We Need New Hymns
By J. Matthew Pinson
Why would a theologian write about music, one might ask. But a conversation about theology
is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. The New Testament lists theology as
the primary reason for singing in church.
As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree explored in a recent issue of Integrity), the primary reason we sing to each other in church is to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, and copiously in the people of God. The primary reason for worship songs is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (encourage or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we “make melody in our hearts to the Lord” (from the parallel passage, Ephesians 5:19).
I’ve been emphasizing this principle recently to students in my Christian Worship class at Welch College. The content of our worship music should carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing in church. Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” from Ephesians 5:19). It ensures the teaching and admonishing function of the song is front and center. It ensures edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. Thus, it also ensures the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the ultimate purpose of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.
If we desire an apostolically-shaped worship service (one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired Apostles, and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace found in His all-sufficient Word guide and structure our worship), we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims of a handful of people in the music industry who earn millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads and musical trends.
THE KEY IS CHOOSING WORSHIP SONGS WITH THEOLOGICALLY-RICH TEXTS.
It’s wonderful we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. An abundance of material presents freshly-written songs with theologically-rich lyrics or traditional hymns (now unfamiliar to many) set to new melodies. My son Matthew reminded me of this recently, when he reintroduced me to a song by my friend Nathan Clark George. When Matthew played the song, “Calm Content,” I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led this song during Welch College chapel a few years ago.”
If you are a pastor or music minister interested in new music with theologically-rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan’s work. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts reset to freshly-written music compositions. Often, he adds a new chorus or additional verse to accompany the older hymn text. Sometimes, he writes the text himself.
In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful text from 18th century hymn writer William Cowper (most famous for “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse to it. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time. The subject matter is not only doctrinal but practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.
Nathan and his friend Gregory Wilbur are among a growing band of “new hymnodists” bringing theologically-rich, gospel-drenched songs back into the worship life of the evangelical church. Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, RUF Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, and Stuart Townend Music. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the labels atop the CCLI charts. Many provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!
I thank God for this recent explosion of theologically-
rich songs for the 21st century church. I pray it will help evangelical churches recapture the historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblical intent: teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!
About the Writer: J. Matthew Pinson is president of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee: www.welch.edu.