by Matt Bassford — Wednesday, October 28, 2015
A couple of weeks ago, the Joliet church held our annual youth day. We invited young people from across Chicagoland to come to Joliet for a Saturday to participate in Bible classes intended for their age group, sing, and hang out at the homes of various members. As we typically do, Josh Collier and I divided up the songleading between us, and we solicited hymn requests from those in attendance. Here are some of the requests I remember:
· We Bow Down
· Here I Am to Worship
· As the Deer
· We Will Glorify
· You Are My All in All
· How Deep the Father’s Love
· Glorify Your Name
On a surface level, these hymn requests appear to justify a point that is often made during discussions of contemporary hymns. Even in cases where the content of a contemporary hymn is lacking, brethren often defend its use in worship because “It’s what Our Young People like to sing.” Clearly, that’s the case. All of the hymns on the list above (some good, some not-so-good) come from a contemporary/camp strain of hymnody.
However, that answer merely invites another question. If Our Young People like to sing those hymns, why do they like to sing them? It could be that this is an example of popular, contemporary Christian music forcing its way into the kingdom. You have Christian teenagers who encounter these songs online or at a friend’s house and demand that they be introduced into a camp setting.
I think there’s some value in that, provided that it isn’t carried too far (I don’t think you want the least spiritually mature members of the congregation setting the worship agenda), but it doesn’t appear to be what’s actually happening. The praise songs in question are too old.
“We Bow Down” was written in 1984. “Here I Am to Worship”, in 2000. “As the Deer”, in 1984. “We Will Glorify” has a copyright date of 1982. “You Are My All in All” was copyrighted in 1991. “How Deep the Father’s Love”, in 1995. “Glorify Your Name”, written in 1976, is older than I am.
The most recent song on that list, “Here I Am to Worship”, is 15 years old. I remember when I first started getting interested in pop music, back in 1989. A lot of the music I started exploring came from my brother, who is 13 years older than I am. Even with his help, though, the very oldest bands and albums I started listening to came from no further back than 1980, about 10 years in the past. Anything older than that, I would have identified as “oldies”, coming from a musical era different than my own.
This suggests to me that whoever is pushing the body of contemporary hymns and praise songs (and I think somebody is), it isn’t Our Young People. I think it’s their parents. A few months ago, when various Joliet kids returned from summer camp, “Sanctuary” (copyright 1982) made a couple of Sunday-morning appearances, which thankfully have not been repeated. Afterward, I overheard one of the brethren in my age cohort talking about how “Sanctuary” was to him one of those core Bible-camp experiences.
Here’s how this works. 40-year-old camp counselor is preparing an evening devotional. He thinks back to the time when he was a teenager at camp, and he remembers the praise songs he loved to sing then. He introduces them into a spiritually and emotionally charged setting. Forever after, the campers associate those praise songs with the spiritual high they felt that evening, so they ask for them to be led (or lead them) whenever the opportunity arises. Other Christians observe this pattern, conclude that Our Young People really like contemporary hymns, and push for their inclusion everywhere.
In reality, the driving force here is not progress, but nostalgia. Contemporary praise songs are benefiting not from their innate appeal to Our Young People, but from the camp devotional experience. I suspect that any hymn introduced into such a setting will quickly become a camper favorite, even if it’s 300 years old.
Counselors, then, have a golden opportunity to spiritually shape their young charges. There are good, emotionally powerful hymns from every era of English hymnody. Introduce those. Don’t lean on the mixed body of contemporary hymns, just because they’re contemporary. Singing a spiritually pointless praise song from the early ‘80s is a waste. Admittedly, it does reflect a certain set of preferences, but those preferences don’t belong to the campers. They belong to those who are supposed to be instructing them.