God wants to hear psalms … and … hymns … and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). We know what psalms and hymns are, and have spent a number of months in this Gateway Worship Column examining and promoting these genres. Does your Church include these two genres in its weekly song-lists? God is listening, wanting to hear you sing them. If you don’t, He is disappointed at your disobedience.
The third genre is spiritual songs. What are these? One commentator says they are “songs employed by the heavenly worshipers in Revelation 5:9, 14:3 and 15:3″. Others say they are the spontaneous songs in an unknown language, as sung in conjunction with speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:15).
I choose a broader meaning: spiritual songs are all other genres of Christian song. In our day and Western culture they would include choruses and contemporary worship songs (CWSs). The apostle is urging us, in God’s name, to use the widest possible range of music and song in our services.
Because music is extremely influenced by culture, this term spiritual songs is elastic enough to embrace music and song in every cultural style on the planet. And culture is continually changing. Plain-song and chants were popular 500 years ago. If we used them today, most people would exit the church! Rock and rap were unknown until recently. African, Indian and Chinese styles of music are awkwardly foreign to those of other nationalities.
One’s era, nationality, customs and age form the culture which forms the music and song we enjoy singing. God is eternal and supra-cultural, so He is able to enjoy every possible musical and song genre! So, when God adds spiritual songs to the list of song-genres He wants to hear, He makes room for wide cultural variations. He knows us individually, and in our communities. He enjoys hearing us express authentic praise and teaching in our singing.
That’s the reason He prescribes a wide repertoire of psalms and hymns, with an open-ended spiritual songs genre at the end.
The publishing dominance of the Western world has resulted in our culture dominating the song scene in most churches in most countries. For Christians who sing in the culture of the Western Church, spiritual songs usually sort themselves out into two categories: choruses and contemporary worship songs (CWSs).
Choruses had their origins in the refrains of hymns. After each verse, the simple, summarising words of a refrain were sung. Soon the refrains developed a life of their own, as independent choruses.
As a genre, choruses had their heyday in the early to middle 1900s. The Pentecostal Movement published Elim Choruses which popularised many of these songs well beyond the Pentecostal circles. The other popular chorus compilation was CSSM Choruses published by Scripture Union. Through these two British publications, the word of God, and the Gospel was spread far and wide internationally. Many choruses are still sung today, mingling with the new genre of contemporary worship songs in the churches.
Choruses had the advantage of conciseness. The lyrics were brief, single-themed and to the point. They were tuneful and most of them could be learned, and sung heartily, on a single hearing. The compilations covered a wide range of Biblical themes. Of course, there were some which trivialised the Christian message. But many were substantial and worthily put across a Biblical message. Learned in childhood, they stuck in the memory memorably!
Contemporary worship songs
Contemporary worship songs (CWSs) was a genre born in the more recent Charismatic Movement from the early 1970s. They copied the cultural musical styles of the current era. Melody tends to be weak and repetitive. Rhythm is strong and repetitive. They are marked by individualism and emotion-devotion. They have been popularised through publishing houses such as Kingsway, Vineyard, Hillsongs. But their chief dissemination is via the Internet. There one can Google a song and listen to a professional musician singing it. But when that same song is chosen for congregational singing in a local church, it doesn’t always go as well. The lyrics of most CWSs speak to a narrow range of themes: The topical Index of Songs of Fellowship lists only 38 themes, compared to the 50 or more in some of the hymn-books. Most of the CWS themes are, not surprisingly, related to worship.
The CWS genre has swept the church-world like a tsunami. Most churches sing CWSs exclusively, others will have a 5:1 ratio of CWSs to psalms, hymns and choruses. We must take this genre seriously. It is highly influential in the Christian world today. For the next few weeks, this Column will deal with contemporary worship songs, their strengths and weaknesses, how they are written, their purpose and value, discerning the good and the bad, and building them into an integrated worship service that will, above all, please God!
That is our goal: singing the songs God wants to hear!