(This article ran in the January, 2010 regional edition of The Blue Ridge Christian News.)
At Disciples Road Church, we feature a balanced blend of music. Unlike churches that offer separate traditional and contemporary services, we just throw everybody together and ask them to sing classic hymns and contemporary worship songs. Since having preferences is a part of being human, our members have theirs. With a few exceptions, the lines fall exactly as you would think: the kids like the contemporary songs best, but the adults like the classics.
The truth is, I can’t blame the kids for favoring the contemporary songs. Have you ever really paid attention to some of the words of the old hymns? The second verse of Holy, Holy, Holy has the line: “Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee.” That’s a glorious thought, but how many youth know that cherubim and seraphim are two categories of angels? (And, yes, I’ve taught on that subject at the church.) The first verse of All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name reads: “Let angels prostrate fall; Bring forth the royal diadem.” When does a ten-year old hear the word “prostrate” or “diadem” other than in that song? The second verse of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing begins with: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I come.” That line is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, but a teenager sings it and thinks, “What’s an Ebenezer?” I’ve got to admit that even my initial reaction to the word has more to do with the Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol than the great prophet Samuel. And I won’t even get into their reactions to “hither” and “thy.”
You say, “Russell, you’re just singing the wrong hymns. You need to quit trying to be ‘high church.’ Just stick to old standbys like At Calvary, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, and Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.” Well, I must report that we even run into some problems with these seemingly simple songs. At Calvary contains words such as “spurned,” “imploring,” and “raptured.” What A Friend We Have In Jesus gives us “laden,” “cumbered,” and “solace.” Leaning On The Everlasting Arms talks about walking in this “pilgrim way” and being safe and secure from all “alarms.” Any child who knows about getting up early for school knows what an alarm is and is left to wonder how God keeps us secure from them.
Do you understand the point I’m making? Oftentimes it takes an elderly theologian to grasp doctrinal truths that are presented in language from the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. There’s a reason why Bible-school songs sound so much different from our classic hymns. Yes, the quicker beat helps keep the attention of hyperactive kids, but the unsophisticated words are a major draw too. Children are like adults in that they want to be able to understand what they are singing.
My son Ryan is twelve years old. He is a straight-A student who has been raised in church. He knows Jesus as his Savior and wasn’t baptized by me until I was thoroughly convinced that his salvation was genuine. It has only been over the last three years that he has been introduced to contemporary Christian music. Before that, he only sung such songs during Bible school. Everything else was classic hymnology. What I’m saying is, if any kid should be able to handle the old songs, it’s Ryan.
Nevertheless, a few weeks ago, after our church had sung Victory In Jesus, Ryan asked me something that really opened my eyes. His question was, “Daddy, what’s a ‘wretch’?” You see, if that song had said, “I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory, how he gave his life on Calvary to save a sinner like me,” Ryan would have understood completely. But that word “wretch” confused him, even though he’d also sung it before in the opening words of Amazing Grace. You see, he is a “wretch” who has been saved by God’s amazing grace via Christ’s death on Calvary, but he needs a song that expresses that great truth in words that he can grasp.
A couple of weeks later I had a similar experience with Royce, my nine-year old. For several months now Tonya has been working to get him to remain in the worship service for its entirety, which includes his daddy’s sermon. She’s taken longer to make that transition with him than she did with Ryan because he has matured at a different rate than Ryan. I’ve tried to help by encouraging Royce to really sing out when we sing our songs. I always try to get the kids to participate in the service. It helps them and it helps the service. Since Royce likes singing, he has become one of the loudest voices in our church. (We’ll work at staying on key and in tempo later.)
Well, I don’t remember exactly what we were singing that morning, but I could hear Royce’s loud voice coming in and out of the song. It was obvious what was happening: He was singing loud until he came to a word he didn’t know. If I hadn’t figured that out during the song, Royce certainly let me hear about it at the song’s conclusion. He said, for all the congregation to hear, “Those words are too hard!” Everybody laughed, but I knew the little fellow was simply voicing a frustration that has been felt by thousands of young people at some point during their church lives.
Under this same category, we also find the debate concerning the use of modern translations of the Bible. Just as words such as “wretch,” “prostrate,” “diadem,” “cumbered,” and “solace” are completely foreign to today’s youth, so are K.J.V. words such as:
“chambering” (Romans 13:13); “sackbut” (Daniel 3:5); “clouted” (Joshua 9:5); “glede“ (Deuteronomy 14:13); “ouches” (Exodus 28:11); “brigandines” (Jeremiah 46:4); “chode“ (Numbers 20:3); “nitre” (Proverbs 25:20); “purtenance” (Exodus 12:9); “choler“ (Daniel 8:7); “scall” (Leviticus 13:30); “amerce” (Deuteronomy 22:19); “tabret” (Genesis 31:27); “neesings” (Job 41:18); “suretiship“ (Proverbs 11:15); “collops” (Job 15:27); “trow” (Luke 17:9); “cieled” (Haggai 1:4); “blains” (Exodus 9:9); “wen” (Leviticus 22:22); “cotes” (2 Chronicles 32:28); “crookbackt” (Leviticus 21:20); “wantonness” (Romans 13:13); “ambassage” (Luke 14:32); “wimples” (Isaiah 3:22); and “habergeon” (Exodus 28:32).
I’ve been preaching for seventeen years, but even I have to work hard to figure out what these words mean. I can only imagine what young people think of the Bible when they run into such words while reading it. Since translation teams devote their lives to putting the Bible into the common languages of indigenous groups around the world, shouldn’t we do the same for our young folks here at home?
Frankly, I don’t claim to have all the answers in the traditional vs. contemporary debate. But what I do know is that if we want our kids to understand the word of God and the great doctrinal truths it conveys, we have to give them translations and spiritual songs that speak the way they do. The critic would call this more of the “dumbing down” of our society, but I just can’t justify holding 21st century kids (or adults for that matter) to the language standards of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries.
If I know anything about God, I know that He is alive and vibrant, always pushing ahead and moving on to the next thing. Jesus refused to be trapped by so many of the “traditions” of His day, and He hasn’t changed. Our Lord is in the business of reaching all people with His message, and as such He doesn’t want to be held hostage to archaic language that doesn’t speak in a clear, easily understood way to the people of the day. That is especially true when it comes to highly impressionable young people. I’m not saying that we should abandon the time-honored hymns or the K.J.V. translation. As long as large numbers of people still prefer these, there’s no reason to exclusively embrace the contemporary. But, on the other hand, let’s not drive into the other ditch by automatically labeling anything “new” as “bad.” Our young folks need us to be more discerning than that.