Unintended Consequences

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Do you want a foretaste of heaven?

A few years ago my wife and I took a five-week road trip. On Sundays we worshiped at various churches. All of them were evangelical and they ranged from mid-size to megachurches. I decided to keep a worship journal, taking note of information such as the speaker, text and sermon, the praise team, prayers, and, of course, the music for the service.

The experiment proved enlightening—particularly the music. We sang or listened to about 30 songs, with no duplication and only one that we recognized. An Evangelical Free Church in Minnesota sang “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Variety might be the spice of life, but I wonder if such worship diversity brings some unintended consequences.

For 13 years I served as a part-time chaplain at a Christian care facility. On Sunday mornings we held a worship service led by one of the chaplains. Three unwritten rules guided our worship planning: we never stand up, we never take an offering, and we never sing praise songs.

The first two rules were self-explanatory, considering the nursing home population. The third rule stemmed from the fact that the residents were unfamiliar with praise songs, and poor eyesight prohibited many from seeing well enough to read. The residents were much more comfortable singing the songs they had sung since childhood and had probably sung hundreds of times. Songs like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and, of course, “Jesus Loves Me.” Though they might not know all the words any longer, when the chorus came, smiles and tears came with it.

Do you want to experience a foretaste of heaven? On a Sunday morning stand in front of 60 to 70 residents from skilled nursing care. Look at their faces and listen to their voices as they sing by heart, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

On one of the forays my wife and I took to Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit our daughter and her family, we attended a birthday party. One of the guests was the minister of music at a megachurch in Salt Lake City. As we talked, I told him about the worship journal I was keeping and about the worship in the care facility. Then I asked him this question: “When this generation gets old and moves into a care facility, what songs will they all know?” He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head and responded, “There won't be any.”

For a denomination that values its heritage as much as ours does, that’s one unintended consequence we need to strive to avoid.

About the Author

Harold Hiemstra is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He is a member of Almond Valley CRC in Ripon, Calif., and just recently moved to Kentwood, Mich.

See comments (3)


Many years ago, I remember a (perhaps apocryphal) story about Billy Sunday's conversion narrative. A dissolute ball player far from the church, he was walking by a little church where Sunday school was in session. As he passed, he heard the children singing "Jesus Loves Me" and it brought back memories of his own upbringing. The Spirit used this song to bring him to faith.

How many people even now would ever "chance" to hear one of the songs they grew up with in almost any setting outside their own congregation/denomination? There are many wonderful new hymns and, yes, even praise songs, but how can we build a shared memory of music that will help us join together in praise and worship?

This article brings back a wonderful memory of my own.  I worked in a nursing home, and as Christmas approached, the staff planned a Christmas program for residents and families.  It included a sing-song of Christmas carols led by several staff members.  Shortly after the singing began, we were joined by one of our residents with severe dementia.  When you talked to her, she could not put two words together that made any sense, and all you could do was respond to the tone of her voice.  However, as she joined us in singing the carols, we found that she knew every word of every song that we sang together, and was right on with all the tunes.  It was so poignant!  I approached her family afterwards and spoke to them about this.  They said she was a chorister for many years, and especially loved singing Christmas carols. We learned something new about our resident that day, and to this day Christmas carols have special meaning for me too because of her.

Church music leaders: Rev. Heimstra is right; the great hymns of the faith should be included in our weekly liturgy. These songs are Scriptural, doctrinal, glorifying to God, and are singable by everyone.

My friends and I at Eldermusic, Inc. bring live music to the residents of Alzheimer's and dementia facilities. To hear them naturally form a choir and sing the melodies and harmonies is an amazing experience. Music is one way they memorized Scripture; when I hear our old friends singing it says to me: "Thy Word have I hid in my heart." Many of them couldn't tell you what they had for dinner last night, but they remember all the words to "Amazing Grace" and honestly, a whole catalogue of music.

I hope the mega-church music director's prediction was wrong.