In recent decades, evangelical Christians have talked a lot about the “worship wars” happening in their churches. The debate is usually between so-called “traditional” worship songs (i.e. hymns) versus more contemporary music. In most places the dust has settled, but I think that arguing about musical style misses the point.
Style matters but the real battle lies elsewhere.
No matter whether our church has traditional or contemporary music, every worshipper is tempted to judge the value of the songs based on how much they like the music, not on the content of the lyrics. I myself face this struggle. There are some contemporary worship songs that I really enjoy musically even though the words are not much to write home about. So, should we use such songs in worship? Musical style has a big role in creating a certain feeling or atmosphere, but the lyrical content must always take precedence in choosing worship songs. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin had this to say about the issue:
Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words. Augustine also admits in another place that he was so disturbed by this danger that he sometimes wished to see established the custom observed by Athanasius, who ordered the reader to use so little inflection of the voice that he would sound more like a speaker than a singer. But when he recalled how much benefit singing had brought him, he inclined to the other side. Therefore, when this moderation is maintained, it is without any doubt a most holy and salutary practice. On the other hand, such songs as have been composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree. (Institutes 3.20.32)
The next time you are singing in church, ask yourself these questions, “What am I really singing here? What does it mean? Do I really believe it?”
When you step back and really think about the words of the songs you are singing, the results can be surprising. Some songs are devoid of any real content, and others have shockingly good content, which we never thought about because we were too wrapped up in the music to notice the words.
The mark of a good worship song is words and music that complement each other and direct our hearts and minds to Christ.
Photo: David Ball