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: https://joshberrus.wordpress.com/2007/07/18/finding-hymn-stories/

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.

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Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Words set to music are extremely powerful and influential. D. L. Moody said: “I believe that music is one of the most powerful agents for good or for evil.” Music with sinful words and messages pervade minds and influence hearts. Scripture encourages believers to “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” in Romans 8:5 and “on things above” in Colossians 3:2. Philippians 4:8 says, “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise, think about such things.” Considering these passages, it is clear that human minds are impressionable. Even music can influence one’s thinking and can prove quite harmful to any individual. Christians must guard their hearts and minds through prayer and listening to what is good.

Words are influential and can be used for good or evil. James 3:9-10 gives a reminder that a person’s mouth and words can both praise God and curse men. Words can either build up or tear down. God-honoring church music can impact faith in profound ways.

In Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the apostle Paul exhorts believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God and one another. These three musical terms deserve to be looked at closely. The word psalm originally meant “a striking or twitching with the fingers (on musical strings) and a sacred song, sung to musical accompaniment.” This term, psalm, has historically been understood as the one hundred fifty psalms appearing in the Psalter and passages of Scripture set to music. The book of Psalms is filled with honest prayers, adoration, praise, and worship of God.

While the psalm is praise taken directly from Scripture, the hymn is a song of praise written by believers. The word hymn means “a song of praise addressed to God.” Songs of adoration and praise are mentioned in the Bible, beginning in Exodus 15 and concluding in Revelation 15. There is record of Jesus singing hymns with the disciples in Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26. Also, Paul and Silas sang hymns to God while in prison as seen in Acts 16:25.

W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, says that most of the songs people today call the “old hymns of the faith . . . are actually hymns written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” So, what did church music sound like long ago? How did the ancient church praise God in song? Godfrey admits, “The evidence to answer such a question is very limited and not really clear.”

W. Godfrey also pinpoints some overlap in the use of the words psalm and hymn: “The terms psalm and hymn have often been used interchangeably in some ancient writings and in the New Testament. In Matthew 26:30 we read that after the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before they went out. That hymn was almost certainly Psalm 118. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 the reference to a psalm is most likely a song inspired by the Spirit in the Corinthian church.”

Although this can be confusing, one thing is clear: both psalms and hymns from any era are songs directed to God.

Worship music should involve not only psalms and hymns, but also spiritual songs. These are expressions of biblical truth that allow a congregation to address one another in song. This final category of spiritual songs is a general term that includes songs of personal testimony, encouragement, faith, and response.

The local church should not be afraid of these terms: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Christians often categorize church music by the groupings of praise choruses and hymns. Many today consider hymns the traditional, staple songs of deep truth that are found in classic hymnals. This is not necessarily the case. As seen earlier, the word hymn is defined as a song of praise to God. There are many songs in the hymnal that do not fit this description. For example, Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, In the Garden, and Stand Up For Jesus are typically known as hymns, but are not directed to God. These should instead be deemed spiritual songs. I would also argue that only songs of praise directed to God should truly be considered hymns. This would mean the worship song from Australia, Shout to the Lord, is more than just a worship chorus. It is a hymn and should be considered so. The local church should get a handle on these three terms and use them accurately.

Paul makes the declaration in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing with the spirit and with the understanding also.” Church leadership should remember to inform their congregation about non-familiar terms or ideas, the history of hymn writings, Scriptural consistency, and application of the text. Warren Wiersbe says, “Our goal in singing is to lay hold of God’s truth and be nourished by it.” Song texts should be relevant and understandable to the audience. Worship music should assist, not distract, a congregation in worship of God.

Burdened for Some Trends in American Church Worship

I have a friend who is writing a research paper about prayers of lament. She is arguing that the lament is a valid, important, missing element in American worship. I agree with her premise overall. From what I’m seeing, the majority of large, urban churches in America that are aggressive towards church growth include joyful praise, pop/rock style, upbeat songs (at least to begin the service), and a lack of somber lament and confession.

American music has been greatly influenced by Europe, Africa and other cultures in the last several hundred years. Joy and praise in worship are not just an American phenomenon. Latino and African culture tend to be quite joyful, passionate and expressive. Asian cultures can often be more reserved and contemplative. There is something to be appreciated in every culture. Each changing generation both gains and loses something.

I’m not that concerned with changes in music style which are to be expected over time, but I am burdened for the lack of prayer and the content of our liturgy and songs. Corporate prayer, laments, and confession of sin seem to be missing aspects of American church worship. My dad travelled to American evangelical churches extensively over the last 5-6 years, and he rarely heard churches pray; he mainly heard songs and sermons. Church worship gatherings should include more than just sermons and songs of praise. There needs to be an emphasis on the ordinances and sacred actions of the New Testament.

The Lord’s Table (communion) in American churches tends to have a somber, serious tone (which is not true of all cultures) and confession of sin. During my time in Africa, communion was experienced as a joyful celebration of the resurrection. So, this aspect of somber confession is often expressed in the American church during communion (about once a month in my circles).

I would encourage the wisdom of incorporating more prayer, laments and confession of sin in corporate worship. It is appropriate to come to God in prayer as we are . . . honest and broken. Early church liturgies included lengthy confession of sin. There is much to be learned from their practice and example. You can explore some early church liturgies at: https://joshberrus.wordpress.com/2007/04/24/early-liturgies/.

All Biblical elements in worship are crucial and important. The early church in Acts 2 was devoted to the apostles’ teaching, prayer, fellowship, breaking of bread, and all Biblical ordinances and practices in corporate worship. Believers should respond with sacrificial devotion in all the Biblical elements. Christians are to worship God with passion and zeal through Scripture reading, prayer, confession, giving, communion, baptism, testimony, music, preaching, serving, and all Biblical practices for the aim of the glory of God.

Here are some suggestions for worship planning:
https://joshberrus.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/worship-planning/

Rant About Worship Songs

Below is Jeremy Pierce’s, “Rant About Worship Songs,” from First Things:
http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/08/rant-worship/
http://parablemania.ektopos.com/archives/2010/08/rant-worship.html

Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.

2. It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here

3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.

4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God”. This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?

5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.

6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g. a desperate longing for God. Then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.

7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.

8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.

At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms. Oh, wait…

Why Is Music Ministry Stressful?

Why is music ministry stressful? According to a 2009 CNN survey of stressful jobs with low pay, a church music director is listed as #5: http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2009/pf/0910/gallery.stressful_jobs/5.html. While a church pastor is #10: http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2009/pf/0910/gallery.stressful_jobs/10.html.

The weekly job demands, seasonal events, expectations, criticism, complaints, low salary, disrespect, and often poor treatment all play a part in this. Music ministry may be difficult, but it is quite rewarding, fulfilling, and vital to church body life. As Spurgeon said, the local church is imperfect but “the dearest place on earth.”

Worship Planning

There are four Biblical principles that cast some light on effective worship planning: God Himself is the One who prepares the body of Christ to worship, God and His Word are central to worship, all Biblical elements in worship are important, and believers should respond to the Triune God with sacrificial devotion in all the Biblical elements.

All Biblical elements in worship are crucial and important. The early church in Acts 2 was devoted to the apostles’ teaching, prayer, fellowship, breaking of bread, and all Biblical ordinances and practices in corporate worship. Believers should respond with sacrificial devotion in all the Biblical elements. Christians are to worship God with passion and zeal through Scripture reading, prayer, giving, communion, baptism, testimony, music, preaching, serving, and all Biblical practices for the aim of the glory of God.

The purposes of church music and preaching are to express worship and mature saints to the glory of God. The reasons the church expresses worship in music and preaching should not be for the chills, not to make a church grow bigger, and not for preparation for another element—but rather love, adoration, obedience, communication of truth, growth, edification, and the pleasure and glory of God. God-honoring worship is an end in itself, and preaching and singing are two of many Biblical ways to express worship to God.

The best way to stay out of a rut? I see worship leading as a pastoral role needing shepherding and oversight. Our church plans worship services 2 months ahead with 2 pastors and a team of 6 leaders. It is best to plan well in advance with a creative team of godly and gifted folks.

When to be spontaneous? As a worship leader, I am occasionally spontaneous in prayer or reading Scripture, but that is rare. Most of what we do is planned well in advance. If we plan well and are maintaining closeness with the Lord, services are usually meaningful and fresh.

Here is our Monthly Strategy: 1) Communicate with my pastor to see where he’s headed in preaching. 2) Meet with a creative team to consider worship, music and art ideas. 3) Plan services with a team around a passage/theme if possible. 4) Meet again with my pastor to approve and edit service drafts. 5) Meet with volunteer team to copy music and orchestrations a month in advance for all musicians. 6) Make service drafts available online for worship ministry. 7) Communicate details with ministry leaders to coordinate schedules with all who are involved. 8 ) Rehearse each Wednesday with the choir, orchestra, band, and praise team vocals. 9) Rehearse again Sunday morning and pray together with all involved.

Paul writes in 1 Cor 14 that “all things [in corporate worship] should be done decently and in order.” One of the best examples of worship planning I’ve heard is from Pastor Mark Dever from Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. On the Sunday following September 11, 2001 he preached on “When Bad Things Happen” from a minor prophet in the Old Testament. He had already planned his preaching passage and theme over a year in advance. The Lord can and will guide us months and years ahead. Just keep your eyes on Jesus and plan biblically and intentionally.