Thursday, September 15, 2022

(Re)Making Music

I’ve heard it said that the quickest way to split a congregation is to change the hymnbook or repaint the walls.

Well, I have no feel for interior decorating, so that second one’s not going to be a problem for me. But like most people, I have more definite tastes when it comes to music. Some of the songs that my local church sings, I love; others, I confess, make me cringe.

Reasons, Reasons

There are lots of reasons, I guess. Some songs I don’t like because I’ve heard them way too often. Some aren’t set to my kind of tune. A few make me grimace because the lyrics are actually pretty poor, and some contain bits of nonsense or bad doctrine.

I have an opinion about musical instruments too. I like variety. Personally, I like guitar, violin or flute. One of the best singing situations I have ever been in employed a battery of eight acoustic guitars arranged down the east and west walls of the hall. I like drums, too, and think that a little intelligent drum work can really keep the pace regular (though I confess I’m not crazy about a full-on drum kit blazing away so loud you can’t hear yourself sing). I also have to admit I really don’t like the organ. As for harmonica or accordion, they are, so far as I am concerned, serious crimes against humanity.

Styles? I can take old hymns, Celtic, folk, rock and country. But bluegrass or zydeco require of me a little too much forbearance.

Not All About Me

None of this really matters a great deal, though. As a Christian, I am a member of a congregation, and not the only member. So for the sake of my brothers and sisters who may have different musical preferences I am quite content to shelve mine, even if it means I have to sing that second verse of “How Great Thou Art” again. In fact, I would gladly set aside all my personal biases if I could help my fellow Christians really sing their hearts out to the Lord.

It’s not all about me.

Did you ever ask yourself why Christians sing so much? I would guess that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the time in most church meetings is dominated by music. In some places music is perceived to be the key drawing card to get people in the door. In others it is seen as a primary means of preparing for preaching. In still others, it is valued for its contribution to the overall spiritual atmosphere. Of course, these aren’t quite the same functions, so there’s a bit of controversy over what sort of music is best.

So everyone knows music matters … but not everyone agrees on what it’s important for.

Who Is Right?

In traditional or conservative congregations, there is an emphasis on slow, stately and somber music. They see slower singing as more deliberate, and hence more reverent and meaningful. But today many congregations want to make singing enjoyable and enthusiastic, and so they feature modern instruments, more professional musicians and choral performances. They like faster rhythms, so they tend to select songs for upbeat tempo and catchy lyrics. On both sides feelings run strong and, sadly, debate can sometimes become a little uncharitable.

But what does the Bible say?

It may come as a surprise to both sides that the scriptures do not exclusively favor either of these approaches to music. In fact, while the Word does make some mention of the tempo of singing, this is not a primary consideration. There are actually more essential criteria if we want to reform our practice of congregational singing, and it is these considerations that should guide our choice of music, not our personal aesthetic preferences.

What consideration is primary? Well, to start with, the word of God shows us that congregational singing has direction. When we sing, we sing to the other members of the assembly and to God, not simply to ourselves. Ephesians tells us that when we sing we are “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs … making melody in your heart to the Lord”. In other words, we must sing those things that are (1) edifying to our fellow believers, and (2) pleasing to the Lord. Colossians also tells us to sing in such a way as to be “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God”.

Choosing the Right Songs

There’s a lot of practical teaching in these verses. And maybe we should decide right now how we want to respond: do we genuinely believe that it’s not really about our personal music preferences, but rather about what God wants and what he says is right for other people? Or are we determined to get our own way?

I’m going to assume we want to hear what the Lord wants to say. And if we do, then concerning the matters of choosing our songs and conducting our singing, we get two key criteria from the earlier verses. Firstly, congregational singing is teaching. This means that doctrine is being promoted whenever songs are being sung. Secondly, congregational teaching is an expression of gratitude to God. That means that something is being celebrated when we sing.

The Focus: Celebration

Let’s look at the second of these criteria first.

It may be galling for some people who love slower, more traditional singing to realize that in the New Testament the emphasis of singing is not on slower, sadder and statelier hymns. But the fact is that the vast majority of verses indicate that the purpose of singing in the New Testament assembly is celebratory. The lamentation that characterized so much of the hymnology of the Old Testament, as Israel mourned her distance from God has, in our age, been replaced by a spirit of gratitude for the closeness that Christians now enjoy with him. As James reminds us, those who are suffering pray, but those who are cheerful sing praises.

Now, I don’t want to say that the New Testament sees no place for somber singing — slower, more dignified hymns always have their uses — but if we are scriptural, we have to admit that the general use of singing under the New Covenant is celebratory. As a rule, singing is rejoicing, not mourning.

This realization will no doubt alarm some traditional folk — and perhaps it should. Unfortunately, many of them have an unhealthy and excessive devotion to slow, laborious and funereal singing. But their practice can actually rob the Lord’s people of the opportunity for joy and appreciation that is the predominant feature of the biblical pattern.

The Content: Sound Doctrine

Now to the first criterion, the one we skipped when we jumped to the issue of focus.

In spite of this focus on celebration, we really worry that we’ll open the gate to unrestrained enthusiasms and frivolous pop tunes. We should note that first criterion, the one that modifies our celebration. And that is that when we celebrate we are celebrating something. What I mean is that biblically speaking, while singing should be joyous it must, at the same time, always also be doctrinally substantial.

That’s what Colossians said, right? Singing is a form of teaching. That means that it has content; and that content must be truthful, good and spiritually valuable, never false, frivolous or empty. And the implication of this is that we cannot simply sing any words we happen to choose. Yes, we can be ever so lively and enthusiastic; but if the words of our songs and hymns are not true, are not honorable, are not substantial, then we are not edifying our fellow believers, and we are most certainly not pleasing God.

Now, I want to say this carefully, because it’s going to really annoy some people: no matter what has been done in past, and no matter how much emotional attachment we may have to a particular song or hymn, we have no right to continue to sing it if it promotes error. We must never revel in lies in the presence of God, nor by our singing to teach error to his people.

This means that we must be very careful that what we sing is always the truth, because we are both teaching it and celebrating it. So we must not turn our minds off when we open our mouths to sing.

As Paul says, “I shall sing with the spirit, and I shall sing with the mind also.” You see, when we sing, we are taking pleasure in the content that we are singing. We are (and this is the key idea) rejoicing in the truth, and teaching it to our brothers and sisters.

Turn that phrase over in your mind: spiritual singing is rejoicing in the truth.

Rejoicing in the Truth

Now, if it’s true as I said above that when we sing we are celebrating, then we must be very careful what we are celebrating.

I say this because the sad truth is that many of the more popular modern hymns contain glaring errors of doctrine, or even outright heresy. And nobody ever says boo about that. For example, quite a few of them call upon the Holy Spirit to come and indwell his people; whereas the scriptures make it absolutely clear that the Holy Spirit is the permanent resident of all who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. And if Colossians is right and singing is teaching, then to take such hymns into our congregation and sing them enthusiastically is to deny the gift of the sealing of the Spirit.

Yikes. We don’t want to do that.

But I’m not pounding the old line about modern songs being bad. Nosiree.

The truth is that it’s not only modern stuff that falls prey to error. Actually, there are a fair number of our cherished old hymns that contain substantial doctrinal mistakes, but since they have been around for generations we all take them for granted.

Still, I doubt very much that the Lord favors hearing his people sing old heresy over new heresy. So I suggest that if the doctrine is wrong, then the song should be reformed or dropped, regardless of how old it is or how much people love it.

We have to admit we have become a little sloppy about this. What we really need to do, if we take the word of God seriously, is either correct the lyrics or just skip the verses that contain error. If that is impossible, then I would even argue we should throw out the errant hymn or song altogether. After all, what’s our priority here?

It Ain’t All Grim, By Any Means

Fortunately there are some wonderful new songs that are doctrinally solid. For example, in the last few years some of the psalms have been set to exceptional musical arrangements, and are now widely available to the Lord’s people. In addition, a fair number of the modern songs are in good harmony with the word of God. And I’m very heartened by the number of new artists who have recently begun to put out songs that are really, really good, both for their singability and the thoughtful and worshipful quality of their lyrics.

Some old chestnuts are getting revived by new arrangements as well. And while the results of these musical salvage operations are admittedly a bit uneven, that strategy may offer a better hope that some of the great old stuff may live into coming generations.

I really think we should take every advantage of these valuable and exciting pieces of music. But in addition to these, there remain many excellent old hymns for discerning congregations to select.

I say the best way is not to lose touch with the riches we already possess in our musical tradition as we reach out for the new musical riches that appear daily before us. Hey, why shouldn’t we have the best of both worlds — as long as our singing remains truly biblical?

But at the end of the day, church music isn’t about me. It’s about the Lord. And the purpose of singing in my congregation is that we would celebrate him, revel in His truth and learn to love him more together.

Now there’s a cause worth setting aside myself for.

More good news about music in the next post.

1 comment :

  1. Tomorrow...more about music. The next day...still more. This is a three-parter.