White Horse Inn Commentaries

Revivalism and Christian Music
Part 5 of a 5-part series on Revivalism
Michael S. Horton

©1995 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

"I Need Thee Every Hour." "In The Garden." "I Surrender All." These are among the many hymns that came into existence because of that celebrated American institution: the Revival Meeting. Moving from churches to huge tents and now to giant stadiums across the country and to the globe via TV broadcasting, revivalism is now a world-wide phenomenon. No longer are the major international universities the most important influence in shaping the world-wide church; today, it is Tulsa, not Tubingen, that rules the world.

But while the revivals hit the frontier, the secular literati were engaged in a movement of their own. We have discussed the period of Romanticism, that major movement in art, literature and music of the last century. But it was also a philosophy--an outlook. Reacting against the dry rationalism and anti-supernaturalism of the Enlightenment, the Romantics turned inward, to the realm of the spirit and protested the replacement of man with machine. We find this is Ralph Waldo Emerson's cheer, "I am part and parcel of God." Or Walt Whitman's famous, "Song of Myself."

Revivalism carried this sentimental narcissism into the church itself and "songs of myself" rushed in like a flood. Instead of the focus being on God and his saving work in Christ for sinners, these new hymns centered on me and my personal experience. Men as well as women were supposed to sing these semi-erotic love-songs to another man, Jesus: "He touched me; oh, he touched me! And oh what joy that floods my soul!" In her provocative book, The Feminization of American Culture, feminist writer Ann Douglas actually laments this development in American religion, crediting the new situation to a triumph of Arminianism over Calvinism. One glance at the 19th and 20th century hymns will prove a shift from "Eternal Father Strong To Save," to the romantic rendezvous in a garden with Jesus, to John Wimber's "Spirit Song," there has been a systematic and often unwitting attempt to rid the church's praise of masculine, angular, weighty pieces that can be demanding in both style and content.

Stay with me here. When someone says, "We want contemporary worship over traditional worship," two things must be pointed out. First, to most Christians, "traditional" hymns are 19th and 20th century Romantic hymns that sound as much like music for the skating rink as for church. By "traditional," we certainly don't want to burden a new generation with "Blessed Assurance," which makes our assurance of salvation dependent on "perfect surrender" and advocates "visions of rapture." It comes right out of the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. Nor do we mean, "He Touched Me." This is not "traditional hymnody" and if you are reacting against this stuff by moving into praise songs, who could blame you? Second, when people say they want to throw out traditional hymns and 'go contemporary,'" what they really mean is that they want to tone down the doctrinal substance and objective focus on God. They want to express their own feelings, which are more easily accessible and meaningful, since we don't know very much about God anymore.

We're told that the music is 40% of the worship. In many churches today, it is far more, taking up more time than the sermon. Historically, the church has seen the assembly on Sunday morning as the opportunity for God to dispense his grace and for his people to express gratitude in a manner that is instructed by Scripture. But now, the church meets to do something--to engage in a "praise and worship celebration." The sing-along on certain nights at church that I remember growing up has now been moved into the Sunday morning slot itself and the shift cannot help but lead an already entertainment-focused society into deeper self-worship.

So instead of saying that they want contemporary over traditional hymnody, what many mean is that they want to worship God according to the dictates of their own subjective experience and musical tastes. The music is soft, feminine, repetitive, shallow and romantic. That's why we don't like it. It is not because we're snooty or argumentative. Our music is a direct expression of our theology.

What we want is something that we simply do not see in our day, and something that was characteristic of the church for her first 1700 years. That is, church-produced music. "Wait a minute," someone is asking, "are you saying that the contemporary Christian music is not church-produced?" Yes, that's exactly what we're saying. In fact, our guest tonight, Dr. Leonard Payton, will be showing us that most of our contemporary Christian music is produced, funded, and owned by publicly-held secular companies--companies like Capital Cities/EMI, that sell stock on the open market. Unlike J. S. Bach, who was employed by the Lutheran church to create a new tradition in congregational and choral singing, or Louis Bourgois, France's leading Renaissance poet who became Calvin's church composer, today's musicians not accountable to the church, but to the marketplace. It is greed, pure and simple, and the almighty dollar determines what will be sung on Sunday morning. Commercial success, which always requires the paring off of rough edges that might offend certain consumers, is the mother of contemporary Christian music.

And in terms of style, we are always behind the world in our commercialism. So while the pagans are gaga over Gregorian chants, the church is drowning in a sea of soft rock "musak"--sanctified elevator music. So do we want to simply sing the older church music of the first 1700 years of the church? Well, most of us have never heard very much if any of this, so it might not be a good idea to throw that idea out entirely without considering its merits. These anthems and hymns were either projects of directly setting biblical text to music or of paraphrasing biblical text, but in either case the church was looking to the Bible for its theology and for its hymnody. Now, we look to ourselves and our own experiences, which almost always seem to be "joyous" and "happy."

No, it's not just old vs. new. We need a new generation of Bachs and Bourgeois--church musicians who will create contemporary hymns that are faithful to Scripture, true to the expectations of biblical worship and centered on Christ's objective work mediated through Word and sacrament. But whether you are a Bach or not, you are a singer in the heavenly choir, someone who is commanded by God to lift up your voice of thanksgiving to your Rock and Redeemer.


What's Your Beef With Contemporary Christian Music?

1. It comes to us from the world of business, not the church

2. It is rooted in the rebellion of the '60s

3. The style was not developed with the teaching concerns

4. It is attached to feelings and expectations which will not be fulfilled by timeless hymns.

5. It promotes "ortho-feely" rather than orthodoxy.

Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.

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