Singing That Builds Up

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.

Verbal Content

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.[1] 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.

But leaders must beware of extremes. Even young converts should be encouraged to grow by choices in singing that include more complex content. They need to stretch themselves in their singing, and not be satisfied with doctrinal "milk" (Heb. 5:12) with which they may find themselves the most comfortable. Conversely, even mature congregations need some instances of simpler content. They need the reminder that the most precious, central truths of the gospel can be expressed simply and yet deeply. Simpler content may also benefit children and any new converts that may be added.

A lot of variation in simplicity and depth can be found both in newer and in older songs. We are not constrained to pick from only one kind of source. Some of the older songs found in hymnbooks are quite rich in theology. Sometimes they are embarrassingly rich, in comparison to what we may be used to. We may feel as if we are getting an overdose, a meal heavier than what we can digest. But there is another issue to watch for. Older hymns may have terms that are obsolete or difficult to understand. In the tradition of hymns in the English language, the hymns may have "thees" and "thous" (though if this were the only thing, a little effort in adjusting to such language would be enough). They may also have more difficult syntax. They are poetry, and poetry allows the rearrangement of normal word order that we find in prose. Some of the newer, more "contemporary" songs may also be poetical.

Poetry is more difficult to process. But it is also more elegant, and it may be more moving. There is a reason why artists have expressed themselves in poetry. There is a reason why God had the psalms composed in poetry. (It is well to note that the book of Psalms, which is Hebrew poetry, is the original, inspired ancient hymnbook of the people of God.) So there is a trade-off here between ease on the one hand and depth on the other. There is no simple solution for modern leaders.

We may note also that various kinds of content can be found both in newer and older songs, and may be expressed in either newer or older musical styles. The issue of content is a distinct issue that needs its own attention.

Emotional Connection

Next, leaders need to choose songs with which the congregation can "connect" emotionally. Earlier, we saw that congregational singing is a form of teaching (Col. 3:16). The word teaching might suggest to some people a narrow focus on information and on intellectual content. Yes, intellectual content is one aspect of it. But the great commandment says that "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37). Our response to God is not merely intellectual ("your mind"). We are to love him with every aspect of our being. That includes emotional engagement. It includes application to our lives, and application in depth includes the depths of our personalities. Sometimes the best music engages our emotions and our depths more effectively than a straightforward statement without music.

So what choice of music is best? What kind of music best engages people emotionally? It depends on the person. Here the issue of musical styles and genres comes to the surface. There is no one answer that fits every individual equally. People are different. The internet makes it possible for each individual to select music in his favorite style, from his favorite band, from his favorite composer or soloist. He may find that he "connects" to some extent with some other styles. Or he may not.

Leaders have a real challenge here. The church is the body of Christ. It welcomes everyone who is a follower of Christ, not simply the people who might come together at a concert because they all enjoy one kind of music or one kind of song. Not everyone is immediately going to connect emotionally with any one style of music. Such a situation calls for both wisdom and flexibility.

Musical Style

So we have to deal with the difficult issue concerning styles of music. What kind of music should go with the words in congregational singing? The "worship wars" seem sometimes to involve primarily a fight about musical styles. Should the music be "contemporary" or "traditional"?

If we love each other, we need to respect preferences of the people in the congregation. These preferences can go deep. It can be hard to adjust to a style that is not one's preference. The primary need here is the need to find ways to love each other and to understand sympathetically the contrary preferences of other people in the congregation: "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4).

There is also an issue here concerning differences in cultures. Throughout the world, various cultures grow up surrounded by musical styles familiar to that culture. Christians in various cultures should be encouraged to develop Christian songs that use the musical resources of their culture. Congregational singing should not sound "foreign," but subtly reinforce the principle that the gospel is designed by God for every ethnic group and every people group in the world.[2]

But it is also possible for individual Christians to adjust. They can learn to be patient in coming to appreciate a style that they did not grow up with, but which has its own internal coherence and is capable of being used as music for congregational singing. If a congregation is multi-ethnic, everyone has to adjust to the presence of people with other cultural backgrounds. Sometimes the solution may be a "blended" worship that contains more than one musical style.

In addition, I would like to suggest that there are some other challenges about music, which are distinct from the well-known polarization between "contemporary" and "traditional" Christian music. They have to do with the appropriateness of the music to the words and to the goals of congregational singing.

For one thing, the mood of the music should support the mood of the words. In America, a happy-sounding, bouncing tune does not go well with words about Christian suffering or repentance from sin. A heavy tune in a minor key does not go well with words of joyful celebration.

Second, the music needs to be singable, and singable by people with no training in music. Some Christian composers write music for the specific purpose of congregational singing. But other musicians have other purposes. They may want their music to express their own overwhelming thoughts and experiences. In addition, they may want the music to be "interesting," or to be "beautiful," or to be of high quality in complexity.

In many cases in a non-Christian environment, composers write music in order to perform it themselves, or to have it performed by others who have musical skills. The goal is expression by the composer, and subordinately by the other performers. People who are performers may look for music that satisfies them as performers. This preference for performance also arises because the great majority of music, in nearly all the styles in current active use in the Western world, is composed primarily to be performed, and not primarily to be sung by untrained people. (Except for teachers of music, how many musicians deliberately try to produce music to be used by untrained people? How often does a family or a group of people get together to sing some pop songs together?)

If a song is really catchy, it may end up being sung by many people. But in many cases the initial orientation in producing a song is towards performance and towards the musical excellence that makes performance more effective. The orientation is also towards expressing the thoughts and emotions and moods and subtleties of the composer and the performer.

This predominant practice in the larger world of secular music has to be taken into account when we consider what music is suitable for congregational singing. Such music needs to be produced not primarily for performance, but for participation by the congregation.

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]    Arguments supporting the view that the Bible is the word of God have been offered in many places. We will not repeat them here. We may note that there is a dispute on another point: some people ("exclusive psalmists") advocate restricting congregational singing to the 150 psalms. We cannot take time here to consider this dispute.

[2]    I am grateful to Virginia Whitney for her guidance with respect to music in different cultures.