Centrality of Worship: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The ninth reason I am a Methodist is because of the great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.

Wesley lived at a time when the standard practice of the church in worship was to sing the Psalms, often with a brief Christian doxology at the end. However, just prior to the emergence of Wesley lived a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts is sometimes known as the father of English hymnody because of his pioneer work in introducing new compositions of worship into the church which were not directly built around a Psalm or a specific scriptural paraphrase. This sparked a revival in worship which captured the life of Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted poet and wrote thousands of new hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith and reinforce the grand meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story. Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christmas), And Can it Be? (Redemption), O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Pentecost), Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Easter), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (New Creation) are recognized all over the world as powerful hymns which capture the great themes of the Christian faith. Methodism is known for excellent singing and worship. Even today, every Methodist hymnal still reprints Wesley’s original instructions for congregational singing which includes such classic lines as, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  Methodists have taken this to heart as well as almost any Christian group in the world.

Where Have all the Wretches Gone? by Timothy C. Tennent

This past Sunday our congregation sang the wonderful hymn by Stuart Townend, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.  Townend is one of my favorite contemporary British hymn writers.  If you haven’t discovered the hymns of Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Christopher Idle or Timothy Dudley-Smith, then you have missed some real treasures!  These contemporary hymn writers have put out a body of work which is, for the most part, theologically solid, musically strong, sensitive to the rhythms of the church year, Trinitarian, and worshipful.

There is a line in Townend’s How Deep the Father’s Love for Us hymn which says, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure; that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.”  Did you notice the modern use of the word “wretch?” by Townend?  If you have followed the adaptation of older hymns into current usage you will be aware of the quiet removal of the word “wretch.”  The most well known examples are in the well known hymns, Amazing Grace and Victory in Jesus.   The phrase, “that saved a wretch like me” in Amazing Grace or “to save a wretch like me” in Victory in Jesus has been rendered in some modern hymnbooks, “to save one just like me.”  It seems that we just don’t like the word “wretch.”  It is entirely too negative for modern sensibilities.  So, there I was singing How Deep the Father’s Love for us when I noticed that someone had changed the last phrase from, “to make a wretch his treasure” to “to make us all His treasure.”  It took over 200 years for people to start meddling with John Newton’s classic Amazing Grace.  Stuart Townend is being de-constructed and re-cast in about ten years.   The problem is, until we really come face to face with our own sinfulness – our naked wretchedness before God, then we can never begin to comprehend the holiness of God.  There is a direct relationship between the comprehension of our sinfulness and our vision of God’s holiness.

So, I encourage you to think about the theological implications which quietly lay behind changing the words to hymns. Here’s another example to ponder and weigh in on this blog what you think.  The hymn The Church’s One Foundation was written in 1866 by Samuel Stone.  One of the lines goes,

“From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.”

In 1983 Laurence Stookey updated it (see current UMC hymnal).  The result is the following:

“From heaven he came and sought us that we may ever be

His loving servant people, by his own death set free”

Think about this change theologically.  What can we learn from this?  I would love to hear from you.  I am praying that God would raise up a whole new generation of hymn writers at Asbury Theological Seminary.   The best hymns are always written by those who have come face to face with their own wretchedness and then captured a glimpse of the depth of God’s grace.

The Role of Worship: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 8

This blog completes an eight part series on the distinctive of Wesleyan catechesis.  These blogs on catechesis are actually part of a larger project I am exploring through my blogs as to how we rebuild the meta-narrative in the church today.  One of the earliest writers to recognize the collapse of modernity as we in the post-Enlightenment world understood it was the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 article entitled, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.[1] In the article, he coined the word “post-modern” (the term had actually been used by several others even in the 19th century, but not in the way it is used today) and stated what has now been observed by dozens of writers in the subsequent years and that is that the fundamental reality of our time as Western civilization is a growing crisis of truth.  In the modern world there was a belief in an overarching truth – whether informed by a Christian world-view or even a secular belief in progress and the perfectibility of humanity.  Lyotard argued that modern societies produced order and stability by generating what he called “grand narratives” or “master narratives.”  In America, for example, one “grand narrative” is that democracy is the most enlightened and rational form of government and that implementing of democracy will lead to universal happiness.   In contrast, the Marxist “grand narrative” posited that capitalism was collapsing in on itself and that, in time – and spurred by revolution – a utopian socialist world order would evolve.

In the post-modern context, we are only on a virtual voyage where one explores self-created worlds.  Post-modernism marks the movement away from claims to objectivity and a greater emphasis on fragmented forms and discontinuous narratives.  In short, the very notion of truth as Truth has begun to collapse.

Christians know that the only true “grand canopy” of meaning is found in the great redemptive work of God in the world.  However, tragically, today’s church can all too easily become co-opted by the self-referential, consumer driven, emotive oriented forces which are present in the wider society.  Nowhere has this become more evident than in contemporary worship.  There are, of course, some wonderful, truly wonderful, new choruses and hymns being written today.  There is also quite a bit of chaff in the midst of the wheat.  We must recognize afresh that the “worship wars” is not a struggle between hymns versus choruses, any more than in Wesley’s day it was over Psalms versus hymns.  The struggle must be focused on the fact that we worship the living God and all worship is a response to His revelation.

This is, of course, the crowning piece in Wesleyan catechesis: The centrality of Worship.  Wesleyans sing their theology!  Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess, we must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship.  Worship is one of the main ways Wesley forged the great meta-narrative of God’s redemption into the lives of new disciples.  Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith.  If we are to engage in serious catechesis today we must not neglect the renewal of worship.  Our worship must be Trinitarian, theologically rich, memorable and, most of all, faithful to the entire meta-narrative.

[1] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge (MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 1985).