Opinion

Where have all the sad songs gone?

The congregation of James River Church in Joplin, Mo., participates in a praise hymn. Photo by Joshua Sorenson/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Hurricanes, fires and floods leave dozens dead. Mass shootings devastate schools, churches and public spaces. Leaders reel under accusations of corruption and misconduct.

And congregations sing songs of joy.

Though Ecclesiastes reminds us there is a time to mourn, many Protestant churches today experience few songs of lament, a tradition that stretches from the Psalms of exiled Israelites to the spirituals of African-American slaves.

Songs of praise often celebrate God taking us from our hurts; songs of lament recognize God with us in our hurts.

Yet, at least in my part of the Protestant world, songs of lament seem to have vanished.

The current top 100 songs listed by the Christian song-licensing organization CCLI include scores of praise and worship songs — but only a handful that explore the hurting side of the human condition, the lamentations of the faithful.

Many Protestant churches have lost the habit of singing songs of lament. So when something goes wrong, they don’t have familiar songs to express emotions of grief, sorrow and regret.

“Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem,” wrote Dan Allender, founder of a trauma and abuse therapy ministry.

A fast-paced culture with little opportunity for reflection is one reason, songwriter/worship leader Sandra McCracken said in a recent presentation, “Singing Songs of Lament,” at the Sing! 2018 conference in Nashville, Tenn., which drew hundreds of pastors and worship leaders, many of them evangelicals like me.

Sandra McCracken. Photo courtesy of sandramccracken.com

McCracken pointed out that many Americans live distracted lives, where there’s little room for silence or contemplation.

With 26 percent of American adults online almost constantly and more than 75 percent online daily, disconnecting and slowing down is a challenge. Congregants tweet through the sermon and post pictures of the choir special during the service, often switching between a Bible app and social media through the sermon.

The rest of the week is a constant stream of music, TV or Snapchat.

“One of the first ways we pass through this entryway into lament is silence,” McCracken said. “In silence, we find that things are exposed we’d rather have pressed down. We’d rather keep the radio on or some noise.”

Hymn writer Keith Getty, organizer of the annual Sing! worship conference, lays some blame on the church music industry.

“To be honest, I think part of it is the industry influence, which makes us want to feel good,” Getty said. “But that’s also a modern, commercial church approach where a song’s role or a church service’s role is to somehow make us feel good.

“A lament is more difficult — harder to get into. Most of our songs are on a superficial level, where a lament takes us down a journey that can no longer be superficial.”

George Robinson. Photo courtesy of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

George Robinson, who holds the Richard and Gina Headrick Chair of World Missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is also a musician. He sees industry trends as a result of unhealthy church liturgy among Protestants.

“The necessity of lamentation is nearly absent from church liturgy,” Robinson said in an email. “And that is reflected in the worship music that has been popularized by the industry. Ironically, lament is a crucial element in our approach to God precisely because we are crying out to him about sorrows that are beyond our abilities to rectify.”

Protestant churchgoers can hardly be expected to sing songs of lament if worship leaders do not use them, said Mike Harland, director of worship at LifeWay Christian Resources, a publisher of music for churches.

“Mourning is extremely personal, requiring vulnerability from the singer rarely seen in Western worship,” he said in an email. “Lament is just too personal to be expressed in a congregational setting.”

Hymn writer Anne Steele did not skip over lament to reach praise.

In “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” she pictured hope in despair: “Thou art my only trust, and still my soul will cling to thee though prostrate in the dust.”

“In the omission of lament, we miss an important truth in worship: Jesus comes near the brokenhearted,” said Harland. “We miss the opportunity for intimacy with him because we refuse to come to him in our loss.”

(Marty Duren is a writer, bivocational pastor and reluctant runner who lives outside Nashville, Tenn. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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  • – “Mourning is extremely personal, requiring vulnerability from the singer rarely seen in Western worship,” he said in an email. “Lament is just too personal to be expressed in a congregational setting.” –

    Yes, fortunately there’s nothing in Scripture that encourages that kind of thing, like a book of ‘Lamentations’ or anything of that nature. Perhaps the problem is that far too many ‘evangelical’ churches have handed worship over to ‘the singer’ instead of keeping it communal to begin with.
    Perhaps he should also inform Jewish congregations they’ve been doing Yom Kippur wrong for 2,500 years.

  • Agree 100%. In the ancient, liturgical churches, the Psalms were (and still are) used as the “prayer book of the church”; plenty of “sad songs” pf repentance and mourning there.

    Although I don’t think having a singer as opposed to communal singing is the problem. A good Jewish Cantor or Greek Orthodox Psaltis can perform plenty of moving songs of lament.

  • HpO: So, Master Jesus, what do You think of Marty Duren’s complaint about CCM, Commercialized Churchy Muzak? “[For] evangelicals like me … in my part of the Protestant world, songs of lament seem to have vanished … [from] the church music … industry trends as a result of unhealthy church liturgy among Protestants … ‘which makes us want to feel good'”.

    THE CHRIST JESUS: “But to what, then, shall I compare this [Evangelical Protestant] generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places [of industry], who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'”(Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • The Messiah of Israel chastised the Jews at the time for singing mourning, lamenting, wailing songs, because they didn’t actually mourn, lament, wail!

  • Please give a reference for this. Never heard of it. Is this some sort of garbled version of Luke 7:32?

  • How would you know whether any in the synagogues and churches where songs of lament are sung have been lamenting or not?

  • Cf. Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32 and their context, in which the Jews set themselves against John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, who, looking at it, finds it musically significant.

  • Then & now, synagogues and churches oppose John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah. No happy or sad song played there is ever going to change that. They remain neither happy nor sad for that prophet and that messiah. That’s how God & Jesus know, and because They do, I now know as well.

  • As I thought. So Jesus did NOT chastise the Jews who rejected him for “singing mourning, lamenting, wailing songs” as you stated. He chastised them for rejecting John because he fasted, and then turned right around and criticized Jesus because he didn’t. He chastised their HYPOCRISY, not their singing (and certainly not whether they “actually” meant it.) And to do so, he likened them to a children’s game. We do not have any record that Jesus criticized anyone’s singing, sincere or not.

  • That is -from beginning to end – nothing more than your biased opinion, which the rest of us need not give a hoot about.

  • Christians have been telling Jews they’ve been doing Yom Kippur (and everything else) wrong for about 2,000 years. Ironically, Isaiah *did* tell his fellow Jews they were doing Yom Kippur wrong: “Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high. Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide. Then your light shall break forth as the dawn, and your healing shall quickly sprout, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall gather you in.” (Isaiah 58:4-8). This passage is part of the Yom Kippur liturgy to this day.

  • In lieu of “a good Jewish Cantor or Greek Orthodox Psaltis … perform[ing] plenty of moving songs of lament”? Clearly, you don’t get Jesus in Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32 who’s sick & tired of “Jewish Cantor or Greek Orthodox Psaltis” – and CCM, Commercialized Churchy Muzak. Both.

  • RICK BRANT: “We do not have any record that Jesus criticized anyone’s singing, sincere or not.”

    THE CHRIST JESUS: “But to what, then, shall I compare this [Evangelical Protestant] generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places [of industry], who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'”(Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • Jesus used the example of a child’s game about singing and dancing. In no place did He criticize singing and dancing itself.

  • You are remarkably dense if you think that Jesus using an example of a children’s game in any way indicates that he is “sick and tired” of Jewish and Christian music. His criticism was directed at the Jewish leaders’ hypocrisy, not at their children’s games. Sheeesh!

  • RICK BRANT: “In no place did He criticize singing and dancing itself.”

    THE CHRIST JESUS: “But to what, then, shall I compare this generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'”(Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • RICK BRANT: “He is[n’t] ‘sick and tired’ of Jewish and Christian music.”

    THE CHRIST JESUS: “But to what, then, shall I compare this [Jewish and Christian] generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'”(Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • The true meaning of Thom Yum I mean Yom Kippur escapes you. Don’t try this unkosher thinking if you’re not spiritually hungry:

    That Isaiah 58 citation, followed up in Isaiah 61, is a Messianic Prophecy. It finds Prophetic Fulfillment only in Luke 4:16-30, where it says to noone else but Arbustin in the future as in now, right here:

    “Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’ And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ … And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.”

    Shalom.

  • Reposting an irrelevant quote doesn’t make it any more relevant. It only makes you look more stupid, son.

  • I’ve grasped the true meaning of Yom Kippur for some time. It’s irrelevant whether you do or not.
    The prophetic fulfillment of Isaiah 58 is found when we take YK seriously, that’s it’s not about sackcloth and ashes and beating our chests, but actual repentance, which means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. Afflicting your being is not enough.

  • RICK BRANT: “[This] irrelevant quoting [of Jesus] doesn’t make it … relevant [to this article on ‘sad songs’, but] … makes you [and Him] look more stupid”:

    THE CHRIST JESUS: “But to what, then, shall I compare this [Jewish and Christian] generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'” (Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • “Actual repentance”? That was what the Jews were “grumbling” about after that scene in Luke 4 at the Messiah of Israel’s “disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.'” He’s talking about you, despite all your claim to a Yom Kippur “righteousness”, just as the Jews at the time were claiming to their “righteousness” imputed by the Law of Moses.

    Source: Luke 5:29-32.

  • RICK BRANT (“5 days ago” & “8 days ago”): “It is a core Christian teaching that Jesus is God … that the One who is God was crucified for us. … The one crucified on the cross was indeed ‘God’ … Last time I checked, the Nicene Creed proclaimed that Jesus was: ‘true God of true God’, while the Athanasian Creed says: ‘the Son is God'”.

    THE GOD OF NICENE & ATHANASIAN CREEDS: “But to what, then, shall [SUCH GOD] compare this [Jewish and Christian] generation, and what are they like? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge [ethreeneesamen = we sang a mourning, lamenting, wailing song], and you did not mourn. You did not weep'” (Matthew 11:16-17 and Luke 7:31-32).

  • What they objected to is the idea that you can simply “place your belief in a savior” and thereby receive repentance. I haven’t claimed any righteousness; I have claimed the task of obtaining it the right way.

  • Funny & tragic that you should mention “task”, as in “I have claimed the task of obtaining [righteousness] the right way”. For you & “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not come to such law in the end. Why? Because [you &] they have not pursued it by πίστεως (pisteohs), i.e. by faith-persuasion; but as though it were by εργων (ergohn), i.e. by tasks that in action carry out and complete inner desires and purposes. [You &] they have stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written [in Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ … Meaning, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs … but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block … yet to those Jews who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

    Source: Romans 9:31-33 and 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.

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