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When and Why We Stopped Singing about Heaven, and How to Start Again

singing about heaven

American evangelical churches aren’t singing about heaven as often or as well as they used to. And this isn’t just my personal opinion. As part of a larger research project, I compared two large selections of worship songs.[1] The first selection was the most commonly sung congregational songs in the United States from 2000–2015; the second group was the most commonly published congregational songs in the United States from 1737–1960.[2] Among many similarities, one difference was striking: the topic of heaven, which once was frequently and richly sung about, has now all but disappeared.

This article begins by tracing examples of the differences between these two groups of songs and offers some explanations for the changes. Troubled by what these changes indicate, I conclude by exhorting local churches to continue to sing about heaven.

WHAT’S CHANGED

To begin, consider the different ways believers sing about the presence of God. In broad strokes, traditional American hymns describe our journey toward God’s presence in a future, heavenly home as a pilgrimage from a fallen city toward a celestial one, much like John Bunyan’s story, A Pilgrim’s Progress.[3] In contrast, much of Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) refers to God’s presence as a current and near experience.[4]

A brief comparison of songs from each period demonstrates this difference.[5] William Williams’ 1745 hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” refers to being a “pilgrim” (verse 1). It asks God to lead “me all my journey through” (verse 2) until he would “land me safe on Canaan’s side” (verse 3). The chorus to John Cennick’s 1743 hymn, “Jesus My All to Heaven Has Gone” repeats, “I’m on my journey home to the new Jerusalem. I’m on my journey home to the new Jerusalem.” And the old well-known Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” prays, “May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s sun.”

Perhaps the clearest example of a pilgrimage hymn is Samuel Stennett’s “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.” In the opening line, the believer describes his present location as “stormy” and looks toward the “fair and happy land” of heaven. The second verse develops the theme: “O’er all those wide extended plains shines one eternal day; there God the Son forever reigns, and scatters night away.” Stennett then contrasts this fallen world with the blissfulness of the world to come: “No chilling winds or poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore; sickness and sorrow, pain and death, are felt and feared no more.” The final verse strains to see God’s presence as a distant reality: “When I shall reach that happy place, I’ll be forever blest, for I shall see my Father’s face and in his bosom rest.” You can almost feel the ache, the yearning for what’s promised and hoped-for, but not yet seen.

By contrast, CWM’s most popular songs generally emphasize God’s presence as a currently felt reality. These songs celebrate God’s presence in lavish, unmitigated terms. Consider the third verse of Jason Ingram’s anthem, “Forever Reign”: “You are here, You are here, in Your presence I’m made whole.”[6] Other songs locate God’s presence in the individual believer rather than the gathered community. Marie Barnett’s minimalist chorus, “Breathe,” begins with the words, “This is the air I breathe: Your holy presence living in me.”[7]

This same trend shows up even in new adaptations of the classics—chief among them Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” which is an adaptation of John Newton’s 1779 hymn “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” which we all know as “Amazing Grace.”[8] As seen from his original title (“Expectation”), Newton highlighted the future orientation of the faith (e.g., “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…”). Tomlin, however, alters Newton’s chronological emphasis by eliminating Newton’s strongest anticipatory (“not yet”) verse: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” What did he replace such a time-tested verse with? A chorus that celebrates the current, subjective experience of the faith: “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free; My God, my Savior has ransomed me.”

But there’s something even more subtle going on here. Here’s how Newton ends his hymn: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine; But God who called me here below, will be forever mine.” Tomlin adapts Newton’s future-oriented lyric to emphasize the current reality of God’s presence. He repeats this line—“will be forever mine”—in what’s called a “tag.” But as Tomlin does this, he shifts verb tenses so that God’s presence changes from a future, “not-yet” expectation to a present-day, “already” experience. Newton’s “will be forever mine” becomes Tomlin’s “you are forever mine.”

To be fair, CWM does sing about—albeit briefly—the age to come. Generally speaking, it highlights the universality of praise. In another popular song, Tomlin writes, “And all will see how great, How great is our God.”[9] Ingram extends the metaphor beyond the praise of people to the praise of the entire created order: “You are Lord, All creation will proclaim.”[10] What will believers be doing in the age to come? According to the most often sung songs in Contemporary Worship Music, believers will be doing exactly what they’re doing now—praising God and enjoying his presence.

There are certainly examples of CWM richly portraying the future orientation of the Christian faith, but the rhetorical accent of popular contemporary songs focuses on God’s presence and our experience of it in the here-and-now. While some find it easy to indulge in wholesale rejection of the CWM genre, wiser critics investigate the forces that lead churches to immanentize their heavenly language and only sing about heaven as a present experience.

WHY THE CHANGE?

This shift in emphasis among American hymnody is too substantial to attribute to a single influence. So let me focus on three: certain strands of Pentecostalism, juvenilization, and commercialization.

Just as it’s reductionistic to characterize all strands of, say, Baptist faith, as identical, it can be helpful to recognize the wide variety of belief and practice among charismatics and Pentecostals. Many of these believers possess a rich and nuanced eschatology; many might use the terminology and categories of what’s commonly referred to as “inaugurated eschatology.”[11]

Having noted the wide variety of charismatic thought, it seems significant to identify the disproportionate influence that some streams of Pentecostalism have exerted upon the congregational songs of broader evangelicalism. Which streams have been the most influential? Generally those from “finished work” and “Oneness” Pentecostalism. These Pentecostals assert that Christ’s past accomplishment makes every spiritual benefit currently available to the faith-filled believer. From an evangelical perspective, this should be recognized as an over-realized eschatology, one which can open the door to various forms of harmful theology.[12]

Second, it’s important to note the influence that juvenilization has played upon the North American church in general and CWM in particular. Juvenilized music, as scholars use the term, is music that both aims at younger people and, by that token, caters to their life experiences, desires, and emotional maturity levels. It highlights immediacy, for instance, rather than calling people to perseverance and patience. Because many believers experienced formative moments of faith in high-school and college ministries, these generationally targeted movements unwittingly led to developments in contemporary worship. Over time, these informal worship events soon forged the expectations of an entire generation of worshipers.[13]

It should surprise no one that hymnody forged in contexts aimed at the values and felt needs of young people displays little concern for topics that appeal to older saints. Let me offer but one example: death. CWM rarely mentions death, or at least our death. The topic, when it comes up, usually refers to either Christ’s death or to death being conquered.[14]

In one rare reference to the death of the believer, Matt Redman writes, “The end draws near and my time has come.” This is a good line and reminds us of the older generation of hymns. Yet notice how quickly the song moves on to another, happier subject: “Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, Ten thousand years and then forevermore.”[15] A fine truth, as far as it goes, yet he barely asks us to linger on the bitter reality of death, which would arm worshippers as they fight against this last enemy, making reflections upon the ten-thousand-year promise even sweeter. Instead, the song jumps quickly from the sweetness of knowing God now to more of the same later with—okay, fine—the quick blip of death in between. Does that prepare saints who might spend years caring for a spouse in the slow descent of Alzheimer’s? Or decades married to an emotionally unresponsive spouse? Or a lifetime trying to overcome the wounds of childhood abuse and a chronic sense of God’s absence?

This is a bit of an aside, but it might be worthwhile in all this to consider the average age of our most popular songwriters. I’m grateful for the many young, talented songwriters with promising careers and growing ministries. But the joys of heaven would more likely preoccupy the minds of older saints who have suffered loss, those whose “best years” lie far behind and not ahead. (Unless, of course, you consider a believer’s “best years” as those which follow the resurrection.)

After all, moments of deepest distress have provoked some of the most tantalizing longings for heaven. Consider Fanny Crosby’s 1868 hymn, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” Crosby penned these words upon the death of her infant daughter.[16] From the liturgical richness of Calvin’s refugee church in Strasburg to the profound lament of Black Spirituals to the Canaan Hymns of the Chinese house church hymnwriter, Lu Xiao-min, church history has demonstrated that Christians facing persecution produce some of the richest expressions of longing for heaven.[17]

Finally, we should consider how commercialization has affected our worship songs.[18] The writing, publishing, and selling of congregational songs is far from a new phenomenon.[19] But independent Christian music labels being bought out by major secular music labels is. Such buyouts offer upside: more money to invest, better production quality, and improved distribution access to name a few. This arrangement has enabled the proliferation of worship-based materials for sale.

But it’s also come with a cost: increased scrutiny on the bottom line.[20] Secular labels care about profit, not discipleship and theology. And the best way to secure longstanding profit is to stoke the already-growing star-power of worship leaders and songwriters.[21] So this growing industry encourages consumers to buy worship albums and register for worship conferences and to even attend “worship concerts.”[22] Beyond paid, in-person performances, consumers also regularly watch videos of worship music—either live events or curated collections of images behind lyrics.[23] Inevitably, these differing modes of participation shape expectations that believers bring to their Sunday morning services.

Simply put, financial concerns and discipleship concerns share a very slender overlap. Becoming a well-formed follower of Christ means we long for our coming Savior and our forever home with him in the new heavens and earth. This posture doesn’t move units or motivate consumers. Such an industry competes with a sober and substantial consideration of heaven.

HOW HAS THE CHANGE HURT US?

Singing isn’t magical. But what a congregation decides to sing on Sunday mornings offers unique functions in the discipleship of a local church. Most obviously, lyrics teach—they teach true doctrine and proper emotion; they point at the head and the heart. Beyond the words themselves, the melodic and harmonic setting of those words provide important emotional and social contexts. This combination—the doctrinal truth of the lyrics with the emotional and communal context of the music—seems to be what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he calls the believers in Ephesus to sing and make music (Ephesians 5:19). The Ephesian church was encircled by an immoral city and in danger of returning to their sinful way of life. And after he diagnoses their proclivity to the sins of the flesh (Ephesians 4:17ff), he prescribes a spiritual regimen of singing and making music. [24]

That’s singing in general. But why sing about heaven in particular? Here, again, Paul helps us. In 1 Thessalonians, he teaches about the second coming and the final state of believers, concluding with the exhortation to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). Singing about heaven has always served as a great encouragement to believers who do not (and should not) feel at home in this fallen world. Singing about heaven “right-sizes” a church’s expectations about what believers can anticipate in this life.

If we get this wrong, discipleship becomes much more difficult. Churches that neglect heaven don’t serve their members well because they make promises they cannot keep. Without singing and celebrating the world to come, they imply both that this world is all there is and that a believer’s current experience reflects the fullness of the kingdom. These unfortunate implications create unrealistic—and doctrinally false—expectations in a worshiping congregation.

Services that fail to speak and sing about heaven communicate an over-realized eschatology which tragically downplay the realities of this still-fallen world. By evoking and longing for heaven, believers recognize something quite obvious to God’s own perspective: The current fallen state of the world cannot be redeemed by additional human ingenuity or effort . The certainty and sweetness of heaven, as a part of the believer’s regular longing to be with the Lord, allows faithful Christians to mourn the sin and brokenness of our current situation. Zack Eswine writes, “In a fallen world, sadness is an act of sanity, our tears the testimony of the sane.”[25] Worshipers need to recognize these realities, not only in the arid abstractions found in our doctrinal statements, but through the heartfelt affections found in our communal songs.

Let me speak bluntly: churches that don’t sing about heaven cripple their members with an impoverished emotional life. When a church’s songs are exclusively filled with fervency, joy, commitment, and victory, they omit essential aspects of a Christian’s emotional life—doubt, disappointment, and frustration due to ongoing sin. When evangelical worship services imply that believers should experience complete victory now, they prepare people for inevitable disappointment. When churches avoid singing about bouts of sickness, disability, and death, they imply that our current experience reflects the fullness of God’s goodness. Songs about heaven and the world to come allow us to celebrate Christ’s current victory while waiting and longing for the final victory to come (Heb. 2:8).

As a final consequence, when churches imply the kingdom is fully here, the stage is set for the promotion of celebrity pastors. After all, if this particular gathering is a full experience of God’s eschatological presence here and now, then the man up front and in charge of this kingdom stands a good chance of being viewed as a kind of savior and king.

So let’s sing about heaven. Let’s sing about heaven’s Lord. When we do, we shield ourselves from unrealistic expectations about our under-shepherds and point our own hearts to the Chief Shepherd. I can’t possibly put it better than Anne Cousin in her 1857 hymn, “The Sands of Time are Sinking”:

The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace;
not at the crown he gifteth, but on his pierced hand:
the Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.

[1] Much of this essay draws upon research for my dissertation, “‘The Hour Is Coming and Is Now Here’: The Doctrine of Inaugurated Eschatology in Contemporary Evangelical Worship Music” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2016). Some of these thoughts were developed for a DesiringGod article, “Come, Lord Jesus: The Simple Prayer Our Songs Forgot,” April 16, 2017 ( https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/come-lord-jesus ).

[2] For my discussion of Contemporary Worship Music, I used data from CCLI to select a selection of 83 songs that was comprised of the top 25 songs from 2000–2015. For the list and helpful discussion of American Protestant Hymns, see the work by Stephen A Marini, “Hymnody as History: Early Evangelical Hymns and the Recovery of American Popular Religion.” Church History 71, no. 2 (2002): 273–306; and for a discussion of more current analysis see Marini’s “American Protestant Hymns Project: A Ranked List of Most Frequently Printed Hymns, 1737–1960.” In Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns and Evangelical Protestant Traditions in America , edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, 251–64. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

[3] For a helpful discussion of “heaven” as the center of Christian hope and the presence of Christ as well as the unhelpful Platonic baggage, see Mike Wittmer, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[4] To be clear, scholars use differing terms to describe aspects of Contemporary Praise and Worship. I have chosen “Contemporary Worship Music” as the term since I am discussing the most often used songs in the United States. For a discussion of differing terms and the ways that they are used, see Lester Ruth and Swee Hong Lim, Presence and Purpose: The Hidden History of Contemporary Praise & Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, forthcoming 2021).

[5] While there is a danger in drawing out large conclusions from a few examples, interested readers are encouraged to read my dissertation’s discussion of this topic and work through more examples in Marini’s research.

[6] Jason Ingram and Reuben Morgan, “Forever Reign,” 2010.

[7] Marie Barnett, “Breathe,” 1995.

[8] Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio, and John Newton, “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).” For the purpose of brevity, this analysis uses the name Chris Tomlin since he is also the recording artist and worship leader most associated with this song.

[9] Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, and Jesse Reeves, “How Great Is Our God,” 2004 (emphasis added).

[10] Ingram and Morgan, “Forever Reign.”

[11] See many of the essays in Peter Althouse and Robby Waddell, eds., Perspectives in Pentecostal Eschatologies: World without End (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010). Indeed, Nigel Scotland argues, “The focus [of ‘charismatic theologies’] has changed from an imminent futuristic spiritualised [sic] kingdom in the 1960s to a kingdom which is now largely held to be both present and future with an emphasis on social concern and philanthropy.” Nigel Scotland, “From the ‘Not Yet’ to the ‘Now and the Not Yet’: Charismatic Kingdom Theology 1960–2010,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 20, no. 2 (2011): 272.

[12] See Larry R. McQueen, Toward a Pentecostal Eschatology: Discerning the Way Forward (Dorset, UK: Deo, 2012), 294. Also, see Matthew K. Thompson, Kingdom Come: Revisioning Pentecostal Eschatology (Dorset, UK: Deo, 2010) for the fascinating argument that classic dispensationalism has weakened the vibrant eschatology of genuine Pentecostalism.

[13] Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012); Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth. Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2017), 16–17.

[14] To compare this with traditional hymnody, see Jeffrey VanderWilt, “Singing about Death in American Protestant Hymnody,” in Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, ed. Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 179–204.

[15] Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman, “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” 2011.

[16] “Jesus, my heart’s dear refuge, Jesus has died for me; Firm on the Rock of Ages, Ever my trust shall be. Here let me wait with patience, Wait till the night is o’er; Wait till I see the morning Break on the golden shore.”

[17] For a careful and theologically rich consideration of the importance of singing lament, see Rob S. Smith, “Singing Lament,” in Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament, edited by G. Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 204–222.

[18] On this topic, consider the work by Daniel Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[19] Christopher N. Phillips, The Hymnal: A Reading History (Baltimore, ML: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), traces the widespread way that published hymnals served in congregational, devotional, and educational ways during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[20] See discussion in Ingalls, “Awesome in this Place,” 115. For a fascinating discussion, see Monique Ingalls, “Transnational Connections, Musical Meaning, and the 1990s ‘British Invasion’ of North American Evangelical Worship Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities. Edited by Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Ana Reily (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 425–48.

[21] Ingalls, “Awesome in this Place,” 116–117. Ingalls cites Deborah Evans Price, “‘Praise and Worship’ Music Extending Its Retail, Radio Reach,” 4.

[22] See Monique M. Ingalls, Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Joshua Kalin Busman, “(Re)Sounding Passion: Listening to American Evangelical Worship Music, 1997–2015” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015).

[23] See Monique M. Ingalls, “Worship on the Web: Broadcasting Devotion through Worship Music Videos on YouTube,” in Music and the Broadcast Experience: Performance, Production, and Audiences, edited by Christina L. Baade and James Deaville (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 293–309. See also Teresa Berger, Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds. New York: Routledge, 2018.

[24] Steven R. Guthrie, “Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46, no. 4 (December 2003): 638.

[25] Zack Eswine, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2015), Kindle Locations 283–284.

This article originally appeared here.

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matthewwesterholm@churchleaders.com'
Matthew Westerholm (@mwesterholm) serves at Bethlehem Baptist Church as a pastor for worship and music. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Lisa, and their three sons.