(About Christian Music at Summer Camps)

[This article appeared on my Wordwise Hymns blog, awhile ago, and I wanted to share it with the website readers too.]

"I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Phil. 1:23).

Today I've been going through old recordings, with a view to transferring at least some of the songs to my iPod. (Seems to me they call it "ripping" now.) It's been a tour down the proverbial memory lane, recalling musical experiences going back fifty and sixty years.

I listened to Elbert Tindley, the son of pastor and gospel song writer Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), author of Nothing Between, Leave It There, We'll Understand It Better By and By, and many more. Elbert and his wife Hazel traveled from place to place, presenting the gospel in word and song.

Mr. Tindley had a powerful tenor voice–and he loved his high notes! Hazel played the piano, and sang duets with him in a sweet soprano that was quite a contrast to Elbert's musical muscle. I can recall this couple singing in our church, when I was a boy, and I believe they visited in our home as well.

Nothing between my soul and the Saviour,
Naught of this world's delusive dream.
I have renounced all sinful pleasure;
Jesus is mine, there's nothing between.

Then there was the Youth for Christ Quartet, which my father trained, and in which my cousin Gord sang. Canadian evangelist Barry Moore was planning some evangelistic meetings in Europe, around 1950, and he wanted a musical group to go with him. That's the reason the quartet was put together. As a boy, I can recall being in the recording studio, when they cut a number of songs on disk. Currently I'm preaching a series of messages on the life of Joseph, and I was particularly struck by the quartet's rendering of Farther Along–so appropriate to Joseph's early trials, and what happened later (cf. Gen. 50:20).

Farther along we'll know all about it;
Farther along we'll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We'll understand it all by and by.

In the early 60's, my father and I sang with the Ambassador Male Choir. The group ministered in many churches in the Toronto area, and also went on tour, visiting churches in Michigan and elsewhere. What great times of fellowship we had! The scratchy old recording that remains includes a gospel song we used many times: My Anchor Holds (cf. Heb. 6:19-20).

Troubles almost whelm the soul;
Griefs like billows o'er me roll;
Tempters seek to lure astray;
Storms obscure the light of day;
But in Christ I can be bold,
I've an anchor that shall hold.

But it was the playing of another recording that shook me to my very soul. It brought me both joy and an aching sadness. When my wife Beth was a pre-teen, she attended Pioneer Camp for Girls, in Ontario (an Inter-Varsity camp)–many years before I knew her. It was there she put her faith in the Saviour. Actually, Christian camps have figured prominently in both our lives. I was saved at a camp too, working there for a couple of summers in later years. My wife and I met while we were both involved in camp ministry.

One year when Beth was at Pioneer Camp–at the age of twelve–a recording was made of all the campers joining in song. It was the custom to gather them for half an hour of singing each day, and the recording allows us to sit in on one of those sessions. It seems these were somewhat informal, with songs either announced with a brief comment, or the leader simply starting them off by singing herself. Sweet young voices, lifting words of praise to God.

And this is where I felt a jarring disjunction, and disheartenment with the world of today. Of course, since many camp leaders now are from churches that rarely use hymns, they don't know many of them. And anyway, "Children won't understand those old-fashioned songs"–or so the thinking goes. Better to give them something simple and upbeat–"Stomp your feet and clap your hands for Jesus," or some such ditty. Then, of course, what youthful singing could exist without drums and guitars, or a rollicking piano, and an incessantly syncopated beat? The louder the better! I had the camp chapel experience recently. I know!

For many years, I went with my parents to a family camp for two weeks every summer. And one of the things that struck me about those days, even when I was a small boy, was how dramatically different things were there from the world beyond the gates. I used to think, "This must be what heaven is like." But now there seems to be a rush to adopt as much of the world as possible. It is often evident in standards of dress, and in the music used. Have we forgotten: "What is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Lk. 16:15)?

So, what was the music like sixty years ago, at Pioneer Camp? Well, in succession, the children joined in singing together: How Great Thou Art; What a Friend We Have in Jesus; And Can It Be? The Love of God; I Know Whom I Have Believed; God Is Our Refuge (Psalm 46); May All Those Who Put Their Trust in Thee Rejoice; and All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name.

And what about accompaniment? There was none! No thundering instrumentation, no intrusive rhythm section. The girls sang a cappella with apparent ease, in beautiful two part harmony, sometimes injecting counter-melodies and more complex parts singing.

I'll never understand how on earth they did it, when many campers were from non-Christian homes, and were only there for a week! I played a bit of the recording for my musician son, and he commented that it sounded like a trained choir. What leaders of young choirs wouldn't give for children that sang that well so quickly.

It was glorious! And it made me wonder if I've overstayed my time on this old earth. The heavenly choir seems more inviting all the time! I feel as though I'm caught between two worlds: what used to be, and what one day will be (cf. Rev. 15:2-4).

Of course I'm not saying campers shouldn't sing fun songs as well, and have times of laughter, and all kinds of exciting activities. But are we not failing them if we don't take the opportunity to give them a taste of what worship in song is all about? Are we not short-changing them, if they go home no better acquainted with the great hymns of the church than when they came? I'm convinced of it. "Ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16).

I'm not optimistic that we can turn the tide. But if you are involved in camp work, please, please teach the children something of our rich heritage of hymnody. Explain unfamiliar words, and present some background stories about the authors. They will be the better for it, and so will tomorrow's church, if Jesus tarries.