Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

There are three sightings in Christian Music that I wish to report on. The first sighting is an article in The Covenant Quarterly (November 2007) by our Covenant historian, Philip J. Anderson, “Mystic Chords of Memory: Some Thoughts on Music and Communication in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Past and Present.” This should be required reading by our pastors, church musicians, and worship planning teams. (Single issues can be secured from Covenant Publications, 5101 N. Francisco Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 for $3.50 plus postage.)

Philip Anderson looks at how the Pietistic renewal and revival heritage from the 1840s and the experience of immigration has given a rich texture of meaning to the metaphors of God, Christ, and the pilgrimage of faith. They have formed a key component in the hymnody of the Covenant Church from the beginning. Inviting discussion about our church’s singing today Phil asks “What is communicated in the story of faith?”

This should embrace all musical genres, seeking to avoid the artificial and often alienating bifurcations of old and new, traditional and contemporary. We should consider how and why decisions are made by those who select music and plan worship, as well as analyze in a critical, constructive way relative to the foundation thesis of this essay. What is the substantive content of the story of faith? In these decisions, matters of Christian identity are at stake, and some set of criteria therefore becomes crucial to what is collectively sung in its totality.

Referring to Saint Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13 that faith, hope, and love abide, he offers a critique in all that is sung and done, namely, “What must I believe?” “What must I hope?” “What must I do?”

The second sighting comes from “An Open Letter to Covenant Church Leaders Regarding Our Hymnody” by Covenant pastor and church planter, Andrew Thompson of Wenatchee, Washington.His letter is written in response to Phil Anderson’s article in the Covenant Quarterly and its reminder of our rich history.

This letter is written in the hope that we heed Anderson’s reminders and pro-actively consider how we might deepen and enrich this important aspect of our weekly worship, theological reflection and catechism. In many of our churches worship life, singing has nearly as central a place as preaching. For many parishioners, the lyrics of the songs we sing are committed to memory as much or more than Scripture. We know that our songs are important. They shape how we engage faith. They shape our doctrinal focus and our devotional lives. They shape our praxis. They shape us. But it seems that as a denomination we are doing little to shape our songs.

Andrew Thompson then refers to worship in a contemporary setting that has been shaped by a wide usage of music from Mercy/Vineyard publishing and Hillsong music. Their songs are catchy, singable, widely distributed but shaping our churches to be more like the Vineyards and Hillsong in our theology because of the songs.

The challenge of Thompson’s Open Letter is to support and build up our tradition of hymnody of Covenant song with writers such as Bryan Leech, Jim Black, Richard Carlson, Bob Stromberg, and others. I would add Dennis Moon and Jan Lindholm. This could be done by introducing indigenous music at Covenant events. Thompson suggests inviting song submissions from Covenant churches prior to Midwinter/Annual Meeting/Feast planning which could be judged by the criteria of 1) sing-ability 2) theological content and integrity 3) relevance to the themes of the meetings. One of two top selected songs could be highlighted in worship and could be made available to participants in CDs or sheet music.

He offers a further suggestion: “Helping Pastors Grow in their Theology of Song Writing” by offering a “Theology of Song Writing” course at North Park Seminary or as a Midwinter elective or as a part of the orientation program for pastors coming into the Covenant.

A third sighting comes from the well-known Covenant musician and highly esteemed member of two hymnal commissions, Royce Eckhardt. He has been working on the songs of Covenanters as a historical study with input from musicians historians, theologians, and pastors asking: where is the Covenant heading in the area of worship music and liturgical matters? He proposes to create and implement a denominational-wide teaching emphasis on Christian worship: workshops and seminars, Companion articles, primary emphasis at a Midwinter Conference, and specially developed courses for use at North Park Theological Seminary. While strongly supporting Thomson’s call to create opportunities and venues for the encouragement and usage of our own Covenant’s hymnic gifts, Royce Eckhardt also calls us “to be aware of the rich treasury given us by the larger church, even the global church, lest in our denominational gatherings and local churches we become parochial and ignore the great contemporary hymnody that already exists.”

Finally, I must bear witness, and I wager many Covenanters agree, to the truth that Covenant hymnody, grounded in the biblical story has shaped our theology, given us comfort and hope in times of testing and grief, and inspired and empowered our mission. I hope by reclaiming the hymnal as an educational tool as well as a worship book, we will expose our young people and new believers to this rich and diverse legacy lest it be lost. As Phil Anderson has said so forcefully: “In these decisions, matters of Christian identity are at stake.”

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg