Although I thought I would never find myself in a position like this, for the past four months I have been serving as the music director at our church, responsible for directing the adult choir and choosing not only choral anthems but songs for corporate worship. Readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that this is a topic to which I have given a great deal of thought, though I’m not sure I have ever succinctly laid out the process or considerations I would use—and now do use—when choosing selections for congregational singing. In theory, this is very simple, including only five items, listed in order of priority. In practice, of course, the choice of songs can become more contentious, but more on that some other time. Here are my five considerations.
1. The songs we sing must have orthodox, Biblically-grounded texts. The New Testament actually has very little to say about music in corporate worship, and when it does speak of music it uses words like “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3) and “addressing one another” (Ephesians 5). What does that mean practically? It means that music in worship is more than just a means of expressing our feelings about God, the church, or the gospel (though it can include those things), but is rather a tool for instruction in the faith. Music has a way of embedding itself in our minds and souls in a way that words alone do not—think of the stories you’ve heard of nursing home patients who speak little and seem to remember even less, but perk up and sing along when they hear the hymns (or other songs) they’ve known and sung their whole lives. God obviously intends that we use music as a tool to communicate his Word so that it becomes fixed in our minds and hearts even more deeply. It is therefore incumbent upon us to choose music that truly and rightly communicates that Word to us. In the Reformed tradition singing settings of the Psalms and other scripture passages has a long and rich history; this is a good model for our song selections even if we do not sing exclusively from the Psalter.
2. The songs we sing must be singable by groups of mostly untrained singers. There is one set of criteria that we might use for choosing music to listen to, another set when choosing music for a choir, and yet another when choosing music for a vocal soloist or small group. Even that is probably oversimplifying things, but in any case none of these are right for choosing songs for a big and diverse group of untrained singers. Most people have a functional vocal range of about a tenth (i.e., an octave plus two more steps), and going much beyond that makes a song inaccessible to them. A great deal of popular music today seems to center on the tenor/alto range, favoring that area where higher men’s voices and lower women’s voices overlap. That leaves the poor bass/baritones and sopranos struggling to keep up when singing songs written in that genre. Certain older songs have a somewhat different problem, extending higher in the range than is practical. Excessive rhythmic complexity can also introduce difficulties that should be taken into account; simpler rhythms without too much syncopation work best. In practice, I find myself choosing the best texts I can for the occasion (more on that below), and then the best melodies I can to go with those texts. Sometimes the most singable melody is an older one, and sometimes it is a newer one. So be it. The priority is to help the congregation to sing well.
3. The songs we sing should reinforce the sermon text or other items in the liturgy. Our church’s liturgy typically includes three hymns plus the Doxology or Gloria Patri. For the first selection, after the Call to Worship, I typically choose something that simply praises God for who he is and what he has done. Although we do not use a Psalter in our church, the Trinity Hymnal includes a number of settings of Psalms or paraphrases thereof, and I often favor these when choosing opening selections. For the other two I will choose songs that reinforce the topic or text of the sermon or one of the other scripture readings, and on Sundays when Communion is served I’ll choose one song that is appropriate for that. All of this creates a unity to the service that, I hope, enhances the instructional function of music in worship.
4. The songs we sing should include selections from the great hymns written throughout the history of the church. At this point, your response might be something like “Of course you like your old songs, Micah. You’re a classically trained musician.” Fair enough. I like the old songs, but my personal taste is not a good reason to choose anything. Honestly, determining the best age or genre of worship music is an area where we are largely left to our own wisdom, as Scripture doesn’t tell us much at all about the music we should sing; it just commands us to sing. Still, I think about passages like, say, Deuteronomy 31-32, where God commands Moses to write and teach a song to the people recounting his faithfulness to them and also admonishing them for their past, present, and even future sins. This song was not intended to be a “flash in the pan” worship song that they sang in the desert and forgot about within a generation; it was to be retained and learned and passed down. Songs like this and others found here and there throughout the Bible (and especially in the Psalms) used music not only to instruct the congregation but to ground them in a shared history and identity. Similarly, when we sing the same songs as our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-great-great-great grandparents we join with past generations of Christians and rejoice in our shared history and identity and in God’s faithfulness to us over the generations. Giving that up would be a mistake.
5. The songs we sing should include newer selections of high quality. At the same time, people did not stop writing good songs for worship around the year 1900. Now, the vast majority of new hymns and songs being written lack the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. Do you know why I know that? Because the vast majority of old hymns and songs lacked the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. The difference is that time has a way of vetting the songs we sing, and those that lack staying power gradually find themselves disappearing from the hymnals. That places us at a disadvantage, of course, because we have little way of knowing which newer songs will be able to “stick” in the long term. Still, new songs with good texts and singable melodies are worth trying, not to replace the old hymns of the faith, but to add to the collective witness of generations of Christians. This is as it should be.
At the end of the day, I really think that if we choose good texts, with the best melodies for congregational singing, most questions of age or genre will melt away…if we let them. There is a certain hubris that says that every song written before 1990 doesn’t “speak to” the modern generation, and a reverse hubris that says that every song written after 1990 (or 1950, or 1900) is contemporary “trash.” If we can move beyond style preferences that reflect our preferred listening habits and instead learn to see congregational singing as a tool for instruction in the Word and for grounding us in our history and identity as Christians, maybe worship music won’t have to be so divisive.
Tomorrow at College Hill we will start with a Psalm setting from 1912, followed by a choral anthem from 2006, the Doxology (text from 1709; tune from 1551), a song from 2005, and end with an old hymn from 1545. Are the styles different? Yes, but if you focus on the melodies themselves and especially the texts, there is a fundamental unity present, one that allows us to join not only with the local congregation, but with generations of Christians in singing God’s praises. That’s the goal, at least.