Ten Principles for Church Singing (Part 2)

(Go here for Part 1)

6. We should strive for excellence in the musicality and the poetry of the songs we sing.

I’m not for a moment suggesting elitism. A tine has to be relatively simple for hundreds or thousands of people to sing it at the same time.  But we can still insist on undistracting excellence (to use Piper’s phrase). We want the cross to be the stumbling block, not our poor musicianship or faltering powerpoint.

While I believe a wide variety of styles can be used in worship, I am not a musical relativist.  Some songs are better than others. Some styles work better than others. And when it comes to lyrics, we should avoid obvious sloppiness like using thee and you in the same song or heaping up trite cliches. I heard a song on the radio a couple weeks ago whose chorus had something about a fragrant rose in the early spring and an eagle soaring to spread its wings. If your church sings this on Sunday, love your worship leader all the same. But if you’re the worship leader picking this song, try for something with a little more artistry, something that doesn’t sound like it came from a random page in your inspirational pocket calendar.

Some songs are simply deep and some are deeply simple, but there is a way to do both well.  With so many songs to choose from, there’s no reason churches can’t make an effort to sing songs with some sense of poetry and musical integrity. The Hallelujah chorus is repetitive, but it’s musically interesting. Most songs, choruses, and verses aren’t good enough to be repeated for very long.

7. The main sound to be heard in the worship music is the sound of the congregation singing.

Everyone is responsible to sing.  The young girl with her hands in the air and the old man belting out the bass line. What people want to see in your worship is that you mean it. And no matter how chill or how reverent your worship is, if no one is singing, it’s lame.

And if the main sound is to be the congregation singing, this will have implications for how we play and choose our songs.

  • Is it singable? Pay attention to range (too high or too low), and beware of syncopation and lots of irregularities in the meter and rhythm. Make sure the melody makes some intuitive sense, especially if you don’t have music to look at or people can’t read music. When your guitar strums between G, C, and D there are a lot of notes to choose from.
  • Is the instrumentation helping or inhibiting the congregation to sing? This means checking the volume. Is the music too soft to support the human voices? Is it so loud it’s drowning them out? One mistake music teams make is to think that every instrument needs to be used with every song. Some songs should get the whole kitchen sink, but just because you have a drum, piano, guitar, bass, lyre, zither, flute, chicken shaker, banjo, cello, and djembe up there doesn’t mean you have to use them all.
  • Is this song familiar. People cannot handle a new song every week, let alone two or three new songs. Stick with your basic sound and core songs and go out from there. On occasion you may have to admit, “That’s a great song, but I don’t think we can do it well.”

8. The congregation should also be stretched from time to time to learn new songs and broaden its musical horizons.

Every church will have a musical center. You should not reinvent the center every week. But you should not be enslaved to it either. We need to be stretched once a while, not only with a new song but a new kind of song–something from the African-America church, or something from Africa or Latin America (with an English translation so it is intelligible), or something from the classical choral tradition. It’s good to be reminded that belong to an ancient and global church.

9. The texts of our songs should be matched with fitting musicality and instrumentation.

Music should support the theme of the song.  Different texts have different moods. The words for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” would not work with the tune for “Children of the Heavenly Father.” The campy song “Do Lord” does not quite capture the mood of the dying thief’s final words. On the other hand, you have to love the Getty song “See What a Morning” where the triumphant, celebratory music perfectly matches the resurrection lyrics.

Musical style is not neutral, but it is elastic. Music conveys something. Some melodies are too syrupy or too raucous or too romantic.  I’ve always felt like “This is the Air I Breathe” was too sensual sounding. Plus I’m not sure what the song means. But styles are not rigid categories.  There isn’t a sharp line between contemporary and traditional, or classical and popular, or high culture and low culture.  We don’t have to make absolute rules about musical style, but we do need to be intelligent.

Let me just say a word about organs. No church should die on this hill. But if your church already has an organ my advice is to keep using it. Organs were originally associated with paganism.  So there is nothing inherently spiritual about them.  When they were introduced into churches, the average Christian in the Middle Ages new as much about organs as your average teenager does today.  They were introduced into worship because of the fitness of the instrument. As Harold Best argues in his fantastic book Unceasing Worship, there is no instrument we know of in the West better suited to support congregational singing (73). The organ fills in the cracks, provides an underneath sound, and encourages churches to sing louder and freer. If you don’t have an organ they can be expensive to get. We mustn’t lay down any commands. But if an organ is an option for you, don’t ditch it.

10. All of our songs should employ manifestly biblical lyrics.

We must start by asking of all our songs: is this true? Not just true, but accurate to the biblical text. For example, I like the Third Day song “Consuming Fire” but the lyrics, while true, misuse the biblical text. According to the song, our God is a consuming fire because he reaches inside and melts our cold hearts of stone. That’s true, but the text in Hebrews is about God our judge.

Similarly, our songs should be manifestly true. That is, we shouldn’t have to put a spin on the lyrics to get them to be ok. We are looking for subtlety. We don’t want to sing songs that leave us wondering “what exactly does that mean?”

On the flip side, don’t be too hard on “I” songs. About 100 of the 150 Psalms have the word “I.” “I” is not the problem. The problem is with songs that are too colloquially, or use I thoughtlessly (I just want to praise you – well then praise him), or never move from how I am feeling about God to who God is and what he’s done to make me feel this way.

In all our songs we want to be teaching people about God. If we aren’t learning good theology and biblical truth from our songs, then either we don’t care much about our songs or we don’t care much about rich biblical truth, or both.