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Learning From Hymns When You Disagree with Lyrics

Someone recently asked me to give some examples of how I would use hymns as teachable moments in a congregational setting.
The question arose in response to previous articles I’ve written noting that hymn singing is problematic in contemporary American church life.

For one thing, it has largely dropped away in favor of praise-and-worship choruses, many of which are sung by the worship team.

Also, hymns tend to contain much more theology, doctrine and biblical allusions than praise-and-worship songs.

Finally, many hymns, to say nothing of praise-and-worship songs, contain theologically questionable lyrics.

Sometimes those who choose them for a worship service overlook the questionable lyrics.

Sometimes they change the lyrics based on their own or someone’s theological qualms.

But, probably most often, nobody even notices the lyrics’ theological problems.

An obvious example is H. Ernest Nichols’ “We’ve A Story to the Tell to the Nations,” written in 1896 and still sung by many U.S. Christian congregations – often on “missions Sunday.”

The lyrics clearly express postmillennialism – the belief that Christians, the church, will bring about the kingdom of God on earth before the return of Christ.

That was a popular belief in the 18th and 19th centuries – times of great optimism.

Postmillennialism is now rare, however, and most U.S. Christians would reject it in favor of either amillennialism or premillennialism.

Still, even churches that are officially doctrinally premillennial sing the song, which demonstrates that many people do not think about the words or messages of a song.

I am strongly convinced that those who choose hymns for worship should consider the words and theological messages. And I urge congregants to think about the words and messages.

One way I go about attempting to make this difference is by taking my theology students to Truett Seminary’s chapel to sing hymns.

When we were studying the doctrine of salvation, I had my students sing “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley.

After we sang it, I went through the hymn with them, line by line, phrase by phrase, talking about the images and theology.

For example, “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray” refers to prevenient grace – God’s grace that precedes our decisions and enables us to respond.

If I were leading worship and that hymn were chosen, I would do one or both of two things:

1. I would consider putting a note in the worship folder or bulletin explaining the hymn’s background – Wesley’s poetic testimony of his salvation – and some of the imagery.

2. While leading the singing, I might stop between verses and say a few words about the images in it and its message that might be misinterpreted.

There are songs and hymns I would not choose for my congregation to sing in worship, but I occasionally have my students sing them (or I sing them to my students) as examples of bad theology put to music.

For example, when we are studying Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism – the idea that humans can choose to do good apart from divine enabling – I mention “The Savior Is Waiting,” especially the lyrics, “If you’ll take one step toward the Savior, my friend.”

I am not accusing Ralph Carmichael of heresy. However, without explanation that basically contradicts the lyrics, the song has the effect of reinforcing and supporting the already latent semi-Pelagianism of much U.S. Christianity.

So how would I handle a hymn whose lyrics I disagree with or that I know some in the congregation disagree with?

I discussed the problem many are having with Keith Getty’s and Stuart Townend’s great contemporary hymn, “In Christ Alone,” in a recent column.

Some hymnals have simply changed the words to avoid offense or to express a different view of the atonement.

Instead, were I leading the congregation in singing it, I would put a note in the worship folder or bulletin about “the wrath of God was satisfied” and briefly talk to the congregation about theories of the atonement rather than change the lyrics or simply ignore the offense.

Much of the problem of congregational singing arises from the following facts:

1. Most people do not even think of the words they are singing.

2. Those who do often misinterpret the words.

3. In most contemporary congregations, hymns are sung in a theological vacuum.

Sadly, in many congregations even those who choose the hymns or songs and lead in their singing give very little consideration to the words and messages.

This is an extreme example, but nevertheless telling about this problem: Years ago, I heard a worship leader ask the congregation to sing Longfellow’s famous Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” but only the first, third and sixth verses.

The sixth verse, as you may know, is extremely pessimistic; without the seventh verse the hymn ends on a very dour note.

The worship leader had obviously not even thought about the song before choosing it.

The same worship leader, on Easter Sunday, had the congregation sing “Up from the Grave He Arose!” but only the first verse. There are only two verses in most hymnals, and the first verse leaves Christ in the tomb.

My plea is for worship planners and leaders to think of hymns as theological expressions, to choose them with biblical and theological discernment and to use them as teaching tools – especially when lyrics may be obscure to most people.

Don’t rush to change the lyrics to dumb them down or make them palatable. And certainly don’t drop them in favor of shallow ditties sung 10 times.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.