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 riseTo 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.