Worship music – the music we use in Christian worship – has become a source of sometimes significant conflict in American churches. It is probably inexcusably foolhardy of me to do it, but I propose to wade into the rapids of this dangerous subject in the hope that we can come to a richer, broader, more productive understanding of the role of music in the worship of the Church. In particular, I want us to reflect seriously about the words we use in our discussions (debates?) about worship music.
Let’s start with the word “hymn.” I find that people on all sides of the worship debates use the word “hymn” as if it referred to a very specific and definable type of music. Let’s look and see. If we go to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary site, we will find “hymn” defined in this way: “a religious song; a song that praises God; a metrical composition adapted for singing in religious services; a song of praise and joy.” Hmmm. Not very specific. Let’s try dictionary.com: “a song or ode of praise or honor of God, a deity, a nation, etc.” Well, let’s see about the Free Dictionary (online): “a song of praise or thanksgiving to God or a deity.”
Maybe you can see the problem here. In our worship music debates, it is not uncommon to hear people say one of the following statements: “I believe we should use hymns rather than praise songs in our worship services.” Or “I believe we should use praise songs rather than hymns in our worship services.” According to the definitions of “hymn” that we’ve just seen, these two statements are really meaningless. “Hymn” and “praise song” really are synonyms. And thus, both of the above statements can be translated to this: “I believe we should sing praise songs rather than praise songs in our worship services.” Talk like that won’t get us anywhere.
So, instead of using terms that don’t mean what we think they do, let me suggest that we drop the catch phrases (such as “hymns” and “praise songs”), and instead try to think about what it is that makes for good and effective worship music. In what follows, I’m going to simply write about “worship music” or “worship songs.”
Let’s start by eliminating some factors that are simply irrelevant to whether a piece of worship music is good or not. The date when a particular piece of music was composed is one factor that is completely irrelevant to whether it is good or bad worship music. I hope we can all agree about that. Worship music that was composed a long time ago is neither better nor worse simply because it was composed a long time ago.
Some old worship songs are wonderful, powerful, and effective for enabling people to worship God. Some old worship songs are terrible, flawed, and ineffective. And of course, the same could be said of worship songs that are more recently composed. There are some exceptionally rich, deep, and moving songs being composed today for helping the church express its praise and adoration of the living God. So, the date a worship song was composed tells us almost nothing about whether it will be good for our worship.
Another factor that can lead us astray in our discussions about the music of worship is the matter of familiarity. We all tend to feel most comfortable when we are dealing with things that are familiar, and everyone tends to feel a little less comfortable when they step into an unfamiliar environment. In the context of worship music, this preference for the familiar can make us unwilling to be introduced to songs that we haven’t sung before. As a music director in one of my previous churches used to tell people regularly, “Every worship song was new to you at some point.” Who in their right mind would ever say, “That’s enough. I know all the good worship songs I need to know. I no longer intend to learn any more good worship songs. I only intend to sing the ones I’ve already learned.” We can, I think, see how impoverished worship would become for anyone who took that attitude. We can, I hope, all recognize that there is still lots of good worship music out there that we haven’t heard before – both old songs and newly composed songs. If we are going to have vibrant, rich worship in our church, we must always be willing to try worship songs we’ve never sung before.
One other irrelevant factor in worship music that can tend to trip us up is the matter of musical instruments. I am certain that when we sing our worship to God, he cares very much about what is in our hearts. I am also entirely certain that God does not care at all what musical instrument is being played while we sing. If God doesn’t judge our worship based on the type of musical instrument that is being played, then we should be very careful about allowing the choice of musical instrument in worship to cause divisions among us.
Of course, we all have personal musical preferences. Some of us like one type of music; some of us like another type; still others like a different type altogether. Some of us like organ music and listen to it regularly. Some of us like guitars and drums and listen to that regularly. Some of us like banjos and harmonicas and listen to that regularly. Does God care whether we sing with one type of accompaniment or another? I don’t believe he does, and so I believe we need to be very careful about introducing our own personal musical preferences too rigidly into our decisions about how we will sing to God in our worship services.
So, there are a few factors that should NOT be allowed to influence our decisions about the worship music we use each Sunday morning. In a future post, I’ll write about some of the factors that we SHOULD take into account when making decisions about our worship music and about worship in general.