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Not Just Any Song Will Do: Three basics for choosing church music

"Why sing songs written by fallen mortals when Almighty God has inspired 150 of his own hymns?" That kind of thinking made choosing music for worship a moot point for many of our Reformed forebears. You sang the psalms. No wrestling over hymns versus praise choruses. How things have changed over the centuries!

One hundred and twenty-one years ago, Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney voiced concern over the fact that the popular gospel music of Dwight L. Moody's cohort, Ira Sankey, was finding its way out of the revival tent and into the sanctuary of many a Reformed congregation.

The most that can be said of Mr. Sankey's [songs] is that they do not appear to have introduced positive error as yet, and that they exhibit no worse traits than a marked inferiority of matter and style to the established hymnals of the leading churches. The most danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of "vain repetitions."

Today, worship planners and leaders stand beneath an avalanche of hymns and praise choruses. Never before have we had so much music to choose from. But much church music (new and old, "contemporary" or "traditional") is of suspect quality and appropriateness for authentic worship in the Reformed tradition. However, in our entrepreneurial ecclesiastical climate, there is no longer a "supreme court" that determines what music is appropriate to sing in our churches, as there was in Dabney's day. That choice must be made by worship planners/leaders in each local congregation. Throw on top of that the rapid growth of "contemporary worship," coupled with the ever-present pressures of the "church growth movement," and the temptation is rife to incorporate merely what's "popular" or "what works" without first asking some more important questions of the music: questions of theological faithfulness, musical quality, and liturgical appropriateness.

How to Make Choices

So... how does one decide whether or not to use a certain hymn/song/praise chorus in worship?

That's the key question. And it encompasses not only choosing music for a particular upcoming service but also building a repertoire, a corpus of music, that you will continue to draw on for years to come.

The answer lies in careful thinking and planning. Begin by estabishing some firm criteria for evaluating new music. If you don't have such criteria in place, you run the risk of becoming captive to the "tyranny of the popular." It was supposedly Irving Berlin who said, "Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it." But is it faithful biblically and theologically? Is it of good musical quality? It it fitting liturgically?

Those questions are at the heart of what it means to evaluate music for Reformed worship. Granted, there will always be some element of subjectivity in answering those questions. We make judgments based on culture, personal taste, training, maturity of faith, and other factors. But some solid criteria can guide you to make choices that will help the people of your congregation worship.

How do such criteria work? Suppose a member of your congregation has suggested that worship would be enhanced if you included Brian Doerksen and Cindy Rethmeier's song "I Want to Know You" (a currently popular "contemporary" worship song) in your repertoire.

Are the words OK? What about the tune? It's one of those you find yourself humming in the car on a Tuesday afternoon. It's a popular song many of our 8:30 worshipers at Central appreciate. Yet it's a song we continue to wrestle with theologically, chiefly over its use of the first person personal pronoun. Is an "I" song appropriate for the "we" of Reformed corporate worship? Some would reject this song as being totally inappropriate for corporate worship . . . too me-centered, too worshiper-centered rather than God-centered. Are these objections on target, or too "fine-tooth" critical?

We still use "I Want to Know You" at Central, but not without some protest. We've recognized that subjectivity will continue to influence our music choices. But we've found that we're still able to move toward worship authenticity and integrity when we keep the following three criteria in front of us:

  • Is the piece biblically /theologically faithful in content?
  • Does the song fit liturgically between what pre-ceeds and follows it?
  • Is it of good musical quality? [See also the helpful list developed by John Bell of Scotland, RW 40, p. 9.]

In order to apply these criteria, of course, worship leaders need to be choosing music out of an ongoing personal and corporate prayer life. Our "objectivity" and "subjectivity" are all casualties of the fall, and so we need to be praying for the Lord's wisdom and discernment as to what music is pleasing to him as well as enabling the congregation to worship in a God-centered way.

Worship planners/leaders also need to be continually wrestling with the question of how the arts (music, drama, dance, etc.) integrate with worship. Growth in understanding of this crucial issue will help you to continually be refining your criteria.

Is the Piece Biblically/Theologically Faithful in Content?

When looking at a new song or hymn under the above rubric, ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Does it point to God/Christ?
  • What Christology is expressed?
  • Are the words understandable? (If not, what teaching may need to go along with the song?)
  • Is it culturally sensitive to our particular context? (Does it obviously distract or enable people to worship?)
  • Does it substitute sentimentality or romanticism for biblical truth?
  • Do the words "baptize" or call into question the rampant narcissism of our present-day culture? We believe that there are songs of great faithfulness and integrity written by artists out of, or for, their own personal relationship with Christ where the use of "I" is perfectly appropriate. Many of the psalms are written with first-person pronouns. The question arises as to how, or if, a song such as "I Want to Know You" can be easily or faithfully transported into the "we" context of corporate worship. An exception to this would be songs such as Marc Nelson's "I Believe in Jesus," which is a statement of faith. Historically, creedal statements for corporate worship—the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed—-begin appropriately with the word "I." So, if a song is of the creedal genre we allow the use of "I" to stand.

Does the Song Fit Liturgically?

Do the words and mood of the piece reinforce the overall theme and mood of the service, the Scripture text being preached on that day, and/or the season of the Christian year? Are the majority of the songs congregational, for all the people to sing, rather than for soloists or worship team or choir? Does a given song fit best at the beginning of the service, or does the text really indicate a response that should come later in the service? Should a given response, the creed for example, ever be sung by a soloist, or should it always be communal?

Sometimes the right liturgical context can make space for a song that would be out of place except for what precedes and follows it. Sometimes the wrong context makes even a song that is worthy theologically and musically a poor choice for that part of the service. Some wonderful compositions are both biblical and musically excellent, but belong in a concert setting rather than congregational worship.

Is the Piece of Good Musical Quality?

There are as many different musical tastes as there are people. And what makes for quality music is somewhat of a subjective can of worms. But here are some musical rubrics we've found helpful when looking at songs that are candidates for inclusion in worship.

Make an Artful Choice with Music

How often do people ask a songwriter: What came first, the words or the music? Most of the time it is close to impossible to separate our listening to the words from the music. Play through the music, not singing or mentally inserting the text. Is this music of character, form, integrity? is it congregationally singable? Would it do better as a solo or choral piece? Then read aloud the text as if you are reciting a poem. Where does it lead your heart? Where does it leave your heart? What does it communicate to God? Now put the music with the text. Is it an artful union? Does it ring with beauty and distinction?

Music must move our heart, mind, body, or soul in a significant way. How can a worship leader lead worshipers if she is not led in some way? Remember, we are not speaking here about musical taste—what we like or don't like. We are speaking about music as art and God's gift of art to move us out of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Our choices must reflect the God we worship.

Build a Repertoire

Worship music should not be programmed to come and go along with the fads of our culture. Introducing and experimenting with new music is always easier and more effective when worship is already anchored by some tried-and-true, familiar songs. Keep track of the songs that have fallen "out of vogue" in your congregation. Look them over after a year or two or three for the potential of bringing them back, maybe at a different tempo or style. In building a repertoire of the past, we try to regularly include a contemporary "classic" at our traditional service and some of the best traditional hymns at our contemporary service. Oftentimes putting the great words of a traditional hymn with a contemporary tune creates a whole new life for that piece of music.

Secure Permission

Owning a photocopier does not mean you have permission to copy music. Permission is needed to photocopy, record, and sometimes perform music. Obtaining and purchasing the permission is our way of honoring God in the gift of song placed in the heart of a songwriter. You can either contact the publisher directly or join a service such as CCLI (see box on p. 17), which will secure permissions for you.

Balance Is Important

People seem to be equally picky about choosing the food they eat and the music they listen to. Since music is food for the soul, dare to approach it as your congregation's musical menu. What is appetizing? What is nourishing? What is fattening? What is a treat? What is a tradition? What do you have to acquire a taste for? What is a sure bet? What sustains life?

Music nourishes the soul into healthful worship. So it's important that we focus on a balanced diet. Remind your congregation that every hymn was once "contemporary." In building a repertoire of the best, we need a balanced diet, and that includes not only the best of today but the best of all ages, the best of our culture as well as the best of other cultures around the world, the best from our tradition along with the best from other traditions. Using such a varied menu will remind the congregation that we are not an isolated community of believers. God's church extends past our walls and past our time.

The Reformed worship tradition has always emphasized both head and heart: worship as a service of the mind in which our hearts are moved emotively to praise, conviction, and passion for Christ and for good works amidst a broken and fallen world. Good music in worship carries great ability to enlighten minds and move hearts ... in one way or another. When we intentionally choose music that reinforces and stretches biblical faith, and moves hearts toward Christ, then we will more and more approximate worship that has authenticity, integrity, and, most importantly, will be pleasing to God.