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The Songs We Sing Say a Lot About What We Believe

As a worship pastor in Canada, I have observed that our liturgical database, though full of songs of praise and the experience of salvation, lacks other important theological themes. Songs of lament? None. Songs of Christian fellowship? Few and far between. Another thin theological theme in our songs is biblical eschatology.

What types of hymns do Canadian churches sing? Do we sing of the Lord’s present salvation but ignore promises of its ultimate fulfillment? With this question in mind, I set about to research this subject by pouring through every hymnal used in Ontario that I could get my hands on.

I tracked the types of songs included in these hymnals which were published between 1900 and 2000. I discovered that the songs we sing, which appear in hymnal collections, reflect our theology. In the 20th century, we sang of the hope of leaving earth for heaven. In the 21st century, we have begun to focus on the hope of the return of Christ. This change matters. Let me show you the change first before I explain why it matters.

Ontario churches sang much about heaven during the 20th century

In pouring through over seventy hymnals and chorus books from 1900 to 2000, I found twice as many song references to heaven as to the return of Christ. This is evidenced by the host of songs which included language of: heaven, shore, riverside, place, home, wake, awake, Canaan, paradise, glory, above, mansion, land, and city. We love singing songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Soon and Very Soon,” and lines like “And then one day I’ll cross that river” and “He the pearly gates will open.”

The evangelical Church in Ontario sang far more about leaving earth for heaven than about Christ’s imminent return to this planet. Consider the following graph:

In the 21st century, Canadian songs increasingly began to focus on Christ’s return

During the first decade of the new millennium, the CCLI Top 25© lists (Christian Copyright Licensing Incorporated) included basically no songs about future hope. All songs were about God’s present work and our response of worship to Him for his character and actions on our behalf.

However, since 2007 there has been a steady increase in the appearance of 2nd coming lyrics. The theme of heaven has flatlined at around 2.0% of total song lyrics while the return of Christ theme has increased to around 10.0%.

Theological Reflections from a Worship Pastor

Canadian hymns changed over the past century. Cultural and political influences have undoubtedly impacted the songs written for, and sung by, churches in Ontario. Pastors should be aware of this change in order to avoid worship music that is focused solely on the present. Christ-centred worship is past, present, and future tense.

When we die in this present age, believers rightly anticipate the presence of Christ in heaven. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). However, the hope of heaven is but an appetizer of the eternal banquet to come.

True eschatological hope demands that the Faithful wait for and work toward the Day of Jesus’ glorious return when sin and evil will be vanquished, the Kingdom will be established, the dead in Christ will rise, creation will be renewed, and we will reign with Christ in the new heavens and new earth.

The wait was long before the Messiah first came. But, just as he arrived in Bethlehem at the fullness of time—God’s time—he will return equally so. Jesus is coming back! Let this be our perpetual anthem. Canada needs a fresh batch of return-of-Christ songs for the Church to sing.

Are you a preacher? Teach on the return of Christ. Are you a worship leader? Lead your church in singing the same. Are we ready? Even so come, Lord Jesus.

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