Longtime readers probably know of my aversion to modern “worship music” used in many churches today. And so, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal was like preaching to the choir, so to speak.
David Gordon makes many points in this book that intrigued me:
- “It is well known that the character of its song, almost equal with the character of its preaching, controls the theology of a church.” Many of the songs used in churches currently are pretty lite theologically. What message are our churches giving through the songs they are singing?
- This generation is the first to insist that the church’s music mirror its own – in contrast, Christians in the 50s didn’t demand big band-style music at church, nor did 60s churchgoers insist on rock-n-roll. It’s only been in maybe the last 20 years that church music and secular music have become almost indistinguishable in sound.
- In years past, there were many criteria for a song to make it into the hymnal (the lyrics had to be theologically orthodox and significant, the music had to be well-written, etc). Today, the only criteria seems to be that the song sound contemporary. Should contemporaneity be a criteria at all, let alone the most significant?
- It is interesting that many young people do insist on some classical or significant music for their weddings. Are they sending the message that their marriage is more significant than a service worshiping God?
- Neil Postman quote: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Is the contemporary music used in many churches sending the message that Christianity is “easy?”
- Often the argument is made that contemporary music is used to reach “seekers,” although Gordon makes the point that those truly seeking would most likely be confused or turned away by the disconnect between the musical style and the message being taught. “A church that makes no demands – is this the kind of religion Christianity is?”
I think we’ve perhaps gotten a bit too bold as we declare, “God doesn’t care – it’s just a matter of personal taste!” I recall God telling Moses to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Maybe, just maybe, God does care about the way we worship.
Gordon also brings up some difficulties posed by our current style of “worship” in church – for instance, the usage of words on a large screen in front of the church rather than using hymnals at all. I’ve often lamented this, as there is no music to follow. It’s not too enjoyable (not to mention not very “worshipful”) to try to “sing” a new song with only words to go by.
Additionally, without the music, how will kids ever learn to sing music in parts? Gordon points out that most contemporary worship music is written for guitar accompaniment, which doesn’t lend itself to singing in parts anyway. Unison singing has its place, but I don’t think it can compare to 4-part singing done well (or even passably, usually).
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book a lot. Now, if only I could find a church that followed its thoughts …