In Part I, we looked at music in the Church – that the songs we use are to be:
– richly full of the message of Christ
– sung to God and to one another
– from the heart and filled with gratitude
But ….what about song formats or structures? What musical style should we use?
I once attended a regional church conference, where as musical worship began, a peer said to me sarcastically, “Oh great! you’ll love this…they do all hymns here”
At that moment, the voice of God was very clear to me. It’s one of those time I can point to and say it was almost audible: “Am I worthy of your every breath even if it’s a song or style you don’t like? Am I worthy of praise and worship beyond your preferences?”
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The Scriptures give us no musical forms that we understand, and the Bible has no list of acceptable or unacceptable musical styles or instrumentation.
The Scriptures do, however, exhort us in Eph 5:19-20 and Col. 3:16 to use “psalms, hymns & spiritual songs”. These terms indicate the content of the songs used for worship, not the musical style. But, these terms in the Greek do not carry the same meaning that we have attached to them today.
I’ll give the tl;dr explanations (or thumbnails) below, but to dive a bit deeper, check out this article by Brad Meyer (selected quote used below).
Psalms – easy one, right? We still have the words to the Psalms. No music, but we have the words. We sing songs like “Better is One day” and “Everlasting God” and others whose main lyrics mirror or paraphrase the words from the Psalms. And rightly we should!
But this passage’s call to psalms is not necessarily limited to the book of Psalms – or a definite article would have been used. Additionally, the word ‘psalm simply means ‘plucked.’ (Likely on a 10-stringed lyre played with plectrum.)
And for those who would argue we should only use the Psalms – would you have people still sing Psalm 88? or 58? or other imprecatory psalms? or those that refer to customs only Israel would be familiar with?
Hymns – ancient hymns were songs of adoration and praise directed to a deity. An ancient “hymn” did not necessarily have any “deeper” theology than a Psalm or Spiritual song – it was about the focus of the person being worshipped. So “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” and Ben Slee’s wonderful “Creator God” fit this designation.
The problem enters when we begin to refer to musical structure or format as a “hymn” with the implication or intent of downplaying or dismissing a song’s usefulness or appropriateness based solely on its musical structure. Or when we restrict the use of congregational song to only include a specific musical style created hundreds of years after the resurrection of Christ and the birth of the Church. (In a Middle Eastern culture, I might add)
Spiritual songs – this was a phrase used to refer to other Christian songs that were not taken from the Psalms or that were not necessarily praise songs.
That could include songs of admonition (Rise Up, O Men of God), songs of vision (We Want to See Jesus Lifted High), songs of doctrine, teaching songs, songs of petition, or really any other kind of song that expresses a thought that is spiritual. Since we are to use songs to teach and admonish one another, this category seems a very appropriate addition to Paul’s list. (Meyer)
In all 3 of these – the Word of Christ is to dwell richly. So we should choose songs that fall into these categories and which reflect Biblical truth.
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No song will ever be able to do justice to every aspect of our faith or God’s character. If it could, we would have 1 Psalm – not 150 of them. David, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, acknowledges this in Psalm 106:2 when he says,
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise?
In the 1878 The Methodist Hymnal with Tunes, the preface states:
“Frequent gatherings of the congregation in praise-meetings, and for instruction and practice in learning new tunes, are very desirable. For the sake of variety and freshness, the pastor and chorister should make persistent efforts and encourage the congregation to learn new tunes.”
Read that again…..slower.
By “tribe”, I’m not a Methodist…. and call me old school…. but I wholeheartedly agree.
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The lyrics we use are of primary importance, and the Scriptures include songs that lyrically are objective, (songs about God), subjective (personal & corporate encounters with God), reflective (songs about what we do in His name), and testimonials of what He has done for us as individuals and as His people.
The truth is – there are weak modern songs and there are weak old songs. Songs lyrics are by nature poetic, but there are new songs that we should not use in our gatherings because of untrue, unclear, or misleading theology. And there are old songs (even ‘dear ones’) that we should not use for the same reason.
Lyrical clarity is important, but we must also recognize that musical worship is about a relational heart connection with God – not just a systematic theology set to music. In Psalm 62:8, David calls us to “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before him.”, and in Psalm 22:1 David cries words that would later be echoed by Christ Himself – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34). These are not words primarily of theological teaching, but of heartcry!
Our faith is based on a relationship, not a mental ascent to facts, and so our songs should reflect this dynamic encounter.
So join in! In Spirit and Truth! With heart, soul, mind and strength. God is worthy beyond our opinions and preferences!