A bit of history… the early church sang hymns and used music to worship their Savior, but somewhere along the line, the church stopped singing. During the reformation, reformers like Martin Luther revived the art of congregational singing. New hymns were written and a new song was sung. The Wesley's and many other great hymn writers like Fanny Crosby, and my personal favorite, Isaac Watts added to the church’s canon of wonderful theological songs. These songs were collected and most churches used these collections each week… it was called the hymnal.
In fact, through the years, many have historically carried two books to grow in their faith… the Bible and the hymnal. Not that the hymnal was ever considered inspired, but there was so much rich teaching that whole families would use these great songs to teach systematic theology to their children. It was like catechism with a melody that acted like a glue to stick the truths to the soul. For instance, when you learned your ABC’s, did you learn it to a tune? Most people did, because it makes what you learn more permanent. The truths of God worked the same way. People would then carry the theology of these songs on for the rest of their lives.
In the 1970’s the “Jesus Movement” brought new styles of music into the Christian community. The CCM industry was born, and eventually bought by major record labels. In the 90’s the modern worship movement became a major part of a lot of church’s music programs.
Today, sadly, there has become a rift between those who use hymns and those who prefer modern worship. The “Hymns only” crowd attacks modern songs for not being as strongly theological, and the modern worship group puts down the ancient hymns for being “outdated” and “boring”. The vast majority of churches feel you have to choose one side or the other and in so doing, they miss out on a major blessing.
As a lover of theology, I love the hymns, but not all songs for the church are written for the same purpose and comparing them all based on one criteria is like comparing apples and oranges.
We would not say testimonies have no place in the church because they are not as deeply theological as an expository sermon. Why then, would we say testimony songs have no place because they do not teach systematic theology in every line? Testimonies, biblical counseling, discipling, and encouragement often contain theology, but they serve a different purpose from the preaching of the Word. Sermons, on the other hand can build up a congregation and offer personal testimony, but their goal is to explain God’s word to us. In the same way, many modern worship songs contain doctrine, but usually focus more on testimony than theology. Both modern and ancient hymns contain praise and testimony, but are mostly written to teach of God’s attributes and works.
I believe we do a disservice when we forsake the theological hymns for the modern songs just because we hear them all the time on the radio and and love singing along with them. Yes, we praise God for the personal testimony of the singer that is often ours as well, but we miss out on the opportunity to learn life-changing doctrinal truths through a well written melody. I also believe we miss out on some wonderful, helpful songs of testimony, consolation, and comfort when we only sing theology line after line. There is room for the two, sadly very few churches actively seek out to do both.
I want to use our ministry to both sing testimony as well as teach doctrine. I think both have their place in the church. Some songs of testimony may be more subjective, compared to the objective truth in scripture, but we want to be a well-rounded congregation. God has given us the gift of music, in other words, I want to enjoy an apple for being an apple, not complain that it is not as juicy as an orange. But rather than eat just an apple everyday, I’d rather have a nice fruit salad.
Bill Itzel has been a worship leader and singer/songwriter for over 30 years and is based in Westminster, MD. His family tours and leads worship around the country. Bill and his family attend Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie, MD. This is a blog about congregational worship and the latest news in the The Itzel's ministry.