The Changing Tides of Church Music

Here is my response to a tough question:
“Hymn singing in most churches seem to be obsolete and old fashioned.
What should the Church of God do?”

Some questions to begin:
1) How do you define a hymn?
2) What makes certain hymns great?
3) Should we spiritualize a certain time period of hymnology?
4) Should hymns be considered greater than other types of worship songs (such as the apostle Paul’s listing of psalms and spiritual songs)?
5) How long are hymns considered great?
6) Should we only sing hymns?
7) Are we appreciating other music forms, styles, and cultures in the church? As we expect our missionaries to adapt and engage with culture.

There has never been a golden age. Every generation gains and loses something . . . even with music. I’m fascinated at how churches tend to go to extremes with spiritualizing church music, songs, hymns, styles, and forms. John Calvin only sang Psalms and Scripture passages in his church. Why do very few of us sing Psalms anymore? Why are hymns sometimes considered better, greater, holier? Why is there such a tension between so-called worship songs and hymns?

Unfortunately, people tend to hold their affinity for music more dearly than doctrine. We must guard ourselves from this tendency. Church music based on truth is a good tool for teaching and for assisting folks to engage in worship, but nonetheless, music is merely a tool. It is God alone and His Word that are central to worship, are absolute truth, and are to be held in highest honor.

There is no style of music that is inherently good or evil. If there was a holy style of music, then the book of Psalms would have written transcribed music. I have seen a portion of the Psalter from the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . there are no written rhythms or notes. It would be incredible to actually hear recordings of OT Hebrew worship. Instead, God has given us His inspired Word and has left the expression open to each generation and culture. In regard to music style in the church, the question is not “Is it right or wrong (or good and evil)?,” but rather, “Does it edify or is it fitting in our given context and culture?”

Warren Wiersbe has compared songs and music to clothing. Some old clothes don’t fit any more, so we throw them out. Some we dust off from time to time for certain occasions. Some classic clothes we wear quite often.

Amusingly enough, much of our preferred music and instruments today were frowned on in church history. Musical notation of chant began in the 900′s in Europe. Chant progressed to 4-part harmony in France in the 1200′s. John Wycliffe complained that only choirs were involved in church singing in the 1400′s. Martin Luther introduced congregational singing with popular German folk tunes in the 1500′s. Benjamin Keach introduced psalm and hymn singing to English baptists in the 1600′s. Ira Sankey’s pump organ and solo singing were seen as worldly in the 1870′s and 1880′s during D. L. Moody’s revival meetings. The piano was controversially introduced to the American church in 1910 by Charles Alexander. Guitars were fought over in the 1970′s Jesus movement and are still seen as controversial in some circles today.

As for hymnals, there are many . . . and most denominations update them every 10 years. Most American hymnals have songs dating back from the 1700’s and not much music is preserved or utilized before this time period. Each edition of hymnals tend to add more hymns and drop others.

To borrow the clothing analogy from Wiersbe, the “the great old hymns” are a nostalgic outfit we like to wear. And there are other outfits we put on, such as psalms, new songs and spiritual songs.

Music is like clothes and lasts for only a season. God’s word remains forever. May we pass on a heritage to the next generation . . . not merely on temporal music which will change . . . but on the unchanging Gospel of Christ and the foundation of the holy Scriptures which remain forever.

Resources for hymn stories, check out:

Some suggestions of hymnals are the Trinity Hymnal & Trinity Psalter from PCA, The Baptist Hymnal from LifeWay, and the Celebration Hymnal from Word. Most denominations update hymnals every decade.


2 comments on “The Changing Tides of Church Music

  1. Rick Wilson says:

    It is sad that some worship the song more than the One the song is about.

  2. Jim Lehe says:

    Hi Josh, Good thoughts in this blog. I’ve always felt like music is the language and sentiment of the soul. And that we are perhaps most effective in communicating our sentiments when we speak it in our “native” dialect. Of course, most churches have people from many “dialects”, so to speak, and so there needs to be the give and take and also the using of that which is common. But then . . . .that doesn’t necessarily solve any of the conflicts over it, does it? Maybe not . . . but love and maturity does.

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