In 2008, Mike Horton called attention to the phenomenon of a radically subjective turn in American evangelicalism, in Christless Christianity. Unfortunately, a single book diagnosing the deep sickness of American evangelical Christianity was not enough to turn the tide. In that volume, Mike was building on the work of Christian Smith and company, who had discovered that underneath the surface, the heartbeat of much of what passes for evangelical Christianity in America is really moralistic, therapeutic deism. In a recent interview in the Christian Post (HT: Presbycast), Keith Getty, author of the widely sung contemporary hymn, “In Christ Alone,” lamented that, in its quest for “cultural relevance,” modern worship music is “de-Christianizing people.” He said, “Over 75 percent of what are called the great hymns of the faith talk about eternity, Heaven, Hell, and the fact that we have peace with God. Yet, less than 5 percent of modern worship songs talk about eternity.” To address the problem, he has founded a worship conference which has become among the largest of its kind. He wants to draw the church back to the great hymns of the faith and to modern hymnody which are artistically and theologically sound. This is a step in the right direction but, from a the perspective of the sixteenth century, it is only a half-step.
Getty’s critique is undoubtedly correct. Much contemporary worship music is both aesthetically and biblically vacuous. He is right to call Christians to seek to create art with theological depth and lasting artistic value. After observing evangelical worship for 45 years and after talking with my students, in both broadly evangelical and in Reformed schools, about their experience of contemporary worship music, I am confident that the principal function of most contemporary worship music is to produce a mild euphoria. It puts the T back in therapeutic. It makes people feel good, but Getty is quite right to observe “[m]any worship songs are focused on this Earth.” More specifically, they are focused on the feelings and experience of the believer. They are crafted, if that is indeed the right verb to use here, with the intent of producing in the singer a certain emotional reaction. Further, I think they are addictive. In my experience, it takes people as long as six months to withdraw from their addiction to the weekly dose of euphoria they receive from contemporary worship music. Most contemporary worship music is not focused on the great acts of redemption nor upon God’s promises to his people, or upon his attributes. They are focused upon us. Typically they are followed by a message—increasingly delivered not by a pastor with a theological education but by an entrepreneur with a business degree—that also focuses upon us and our experience.
Nevertheless, as important as Getty’s warning is, there is a very important missing word in the interview: psalm. As I tell my students every year in our Ancient Church course, we are living in the most psalm-less age in the history of the church. I regularly encounter young people who have never sung a Psalm in their lives—not Psalm 23 or even Psalm 100. I suppose this should not surprise me. When I became a Christian in a broadly evangelical setting, the Psalms were entirely absent. I learned about Larry Norman’s music before I learned about King David’s music. The Psalms were, after all, part of the Old Testament and we were, as we said, “New Testament Christians.” I remember seeing occasionally a New Testament with the Psalms attached to them. The first thing I remember reading about the Psalms was Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 (1970). It would be more than a decade, however, before I began to discover the Psalms. One of the elders (Ed Wierenga) in my first congregation in Kansas City had grown up singing the Psalms in the blue Christian Reformed Psalter-Hymnal (1959). He arranged to get a set of re-bound Psalter-Hymnals for our, hitherto, mostly hymn-singing congregation and we began to sing some Psalms. It was a revelation. Here was a depth of piety and theology that I had not seen nor experienced before. In them I found the objective truths of the faith, Christ, and the Christian experience fully described.
So, we should appreciate Keith Getty for sounding the alarm about the state of contemporary worship music. What Getty may not appreciate, however, is that it was the introduction of hymns—some of which were quite beautiful—that helped to lead us to where we are. It seems fairly clear that the Christians in the New Testament period sang two kinds of songs: 1) Psalms (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are categories of the Psalter in the LXX)—God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “each one has a Psalm;” 2) Spirit-inspired songs. We have some of those recorded or at least portions of them in Luke 1 and 2 (e.g., the Magnificat; the Nunc Dimittis), in the Revelation, and perhaps in the Pauline epistles (e.g., Phil 2:5–11). With the completion of the great acts of redemption, until the return of Christ, the canonical revelation closed with the Revelation, c. A.D. 93.
There is little evidence that the earliest post-apostolic Christians sang non-canonical hymns. Historians of worship speak rather loosely about “ancient” Christian hymns. There are some third century hymns and many more in the fourth century A.D. The growth of the number of non-canonical songs used in worship in the fourth century was controversial and was addressed by at least two regional synods, with one ruling against them and then for them. In the seventh century, under the influence of Gregory I, the number and use of non-canonical hymns exploded. Still, however, the Psalms retained a unique and central place in Christian worship for the millennium. In the eighteenth century, under the influence of the Pietists and revivalists, the Psalter began to be displaced. That trend continued through the 19th century. The Christian Reformed Church introduced its first Psalter-Hymnal in 1931. To that point, they sang the Psalms or at least paraphrases of the Psalms. Did you know that there are five doxologies in the Psalter? For the longest time I did not. When I entered the Reformed churches I was under the impression that “the doxology” with which we closed our services was an ancient Christian song. It is not. Ken’s “doxology” dates to 1673. It was written by the Anglican bishop Thomas Ken. According to one writer, Ken produced it in order to replace the psalms.
We should listen to Keith Getty. He speaks from within the contemporary Christian worship music industry—make no mistake, it is a business—and he sees what is happening. His critique may not be easily dismissed as that of a dyspeptic Reformed critic of evangelicalism. Whether we accept his prescription, however, is another matter. We would do better to reform our services more fully, to return to singing God’s Word: the Psalms, the Song of Moses (Deut 32), and other songs in portions of Scripture. All that we need for corporate worship is in God’s Word. It is sufficient (sola scriptura). It is inspired, inerrant, and perfect in every way. This is what the Reformed churches did in the sixteenth century: they reformed the worship services of the churches to sing principally the Psalms. In some places (e.g., Geneva) the Ten Commandments were sung and other portions of Scripture were sung. The Apostles’ Creed was sung by the congregation, not as our response to God’s Word, but as a summary of the Word. Sing it lively. Sing it warmly. Sing it heartily. Sing it to Nigerian tunes or to Korean tunes but sing it. Let God’s Word do its work in our hearts and minds as the Spirit uses it to direct us to Christ and to sanctify us and to glorify God through us (soli Deo gloria).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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“Kitsch” —- so little effort & engagement necessary.
Helpful article; thank you.
To be fair to the Getty’s, the first year of the Sing! Conference focused on the psalms. I can’t find the conference archive, but here is a playlist of sessions and interviews from that year: https://www.singglobal.com/videos/channel/the-psalms/
I wish more/ALL in the PCA would at least begin to sing Psalms in worship. The more Reformed end of the spectrum seem to be singing one Psalm each time of worship but it is still rare. After many months of studying the arguments as well as singing Psalms with a small RP church plant, I have come around to believe EP is Biblical. Sadly I experience more “performance” music (choir, solos, small orchestra) army home church as time passes. And I won’t even address the issues arising “this time of year!”
I belong to a PCA church as well, and we rarely ever sing an actual Psalm. To illustrate what an uphill battle we have not only in broader evangelicalism but also in many confessionally Reformed churches, I overheard a well-respected member of the PCA church I belong to talking about how unfortunate it is that EP congregations “never get to sing about the cross.”
In our reformed churches I’ve read pastors saying they could never sing a psalm after the sermon (it would be a disappointment) or that the psalms aren’t explicitly about Christ and the cross enough. It is very discouraging to hear that coming from the church leadership. It only exasperates the sentiment among ordinary members and even creates a disdain for the psalms/OT.
A hypothesis I have is that part of the issue is having a hermeneutic that has drifted from the pattern of the NT and the early-to-reformed church.
I agree heartily!
I do feel the Gettys are leaders in music to whom one can wish Godspeed.