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Removing the Rose-Tinted Glasses: Did Historical Hymns Engage in Lament More than Contemporary Worship Songs?

In my time as a parish minister, older members of the congregation would often bemoan the state of contemporary worship music to me.

Its lack of depth and theology were among the more common complaints.[1] The inference was that contemporary worship is poor where traditional worship had been rich, that choruses and songs are airy-fairy while hymns had been grounded. Because the first part of this claim seemed so blindingly obvious, I did not stop to query the second. But now I have cause to wonder, were the hymns of yesteryear really richer than contemporary worship songs are today? And how might we go about ascertaining this? Perhaps we could identify something that is lacking in contemporary worship music and then check to see if it was present in historical hymns. To give this enquiry some framework, I will limit my definition of contemporary worship to the CCLI Top 100 song list[2], while I will draw on resources from my own Presbyterian heritage to furnish the traditional/historical side of the equation. But what element of biblically faithful worship shall we use as our litmus test?

Biblical scholars like Walter Brueggemann, and theologians like Nicholas Wolterstorff have noted the profound lack of lament in the life of the contemporary church.[3] To lament is to complain to God, and it formed a vital part of the spirituality of the ancient Jewish people, as represented in the Book of Psalms. Brueggemann has claimed that the absence of lament in the life of the contemporary church reduces the great dialogue of worship into mere acquiescence on the part of humanity, whose right to question the status quo has been removed, and in fact reduces God to being a mere proxy for the status quo.[4] Wolterstorff sees a failure to lament as something of a surrender to evil, claiming, “God is not satisfied when ninety-nine of the one hundred are safely in the corral.”[5] The inference is that we ought not to be any more easily satisfied with the state of our world and that lament is the vehicle for voicing this protest. The question is: was this lack of lament also the case in historical hymns? Were previous generations of Christians (particularly, Presbyterian Christians) any better equipped to deal with suffering before God in worship than we presently are?

Analysing Contemporary Worship

First, let us establish if Brueggemann and Wolterstorff are correct when it comes to contemporary worship. If we group the songs from the CCLI Top 100 into their corresponding liturgical movements we can assess the patterns that emerge and judge for ourselves. I will use categories based on the classical liturgy:[6] call to worship, praise, confession, lament, assurance, illumination, creed, offering, intercession and sending. It is worth noting that the composers of contemporary worship songs may not have had these categories in mind when writing their songs, however, it gives us a framework to work within. It is also worth mentioning that many songs move across categories, covering praise and confession, or assurance and intercession. In these cases, I will categorise the song by the dominant movement, most often determined by the lyrics of the chorus, which by their repetitive nature, form the thematic heart of the song. Having assessed the songs along these lines, I found that across the CCLI Top 100, sixty-five songs are predominantly praise, including nine of the top ten. This might seem promising, given that there remain thirty-five songs left in which to cover more liturgical ground. However, the next largest grouping, comprising of sixteen songs fall into the category of assurance. Traditionally this follows a confession of sin, or lament for the world, and comprises of an assurance that God will act in response to our sin and/or suffering. Within contemporary worship however, we might call this category “praise after the fact,” for in these songs there is a tendency to name suffering and struggles in exclusively historical terms once the crisis has been resolved. Interestingly, these songs also feature the most explicit naming of suffering by far across this contemporary worship canon, but it is only ever struggle that is already resolved. Take for example the song, “Broken Vessels, Amazing Grace,”

All these pieces
Broken and scattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I’ve been set free.[7]

We can see that the reality of being “broken” is named, but exclusively in the past tense. It seems suffering is permitted in contemporary worship, but only after it has been sorted out.

Taken together, the categories of praise and assurance make up over eighty percent of the most popular contemporary worship songs represented on the list. These are exclusively the anthems of a good God and a rescued people. What of the other places we find ourselves in our life of faith, and indeed, what of lament? Lament is the dominant theme in only one song within the list of 100. It features as something of a minority report in two other songs as well, first, Matt and Beth Redman’s song “Blessed be your name,” in the lines,

Blessed be your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be your name.[8]
Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be your name

Of course, even these lines, whilst naming the reality of pain and difficulty, are using them more as a backdrop to praise, rather than letting them have centre stage to tell their own story. Instead, they are leveraged to tell another, more familiar story of human gratitude before the Divine. The second song to feature any aspect of lament is “Your Grace is Enough.” From the pre-chorus,

So remember Your people
Remember Your children
Remember Your promise, oh God.[9]

On the face of it, this plea for God to “remember” is reminiscent of the Psalmist’s cry in Psalm 13:1, “How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?” Indeed, asking God to remember at least opens the theological possibility that God might forget, which is a daring theological assertion well in keeping with the convictions that undergird lament.[10] However, when the song is heard, and not merely the lyrics read, the thread of lament seems to unravel. The musical arrangement bursts with energy and confidence, while the repeated chorus-declaration of “Your grace is enough” seems to swallow up any uncertainty about God’s presence or deliverance. The only song within the Top 100 to approximate lament is Kristian Stanfill’s “Always”, which draws heavily on Psalm 3, and opens with these lines,

My foes are many, they rise against me
But I will hold my ground
I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way, my help is on the way[11]

Whilst the song represents the main themes of Psalm 3 well and is paired with a musical setting that is more reflective and earnest than that of “Your Grace is Enough,” the fact that it features at number ninety-eight on the list of 100 is revealing. Psalm 3 itself is not a particularly strongly worded lament, spending more time on the determination of the Psalmist to hold fast to God than on the protest that needs to be made before God. Because of this emphasis, the piece seems to sit in the slipstream of the many songs of assurance referred to above. Suffering or struggles are mentioned, but only in order to heighten the sense of God’s deliverance and care for His people, or in this case, human faithfulness in the midst of strife. How then are we to respond to suffering that seems insurmountable? Contemporary worship music seems profoundly short suited in this area. For while there are occasional moments of lament, these moments are often deployed merely as a lyrical device to further another liturgical end, most often praise. And the God who can only be praised is a God who cannot be questioned.[12]

Analysing Traditional Worship

But were historical hymns any different? How was suffering dealt with liturgically when this music was written, and was lament part of that? In order to answer these questions, I will study the contents of the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary: Revised Edition, published in 1929.[13] This was the dominant liturgical resource towards the end of that period in which the forms of traditional worship enjoyed a monopoly within Presbyterian churches. This volume would have been particularly formative in shaping what many of the elder members of my parish referred to as “traditional worship” when complaining about contemporary worship music.

Of course, to ask questions of traditional Presbyterian worship, one cannot escape a discussion of the Psalter, the metrical setting of the entire book of Psalms. Indeed, the presence of the Psalter included at the front of the Revised Church Hymnary stands as a firm reproach to any suggestion that the traditional Presbyterian liturgical response to suffering may have excluded lament. However, despite the Psalter being exhaustive in its representation of the Psalms, it is less clear whether its usage was similarly comprehensive. An index is included in the back of the Psalter which includes tune recommendations and selections of verses thought to be most suitable for public worship.[14] However, its recommendations are not exhaustive. Sixty-five Psalms are left out entirely, and although twenty-seven lament Psalms are included, the selected verses often create songs of praise out of what had previously been songs of grief! Take the iconic Psalm 22 for example, which opens with the well-known cry that Christ issues from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[15] Yet, while this question was acceptable on the lips of Christ, it does not seem to have been acceptable from his followers in Presbyterian churches. The selection that survives and is widely enough used to have two tunes offered along with it, is only vv. 23-28, which tell a rather different story to the original,

Praise ye the Lord, who do him fear;
him glorify all ye
The seed of Jacob: fear him all
that Isr’el’s children be.
For he despised not nor abhorred
Th’ afflicted’s misery;
Nor from him hid his face, but heard
when he to him did cry.
Within the congregation great
my praise shall be of thee;
My vows before them that him fear
shall be performed by me.
The meek shall eat, and shall be filled;
they also praise shall give
Unto the Lord that do him seek:
your heart shall ever live.[16]

As can be seen, the original nature of the Psalm is meddled with. The narrative journey with its movement from despair to hope is replaced with something much less potent. The reason it matters to the Psalmist that God, “despised not nor abhorred th’ afflicted’s misery … but heard when he to him did cry” is because it is the Psalmist himself who is in misery and cries out to God in the earlier verses. The selection presented offers these convictions almost as a theory about God, whereas, the original proclaims first-hand both despairing question and daring answer to the riddle of God’s presence in the midst of pain and powerlessness. Nor is the treatment of Psalm 22 an isolated case but is sadly representative of the way lament was sidestepped by this stage.

This practice of selecting particular verses from Psalms seems to have been well established, and was noted at the time by Herbert Wiseman, a church music director, organist, and member of the Scottish Church Service Society. He wrote, “we are not ‘Psalm-singers,’ but only singers of snippets of Psalms.”[17] Nor was this situation merely a result of cultural squeamishness or liturgical pragmatism, but rather of theological intent. New Zealand based theologians during this period like John Dickie and Helmut Rex, who agreed on precious little else, both considered many of the lament Psalms unsuitable for use in worship. Rex memorably describes them as being not only “sub-Christian” but “sub-human”![18] Nor were they alone. Wolterstorff points out that no less than John Calvin and Augustine both believed lament to be inappropriate in Christian worship.[19] By the time influential Presbyterian liturgist Millar Patrick published his book on Scottish psalmody in 1949, he reveals, “There is no point in continuing to print, for mere custom’s sake, so much which everyone knows will never be sung …”[20]

Affixed to the Psalter was the Revised Church Hymnary itself, a collaborative work the compilers of which included representatives from the then Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, officially authorising this hymnbook for use in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church.[21] Assessing the hymns in the same way that I analysed the CCLI Top 100 reveals that of the 728 hymns, a fraction under sixty percent are exclusively or predominantly praise orientated. This is quite similar to the sixty-five songs within the Top 100 that share this focus. The hymnary includes just eleven hymns that approximate or include aspects of lament. Again, this is not dissimilar to the representation of lament within the Top 100. Is it possible that the emphases of contemporary worship may actually be built upon traditional worship, rather than always being a departure from it?

Within the hymnary, a number of hymns claim a connection with particular Psalms, and of these a small number trace their lineage to Psalms of lament. One of these is hymn #368, “O that the Lord’s salvation,” which is affiliated with Psalm 14. Yet its opening concentrates heavily on the closing verse of the Psalm with its focus on God’s hoped-for salvation, in order to restore the people. While this final verse of the Psalm is given considerable attention throughout the hymn, the preceding verses of the Psalm do not fare so well. Verses 1-6 are essentially an analysis and judgement upon the wicked, who are oppressing the poor. In the Psalm, the longing for God’s deliverance is intensified by this extended exploration of the plight facing the faithful. Nor is hope ultimately realised, with v. 7 using exclusively future tense language to speak of God’s deliverance. While the hymn retains the future tense of the original, it is heavily weighted towards voicing the hope of v. 7 rather than exploring the despair that dominates the majority of Psalm 14. One could argue that the hope of v. 7 only makes sense in the context of the despair of vv. 1-6. Giving credit where it is due, the hymn writer Henry Francis Lyte did give voice to this sense of disorientation in an unprinted second verse. While his complete hymn was still somewhat out of proportion with the balance of the original Psalm, it is an indication that he was at least attempting to deal with the text on its own terms. More damning is that when this hymn appeared in the Church of Scotland’s first hymnary of 1901, it included the (now) missing verse![22] If this hymn is a child of Psalm 14, in this redacted form, we have some reason to question its legitimacy.

How then is suffering dealt with in the rest of the hymnary? One of the most interesting facets is to compare the handling of suffering in relation to Christ’s death alongside the understanding of suffering in relation to ordinary human death. In relation to Christ’s death, the hymns employ some of the volume’s most vivid poetry, plumbing the depths of Christ’s pain and agony for our sakes. However, many of these hymns, whilst naming Christ’s suffering, subtly undermine the naming of ours. Take for example this verse from “Throned Upon the Awful Tree” by John Ellerton,

Lord, should fear and anguish roll
Darkly o’er my sinful soul
Thou, who once wast thus bereft
That Thine own might ne’er be left
Teach me by that bitter cry
In the gloom to know Thee nigh.[23]

While the hymn offers comfort and the assurance of Christ’s presence with us in our struggles, it also seems to remove the permission to voice that same God-forsakenness as Christ did, inferring instead that these words are reserved. The possibility of human grief and suffering are at once named only then to be diminished. This sense is intensified when we reach the section entitled, “Death, Resurrection and the Life Everlasting” where this posture towards death and suffering is reinforced. Of the sixteen hymns in this section, four of them fit with the posture of the Biblical Wisdom literature, where the fragility of human life and the inevitability of death is held alongside the enduring faithfulness of God. This is not at all dissimilar to the theological progression we find in the contemporary songs of assurance – fleeting human struggle alongside unfailing Divine care. Within this section, the largest group of hymns (eleven in all) hold the hope of heaven front and centre, while at the same time, being largely devoid of any reference to death, grief, or suffering. Again, we see the tendency toward hope without a context that requires it, which again finds an echo in later contemporary songs. When compared with the hymns about Christ’s own suffering and death, we are given the impression that Christ was forsaken therefore we will not be. While this may be theologically true, it denies the human experience of suffering and forsakenness, and short-cuts the necessary process of grief and loss.

This pattern of dealing deeply with Christ’s suffering but superficially with our own can also be found in contemporary worship. There is a remarkable similarity across songs from the CCLI Top 100 like “Forever (We Sing Hallelujah),”[24] “Resurrecting,”[25] and “Glorious Day (Living he loved me)”[26] which all delve deeply and poetically into Christ’s pain. A good example is Brooke Fraser and Matt Crocker’s song “Man of Sorrow’s.”

Man of sorrows, Lamb of God
By His own betrayed
The sin of man and wrath of God
Has been on Jesus laid.
Silent as He stood accused
Beaten, mocked and scorned
Bowing to the Father's will
He took a crown of thorns.[27]

However, this song and all the others mentioned move from a reflection on Christ’s suffering in the verses to praise and gratitude in response to it in the chorus. Rather than reflection on Christ’s suffering opening up any other possibilities, like empathy or solidarity, it only ever turns to praise. The implication is that suffering is something that Christ endures so that we do not have to experience it. I want to suggest this is a lesson that contemporary worship has learned from traditional worship, as the same pattern is in evidence in the Revised Church Hymnary.

When reviewing the hymnary for the Church Service Society Annual, Rev Thomas Marjoribanks expresses profound disappointment in the offerings of the contemporary hymn writers included in the volume, even wondering, “Is it that men have lost the art of writing hymns?”[28] He even goes to the trouble of naming the chief culprits! On his list is one Gilbert Keith (G. K.) Chesterton. Helpfully, Chesterton contributed just one hymn,[29] so we know for certain where Marjoribanks’ criticism was aimed. Chesterton’s hymn is included in the section of the hymnary entitled, “National Hymns” which begins with “God save our gracious Queen” which rather set the tone for the majority of those to follow. However, Chesterton’s hymn departed from the well-worn path of celebrating empire, unity, and greatness. His opening verse expressed a loss of trust in earthly leaders, a grief over the listless fate of his fellow people, as well as lamenting “the walls of gold” that “entomb us,” ridiculing Britain’s reliance on its wealth to ensure its success. His second verse found much to judge about the world he lived in,

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

The final verse contained some of the hymn’s most provocative lines, including “Smite us and save us all” which echoes both George MacDonald’s revolutionary theology of God’s judgement[30] and the idea that lament at times seeks to goad God into action.[31] Chesterton offers one of the few moments of unadulterated lament in the Revised Church Hymnary. What is most telling is how it is ranked among the low lights of this hymnary by Marjoribanks in his review. Is this so different from finding the song “Always”, the only real example of lament on the CCLI Top 100 list languishing at number ninety-eight?

Contemporary and Traditional worship: Reaction or relation?

The dynamics at play between traditional and contemporary worship are well beyond the scope of this article. However, in this brief study I have sought to question the popularly held conviction that historical hymns were inherently richer than contemporary worship songs. I have confined myself to my own Presbyterian heritage here in New Zealand and used lament as a test case. Both the hymns of yesteryear and the contemporary worship songs studied revealed a fascination with the suffering of Christ, which seems to have come at the expense of dealing meaningfully with the wider question of human pain. When faced with death, historical hymns (with prestigious theological backing), often indulged in glib sentimentalism, whilst contemporary worship music only tends to acknowledge suffering when it has already been overcome. From this we can suggest that rather than contemporary worship music rejecting a part of its inheritance from historical hymns, this poverty has in fact been bequeathed to it by those hymns. I would suggest that whatever richness traditional worship can claim over contemporary worship, at least when it comes to the question of suffering and the practice of lament, it is neither theological nor liturgical.

Malcolm Gordon is an ordained Presbyterian minister, is the Worship, Music and Arts Enabler for the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. He teaches on worship at Carey Baptist College and is presently working to complete his masters through Otago University on lament.

[1] Within this article I will use ‘Traditional’ to refer to the historical hymn movement, represented in this case by the Church Hymnary, Revised Edition (1929) of the Church of Scotland. “Contemporary” will be used to speak of worship music built upon the pop idiom, often using instruments associated with pop/rock music. This will be represented by the CCLI Top 100 list. I am aware that traditional worship music is still a living movement, however this study is concerned with historical traditional worship music, in the hope of discerning whether themes and tendencies from this historical expression have influenced the leanings of contemporary worship music. Therefore, I am also confining this study to dealing purely with liturgical music, and will leave other liturgical acts such as prayers, Scripture reading to explore elsewhere.

[2] <> (accessed 24 May 2018).

[3] Lament can be defined as a liturgical act of protest or complaint to God. It calls upon God to act to rescue His people. Lament is not primarily concerned about the role of sin, but with questions of justice. For more see Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11.36 (1986): 57-71.

[4] Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” 60.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “If God is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?” Calvin Theological Journal 36.1 (2001): 50.

[6] John Witvliet, The Worship Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2004), 21. Witvliet provides a helpful overview of the main movements of Christian worship.

[7] Joel Houston and Jonas Myrin, Broken Vessels, Amazing Grace (Sydney, Hillsong Worship, 2014).

[8] Beth Redman and Matt Redman, Blessed Be Your Name (Atlanta, Survivor Records, 2002).

[9] Matt Maher, Your Grace is Enough (Franklin, Essential Records, 2008).

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms: The Hard Road from Obedience to Praise – Lecture Two: Disorientation, St Marks Anglican Church Lecture Series, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 2009, DVD. In this lecture, Brueggemann speaks of the need for “audacity” and “insolence” in humanity’s dialogue with God, in order for it to maintain its integrity.

[11] Kristian Stanfill, Always (Atlanta, Six Step Records, 2011).

[12] Brueggemann, Costly Loss of Lament, 60.

[13] Church of Scotland, Church Hymnary, Revised Edition – Music Edition(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1928).

[14] Church of Scotland, Church Hymnary, Revised Edition, 263-68.

[15] Matthew 27:46.

[16] Church of Scotland, Scottish Psalter (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1929), 12.

[17] Herbert Wiseman, “The Book of Psalms,” Church Service Society Annual 37 (1967): 29.

[18] Helmut Rex, “Psalms Vol 1,” Unpublished Lecture Notes, Knox Theological Hall, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1943, 4. John Dickie, “The Ideals of Public Worship,” The Outlook (17 March 1924): 3. Dickie expresses that worship’s task is about aligning humanity with God’s purposes, rather than an honest discourse.

[19] Wolterstorff, “If God is Good,” 45-49.

[20] Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (London, Oxford University Press, 1949), 230.

[21] Millar Patrick, Handbook to the Church Hymnary, Revised Edition (Edinburgh, Oxford University Press, 1927), xxxii-xxxiii

[22] Church of Scotland, Church Hymnary (London, Oxford University Press, 1901), 417.

[23] Church of Scotland, Church Hymnary, Revised Edition (Edinburgh, Oxford University Press, 1928), 34.

[24] Jenn Johnson et al., Forever (We Sing Hallelujah) (Brentwood, Sparrow Records, 2014).

[25] Chris Brown et al., Resurrecting (Charlotte, Elevation Music, 2016).

[26] John Wilbur Chapman et al., Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me) (Brentwood, Reunion Records, 2009).

[27] Matt Crocker and Brooke Ligertwood, Man of Sorrows (Sydney, Hillsong Worship, 2013).

[28] Thomas Marjoribanks, “The Revised Church Hymnary,” Church Service Society Annual 1 (1928-29): 71-72.

[29] Church of Scotland, Church Hymnary, Revised Edition, 200. Chesterton’s hymn is #638, “O God of Earth and Altar.”

[30] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series 1-3 (USA, Feather Trail Press, 2009) 133. Macdonald writes, “Thou wilt humble and raise us up … We run within the circle of what men call thy wrath and find ourselves clasped in the zone of thy love!”

[31] Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer, “The Doubtful Gain of Penitence: The Fine Line Between Lament and Penitential Prayer,” in Spiritual Complaint: The Theology and Practice of Lament, ed. Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley (Eugene, Pickwick Publications, 2013), 102.