Holier Than Thou: Repetitive Songs Versus Wordy Hymns

Churches often fight over music styles. Which is best: experiential worship focused on personalized and often repetitive songs, or cognitively centered worship centered on content rich new and time-tested hymns? Who wins? Who is right and who is wrong?

I have dealt with this struggle first hand. From growing up in a Mennonite church that struggled to accept instruments in worship, to leading worship in multi-stylistic churches, the arguments remain generally the same.

Here are the common objections I have heard to simpler, shorter, more personal and experiential worship songs (Breathe; Everlasting God; Come, Now Is the Time to Worship; etc.):

  • They are light on theology and heavy on feelings.
  • They are repetitious (7-11 songs, meaning 7 words repeated 11 times).
  • They have not “stood the test of time.”
  • They are heavy on clichés and devoid of literary excellence.

Here are the common objections I hear to more cognitive and content rich hymns (Great Is Thy Faithfulness; Immortal, Invisible; Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; etc.):

  • They stay in the head and never reach the heart.
  • They are too “wordy.”
  • The language is outdated and inaccessible.
  • The style of music is outdated.

When talking about these subjects I find it helpful to step back and take in the larger view.

What kind of music is mentioned in the Bible, and does God give us any directions about what to sing? What songs have actually stood the test of time, and are the worship arguments of today mirrored anywhere in history?

God, the Bible, and Music

The Bible mentions all types of instruments and voices, short and long songs, theological and personal songs, songs for every mood and event in life, and repetitive and content rich songs.

The first music mentioned in the Bible is instrumental. Jubal was a maker of flutes and stringed instruments, Genesis says.

David and other leaders wrote the largest book in the Bible, the Psalms. This book has both the shortest (Psalm 117) and the longest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 119) and both are profound. The tone of the music ranges from wildly celebrative to subdued, depressed, and raging. Some of the language is lofty and theological, even prophetic. Other psalms are intensely personal prayers. Some psalms contain regular refrains every other line or so.

In the New Testament Paul encourages us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The word for “hymn” actually denotes music accompanied by stringed instruments. Psalms obviously came from the book of the Bible of the same name, and spiritual songs probably were Scripture songs.

Revelation is full of worship, but most of it is extremely repetitive. The elders and the flying beasts around the throne say one or two phrases over and over throughout eternity without stopping. The great multitude sings a song with a very short text.

Music and the Litmus Test of Time

The mass texts and A Mighty Fortress are great examples of ancient, time-tested music. These pieces of music are heavy in content and theology and have strong, crafted shapes and melodies.

The Hallelujah Chorus is a classic, yet it has very few words repeated many, many times. The theology is simple, ad the text is based on the worship scenes in Revelation.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Great Thou Art have been around less than two centuries, but they are staples of worship because of the beauty and transcendence of their language.

Many more hymns, however, have been lost to time. Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns; comparatively very few of them are in use today. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck set every Psalm to music in elegant, complex choral settings hundreds of years ago.

New music has always been suspect. Many renounced the revivalist music that came out in the late 1800s because it was too experiential and light on theology. Yet these hymns brought us many of the testimony hymns we know today, such as Higher Ground and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.

Making Sense of It All

Perhaps you know where I am heading with this conversation. My feelings on the matter can be summed up in this sentence:

Just as the wide diversity of the people whom God has called to be his own demonstrates the rich and varied love of the Savior, so the span of musical styles from pre-Classical to the newest pop song reveals his profound message.

God is no respecter of persons or styles. If a style bothers you, I challenge you to find something positive about that style. If God is able to use you and me, he can definitely use any style of music he chooses.

What style of music is most challenging for you, and why? What positive aspect can you discover in that style?

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How to Evaluate Your Church’s Music

Every worship ministry leader should evaluate the congregational music they are teaching their church, but what should be the criteria?

  • Style?
  • Tempo?
  • Guitar-led versus keyboard-led?
  • Singability?
  • Ease of learning for the band?
  • Newness?

Blue Hollow-Body Electric Guitar

The list of possible criteria is endless.  Every person would probably have a different take on this question simply from personal experience and preference.

In every church job I have had to evaluate our music to see what was missing or in need of shoring up, and I have yet to completely figure it out myself.  There are, however, several criteria that stand out to me.

Doctrine

Teach the whole truth of Scripture through your music.

Over the centuries people have formed their views about God based on their songs.  The Solid Rock taught them that Christ is a reliable, faithful, and dependable God.  Higher Ground taught them that they needed to be pressing forward in their walk with Christ in anticipation of his coming.  It Is Well taught them that even in the midst of extremely difficult times, God was with them.

Theology and doctrine are better caught than taught, and so we must select our music with care, making certain that what we are impressing on people’s hearts through music clearly speaks the truth.  Your Grace Is Enough is a standard reminding us that salvation is through grace and not by works.  In Christ Alone reminds us that Christ is the only way.  Cornerstone gives us the truth of The Solid Rock in a refreshing current setting.

Genre

Keep a range of styles or genres in your church’s music rotation.

Every church has a distinct fingerprint in regards to musical style.  My friend’s church in California is explicitly a rock-n-roll church.  The last church I worked at focused on current and cutting edge music while remaining open to different styles.

The church where I work now has a fingerprint comprised of classical and classic worship elements in one service and more contemporary elements in another service.  Diversity is highly valued, however.

Never paint yourself into a corner stylistically.  Try new things.  Paint with more than one color when it comes to style.

Tempo

Life has its ups and downs, so the tempi of your songs should vary.

I find it helpful to divide songs up into Fast, Medium, and Slow songs.  Just doing Fast songs in a service feels like telling people to perk up even if they are having a bad day.  Playing all Slow songs is just depressing.  A steady diet of Medium tempo songs is like drinking lukewarm water.

Just as in the area of doctrine you should embrace the whole of Scripture, so through tempo you should acknowledge the span of emotions and life experiences.  A response should be in keeping with the element evoking the response.  A delicate moment should include softer music, and celebration should be high energy and passionate.

Singability

Allow for more current syncopated rhythms and wide ranges, but make certain that the range and the rhythms of the melody are singable.

If the people do not sing with us, we have failed.  Recently I introduced All Things New, from Elevation Church.  The lyrics have a good message and we needed a song in a slower tempo.

The melody, however, has problems.  The range is extremely wide and the melody is not terribly comfortable to sing, so we probably will not bring that song back.

A song like O Praise Him from David Crowder, while having an extremely syncopated melody, works because the melody is strong and moves somewhere.  The range is reasonable as well, and the message is good.

These four areas are my primary grid for evaluating new songs.  I look at other things as well, but these are the primary touchpoints for me.

What criteria do you use to evaluate the standard worship music at your church?