Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Old hymns and 7-11 choruses

One of our local Christian radio stations uses the slogan “Christian music for your family.” It grates my nerves every time I hear it – because this so-called “Christian music for your family” is not the music for “my family.” It is neither broad nor eclectic, but a steady obsessive diet of contemporary “Praise & Worship” from popular-selling Christian artists.

I have a pretty broad range of music appreciation. Religiously, we were raised on hymns, gospel music[i] and Sacred Harp. (I even attended a couple of “Christian Rock” concerts back in the 1970s.)[ii] Outside of church I got large doses of country & western,[iii] pop music of the 1960s,[iv] bluegrass and Rock-n-Roll.[v] So when I say I don’t appreciate much of the contemporary Christian music culture, it’s not that I can’t, but that I don’t.

Within this contemporary Christian music culture we’ve seen the rise of Praise & Worship choruses – what some people negatively call “7-11” choruses.[vi] Mary B. Grimm describes them, “Just like a 7-11 convenience store, the choruses are convenient, quick, and can only provide the bare minimum needed.” Possibly considering the severe brain damage caused by the medical procedure, Randy Newman has dubbed a subset of this music “lobotomy choruses.” He writes, “Praise songs need to be basic enough for most people to sing and remember but complex enough to protect them from mental numbness.”

Congregational Singing is the ideal held forth in the New Testament. In general there is a tendency of contemporary Christian music to inhibit congregational singing. In the first place many of the songs are not designed (written) with the congregation in mind. They are for performers. In the second place – piled upon the initial problem – many of the songs are not performed with the congregation in mind. The “worship leaders” are performers. Many progressive American churches seem to be hung up on is style over substance. But the issue of praise band and praise choruses goes beyond that, in that many of the songs they are singing truly are performances for an audience with little interest in or attention given to whether or not the congregation sings.

I don’t frequently attend churches that sing “off the wall.”[vii] But I have – and have sung, or at least attempted to sing, “off the wall.” I have no objection to the “7-11” choruses per se. I have found some I like.[viii] Many are just Pablum (but that can be true of some hymns also).[ix] The repetition – frequently not well done or overdone – can become mind-numbing,[x] but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Though it may have devolved into a problem of “obsessive focus,” repetition in singing is neither new, nor confined to “7-11” choruses. Gospel songs – some of which we’ve been singing for years – often have a refrain intended to be sung (repeated) after each hymn stanza. The repetitive chorus “He loves us, he loves me, he loves me this I know; He gave himself to die for me, because he loved me so,” is an (often) welcome addition to the metrical hymn by Isaac Watts, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed.”[xi] Robert Lowry built the repeating refrain “nothing but the blood” into his song by the same name.[xii] Repetition is successfully used in old hymns themselves. Charles Wesley did so in one of his seven Hymns for New Year’s Day in 1750. Each of six 6-line stanzas of the “Blow ye the trumpet” hymn concluded with two lines, “The year of jubilee is come; Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.”

God reinforces the use of repetition in his own song book. Repetition ingrains in us words, sentences, phrases, Bible verses, and truths.[xiii] In Psalm 148 “Praise him,” “Praise ye him,” and “Praise ye the Lord” are each repeated 3 times, and “praise the name of the Lord” twice. In Psalm 150 “Praise Him” is repeated 9 times in only 6 verses, in a song which begins and ends with “Praise ye the Lord.” The most repetitive song is Psalm 136 in which “for his mercy endureth for ever” is repeated 26 times!

Another complaint – especially from the older generations – is that of always singing the new stuff and not singing the old hymns. A song is not bad, wrong or unscriptural because it is new. I write songs, and every time I write one it is at that time new. Every song that has ever been written was once new. The new song, if written for church music, should be written with the congregation in mind, and should focus on God and the scriptural truths of the Bible. “Singing a new song” is mentioned in the Bible. The mentality of the pervasive “new song” in praise-driven churches is, unfortunately, a product of commercialism. Most contemporary Christian music is written to be recorded and marketed – that is, it is intended to be sold and to make money. Churches are some of the end users where there is much money to be made.

Choruses need not be abandoned. An obsession with them ought to be carefully reviewed and properly addressed. (Any other obsessions as well!) New songs should still be written and sung. If we are constantly replacing our old songs with new, we are cutting ourselves loose from our moorings – and replacing the time-tested with the unproven. The issue of performance and praise choruses, new songs and old generations, and such like transcends the topic of hymns versus choruses. Churches must first address the issue of whether they will choose congregational praise over featured performance.

[i] Late 19th century gospel (think Doane, Kirkpatrick and Lowry) and what is now called Southern Gospel (think Albert Brumley and Stamps-Baxter)
[iii] From Jim Reeves to Johnny Horton to George Jones to Dolly Partin
[iv] From Elvis to Johnny Rivers to the Beach Boys
[v] Think Z. Z. Top, Deep Purple and Captain Beyond!
[vi] They “repeat the same 7 words 11 times,” or “you sing 7 lines 11 times.”
[vii] This colloquialism refers to replacing hymnals with large screens on the walls, with the words to be sung projected by PowerPoint on to that screen.
[viii] For example, “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” of which someone has said that it contains a short course in Christology; and “Awesome God” (which technically may not be a chorus, but is often used that way).
[ix] Pablum – a brand of soft, bland cereal for infants by the Mead Johnson Company.
[x] In the “Reader’s Write” section of Christianity Today, several years ago a reader wrote, “One of my greatest frustrations in churches is the near-obsessive focus on praise songs [emp. mine, rlv]. Our church’s worship team sings about one hymn per month, and accompanies it with a concession to the ‘older folks’ in the congregation.”
[xi] “Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ,” in Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book II, Hymn 9, 1707
[xii] First published in 1876 in Gospel Music, by Lowry and William Howard Doane.
[xiii] Some choruses are Bible verses set to music (e.g. This is the Day).

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