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Give Me That Old Time Religion

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Several weeks ago I conducted a funeral for an elderly grandmother, a life-long Presbyterian. In addition to her life-long commitment to Jesus Christ and her hope in the gospel, this grandmother is to be commended for passing on the faith. Surrounding her hospital bed as she died were her children and grandchildren, each sustained by hope in the resurrection.

As their mother and grandmother died, the children and grandchildren decided to sing together. Out came the iPads, iPhones, and Blackberrys as each family member scrolled through their songs or surfed the web for something that the entire family could sing. Several suggestions were made: a hymn, a praise chorus, a Scripture song, a Gospel tune, a contemporary worship song, but sadly the group soon discovered that they could not find a song that they all knew. This family, bound together by a faith that passed through the generations, couldn't sing the songs of their faith.

Eventually they did find one song: yes, "Amazing Grace"--the first verse at least seems to be known by almost everyone, everywhere! But what was striking to me as I heard this story relayed was that for each succeeding generation it became increasingly difficult to find a song to sing. The grandmother and her generation probably had hundreds of songs that would have been familiar across denominations, stretching back for hundreds of years. The children (now middle-aged), however, only had perhaps a dozen or so songs that they could sing together. The grandchildren (all in their twenties) couldn't find one song that they all knew. It wasn't just that they didn't know their parents' praise choruses or their grandparents' hymns, they didn't know their own generation's songs.

Of course, what's strange about this is that their generation is living in a time of unprecedented production of Christian music.  But because the Christian music industry prizes innovation and change, no song ever has the time to become "their" song. When the economic engine is driven by new songs, there is never time for songs to become tried and true songs. Churches compound the problem by constantly updating their "set list" to reflect the songs being churned out by the industry. The result isn't just a severed connection with the past (as tragic as that may be); this generation is losing its connection to one another. Unless you attend the same congregation (and perhaps the same genre-specific service), you won't know the songs that your cousins are singing.

This isn't so much an argument for hymnody (there are better ones than this anecdote), it's rather a plea for unity: there are very practical consequences to age segregation in the church and a constant reinvention of the mission and marks of the church and a lust for the new and improved. The division of the church along theological lines sometimes can't be helped, but it's certainly possible for us to reverse course and find unity across generational lines.

The responsibility to achieve that unity doesn't just belong to the pastors and church musicians who sometimes determine the cultural situatedness of the congregation, responsibility must also be borne by those who sit and sing and pray and listen. Will they choose to immerse themselves in the history, language, and speech of the faith? Will they reach across generational divides so that when it comes time to sing at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb we won't all be looking at one another in confusion and dismay?

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  • Guest - Jhay Phoenix

    So true. Oh how we need the faith of our fathers.

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  • Guest - Mary Kruta

    My husband's mother died earlier this year. She was Russian Orthodox, her son converted to Lutheranism (LCMS)years ago. We played CD's of the liturgy in her room in the days leading to her death. When death was imminent my daughter sang to Grandma from The Lutheran Hymnal we had in the room. The Strife is O'er the Battle Won. How fitting a song for her last minutes on earth.

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  • There is a simple solution: let's sing the songs of the Bible, the Psalms! I've attached (at least, I've I think I've attached) a link to a site that sells Psalters (hymnals of the Psalms) and CDs and mp3 files of Psalm singing. You can download free samples, too. No, I don't get a commission; I've just grown up singing from "the hymn book of the Bible." So rich, so **right there** to use ... use them! www.psalms4u.com

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  • Guest - Old-timer

    I totally agree with the writer of this article. In a few days I'll turn 67 years of age, and I've steadily watched in dismay the decline of reverence towards the things of God, and the decline in the singing of the old hymns and other familiar songs I grew up singing and listening to. "Gospel" rock, "Gospel" hip-hop and other wild, loud, so-called Christian music is more the norm than the exception in so many, almost ALL of today's churches. I can't remember the last time I heard "Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee", "Amazing Grace", "Rock of Ages", "Great Is Thy Faithfulness", any of the "Blood" songs we used to sing during the Lord's Supper, for example. There is a trend towards having step dancers, mimes, praise dancers, loud instruments, with keyboards replacing real organs and real pianos, and every church with these big, loud, annoying drum sets. Some churches sound more like a night club than anything else. So irreverent, so awfully worldly, this new trend in music!

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  • Sounds like a good defense of singing the psalms. The psalter is the universal hymn book of the church. Even in denominations that update our version of the metrical psalms every generation, there are so many psalms that all generations can sing together. My congregation has people in their 90s down to 9 month olds- those who sing sing the same songs that our congregation has sung for 106 years. The same songs that our denomination has sung since the forming of the United Societies in 1681. The same songs that Calvin sang in Geneva. The same songs that the Lord Jesus sang as a boy. The same songs that David wrote.

    That my friends, is unity in the church.... and yes.... we even have an iphone ap so that our young people can sing along with us! :D

    May God revive and restore the Church and may we put back the ancient landmarks that have been removed.

    Pastor Nathan Eshelman
    Los Angeles Reformed Presbyterian Church

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  • Christian music industry, innovation, change, economic engine, set lists... ENOUGH with the entertainment!! Give me that old time religion--reverence for God, tried, tested and edifying worship in Spirit and in Truth, and unity, yes, even inter-generational! The world can have what the industry churns out! Great article!

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  • The latest music in the Orthodox Church Orthodox Church is the "new" Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. It's been sung for 1500 years yet it compliments the liturgies of the five centuries preceding it. Outside the Orthodox Church, every other "brand" of Christianity is to some extent the the "Church of What's Happening Now": complete with pop music, pop theology, pop psychology. The whole of protestantism is a series of restless movements of restless generations without roots in the rich deposit of faith: the Orthodox Church. Amidst the madness and sadness, many are finding their way to their two-thousand year-old Home and finding treasures that go far beyond the "flavour of the week."

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  • Guest - Elizabeth

    Pastor Eshelman makes an excellent point.

    If Jesus says that until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle of the Law or the Prophets will pass away, why not sing God's prescribed songbook of Worship?
    If the earthly author of the Psalms was a man after God's own heart, why not lift up our voices in like manner, and learn to train our hearts to be like David's?
    And most of all, if Christ is the Living Word of God, why not raise our voices and sing and shout of Him, His sufferings on the cross (Ps 22), His completed work and resurrection (22 & 110), His Kingship (21), His shepherding care (23), His great salvation (40), His wonderful mercies toward sinners (103), His testimony through Creation (104 & 19), and so on, and so on, and so on?

    I pray God will lift up such perfect praises to Himself, sung by sinful lips who rejoice in the vastness of His Grace.

    Miss Snow

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  • Guest - David

    I am dismayed at the attitudes of some comments on here. They reveal the lack of unity in the hearts of many christians today. Wasn't that exactly what the writer was trying to address.
    It seems some comments are insinuating that current worship music is at fault for this disconnect due to its lack of value/worth/theology/modern style/etc. Have we ever stopped to think that the hymns of generations past were at one time contemporary and sounded worldly (many hymn melodies were taken from songs sung in bars and pubs!) to the older generations of that time? Now they are revered testimonies of our faith. The organ was also not loved by all when it was introduced into the church.
    Shouldn't the responsibility of unity rest more heavily on the shoulders of the older, more spiritually mature members of our congregations? Shouldn't we be more accepting of the next generations expression of worship so as to encourage their faith and build them up? (I am not talking about accepting faulty theology) There comes a day in the life of every generation when they need to lay aside their preferences for the next generations preferences - for the sake of unity. That sacrifice is also an act of worship. If we do not model unity the younger generations will have no examples of it to build on!

    A few other points on this article and the comments:
    1. I will agree that this world has become so fast paced that everything has a shorter shelf life. But the fact that the saints of years past could easily find 100 songs that they could all sing together at a funeral had everything to do with the culture and dispersion of information at that time, and nothing to do with the sanctity or worthiness of the songs. They sang the same songs more often, therefore retained them better. Some churches that couldn't afford hymnals had to stick to a few that they all knew and could retain.
    Dismissing current worship music due to the lack of retention because of easy dispersion in today's culture would be like - dismissing books when they invented the printing press. The following generations wouldn't have to retain stories/history the same way as previous generations and pass information on by word of mouth. We live in a different world today - for better or worse. If we do not function in it we will become unheard by the next generations, and therefore hinder the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must function in it just as the generations of hymn writers functioned in it.

    2. Worship is more than music. Worship music is only a vessel/form of worship. That vessel/form will always change as the generations pass. It always has. It always will. They were not singing "our" hymns in the early church. We do not sing theirs today. Therefore we must focus on function/content, not form. Each generation has a duty.

    The older generation:
    To ensure that the newer generations content is biblical.
    That the worship music functions correctly within the gathering of the saints.
    That they pass the torch and lay aside their preferences of style when it's time.
    That they teach and ensure the connection with the historical church (this applies to more than just music)

    The newer generation: That they strive for their content to be biblically/theologically correct.
    That they implement worship music correctly within the gathering of the saints.
    That they take the responsibility of the passed torch and honor it, and fulfill it with integrity.
    That they learn of and stay connected to the historical church, finding culturally relevant ways to express that history in their worship (also applies to more than just music).

    So... with all that said, the article writers story is sad, but not the fault of today's worship music, but of today's culture in general. It is inevitable with the rise of technology, and the easier consumption of technology. It is really our fault if they do not know the tried and true hymns of our faith regardless of the musical style in our churches.

    (Sorry this is so long!)

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