How Then Shall We Sing?

I have argued that our worship should glorify God and edify the Christian community. To that end, our songs need to be biblically based, yet also crafted in a way that promotes the active participation of the congregation. I have already offered some of my own opinions on how that is best achieved. But the question remains: what does this sort of singing look like in practice?

Flexibility (Again)

It’s a truth that bears repeating: We need wise flexibility if we are going to serve the variety of people in our congregations well. We must not simply drift along in whatever pattern we find comfortable. Let’s do some serious thinking, and pray for God to give wisdom to our leaders as they chose the songs we sing. This need for wisdom applies both to congregations that are more accustomed to "contemporary" music and to those that are accustomed to "traditional" music. The suitability of a song does not depend on its era; songs that are difficult to sing or memorize show up in hymnbooks and on the radio alike.

Though we should be flexible, we need to place our principal emphasis on the kind of singing that is most suitable for building the church for the long run. In my opinion, congregations need to have a stable, beloved, robust, rich core of familiar songs that they sing over long periods of time—over generations. There is room for flexibility around this central goal, but the goal itself should not be set aside. It should be clearly in view whenever leaders are planning music for worship.

In a mobile society, where people do not necessarily stay in the same church for most of their lives, it becomes important that many congregations throughout a country have overlapping cores with largely the same songs and the same music. Ideally, people who move to new locations should not find that they have to start from scratch. But achieving sufficient overlap is not easy. I suggest that the pace of innovation in any one congregation should be slow—slow enough so that a multitude of churches together gradually discover what are the very best songs that deserve to be sung for a coming generation. Realistically, we cannot expect that all congregations are going to be singing the same thing even within the bounds of a single denomination. But we can at least be aware of the benefit of having overlap.

The Question of Contemporary Appeal

Because I have mentioned fixed stanzas and old songs, some may think I am mostly advocating for traditional hymns. But that is not my intention. There are newer songs, as well as older ones, that have a structure of fixed stanzas and that are quite singable and memorable. They may also have rich, orthodox theological content. The date of composition is not a criterion for what congregations sing.

But I think some people may still legitimately find themselves uneasy. As we have observed, there is a tremendous variety of music in the Western world. The newer songs that have fixed stanzas and that are singable represent only one style. They sound to many people like the traditional hymns. The newer songs with fixed stanzas do not at all represent the full spectrum of what is going on in secular music. Some people might prefer completely different musical styles.

How do we deal with this difficulty? There is no easy solution. But I would encourage leaders not to underestimate the accessibility and usability of the songs in fixed stanzas if in other respects they are well-composed. This kind of style is common enough that many people, both young and old, have some exposure to it.

Let us consider. We may begin with the style used in the "Doxology," to the tune of "Old Hundredth." The Doxology is probably the most well-known piece of Christian music in the world. It has only one stanza, but it has a structure similar to many older hymns. It is 2/4 or 4/4 time, in "Long Meter," with rhyming lines. Consider also some of the most famous hymns: "Amazing Grace!" "Rock of Ages," "Just As I Am," "Silent Night," "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing." A lot of people have had at least a minimal sample of that kind of music. And there is more, if you include traditional patriotic music: the American national anthem, "America the Beautiful," and, for the British, "God Save the King/Queen." Some American folk tunes and children's songs have this same style.

A Comparison with National Anthems

I decided to do a quick check of nations from every continent in the world (except Antarctica). Every nation I checked had a national anthem. Almost all of these anthems had stanzas, poetic rhythm in the lyrics, and poetic rhyme. They all had music in 2/4 or 4/4 time, in a major diatonic key. If we go by this evidence, the style consisting in songs with fixed stanzas is the closest thing we have to a culturally universal style in music.

I think there is another way in which the analogy between congregational singing and national anthems is illuminating. Why do nations usually have the same national anthem for decades? Why would they hope that the same anthem will last for the next two hundred years? In our day, I suppose we could find people who think that it would be a good thing to have a new national anthem once a year, or even once a month. They might ask, "Are not we tired of the old one? Are there not new, exciting ways of expressing helpful thoughts about our nation? Why must we just repeat what we already have heard and already know?" But such questions misunderstand the purpose of a national anthem. It does not promote newness, but stability.

There are people who detest the past. They want to get free from it. Having the same national anthem may seem to them oppressive. It inhibits their individuality and their self-expression. It may offend their sense of justice, because the past was not a just past. One may empathize with such feelings, without concluding that they are the only criteria that we should use in evaluating national anthems.

In this respect, the purpose of congregational singing is somewhat analogous to the purpose of a national anthem. But the goal is to honor God rather than the nation. Having familiar songs serves to integrate younger people into a tradition, and into respect for accumulated wisdom. It serves to tell each person that he is not the center of the world. It serves to unite young and old alike around common songs of a common faith. Above all, it serves to teach the content of the Bible. That content is already established, because the Bible is already given. It does not change, because the word of the Lord remains forever (1 Pet. 1:25; see Matt. 24:35).

That does not mean that we need to shut out newer songs from congregational singing. New songs can express the truths of the Bible in new ways. It is a matter of wisdom and balance. Newer songs, as we observed, can use the structure of fixed stanzas, for the sake of singability and memorability.

It is not that hard to get used to a song with fixed stanzas. True, it does not match some of the contemporary forms of music. But not everything needs to match. Christianity itself does not fit neatly into the mold of contemporary culture. Songs for the church have a distinct design. They are designed for congregational singing by people untrained in music, but with growing familiarity with biblical teaching. They are designed for the long run.

Setting Aside "Personal Preference"

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not advocating a choice of musical style because I personally prefer it. My personal preferences are not relevant. I must be willing, for the sake of the body of Christ, to adjust to whatever style actually best promotes the building up of the church. The same is true for every other individual in the church. The same is true for the musicians. I have said almost nothing about using any particular instruments, or about some of the other issues that arise in choosing kinds of music. What I am saying is that our flexibility in song choice should be combined with wisdom about what builds up the church in the long run.

In dealing with the issues, I want to admit my limitations. People will understandably have disagreements, partly because of differences in congregational circumstances. But it seem to me that not all the choices for singing work equally well. There is a fairly broad path that works better than other choices for congregational singing. In congregational singing, we need to give the whole congregation orthodox teaching, combined with confidence, long-run familiarity, memorability, and singability for the untrained. For this purpose, we need a core of songs that are orthodox, that conform to a fixed structure of stanzas, and that have a strong, regular beat, and with a reasonably learnable and attractive melody.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In all that I have written, I want to express positive appreciation for all the people who are involved in the musical aspects of Christian worship. I do not want to seem unkind. The musicians put in much time and thought and energy and practice. I appreciate their motivations and their efforts.

It is right that people with lots of musical training should have a key role in preparing and presenting music in the church.[1] We can affirm the value of this training. But I am concerned that we pay attention to the needs of ordinary people. Some of the ordinary people find it a struggle to participate in—not just listen to—the singing in the church. No matter what music is chosen, some of the people are going to struggle, because they do not naturally identify with the musical style, or they are unfamiliar with the words. We once again have the issue of trade-offs. I am thankful for the times when the choice of songs makes it easy to participate. But I could wish that such choices happened more often.

Music leaders may help best when their aim for the long run is to get out of the way. Let the congregation learn to sing so confidently that leaders can gradually make themselves inconspicuous. This takes humility, the kind of humility that can only have in Christ, our Great Worship Leader.

Vern S. Poythress is Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for 45 years.

Related Links

Podcast: "What Happens When We Worship"

"A Shallow View of Singing" by Josh Irby

"A Hymn That Would Not Be Written Today" by Gabriel Fluhrer

Pleasing God in Our Worship by Robert Godfrey

What Happens When We Worship by Jonathan Landry Cruse

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology


[1]    Sometimes the people who select music and lead in the music do not have musical training, but simply tell those who are trained to follow their choices. It is better for there to be a two-way conversation. But all participants in the conversation need to bear in mind that they should serve the whole congregation, including those in it without formal musical training.