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  Some Notes About Church MusicTuesday, February 27th, 2024  
© John Mark Ministries

'Sing for joy to the Lord, all the earth; praise him with songs and shouts of joy!' (Psalm 98:4). 'Christ's message in all its richness must live in your hearts. Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom. Sing psalms, hymns and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts' (Colossians 3:16).

For most worshippers music is an important vehicle for praise; for some, it's the most important; for a few it's almost the only way they express their love for the Lord! Music is colour, emotion, lyric and message of universal appeal. Christian music may range from medieval plainsong to the psalms of Calvin or the hymns of Luther or modern rock opera, folk musicals, or 'Scripture in song'. Music can be the best medium to plumb the depths of the crucifixion, or the pathos of Jeremiah's lamentations, or our protests against violence, war, pollution, injustice, poverty, despair and other human sins. We can put heartfelt feelings into song we could never express in speech. No wonder the church has such a rich and vast storehouse of musical treasures.

Many of our great traditional hymns got their start in taverns or on the countryside as folk melodies. That is so appropriate: our music should emanate from the same milieu as the incarnation itself - the commonality of common people. However many hymns are self-centred: 'original sin set to music'. Unfortunately most songs from the earlier stages of the charismatic renewal were about 'what God has done for me' - 'God loves me and I love him ain't that nice!' It is, but praise is more that extolling nice feelings. Very few of our hymns are addressed to God. Singing should be from both heart and mind: 'hearty and thoughtful'. An occasional hymn may be nostalgic, linking us with our roots ('the church in the wildwood') or sentimental ('the dew on the roses'): but too many of these makes worship syrupy and subjective.

Be careful to avoid too much repetition with more thoughtful congregations: throughout history, repeated 'refrains' served to help illiterate people learn hymns and songs. Today most Westerners can read. And never announce a hymn by saying 'And now to stretch our legs we'll sing hymn number...!'

A note about choirs. In my experience choirs often worship, not with the congregation, but instead of it. Choral and other 'musical items' are not mere performances. 'Now the choir will give us their item' is utterly inappropriate. Music ought to be a vehicle, transporting us to God (or the word of God to us).

Plan your music well, and perform it well. In a TV age, bad music won't be tolerated. Larger churches can produce more excellent music: most of them do. But be careful: the church does not exist for music, but music for the church (some of my Salvation Army friends need to note this).

More and more 'mainline' churches are learning from the charismatic renewal about sung praise. I recently visited a conservative evangelical church where they stood or sat for 20 minutes of adoration of the Lord. It began with the cong- regation quietly joining the band in a beautiful praise-song. This continued for one or two more songs, then the leader got us standing for 'Majesty' (always stand for that!). The leader was unobtrusive, the instruments blended well, and together moved the praise along with the overhead projector transparencies. When we finished everyone wanted more! It was beautiful!

You'll need to gently lead God's people if they aren't used to this sort of thing. But it can be done gradually. For example, you can lead from the hymn 'O Worship the King' to 'O Come let us Adore Him': the people may be surprised, but it will be a blessing. Try some innovations, but don't change everything every week. (Yesterday I had lunch with a pastor who tried in vain to get a congregation of Presbyterians to join in an Easter 'Rite of Laughter'! If you want a challenge, try it sometime!). Some people can worship comfortably by singing and clapping their hands above their heads at the same time. Others feel uncomfortable, not only doing that, but by being in the presence of fellow-worshippers who are doing it. How do we deal with all this? Segregate the clappers from the others, in two separate services, perhaps. But educate both groups.

A note about 'Singing in the Spirit'. This is the term used to describe what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 14:15. In charismatic/pentecostal churches it is a song of worship either in tongues or in the vernacular. The sound can be beautiful, as the congregation blends their melodies into harmonies and counterpoint. But like any other good thing, it can be ritualized and formalized, rather than 'led by the Spirit'.

Instruments? Some churches still don't like them (19th century Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon said he would like to have filled all the organ pipes in England with concrete!) despite the clear precedents such as Psalm 150, and the fact that the temple of Jerusalem had a guild of musicians as well as a guild of singers. 1 Chronicles 25:1 mentions instrumentalists who used their musical skill to accompany 'prophesying'. The Brethren assembly I grew up in sang 'a capella' every Sunday morning, and it was often quite beautiful, when certain voices were present.

These days, you can make this generalization around the televised world: the churches that worship the same way their grandparents did are declining; the churches that have more than organ/piano accompanying the singing in the main Sunday worship service are more likely to be growing...

Music helps churches come alive: work hard at it!

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