worship” songs compared to the songs produced by Luther and Watts. Why did Luther and Watts produce these songs? Because they cared for the children in their congregations enough to instruct them in the truth. Why does the “worship” music industry produce new music? Yikes. That one is harder to answer because it not very clear that the local congregation is who they are writing for. I don’t think Isaac Watts would be comfortable referring to himself as a ‘worship artist’ and I have a hard time imagining Martin Luther being interviewed by CCM magazine and saying something like, “I was just sitting there with my lute and God just gave me this song. It was, like, the Spirit was totally there.” Get my point? These guys wrote for the church. They didn’t make an album and sell it. They didn’t go on tour to promote their songs. They saw a need and filled it and God blessed it. I wonder what would happen if poets and musicians invested themselves in theology and the local church? Or if theologians and pastors would take time to write some poetry? What if they teamed up to produce music for their local congregation, not to sell a CD, or to make a name for themselves, but to serve the church?

Side Note: I am not saying that a pursuit in the “worship” music industry is bad. But what I am saying is that it is very different to how the church has historically found her voice musically. It is hard for me to believe that the “worship” industry, modeled around popular music’s industry, is in the business of serving the church. Now, if we are talking about artists and musicians who are Christians creating music and art based upon Christ I have no problem with that! God is glorified through that vocation. The problem starts when the (usually highly subjective) art or music is mistaken for congregational worship songs. I know that every now and then, one slips through the cracks and winds up being a great congregational worship song, but in the end the “worship” industry is out to make money (and there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself) and serving the church is secondary, if it is even a goal at all.

[In the future I’ll be posting more about the difference between today’s Christian songs, like the ones heard on the radio, and Congregational songs]

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