Music, Hymns & Youth
The apostle Paul writes about “elder men”, “elder women”, “young women” and “younger men” (Titus 2: 2, 3, 4, 6), indicating that the normal pattern of things is for all ages to be represented in the assembly. That many present–day companies of saints are composed predominantly of older people is thus clearly abnormal. The apostle John writes about “fathers”, “young men” and “little children” (1 John 2: 13), and while he probably had spiritual growth more in mind, physical development is not excluded. He is thus another witness that there ought to be both old and young in the assembly. So why are young men and women so poorly represented in many Christian meetings? When enquiry is made it is often found that young people were among the saints in the past, but for one reason or another have not stayed the course. Some, sadly, have gone right off into the world, but the majority have gravitated to other Christian companies––companies often formed predominantly of young people like themselves.
Now it is quite obvious that unless there are some young men, there will never be any fathers, and unless there are some young women, there will never be any elder women––without young people a Christian meeting will simply die out. Fatalistically (because it is certainly not faith), some companies have decided that nothing can or should be done to stem the exodus of the young, and have accepted their inexorable drift towards ecclesiastical oblivion. Almost as a mantra, they self–righteously cite Zechariah 4: 10 “the day of small things” as if that justifies their apathy and feebleness.
Others react to young people leaving by adopting practices that they believe will retain them. Sometimes this involves taking on whatever the young ask for, even though “the advice of the young men” (1 Kings 12: 14) is often flawed. Of course it is utterly reprehensible when the views of the young are shut out or sidelined, but wisdom generally comes with experience. Hence it is the older brethren who ought to be giving the needed counsel. If they are ‘out of touch’ with younger people then they have let go the practical outworking of the body of Christ––that each member has a deep and abiding interest in the welfare of all the other members. It is, for example, a good thing to pray for young people, but I can pray far more intelligently if I make it my business to get to know them!
Sometimes attention is drawn to Christian companies that appear to be successful in retaining the young, and their methods copied, or at least adapted, for local use. What ‘works’ becomes the criteria by which the meeting is run. No thought is given to the fact that we are not in fellowship with many Christians around us precisely because they have given up NT practices, and that they are therefore extremely poor models to follow. In any case, do these methods actually work? On a superficial level, the ability to attract large numbers of young believers is very impressive, but it does not, in itself, prove anything at all. Just as a spiritual atmosphere will attract the spiritual, so a worldly atmosphere will attract the worldly––and believers may be either. One of the functions of the assembly is to act as a school for the saints whereby we all “grow in grace, and in [the] knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3: 18). It is in the assembly that the gifts of Christ are most expressed, and the body of Christ edified. The real question then is not so much the numbers we attract, but what we do with them. Are they developing as Christians––or do they remain stunted, and “such as have need of milk, [and] not of solid food” (Heb. 5: 12)? ‘Spiritual entertainment’ (if the reader can pardon the expression) will always attract a crowd, but it cannot edify. People are attracted in by some novelty, the novelty sustains them for a time, and then they are off to another church with some fresh sphere of interest––always moving on, but never making any progress.
It is the writer’s contention that the ‘ecclesiastical mainstream’ around us bears little relation to the Biblical model of the church. Despite this, many who should know better seem to think that if we are to retain (or attract) young people, the Christian company must become more like the mainstream. Concessions must be made and (though it is rarely admitted) NT practice watered down. In mere numerical terms, the process often appears successful. However, many have observed that while such meetings hold on to their young folk for a time, eventually the latter discover other places that ‘do it better’ and drift off. Clearly, this is a youth policy that, in reality, does not work.
Perhaps the greatest areas of pressure from what we might term ‘youthism’ relate to the musical sphere––both instrumental and oral. The attitude seems to be that if we take a relaxed view on these matters, we will retain our young people. My answer is that we cannot take a relaxed attitude to the teaching of Scripture and call Jesus our Lord at the same time. A servant is not at liberty to pick and choose when it comes to obeying his Master. Of course we should do everything we can to keep people, but we must never give up one jot of Biblical teaching.
If music plays a huge part in contemporary youth culture, things are little different in the professing church. Christian song–writers have become hugely influential, and many modern ‘services’ are largely given over to singing, with “ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 4) relegated to a supporting role. The picture painted in the NT is radically different. Apart from some vague allusions in 1 Cor 14 (verses 15, 26) there are no references to singing in the assembly. Ephesians 5: 19 and Colossians 3: 16 have individual saints in view. Hebrews 2: 12, frequently misquoted as Christ leading the sung praises of the saints in the Assembly, is really nothing of the sort. Matthew 26: 30, the disciples singing a hymn at the first Lord’s supper is closer, though this precedes the formation of the Assembly. Of course singing comes naturally to those who have been redeemed (comp. Acts 16: 25). Thus the allusions in 1 Cor. 14 (a chapter on “whenever ye come together”––v26), though imprecise, seem sufficient proof that singing marked the gatherings of the saints. From the emphasis given in the Scriptures, however, it is clear that the ministry of the word, and the “breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2: 42) took precedence.
Furthermore, the NT records absolutely nothing of the words of the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5: 19) presumably then in common use among the saints. This may be intentional––there is to be a true spiritual liberty in how we express our praise and thanks to God. A recognised ‘hymnbook’ may be sensible for practical purposes, but it ought not to be used to restrict the liberty of the saints. It must, however, be a spiritual liberty––we cannot simply sing what we like. If we are singing “to the Lord” (v19) and “to God” (Col. 3: 16) then we ought to exercise the utmost care in the words that we use. It is quite amazing how scrupulous some people are in addressing royalty or other persons of supposed importance, but who think nothing of uttering what can only be described as irreverent drivel in ‘praise’ of God. ‘Jesus you’re the best’ is not much better than a football chant. One wonders if those who delight in such compositions have any comprehension of the majesty of the Person they are addressing.
Sometimes it appears we are being asked to sing certain hymns merely because ‘everyone’ is singing them. Certainly some widely used hymns are of a high quality, but others owe part of their appeal to their superficiality––anyone can sing them. Indeed, some religious songs (we could not call them hymns) have words so vague that they can be utilised just as easily by the karaoke of the public house as by the revival meeting. Introducing such compositions into the assembly can only serve to lower its tone.
In the realm of ‘popular’ music, the melody is usually viewed as of more importance than the words––and the same attitude has also affected modern hymnology. If it sounds good, then that is what the young people want. But strip away the emotional effect of the melody and what is left? Generally very little at all and what there is is often shallow and repetitive. Yet the words are the most important part of the hymn––the melody is merely the frame in which the painting sits. Serious questions need to be asked. If we are singing to God, what are we saying to Him? If we are singing of our salvation, then what words are we using to describe it? Of course, hymns are never perfect as they are not inspired––but is it right to introduce into the meeting hymns which contradict the teaching of Scripture? For example, what kind of message is sent out by singing and asking for the Holy Spirit to ‘Fall afresh...’ when such sentiments are a direct contradiction of Acts 2? The early disciples not only broke bread and prayed, but “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (Acts 2: 42). To give up apostolic teaching on the grounds of keeping the young seems a remarkably high price to pay!
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some who believe that we should only sing out of the book of Psalms. Without doubt, some psalms (or at least parts of them) are suitable for use by Christians––Psalm 23 for instance. We soon, however, run into problems elsewhere. How can the example Christ gave with regard to the little children be married to the singing of Psalm 137: 9: “Happy he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock”? The fact is the OT Psalms are a product of their time––the dispensation of law before the Lord came into the world (comp. John 1: 17). That things have changed consequent on His coming is clear from Matthew 5 where time and time again the Lord contrasts His own teaching with that of the law by saying “But I say unto you”. Just as new wine must be put into new skins (see Luke 5: 38), so NT language must be used to describe the NT situation. No one doubts, for instance, that Psalm 51 is a deeply profound part of Scripture––but a comparison of verse 11 with John 14: 16 proves that it would not be intelligent to transfer its sentiments wholesale into Christianity. All Scripture is inspired, but the Bible is also divided into two testaments and we make a great blunder if we fail to appreciate the difference between the two.
Yet this same mistake is made in countless Christian companies who see nothing wrong in using musical instruments to praise and worship God. That instruments were used in the OT worship is undeniable (see 2 Chron. 5: 11 – 13; Ps. 150), but the error is to assume that nothing has changed. That things may be done out of ignorance is admitted, but there is surely no excuse when saints who know better (and once excluded all such ‘aids’ to worship from their meetings) go back on what they previously held. Frequently this is done for the purpose of ‘pleasing the young’––though one would have thought that ‘pleasing God’ ought to be the crucial issue where worship was concerned! John 4: 21–24 is proof that the nature of worship has changed. The OT worship was an outward worship, with outward symbols of worship. True Christian worship is “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 23, 24). The approach to God now is by a “new and living way” (Heb. 10: 20)––not only “new” but “living”, and if “living” how can “lifeless things giving a sound, whether pipe or harp” (1 Cor. 14: 7) have any part? That is why there is no suggestion at all in the NT of musical instruments connected with Christian worship. That musical instruments are widely used throughout Christendom is not denied, but do we wish to abide by God’s Word or to become ‘just another denomination’?
Much has been made of the Greek word psallo, translated “sing” in the AV. Originally this meant to touch lightly, hence to play on a stringed instrument with the fingers, and much effort has been exerted to demonstrate that where it occurs in the NT it means to sing with musical accompaniment. There is no doubt, however, that by NT times psallo had come to mean simply to sing. Paul says “I will sing (psallo) with the spirit” (1 Cor. 14: 15). Can you play the piano with the spirit? No. Fingers are used to play pianos! Later he speaks of “singing and chanting (psallo) with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5: 19). Can you play the guitar with your heart? Again, no. Some, in desperation, turn to the harps of Revelation 5: 8. But if the harps there are literal, then so are the golden bowls containing the prayers of the saints! Revelation is a book of symbols (see Rev. 1: 1) and must be interpreted accordingly. Besides, how many churches use harps as such in their services? If we are to interpret the book literally then why not do it properly? The fact is, the way for a Christian to offer praise to God is not by the organ or drum, but by “[the] fruit of [the] lips confessing his name” (Heb. 13: 15). To introduce into Christian worship what God has not commanded is akin to Nadab and Abihu presenting “strange fire before Jehovah” (Lev. 10: 1).
How about musical instruments in connection with the Gospel? Is there really any harm in jazzing up the preaching with a few keyboard pieces––it would, after all, be much easier to get the young involved that way? The harm lies in the fact that we are departing from the example God has left to us in the NT. There is no record that the apostles ever taught or practised the use of musical instruments in connection with the preaching. When Paul preached to the Corinthians, he did so “in demonstration of [the] Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2: 4). Is the playing of a keyboard a demonstration of Spirit and power? No! The glad tidings is “God’s power to salvation” (Rom. 1: 16) and needs no fleshly aids to support it. Why behave then, as if it does?
What lies at the root of the very real pressure to slacken our rigid adherence to NT teaching and practice is sheer unbelief. Because young people are leaving, the Biblical model of how to ‘do church’ is regarded as a failure, and in response, all kinds of innovations are introduced into the assembly with the aim of keeping people. I have confined my comments to the musical sphere, but there are many other areas in which Biblical standards are being downgraded. Whatever others are doing, the man of God must have nothing to do with these things. Paul’s closing words to Timothy come to mind: “But thou, abide in those things which thou hast learned, and [of which] thou hast been fully persuaded” (2 Tim. 3: 14). As thus faithful, it may be that others, both young and old, are encouraged to follow with us.