The Missing Part of the Modern Christian Song

The missing part of the modern Christian song is the end of the story.

Two primary factors contribute to this. First, modern songwriters have less space. Until modern times, hymnwriters writing a song would nearly always write at least four verses, and, come the 1800s, four verses and a chorus. Five and six verses weren’t unheard of, and eight or more happened on occasion. Today’s push to keep songs down to either three verses or two verses and a bridge leaves less room to complete a broader narrative.

The second factor is far more prevalent in Contemporary Christian Music than in our genre, but is still sometimes seen here. Sometimes the relentless pursuit of relevancy leaves songs focused on the here-and-now problems, without the end of the story that offers a solution to these problems.

I can understand and live with space limitations easily enough; in fact, it could be construed as a positive, since it forces forcing lyrical and conceptual conciseness and leaves less time to wander before getting to the point. So it is the second factor that concerns me.

Here is a key point—my core point, if you will. Previous generations of songwriters also wrote relevant songs—but they also included the end of the story.

A good example is “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Most modern hymnals either only have verses one and two, or verses one and three; a few have one, two, and three. Yet for years, something about the song struck me as vaguely unsatisfying. It was not until I discovered the fourth verse about two years ago that I realized what it was: Modern hymnals had left out the end of the story.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!

You see, while we can enjoy prayer on earth—or, more applicably for most of us, work on the habits of spiritual discipline so that we may move toward enjoying it—it is but a weak foretaste of that day when we shall no longer have to pray—for we shall see face to face.

Another example comes from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” While I could tell many church audiences that they had never heard the final verse, I trust there are enough students of English-language hymnody here that it would not be true for some of you. At any rate, here it is:

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

With these hymns, and other hymns similarly mangled in modern hymnals, at least we have the ability to research and retrieve these glorious capstones. Regrettably, we can’t do this with many songs from Contemporary Christian Music and from those less traditional portions of our own genre that take their songwriting cues from CCM, since the end of the story wasn’t written in in the first place.

Make no mistake, relevant songs are good. Tell your story—tell a relevant story if you can. Yet don’t omit the best part, the end of the story.

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18 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. We aren’t doing that with southern gospel songs much these days either.

  2. Great article … I LOVE songs that tell a story. A song with ~just a good hook is ok, but a “story song” is a testimony!

  3. You said, “Previous generations of songwriters also wrote relevant songs—but they also included the end of the story.”

    From a general perspective, yes; the end of the story is crucial. But it all depends on the song.

    If a writer is exploring a broad topic through a hymn structure, the writer may have the luxury to include “the end of the story” in a final verse — although whether or not that verse will ever be used/recorded is another issue.

    However, if the writer has chosen a specific topic and is using a verse/chorus structure, it may actually dilute the strength of the song’s targeted message to end it somewhat predictably.

    Or, to put it another way, if a song is written using a zoom lens to communicate truth from a particular Bible verse or hymnal topic, the writer should stay focused on getting that job done — and trying to cover more than that will be a mistake.

    The bottom line is that songwriting is hard work, and it takes prayer, patience and careful study to determine what best serves the message of that song. After all, not every sermon from the pulpit wraps up with a picture of heaven.

    • Well, not every song that tells the end of the story necessarily ends at Heaven, either. In John Newton’s song “The Rebel’s Surrender to Grace,” the song ends with the rebel (the narrator) getting saved. That’s the end of the story.

      But for a song about trials, the end of that story is when the trials are ended. And, as we know, not every problem gets resolved this side of eternity. If it’s the sort of trial that gets resolved this side of eternity, great and write it that way. But if it’s the sort of trial that only gets resolved on the far side of Jordan – don’t omit the resolution there!

      • Okay, so you consider “the end of the story” = “resolution.”

        SG often enjoys resolution in a song, while other genres like to leave things on a less settled basis, more open-ended to provoke thought. Neither one are wrong; both can be effective.

        Some more contemporary genres can be too vague, and can leave the listener without much concrete truth. The song “You Are More” by Tenth Avenue North is a great song, but it left me feeling dissatisfied that it didn’t provide more overt hope in the bridge. However, I do think some SG songs can wrap things up in a bow a little too tightly, almost trying to do the work of the Holy Spirit by thinking for the listener and naming the only resolution to the lyrical journey they’ve just experienced.

        Again, it depends on the song.

  4. I don’t know why, but David Phelps’ “End of the Beginning” came to mind as I read this

  5. I agree with you completely. My biggest pet peeve lately and the thing that I feel is missing from the Modern Christian song, is doctrine and words. Luckily we don’t have a big problem with this in Southern Gospel but it is an enormous problem in modern praise and worship. If I have to sing one more “worship” song that replaces actual words with whole “verses” of “la la la’s”,”fa fa fa’s,”or the most dreaded “Na na nananana’s” I may very well shout, and I don’t mean that good ole fashioned kinda shoutin!

    • So those songs have made their way into the Catholic churches, too? 😮

    • This is a completely new one on me. (Thank the Lord!)

      It goes to far for me when they sing the whole song of “Amazing Grace” with “Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen. Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen.” I can kind of get the “Praise God” verse, although it still seems a little like “vain repetition.”

      • “too far” Saw that 1/2 second after pushing submit.

      • Yes, it does seem like vain repetition!

        …especially when there are several perfectly good verses that they’re omitting, albeit unwittingly, to sing those!

  6. I will admit that some of the P&W is great, for instance, “How deep the Father’s love for us,” some of Chris Tomlin’s or Matt Maher’s stuff etc. but a lot of it is dribble that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. It doesn’t actually say anything and instead of glorifying God we end up singing about ourselves.

    • So true – I suppose we certainly have some common ground there!

      • Daniel, methinks “common ground” may actually be the problem…

        “Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
        I view my home and take my flight.
        This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
        To seize the everlasting prize,”

        Now we know, at least I hope we know,that William Walford was writing about the death of Moses – and his spirit ascending to heaven from the mountain top in Nebo. So we perceive the allegorical meaning as being the believer no longer needing the solace of prayer time when he dies and finds himself in the presence of the Lord.

        The thorny issue arises if we widen the allegory to embrace, not just the DEATH of one saint, but the end of all our prayer times – the “hour of prayer” is no longer needed, at the consummation of the Church Age –

        which concept presents a problem – as not all, nor even nearly all Christians will agree on what and when are the order of events surrounding said end time!

        “Dumbing down” has been reffered to quite a few times recently – might it not be, that in the striving for non-controversial and fully consensual doctrinal premises, we have, both in CCM and SGM et al, steered away from dealing with THE “end of the story”.

        “The King IS Coming” – how and when and for whom, may keep us away from all post resurrection truth; which is, indeed, only the “End of the Beginning”.

      • I think it is possible to resolve most song storylines without reference to pre-trib vs. post trib.

      • Or even Pre-mill, A-mill, or Post-mill. So many eschatologies so little time.

      • Yes. Well, many songs that reference the end-times (in SG) would clearly not fit A-mill, and some wouldn’t fit post-mill, but most are compatible with any of the views that fall under pre-mill (pre-, mid-, and post-trib.)

      • Ha! I’m with you! To quote Justin Martyr speaking to this topic. “I and many others are of this opinion, and (believe) that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.”