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You Don’t Even Know Hymn Anymore…

Ah, yes. There really is nothing quite like a good hymn. They simply don’t write lyrics like that at anymore, with deep theological underpinnings and the good ole’ use of the apostrophe (‘) to take you from over to o’er and re-introducing other words back into mouths of babes, like ’twas and asunder.

In the minds of many, modern worship music has taken a cliff dive in terms of profundity, ah, there I go mixing metaphors again. Perhaps I should say that modern worship has gone from skydiving to ice skating, just barely scratching the surface of true, profound, meaningful and musical worship. At least this is what I hear a great deal from conservative pastors and “the old school”. Oh sure, even outside the good ole’ Church of Christ, there are some that think hey, if you’re going to use instruments in worship, they should be the same ones they had back in the 18th century. The electric guitars, bass, the drums, and the new fangled keyboards with their digimitizing…that doesn’t make worship worshipful, it just makes it loud, they say. This handclapping nonsense, and the repeated prompts to “shout to the Lord”, that’s not real worship, they say. Too much focus on entertainment and soliciting emotional responses. Not enough thinking, they say. Not enough doctrine.

But I have a few questions for them.

Do we stop at hymns? What forms of worship would be acceptable? and stay acceptable? At what point (content-wise, lyrically, musically, theologically) do we judge what is a true “worship” song versus what is a just a gimmick?

I think there’s a tendency to get a little carried with this criticism of contemporary worship, because the critics, well, they’re professionals, and they bring all those critical lenses from their profession, not necessarily from their hearts being open for what that “lesser” worship could be doing for th hearts of others. For instance, if I were a videographer, and I was sitting at a worship conference, and as the thing is progressing, all I can think is — “This is so poorly lit. This is poor production.” I have completely missed the point, haven’t I? In Korean, it’s called “jigup byung” or hmmm, how would that translate, occupation-itis? An inflammation of your occupation, so that everything you see is seen through the light of your profession. It’s why musicans can’t stand it when praise band leaders don’t tune their guitars before playing or when the lady in the second row of the choir sings vibrato when she shouldn’t; it’s why graphic artists shake their heads at church bulletin design and layouts; and it’s precisely why theologians and intellectual Christians can sniff out fluffy praise tunes and question whether or not they should even be sung in church or even considered worship. But that type of “professional” criticism is more a reflection of us than it is of the music and its power, and further, our faith in the Holy Spirit to work through it.

There was a time when Irish and German drinking songs were transformed into those treasured hymns. And I don’t see modern worship as very different from what past Christian hymn writers were trying to do by redeeming those styles and instruments.

I know a girl who used to be Hindu who wasn’t looking for Christianity, but was so intrigued by a small group singing worship music (note: they weren’t singing hymns) that she kept coming back because she wanted to know the God that would inspire such beautiful, spontaneous, and vulnerable worship. Thanks to Christians who were able to invite her into that worship, today, she’s a Christian.

At various points in my own life, I have wept at simple “I love you” songs to Jesus and hymns like “It is well”. But what I do know about worship that is problematic in Asian American churches is that it is entirely based on the collective format and less on the individual format. This means that we have made worship to be something that really is produced and rehearsed, it has to be done by a professional. Worship isn’t race car driving. It’s pedestrian in fact, and until Asian Americans start to break down modes of professionalism and judgement, collective worship is a mere shadow of private worship. If God’s people don’t worship and praise him in private, why in the world would it matter if we’re together singing hymns or the latest David Crowder ditty? Neither would be a genuine, natural outcome of a life of worship.


So what if Chuck Colson thinks that singing “Draw Me Close to You” is idiotic? If you are at a point of brokenness in your life and are earnestly seeking God out, don’t the lyrics of that praise song seem completely appropriate? Personally, it’s obvious that Chuck Colson cares more about his radio show being cancelled than the fact that if he stopped critiqueing every word of every stanza of every worship song, he might actually get something out of it. Oh wait a minute, I thought worship music wasn’t about you, I thought it was about the one you were worshipping. Oh yeah, that’s right – give your worship leader the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure he’d give you the benefit of the doubt if your irrelevant radio blurb was still on. C’mon, the psalmist David was no theologian, and I think he did OK. I think when we get at the real heart of worship (gasp, isn’t that a song?), we will be able to find wonder in the simple things, in the simplest lyrics and statements, and will not need a theologically-correct song to appease us every time. Nor will every moment need to be filled with sermons, sermonizing, pontificating, lectures, Bible studies, orthodoxy, and equipping. There will be time to live, to fail, to fall, to be desperate and lost, to be rebellious and yet come running back into grace. So whatever you sing, you will sing like the saved, and who can keep them from singing? And who are you to stop them from singing it?


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

3 responses to “You Don’t Even Know Hymn Anymore…

  1. Peter

    thank you for that thoughtful insight…I have often wondered what this “hooplah” is about worship songs?…and here is my wrestling…how much do we pursue excellence as an act of worship?…do we come to God with such “pedestrian” manner that may be justified in our “irreverentce” In our approach to God there is something to said about encountering the divine. I don’t know if there is a real concern or authentic worship that seeks a sincere expression of majesty and the sublime beauty of God.

    I have experienced the sincere worship of young musicians struggling through a B minor chord to transition into a D and yet they are in the presence of God and they sing their devotions while at other times I see some people playing with such lack of talent that it is hard not to be distracted by their preparation..but on the other hand I have seen these mega professional Asian American churches who have Juillard level musicians lead worship as if it is a glorified karaoke party.

    But I look towards the hymns with such awe of the words that drove these men and women to write those words…a really strong foundational principle of knowing God and expressing it with such honor and reverance that comes from loving God with all their minds, our hearts and souls. I learned to love them as a pilgrim along this journey but recognized the importance of the spiritual milk (or potato chip…snack food) of “Draw me Close” to those first crossing the threshold of faith and arriving at the hymns for deeper nourishment. It is part of our spiritual appetites…to have some chips once in awhile while we prepare for a steak.

    I guess at the end of the day, the judgement of our hearts is at question and how we are open to the fresh filling of the Holy Spirit…and how music speaks to our heart language albeit a organ, a native american drum, or a kazoo…It is powerful to focus…and draw towards God…without manipulation or lack of.

    I’ll never forget singing a worship song in spanish and not knowing a single word except that one line said “move that mountain” and remembering a stirring in my heart and being thankful that God spoke through the scripture of the mustard seed…and reveling in the majesty of our mighty and living God.

  2. dpark

    Peter. thanks for your comment. I know what you mean. Hymns do have a certain depth to them that much of contemporary worship music does lack. I agree with you though, it’s something that you can appreciate once you “get it”, and although there are some songs, like Amazing Grace, that can stop people in their tracks, it is more challenging to get people to stop listening to whatever music they normally gravitate towards to and see that these hymns are like nothing that plays on the airwaves today. To me, however, it’s all about getting people to the point where they can see that and enjoy that for what it is. Otherwise, it’s like trying to explain “high art” to “Simpson” watchers.

  3. Pingback: Next Gener.Asian Church » Chat About Worship (feat. Peter Ong)

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