Music Workshop: What Songs Should The Church Sing? Part 1
The following article is taken from the music workshop, “Moving Music Forward in the Church” which was held on November 23, 2019. You can view the whole series with the tag MW2019.
One of the most controversial aspects of music in the church is what songs we should sing. Ephesians 5:18-20 give us some guidance.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ephesians 5:18-20
Over the next 4 articles, we will consider issues around deciding which songs we should sing. The first topic is Doctrine
What doctrine matters?
The most important aspect of choosing a song is the doctrine that it holds. This can become very tricky as a song may have a specific theological bent that not everyone in the church holds to.
“A congregation learns its theology and takes it down into the crevices of their soul by the songs that they sing, not just by the preaching they hear.”John Piper
The challenge is to determine which theological differences are acceptable within a song and which are not. For example, the old hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour” clearly has a Calvinistic view.
Do we draw lines around end-time views, Holy Spirit references etc.? It is important for the leadership of each local church to make it clear if they don’t want specific songs to be sung and why.
Many hymns and new songs come from denominations whose theology we don’t share. Think of the fact that Catholics, Mormons, and other groups sing many of the same hymns and songs we do.
Should this stop us from singing those songs? My suggestion is no. I believe that each song should stand or fall on its own merit. We will discuss this in more detail in a later article.
Biblical themes that are not 100% accurate
There is much creativity in music. This leads to words, phrases, and concepts that are not specifically found in scripture. Take for example the third verse of the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
Like a mighty army
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where the Saints have trod.
We are not divided;
All one body we:
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.
It’s not accurate that the church is one, undivided body, one in doctrine and unity. Yet we sing this hymn without reservation.
I’m personally ok with singing songs that are filled with biblical concepts even if they are not 100% accurate. We understand the metaphor and know that one day the church will be united.
How about the famous Christmas Carol “Away in A Manger” which says, “The cattle are lowing, The poor baby wakes, But little Lord Jesus, No crying he makes…”
Well, you get the point. 🙂
The role of personal experience
There is much negativity made about songs that focus on personal experience. We hear comments like, “That song is too me centered.” The reality is that no worship or praise comes from a vacuum.
The Psalms are filled with songs of personal experience. Our hymns are filled with songs of personal experience. We can’t get away from the fact that Jesus died for ME.
This was also the cry of Paul’s heart.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.Galatians 2:20
I can’t get over God’s grace for me. If I ever did, then I would easily sing songs that don’t involve me personally. Until then I will sing, “This is MY story, this is MY song, praising MY Saviour all the day long.”
Songs that have no direct reference to the Father or Jesus
This has come up a number of times in conversation. Does every song we sing have to have a direct reference to the name of God or Jesus? This is a tough one.
I have a simple take on it for me personally. If the song has references to God that are clearly about Him then I’m fine to sing the song even if it doesn’t mention Him by name.
For example, the song Come As You Are does not directly name God or Jesus. Verse 2 says,
There’s hope for the hopeless
And all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t cure
I can sing this song with confidence because I know the only one who can provide grace, rest and a cure from the trial of life.
We will explore some of these topics a bit more in the next several articles. I lean towards being more inclusive than exclusive when it comes to what songs we sing.