Lately I’ve had several conversations with people about the subject of church music. What kinds of songs should we sing in church and why? Fuel for the fire has been added from my recent consideration of the so-called “Hipster Faith.” In many such circles hymns (or other ancient songs) are often the preferred music type—not, necessarily, because of their relevance or purpose, but because they are sufficiently counter-cultural to challenge both the expectations of the attendees and the evangelical megachurch ideal against which they react.
This discussion has prompted some revealing personal reflection on my own history with church music. When I was a younger believer I almost always preferred hymns to those pesky praise choruses. The hymns always felt so much more meaningful to me, and oh-so-often the theology of the praise choruses was a little wacky. Two impressions about church music rise to the surface from these memories. First, when I was singing hymns I was always primarily evaluating the words. While singing I would ask myself a question such as, “is this right?” Second, if it was a hymn, I would focus the attention of my singing on the part I was supposed to sing, whether tenor or bass, and try to find the harmonies that fit well with the overall melody.
From these thoughts I’ve come to a realization about myself: what was ‘good’ (in my estimation) about hymns was that they were somehow safe. Here were words that were tested and true, and I could sing them without having to doubt the theology of the song. But with a praise chorus there was always a seed of doubt about its ‘truth’, or, even worse, a prideful irritation with its simplicity. I was using the hymns to think more, and if there was an emotional connection to the song it was found in my appreciation of the raw music. Looking back, I am now able to see that what I found irritating about the praise choruses was that they were asking for more than just my head—they wanted my heart as well. Here were songs that were asking me to feel more than they were asking me to think, and that left me uncomfortable.
Today I pastor a church and am in a position to influence and direct the kinds of songs we sing together while we create a corporate worship experience for the congregation. I am responsible, more or less directly, for guiding the overarching message of a worship service. Therefore further reflection on the kinds of music and purpose of music in a worship service is in order. The following are four reflections on what I think church music is all about:
- First, church services should strive to be organic wholes. What I mean is that the music, sermon, and response time (those are the elements of my church services) should all strive to communicate one message. It is hard enough to get people to understand single thoughts about our faith; how much more difficult do we make it when they hear five different messages from five different songs, then a sixth from a sermon which may have multiple points itself? When we thus divide the rhetoric of the church service we inhibit the communicating power of the church. Hence, where possible, the music should serve the message of the service. What this means is that when a song communicates the overall message of the service, then use it, be it hymn, praise chorus, taize ditty, Hillsong anthem, or pop tune. But favoring a particular type of music because of the type (e.g., hymns) has no value whatsoever. It is at best an issue of preference and at worst an issue of control and fear.
- Second, music is part of the teaching ministry of the church. Musicians through melodies and lyrics are communicating something to the congregation—that something ought to be true. In the music of the church we declare the truth of God to everyone present in the room. First we declare it to ourselves—because singing is one of the ways that we try to get truth from our heads down into our hearts, and singing is one of the ways that we fight the threatening tides of unbelief in our world. We are reminding ourselves of what God has done, and will do, and is doing. Second, of course, church music is also part of the evangelism of the church, and the words we sing must communicate the gospel to our visitors.
- Third, the music of the church is a significant part of community life. We sing together and not as individuals. Our voices are joined together, we extend beyond ourselves to realize that we are part of something greater. Music, with its filling, swelling power, breaks down the barriers between people and unites them in a common spirit. It is a tonic against loneliness and isolation. This fact, although largely lost today, was one of the great strengths of hymns in the past, because it communicated (implicitly) not only the togetherness of the church but also the fact that each member had a ‘part’ to sing—a role to play in the life of faith.
- Fourth, and bridging these other reasons, I have come to believe that the main purpose of church music is the pursuit of the Holy Spirit. The true power of all music is in its non-rational rationality. It expresses, through ordered notes and phrases, something purely emotive in the human soul. The problem, as I understand it, with many of our worship services is that we have been so busy thinking right thoughts about God that we forget to allow Him to invade and act in our lives. Our words, our many many words, are often a buffer which keep God’s Spirit at bay. The music of the church has the power to break that barrier, and it is in the non-rational, emotional space of music where the Holy Spirit comes, not by virtue of our superior understanding or intelligence, but because we are pursuing Him.
We sing in church to invite and experience the Holy Spirit in our lives, the Holy Spirit who will continue to speak to our hearts through the teaching ministry (proper) of the church, and that same Spirit Who reforms and renews our lives when we rededicate ourselves to God. Our music in church is worship which prepares the way for the Lord’s work. So, what does this all mean for the kinds of songs we ought to sing in church? I think it means this: sing the songs you like. Don’t choose songs because they are counter cultural (after all, many hymn writers borrowed melodies from the local tavern!). Rather, choose songs because they create the right spirit in your worship service. Sing songs that your people will get into. Choose songs that are true (of course!), but remember that music has an inherent rhetoric of its own to create community, a rhetoric through which the Spirit of God often speaks supernaturally. In the end, the music of the church should always create space in which the Spirit of God can inhabit His people anew.