How might leaders make the best decisions that contribute to the best congregational singing? That is not an easy question to answer. It involves paying attention to the broad principles for worship, which are based on the authority of the Bible. But it also involves application to many congregations and many circumstances.
As we saw previously, meetings for worship should be conducted for the glory of God, and for the purpose of building up the people, the Christian community. Everything in worship should be oriented to these goals. Building on the principles set out in Part I, we now concentrate on congregational singing, in distinction from performances. Congregational singing, like other elements in worship, should serve to glorify God and build up the people. That is what it means for it to be spiritually healthy.
Now, how might leaders make the best decisions that contribute to the best congregational singing? That is not an easy question to answer. It involves paying attention to the broad principles for worship, which are based on the authority of the Bible. But it also involves application to many congregations and many circumstances. The applications may vary with the circumstances. When it comes to application, people may sometimes sincerely disagree about how best to embody biblical principles.
Application calls for flexibility in a few ways. There are many cultures and languages in the world, and with the cultures come different kinds of music. This diversity holds not only with respect to cultures in different continents, but subcultures within the United States and subcultures in other countries. Music can be chosen with attention to the cultural setting. There is room for music especially suited for children, or for young people, or for people for whom English is a second language, or for multi-ethnic congregations, or for youth camps, or for evangelistic concerts, or for prayer meetings. Special music can be presented by soloists and choirs. Leaders may occasionally include musical styles that are less familiar or that appeal to the preferences of only some portion of the congregation.
But leaders need also to keep in mind what are the long-range goals. At its best, flexibility allows us space to choose the most effective path toward the goal; it does not mean ignoring the goal because we tell ourselves that we may do as we please.
So let us consider some features in song selection that promote healthy congregational singing in the long run. I offer these features as my opinions and as my suggestions. Others may disagree. Whatever conclusions different people reach, I want to encourage us to be thoughtful about why we make the choices we make.
The first feature to consider in congregational singing is the verbal content of what is sung. That content should be orthodox in doctrine. It should set forth truths that are based on the teaching of the Bible. This principle follows from what Col. 3:16 says about teaching. In church, singing is a form of teaching. Singing is supposed to communicate “the word of Christ.” Since Christ is God, and the Bible is the word of God, the whole Bible can be the contents of Christian songs. The contents are not limited to the recorded words of Christ while he lived on earth. But contents must be solidly based on the Bible, not on modern ideas.
Care should also be taken to see that the content is rich. We need to inspect the content, not only for orthodoxy, but for substance. Does the content predominantly set forth main themes of the Bible and main tenets of the gospel? In other words, are we majoring on majors, or only on minors? To major on majors means that we should not despise simpler and more elementary expressions of the central truths of the gospel. Simple they may be, but they also have depth. We should never tire of hearing what one song calls “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
In addition, content includes the riches of the Bible. So, complementary to our attention to the simplicity of the gospel, we should pay attention to the riches of the gospel. We may ask, “Does our song content at any point go deeper than the simplest expressions of truth? Does the content honor God, in his greatness? Does it honor Christ, in his compassion, his obedience, his righteousness, his suffering, his resurrection, and his present-day rule from heaven? Or does it merely focus on human feelings? Is the content too repetitious?”
We should also ask questions about balance. In the selection of words from week to week, do people get a balanced diet, so to speak? Is there adequate attention to darker topics, such as suffering, death, and the wrath of God? Or is everything tailored to create a superficial happy mood? Does the content reflect on the past, including the Old Testament? Does it reflect on the future (the Second Coming)? Or it is always narrowed focused on us as we live in the present?
There is much need for discernment. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are new converts, simpler content is desirable. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are much more mature, a diet of only very simple truths can be frustrating, as well as not maximally effective in using the opportunity for teaching. There is no simple recipe that will fit every circumstance. In all circumstances, we need to be guided by the long-range goal of glorifying God and building up the church, not simply by short-term preferences.