Worship Songs Aren't Just for God: On Lament and Old Hymnbooks

Growing up in the Churches of Christ I grew up worshiping with hymnbooks, singing songs a capella (without instrumental accompaniment) from a songbook. We'd turn to a hymn, sing, turn to another hymn and sing. Four to five songs before moving to the Lord's Supper and then to the sermon. A song of invitation and a closing prayer wrapped us up.

Most of the songs we sang were what we'd call "spiritual songs" rather than "praise songs" (songs of doxology/worship). Songs of praise are sung to God as act of worship and we didn't sing many of those. One song of doxology and praise that we did sing was "How Great Thou Art."

Most of the songs that we sang were "spiritual songs," songs the church sang to each other, rather than directly to God, as a form of encouragement.

For example, "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" wasn't a praise song, a song of doxology. "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" was, rather, a song of edification and encouragement:
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms. 
"Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" is pretty folksy, in lyrical content and music, but there were other more magisterial hymns that were trying to do the same thing. For example, "It Is Well With My Soul":
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.
Another example, which is a favorite of mine, "Be Still My Soul":
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.
Beyond these songs of trust during times of struggle and sorrow we also sang songs that reminded of eternal consolation and reward, songs like "I'll Fly Away," "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder," and "To Canaan's Land I'm On My Way." Some of these were African American spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." And some were rooted in agricultural imagery and the farming life, like "Bringing In the Sheaves":
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Some of these songs encouraged sharing the gospel, mission work, and evangelism. Songs like "Send the Light":
There’s a call comes ringing o’er the restless wave,
“Send the light! Send the light!”
There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save,
Send the light! Send the light! 

Send the light, the blessed Gospel light;
Let it shine from shore to shore!
Send the light, the blessed Gospel light;
Let it shine forevermore!

We have heard the Macedonian call today,
“Send the light! Send the light!”
And a golden off’ring at the cross we lay,
Send the light! Send the light!
Again, the focus of these songs was communal edification. These were less praise/worship songs sung to God than songs we sang to each other to console, encourage, uplift, challenge and care for each other. And most of the songs in our hymnbooks were songs of this sort. We mostly sang to encourage each other.

During the 80s and 90s in the Churches of Christ we experienced what many traditions call "worship reform." And a big part of that reform in our tradition was to push back on the congregation-focused singing we'd been doing to focus more on praise/worship songs, singing to God doxologically. The refrain was, "Worship is about God, not us." So a shift happened. Spiritual songs of mutual encouragement were gradually replaced with praise songs. And a lot of this involved putting the old hymnbooks away and turning to the praise songs being produced by the Christian music industry.

Lots could be said about this change, good and bad, but I'd like to just point to one little discussed aspect of the demise of the "spiritual song" in our faith tradition.

While I wholeheartedly agree that worship should primarily about the praise of God, I'd like to remind that we sing not just for God but also for ourselves. We are told by Paul (commanded, even, if you read the bible in a particular way) to sing songs for each other:
Colossians 3.16
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 
Worship songs aren't just for God. Worship songs are also for us, used to "teach and admonish" each other. 

Now I want to be clear here. I'm not suggesting that we pull out the old hymnbooks and start singing "Bringing in the Sheaves." (Though, to be honest, I'd love that, for nostalgic reasons and also for the looks of incomprehension on the faces of my college students.) I'm not recommending going back in time musically and lyrically.

But what I am trying to point out is that there is a horizontal aspect of singing--the church singing to and for each other--that has been largely lost in a lot of the contemporary Christian worship experience. And I think this is important because our almost exclusive focus on the vertical experience--singing songs to God--has meant that we've marginalized from our singing huge swaths of the human experience.

Lament in particular. Look back again, if you skipped over them earlier, some of the lyrics of those old hymns. "When sorrows like seas billows roll." "When sorrow, grief and fear are gone." "What have I to dread, what have I to fear?" To be sure, some of these songs can seem escapist, like the lyric from "I'll Fly Away": "Some glad morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away." But the backdrop of that song is pain and suffering. Today is a sad day, a very sad say. So we wait for "some glad morning, when this life is o'er." Even a homey song like "Bringing in the Sheaves" speaks to the hardscrabble, poor, desperate, and back-breaking life experienced on farms, especially during the Depression era.

So again, while many of us might want to withdraw a bit from the other-worldly consolation in these old songs, what is clear is how these songs were speaking to pain, sorrow, loss, weariness, and longing. These songs were speaking into fatigue and hopelessness. These songs named the brokenness.

That is what songs do when they try to attend closely to the human experience. Such songs recognize and name the pain. Which is one reason why I think our worship was thinned out when we marginalized these songs. By attending almost exclusively in the praise song to the vertical dimension the horizontal aspect of human experience expressed in the spiritual song was marginalized. This unwittingly hollowed out our worship, removing much of the hymnody that expressed our lament.

And still to this day, at least in my church, when we want to express our lament we pull out one of those old spiritual songs like "When Peace Like a River."

When want to lament we don't reach toward the Christian music industry.

We open up those old hymnbooks.

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19 thoughts on “Worship Songs Aren't Just for God: On Lament and Old Hymnbooks”

  1. When I was in Cambodia a couple of years ago I worshiped with a young church where "Bringing in the Sheaves" is a favorite song. I don't think, even growing up in Churches of Christ and worshiping often in rural, ag-centered communities, that I'd ever sung it before. My exposure to the song was mostly in old Westerns. But this Cambodian church sang it like it was new. They sang it like a late-90's mega-church would sing "You are Holy". Why? Because these young men and women still go out to the rice fields and bring in sheaves at harvest time. The song is still their heart song.

    Speaking of which, I've appreciated the greater emphasis on worship/praise songs to God, but we did what we often do, and over-corrected. A church whose heart-songs don't include words of lament and words of encouragement directly to their brothers and sisters is a church that's lost it's way and forgotten that mutual edification is at its heart a form of worship and praise to our God. It's an act of acknowledging that we will love as he loved, and build up as he has built up.

  2. I would argue from First Corinthians 14:17-19 that in the assembly, Paul considers edification to be more important than thanksgiving/worship by a factor of 2000 to 1.

  3. I'm with Simon below. And this post puts the arrowhead right in the 10-ring, although I am tempted to use much more strident language to describe what has been lost - and what has been (alas) "gained" - by the ascendency of P&W "music" to the near exclusion of hymnody.

  4. Richard, I think this is one of the first times I have ever disagreed with you; but only partially so. I really enjoy the discussion of vertical and horizontal worship. I think, as with most issues, we run the risk of reacting against one so much we run to exclusively to the other. We need to find more balance.

    However, I think the lament discussion is entirely different from what you are talking about. When you talked about songs of lament, I immediately thought of "You Never Let Go," "From The Inside Out," "Your Love Never Fails," "Mighty to Save" "Came to my Rescue," "Oceans," and "Blessed Be Your Name." I think the issue with lament is that the church historically has not done well with lament. We have a few songs here and there and a few more songs with a line or two embedded within, but for the most part we try to avoid that part of our human experience in worship.

    Again, I think the discussion of horizontal and vertical worship is important, but lament is another discussion.

    (And since I am being disagreeable): The discussion in First Corinthians is not one of edification vs. praise/thanksgiving. It is one of edification vs. showing off.

  5. Jernigan's As the Deer Thirsts and Gill's Deep Calls to Deep are effective laments... perhaps the exception that proves the rule; yet, in the church family I grew up in, singing seemed "to me" more sentimentality than spiritual quest for worship or encouragement... Mansions Over the Hilltop with "I am satisfied here with a cottage, a little silver and a little gold, but baby, when I get to heaven I want a gold mansion that's silver lined." iIt reminded me of a little kid wanting to know, "what's in it for me?" What's coming to us was such a focus, we forgot about "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth." . .

  6. I'm very happy to say that we sing a combination of old and new, upbeat and solemn, and songs of three different types. Psalms serve the purpose of acknowledging God's greatness and lamenting our unworthiness. Hymns praise God, and spiritual songs edify us in the faith.

  7. I agree by a factor of 2001 to 1.

    I find myself shifting uncomfortably when I hear praise and worship music. To me, so much of it falls into idolatry and the idea of creating god in our own image: "God you are some awesome!"

    I'm a musician/songwriter/whatever and every once in a while someone at my church will allude to the idea that we should have more modern music and I emphatically respond that I'd rather hear 18th and 19th century hymns.

    This may be my favorite line from any song everywhere (I even used as the sort of epilogue to a song I wrote a year or so ago):

    "These are they whose hearts were riven,

    sore with woe and anguish tried,

    who in prayer full oft have striven

    with the God they glorified"

  8. I can't recommend this record enough:


  9. Love the old standard Leaning On the Everlasting Arms! To the best of my knowledge, the song has been featured in two Hollywood films. An old black-and-white film called Night of the Hunter, and more recently, the Coen brothers remake of True Grit.

  10. Ken, I understand your concern. It may not be very convincing, but, to be reminded that a lot of these "gospel songs" were written and sung by depressioned-ravaged brothers and sisters who may well have lost all they had, makes an undertone of suffering and near despair at least possible if not probable. "it's gonna get better," is a ringing affirmation of faith under such strident circumstances.

    Sometimes even psalms of lament conclude with a praise. For me it's a pretty complex problem?

  11. Amen. If you yearn to sing old CofC hymns come to House for All Sinners and Saints any time! (A cappela Gregorian chant liturgy + old c if c hymns. It's like informal high church/tent revival) :)

  12. There's a distinction between worship being God directed and every act of singing (or speaking) within it necessarily being focused on us adoring God.

    And it's a distinction we already see in the very text you quoted from Colossians.

    Yes, we admonish and encourage one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, but we do all of this "singing to God with gratitude in your hearts."

    In other words, even if the words we use in song (or prayer) aren't saying "God, you're so awesome, Lord, you're almighty, Christ you're so gracious to me" we still direct them toward God. We confess our faith, we pray, we hear scripture read and proclaimed, we share testimonies, we join in lament-- all of it, to God and before God and with God.

    So yes, worship is all about God and indeed all "to" God. It's just that there is and has always been way more to worship than only "praise and worship." The Psalter itself is ample record of this, as is the long history of Christian worship and worship music, from chant, to Mass settings, to motets, to chorales, to hymnody and to global praise to Taizé and even, if we're paying attention, to some elements in P&W.

  13. I'm with you on "Mansions Over the Hilltop". I don't sing along, especially the first verse, out of principle. I haven't since the 90s when I stood in a poor church in Russia watching an American lead this song, thinking the whole time of how strange it must sound to the ears of those for whom "a cottage below, a little silver and a little gold" was an unobtainable fairy tail.

    There are definitely modern laments. "My Eyes are Dry" (a little sappy perhaps, but sometimes speaks powerfully to some), "Purify Me, Lord", "Create in Me a Clean Heart", etc.

  14. I left the church of Christ in the late 80's. The last time I visited my parent's church of Christ (my cradle church), we sang mostly praise and worship songs - maybe there was one older song from my childhood. My greatest difficulty with the praise and worship musical genre in the churches of Christ is that they don't provide music with the words - at least not in my cradle congregation. P&W words projected on a screen without music feels alienating; only those who know the tune can join the assembly in singing. Not only did I feel cut off from the horizontal structure of the service, I felt cut off from the vertical as well. It is never "I" who worship in the assembly, it must always be "we" if it is corporate Christian worship.

  15. Re 1st Co - I more or less agree with you about the discussion, but I think the underlying principle that Paul uses to make his point (the priority of edification) is still relevant.

  16. I like the old songs. We keep two cofc song books under the seat in the car, tho we know at least the first verse of most of them. Our lamentable condition is not just about the material things--how 'bout the mental anguish and depression all around. Yes we have plenty of that. Or is it just me?! The Psalms can help me cry out about that.

  17. I think when we call the singing that goes in church, worship, we narrow down the scope of what community singing is all about. Only last Sunday, i was thinking in Church of how our "worship" seems to simply make us awe-struck with who God is, but it does not seem to encourage any dynamic relationship with whom we are in awe with. Our relationship with God seems to be limited to how much he has forgiven us and how cool he is for forgiving and blessing us!

  18. Thank you. So well said. In my ELCA upbringing, I don't think we've ever talked about the horizontal aspect of singing. I like that. We did it, but you've given language to me.

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