The Christian church has a reputation for being a bit stodgy. Our worship seldom attracts criticism for being too joyful or too exuberant—indeed, if we had to make a biblical comparison, many of us would be forced to admit that our worship is closer to Eutychus falling asleep “as Paul talked on and on” (Acts 20:9) than to “the roar of a great multitude” (Rev. 19:1).
To be clear: stodgy is not biblical. Biblical worship can seldom be defined as “boring” or “dour” (although worshipers who claim to be biblical often are!). Consider the following:
- “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets” (2 Sam 6:14-15).
- “[At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem] they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away” (Neh. 12:43).
- Simeon took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32).
These are certainly not exceptions to the biblical norm. One cannot read the Scriptures and conclude anything but that we are called to “come before [God] with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song” (Ps. 95). Biblically, our celebrations reflect (and may be induced by) (1) a profound recognition of God’s work, and (2) a full expression of thanksgiving that is intellectual, corporeal, and communal.
In the Scriptures we read about men, women, and children singing, dancing, shouting, clashing cymbals, and making joyful “noises”—human celebrations of thanksgiving in response to the person and actions of a generous God. Here are three songs you can use to help your worshiping community celebrate God’s love and faithfulness.
Je louerai l’Éternel/Praise, I Will Praise You, Lord
Many worship planners relegate psalms to spoken litanies and choose only short responses or overly-repetitive pieces from the global music repertoire. This tendency is understandable, especially when celebration is among the stated goals of a particular service. There’s no question that psalms have often been sung dismally, and global music can be confusing and uncomfortable to congregations. But many psalms provide the perfect text for celebrations, and carefully selected global music can appropriately remind congregations that they are part of the “holy catholic church” rather than solitary islands of worship.
This quietly joyful melody, coupled with a loose interpretation of Psalm 9:1, is the perfect choice for many congregations. The expressive phrases of “Je louerai l’Éternal” lend themselves well to piano accompaniment if the pianist resists the urge to force too much rubato on the singers. It also sings surprisingly well with organ accompaniment. Organists might be tempted to play the whole song with low flutes and gedakt stops in an effort to be more expressive, but will find new life in this song if they consider adding a brighter mixture at least to the final stanza.
Blessed Be Your Name
Matt Redman has been an active and well-known worship leader since the early 1990s, and while “Blessed Be Your Name” may not be his most familiar song, it has the benefit of being a “contemporary” song that can be successfully sung by “traditional” congregations. Obviously it sings well with guitar
and a worship band, but unlike much of the music of its genre it can also be effectively led from a piano without a leading vocalist. It also comfortably fits on a single-page insert with the notation.
The text calls worshipers to recognize God’s generous blessings and “turn [them] back to praise”—even in the midst of darkness and suffering (two topics that are often present but carefully ignored during times of celebration). Congregations unfamiliar with the genre should be careful not to sing the song too quickly; the driving baseline walks comfortably at about 110 bpm—a faster pace will destroy the pick-ups to the second and third phrases for most congregations.
Tempo can be a contentious topic. Some musicians associate speed with excitement and refuse to imagine that “slow” can also be joyful. One of the keys to effectively singing each of these three songs is ensuring that musicians lead at the appropriate tempo.
Joy to the World
Unfortunately, “Joy to the World” is the quintessential Christmas hymn—unfortunately because it is much more than merely a Christmas hymn. “Joy to the World” celebrates the incarnation, Christ’s victory over sin, and God’s love-filled expression of sovereignty in the person and work of Jesus. Isaac Watts imagined it as a Christological reinterpretation of Psalm 98. It is among the most well-known hymns ever written and draws the worshiper into celebration of the fundamental aspects of the Christian faith.
Care must be taken to ensure that the hymn is not sung too quickly (rendering the chorus unsingable), but familiarity enables congregations (regardless of preferred genre or quality of musical leadership) to sing it well. Most hymnals present the hymn in the key of D, however many would find C more comfortable with a transition to the higher key for the final stanza. Indeed, this hymn is familiar enough that musicians can simply start the verse in a new key without any transitional interlude and the congregation will automatically adjust.
“Joy to the World” is a perfect song for engaging children in worship. Most children already have the first verse memorized and can sing it with very little practice. Children (and adults!) are often eager to sing “Christmas” songs during the summer; the congregation may be surprised to study the text of this famous hymn and discover its broader appropriateness.