Our friends at 9Marks have dedicated their latest journal to the subject of The Church Singing.
Singing has had the power to unite people around the core tenets of our faith, and also the force to rip apart local congregations. Whatever your thoughts are on the role of singing in corporate worship, they are probably passionate ones. Singing is personal, singing is convictional, and singing matters.
Whether you are a preaching pastor, worship leader, or a singer on Sunday mornings, you will be encouraged by these articles. With contributions from Bob Kauflin, Carl Trueman, Harold Best, Jonathan Leeman, Matt Merkur, and myself, there are so many things to consider when we look at the church singing. Learn from these articles, and join the conversation at TGC Worship.
Music is a very powerful tool. Have you ever left a concert and commented to your friend, or tweeted out, “that was awesome!” What caused that reaction? Was there a subliminal message in the music telling you to praise them?
No one knows this reality more than God. He created music. Music has always been a part of God’s story. Think about how He used Joshua and the ‘orchestra’ to bring down the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6), or how when David played his harp it calmed and serenaded the evil spirit annoying King Solomon (1 Samuel 16:23).
Why is music so prevalent in God’s story?
There are multiple answers to that question, but at least one answer is that it is a very powerful medium. Music has a way of focusing our attention and arousing our emotions in a way that reading words on a page cannot. When our hearts and minds are focused and our emotions are engaged, often times our hands and our feet take action. In the Kingdom of God this is where music and mission collide. Music often promotes mission and mission often times creates music. They are woven together in God’s agenda.
Our Story and Our Music
In 2007 there were close to 5,000 Guatemalan children adopted by families in the United State, and from 2008 to 2014..zero new cases of international adoptions. That is a staggering statistic. Zero new International cases from Guatemala since 2008. That’s tragic because there are so many children needing homes, and so many families longing to bring home children.
That’s our story.
It involves a little girl we met in 2008, just after Guatemala closed it’s doors to international adoptions. Her name is Selena. Selena has cerebral palsy, and will steal your heart in a second. We met her in an over-crowded orphanage, and the trajectory of our lives has been forever changed. We now have two biological children, but Selena has always been our first. We knew we would look into adoption one day but weren’t expecting to so soon. But God’s timing is not ours. We met Selena and very clearly the Lord told us to pursue her.
After finding out international adoption from Guatemala was closed, and there was no way to formally adopt Selena, we decided to keep pursuing and loving her. Over the years that meant traveling by ourselves and visiting her as much as we could afford. It also meant getting her moved out of the orphanage and placing her in a foster family where she can get the care, attention and love that she needs. It’s been an amazing journey that we hope and pray will end one day in adopting Selena and bringing her into our home. We continue to support her and her foster family who have become our family over the years. They love Selena like their own daughter and we are so grateful for them.
My wife and I have always loved music and I’ve been in the church music scene since I was a child. So over these last five years after meeting Selena, there would be these moments where the Lord would give me a passion to rewrite and redesign an old hymn. Most hymns are written in the most beautiful way, and the content is so rich and full. Over these five years, I would have these occasions where I would sit down and work through a hymn we loved. We never knew why God was prompting us to create music like this but over these years we collected a handful of hymns that we had rewritten.
With Selena having special needs we knew that she needed financial support. Whether it be for her physical therapy sessions, medicine or whatever else she may need, we decided early on to take those cost and tell the family we will meet those needs and support them taking care of Selena until, Lord willing, we could adopt her. This has never been a burden; it has always been our joy. And God has met every one of Selena’s needs over these five years.
We’ve always wished we could support them more than we have and always wanted to bless Selena and the foster family in a particular way.
Last spring that opportunity came about.
We started to put together plans for what we would call HYMNS FOR SELENA. This project would be a collection of redesigned hymns that we had written over the years, plus some newer ones. We would ask our amazingly talented music friends, who have loved and supported us over the years, to be the featured artist on each track and then release this project for free on NoiseTrade. Any tips that would be left or revenue from these songs would go towards supporting Selena’s needs. So we starting asking our friends and the response was overwhelming. We basically created the album for nothing. Top artist like Billy and Cindy Foote, Michael Bleecker, Lauren Chandler, and David Gentiles, to name a few, donated their time and talent to the album. We recorded it in top notch studios and even had it mastered by local Houstonian Bob Boyd. We are really proud of the quality of this project and so overwhelmed by the generosity of those involved.
12 featured artist, 8 musicians and 10 Hymns: Hymns For Selena.
This project was released in November and the response has been so positive. We’ve been able to send the donations to the family for Selena, and they are overwhelmed by the generosity of the people hearing Selena’s story.
The beautiful effect of this project is that we are being missional through music. This music project is a way for the body of Christ to come together and to meet a need.
The story of our adoption has no foreseeable end. But we are steadfast in our pursuit of Selena. We love that God has woven into our story this beautiful album and that through the album we are bringing others into Selena’s story. We need others to pray for us, to pray for Selena, and to pray for the country of Guatemala.
Music is extremely powerful. Especially in the hands of believers who can be stirred towards mission. May we always be people who are stirred towards mission by music and may we always be creating music in midst of our mission.
Second Great Awakening Spirituality
The idea of “surrender” is prominent in evangelical spirituality. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, it became a leading metaphor to summarize the conversion experience. Preachers would urge the unconverted to “give up and surrender to Jesus.” One of the songs that continues to get airplay as an “old hymn” today, “I Surrender All,” emerged out of the spiritual climate heavily influenced by the leading metaphor of surrender:
All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all,
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.
Written in 1896 (enough time after the Second Great Awakening for its spirituality to have been codified and promulgated), hymn writer Judson W. Van DeVenter recounts that this song emerged from a pivotal moment in his life when he gave up the idea of pursuing the arts for the sake of becoming an evangelist. It’s interesting to note that this song, though often used to encourage non-Christians to receive Christ during the altar call (read my thoughts about that here), did not emerge out of the context of conversion.
Since the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals have largely preserved the “surrender” motif as a leading metaphor for both conversion and the ongoing life. We hear it in Hillsong’s recently popular, “Mighty to Save,” in the second verse:
I give my life to follow
Everything I believe in
Now I surrender
Jesus Culture’s “I Surrender” says in its Chorus:
All to You, I surrender
Everything, every part of me
All to You, I surrender
All of my dreams, all of me
In fact, just in my own iTunes collection, the word “surrender” appears in the titles among eleven different worship artists. In this post, I want to voice a concern and encourage worship leaders to think more critically about the surrender-language we employ and the way we employ it.
Surrender’s Tricky Double-Meaning
“Surrender” is one of those interesting English words that has a double-meaning, and contained in these two meanings are two very different understandings of how our relationship with God works. If I can put it this bluntly, one reading ultimately ends in death and the other in life. I’d like to describe them in terms of what I will call “active surrender” versus “passive surrender.”
“Active surrender” is what the Second Great Awakening was most often referring to and what a lot of worship songs mean when they say, “I surrender.” It is a willful choice to relinquish control, rights, or property. It means, “God, I have stuff [ideas, plans, possessions, objectives], and I give them over to You for You to take and do with them what You will.” And, this idea of surrender is a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s part of sphere of thought of what liturgists often call “consecration,” which is devoting oneself over to God’s use (“Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee”). Active surrender, as a response to the gospel, is a beautiful thing, but we must say clearly that in that moment the focus is on me and what I do for God.
“Passive surrender” is what we think of in conjunction with war or battle. It’s that “give up” moment where your back is against the wall. It’s where the hound of heaven has successfully tracked you down and cornered you. No more running. No more hiding. No more outsmarting. The gig is up. Checkmate. You lose.
Now, of course, the lines between active and passive surrender are more blurred than I’m describing them. When you’re pinned up in a corner, raising your white flag, you are in a sense actively giving up control over your situation. And often times, accompanying the passive “give up” moment is an active “okay, now I’m joining your team” kind of sentiment. But hang with me, and hear my concern.
Surrender Language and the Gospel
A lot of our surrender language can undermine the gospel’s powerful Word to us if we’re not wise in how we employ it in the context of worship. To put it bluntly, if ideas of active surrender do not follow the gospel, but precede it, they neuter the raw power of the reality that we are (ongoingly) saved by grace, not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Too often, active “surrender” language is used in worship songs and worship contexts in such a way that we actually end up praising ourselves more than Jesus. We’ve once again “curved inward” (Augustine’s and Luther’s idea of incurvatus in se) and begun that self-absorbed naval gazing: “Look at me! Look at what I’m doing for God! Look at what I’m giving up! Yay me!” I and others have called this kind of spirituality “triumphalism.” Think of worship songs that sing, “I’m living for You,” “I’m giving it up for you,” “I’m giving it all away.” It’s a “yes I can” approach to me and Jesus.
We must understand that as human beings, each one of us, because of original sin, has a short-circuit in God’s original wiring that bypasses the truth about our depravity and jumps straight to our ability. In other words, you and I are addicted to our own self-justification. Even seemingly innocent “surrender” language can become a moment where we unconsciously say, “I can do this; It’s my turn now, God. Your grace has brought me safe thus far, but I can lead me home.”
But it gets even trickier than this, because passive “surrender” is actually something we need to experience before we hear the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus. We need that gracious, wrecking word that says, “You can do nothing. You have nowhere to hide. Your fig-leafish attempts to cover your nakedness are pointless.” (“Naked come to Thee for dress; helpless look to Thee for grace / Foul I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”)
The idea of passive surrender is very biblical. The end of Psalm 5, for instance, sings, “Surely, LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.” I purposefully use the NIV because of how it translates a key Hebrew word, atar—“surround.” It’s the same word used in 1 Samuel 23:26 for when a hostile force was closing in on David to kill him. God has drawn surrender out of you, because His tanks and guns are all aimed at your head with the declaration, “You are guilty, and you must die.” And this is precisely the word we need before we are able to hear the glorious declaration, “BUT…Jesus paid it all.” Passive surrender forces our eyes outward and upward instead of downward and inward.
My concern, though, is that even our attempts to try to properly articulate and express passive surrender will easily collapse into unhealthy active surrender ideas because of how we’re wired. We are absolutely addicted to active surrender because it makes us feel good about ourselves. It puts some of the power and control for our growth in the Christian life back on our shoulders. It gives us an opportunity to claim ownership over at least some of the fruit we’ve been producing. But the irony of this is that, in doing so, we cut ourselves off from the life-water that actually causes our fruit to grow—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, because of this addiction, even our best attempts to employ and qualify passive surrender language can get lost in translation and heard as active surrender.
How Shall We Then Surrender? Maybe We Don’t
In light of this, and in light of the fact that most of our worship songs pump the glories of active surrender, evangelicalism probably needs to be weaned off surrender language. I would discourage abundant use of the metaphor in our worship and only wise, selective, discriminant placement of such expression (if we must) well after strong, bold declarations of the finished work of Christ. Because the word is so tricky, and because we are so addicted to our own self-justification, I think that we could also fool our hearts into taking passive surrender language as active, so I’d be very cautious about engaging the word and its ideas before the gospel is actively proclaimed and declared. Furthermore, a cursory search of the English word “surrender” in the NIV shows only 15 instances in the whole Bible, none of which are (a) in the Psalms, and (b) used in a context of how God’s people relate to Him. That’s not insignificant.
The Only Real Surrender-er
The truth is that you and I are horrible surrender-ers. We don’t really surrender our lives to God with as much wholeheartedness, conviction, and forthrightness as we sometimes think. To make matters worse, when we find ourselves in a moment of “genuine” consecration and giving up of ourselves, we almost immediately and instinctively begin to feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back. We are sick and diseased. Our only hope comes when we look to the Man who really did “surrender it all” to God, for us and for our salvation. He made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2).
If I’m honest, I can’t in good conscience say “I surrender all” to Jesus. What I can say, sing, even shout is, “Jesus surrendered all for me.” Not to us, not to us, but to Your name be the glory.
Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity
In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us
See the true and better Adam
Come to save the hell-bound man
Christ the great and sure fulfillment
Of the law; in Him we stand
Come behold the wondrous mystery
Christ the Lord upon the tree
In the stead of ruined sinners
Hangs the Lamb in victory
See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold
Come behold the wondrous mystery
Slain by death the God of life
But no grave could e’er restrain Him
Praise the Lord; He is alive!
What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes
What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes
- Matt Boswell, Michael Bleecker, Matt Papa 2013
How small and distant God can seem when we’re discouraged. Two of Jesus’ disciples faced that kind of discouragement, as they wearily walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the Sunday afternoon after their Master had undergone a horrible execution on a Roman cross.
Two disciples—apparently not two of the twelve, but of the larger group (see 24:9—had left Jerusalem; they had seemingly given up hope and were returning home. They were “unemployed disciples,” so to speak; as one writer puts it, they were “walking home from a funeral.” As they went, they discussed recent events, and it is clear from the narrative that they were disheartened (24:14,18-21).
Jesus overtook them and walked with them. They didn’t recognize him, and wide-ranging theories have been advanced for this: he was unrecognizable from the beatings and crucifixion; he looked so different in his resurrected body (but later they would indeed recognize him); the two were so upset they didn’t look up; they were walking west and the sun was in their eyes!
But verse 16 tells us why they didn’t recognize Jesus: “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.” This is most likely what is termed in biblical studies a “divine passive“—a passive verb used without attribution to show that it is God who is acting. It seems that God supernaturally kept the two from realizing who was speaking to them.
In 25-27 we have an account of the greatest Bible lesson ever given. What an amazing privilege to hear the Old Testament expounded by the One whom it foretold!
Upon arrival, the disciples invited Jesus to stay with them, and at table prevailed upon him to say the blessing, probably in recognition of his status as a teacher, which he had just demonstrated. And we read: “their eyes were opened” (31). Here again is the divine passive: God had closed their eyes, and now He opened them. The disciples recognized him, but he immediately vanished from their sight.
The two excitedly hurried back to Jerusalem, learned that Jesus had appeared to Simon (Peter) also, and told their story (33-35).
Even though the two disciples eventually recognized the risen Christ, the most significant and lasting thing happened to them before they recognized him. This may well be why Luke (and the Holy Spirit through him) related this incident to his readers (including us).
To see this point, let us consider the two chiastic, contrasting halves of the passage:
A the disciples going from Jerusalem to Emmaus, slowly and sadly
B Jesus appears
C their eyes are prevented from recognizing Him
C their eyes are opened and they do recognize Him
B Jesus disappears
A the disciples rushing back from Emmaus to Jerusalem, quickly and joyfully
(One writer entitles the account: “A Solemn One-Way Trip Becomes a Joyous Round-Trip“)
The centerpiece and pivot of the account is of course Jesus’ Bible lesson. And it is crucial that God did not allow the disciples to recognize Jesus until after they had received his exposition about himself. Their eyes were not opened until the Scriptures had been opened to them! (The same Greek word is used in verses 31 and 32 of these two “openings.”)
Jesus wanted their faith in him to rest upon the Scriptures’ witness, not upon a fleeting experience of his risen presence. He gently upbraided them for their failure to understand the Old Testament (25), and then supplied that understanding (26). The events of the last few days were part of God’s plan (“it was necessary that the Christ should suffer,” 26); events had not spun out of his control.
Jesus knew that God’s Word would be a firmer foundation for future faith than an exhilarating, but fleeting, experience of him. The two’s experience reconfirmed the truth of Scripture—not the other way around. They experienced only a split second of recognition of the risen Christ; but their hearts were now burning with God’s Word (32) and its testimony, which gave meaning to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
We see this dynamic again later in Luke 24: Jesus appeared to the disciples and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (45-46; same Greek verb again). The Scriptures were to serve as the foundation for their faith and their ministry (47-48).
Paul’s preaching likewise looked to the Scriptures: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. . . .” (1 Cor 15:3-4). God has provided a sure and steady foundation for faith in what are now two Testaments.
This was the significance for Luke’s readers (including us) as well. He wrote sometime around A.D. 60, long after the ascension and the end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, to a generation that had no opportunity to physically see the resurrected Christ. His readers were (and are) just “ordinary” disciples (not apostles or eyewitnesses), who live by faith in a risen Lord whom they have not seen (1 Peter 1:8). Jesus told Thomas in John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This belief comes through the Scriptures.
Experience plays an important, but secondary role. It must always be informed and guided by the Word. Through the testimony of Scripture we understand who Christ is, what He has done and how we can join the family of God through faith in him.
Implication for Our Worship
We must strive to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in us” (Colossian 3:16) through worship times that are saturated with and enriched by the Scriptures (see Worship Notes 1.5 and 1.6). That will ensure a true and deep experience of God in both our private and our corporate worship.
What Ron does here in prose, D.A. Carson and I attempted to do with poetry and music for the Songs for the Book of Luke album, which can be accessed here.
Every Sunday morning as a child church bells would echo through our town. From our steeple tower, a proclamation would sound to all who could hear that God was summoning his people to worship.
The walk from the back door of the parsonage to the church sanctuary took less than a minute at a ten-year-old stride. As the pastor, my dad would wake up early, marching that same path in the dark. He would prepare his heart for worship with prayer and meditation over his text. I would mostly rely on the bells.
When Robert Robinson penned the words, “Come Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace,” he wasn’t speculating. He knew the reality of the human condition. We come from a long line of people who are restlessly prone to wander. The heart is a fickle thing and needs to be tuned regularly. The call to worship serves as a tuning of our hearts.
Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117)
There is a quiet reminder in the call to worship that worship is not our idea. We worship because it is God’s idea. Psalm 117 is God’s word, which means it is God who is speaking to his people, commanding, inviting, and exhorting us to praise him (verse 1). This call is rooted in a firm commitment to both his glory and our joy. When God’s people are gathered in his name, he serves as the host. He has initiated and invited us into fellowship with him.
The response in Psalm 117 implies a recognition of who God is — of his worth (verse 2). In the call to worship we recognize and remember that it is God alone who is worthy to have our hearts, lips, and lives. As truth rings through our bones, we are reminded of the object of our worship. Worship, in the rhythm of revelation and praise, begins with God making himself known, and is followed by our response of remembrance and praise.
This response of worship in Psalm 117 is one rooted in who God has revealed himself to be. The psalmist’s worship is informed. Likewise, we praise and exhort God because he has revealed himself to us in his word. We worship him because of the beauty of his character. He is the God who has fixed his love upon us as his chosen people. He is the God whose faithfulness cannot be exhausted. He is the God who is worthy of worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Our theology leads to doxology.
The next time a worship service begins — even today — pay close attention to the invitation that rings through the air. We are called not because of our righteousness, our works, or our piety. We are welcomed because God has chosen us, Christ has purchased us, and the Holy Spirit has sealed us for eternity. This call is for the weak and the weary, the poor and the helpless. The call to worship is a call to come and drink deeply from the well that will never run dry.
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1)
1 A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with thy righteousness on,
My person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Saviour’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
2 The work which his goodness began,
The arm of his strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
Nor all things below or above,
Can make him his purpose forgo,
Or sever my soul from his love.
3 My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impressed on his heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heav’n.
- Augustus Toplady, 1771
I spent time this evening on the CIVA website (Christians in the Visual Arts) and read Sandra Bowden’s fine article “The Call of the Artist” (April 10, 2014).
She begins with some of the questions we’re that people often ask artists, including (my favorite): “Aren’t artists always on sabbatical?” Then she develops the concept of artistic vocation as both summons, which to me has connotations of a military command, and a strong inclination: “Ask yourself, is this something I can live without, that is essential within me?” Most evocative is her mandate drawn from Madeleine L’Engle and from Mary’s Magnificat to Christian disciple-artists to be “birth-givers.”
Madeleine L’Engle has said in Walking on Water that the creation of art. . . is an incarnational activity. The artist is a form-giver, one who gives birth to an idea. Giving birth involves conception (the idea comes to the artist); gestation (the idea begins to take shape inside the mind of the artist); labor (the struggle of making it come together and the willingness to fail in that attempt); birth (the actual creation of the work and its completion) and care (rigors of framing, taking the photographs, writing about the piece, marketing, selling). Finally, Bowden challenges the artist to create art that not only illustrates but illuminates.
As a musician, I found it refreshing to think with a visual artist about art and consider my role as helping others to perceive what the physical eye [or ear?] without mediation could never discern. This perspective places a heavy spiritual responsibility on the artist as communicator or exegete of God’s character and biblical self-revelation.
“The artist’s mission is to help all of us see, in nature and human life, what the physical eye, unaided could never discern. The artist is an interpreter, and a teacher. Art is not mere illustration, but serves to illuminate.” She concludes with six practical words of advice including: become a student of art history (to which as an historical musicologist, I add, “hear, hear”) and the obvious admonition to connect with groups of artists (“We were not meant to be ‘lone rangers.’”)
Finally she cautions artists against creating “a Christ like us, rather than letting Christ recreate through us,” and (using the poetic device of polyptoton) connects the theological concept of Christian transformation with the shaping of form in art: “As Christians and as artists we must let Christ be the ‘transforming’ and form-giving force in our lives, so that our art can be infused with spiritual insight. Our vocation is to translate a profound understanding of our faith and culture into works of integrity, quality and beauty.”
In the words of the Apostle Paul: “We are His poetry.” (Ephesians 2:10) Bowden, a New-England based painter and printmaker, has works in collections including the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art and the Haifa Museum. She writes of her own artistic work and calling: “My Christian faith has been the driving force behind my art,” Bowden says. “I look at the making of a piece of art as a kind of doxology, a prayer or conversation with God. I don’t mean this in any mystical way, but my ideas come out of my theology and thoughts about God. I am somewhat of a theologian, but one who translates those interpretations into visual form.”
2 Let us love the Lord, who bought us,
Pitied us when enemies;
Called us by his grace, and taught us,
Gave us ears, and gave us eyes.
3 Let us sing, though fierce temptations
Threaten hard to bear us down!
For the Lord, our strong salvation,
Holds in view the conqueror’s crown,
4 Let us wonder, grace and justice
Join and point to mercy’s store;
When we trust in Christ our fortress,
Justice smiles, and asks no more.
5 Let us praise and join the chorus
Of the saints enthroned on high;
Here they trusted him before us,
Now their praises fill the sky.
- John Newton, 1774