Churches Getting It Right, Part 2: Music

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I grew up with the 1995 Baptist Hymnal, in an awkward brown color, with weird-smelling pages, engraved with my church’s name on the front cover, centered, along the bottom edge. I loved the crap out of that hymnal. It had so many phenomenal lyrics to songs that are truly inspiring and that proclaim solid doctrine. My wife grew up with the same hymnal and shares an equal joy in it. In fact, I gave a copy of it to her on our first wedding anniversary. That’s how nerdy we are. She cherishes it. It’s actually in the room with me right now as I write this.

I say all that to preface this: those hymns have almost no place in a missionally minded church today. Even though I love them, I have to admit that.

Here’s why.

There are two groups that the church should adamantly, obsessively, be trying to reach. First, the Nones: those who have never been in church really for their whole lives. They may have attended a few services here or there for various reasons, but it’s not been a part of their makeup. Second group, the Dones: those who grew up in church or were there for a long time and then decided to leave, or else gradually faded out of the flock. They may even consider themselves Christians now, but even they would have to admit that it’s a nominal term as it applies to them.

These two groups comprise the primary mission field for churches. I dare say that if a church is not in the business of pursuing these people with the Gospel, then it’s not a Christian church and should stop calling itself that. These are the people we’re trying above all else to reach, at every expense and every discomfort. If that’s not the game you’re playing, get off the court. Preferably now.

And that’s exactly why hymns have almost no place in most church services. In the case of the Nones, the language is often so dense or the topics so deep that they, at best, confuse them or, at worst, disengage them entirely. “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come,” however wonderful a sentiment, is a barely decipherable sentence even to the long-term Christians who regularly sing it (it’s part of a very famous hymn), much less on its first hearing by a newcomer.

And for the Dones, the best case scenario is also the worst case scenario, that the use of the hymn reminds them of the church they grew up in, a church they perhaps adored as a kid, but the very one they decided ultimately to leave for good.

This is even true of some “modern” music. I say “modern” because it was fresh and new five or ten or fifteen years ago, but now is something of an oldie. In our attempts to find a church, my wife and I came across far too many playing songs that were far too old, while still calling themselves “contemporary.” They were the same songs we sang in youth group fifteen years ago that many of the people we both know sang before leaving the church for good. If they were to come back and hear the same exact songs, they might get the (very right) impression that nothing had changed and that all the reasons for their departure were still valid.

Toward this end, some churches have made valiant efforts at modernizing their musical arts. The exceptionally good ones (here’s an example of one) scour through the lyrics of each song they’re thinking of singing, not only for the truth of the Bible, but also for understandable and approachable lyrics for the sake of the Nones. They also have in mind a “death date” that marks a song as too old or worn for use anymore, in order to keep things fresh and surprising to the Dones. And many even use one or two well-selected sermon-relevant popular secular songs (usually as a special music that isn’t sung along with by the congregation) to be even more approachable. This has the added benefit of reminding people of church every time they hear that song on a secular radio station.

And that’s music with the mission in mind, not something that reminds us of our childhood, not something that makes or keeps us comfortable, not even something necessarily doctrinally deep and informing, but rather music that assumes the mission is always happening, music that invites those who are standing at the door to come in just a little bit more. That’s the ballgame.

If you just can’t quit the habit of hymns, you can buy your favorite hymnal for your family and sing the songs together. They’ll love it. I know I do.

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