By Glenn Packiam
Christians sing because we are people of hope. But what do we sing about when we sing about hope? In part of my doctoral research, I asked almost a thousand worship leaders to name a song that brought them hope in a time of despair and a song that brought their church hope. Combing through the responses to both of those question, nine songs rose to the top of the list of mentions. I’m not going to list the songs because the goal is not to critique a song. Instead, I’d like to share one observation that emerged: these songs of hope tended to focus on the present tense and the proximate space; they were fixated on the here and now.
If Christian hope is about resurrection and new creation, why are the songs we say bring hope preoccupied with the here and now? There are several possible explanations. The first and most innocuous one is that that it is the nature of Christian worship to focus on who God is rather than what God will do. This does not negate an orientation toward the future; it may simply mean that confidence for the future is grounded in the unchanging nature of who God is. Praising God for who He is, as His character and nature are made manifest by his divine actions, is a longstanding Christian practice.
Lost In Transition
Another possible explanation is that the lack of narrative in these songs of hope is part of a larger trend in contemporary worship songs and an even wider trend in culture. Comparing contemporary worship songs with historically significant American evangelical hymns, worship historian Lester Ruth observes a shift from a pilgrimage paradigm to an end-times paradigm. Discipleship is no longer “a long journey toward our final destiny” but rather a faithful waiting for the imminent return of Christ. This loss of narrative in contemporary worship songs must also be situated within wider cultural trends. Philosopher Charles Taylor, describing this new “secular age,” notes the loss of the “idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition.”1 Without a grand telos or an eschatological vision, the story humans narrate and inhabit is much smaller. Truncated salvation narratives encoded in contemporary worship songs are surely a product of this age.
But there is one more possible explanation. It is less comfortable to suggest or consider. And it is the one to which I want to give particular attention.
The Perfect Present
Focusing on the present tense is a luxury of the privileged. Singing about the here and now is what you can do if you’re comfortable here and now. By looking at the geographic and economic contexts of the songwriters of these songs [of hope that I studied], it is reasonable to suggest that the “present” is relatively pain-free [or was before the current pandemic] for these worship songwriters. Now, I have no way of knowing the precise circumstances of these writers when they were writing these songs. They may have been experiencing personally trying times that provoked these songs of worship and trust. Nevertheless, our context affects the way we sing about hope. Is it possible that contemporary worship songs of hope can dwell on the present because life is good right now, for both songwriter and worshiper?
These songs stand in contrast with the slave spirituals. “The spiritual,” James Cone argues, “is the spirit of the people struggling to be free; it is their religion, their source of strength in a time of trouble. And if one does not know what trouble is, then the spiritual cannot be understood.” Cone insists that the “expectation of the future of God, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus . . . was the central theological focus of black religious experience.” In fact, it was because “the black slave was confident that God’s eschatological liberation would be fully revealed in Jesus’s Second Coming” that “he could sing songs of joy and happiness while living in bondage.” Cone continues by asserting that this “hope in a radically new future, defined solely by God the Liberator,” is manifest in spirituals through their language about place and time. 2
The spirituals are full of references to heaven, a place where “the oppressed would ‘lay down dat heavy load’”; “a place where slaves would put on their robes, take up their harps, and put on their shoes and wings.” It was a “home indeed, where slaves would sit down by Jesus, eat at the welcome table, sing and shout, because there would be nobody there to turn them out”; it was “God’s eschatological promise,” where there would be “no more sadness, no more sorrow, and no more hunger.” The time of hope was set in the future even as it inspired action in the present. Black slaves used an “apocalyptic imagination” to express their “anticipation of God’s new future.” Such imagery emphasized that the reality of God’s future could not be contained in our present. They “stressed the utter distinction between present and future.”3 This is why black eschatology meant an affirmation of life after death. If the futurity of spirituals is clear because of a difficult present, it is plausible that contemporary songs of hope are fixated on the present because life is mostly good here and now.
Worship and the World to Come
So, what do we do? If worship exposes the sickness of our obsession with a comfortable here and now, perhaps worship itself can be part of the cure. Revelation 7 gives us a glimpse into heavenly worship:
“After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” – Rev. 7:9a, CEB
There are two things to note. First, bodies matter. How else does John see every “tribe, tongue, people, and nation”? The vision is not of heavenly souls or angelic beings, but of people. Christians, after all, believe in the hope of bodily resurrection. As the Nicene Creed declaries, “We look for the resurrection of the dead…” Until we recognize that bodies matter, we will not be able to think and act correctly about ethnicity and culture and gender. As long we keep being fixated on souls or a kind of escapist worship experience, we will miss that our differences are creation’s design and redemption’s aim. Which leads to the second observation…Differences don’t disappear in the new creation. When people from different families of origin and languages and geography and cultures are redeemed and brought together in Christ, a symphony of praise arises to God! In Christ, divisions are torn down, but distinctions remain.
Taking A Bite Of The Future
But here’s the larger point about the scene in Revelation: it’s a worship service. Worship can be a way of foretasting the future. This can happen not only as we experience the Spirit as God’s eschatological presence—the down payment of our inheritance (2 Corinthians 1:22). It can happen as we allow our songs to reflect the global and historic church. When we pray well-worn words like the Lord’s Prayer, we think of Christians all around the world and all throughout history who have said those very phrases. We join the martyrs and the saints, the underground church and Christian refugees. When we sing songs written by others in contexts that are different from ours we come to see hope in a more robust way. We aren’t shaped solely by the perspective of the privileged or the context of the comfortable.
God by His Spirit can shake us free of the tyranny of the moment and loose us from the bonds of our cultural lenses. Worship is the means by which God confronts our short-sightedness and small-mindedness. But this can only happen if we allow our worship to be shaped by the world to come. Recover a robust vision of Christian hope and you recover a worship that prepares us for resurrection and new creation. When “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we see a great multitude from every tribe and tongue praising the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come, let us worship now as it will be then. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever more shall be, world without end. Amen.