It has been widely reported that the state of modern Christendom in Western society is one where millions of people are being reached “a mile wide”—that is, with quality family-based programs, culturally engaging messages and entertaining music—but often only “an inch deep.” Theologically, the average church attender today is purported to have more knowledge about the drink choices at the church espresso bar than the foundational tenants of the gospel he or she claims to fully believe and follow. There is a real degree of truth to these reports; in fact, songs written for 19th and 20th century children to feast on are now thought too meaty for 21st century adults to digest.
Even so, there is a present desire among Christians to deepen their theological roots. A new research study by Nashville-based LifeWay Research reveals that churchgoers are more concerned about their church’s beliefs than any other factor. To that end, most churchgoers will put up with a change in music style or a different speaker, but they will not tolerate a change in doctrine. This is very good news—if, that is, the doctrine that churches are instilling in their members is deeply rooted and grounded in the very good news that transforms people into fully devoted disciples.
The reality is that in today’s cynical culture, our default reaction to the staggering pressures and pace of the modern age is to look down—to search for nouveau methodologies for engaging life and faith that have seemingly “evolved” past the practices of our forefathers and mothers. We are rarely led to the functional foundations that have guided faithful believers for centuries. Our digital age can create distractions at every turn making it intimidating and understandably farfetched to engage in the study of ancient theological perspectives and doctrines.
But the good news is the gospel has always been a message of hope for normal, overwhelmed and under-qualified people. The “least of these” are still invited to come as they are… no pedigree required. This is why throughout the ages, God has always provided certain fixed markers of faith and practice as sound and dependable references upon which one’s journey of faith, community and discipleship can be based.
For thousands of years, the simple sentiment, I can see the North Star… now I know which way to go, was essential to the survival and navigation of explorers, sailors and people groups around the globe. Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent age of technology and information in which we live today, one would never think of looking down at his smart phone in order to find his way.
No, we as a people were always looking up instead.
Early Jews and Christians alike found such a “North Star” in the act of congregational singing—and specifically, in singing the Psalms.
For this reason, Kristyn and I have taken 150 days this year to study the Psalms and write music inspired by them that would communicate their rich theological meaning. As we wrote about in our recent book Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church and as we have been communicating at various events and our SING! Conference, the Psalms paint an extraordinarily real picture of an extraordinarily real God. They offer each of us hope and healing through an invitation to sing aloud with artistic, magnetic, raw and emotional expression. These songs unfold for us what it means to face difficulty and confusion, and yet still experience communion with a deeply mysterious, yet still deeply present Shepherd.
While the modern age beckons us to rise above our humanity by our own limited means of self-improvement, discipline and information acquisition, the Psalms acknowledge and address our humanity instead. These songs are an ancient, yet culturally relevant mosaic of human expression, human dignity and human identity. In moments of difficulty and in moments of elation alike, we are not merely allowed, but also strongly invited to a place of vulnerability where we are free to ask difficult questions, hiding ourselves in God rather than feeling we must hide ourselves from God. Ultimately, the Psalms lead us to grow and develop firmer expressions of faith in the sovereignty and faithfulness of God, even when we don’t understand Him.
In other words, the Psalms remind us that no matter where we are, we can still confidently know where to fix our eyes—upward—because we are free to continually bring all of our human emotion “Godward.”
As someone who has recently taken a life-changing journey through the Psalms, I wholeheartedly invite the Church to “look up” instead of down as we return to the fixed point of the Psalms as a refreshing standard for honest expression, deep theology and corporate growth that doesn’t deny our humanity, but rather acknowledges a Shepherd’s graciously present help within it.
Keith Getty is a preeminent modern hymn writer who has created a catalogue of songs teaching Christian doctrine and crossing the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition which are sung the world over. In 2017, Getty was honored as an “Officer of the Order of the British Empire” (OBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to “Music and Modern Hymn Writing,” marking the first occasion that the award has been given to an individual involved in the world of contemporary church music. He and his wife Kristyn