How do we decide which songs to sing in church?
What criteria should we use? Should we pick songs simply because they feel good or move us emotionally? Should we pick them because they give us some kind of “worship experience”?
In Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, T. David Gordon says that in the past, churches did not include the criteria of “contemporaneity” (whew – I can barely say that word) when selecting hymns for their hymnals. In other words, hymnal revision committees didn’t select songs just because they had a cool contemporary sound. He gives the following list of some of their main criteria:
- theologically orthodox lyrics
- theologically significant lyrics
- literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics
- lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visible people
- well-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form
- musical setting appropriate to the lyrical content
In other words we should choose songs that:
- Are doctrinally sound (Is it biblically accurate? Years ago, we sang a song about blowing a trumpet and victory and when I looked up the passage in the Bible it was about God’s judgment on his people)
- Are significant (“Joy is the flag flown from the castle of my heart when the king is in residence there” – wave your handkerchief above your head as you sing - it’s probably true but is it significant?)
- Have creative lyrics (Come on now, we can do better than “You saved my soul and made me whole”), yet “literarily apt and thoughtful” (One man I know once said, “God is so good – he’s like a greasy piece of fried chicken” – creative, but the metaphor doesn’t work too well)
- Have good music (Raise your hand if you want boring music and melodies)
- Have music that’s appropriate for the lyrics (Does a snarling death-growl vocal fit lyrics declaring the holiness and majesty of God? Maybe it could to some, but if possible we should seek to appeal to a wide audience). We should seek music and melodies that highlight the lyrics.
Sometimes a theologically sound and significant hymn can be revitalized by giving it some fresh music. Sometimes cool contemporary songs have powerful music, but shallow or biblically inaccurate lyrics.
It’s not a question of old versus new or hymns versus choruses. It’s not so much a matter of musical style. We want to sing the truth. And we want the music to serve the lyrics.
We want to choose songs with lyrics and music that will best enable us to fulfill Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
photo by Leo Reynolds