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Shallow choruses have replaced scriptural hymns, panelists say

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Christian hymns should follow the biblical example found in Deuteronomy 31-32, where God gave Moses a song to teach the Israelites, said Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Daniel Block.

Block, the John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, spoke at the seminary March 29 in a forum on “The Role of Hymns in Theological Recovery.” He was joined by Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology; Esther Rothenbusch, assistant professor of church music; and Lloyd Mims, dean of the school of church music and worship.

“I really think that you are what you sing,” Block said. “Shallow theology will produce shallow music, and shallow music will produce shallow theology. It’s a cyclical thing. What we are challenged to do in our day is to reinsert the theological element both into our lives and into our music.”

Block gave 1 Chronicles 16:4 and Deuteronomy 31-32 as examples that worship leaders should use when choosing hymns. In 1 Chronicles 16:4, King David appoints a group of Levites to commemorate, thank and praise God — three elements Block said are essential to hymns. In Deuteronomy 31-32, God tells Moses he is about to die, but first gives him a song to pass on to the Israelites.

“I interpret Deuteronomy 32 to be Israel’s national anthem that God gives to the people to give them focus for their entire lives,” Block said. “This kind of hymn does two things.

“The first half is devoted to a description and a summary and a remembrance of God. … The second half has to do with reminding us who we are. In the preamble to this, the Lord says to Moses, ‘This song shall be a witness against them and for me.’

“In our hymns, I think these are the two things that we need to remember. God is a gracious God who deals with us not according to what we deserve but according to his great mercy. But we are the ones who persistently and consistently demonstrate our unworthiness of his grace.”

The panel agreed that Scripture-based hymns need to find their way back into more churches. Rothenbusch argued that those hymns disappeared because they were not used in a worshipful manner.

“My response is that we lost them a long time ago — in our heart,” she said. “When we discuss hymns, we think of a hymnal. Thus we allow hymns to be something that fits … all week between the covers of a hymnal, rather than something that is a part of my daily walk with the Lord.”

But Nettles said — and Rothenbusch agreed — that sermons must return to Scripture before songs do. He stressed the importance of expository preaching.

“It’s not the musician’s fault,” he said. “It’s really not. It’s the fault of the preacher. It’s because we have shallow views of worship. We have shallow exposition. We don’t have biblical preaching. We don’t have linear thinking in preaching. We have assertions made, and just two or three comments on the text and a long story about it, and we think that’s preaching.

“It’s not. We’ve got to engage the text doctrinally and teach people to think doctrinally, and then expect ourselves to sing in such a way as these truths are carried through. There’s not going to be recovery in music until there is recovery of doctrine, and true doctrinal preaching.”

Block criticized the theology of some contemporary songs, and used as an example the oft-sung “I Love You Lord.”

“It’s really worshiping myself,” he said. “I’m praising myself for my love for God. The other side of it is that it’s so different from the songs we used to sing. … We’re impressed with our love for God, when really we should be impressed with God’s love for us.”

Rothenbusch suggested that worship leaders take time prior to the hymn to talk about its meaning.

“I have heard [this] used so effectively,” she said, “in which the worship leader or the music minister or the pastor exegete some of the important points in a few sentences to really wake us up to what the riches are in this text before we sing it.”

Mims stressed the importance of hymns in a person’s life.

“I have been at the dying bedside of so many people, and they can’t remember the 23rd Psalm. They can’t quote it,” he said. “But they can sing, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ and it is a real meaningful experience for them.”

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  • Michael Foust