Theology that Sticks, The Life-Changing Power of Exceptional Hymns

Chris Anderson, a composer of over 50 hymns, has put his philosophy of Christian music in this extremely valuable book. His stated goal is “to consider what Scripture says about the kinds of songs Christians should sing. And [he wants] to provide a sort of ‘grid’ that helps believers measure songs intentionally and objectively rather than sentimentally or randomly” (p. 4). He adds, “We need to sing great hymns because hymns teach people how to think about God” (p. 14).

Anderson focuses on lyrics (p. 9) and his musical heroes are Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Bob Kauflin, Stuart Townsend, and Keith and Kristyn Getty (p. 7). Our songs, Anderson writes, should be full of the Word, for they not only teach but serve as creeds in our churches (pp. 27, 41, 43). Hymns help us say what we have a difficult time articulating in normal conversation (p. 166): “Hymns help you every day. They give vent to your joys on your best days. They give words to your groanings on your worst days. And they will help you on your last day” (p. 185). The author, while not denigrating choir or performance music and singing, is a strong supporter of congregational singing, laments its loss in the Middle Ages, celebrates its rediscovery during the Reformation, and its more recent revival led by hymn-writers such as the Gettys (see pp. 85-99, 121, 273).

With this philosophy as a base, Anderson provides a treasure-trove of practical helps, insights, strategies, and lists of excellent Christian songs by category. For those planning the musical portion of worship services, this material is invaluable. He also includes six chapters on how to sing the Psalms and/or how to use the Psalms as a grid for our music. Anderson clearly opposes tailoring church music to accommodate or draw the unbeliever and implies the unchurched should feel a bit uncomfortable in the Christian environment (see pp. 198-199, 211-212, 256). He believes each church should strive for excellence in its music, but he fully realizes that many churches have limited talent to accomplish this task; however, they should do their best (pp. 201-202).

My only disappointment with Theology that Sticks is that Anderson does not engage with the more controversial issues that have created the “music wars.” He believes music can often reveal disunity but does not create it (p. 105-106). But what if wide differences of opinion in musical preferences exist within a local church? In such cases, he minimizes the diversity and calls for humility (pp. 111-115). This approach is fair enough but does not solve the problem of which songs to select. As long as there is unanimity within the narrow range Anderson promotes, all is well. His range is definitely conservative—old hymns, psalms, new hymns such as those written by the Gettys (by the way, I personally would advocate the same range), however what if some appreciate heavy rock, hip hop, or other modern genres? No discussion of this common diversity is had, and it needs to be addressed. Anderson also does not reject hymns based on the character of the authors or the heresies of their churches (p. 140). However, this topic surely needs more exploration. When, for example, Hillsong leadership is proving itself morally compromised and teaches a false gospel, are churches to ignore these concerns, sing the better Hillsong songs, and take the chance of weaker Christians being drawn into a false system via its music, not to mention that by using their music, we are giving them financial support? I would have appreciated more engagement with these topics.

These are relatively minor issues that do not distract from an excellent book. The author’s purpose for writing Theology That Sticks obviously was not to engage with such matters but to encourage use of great music in the best way.

Anderson summarizes a scriptural approach to music selection for corporate worship this way: “Our music must aim at God’s glory, in the name of God’s Son, by the enablement of God’s Spirit, through the singing of God’s Word, for the good of God’s church” (p. 212). I couldn’t agree more. Anyone involved in church music should devour this book.

by Chris Anderson (Church Works Media, 2022), 327 pp + v, paper $19.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel