Variety in congregational singing — Hugh Wetmore

Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.

My close friend Wolf Binder passed away suddenly the other day. He was about to visit Nepal on one of his many “Kings and Priests” trips, combining his business interests with his Kingdom missionary commitments. In one of his last emails to me, he said that he wanted to sing in the annual massed choir rendering of Handel’s Messiah in the City Hall this year. “This is on my bucket list”. But now he is part of that bigger choir singing the bigger Hallelujah Chorus in glory! Envy him, with holy envy!

In that same email, he commented on John 4:24 “Jesus wants our worship to combine both ‘Spirit’ and ‘Truth’.” I replied that this underscores the two key Scriptures about congregational singing: Ephesians 5:18-20 with its emphasis on the “Spirit”, and Colossians 3:16 which emphasises the Word, the “Truth” of God’s message.

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And both are to be expressed as we “sing to one another Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs — God wants variety in our congregational singing.

Think about these three genres that God wants us to sing.

Psalms … these are in our Bibles. The Book of Psalms was the Jewish hymnbook first compiled by David, with others by Asaph, Ethan and anonymous added later.

Hymns … these began to be sung in New Testament times. Jesus sang a hymn at His last supper (Mark 14:26). Paul and Silas sang hymns when they were jailed in the Philippian prison (Acts 16:25).

Spiritual Songs … the latest genre of music sung in the assemblies of God’s people.

Defining these three genres
How do the pundits define these three genres?

The Adam Clarke Commentary admits that “we can scarcely say what is the exact difference between these three expressions”. But he suggests:

  • Psalms may probably mean those of David.
  • Hymns are the extemporaneous effusions in praise of God, uttered under the influence of the Divine Spirit, or a sense of His especial goodness (see Acts 16:25).
  • Spiritual songs are odes; premeditated and regular poetic compositions; but, in whatever form they were composed, we learn that they were all spiritual — tending to magnify God and edify men.

The International Dictionary of the Christian Church overlooks Psalms and spiritual songs, but is very helpful in defining a hymn as “a Christian song, normally metrical (= a consistent rhythm). It praises God (Augustine) and can also include songs of meditation, description, exhortation or teaching. A good tune is important. The tune should carry the words, and not vice versa.”

From our 2018 perspective, it seems as if these three genres cover the whole history of the Church: Psalms were inherited from the Jewish synagogues (AD 35 – 1500). Hymns became popular with Luther and then Watts and then became the dominant genre AD 1500 -1970. From 1970 onwards contemporary Christian songs, pioneered by Kendrick and others, edged hymns out of the Churches’ repertoire. Spiritual songs are now dominant in many churches.

Three genres for three purposes
I also see the three genres as catering for three purposes in our singing: Psalms often express to God, in brutal honesty, our personal feelings of joy, depression, thanksgiving, envy, faith, doubt, frustration and hope. Hymns are an ideal medium to sing sermonettes from Scripture, teaching and correcting each other in our faith. Good spiritual songs lift our spirits to God in shorter expressions of love, joy, faith and hope.

Yes, of course these are generalisations. I could generalise further: Grandparents like singing a Psalm now and then, parents favour hymns, and the youth enjoy avant garde spiritual songs. These are often generational choices.

However we define these three genres: Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, one emphasis stands out — God wants variety in our congregational singing! Let every worship leader ensure that over time the Sunday song-list includes songs of all three genres. Avoid a single-genre rut. God is listening! He wants to hear you sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in your services.

God wants variety in our congregational singing!

God wants variety in our singing: Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We must not get hooked on only one of these genres and ignore the others — bring them all on!

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