What the Church sings
Finally in this series of comments about the singing of the church, we touch on matters that are sometimes controversial. Even when we all agree on the principles of singing that we have looked at in the last two weeks, churches sometimes fall out over choices of which songs to sing.
The songs we sing must be biblical – they must accurately reflect what the Bible teaches. But it is not enough for them just to be biblical. A careful paraphrase of the first four chapters of Numbers might be ‘biblical’, but it wouldn’t be edifying or encouraging to sing in a worship service. (That’s not to minimise the value of those chapters when we read them. They have important lessons of principle throughout them – but they are better read than sung!).
Our singing should express the great themes of the Bible’s revelation, and follow the Bible’s pattern of enthusiastically bringing reverent worship.
Almost all churches sing the psalms (or, to be precise, metrical paraphrases of the psalms), but some churches sing only psalms.
There are good reasons to extend our singing beyond settings of the 150 inspired psalms. It is beyond our scope to set them all out here, but it is sufficient to see that Christ’s life, death and resurrection changed forever the orientation and practices of the people of God.
Our worship today is patterned not only by looking back to the temple, but also by looking forward to the worship of the saints in heaven. Many things are common in both, because the temple worship had always foreshadowed the reality of Messiah’s work of salvation - so we will always have good reason to sing the psalms. But we do more. Revelation 4 and 5 give us a glimpse of worship in heaven. It is an awesome picture of the worship of God as Creator and Saviour – and explicitly (in Revelation 5) of glorifying Christ:
9And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
11Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!”
So today, in addition to the psalms, we sing songs which speak explicitly of Christ and His work, and of the church of Christ and all its blessings.
Let us thankfully sing from the wide spectrum of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that are available to us.
One of the biggest contentions in some churches is about singing new hymns. Or about singing old hymns.
We each have preferences for music styles and wordings, but we should never descend into hostility or resentment because we don’t get what we prefer.
We should be singing the best of the old, and the best of the new. And we don’t do that just to accommodate everyone’s preferences. Ephesians 5:21 says we should be submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, but that’s not the only reason people who prefer traditional hymns should willingly sing new ones. And vice versa.
There is another great reason that should make all of us love to include both old and new hymns in our worship:
- we sing old hymns because the faith we hold and profess is exactly the same as the faith of our spiritual forefathers. So we can wholeheartedly sing exactly the same words that were sung by our Christian brethren of centuries ago. By doing this, we remind ourselves (and everyone who sees us) that our faith is not a novelty. It is not a modern invention that might disappear with our generation. We are part of a New Testament church that has been living and growing since the time of the apostles – and it will continue to do so until Christ comes again. We benefit greatly by embracing the best of ‘traditional’ hymn writing.
- we sing modern songs because the faith we hold is thoroughly contemporary. It is right that our generation finds new words to express the unchanging faith. By doing this, we remind ourselves (and everyone who sees us) that our faith is not a fossil. It is not merely something we have inherited from our forefathers, but a living faith which we can express in contemporary ways. The devotional, poetic and musical skills that God gave to Watts, Wesley, Newton, Cowper, Toplady and others centuries ago He still gives to Christians today. We benefit greatly by embracing the best of modern hymn writing.
Finally, the words and music we use need to work together. They must be set and led in a way that ‘enthusiastic amateur’ singers can manage. There is no point in the average congregation trying to sing songs that only a trained opera singer could perform successfully. That would be discouraging to the congregation, and therefore ultimately dishonouring to God.
Many songs, especially some modern songs that have been made popular as recorded solos, don’t lend themselves to congregational singing. Happily, we don’t have to struggle to sing songs like those. There is an abundance of singable hymns – old and new – available on any given topic, so we should aim to sing the best songs on each biblical theme.
The best words with the best music makes for the best congregational singing.
All to the praise and glory of our loving, merciful God.