Monday, April 28, 2008

"Holiness...our watchword and SONG..."?

This morning my dad and I drove the hour or so from Xenia, Ohio, where I serve as worship pastor of a mid-sized Nazarene church, to Circleville, Ohio. The purpose of this pilgrimage (and my father's trip from Tennessee to Ohio) was the Holiness Summit being held on the campus of Ohio Christian University. I don't have much time to offer a full-fledged review of the proceedings, but something occurred to me that I thought we might bat around while this summit is still in progress. (Who knows, I might end up with several posts out of this thing!)

The few hundred of us gathered, having been led in singing by Nazarene evangelist Gary Bond, were then exhorted, first by Louie Bustle and then by Stan Toler. The theme, of course, was the importance of the message of holiness. As I listened to what was said - and perhaps even more significantly, as I observed those around me - I began to sense that the impulse underlying this summit (and the other one to be held out west in September) was all deriving from a complex of concerns that might be summed up in a statement something like this one: Our doctrinal distinctive of holiness/entire sanctification is becoming increasingly obscured and is in danger of being lost altogether - we must become passionate once again about proclaiming the message of holiness in no vague or uncertain terms.

And as we sang "The Cleansing Wave" (Phoebe Palmer, 1871?), I had a thought that I've had before, but became even more pressing in this context - and I pose it to you as a question: What is the relationship between our holiness preaching and our holiness hymnody? I'm not necessarily asking that we vote on which is more important, although I do believe that how we sing our faith is at least as important, has at least as much shaping influence upon our spirituality, our theology, our conception of God (etc), as the faith as we receive it in the preached word.

To put the question a bit differently, I guess what I'm left wondering is this: Can we revitalize the message of holiness in preaching alone, or does this task demand also a re(dis)covery of holiness songs, or indeed the creation of new holiness songs? I just don't see how the average CCM hit that's soaring to the top of the CCLI charts reinforces the message of holiness that has historically been so central to our tradition - in fact, I see many a song that would contradict this message (were the message being proclaimed). I have yet to discover any contemporary songwriters or composers of church music who give any indication of sharing our theological perspective, which makes it difficult. We (I!) should really be writing this stuff ourselves, for our purposes, but in practice, it's a whole lot easier to just sing the latest Chris Tomlin song than take the effort of creating something new. I hope I'm not confusing the issue, but I guess I remain unconvinced that the real problem is what we're preaching - in fact, I still hear holiness being preached from the pupit. What I don't hear is us singing it very often, if at all.

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