The Triumph of Charismatic Song:

Leonard R. Payton
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Mar/Apr 2001

We cannot speak about the influence of the charismatic movement upon Evangelicalism without speaking about charismatic singing. For in this realm, the charismatic movement has had an impact upon the Church far beyond proportion. This has happened, I think, for two reasons: First, there is something especially harmonious between the charismatic movement and the spirit of the age (more about that later); secondly, Lutherans and Reformed have largely neglected the congregation's song for three centuries if not longer (this, too, will demand some substantiation).

First, let me offer some necessary generalizations. When I speak of charismatic congregational singing, I mean that which most people would call "praise and worship songs or choruses." Like so many aesthetic forms, there is no one, single, clear, and inviolable definition of this genre. Nevertheless, there are some identifying marks, and if enough of them are present, then we have a praise and worship chorus. These marks might be 1) small, guitar-based chord vocabulary; 2) slow rate of chord change rather than one chord per melody note; 3) performance by a "worship team," i.e., several people in front of the congregation leading at the same time; 4) lyrics without multiple stanzas; 5) lyrics that predominantly emphasize the subjective experience; 6) lyrics that can fit on a single overhead folio; 7) a visible claim of copyright; 8) lyrics that speak to God vaguely without a lot of cumbersome detail about his attributes or actions; 9) repetition of the song within the service; 10) people in the congregation closing their eyes, raising their hands, and gently swaying to the music; 11) an induced state of "worshipfulness," etc., in short, an overall music package that is rather strongly indexed to commercial, American popular music of the last three decades. (In the most extreme cases, some worship services are merely sanitized rock concerts, i.e., no foul language and no cloud of marijuana smoke up at the ceiling.) I hasten to add that many other styles include some of the above elements. It is the presence of many of the elements that lands a piece of congregational singing within the praise and worship tradition.

If one is an individualistic American, whose soteriology is Arminian, and who has a low view of sacramental efficacy, then the praise and worship chorus tradition is very harmonious. That is where the form is born, and the form fits the function. In this tradition, people speak to God with an almost erotic directness in much the same way one speaks to a girlfriend in the American popular song. It's almost as if we were to experience God in the assembly of the saints privately, with our eyes closed, and our hands reaching out to touch him. Where are Word and Sacrament here? At a minimum they retreat from the foreground. The theology and the form really do match one another.

And if the private experience within the assembly of the saints becomes the chief thing, then the assembly of the saints becomes less important. Indeed, one who opens his eyes might feel like a voyeur! And, of course, this emphasis upon the private also impacts our music. So we find that praise and worship choruses do not come to us from some acknowledged ecclesiastical authority (precisely because the gatheredness of the assembly has decreased in importance) but rather from commercial music publishers. For the charismatic, his experience is more significant than the confessional proclamation of the Church. Such a commercial line to the Church's music simply does not trouble him.

So the praise and worship tradition is incongruent to both Lutheran and Reformed theologies, theologies which are grounded in a gathered ecclesiastical confession. But why then are we so beleaguered by the praise and worship chorus tradition? Why is it creeping into our congregations? Why has it entirely overrun some of our congregations? These questions are doubly vexing when we consider that there are some prominent Reformed popular music performers, and that there are also prominent Reformed theologians who unapologetically undergird the movement. Lutherans have been slower on the uptake, but then, being Lutheran and being cool have always been mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, even the Lutherans are dealing with a major encroachment of praise and worship choruses within their congregations.

Our Culpability for Christian Music's Current State

How has this happened? We have room for much self-criticism here. We are dependent on the forms of non-Reformational traditions because the Reformation traditions have devoted such scant resources to developing music that flows from our theology, both substantively and formally.

Reformed music never really developed from its earliest history. It had a closed canon early on, a canon of metrical, paraphrased psalms. This was certainly the case through the time of the Westminster Assembly, and in some locales, for many years beyond that. Indeed, there are small pockets of that tradition down to this day. The Reformed failed to appreciate that the Word comes to us in a sung form, putting exclusive emphasis, rather, on the sermon within the divine service. Very few Reformed congregations would welcome Jack Hayford, Marty Mystrom, Eddie Espinoza, or even Graham Kendrick into their pulpits. And yet the songs of these men are widely sung within Reformed congregations. Singing within the Reformed tradition has rarely received the sort of scrutiny that preaching has.

Lutheran history is not so grim. Indeed, from roughly 1520 to 1750, about 100,000 Lutheran hymns were written, many of them by ministers of the Word. Martin Luther appreciated the great catechetical value of the congregation's song and threw some of his most enduring efforts at that task. Nevertheless, the Lutheran well dried up in the eighteenth century, and the myriad of reasons for that is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that both the Lutheran and Reformed churches here at the beginning of the twenty-first century find themselves in the same precarious position, that is, constantly looking to people of other theological persuasions to provide congregational singing. We live in an individualistic and commercial culture. Should it surprise us that Charismatic Arminianism is riding the crest of the wave?

I will conjecture that church historians a hundred or two hundred years from now will look back at congregational singing as the defining issue of our time. It seems to me that we have three options before us: 1) we can gripe; 2) we can succumb (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em); 3) we can repent.

Repentance is the only viable option, but it is painful and arduous. What will repentance look like for us? It will involve overhauling the preparation of ministers of the Word so that they can handle music competently, so that they will not be at the mercy of that committee called the "worship team," or at the mercy of incompetent accompaniment. In some sense, the minister needs to become a musician and poet. I would add quickly that we are not necessarily talking about years of piano lessons or about aping popular music. No, the post-worship-wars-minister of the Word will be able to write poetry intended for the congregation's use, will be able to furnish the text with a melody intended for four generations to sing at the same time, and will be able to teach it to the congregation whether or not he has an instrument.

That's the future ideal. Is it attainable? Yes. Will there be many of these types of ministers? I don't know. Most likely, there will be many composite efforts like there have been in the past where one man writes the words, another, the music. Can this happen soon? Probably not, because the attainment of musical and poetic skills takes time. Must we take this path? Yes. Why? Because it returns the Church's song to the Church's confession. It will restore harmony between doctrine and worship, thereby ending the worship wars.

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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