- Struggling between contemporary and traditional music approaches? This essay from 200 years ago might help.
A fellow theologian passed this my way, and I thought it worth sharing. It has been sited to Jonathan Edwards; however on further inspection, we found this to be an Internet error. It is simply an interesting anecdote. Nonetheless, the information is worth examining and having a conversation about.*
A man, accustomed to traditional worship, one Sunday attended a church that sang only praise choruses. When he came home, his wife asked him about the service. “It was interesting,” he said. “They sang praise choruses instead of hymns. His wife asked, “What’s the difference?”
He said to his wife, “If I said to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ that would be a hymn. But suppose I said, ‘Martha, Martha, Martha. Oh Martha, Martha, Martha, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows and the black cows, the cows, cows, cows are in the corn, the corn, corn, corn.’ If I were to repeat the whole thing five or six times that would be a praise chorus.”
That same Sunday, a woman accustomed to contemporary worship attended a traditional church. When she came home, her husband asked about the service. “It was interesting; they sang hymns instead of praise choruses.” “What’s the difference?” her husband asked.
She replied, “If I said to you, for instance. ‘Earnest, the cows are in the corn,’ that would be a praise chorus. But suppose I would say, ‘Oh Earnest, dear Earnest, hear thou my cry; incline thy ear to the words of my mouth. Turn thy wondrous ear by and by to the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth. For the way of the animals, who can explain? There is no shadow of sense. Hearken, they not in God’s sun or his rain. Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced. Yea, those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight, broke free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed. Then goaded by minions of darkness and night, my Chilliwack sweet corn has chewed. So look to that bright shining day by and by, where all the corruptions of earth are reborn, where no vicious animals make my soul cry, and I no longer see
those foul cows in the barn.’ That would be a hymn.
It is interesting to see how long there was been a separation in the body, of different camps of people who each think their style of worship is preferable! And interesting to see how applicable this anecdote of old still remains today. Indeed, music in the church has long been amongst the most controversial topics throughout the history of the Church.
The point is not how we express worship – there is no one flavor of music that is more correct to worship God with, over another. Style is not relevant, but biblical truth is extremely relevant. Are the songs we sing true? Are the songs we sing glorifying to God? Are the songs we sing edifying to his Bride? Do they teach proper theology? Do they facilitate prayer expressed in a way simple words cannot? Do they conduct the church into the presence of God and allow Him to do spiritual business with his children? That ought to be the focus of our concentration on the substance of our musical choices, rather than whether the time signature is 4/4 or 6/8, or if there are 3 vocal parts versus 7, or any such comparison.
We as a body are very blessed to have a variety of different styles of worship music being sung every weekend. Let us continue to encourage and build each other up as a community of worship musicians, and remember that it is ultimately about Him and not our own likes or dislikes. Let us never look down on another’s worship offering for the sake of its form, but instead always appreciate its function, and the heart attitude with which it is given before the throne. All praise be to God!!
Brendan Prout is a pastor at Community Bible Church in San Diego, CA, where he oversees worship and outreach. He has served in worship ministry leadership for over 20 years and focuses on training and raising others to do the work of ministry they are called to.
Note From Monique Ingalls on Jonathan Edwards and the anecdote falsely attributed to him:
*As in just about any time period, there were debates about old vs. new music in the church in Edwards’ day; however, the categories of “traditional hymns” and “contemporary choruses” as they are presented in the anecdote did not exist until the 20th Century. Most Puritans of Edwards’s day believed Christians should only sing psalms only, unaccompanied by instruments and in unison with no harmony. Towards the end of his life, Edwards was pretty progressive for allowing hymns “of human composure” (i.e., with texts that weren’t straight from the Divinely inspired psalms) to be sung in worship. So, for Edwards, “traditional” church songs were psalms taken straight from Scripture, made to rhyme, and sung in a very plain style, while “contemporary” songs were Isaac Watts’ hymns sung in 4-part harmony. Edwards was a stern Puritan preacher whose sermons are, quite frankly, dry and academic–he would never have used such a witty, folksy anecdote in a sermon. And, as one final nit-picky point, a quick Google search puts Edwards’ death at 1758, a couple of decades before the author claims he was writing in the 1780s.
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