I miss the traditional Thanksgiving hymns. I’m talking about songs such as “We Gather Together,” “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Perhaps you don’t know them. But for nearly all my life, those were the songs of November—especially on the Sunday before Thanksgiving—in my local church experience.
In the last few years, however, it seems—at least in my limited experience—as though we’re losing the music of Thanksgiving.
• Reset of musical styles
In some churches, of course, there’s been a wholesale abandonment of traditional worship music. And indeed, it was time for a lot of it to go. But some churches have decided there’s no place at all for any of the music written and sung by previous generations of believers.
I once spoke in a church where a conscious decision had been made never to sing anything more than five years old. Do we really want to raise a generation of Christians (who will then influence succeeding generations) who do not know “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Holy, Holy, Holy”? Of course not.
• Distance from harvest
Perhaps another, less evident reason for the disappearance of Thanksgiving music is the growing distance for most people from the awareness of the harvest season and its importance. We never see crops planted, grown, and harvested, not even from the car window on our commute to the office.
Our great-grandparents were raised on farms. Today most of us live in urban areas. But for people who live close to the land, harvest is the satisfying culmination of long months of labor and a reason for gratitude and celebration. Christians whose livelihood and local economy are directly tied to harvest probably sense the fitness of singing the traditional Thanksgiving hymns better than those whose pantry and paycheck are always the same regardless of the amount of rain or the price of corn.
• Ready for Christmas music
And maybe some worship leaders overlook the music of Thanksgiving simply because they’re ready to sing the music of Christmas. After all, ad campaigns fill our culture with thoughts of Christmas long before Thanksgiving anyway. Besides, almost everyone likes Christmas music.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas music. I’m ready to sing it from the first Sunday after Thanksgiving through the whole month of December. Indeed, it’s appropriate to celebrate the birth of Jesus (as well as His resurrection) in our worship music every month of the year.
I enjoy “secular” Christmas music, too. I’ll play “White Christmas,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” around the house and in the car about as soon and as often as anyone.
In fact, I’m guessing that the enduring popularity of all forms of Christmas music (both Christian and secular) in the general culture is a big reason why even the most radically contemporary churches haven’t totally abandoned traditional Christmas carols. When believers hear secular radio stations and the sound systems at shopping malls play Bing Crosby crooning “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and John Denver singing “Away in a Manger,” they’ll have no problem singing those old songs at church.
Christmas music should take priority over the traditional Thanksgiving hymns. For one thing, most of the church’s Christmas music is more explicitly Christ-centered than the Thanksgiving songs currently in our repertoire.
Second, there’s much more good music about the birth of Jesus to sing (and that should be sung). Our hymnals contain ten great Christmas songs for every Thanksgiving hymn. Of course, more Sundays are devoted to the anticipation of Christmas than to Thanksgiving, so fewer Thanksgiving songs are really needed.
Although this article is clearly an appeal for us to retain the best of the traditional Thanksgiving music, it’s also a call for the church to produce new, well-composed, theologically-rich music to anticipate singing each November. There are a few good Thanksgiving songs out there, but not very many (at least that I know).
Maybe it’s time for our brothers and sisters who are gifted in these ways to give the church some fresh, Thanksgiving-seasonal, Gospel-focused, Christ-exalting music for us to sing congregationally.
Wouldn’t it be sad if our children or grandchildren grew up without knowing “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World”? I think we should feel the same sadness if they never learn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” and other worship music that several generations of Christians have sung during harvest season or times of thanksgiving.
Unless you believe that all Christian music more than a few years old should be removed from the church’s worship repertoire—and if you believe this, then logically that applies even to the songs the church sings at Christmas—then join me in encouraging the recovery of the best of the traditional Thanksgiving hymns and the development of new ones. We’ve not only much to lose if we don’t, but much to gain if we do.
I was interviewed about how to respond when someone claims that attending worship at church is boring. This is the second of two posts based on that interview. The first is available here.
If people are bored in church, is that a problem with the church or with the individuals?
As I’ve already mentioned, if people are unconverted then the problem is with them. Since “no one can [sincerely] say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3), no unconverted person can truly worship, no matter how the service is conducted. Therefore not only is it a mistake to plan worship for those who cannot worship, it is also a mistake to ask those who cannot worship to evaluate our worship services. Otherwise it’s like planning an art exhibit according to the preferences of the blind.
Second, as I also said above, the problem of boredom in worship is also the fault of the individual if he or she is not thoughtful about what is proclaimed. People who do not want to love God with all their minds during a worship service will probably be bored. The proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, for instance, requires deliberation. Without thought about its meaning, the mere ingestion of the elements may not only be boring, but sinful. The pursuit of God in worship is worthy of our best attention and mental efforts.
Third, boredom is also the problem of the individual if his or her expectations are unrealistic. We should remember that those who lead worship “are dust” (Ps. 103:14) too. They likely have many other ministry responsibilities in addition to leading worship (though few are as important). To expect the leaders of most local churches to “produce” events every seven days that can capture our interest at the same level as do the teams of highly resourced professionals on TV and in the movies with all their special effects we watch each week is unrealistic.
But if Godly, mature, Word-hungry followers of Jesus are consistently bored in worship, the worship leaders need to take a great deal of the responsibility.
How do you train future church leaders to preach and otherwise “do church” without being boring?
You ask about training them to preach. I am not a professor of preaching, but I believe that the greatest need of the church is always for men of God to preach the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. (By the way, I know those who teach preaching at four of our SBC seminaries, and they all strive for this.) When this is done, God’s people find it extremely satisfying, not boring. Sheep love sheep food.
In my classes on Biblical Spirituality I am training future church leaders, mostly about being Godly people and shepherding others to grow in Godliness. But occasionally I teach classes on worship, as well as speak in church conferences on worship.
There I advocate evaluating every element of the worship service by whether each is God-centered and Biblical. Worship is, by definition, the worship of God. If the worship leader makes God the focus of every part of the service, and present God to the congregation in the ways He has revealed Himself in Scripture, God’s people will find Him alluring and captivating.
And I urge them to ensure that every element in the worship service is Biblical. By that I mean that for every line item in the order of service they should be able to find clear support in Scripture for making that activity a part of worship. Otherwise that element should not be part of the worship service (though it may have a legitimate place elsewhere in the life of the church).
So, for instance, we know preaching should be part of public worship because there is a command to preach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2) and there are examples of preaching that occur during gatherings of believers in the New Testament. We should sing Psalms and other Scripture-saturated music in worship because, among other reasons, believers are twice urged in the New Testament to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16).
Although not alone in this, Baptists, going as far back as their first (1644) and also to their most influential (1689) confession of faith, have agreed that worship should be only as “prescribed in Holy Scripture.” This, I believe, is what it means to “worship in truth” (John 4:24), that is, according to the truth of Scripture. If we will deliberately include in worship only those elements that are God-centered and “prescribed in Holy Scripture,” and present them in the right spirit, I believe God’s people will find worship nourishing, and rarely boring. Spiritual life and light are not boring, and these come to us only when we focus on God through Christ and feast upon Him through His written self-revelation
I realize this goes counter to the trends in many evangelical churches today, and stands against the hurricane of our entertainment-oriented culture. Add to this the numbers of unconverted people who may be active members and such a reformation in worship will be difficult to accomplish in many situations. But all reformation begins with teaching, and I would recommend such a path to a pastor before he overhauls the order of service.
A large percentage of evangelical churches in America are plateaued or declining. Can that be attributed, in part, to people finding church to be boring?
In part, yes—at least theoretically. Personally I think there are more and greater reasons than this, such as the erosion of insisting upon a regenerate church membership. Second, I think it has more to do with a lack of Biblical preaching than we’d like to admit.
But if we want to focus specifically upon whether the worship event as a whole has contributed to so many churches plateauing or declining, I would say it has more to do with whether each part of the service is God-centered and Biblical than it does with whether the leaders’ have sufficiently worked to make worship “interesting.”
What do you think when someone says that worship is boring?
Some time ago I was interviewed about how to respond when someone claims that attending worship at church is boring. This is the first of two posts based on that interview.
What is your response when you hear someone say, “Church is boring?”
My first response is to ask, “Why do you say that?” For starters, even the most God-pleasing worship service would likely bore the unconverted person, whether they profess to be a Christian or not. “The natural person,” the Bible makes plain in 1 Cor. 2:14, “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
In light of this, and in view of the fact that many who attend church are not true believers, I would expect church to seem boring to many people. They do not possess the God-given, spiritual capacity to find the satisfaction, nourishment, and refreshment in worship as do those indwelled by the Spirit of God.
If I am confident that a person is genuinely converted and still they say, “Church is boring,” then I want to ask about their expectations and determine if they are reasonable ones.
Beyond that, I would ask about the particulars of the service, trying to discern if the worship leadership is seeking to promote “worship in spirit and truth?” (as Jesus put it in John 4:24).
Should “boring” ever be a term used to describe church? Why or why not?
Sadly, sometimes “boring” is an appropriate term. There is such a thing as dead orthodoxy. To refer to John 4:24 again, worship that is done “in truth” but not “in spirit” is heartless and potentially boring. To present the endlessly satisfying and perpetually fascinating God who is “holy, holy, holy” to His worshipers in such a way that does not call for “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28) is deplorable.
In my own case I’ve found that the immediate cause of boredom in worship is usually thoughtlessness on my own part. If I do not focus on and think about what I am encountering in the service, I may be bored, but it’s my own fault.
If God is presented faithfully to me in worship, that is, if the Word of God is read, if the songs we sing are true to Scripture and point Godward, and if the sermon faithfully proclaims the Bible, then enough of God’s revelation is present to capture my attention. I cannot sit back, fold my arms, and wait for the worship leaders to stimulate or entertain me. That’s not their job. Their job is to present God to me, to magnify and exalt God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if I am seeking God, they will make it easy for me to encounter Him and to find Him fascinating, not boring.
The old adage about horses has application to worshipers here: you can lead a worshiper to God, but you can’t make him worship. God forbid, however, that the worship leaders themselves appear thoughtless and unmoved about the God they are presenting to the worshipers.
And yet, I’m reluctant to allow the use of the term “boring” as a possible descriptor of worship. Doing so may be merely reflecting the values of a society that places such a high priority on amusement that the most common word of blessing on someone going out the door is “Have fun” or “Have a good time,” and the most condescending evaluative curse is, “That was soooo boring.”
To permit worship to be analyzed on a “boredom scale” is to use the wrong measuring rod. To call worship “boring” could imply that we can evaluate it in the same way that we appraise movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment. It also puts pressure upon the worship leaders to focus on making worship more exciting or interesting rather than considering it upon more explicitly Biblical grounds.
This interview will be continued in the next post.