Whatever Happened to “Friendship with Jesus” in American Evangelical Piety and Worship?
You know you’re getting old when the old songs start popping into your mind—songs that made a major impression on you as a child and young person and that you don’t hear anymore. Now, at my age, a radio “oldies station” plays 1980s music. 1980s music “oldies?” C’mon. Well, okay, I just have to get used to the idea of being “old school.” Bear with me. I have a point to make here.
First, I know I’m generalizing and there are many, many exception—TO WHATEVER I SAY HERE! So please don’t say “My church still sings those hymns.” Here I’m reaching out to my faith community of today—moderately evangelical and moderate Baptist churches and “ministries” that shape and conduct worship.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Recently my church purchased a new hymnal—for everyone. It’s the only hymnal in the pew racks. I decided to sit down with it and compare it with the former hymnal we used and with the two hymnals of my childhood and youth that I still own and use for my own devotions. I think I recognize a “sea change” in evangelical and Baptist hymnody and worship and devotional life. What is it?
While the old hymnals contained a great many songs and hymns (some purists will insist on that distinction) celebrating the theme of “friendship with Jesus” (with various words and phrases), newer hymnals and Christian songs and hymns in general seem to have moved far away from that. I consulted a couple experts who informed me those hymns and songs—written primarily in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries—are now considered “sentimental” and “old school.”
But I am “sentimental” and “old school.” Where are my hymns and gospel songs? Oh, on my Ipod! I can still buy and download them from Itunes and listen to them that way; they are all over Itunes! However, the vast majority of recording artists still singing them (including congregationally) are African-American. And I’m not talking here about “black spirituals;” I’m talking about the old gospel songs that talked much about “friendship with Jesus” and were sung in many (I would say “most”) predominantly white evangelical and Baptist churches in the mid-20th century.
It’s not only the “old songs” I’m talking about, though, it’s a theme or motif of American evangelical and Baptist spirituality. That theme or motif could be variously labeled “intimacy with Jesus” and/or “friendship with Jesus.” This was a huge theme in evangelical piety and worship when I was growing up and I have discovered that evangelicals and Baptists my age of many different denominations know those songs and are familiar with that form of piety.
Now, when I go to Youtube, for example, and search for these songs I find them being sung almost exclusively by African-American Christians and Asian Christians. Apparently, from what I can find on the internet, many Asian evangelical churches still sing these songs!
When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity (and here I definitely mean “evangelical” in the spiritual-theological sense, not the contemporary media-driven political sense!) these songs and this “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) was extremely common and deeply impacted and shaped my Christian spirituality and even my theology. I still tend to identify “evangelical spirituality” with that theme, motif, language. But it’s now extremely difficult to find in contemporary evangelicalism and Baptist life.
I personally have come to wonder if this signals a sea change that is much more than just a shift in worship styles. So it seems to me, the “language of Zion” that I grew up with is almost entirely missing in contemporary American evangelical and Baptist Christianity—especially among those who consider themselves non-fundamentalist.
A few years ago I decided to visit some self-identified fundamentalist Baptist churches in my city (and in its environs) and did there hear and get to sing some such songs. And I heard the “language of Zion” being used. However, I also had to sit through some of the worst preaching and other “worship”—than singing—I have ever experienced. One large, local fundamentalist Baptist church celebrated Mother’s Day during the Sunday morning worship service in a way that was very time-consuming and reminded me of the old television show “Queen for a Day.” It also had an American flag hanging from the ceiling over the platform and another one draped over the communion table. The sermon focused on the necessity of raising children by “beating” them. Yes, the pastor used that word and encouraged the congregants to “beat” their children in order to “break their wills.” I was simply shocked and walked out after hearing him say that several times.
I have visited numerous non-fundamentalist, primarily white evangelical and Baptist churches of many different denominations and am certain that I notice a “sea change” away from the piety and worship I grew up with that was so prevalent and (to me) powerful and nearly identical with being “evangelical” in America in the mid-20th century.
Now I’m a historical theologian and so long ago I became very interested in discovering where and when this theme and motif of intimacy with Jesus began. I knew that it was not always the case; it arose sometime after the Reformation—even though one can certainly find hints of it in some of the Reformers. One source of it was the Pietist movement that arose in Europe in the 17th century and deeply impacted American Protestant Christianity of almost all denominations in the 18th century. One church leader I can identify as especially instrumental in shaping it was Ludwig Nicholas von Zinzendorf—who led the Moravian community in that century. He wrote numerous hymns many of which talk about the theme/motif I’m writing about here. (Yes, for you church historians, he went a bit overboard sometimes and was corrected by others including John Wesley and some of Zinzendorf’s own Moravian followers.) But that Pietist theme of intimacy and friendship with Jesus really caught on in America especially and then, I assume, spread out from here to other parts of the world through the great missionary movement launched by the Moravians and other Pietists.
I admit it; I struggle with the seeming loss of this theme, motif, and the “language of Zion” associated with it. This is not directly a doctrinal issue; it is an issue—for me—of evangelical spirituality. I happen to think (much to some others’ chagrin, I’m sure) that that language and theme and motif—that was so great a part of evangelical piety and worship—is part of modern evangelical Christianity’s essence. Yes, to be sure, it can be expressed in new and different ways, but to drop it away entirely seems to me to change evangelical Christianity itself with great loss.
So, for those of you who didn’t grow up with it (what I’m talking about here) let me be descriptive. In my home in the 1950s and 1960s “Christian radio” was almost always “on” except at night when we slept. It was our “background noise.” And in our church (and other evangelical churches we visited) the same “language of Zion” and theme/motif was central to everything. The theme/motif could be expressed something like this: “If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior you can enjoy a personal relationship with him that will enrich your life abundantly.” In my home and in most that I knew of (as “us”) Jesus was a real presence there. He was the unseen but truly experienced presence among us and with us.
Here are some of the songs that expressed this: “Sitting at the Feet of Jesus,” “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” “Friendship with Jesus (Fellowship Divine)” “I Would Love to Tell You What I Think of Jesus,” “Jesus Will Walk with Me,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and numerous other ones.
Yes, yes, yes…I know. I can just hear some of my readers saying “He wants to turn the clock back to some ‘golden age’ that just can’t be recovered.” I’m not so sure about that. If Christian song writers and performers and congregations have new songs with this theme/motif, I would be glad to know about it. I speak in and visit numerous evangelical and Baptist churches every year and do not hear the theme/motif I’m talking about here—in the new hymns and songs or in most sermons. This theme/motif seems to have dropped away almost entirely. How can something that central, prominent, signal, crucial to a type of Christian spirituality drop away entirely and something valuable not be lost?
And I can just hear some of my readers saying “We still sing those songs and enjoy that theme/motif in our worship and spirituality!” Sure; I know that. But I think it is becoming harder and harder to find—especially outside African-American Christian circles. There it seems still to be quite present and prominent.
So what is the theological basis for this theme/motif? Well, of course, Jesus said to his disciples that he would no longer call them servants but friends. And Søren Kierkegaard talked about being “contemporary with Christ”—saying that the disciples of Jesus had no real advantage over us in terms of Jesus being with us. (Kierkegaard often attended a Moravian-Pietist “meeting” with his father when he was a child.)
I realize that some of you, my dear readers, will rejoice in the loss of this theme/motif and American evangelicalism’s move away from it. But what, I ask, has taken its place? There was a certain warmth and personalism in that piety, with that theme/motif, in American evangelicalism that I do not find anymore. Whatever has taken its place need not entirely replace it! But I fear it is doing so. And I, personally, feel that as a great loss.
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