Roger Olson has a thought-provoking recent post on the state of hymn-singing in contemporary evangelical churches. He says that a predominant theme of hymns that he sang growing up—and which he often heard on Christian radio stations—is “friendship with Jesus.”
When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity (and here I definitely mean “evangelical” in the spiritual-theological sense, not the contemporary media-driven political sense!) these songs and this “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) was extremely common and deeply impacted and shaped my Christian spirituality and even my theology. I still tend to identify “evangelical spirituality” with that theme, motif, language. But it’s now extremely difficult to find in contemporary evangelicalism and Baptist life.
I admit it; I struggle with the seeming loss of this theme, motif, and the “language of Zion” associated with it. This is not directly a doctrinal issue; it is an issue—for me—of evangelical spirituality. I happen to think (much to some others’ chagrin, I’m sure) that that language and theme and motif—that was so great a part of evangelical piety and worship—is part of modern evangelical Christianity’s essence. Yes, to be sure, it can be expressed in new and different ways, but to drop it away entirely seems to me to change evangelical Christianity itself with great loss.
So, for those of you who didn’t grow up with it (what I’m talking about here) let me be descriptive. In my home in the 1950s and 1960s “Christian radio” was almost always “on” except at night when we slept. It was our “background noise.” And in our church (and other evangelical churches we visited) the same “language of Zion” and theme/motif was central to everything. The theme/motif could be expressed something like this: “If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior you can enjoy a personal relationship with him that will enrich your life abundantly.” In my home and in most that I knew of (as “us”) Jesus was a real presence there. He was the unseen but truly experienced presence among us and with us.
While I didn’t grow up in a home like that, I experienced this theme/motif firsthand on church retreats and camps when I was in youth group. I probably feel as much nostalgia for first-generation “Christian rock,” which I still listen to, as he does for the Christian music of his youth. Nostalgia or not, however, I don’t think he’s wrong: I believe this theme/motif is actively discouraged in worship today.
For example, one of my seminary professors told a classroom full of pastors-in-training that we shouldn’t sing hymns that used first-person singular pronouns: our singing should always be “we,” “our,” and “us.” He made reference to the Lord’s Prayer, which is, technically, a corporate prayer. In the same way, all aspects of worship should be corporate.
Even then, when I was hardly reading the Bible—I was hardly a Christian—I wanted to say, “Yes, but what about the Psalms? That’s the church’s original hymnbook, and it’s filled with first-person singular pronouns!”
As I’ve said before, if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions!
In the comments section of Olson’s post, a reader said that he missed singing the hymn “In the Garden”—a popular example of this “friendship with Jesus” theme. (We sang it two days ago at Hampton United Methodist Church!) In response, Olson wrote the following (emphasis mine):
I have heard evangelical and Baptist worship leaders bash it [“In the Garden”] as “too individualistic.” Well, you know (I want to say to them), we all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us. Death is very individual—even if there are friends and loved ones around us. I want Jesus there with me—but not only then. Then might be too late.