One Good Thing About Hymnals
“One thing I like about hymnals,” the older church member told me, “is it gives me an idea of whether to go up or down when we sing a song.” He didn’t know how to read music. He just knew that when the notes went up on the page they were sung higher than those lower down.
I was leading music for the church services at the time. The pastors asked me to do it off and on, sometimes for a year at a time while they looked to hire someone as music director or worship pastor. I’m not a master guitar player, but I am good at leading singing and good enough on guitar to play rhythm while a group of much better musicians helps make it all sound good.
The Point of Singing Together
The Bible is full of songs written by people who love God. Some of them are meant for group singing (Psalm 134’s song of ascent, for example) while other songs seem designed to listen to rather than join in with. (Such as Mary’s song.)
Paul tells us that it is good for God’s people to sing together:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16.)
The Bible doesn’t get specific on the style of music, and if it did I don’t think we’d understand it today any more than Paul would have understood what we mean in describing the differences between hip-hop, blue grass, back-beat rhythm, and a waltz. Paul’s lack of specificity tells me that music offered in worship to God does not depend on style.
What matters is substance. Paul said these psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit are to be sung to God with grateful hearts and to one another for teaching and admonishment. This can be done in a gathering of God’s people (corporate worship) by someone singing a song for the gathering or by the gathering of people signing together.
Trouble comes when the person leading the worship music mixes up those two modes of worship.
Sunday Morning Cover Bands
Most churches I’ve attended over the last 30 years have gotten away from hymnals and organ music, where a single person stands at the front of the body of believers and leads everyone to sing together what is on the printed page.
Rather, the music is presented by a group of musicians where one person (or perhaps two or three trading off) leads everyone in singing. Sometimes there’s “special music” where the musicians and singers present a song for the congregation to listen to but not sing along with. Both modes are great and the band can choose music of any style from any source as long as it follows Paul’s instruction to sing with gratitude to God and to encourage one another.
This includes choosing music being played on Christian pop music radio. I’ve heard a lot of good music on those stations, at times better than is found on some rarely used pages in a hymnal. Yet like the songs found in the Bible, not all of the music on the radio lends itself to corporate worship.
A person leading worship music needs to learn how to discern the difference. It can take experience and an understanding of what corporate music is for, and it can take an awareness of how to bring people alongside you in these opportunities for Spirit-led worship.
Some tips from a guy who did it for a long while:
- Get the basics right. Review the music’s words to make sure they square with scripture. There are a lot of songs, both on the radio and in hymnals, that don’t carry good doctrine. Just because a song has a good hook doesn’t mean it should be used in worship.
- Take a walk on the wild side. There’s nothing wrong with playing a song with a style wildly different from what the group is used to. But recognize there will be people who will find it hard to join in with you. Take the time to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can come along with you in worshiping God through that song.
- Lead people to come along with you. If it’s a song everyone knows well – Amazing Grace, perhaps – this is a cinch. If it’s a new song, you might encourage everyone to take a seat as you sing through the first verse and the chorus, then invite them to stand and join you in singing that again and continuing through the song.
- Corporate singing is for singing together. Resist the temptation to take off on your own. Whether it’s a song familiar to the group or a new piece of music, the people in the congregation need your leadership, not your showmanship. Are you a woman whose ability to soar through the registers without breaking a sweat would impress Beyoncé and Celine Dion? Are you a man who can fly around a note and land back on it without ever going off key? Congratulations. Save it for the special music solos. Corporate worship is for singing together as a body and that means staying with the notes the congregation is expecting to sing.
- You’re not the worship leader. The person leading God’s people in worship is God himself, the Holy Spirit. When I led music for congregational singing my prayer with the music team every week was that we would set ourselves aside and that the Spirit would a) use us to show Jesus to the people in the congregation, and b) work in the congregation to bring glory to God.
Paul wrote on the subject of worship music to more than one church, but his instructions to the Ephesians below are strikingly similar to those he sent to the Colossians and are based on the premise that all of this is done by being Spirit-led.
[B]e filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20.)
Notice how he directs your attention to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in those lines. This is how you know you are presenting songs worth singing. When you are filled with the Spirit and bring people alongside as you sing you will find that you are making music together to the Lord.