Songwriting, worship and discipleship have long been indoctrinated into the minds and work of Wesleyans, something credited largely to the intentional songwriting and teaching practices of John and Charles Wesley.
In the preface to The Wesleyan Methodist Hymnal: Designed for Use in the Wesleyan Methodist Connection (or Church) of America, the authors write, “The use of hymns and songs in the worship of God has a double meaning. Such hymns and songs express what the worshiper believes God to be. What any man believes God to be forms a large and essential part of the foundation of that man’s religion, and thus enters in a vital way into the formation of his character. Thus it appears that what men sing in the worship of God is both an expression of what they are in moral and spiritual character, and also has a powerful part in the formation of character.”
When the songs we sing not only offer praises to a God mightily deserving of our offerings but also continue to inform us of his character and goodness, worship becomes an act of discipleship, teaching us to be better imitators and exhorters of Christ.
Kim Gladden, director of discipleship for The Wesleyan Church, believes that using worship within the discipleship model is not only important but is commanded of us (see Deuteronomy 6: 4-8).
“Discipleship is living out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment. Holistic discipleship is the understanding that our whole life is about learning and growing to become more like Jesus,” Gladden said. “When a local church uses these Scriptures at the heart of their discipleship model, they will see everything as an opportunity to teach about Jesus and practice being like Jesus.”
Gladden pushes against the misconception that discipleship is strictly confined within a rigid model of classroom structures, emphasizing that liturgy, such as the Apostles Creed, and songs of worship, such as “Amazing Grace,” are intrinsic to our ability to learn the fundamental elements of our faith, “providing opportunities for corporate declarations of truths such as praise, confession, surrender and commitment.”
This sentiment is echoed by Anita Eastlack, executive director of Church Multiplication and Discipleship, who said, “When we begin to develop a high view of holistic discipleship to complement our high view of systematic curriculum or classroom-based discipleship, then we discover ever-increasing opportunities to teach people to become more like Jesus, including the choice of songs we sing when we gather.”
“We sing our theology,” Gladden said. “We put God’s truth to music for the congregation to sing statements of faith as though to hide God’s word in our hearts so that we don’t sin, don’t cave into fear, don’t wander through the week.”
Traditional hymns and even contemporary Christian music give us this opportunity to affirm our theology through song, to bind Truth in our hearts.
“The very first song that many of us ever learned is ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” Gladden said. “This song has rich and deep theology that has discipled us through the years. Even now, I often remind myself ‘I am weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.’”
But Gladden also believes that the beauty of developing discipleship truths through worship is that the songs, poems or other exhalations conform to the people inspired by God to create it.
“I think particularly of the message communicated by the multiethnic church. Before words or creed are ever spoken, the diversity of the assembled body says, ‘God’s love is for all,’” Gladden said.
People of The Wesleyan Church are working to pave a way for Wesleyans to sing praises that affirm Wesleyan theology, specifically.
“The Wesleyan Worship Project, led by Josh Lavender, was born out of the passion to bring our Wesleyan theology strongly into our churches with fresh and original lyrics and melodies born out of the hearts of our own Wesleyan practitioners,” Gladden said. “In the spirit of John and Charles Wesley, who utilized the use of corporate singing, which sparked a movement and spread the Good News of the hope and holiness of Jesus Christ, The Wesleyan Worship Project is dedicated to re-digging the wells of Wesleyan songwriting.”
Learn more about the Wesleyan Worship Project in the months to come.