Hymns and contemporary worship songs: principles and preferences (3 out of 3) — Hugh Wetmore

It is dangerous to allow our musical preferences to divide the Church. We disobey Jesus when we allow our preferences to erode the unity for which Jesus prayed. All believers, young and old, white and black, are one in Christ. Worship together. Sing together. Serve together. Witness together.

Because this column’s theme is “congregational singing in our worship services”, we must pay special attention to the principle of unity –- singing each other’s styles of song.  Instead of separating hymns and contemporary worship songs, mix them up according to their lyric-themes and sing with, as well as against, your personal preferences. Others will like what you don’t like, and vice versa.

The average congregational participant is likely to base her/his preference on his/her taste in music. A contemporary worship song (CWS) composer, performer and worship leader in the USA, Jesse Jorgensen, explains that, generationally, the younger set focuses on rhythm, while, for the older folk, melody is most important.  Hymns are strong in the melody while CWSs are strong in their rhythm. I can identify with this. Furthermore, both rhythm and melody are musical components of congregational singing.

When it comes to our singing, our sovereign God has a higher priority than music. He is especially interested in the lyrics.

God has given us His set of principles for the lyrics of our singing in church. No matter what our musical preferences may be, our lyrics must conform to the unchanging principles he has given us in Scripture. Colossians 3:16 provides God’s principles for singing in Church: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God”.  I summarise them as follows:

Principle 1:  We must sing “the Word of Christ”. The lyrics of every song we sing must contain Christ’s words, and by extension, Scripture in general.

Principle 2:  The lyrics of our songs must be “rich”, and “full of wisdom”. In both hymns and CWSs, avoid shallow cliches and meaningless lines.

Principle 3: The songs must aim for at least one of these three purposes: They must “teach” us, they must “admonish” (direct us, correct us) and they must express our “heart-gratitude” and praise to God.

Principle 4:  Our songs must be sung “to one another” in the presence of God, and/or “to God” in the presence of one another.

So, recognise that different people have different preferences, especially in music styles. These must be respected, and not allowed to divide us.

Recognise that the lyrics are more important than the music, and these lyrics must be aimed at one or more of the four purposes God has in mind when He listens to our singing. Unlike our preferences, these are unchanging principles — that apply to Hymns and CWSs – to all our singing in church.

Always be tolerant of music styles, and cater for the full range of the congregation’s preferences.

Never be tolerant about the principles that describe the kind of lyrics God wants to hear. Consciously aim to please Him by ensuring your songs meet His standards.

Suggestion: Why not use this lockdown season to evaluate your song/hymn repertoire, to ensure that they meet principles 1-4 criteria. Then consider them for your song lists when we gather for worship again.  (If any song/hymn doesn’t meet these criteria, then scrap it — even if it is popular. Galatians 1:10.)

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