What do your church and Dixie Stampede have to do with one another? Apart from good food, I hope your answer is, “Not much.”
Now, I’m not mad at Dixie Stampede, or Dolly Parton for that matter. In fact, the reason why I haven’t posted in the past couple of weeks is that I’ve been on vacation, and when I do that, I really try to avoid work / ministry-related activities. (Of course, when your father and grandfather ask you to preach in church on Sunday, it’s kind of hard to say no. I’ll try harder next time.) Part of our vacation was spent with my family in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where – as best I can tell – Dolly owns everything, and that includes the Dixie Stampede, an indoor restaurant that encircles a rodeo arena. Diners enjoy really good food while participating in an epic clash between the North and the South, involving song, dance, stunts, comedy, and competition. It’s a good time.
OK, enough with the travel brochure.
So, when you go to the Dixie Stampede, they try to corral you in a large anteroom where you’re treated to a 45-minute Bluegrass concert. (They do this for crowd control, and to make sure the arena is ready for the next show.) It’s a good performance, even for someone like me who has an extremely low Bluegrass pain threshold. They play some Bluegrass standards, pop songs in a Bluegrass style, and even some Gospel hymns. And it was the Gospel hymns that got my attention. You know, songs like “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “I Saw the Light,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Amazing Grace.”
And this brings us back to your church because I’m still wondering why these are called “Gospel” songs. While I listened to these talented musicians play and sing to a largely (take that however you want to) Southern crowd, who obviously enjoyed it and knew the songs well enough to sing along, I kept thinking about how the songs most likely to show up at the Dixie Stampede are the same songs that are more unlikely to show up in our church. Why? One word: Gospel.
I realize that “Gospel” can easily refer to a musical style or to songs that express – at least loosely – Christian beliefs, but just how much Gospel is in these songs? If the Gospel is all about the grace of God in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for the sins of his people, received through repentance and faith, how many of the songs that we sing in our churches could be called Gospel songs? I’ll grant that Amazing Grace is all about, well, God’s amazing grace, but is there anything about how God extends it to us through Jesus? “I’ll Fly Away” just talks about going to heaven when you die, which is something all sorts of non-Christians believe. And honestly, “Keep On the Sunny Side” sounds like it was written by Norman Vincent Peale. Either that, or a short-order breakfast cook.
If you like these songs, please go right on ahead liking them. They probably have a meaning for you that they don’t have for me, and if they help you worship God in Spirit and in truth, I’m glad. Actually, I’m kind of particular to “Amazing Grace,” though I prefer Chris Tomlin’s version that reminds us of the ransom God paid to save us. But I still like John Newton’s version because I know that he knew what he was saying. He knew that God’s amazing grace came to him through Christ’s atoning work on the cross. He simply chose to write about his personal experience of that grace through faith.
His hymn, like all hymns, has a context. When they are removed from their context they can sometimes lose their meaning, or gain a meaning that is foreign to the author’s intent. When “Amazing Grace” is sung in a Gospel-centered church worship service, or read in a work that confesses faith in the biblical Gospel, we have no doubt about how that grace comes or how we receive it. But when it is sung in isolation, people can easily miss its meaning. I’ve spoken with people who think that “I once was lost but now am found” refers to getting out of a hospital bed, or surviving a horrible car wreck. I’ve heard it played at a funeral where I was reasonably certain that neither the deceased, nor any of the relatives, were believers, but they loved that song. And I’m not alone in this. Bob Kauflin, in his excellent book Worship Matters, suggests that the lack of any reference to Christ’s death or the cross might explain why the song is so popular, even among non-Christians. (p. 78)
That’s why a place like the Dixie Stampede, patronized by peoples of all colors, cultures, and creeds, can feature religious songs without really offending anyone. Just use songs from the hymnbook that don’t mention the exclusivity of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, without whom no man may approach God. And that’s precisely the reason why churches and worship leaders should be extremely careful about the songs they choose to use in worship.
We could probably use any of the songs mentioned when combined with other songs that are richer in Gospel content or an appropriate Scripture reading or a Christ-centered expositional sermon. But if our religious repertoire consists mainly of pie-in-the-sky, we’re-all-going-to-heaven hymns or I-love-God-because-he-accepts-me-just-like-I-am choruses, shouldn’t we at least ask whether our worship is even Christian? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of songs and hymns that the church can use to worship and bring glory to God. Not all of them explicitly mention the only thing that makes our worship acceptable, Christ’s blood. (1 Pet. 2:5) I suggest we consider singing them together with those that do.
Oh, and to be fair, as we were leaving the Bluegrass pre-show to enter the arena, I did detect the faint strains of “The Old Rugged Cross.” Would’ve been nice to sing it.
I’ve already had a lengthy discussion on FBook this week about song lyrics. Am I being too picky? What is normal for your church experience? Could an unbeliever sing along, or would he / she have to hear the Gospel in order to do so?