Last week we began discussing the different components that should be considered when selecting music for corporate worship. Having examined the textual components, let’s turn our attention to the musical and associative components.
Ultimately, the text is not the only aspect of a song that communicates. Music communicates and expresses emotions. It can be utilized to express God’s Truth in a way that resonates with our minds and hearts differently than simply stating truths. This is where the musical aspects of melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, form, instrumentation, etc. come into play. Just as text should be understandable, music utilized in congregational worship should be singable and accessible.
A congregational song should be singable melodically, rhythmically, and intervallically (the distance between subsequent notes). Many songs written for the radio do not have these qualities. They were specifically written with the performer in mind. This performer spends ample time learning the ins and outs of a song before recording it in a studio that cuts out the blunders and splices clips together in order to present a perfect rendition of the song. In congregational singing, we desire to minimize sections that could easily cause musical blunders because it distracts from our purpose: glorifying God and edifying each other.
The melody should be understandable and somewhat predictable. The range should not extend too high or too low. The rhythms should not be overly syncopated (that is, movements should not be unpredictable or jagged). And the distance from one note to the next should not be difficult to gauge. All this ensures that the entire congregation is able to participate.
This term needs clarification by the standards of today. Accessibility is often associated with immediacy. When I say a song should be accessible, I do not mean that it should be immediately caught onto by the entire congregation. Accessibility simply means that it is learnable.
It takes time, focus, and repetition for a new song to be fully appreciated. Intentionally listen to the musical components. Reflect on the text. Consider the truth that both are presenting and you may find a new favorite song!
These components are often overlooked in the daily lives of believers, yet they should be considered heavily. Association affects both the textual and musical aspects of congregational song evaluation. Also, what is appropriate to express to a holy God?
Careful attention should be given not only to technical definition of words, but also associated meanings in the time and location in which they are used. Vernacular changes with time. Just as using terms like “groovy” are no longer customary, we should be diligent to guard against colloquialism within our singing.
These cautions are equally given of musical presentation. It is also important to realize that musical expression is, at its foundation, a form of communication. God may have created pitch and other musical components, but it is man who orders them. Seeing as how man orders music and music is a form of communication, it follows that music (just like any other method of communication) is not free from the corrupt touch of the Fall.
If one were to put “Christian” lyrics to a popular song that contained suggestive content or explicit language, the immediate thought that goes through the listener’s mind is to harken back to the original lyrics. The same can be said for love songs, rock ballads, and anything else! What is the music associated with? We must steer clear of associating worship with any negative, worldly elements.
Finally, as we guard against worldliness in the theology of our text and the communication of our music, we must validate that both are appropriate to bring before a holy God. Do the lyrics describe the relationship between a righteous Savior and His purchased people or do they speak more to a romantic love between a man and a woman? Are the references to God’s deity respectful and awe-inspiring or are they overly comfortable and familiar as earthly friends might be? Does the melody, tempo, or rhythm match the message? Is the gospel truth trivialized in the attempt to express a lively beat? Is the same reverence achieved by the text complimented by the musical elements?
The truth of God’s Word is worthy of song! We are commanded as His people to sing His praises. As a command, it is just as important as praying together, reading Scripture together, taking communion together, hearing the Word preached, and any other biblically mandated activity for the gathered church. It is important to weigh what we sing by Scripture textually, musically, and associatively. Who we worship regulates how we worship. How we worship reflects Who we worship. This should impress upon us an urgency for personal and corporate evaluation.
In a day and time where everything is relative, subjective, and nebulous, it is easy to let this secular worldview influence us when the church gathers for corporate worship. So, why do we worship? And how should we worship? If you were to take a poll from the people in the pews, you would get mixed sentiments based on differing understandings of worldview and Scriptural understanding. Some say, “How we worship is up to us.” Others propose, “As long as it is heart-felt and addresses God, it cannot be a bad thing.” Still others offer, “We must feel like worshiping if we are to participate in authentic worship.” Throughout Scripture, however, worship directives and goals are abundantly clear. Briefly put, our worship should accomplish a twofold goal: glorify our God and edify His people.
Ultimately we seek to glorify God. We must be willing to submit everything – desires, preferences, thoughts, actions, etc. – to the truth of God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16, James 4:7). Our Lord has consistently detailed in His Word how He desires to be worshiped. Only when we recognize God’s revelation of Truth can we respond in a way that is in line with His will. This obedient response is worship.
Secondly, we must edify our brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11). This is achieved when focus is taken away from our personal preferences and circumstances and directed towards those with whom we are worshiping. This is not terribly difficult when our focus is turned to a holy God to begin with! However, we are not to simply to give into a menagerie of preferences (1 Corinthians 10:23). Each and every element of a worship service must be once again measured against the Word of God because nothing is better at building up than the Truth that He has given (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
So, if God alone has the prerogative to dictate how we worship Him, how should the gathered, corporate church of God select songs for use in worship? When evaluating music, there are several key components to understand. Melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, instrumentation, text (if applicable), and associations come to mind in an abbreviated list. For the purposes of our assessment, we will deal with textual components (theology, craftsmanship, and subject), musical components (melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, etc.), and associative components (association and appropriateness).
Let us take a detailed look into each of these components.
Probably the most discernable way that music communicates is through the text itself. If there are problems within the text, a song is not fit for corporate worship of a Holy God. Let’s break down the components of text…
Right off the bat we know that the theology we proclaim is important whether that be through sermon or song. Theology set to music often overrules theology simply spoken. There is something compelling and memorable about music. Information set to music is more easily recalled (i.e. the alphabet song). Most Christians know more theology than they realize simply because they have been singing in church for years. Holy, Holy, Holy teaches the on the doctrine of the Trinity. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross teaches the pain and triumph of Christ on the Cross. We Believe teaches and affirms foundational beliefs that God’s people have held for centuries.
Poor theology can be easily hidden by a catchy tune or beautiful harmony. Dig deep! Ask yourself, does this song express biblical truth? Where is this truth expressed in Scripture? Is the truth presented complete or does it beg for extensive clarification? We want to be as direct and clear as possible in the theology we teach through any medium!
Craftsmanship speaks to the poetry of the lyrics. Is the truth conveyed clearly? Once the truth is understandable, one can examine the prose for beauty as well. The ebb and flow of language, the construction of sentences, speaks volumes for a song’s message. How you are saying the truth communicates just as much as what you are saying. Does the word choice flow in a pleasing, beautiful way? Word choice can make a song timeless or restricted in use due to colloquialisms/vernaculars and slang.
As words are used to communicate, it is vital that we consider who is the subject of the song. In a day of narcissism and hyper-emotionalism, we often use songs that express to God how He makes us feel. When we do this, we are in a sense exalting ourselves and our feelings over the great and glorious God that is worthy of all our praise. There is nothing wrong with remembering what God has done for us and continues to do for us, but we should make these musical expressions to and about God as we sing His praise, confess our unworthiness, accept His forgiveness, express thanksgiving, or submit to Him. We must remove ourselves from the center of our songs and make sure that God is the focus of our worship instead of ourselves.
Next week we will further discuss the musical and associative components.