Must (All) Church Music Be Happy?

I’m recently returned from Maine where our family was spending time with my in-laws. My wife and kids are still there, no doubt draining the bank account dry as they feast on lobster and whoopie pies while I toil away in the blistering GA heat–but I digress.  We had to drive this year and since 24 hours of drive time (GA to ME) w/ 6 kids is enough to try the patience of Job we planned to stop in Maryland as a halfway point to visit with our former pastor—whose last sermon before retirement was the Sun we visited—and some college/seminary friends.

The intrinsic weight of a farewell discourse (or sermon) fosters a certain level of anticipation in anyone who has ears waiting to hear, and while the sermon didn’t disappoint I found the song selection to be almost as instructive as the message. The pastor had been asked to select the music for his last service and among the songs the congregation sang were four hymns: Amazing Grace, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Day by Day, and Like a River Glorious. Lately I’ve been haphazardly taking note of the general tenor of much of today’s Christian music (inside and outside the church) which is why the following stanzas stood out:

Amazing Grace Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead me home.

Day by Day Day by day, and with each passing moment / Strength I find, to meet my trials here / Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment/I’ve no cause for worry or for fear / He whose heart is kind beyond all measure / Gives unto each day what He deems best / Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure / Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Like a River Glorious Every joy or trial falleth from above / Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love / We may trust Him fully all for us to do / They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

With a few notable exceptions, it strikes me that today’s church would find it difficult to write anything that resembles the mindset and message of those lyrics: that life is full of dangers, toils, and snares; that God gives pain and pleasure, toil and rest; that every joy and trial comes from above. No, those sentiments are more fitting for yesterday’s Christian. The poor pre-modern (or pre-post-modern) pilgrim who was known to encounter the Slough of Despond or battle with Apollyon or resist the pleasures of Vanity Fair or persevere in the dungeon of Giant Despair.

But if there are Christians whose lives still resemble a pilgrimage more than a picnic must all the music they sing be happy?

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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