Monday, June 30, 2014

Hymns vs. CCM?

Hymns vs CCM?

“Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM) is a term used these days to describe music that has pop instrumentation combined with Christian lyrics. This brand of music has been around at least since the 60s, though it was call Christian Rock back then. This non-conventional Christian music began to seep into Sunday morning services, first through Folk services. In time these changed into the bands so popular in some churches today.

A singer named Amy Grant changed the popular Christian music scene forever. Instead of singing in churches and at youth gatherings, she sang in major venues. She even had pop hits. The major record labels took notice and began to buy up all the independent Christian record labels. With the major labels came major money to promote new Christian singers and groups. Radio stations began to play only pop Christian music. Historic hymns, once the mainstay of Christian radio along with talk (sermons, etc) became harder and harder to find.

Of course, not everyone has embraced this new style. Many still love the old hymns and the style of hymns. In deed many continue to write Church music in the style of hymns. One such prolific writer is Stephen Starke. He has written over 175 hymns, over 30 of which are in our new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book. So, while Starke’s hymns are Christian and Contemporary, he would not be considered a writer of Contemporary Christian Music because he does not write pop music.

One of the knocks against CCM is that the lyrics are often shallow when compared to historic hymns. While often true, it is an unfair criticism. Consider Isaac Watts (1674-1748) who is often called the “Father of English hymnody.” In his lifetime he wrote around 750 hymns. Our hymnal has 15 of them. What happened to the rest of them? Well, some of them are well worth keeping, but there just isn’t enough room in the hymnal. Others, though, just aren’t that good. Either their poetry is not top tear, or their theology isn’t top tear, or their music isn’t top tear. Now, if someone as brilliant as Watts produced a majority of second rate hymns, certainly you would expect the writers of CCM to do no better. Also, you certainly would not want to throw away all of Watts’ hymns simply because the majority of the hymns he wrote are not making it into modern hymnals.

To put this another way, among the mountains and mountains of CCM songs being sung and hummed by Christians around the country, there are a handful that are real treasures, that Christians will be singing and humming a century from now.

The next thing we might learn from Watts is that he was writing the CCM of his day. That’s right. And he met with similar resistance from those who liked the old music that CCM musicians meet with today. In Watts’ day the English churches sang only the Psalms and they used the Psalm Tones (that is, they chanted them). The idea of singing words penned by mere men (i.e. not the inspired word of God) seemed sacrilege. The Lutheran Church, which started in Germany, sang hymns. Many of the English laity longed to be able to do the same. When the Methodist movement began it was swept into popularity, in part, because it embraced hymns, including the hymns of Watts. Lesson to be learned? Just because it is new, and just because much of it is below par, doesn’t mean that we should condemn all of CCM. God’s divine providence is at word through CCM, as it is at work everywhere else.

So far I’ve spoken mainly to those who have problems with CCM. However, the advocates of CCM could learn a lesson or two from the advocates of hymnody. The hymns that survive century after century tend to be those with great theology as well as great poetry. A serious study of the gifts we have in hymnody will improve the content of CCM, increasing the chance that contemporary pop Christian music will be a blessing to future generations.

In part to aid advocates of CCM to write better lyrics (theologically speaking) and in part to help advocates of  hymnody to better appreciate the hymns we have, I will post a series of articles that examines some of the theology in hymns. I will basically pick one of the hymns we will be singing in the upcoming Sunday worship service. I don’t know how many I will do but, God willing, I’ll keep it up at least through the summer.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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