Church Music: Content, Unity, & Style

“Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
-Col. 3:16, ESV

My pastor is preaching through Colossians this summer; and he covered chapter 3, verses 12-17 this past Sunday. This triggered some new thoughts in my mind about how we should select songs for our worship services.

My priorities, in order, are: content, unity, and style. 

1. Content
First and foremost, the content of a song needs to be true. The words need to communicate something and that something needs to be biblically accurate. I also believe that that communication needs to balance theological depth with clarity. In other words, I’m still glad to sing “A mighty fortress is our God,” even though no one knows what a bulwark is in anymore; but we need to be careful with overusing songs like this that need translation.

If we’re honest, there is a tendency in the human heart to view archaic things (even archaic language) as sacred simply because it’s archaic (think the KJV-only mindset). We need to resist this urge. Theological depth doesn’t mean we have to talk like Puritans. Every language in every time period has the capacity to communicate clearly and robustly.

[And just so I’m being fair: some also tend to consider me-centered, self-help psychology language in our worship songs to be sacred too.]

Why do I place content first in my priorities?

Because here in Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul makes a direct connection between “The word of Christ” and singing. One of the ways in which the word is to dwell richly among us is in our singing.

For this reason, I think one of the best practices in song writing is to paraphrase or summarize specific passages of Scripture. Also, one of the great features of many hymns is the movement from addressing sin or struggle to proclaiming the gospel and future glory (e.g. “It is Well,” “O Great God”).

 

2. Unity.
In the context of Colossians 3, and other similar passages in the New Testament, unity in local church worship is of the utmost importance.

Col. 3:12-14 says, “Put on then…compassionate hearts…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Ephesians 5:21 says, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for God.”
And 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “Let all things be done for building up.”

Unity under content and over style means that each church member exhibits passionate devotion to the truths of God’s word and deference toward the others’ preferences. In a context of obvious diversity, one should find themselves regularly and joyfully thinking: “This song isn’t really ‘my thing,’ but I’m so glad that it ministers to the mind and heart of my brother or sister.” This is what Paul means in Philippians 2 when he says, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

 

3. Style
Every culture in the world has its own unique expressions of worship; and this, so long as it is biblical, is beautiful. It is a picture of the diversity of the kingdom of God, and we should celebrate this diversity.

I don’t think that this means that every church must become as culturally diverse as possible; but, let’s be honest, at this point there seems to be little danger of that. As Lecrae pointed out, “Most segregated time of day is Sunday service / Now what you think that say about the God you worship?”

Truth is, just like we tend to consider archaic or emotional language sacred, we all tend to think of our favorite worship style as sacred. And that’s where the southern American church went wrong 20+ years ago. “Traditional” and “Contemporary” church members alike used their tongues to “bless our Lord and Father, and…curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas. 3:9). They sacrificed unity on the altar of preference.

Yep. For me, this subject always seems to come back around to the regret I feel for what was and what could have been. Instead of gently integrating new styles of music into the church, the young started talking against “the old people;” and instead of being excited about and accepting of new cultural expressions of worship, it was said that we were letting the world’s (or the Devil’s!) music in. And the result looked more like Darwin’s rapid and catastrophic evolution of species than the advancement of the kingdom of God.

I truly believe that if the southern American church had prioritized depth and clarity of content (particularly on the contemporary side) and unity (on both sides) over style in the 90s and early 2000s, our churches would be healthier today and our witness to the world would be much more convincing.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back.
But we can move forward.
And I pray we will, with theologically rich, edifying singing.