The Transforming Power of Biblical Worship pt. 5
After several months away from our series exploring the transforming power of biblical worship, we now return to discuss the topic of singing. In previous articles in this series we have identified five different elements that are the heartbeat of our worship services. When we gather for public worship Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, Scripture demands that we: Read the Word, Preach the Word, Sing the Word, Pray the Word, and See the Word (in the sacraments). We have considered Scripture’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” and “preach the Word.” In the last article in this series (November 2018) we focused on the command to sing the Word. We specifically focused on three reasons why we must sing. We were created to sing, we are commanded to sing, and we are compelled to sing. In this brief article I want us to consider what we should sing in worship, and I want to do so by looking at certain principles that guide our selection of songs for public worship. And it’s vital that we keep in mind that principle and not preference must be the primary criteria we use in selecting songs for worship.
What principles should govern our selection of songs for worship? There are four that I want to consider briefly. First, is the text of a song theologically sound? Sometimes we take this for granted, but it is an important consideration. There are some popular and well-known songs (from the past as well as the present) that may be memorable or catchy but that are theologically inaccurate. This may be true of songs we hold dear (which can make this discussion quite a touchy subject). When considering what songs to sing we must always review the lyrics and ensure that they conform to the teaching of Scripture. Secondly, we must also ask if the text theologically significant. In other words, does the text of a song communicate something worth considering or is it “fluffy”? A text may be theologically accurate (what is says about God, Christ, man, etc. is true), and yet it may be relatively insignificant. This doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy a song like that and listen to it in our car or sing it in our homes, but it may not be the best for public worship. There are thousands of songs that we can sing but we should aim to sing the best of those songs.
Thirdly, we need to consider if the tune matches the text. There are some tunes that are perfectly wedded to the text that we sing. My favorite example of this is the hymn For All the Saints set to the Ralph Vaughn Williams tune SINE NOMINE. The hymn evokes the imagery of the triumphant saints marching to glory. That is accompanied by a bass line that literally “marches” in quarter notes all the way to the end of the hymn (forgive my musical “nerdy” moment). The tune “fits” the text. Finally, we must ask if the tune is suitable for congregational singing? The emphasis of singing in public worship must be on the congregation and not on a group of trained individuals who “perform” for the rest of us to consume.
Therefore, the tunes we sing need to be written in such a way that the average person in the pew can easily sing or learn them. Many of the songs we hear on the Christian radio station are useful for encouraging our faith, comforting our hearts, and teaching us truths. But they may not be appropriate for singing in worship because they were written for a solo voice, for one vocally trained and gifted singer and are too difficult to get 150 people to sing together. This doesn’t mean the song is “bad.” It has a place but that place may not be in the gathered worship of God’s people.
I realize that what I’m writing may strike a nerve with some of you. You love music and it’s an important part of worship on the Lord’s Day. Amen! I love music too! I’m a musician by training. And yet, there are songs that I love that are not the best for us to sing in public worship. This means that I must lay aside my preferences for the sake of the whole body. Isn’t that a principle we learned in Philippians? “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
As I draw this to a conclusion, let me make a brief plea here for the singing of the canonical psalms in worship. The Psalms were written to be sung and they have been sung by God’s people for over 3,000 years. They easily meet the first two criteria we identified (theologically accurate and significant since they are the inspired Word of God). The key comes in finding musical settings of the Psalms that are appropriate and singable. We have many rich resources (our own Trinity Hymnal includes many Psalm settings) to help us with this. I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’ve included some singing of the Psalms in worship services over the past few months and we plan to continue this practice because when we sing the Psalms we sing from the Bible’s own songbook. I pray that you will be blessed by the singing of the great songs of the faith, both new and old, and that you will join your voice in loud singing as we give to our God glorious praise!
Your Pastor and Friend,