Wednesday, October 03, 2007


For me, the highlights of our District Evening with the Bishop a few days ago were sharing in the Lord's Supper and the singing of the opening hymn, "The Church's One Foundation". This great hymn, #545 in our hymnal, has one of the finest texts in the history of hymnody. Written by 19th century Anglican clergyman Samuel Stone, the hymn is rich in doctrine and proclamation. It's meat...vital, sustaining spiritual protein, as opposed to sugars or carbs, which have a place but ultimately don't sustain as well. Partnered to a majestic tune by Charles Wesley's grandson, this hymn is one of the Church's all-time "greatest hits".

I sometimes use the great hymns in my devotional life, and a hymn as doctrinally powerful as "The Church's One Foundation" could be used for weeks of prayer and meditation.

One of my great fears regarding the "contemporary worship" movement is that great hymns like this one are lost or forgotten. The reason this concerns me so is that I've heard few if any "contemporary worship" songs or "praise songs" that can compare to "The Church's One Foundation", either musically or in terms of the theological depth and the didactic possibilities of the text. We are what we sing. What do you think of this hymn?

The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Elect from every nation, yet one o'er all the earth;
her charter of salvation, one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure anyone who quote Elton John in one post is allowed to grouse about the light-weight quality of praise songs in his next post.

But, that said, I agree with your concern for the most part. There are a lot of tissue thin praise songs. There are even times when a pop song will get dusted off an sung as if it were a hymn. You just pretend the love song is talking about God instead of some hottie down the block.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Re: Elton John - point taken!

Mind you, there are a lot of "praise songs" I really like...I just don't think they tell the whole story, and that we need more substantial hymns like "The Church's One Foundation" in order to sing, praise and teach the best we can.

Jeff Kahl said...


You make a good point about the theology of the great hymns. One of my seminary profs said that the way most of the laypeople learn their theology is through the lyrics of the hymns they sing, rather than through sermons. Certainly they should be preserved and appreciated in future generations.

On the other hand, I'd want to caution against making "theological astuteness" the criterion for worship songs. After all, in many of the Psalms, the psalmist merely poured his heart out to God, addressing very specific and relevant issues faced by himself and his community, and not necessarily worrying about specific points of doctrine.

That said, I'm the last person to deny that theology has its place. In fact, some recent "praise choruses" are extremely rich in doctrinal content: I think of "In Christ Alone" by Stuart Townsend. When's the last time you've heard a praise chorus (or hymn) talk about the wrath of God being satisfied by Christ's substitutionary atonement? Talk about lyrics that teach theology! And Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable" definitely gives a doctrine of God that rivals some theological treatises I've read.

So I think there's a way of preserving the theological integrity of our worship, while still being open to relevant forms of expression that touch our hearts as well as our minds.

John Shaver said...

You should be here in Kansas City that is what we've been talking about for three days. It's one of my favorites too and you can even pump it out at a contemporary service (I'll invite you next time we sing it). See you Sunday!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Jeff - I guess I differentiate between the worship music and the contemporary Christian music that we listen to on CDs. There are a lot of great CCM artists (I like Jacob's Trouble a lot; my wife digs Wes King). A lot of those songs are great.

But much (not all) of contemporary worship music - at least in my experience - tends to be very "theology lite", and very much about MY personal experience. The songs tend to lack the richness and depth of the best of classical hymnody. That's not true for every contemporary worship song, I understand, but I think is true of many.

And, I'm not sure what you mean by "relevant". "The Church's One Foundation" seems entirely relevant to me. Maybe you could flesh that out a bit.

Anonymous said...

I agree Keith! You are spot on!
It looks like we just might have
a new UM Hymnal in 2012. Have
you seen that news?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Saw that; hoping for the best.

Jeff Kahl said...

Keith -

I don't necessarily see the distinction you're talking about. We sing "In Christ Alone" and "Indescribable" at our church quite frequently. The songs of artists like "The David Crowder Band" and "Third Day" are very worship-friendly and theological, and I use them in youth group and in contemporary worship settings.

Sure, there are some worship songs that are very trivial, but I could say the same about some of the "old time" hymns. So make your distinction across the board, and say that a lot of traditional hymnody is as musically simplistic and lyrically pedantic as that ridiculous praise chorus, "Knowing You, Jesus".

Some of the old-time hymns focus on the experience of the worshipper as well: "He Touched Me," "In The Garden," "I Love to Tell the Story."

And let's not forget my other point: some of the Psalms are extremely "theology lite," focusing totally on the heart of the believer before God. In fact, reading some of those psalms, it's clear that David (or whoever) was almost totally consumed by his/her experience, and was merely crying out to God without delinating specific theological convictions. Would you say that those psalms also lack "the richness and depth of the best of Classical hymnody"?

While we're on the subject, if preserving traditional hymnody is so important, why didn't our forebears continue to push the Gregorian Chants and Medieval Motets when they were writing their "contemporary music" (like Luther writing "A Mighty Fortress" in German instead of Latin so his contemporaries could actually understand it, or like the Wesleys re-working bar-songs that people would recognize)?

As for relevance - I'll agree that the theology contained in the lyrics of "The Church's One Foundation" is very much needed today in mainline denominations that can't seem to find common ground on any issue. As I wrote, I'm not opposed to traditional hymnody as a whole. What I'm opposed to is advocating a worship style simply because it meets my own criterion for "good worship," rather than having a servant's heart and allowing the worship to reflect the concerns and realities of those who are worshiping.


Randy Roda said...

I thought I'd give my two sense. David Crwoder has a kickin version of "O For A Thousand Tongues To sing" on one of his albums.

Anonymous said...

What I'm opposed to is advocating a worship style simply because it meets my own criterion for "good worship," rather than having a servant's heart and allowing the worship to reflect the concerns and realities of those who are worshiping.

I hope this is a general comment and not one directed at Keith. I don't seem him doing what you are saying here, Jeff.

Worship should be in contact with people's concerns and realities, yes. But it should not just meet them but transform them. It is about moving to a new place, not just sitting where we are.

Jeff Kahl said...


No, I'm not accusing anyone of anything. This site just really hit a nerve with me, both as a musician and as a "pastor", and I felt the need to vent a little.

Let me be clear, I totally love traditional hymns, and there are a lot of great ones out there. I've met Keith, I respect him, but I don't know him well enough to make a an accusation about any aspect of his ministry. If that's what you got out of my post, I apologize for not being clearer.

I do disagree with many of Keith's criticisms of contemporary worship, but there was nothing personally directed at him or anyone else in my post.

And for the record, I never wrote that worship SHOULDN'T be transformational. I believe that potentially, both traditional and contemporary forms can deeply transform people, and have been transformed by both. But if we can't encourage people to express their honest hearts to God in worship and meet them where they are, I'm not sure how we'll be able to take them anywhere else.


Eric Park said...

All that I can add to the conversation is that my current condition in life reminds me of one of my favorite hymns.

I'm old, rugged, and cross!!!!!!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Jeff - I confess that I don't know every song used in "contemporary worship" (whatever that is...awful term). If your church uses songs with theological import, then that's wonderful. I was speaking of a tendency I've noticed in "praise music" to simplify lyrics (as well as music, I suppose) and focus on the individual's experience of God, rather than God. I don't mean to say that this is true of every song utilized, but I've noticed it in a good deal of the songs. Is that fair?

Yes, many hymns in the hymnal suffer from the same problems...and I don't necessarily like them any more!

Now, lest I seem to Calvinist and not Wesleyan enough, there IS a place for one's personal theology as well as in worship. Many psalms are excellent examples of this. But, in my experience, "contemporary worship" often focuses inordinately on that particular point of the Quadrilateral, at the expense of others; individual experiential language seems to be favored. Psalm 137 ought to be balanced by Psalm 104.

As far as Gregorian chants...I like 'em!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Also, I don't advocate any particular style as "good worship" and believe that worship should be, in many ways, indigenous to the community that is worshiping. But a connection with the Church around the world and through the ages, in terms of creed, music, and doctrine, isn't a bad thing. I know we're on the same page here.

I do indeed have some problems with much of what is labeled "contemporary worship", partially as a musician and partially as a pastor/theologian.

Musically...hey, I listen to the Beatles, the best songwriters of the past 50 years. It takes a pretty good song to impress me, and so much of what has been written as "praise music" is, in my opinion, poorly written. Granted, Lennon & McCartney (& Harrison) set the bar awfully high, but that's where I am.

I like "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" (though I don't care for the "debt" language...more on that another time), "As the Deer", and even the very simplistic "Sanctuary" and "Shine Jesus Shine". And others.

But there are a lot of poorly written songs to wade through as well. Look how many songs in our hymnals from the 1960s or 1930s are now gone...maybe they just weren't very well written to begin with.

Theologically, I don't like congregations doing "contemporary worship" as means of evangelism, which so often seems the case to me. Evangelism is focused outward; worship is focused upward. Often, when churches engage in this strategy, it demonstrates an imprecise theology of worship. Not always, but I've seen it, and I'm sure you have as well. To think that using praise choruses and guitars makes a congregation relevant is incredibly superficial, and really bothers me. I know you didn't write that...I'm not trying to suggest that YOU are guilty here. But I've seen it happen.

Are my concerns fair?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Oh, yeah...the same thing goes for Christmas.

John Shaver said...

It was interesting I went to a Modern Worship Music workshop yesterday... Just a thought on all this talk Contemporary music is only about 30 years old...Watts music was called "flights of fancy" back in the I guess the point is to keep an open mind as the music grows (and I know you're doing that Keith...but I don't think many in the mainline are...) One other thought (it will be on my blog soon) but if we could roll out Holy,Holy,Holy like Church of the Resurrection people would be on fire by the time the sermon gets there...just some thoughts...Grace and Peace

Jeff Kahl said...

Keith -

Tell me if this is a fair summary:

- Both of us believe that worship should be diverse enough to include both theological depth and emotional authenticity, communicating both the mind and the heart of the worshipper.

- Both of us have a concern for the quality of the music, as well as the quality of the lyrics, and both of us think that much of worship music in the church is simply poor music. (Think of how Handel put every ounce of compositional talent into making a masterpiece like "The Messiah". Do ANY composers---traditional or contemporary---come anywhere close to that in terms of producing something of pure aesthetic quality?)

- Both of us are concerned for excellence in worship across the board...whether it is Gregorian, Medieval, Old-Time Hymns, or Contemporary.

- I tend to view contemporary worship more pragmatically (and I don't say that's necessarily the right thing to be), whereas you tend to feel that churches should not just float wherever the winds happen to be blowing in terms of worship styles (and that may indeed be the right perspective).

This is hot topic, and I know it has caused consternation in many churches, but I'm glad you're open to hearing my thoughts on this. The mind is a terrible thing to thanks for keeping mine razor sharp with some friendly debate.


Keith H. McIlwain said...

Jeff - Yeah, I think I can agree with your points. We likely agree on 99% of all this. Thanks for the challenging exchange!

Anonymous said...

Keith and Jeff, thanks for the dialogue. I feel wiser for having observed it.

Keith, I appreciate your point about using contemporary worship as evangelism. Mabye the better way to say that is "in place of" evangelism.

Greg Cox said...

All that being said, today I tried a hymn out of the Faith We Sing, and it bombed completely. Point is, if people can't sing it - it doesn't matter when it was written. There are songs today that are just as bad as the ones that are no longer in our hymnal.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

That's very true. And, sadly, there are many great texts which are matched with some pretty unsingable tunes, which helps no one.

At any rate, I only like about half of "The Faith We Sing". I don't think it represents the best of contemporary hymnody.