Every time I pick up a mainline hymnal that was printed anytime after 1990 I get just a little bit disgusted. In an effort to save our sensibilities and to be as politically/theologically “correct” as possible, many of the old hyms were lyrically changed. Now, I’m all for inclusive language and all that, but I find myself bemused as I flip through the hymns and see the ones that were “tampered” with and the ones that were somehow seen as too “holy” or something to mess with. I’m not going into the specifics here, but I say all that to say this …
On Sunday, I was at a church where we sang out of one of those “mainline” hymnals. It’s Advent time, so churches all across the world are singing Christmas carols. We sang some of the good ol’ ones like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that suffered only a modest molestation in the transition to the “new” hymnal. But then we sang “What Child is This.” Now, one would think that the hymnal committee would at least be moderately interested in transitioning ancient lyrics not only for the sake of political correctness, but for understanding’s sake as well. I mean, with less than 17 percent of the USAmerican public in church last week – and that number is shrinking as each year goes by – one would think that communicating the gospel would be a critical decision.
One would be wrong. Really, really wrong. Which, of course, is just another reflection of why the mainline is losing members and attendees faster than any other block of churches. As a rule, we’re less concerned about being relevant and more concerned about maintaining tradition (Matthew 15:3 comes immediately to mind).
And so, the “offending” lyrics? For a moment, put away your churchese and try and put yourself in the shoes of an unconnected first-time guest who will be showing up on your doorstep for his/her annual pilgrimage to the church. They’re hoping to find hope in the church, though only sort of, because they’ve made this trek many years in the past and have gone away with “nice” and “sweet” and “cute” and sometimes even “moving” year, after year – but hope and life giving? Not so much.
And so the service starts with the typical carols. “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “The First Noel” go by without incident. And then “What Child is This” gets going, and there, on the Big Screen – projected for all to see are these magical, mystical, moving lyrics:
“Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”
What do you think when you read those words? My wife’s first thoughts were, “Sounds like a lot of churches I know.” I didn’t want to admit it, but that’s what went through my mind too. Of course, that’s not necessarily what an unchurched person might think, but I suspect confusion and maybe even bewilderment might be their first reaction if they were cognizant enough to be following the lyrics.
This year, as you finalize plans for your Christmas Eve service, keep in mind that what passes as tradition for you and me, may well pass for a “Huh?” moment in the minds of your unconnected guests. Plan and read and produce carefully. Remember, you may only get one shot at sharing the gospel with a lot of unconnected people this year. Choose even your hymns with that in mind.