Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Hymns Called Whims and Changing Worship Styles

Monday night my wife and I listed to Jordan Smith sing an amazing vocal rendition of the Christmas hymn "Mary Did You Know?" on the television show The Voice. Rachelle told me later that she found herself worshiping while listening to Jordan sing, another confirmation that worship does not require one's personal vocal chords vibrating. Few evangelicals know that Mary Did You Know? is a recent hymn. Christian comedian and songwriter Mark Lowry helped write this classic song in 1991.

When it is considered that Silent Night was written in 1818 and Joy to the World in 1719, it shouldn't surprise us that mega-pop star Adam Levine confessed on national television he'd never before heard "Mary Did You Know?" 

The strength of Mary Did You Know? is in the message of the song. Read the words in verse two:
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
Oh Mary did you know?
The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the Lamb.
This song is a very powerful presentation of the gospel. It is a modern Christmas hymn, quickly becoming as popular as other classics like Silent Night and Joy to the World.

Isaac Watts wrote Joy to the World in 1719. Many evangelicals in Watt's day opposed the writing of hymns to be sung in worship. One of those leading evangelicals, William Romaine (1714-1795), saw contemporary hymns as a departure from the Scriptural norm. Romaine believed that the decline in psalmody (i.e. "singing the psalms in worship") had gone hand in hand with the decline in "vital religion." 

 Romaine felt people were losing their spirituality because they were now preferring the words of man to the Word of God. He said, 
“I have no quarrel with Dr Watts, or with any living or dead versifier. I would not have all their poems burnt. My concern is to see Christian congregations shut out divinely inspired Psalms, and take in Dr Watts’ flights of fancy, as if the words of a poet were better than those of a prophet." (Abbey and Overton, Sacred Poetry, pages 269-272)
William Romaine’s voice was far from being a lone one in his day. It became a running joke among English churchmen in the first half of the 18th century that ‘Watts’ hymns’ were ‘Watts’ whims’.
 My point of is Christian music has always been in a state of flux. Even those who say, "It's not the style of music, but the message that matters," need to remember that churchmen in the 1700's denigrated doctrinally sound and complex hymns like Joy to the World as whims. In the end, personal taste is what drives one's enjoyment of worship. Some like classical styles of worship, others like contemporary expressions with phrases repeated over and over, while others like more doctrinally complex narratives (hymns), while some insist one should only sing the Scriptures.
In my study of church history, I've concluded that worship wars are mostly wars of the flesh and not of the Spirit.


Steve said...

Great post Wade! I caught this song on 'The Voice' as well and loved it; including Adam Levine's comments. Thanks for your take on this and another wonderful history lesson in a few short paragraphs. Have a blessed Advent and Christmas!

Victorious said...

If I remember correctly, Dee and Deb posted the Pentatonix version of "Mary Did You Know" last Christmas at EChurch. I thought it was beautiful!

Bob Cleveland said...

Looking up proskuneo in Strong's, I don't see where words or tunes have much to do with it. Certainly not any more than standing up to sing does.

Christiane said...

I've heard it said that you pray twice when you sing . . . and this is the season that gives some great support to that thought.

Thanks for this post, WADE. The song is so beautiful. Did Mary know? I think she knew and she still said 'yes'. She was there by His cradle and there by His cross. She 'knew' with a mother's heart, yes.

Mary was also present at Pentecost in the Upper Room . . .

this is the one time of year when evangelicals mention her, I think, which is good that she be included in that way in their contemplation of the part of the Paschal mystery that is the Incarnation and the Nativity

Tim Snider said...

Wade, all:
Agreed in the main.
Wondering what the collective opinion is of a more narrowly defined issue.
I'm guessing we're all familiar with the pejorative "7-11" songs....11 words sang 7 times over and over. I can personally accept most of those in moderation.

Yet, here's my anecdote. There is a current contemporary worship song (don't know the name, don't care to know the name) that has a chorus that goes: "La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la." 2X? 3X? You get the idea. At the end of the chorus, your syllable count over the past 4 minutes has been at least 60% "La". (I personally call it the "Elmo's World" song. Some of you with young kids will get that.)

Here's my thought with that anecdote: It is reliably recorded that Charles Wesley wrote 6500-9000 hymns during his life. Hymns. Likely multiple verses. Complex phrases. Subjects....verbs....syntax....thoughts....communicating praise to God. Perhaps 12-15 at best of his hymns are in modern hymnals and perhaps only 6-10 are known to most. I have no problem replacing older hymns with AWESOME new worship music, but I'm incredibly concerned that our worship leaders have been sucked into the contemporary praise music vortex when they lead a congregation in 3 minutes of La la la la and call it worship. Is there an interpreter in the house? What am I missing?

Charles Wesley. Apologies to you. You must be dizzy spinning in your grave that fast.

Bob Cleveland said...

Note that I am personally tired of singing choruses i don't know. So I don't do that any more.

I keep thinking of things like "Mercy there was great and grace was free .. pardon there was multiplied to me ... " or "Trust and obey, for there's no other way", or my favorite "Great is thy faithfulness...".

I can really mean what I'm singing when I don't have to think about how to sing it.

Victorious said...

Bob, your mention of those favorites, made me remember some of my own.

He Lives
A New Name Written Down in Glory
Cleanse me
Blessed Assurance
and Power in the Blood

And most were compiled in song books housed in the pews so you could sing along because both the notes and the words could be easily learned.

Oh, the memories....:)

Christiane said...

from out of the music of this blessed season, it is known that Our Lord calls people to Him

a much-loved old Celtic traditional song . . . 'Cantus'
". . born on Earth to save us,
Him the Father gave us . . "

and a very old 'evangelical' song from the people of the 'sacred harp' tradition (shape-note singing)

Rex Ray said...


You quoted my favorite song (At Calvary). Too many times when we sing an old song, it’s with a NEW tune. (“we” is not the right word because I’m too upset to sing.)

Tim, “7-11” (11 words sang 7 times) is not as bad as (7 words sang 11 times).
I once heard a song leader say, “Just turn your mind off and get with the rhythm.” It’s as if he wanted everyone to get in a hypnotic state as heathens with their mumbo jumbo. (Thank goodness it wasn’t at our church.)

Yes, too much of the time memories is all we have because the song leader turns into a song performer in singing songs never heard before.

While I’m sitting on the back row, I notice the old folks dropping like flies before the standing 20 minute song service is over.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had guts enough to just sit when the music minister / song leader / worship pastor / whatever insists that I stand for some musical drivel. Still, I suppose I should be grateful that I CAN stand. We have people in our services who cannot.

Much more annoying to me are those times when one neo-charismatic stands, and then everybody does. I have, on a few occasions, had guts enough to sit through one of those. When my wife got through counseling me, it wasn't worth it.

Merry Christmas to all (from the Grinch?)!

Pege' said...

Dear Wayworn Wanderer...... BE BRAVE!!!PLEASE HAVE A SEAT!!! To your well meaning wife...Stand , site kneel, laying does not matter. It is the condition of the heart NOT the location of ones bum that God notices.

I must sit some times too...


Rex Ray said...


Well said.

Sometimes I wonder if song leaders fell more important if THEIR congregation is standing.

The condition of the heart is better if one is not hurting or dead on their feet.

Heather said...

I came home one Sunday morning after singing, sort of, Tomlin's "Joy to the World" and did a search to see what other people thought of his rendition. I didn't love it, I'll say. But sometimes other opinions help me moderate my position. I came across this article on a blog by a guy I had never heard of, and it might be the only thing we agree on, but his words made a lot of sense.

I have come to see that singing and music to aid our worship of God is not just about the "in the moment" experience. The words I sing, the tunes embedded in my brain, are what will come to mind when I face death and despair and perhaps even when I am old and have dementia. I doubt he 86 year old lady singing along with us at the nursing home last week would have appreciated versions of carols which were hip and with it and trendy and all that. It's not about "old vs. new". I am sure she'd love "In Christ Alone" if she heard it. Or Bob Bennett's Carol of the Moon and Stars...which I am now off to listen to, along with some Michael Card and some Handel...ah, there is so much good stuff!

Anonymous said...

We had one of those "off" services a couple of weeks ago. We usually do hymns, as per the request of the congregation. If we don't, many just skip the music portion.

The praise team decided we just "needed" to sing all those wonderful new songs "we all know." No words on the screen, no music provided.

Praise team had a wonderful time. Congregation sat and read or chatted quietly.

Next week we got an apology that the song leader didn't know we didn't know the songs, and got to do them again, words provided us. Still no one knew the tune and no one but the praise team participated.

We sang carols Sunday, but many opted to skip the music altogether.

So who has the bad heart? The congregation, or the praise team that refuses to do what they have been charged to do?