April 16, 2024

What the Gospel Song Era Teaches Us About Worship Music

Reading the history of the various hymns and gospel songs of times gone by gives you a different view of the changes that you see around you– a fresh perspective. Whereas twenty years ago the questions that were being asked were whether CCM was sinful, how to blend the newer music with the ones in the hymnal, and whether you’d have a traditional and contemporary service, with the advent of digital media and slide projectors that is no longer a question. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any church that is singing from their hymnal any more.

As someone who has taken Congregational Song Leading, having someone look up to the screen rather than down into their lap is an improvement– many of them, actually. You have their eye contact and attention, so they can see how you’re directing. They produce better pitch and volume because they aren’t partially obstructing their airway. You can script the service flow better, and everyone is following along instead of lagging behind. For me, I was taught to say the entire first line of the song in my introduction in case we started before the singer had made it to the correct page.

And yet, there are things that we’ve lost when we put down our hymnals as well. We replaced the curated selection of music that had been with us through time that we could take with us and meditate upon with music that we could hear whenever we wanted through music streaming services and the radio. Which, in turn, creates more of the same sound.

But this isn’t new.

During the big camp meetings and revivals of the 1900s, many of the big preachers were bringing around with them musicians who would come up with new songs for almost every event. Some of these songs are still with us today, we call them gospel songs. A lot of the Sankey, Bliss, and McGranahan songs that we have in our hymnals were first sung in a single church or introduced in a hymnal specific to one evangelist after proving it worked well on the road.

This is the same thing that’s happening today with all the music “content” being churned out in churches. The ones with staying power repeat, and the others fade back into obscurity. The hymns, too, are making a comeback, in the form of remixes– borrowing the melodies, doing callbacks, medleys, or stealing the words of the verses. Those that stand the test of time cannot go away. You’re always going to hear How Great Thou Art, complete with its middle English, or Holy, Holy, Holy. Amazing Grace’s sounds and words are multiplying because of the power in them.

The truth is that we should all celebrate music that truly praises the Lord and raises our hearts to worship him. Churches should stick to songs that the whole congregation can participate in. Where their voice is heard– and it’s not about the musicians leading or the person on stage. It should be all about Him and our ability to worship Him together.

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