By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald
This summer’s “1 Hit Wonders” sermon series got me thinking about the term’s origin. It refers to any singer or band that produced a single popular song, then was forgotten. Think: The Macarena. Think: Who Let the Dogs Out?
Over the next day and a half while you’re trying to get those songs out of your head (sorry), think about Christian worship music, why we sing the songs we do in church and how many of those songs will be remembered years from now. Differences of opinion about church music might seem like a purely modern discussion. Hardly.
Rediscovering a timeless perspective
Recently, I happened upon a box of old books. One red-covered volume particularly caught my eye: How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival, edited by R.A. Torrey and published in 1901. Torrey was a ministry partner of Dwight L. Moody and a key figure in the early days of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.
Thumbing through this brittle, old book, I stopped on the chapter called Music in a Revival, by Daniel B. Towner. Towner wrote Trust and Obey and dozens of other hymns. He was music director for several churches and finally at Moody from 1893 to 1919.
Here’s what Towner recommended as the 20th century dawned. It’s a 381-word paragraph, which would have gotten me kicked out of journalism school. But stick with it. Let his thoughts simmer. I’ve bolded a couple of key sentences.
“While great care should be exercised in the selection of music for revival meetings, yet one must not be hypercritical about new songs. About twenty years ago a committee of literary men and musicians were compiling a denominational hymnbook, and certain hymns and tunes were rejected as not being of a high enough order. But to-day those same hymns and tunes are being used in all denominational books as they are revised and compiled, and have proven by their vitality that they belong among the classics. If a tune is well-written, no matter how simple, don’t be afraid to try it. If a hymn does not teach error, direct or implied, don’t be afraid to give it a trial; but if it does, no matter what its literary merit may be, let it alone. Let it be distinctly understood that we are not opposed to the use of old hymns, not by any means, for quite the contrary is the case. We believe that the good old hymns are the heritage of the church, and should be regarded as such, and that they should be sacredly kept and perpetuated, and that each successive generation should be taught to sing them well, but to hold on to these to the exclusion of the new ones would be a calamity. As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not. As we become familiar with a tune, it gradually loses its power with us, even though we never become tired of it. But the new tune arrests the attention, and gives the truth it carries a chance to enter the heart. Some people seem to outlive their usefulness, while others never do. It is just so with songs. There are those that should be in every selection, and there are others that seem to have been embalmed, as it were, and laid away in the denominational books which are never used. We do not object, they have served well no doubt, now let them rest in peace, while others come on and do service in their turn.”
What a great, balanced viewpoint. We honor and sing the old hymns as “the heritage of the church,” while also realizing that new songs and styles may strike us with biblical truth from a slightly different and fresher angle.
As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not.
“Heretical Flapdoodle” or “We’ll be singing this in heaven”?
There’s a lot to sift through. If you google “worship songs with bad theology” or “hymns with bad theology,” grab a Snickers bar (or an artisanal kale cupcake if you prefer) because you’re not going anywhere for a while. The same hymn or worship song can evoke a wide range of opinion, from “heretical flapdoodle” to “we’ll be singing this in heaven.”
Church music is for every generation.
Every generation produces a vast catalog of songs that are quickly forgotten, and a few that live on. That’s how music works, from Mozart to the Macarena or from Charles Wesley to Hillsong United. A hymnal or worship songbook amounts to a Greatest Hits collection, and even from those, we sing only a tiny fraction. We’ll find some of today’s worship music in tomorrow’s songbooks. Most — even some pretty good songs — will wind up on the flapdoodle pile, alongside most of the hymns written generations ago. Some might even be rediscovered and rescued.
Which leads to our audience-participation question: Of the worship songs and hymns composed in the past two decades, which ones will people still be singing 100 years from now? And why? Send us your comments. No flapdoodle, please.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.