When we select the songs and hymns for corporate worship, there are plenty of weak, cowardly, and even evil reasons to motivate our choices: sheer familiarity, a pledge of allegiance to a certain tribe within Christianity, a desire to attract or placate certain constituencies in the church, or the desire to appear moderate, balanced, and relevant in the eyes of man. Since what we sing is an offering to the Lord, our selection should be guided by the question, is this hymn good? Good, not in the sense that it brings me pleasure, but good in that it does well what it was meant to do. It is well-crafted, excellent, beautiful, and useful for worship. Whether or not I like what is good does not change what is good, it is simply a commentary on me. If I do not like what is good, I have a biblical responsibility to learn what it is, and to come to love it (Phil 1:9-11). How do we determine if a hymn or song is good? I suggest a start might be these five questions.
1) Is it truthful? Truth is what corresponds to reality. Music and poetry are creations of God, and can depict reality as God has made it, or falsify it. The lyrics of the songs sung must be doctrinally correct and orthodox, while allowing for poetic license. Hymns are not doctrinal statements put to music, nor should they be. They are poems, using metaphor, rhyme and meter. These poems, given their form, must nevertheless communicate Scriptural truth.
While music does not communicate propositions, it communicates sentiments, emotions and affections. In this way, the music can falsify what is being sung in different ways. It can communicate a mood or a sentiment contrary or unlike what the text purports to speak of, e.g. galloping when speaking of ‘sinking deep in sin’ or waltzing at the thought of Jesus returning, or skipping or rocking at the thought of God’s holiness. In such cases, not only is the music inappropriate for the text, it misleads believers into associating those emotional states with the truths being sung.
Music can also trivialize a profound truth, exaggerate an emotion, distract from the subject matter, and encourage a narcissism when singing. All these responses are possible due the actual form of the music. The form chosen must communicate affective truth, inasmuch as the lyrics must communicate propositional truth.
2) Does it evoke ordinate affection? God is a unique Being, and there is a kind of love that corresponds to knowing His being, and a kind that does not. The music and the poetry should, through the meaning of their form, evoke appropriate joy, fear, contrition, thanksgiving and delight. Church leaders must discern between kinds of joy, or kinds of fear, and know when particular music evokes those affections.
When hymns and songs sung are merely an exercise in self-gratification or entertainment, the emphasis is no longer one of responding to the Being of God. Ordinate affection arises from the commitment to know God as He is, to submit to Him entirely, to grant Him appropriate responses, be they foreign or uncomfortable to us. This is the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.
3) Is it a worthy offering (Psalm 33:1-3)? Worship music is not primarily offered to man for his enjoyment, though he is invited to worship the Lord with gladness. The One who hears all and understands all music and poetry, deserves our most skillful and excellent musical and poetic offerings. This means selecting the best hymns that are beautiful and most expressive of God’s manifold glories. Though cost, skill-level, and spiritual maturity may limit or hinder the quality of what is offered, we should always aim to do the best with what we have, and to keep improving.
4) Can mature believers understand and use it (1 Cor 14:15)? Paul desires that believers sing with understanding. On one level, every human being is capable of perceiving beauty, being made in the image of God. People’s levels of appreciation may differ, but no one is deaf or blind to transcendence. When music is true, good, and beautiful, it will speak to all men everywhere. At the same time, our current cultural impoverishment means that many find serious and beautiful music and poetry impenetrable. When the good is no longer familiar, the church faces the hard task of making it familiar without causing people to choke on what they have no capacity to swallow. The solution is not to give people regular ‘hits’ of pop music and banal lyrics so as to placate their cravings (for this will only feed habits that ought to be left to die), but to expose the church to great works, explain them, and allow people to get used to them through repetition and regular use. Works that are simpler or more familiar (yet still beautiful or helpful), should be mixed with those that are more ornate in their beauty, to give beginners and the immature some ‘rungs on the ladder’ to climb up. As elevation of thought and beauty increases, accessibility must be maintained through regular explanations, regular exposure and regular use.
5) Does it respect both tradition and contemporaneity?Traditional and contemporary are regrettably misunderstood and misused terms in the music debate. Traditional hymnody ought to mean the music and hymns which belongs to the genuine Christian tradition, having equivalent sentiments, regardless of differences in era, doctrinal tradition, or culture. Contemporary hymnody ought to refer to music and poetry written by Christians in our era, that continues these affections, universal to Christian experience over two millennia, and reports them according to 21st-century experience, in equivalent forms that answer to the 21st-century imagination. Instead, traditional is commonly used to mean hymns older than fifty years (including trite, useless hymns from the 19th century), and contemporary is used to refer to pop/rock forms of music.
Used in these uncritical ways, a church should be neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘contemporary’ in its musical choices, for there is no virtue in simply using older hymns for the sake of their age, or using pop/rock as a deferring nod to relevance and contemporaneity.
When the terms are used correctly, Christian leaders should aim for both in corporate worship. The church should honor and enjoy its heritage, by knowing, learning and singing the hymns and songs that belong to the genuine Christian tradition. This should ideally represent a wide spread of eras and even doctrinal traditions, to celebrate the true catholicity of the faith. This both honors our elders, and keeps us exposed to the examples of our forbearers’ worship. It reveals our own blind-spots, and the excesses and weaknesses of our own era.
At the same time, the contemporary church must use its own voice, and its own words, to worship God, for this is commanded of us. Contemporary hymns and songs and music that represent art good enough to carry the weight of worship ought to be used. Songs written in our era should not be used simply because they are familiar; they should be used because they are genuinely good, whether or not they are familiar to us. If they are genuinely good and yet not familiar, they ought to be used until they become familiar.