Lovers of hymns and lovers of praise music, LISTEN! Christ’s Church is bigger and broader than either of you. Raise your eyes! Unity through diversity is His foundational principle for His people (Ephesians 4:1-16). Support each other! Lift each other! Celebrate each other! Sing TOGETHER!
Archive for Congregational Song
I love singing hymns – hymns of many types and styles. Singing is such a beautiful way of expressing the Word that Christ has planted in us. As we sing, we share that Word with each other. We affirm it together. And we lift it in praise to our God and Savior.
Augustine (and later, Martin Luther) said, “He who sings prays twice.” I never understood that statement until I began singing as part of my prayer life. Singing involves the entire being. It starts from the heart and catches up the mind and body as well. When we sing, we embrace God’s Word physically, mentally, and emotionally. Prayer rises from our whole selves.
As we trust the Word that God speaks to us, joy overflows, and singing is one spillway for that joy. Singing is the music of faith. I’ve long felt that if we have the truth, saying it is not enough. The truth longs to come to life. It cries out for full expression. It yearns to sing and dance, to celebrate with life and feeling and physical joy.
Singing does that. Singing sets the truth free.
Singing unites us. Think of what’s happening when we sing together in worship. The Word of God is in our hearts and minds and on our lips. We lift it to God together. We unite with each other and with Him.
Hymns express our beliefs about God–our theology–but they do so in terms that are heartfelt and life-centered. Yes, abstract, factual hymns have been written, but they generally don’t last. The hymns that God’s children love to sing are those that speak their faith with warmth and vitality, in a way that resonates with personal experience.
Hymns are a feast for the body, mind, and spirit. Enjoy them completely! Don’t just listen to hymns. Sing them! The most life-changing songs are not the ones we hear but the ones we sing. As Paul urged the young church in Colosse, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16, NIV).
Sing! Sing to God! Sing from your heart!
Suggestions for those who lead music in the church:
- Love your people, not your songs.
- Without love, songs are just noise—“a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1, NIV).
- Love your people, not their money.
- Shepherds feed the flock. Wolves feed on the flock. Always be a shepherd.
- Love is not self-seeking. (1 Corinthians 13:5)
- Love is the greatest force for innovation, not ambition.
- When faced with a difficult situation or a need, in love create something new (paraphrased from Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker).
During forty years in church music publishing, I’ve seen how easily we confuse our biblical beliefs with our cultural preferences. Usually we don’t even realize that these are two different things, much less are we able to distinguish the two. A glance at church history down through the ages proves that the problem is ever with us.
This is certainly true in music. Our personal tastes are deeply, fiercely held, and they seem so “right” to us.
We like to think of ourselves as rational and biblically literate. Whatever our tastes, we learn to support them by scripture and reason. But let’s be honest: with all of us, the head tends to bend to the will of the heart. I am no exception. In the current tension between hymns and praise songs, I have my preferences, and I can support them with logic and chapter and verse.
But God continues to show me that He is the Source and Sovereign of all. He alone is all-knowing. He alone is holy. Thus His purposes and His perspective are so much broader and deeper than I can imagine. His concerns are all-encompassing. They take in every need of every being of every race, nation, age, culture, and personality.
This God of all is the God of all music. From Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Romans 11:36, NASB). Rationally, can I really believe that this all-encompassing Spirit-being limits His creative voice to one particular musical style or set of styles? Hardly! Read His written Word. He speaks through prophets, children, kings, and fools, donkeys, sunsets, wind, and fire, laws, stories, love poems, and songs. Do we really think that such a God speaks only through our narrow range of preferred musical styles?
Read 1 Corinthians12:3:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (NASB)
That seems to apply to sung as well as spoken word. All music that proclaims Jesus as Lord is, in some sense, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It flows from Him, through Him, and to Him, for the glory of God. The same passage goes on to say:
There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord. (1 Corinthians 12:4-5, NASB)
I can give strong, logical reasons why musical styles I don’t prefer are seriously flawed. But every style is seriously flawed, my own included. Every human effort is partial and imperfect. Our music is imperfect. Our praise is imperfect. Even our love is imperfect.
Each of our perspectives is childishly limited. Our motives are uneven. We are more small-minded and self-centered that we ever imagine. But God uses all who trust Him, no matter how stumbling our faith might be. Read the Bible. Consider Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Samson, Gideon, David, and more.
If Paul made himself all things to all people that he might win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), how much more will the Father of All, in His unquenchable love, use all the tools at His disposal that He might reach everyone.
The Bible warns us repeatedly and in the strongest terms not to judge one another. Shouldn’t that include one another’s music as well? I’m not referring to constructive criticism or comparative study done in a Christ-like spirit. Such objective evaluation can be mutually beneficial. But we dare not condemn a style as being unworthy of being offered to God for His glory.
Let’s humble ourselves before our Father and before our brothers and sisters. Let’s admit our smallness, narrowness, and ignorance. Let’s support the Spirit’s work, even when we are unable to fully appreciate it.
Most of the time I’m certain that I am doing what the Lord has called me to do. But every once in a while the doubts creep in. You probably have your own set of familiar doubts. For me as a hymn writer, I occasionally fear that I’ve wasted my life by writing in a relatively traditional style. Should I have consciously reached out to my children’s generation by learning to write in a more contemporary style? Do most who hear my hymns dismiss them as old-fashioned?
But as I pray, I see my situation in a better light. Maybe these observations will help you when your fears whisper in your ear.
1. Don’t follow the crowd. In my case, thousands, perhaps millions of songs are being written in the contemporary style currently popular. Would I really be of greater service to the Church by simply adding more to that growing number? Even business thinkers like Seth Godin, writing from a non-religious perspective, advise creators not to think mass market but to be content serving their own particular customers.
2. Be yourself. I need to be the writer God created me to be. I’ve written some songs in a more contemporary style, but for the most part, that style is not native to me. I naturally think and feel in the style in which I write. But it’s more than familiarity that draws me. I genuinely believe that a more traditional style will, in the long run, have a broader and more inclusive appeal.
3. Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ. We are called to fill our particular role, not to be all things to all people. I read Numbers 4:16-28 and see that even in the Old Testament sanctuary, God appointed each group of priests and Levites to their own very particular duties. They were to focus on doing their daily tasks faithfully and wholeheartedly, out of love for God. That is still the way I approach my hymn writing.
Father, my goal is not to be successful. My goal is to please You. I want to be Spirit-driven, not customer-driven. Where I have failed, please forgive and redirect me. I am Yours completely, now and forever.
This is the 29th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
To plant hymns in your heart, sing them as part of your daily devotions. Hymns are wonderful devotional aids. They express timeless truths in ways that are heart-felt and life-centered. They declare God’s Word and make it easy to understand and apply. Hymns lead us into praise. They provide words for our prayers and express our deepest longings for God.
Go out and buy your own hymnal, and keep it with your Bible. Start at the beginning of the hymnal and sing your way through it. During each day’s devotions, sing through one or more hymns. Don’t skip any hymns or any verses.
Don’t let a lack of musical ability hinder you. Sing as best you can. If you don’t know the music to a hymn, just read the words, aloud if possible.
You’ll be amazed at the wealth of wonderful devotional material you find. The hymns will become your own. Then when you sing them in public worship, it will be like visiting an old friend.
This is the 28th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Christian jailed and executed by the Nazis during World War II, found great strength in prison through singing hymns with fellow prisoners.
Hymn singing was a key element in the Methodist class meetings in 18th century England. These hymns fueled the Methodist revival, which is still bearing fruit today.
Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and other small groups can benefit tremendously by hymn singing. Spiritual formation is often the main focus of such groups, and hymns are a powerful spiritual formation tool.
For hymns to be usable in small groups, simplicity is essential. Sometimes a keyboard and keyboardist are available for accompaniment, and sometimes recorded accompaniment is an option. But in many situations, the singing will either be unaccompanied or it will not happen at all. Hymn tunes that are easy and familiar will work best.
Someone should take care to choose the hymns ahead of time. The right hymn in the right spot is a powerful tool. A meaningful context is a hymn’s best friend. As much as possible, prepare hymns that fit the lesson hand-in-glove. When the match is right, hymns are a perfect way to drive home a scriptural lesson.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, singing hymns in your small group might be just the opportunity needed by some budding hymn writer among you. I started writing hymns for that very circumstance, to use with Bible studies I was teaching. I always provide a hymn with the Sunday School lessons I teach. A hymn works well as an opening or a closing. Or if time allows, sing a carefully chosen hymn at the opening of the class, with a brief spoken introduction, then repeat the same hymn at the end of the lesson.
Take the time to make hymns part of your small group gatherings. You’ll find your efforts richly rewarded, and perhaps in some surprising ways!
This is the 27th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
Do people want to live better lives?
Yes, we do!
Do people want to live closer to God?
Yes, we do!
Do people want help praying?
Yes, we do!
In the press of daily living, it’s difficult to stay on focus. It’s difficult to keep our eyes on our heavenly Father, to remember His presence, His power, His goodness, and His unfailing promises. It’s hard to think, feel, and be the persons we need to be.
Singing hymns can help. They plant truth in our minds, hearts, and imaginations. They immerse us in the realities of God and His faithfulness, of Jesus Christ and His life within us, of the Holy Spirit and His empowering, guiding presence. Hymns help us embrace the truth physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The truths we sing weave themselves into our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.
Remember, it is vital that we sing the hymns, not just listen to them. If you want to be entertained, listen. If you want to be transformed, sing!
Hymns draw us to Jesus Christ. Hymns encourage us to trust God and approach Him with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Hymns strengthen us to stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12). Hymns help us comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV, adapted).
That is the power and potential of hymn singing. Don’t get sidetracked! Singing is not about enjoying a pleasing sound or emotional stimulation. Hymns are not fantasy music. Hymns are reality music. They nurture our relationship with the Living Christ. They turn our attention to His constant presence and interaction in absolutely every aspect of daily life. Hymns help form Jesus Christ within us.
This is the 26th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
If hymns are important, they are too important to limit to an hour a week on Sunday. If hymns can nurture our personal relationship with God—and they can!—then why not take them beyond our worship services?
Hymns need to spill out of the sanctuary into our daily lives. Hymns can enrich our devotional practice and nourish prayer. Hymns need to go wherever prayer goes.
Paul and Silas had had a difficult day. A good deed got them attacked by an angry crowd, dragged before a magistrate, stripped and beaten and then thrown into prison with their feet in the stocks. So what were they doing at midnight? Moaning in pain? Complaining about injustice? Feeling sorry for themselves? They were praying aloud and singing hymns! No piano or organ. No band. No recordings. Just two believers, sitting in the midst of suffering, darkness, and injustice and singing hymns. Read the whole story in Acts 16:16-40 and find how it all turned out.
A similar story comes to us from the 18th century. Crossing the Atlantic, the ship in which John Wesley was sailing was caught in a storm. Though an Anglican priest, he was terrified, afraid for his life. While having his crisis of faith, he heard a group of German Moravian believers calmly singing their hymns. The experience had such a profound effect on him that it would change his life.
In both cases, hymns were a natural, deeply personal expression of the believers’ faith. They bubbled to the surface in life’s most difficult hour. The hymns gave them a way to mentally and emotionally affirm their confidence in God. They were thus able to face their trials with joy and unshakable peace.
Their hymns also became a life-changing testimony to the unbelievers around them. Note that musical style wasn’t what appealed to the listeners. The stories don’t even mention it. The attraction was the joy and faith of the singers, not the songs themselves.
So don’t leave our hymns locked up at church. Don’t let our hymnals stay nailed to the pew. Up until the last hundred years or so, hymnals were a personal item. The Bible and the hymnal were the believer’s most treasured devotional possessions. Whether or not you use hymnals in your church services, get your own hymnal and keep it with your Bible. That will be the first step toward getting hymns into your heart and into your daily life where they can do the most good.
This is the 25th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
In our desire to worship God with one heart and one voice, some suggest that “we” language is more appropriate in worship than “I” language. As a hymnwriter, I believe that stance is well-intentioned but misguided.
Yes, a “we” perspective in worship is a worthy and constructive goal. Both scripture and experience point us toward that synergy where worshipers join in heart and voice. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
But individual worship is still the essential component. Though “we” language is highly appropriate and expressive in some hymns, in others it can hold the truth at arm’s length. It can lessen the impact of the hymn on the individual worshiper. When it does, corporate worship is weaker, not stronger. A.W. Tozer said it this way:
“Someone may fear that we are magnifying private religion out of all proportion, that the `us’ of the New Testament is being displaced by a selfish `I.’ Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become `unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole Church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life.” (from THE PURSUIT OF GOD, by A.W. Tozer, © 1948 by WingSpread Publishers)
To underscore this point, look at our classic hymns. The following powerfully corporate hymns were all written as “I”:
And Can It Be?
Arise, My Soul, Arise
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
How Great Thou Art
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Our Great Savior
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
This Is My Father’s World
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
…and many more
Through these “I” hymns we experience a powerful “we” in worship. Would we be drawn closer together by eliminating such from hymns from our worship? Certainly not. It is our common experience with God’s universal greatness and love that binds our hearts together. Shared personal faith is what unites us, not imposed “we” language.