GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–If you heard about a church that totally ignored the subjects of heaven and hell in its preaching, what would you think of that congregation?
Most of us would think the church was shirking its responsibility to declare the entire Word of God. We would demand a correction. Yet many of us do not seem to mind that the music in hundreds of churches makes the same mistake week after week — failing to offer substantive teachings on eternity.
According to one group of Southern Baptist music experts, the lack of singing about eternity ought to drive us to use songs as opportunities to teach the full counsel of God.
Church music should declare “both the breadth of Bible knowledge and the depth of Bible knowledge,” said Carl Stam, associate professor of church music and worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and minister of music at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. “We want to teach (with our worship songs). It’s not the kind of teaching that does away with teaching and preaching, but it’s the kind of teaching that happens when we sing and pray faithfully.”
A recent study by Ed Steele, assistant professor of music at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell College, attempted to quantify the lack of teaching about eternity in many modern worship songs. Steele conducted a comparative study of the 1991 edition of the “Baptist Hymnal” and two of the most popular collections of contemporary worship songs on the market — Word’s “Songs for Praise and Worship” and Maranatha’s “Praise Hymns and Choruses.”
Steele found that the “Baptist Hymnal” had approximately three times as many songs on eternal life, twice as many songs on heaven and twice as many songs on the return of Christ as the nearest bestselling book of contemporary choruses. He said that while choruses express many biblical thoughts about worshipping God, churches must not assume they are getting a balanced diet of biblical theology when they use the most popular chorus books.
Churches need “careful selection of relevant texts that do not compromise biblical theology,” Steele wrote in a lecture titled “Feast and Famine: Doctrinal Topics Addressed in Published Collections of Contemporary Choruses.”
Jerry Fleming, minister of music and senior adults at First Baptist Church in Wills Point, Texas, said churches do not need to abandon contemporary worship choruses, but they would do well not to ignore older hymns. He cited several hymns as teaching the doctrine of heaven particularly well — “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “When We All Get to heaven,” “Face to Face with Christ, My Savior” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” among others.
“One of the reasons I enjoy and use hymns is that they do teach doctrine,” Fleming said. “There may come a time when choruses fall into this category too, but for now, it is hymns that seem to do a better job of teaching doctrine. Not all, of course, but many.”
Many times a solo can be the most effective musical tool for teaching about heaven, he said, noting that “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried ‘Holy'” and “Wish You Were Here” are among his favorites.
“Music should do more than just prepare people for a sermon in which they are taught doctrine,” Fleming said. “Sometimes I will stop before a verse and just read the verse to help us focus on what it says about heaven or some other distinctive doctrine. Sometimes I let the choir or a soloist sing a verse for the same reason.”
Will Langstaff, pastor of Servant House in Lewisville, Texas, said contemporary worship songs also can do an excellent job of teaching about heaven. He cited “I Can Only Imagine” and “The Days of Elijah” as examples of worship songs teaching about heaven.
While finding songs about hell is more difficult, Stam offered several suggestions. A collection of modern hymns written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend provides more than a dozen hymns that speak biblically on eternal life, he said, including hymns mentioning hell. Additionally, hymns written during the era of the Great Awakening in the 1700s tend to teach biblical doctrine about eternal life, Stam noted. Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and William Cowper are three hymn writers from the 18th century whose works are helpful today, he said.
Stam added that while some churches shy away from singing about hell, celebrating God’s eternal damnation of Satan and his just judgment against sin should be a part of Christian worship. Both the modern hymns by Getty and Townend and the Great Awakening hymns depict the justness of God’s judgment, he said.
Watts wrote in a hymn, for example, “But vengeance and damnation lies on rebels who refuse the grace; Who God’s eternal Son despise, The hottest hell shall be their place.” More than 20 Getty hymns speak about heaven or hell.
Stam cautioned that churches should not sing every song that speaks of eternal life. A certain breed of gospel hymnody tends to trivialize the glory of God in heaven and depict judgment too lightly, he said.
“Look for texts that are substantive in their views on what heaven is like for the believer and on the judgment of God,” Stam said.
Ultimately Stam, Fleming and Steele agree that whether a church uses contemporary songs or traditional songs is not the important issue. Rather, the important issue is that congregations sing songs that match the teaching of the Bible both in their tone and their content.
“Can these new texts be used in worship?” Steele asked. “The fact is they already are. Nevertheless their use should not be without filters. The first filter must be a theological one.”
David Roach is a writer based in Louisville, Ky. This article originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.