Monday, November 10, 2014

Response to "My Journey Away from Contemporary Worship Music"

Dan Cogan recently wrote a blog which has been posted and passed around quite a bit on social media. In his blog, Cogan tells why he has nearly stopped using contemporary music in worship, in favor of the richness of the content of the old hymns.  You can read his article here:

The root of Cogan's argument is that there is much greater depth in the theology found in the old hymns than that found in contemporary worship songs. For this reason, he suggests that our worship services should make much greater use of hymns than of contemporary songs.

I am personally blessed by the great hymns of the faith. When I sing songs like A Mighty Fortress or Great Is Thy Faithfulness, the lyrics speak to a deep place in my soul, and remind me of the greatness of our God, and the wonder of His faithfulness. Those who know me well know that I find hymns to be a wonderful part of my worship experience.

However, I find that the argument falls short in a number of areas. I recently had a conversation with a dear friend who suggested that the hymns are the cake, the contemporary songs are the icing. My friend finds that with icing on the cake, a little goes a long way. He, like Cogan, believes that there is much more theological depth in the hymnal than on the screen in our contemporary worship service.

So out of curiosity, I pulled up my SDA Hymnal app on my phone. I looked at the lyrics of the first 100 songs in the hymnal. What I saw in these first one hundred surprised me. The songs are beautiful, the words are stirring, but there truly isn't a lot of depth. Hymn number 2, All Creatures of Our God and King, for example, is an invitation to praise.

All creatures of our God and King/Lift up your voice with us and sing/Alleluia! Alleluia!/O burning sun with golden beam/And silver moon with softer gleam/Oh, praise Him! Oh praise Him!/Alelluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Beautiful? Absolutely! Theological depth? Not really. Many of these first one hundred songs are calls to worship, focused on God's character and love and our response to Him. I would suggest that these are the same themes as many contemporary worship songs that are often looked down on for lack of depth.

One of the criticisms contemporary songs receive is about repetition. So I was intrigued by the lyrics of hymn 69, Lord, Make Us More Holy:

Lord, make us more holy/Lord, make us more holy/Lord, make us more holy/Until we meet again.

The second verse continues this idea, praying: Lord, make us more faithful. Third verse: Lord, make us more humble. Final verse: Lord, make us more loving. This very repetitious hymn comes from our hymnal.

These examples show us that inclusion in a hymnal doesn't make a song good, rich, or deep. When choosing hymns, one should look carefully at the lyrics, and ask, Does this song express the truths we wish to bring forth in this service? Some will, many won't.

The same is true of contemporary worship songs. A Spirit-led worship leader will choose songs carefully for the worship service. A service may open with a song which expresses the same kind of call to worship as All Creatures of Our God and King, referenced above. This might be a song such as Matt Redman's 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord). Later in the service, one might choose a song with more theological depth, such as In Christ Alone, by Keith and Kristyn Getty. The service may end with a song of response. In a hymn-based service, this might be something like Just As I Am. In a contemporary service, one might use a song like Jesus At the Center, by Israel Houghton.

In both old hymns and new songs, there is a wonderful variety. There are songs that call us to worship, songs about the love of God, songs about the science of salvation, songs that call us to obedience, songs of response. No matter what type of worship service, songs should be chosen because of what they say, not just because it has a catchy melody.

Having said all that, I now come to the heart of my problem with Cogan's argument. It seems to me that promoting the content of the old hymns over contemporary songs is saying that God isn't doing anything new today. It gives the impression that all the truth that can be sung was written over a hundred years ago. We must not have anything to add to it today. The problem is that this paints a very poor picture of God. It says that God was once active in His church, but isn't any longer.

I want my preacher to preach sermons based on what God is doing in his life today, and in the life of the church. I want the sermon to answer the question, What do the truths of God's words have to do with my life today? There are great old sermons that we should listen to or read, by preachers such as Spurgeon or HMS Richards. But if these were preached every week from the pulpit, we would question their relevance. We need something new, something fresh. Adventists like to use the phrase "present truth." Along the same line, I love to read old books. I'm blessed to read from Ellen White, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and many others. But I also want to read what today's scholars and theologians are writing. I love to read Jon Paulien and Max Lucado. Their words and thoughts are fresh, and relevant. Why shouldn't the songs I sing at church echo this? Give me the richness of the old hymns, but let's also keep writing and singing new songs, expressing what God is doing in our lives today. In too many churches, there hasn't been a new song sung in years. The service is a memorial of what God has done in the past, but not a celebration of what He's doing today. God said I AM the One who was, and is, and is to come. We too often let Him just be the One who was.

I have heard it expressed what a tragedy it is that today's kids are growing up without knowing the beauty and the richness of the old hymns. I agree with this. It is just as tragic that today's seniors are not experiencing the beauty of such current expressions of faith as How Great Is Our God and Revelation Song.

Old hymns, new songs. Our churches need both. One gives us roots, the other gives us wings.


  1. Hi Jerry, I was one of those people who read Dan Cogen's article and thought, "You mean I'm not the only one??" I feel like your response is really incomplete, like so many I've heard defending contemporary praise music (CPM). First, by pulling out a few hymns and a few great modern authors, you have made the point that we can't make complete generalizations. Bravo, I think Cogan would agree. Even you cake icing illustration makes one wonder how you can defend less cake and more icing (the modern trend). You agree that we'd do a disservice by cutting back too much on hymns, which I believe is Cogan's whole point. You do not address his point that hymns represent the music that has "made the cut" from the last several hundred years, and much of the CPM we have around us now won't be here in a few years. You're right, there are some good modern praise songs, and some sincere praise worship leaders--that doesn't really negate the assertion that in general, modern praise music and the way it is presented is shallow and emotional (and in my humble opinion mostly lacking in any form of creativity). So, I'm just not really sure what your point is?

    1. Adel,
      I appreciate your valuing the ancient hymns, but I think we are discussing preferences, not matters of salvation. If hymns connect you with God in a meaningful way, don't devalue the same experienced by someone else through the use of CPM. If proclaiming How Great is our God, or imaging what that day will be like, or praising the One Who broke my chains of slavery to sin is wrong, I don't want to be right. There is a place for hymns in our churches and there is a place for contemporary Christian music in our churches. It's a matter of preference, NOT salvation!

  2. I read Dan Cogen's article as well, and thought he had some interesting points. One problem that I have with many hymns is that the youth of today have no idea what the words mean (this may be more of a problem with our dumbed-down education system, newspapers and magazines). Believe me, most kids have no idea what exactly 'lifting an ebenezer' is. Any kind of song that has lyrics that half the congregation doesn't understand becomes mere babble. And I agree that songs with lyrics such as: 'I like bananas/I think that mangoes are sweet/I like papayas (papayas?!)/but nothing can beat/the sweet love of God' don't hold a lot of theological depth, they are 'gateway songs' to a deeper Christian life--and they have their place--maybe even during the church service. But if we're going to sing hymns (or contemporary songs), we should most definitely take the time to make sure that everyone understands what the lyrics mean (was an odd word crammed in at the end of a line in order to make the lyrics rhyme in the style of the era?). It's all about praising, worshiping and lifting up the name of God. If we focus too much on exactly how we do this, we're falling prey to the devil's shenanigans (he loves to see church people get contentious with each other). So let's all agree to disagree on what our personal preferences might be. Let's agree to make sure that everyone singing knows what the lyrics really mean so that the songs can have a deeper meaning for all of us. And let's keep on singing a variety of music in our churches, summer camps, schools, houses and cars!

  3. Jerry, I very much agree with you. There are some great hymns. There are some forgettable ones too. Same for contemporary music.
    To me the bigger issue (like you said) is that somehow only old stuff is worthy. It's best when we use King James and sing old songs. Yea, there some great stuff there. But that means there's nothing to be gained by reading The Message or singing new songs? It's like saying God doesn't have anything to say to today's world. I find that hard to accept.
    I've also felt that we practice a type of cultural elitism when we say only songs that were written from 1500 to 1700 in Europe are worthy of being sung during church. Nobody else has ever had a worthy song to contribute to our praises to God??? That just can't be so. Those songs in the hymnal were contemporary once upon a time too....
    Bravo for a well written article.

  4. BTW, we sing contemporary songs AND an hymn each week.