What Every Elder Needs to Know About Congregational Singing

One of the most prominent aspects of our worship is singing and music. So how can we help guarantee that ruling elders are qualified to deal thoughtfully, biblically, and practically with these matters? It is rare for sessions or consistories to have among their ranks professionally-trained musicians. The outcome is then inevitable: when issues of music arise, we either argue for what we are familiar with, or we do not care much at all. There is a better way, though, and it begins with elders recognizing that matters pertaining to singing and music in corporate worship fall squarely in line with their calling to shepherd Christ’s church. Protecting and promoting the right and reverent worship of God goes beyond ensuring sound doctrine is taught from the pulpit—it means ensuring that sound doctrine is sung from the pews, and sung in a way that is unifying and edifying to the saints and glorifying to God. Furthermore, church music is often a tense and volatile subject. Disagreements are inevitable, and deep church division is not uncommon. It is paramount that the elders be prepared to articulate, defend, and take the lead in implementing Christ-centered and God-honoring worship music to their congregations.

In this article, we will focus on the “what?” of congregation singing.

What We Sing

We sing because we are commanded to do so. Furthermore, we sing for the purpose of praising God’s person and work, to speak directly to God and make our requests known to him, and we sing in order to proclaim his truth and thereby edify and build up our fellow worshipers. But what about the content, shape, and sound of our songs? How do we know that we are singing the right things? The following criteria should be met in the songs we use in corporate worship.

Acceptable to God

First, the words and music we employ must be acceptable to God. That means that textually our songs need to be biblically rich, God-centered, and Christ-focused. This is the exact opposite of self-centered or purely emotive and subjective worship music. When we sing in worship our primary concern should not be our feelings but rather God—who he is and what he has done for us. This is not to say that our singing cannot or should not be emotional—the Psalms would argue otherwise; but the focus of the Psalms, even through the psalmist’s emotion, is God. Good hymns will therefore primarily focus on God’s works of creation and redemption through Jesus Christ, as well as his attributes. Michael Horton writes that “the Biblical text never gives us the subjective (my experience or my offering of praise or obedience) apart from the objective (God’s saving work in Christ) . . . It never concentrates on what we are to do before establishing what God has already done.”1 Our songs should follow this same pattern: “All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn.”2

Regarding music, can we make any claims on what Christian songs should sound like? Terry Johnson writes, “Many are quick to point out that God has never given us a book of tunes. No, but he has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words.”3 The music must always be in service to the text. Tunes must be wed appropriately to their texts, allowing the singer to better draw out the meaning of the song. Our God is a God of order. Should we expect to please him with songs that have chaotic pairings of text and tune? In keeping with the subject matter, our music should at times be joyful, at other times sad, but always reverently fitting of praise to the God of the universe.

Accessible to Us

Appropriate worship music is not merely acceptable to God but must also be accessible to the congregants. By this I mean that our songs must be lyrically and melodically memorable and singable. Textually, this means using lyrics that employ the hallmarks of good English poetry. Rhyming and meter are important for memorization, as are things like parallelism and a thematic structure. Our songs should also utilize understandable language and avoid overly archaic or confusing terms. This does not mean that less familiar words must be eradicated. But accessible worship songs are ones that are consciously written for a corporate setting. The words should be as unifying as possible. As Jones writes, “Hymn singing is a forum in which a broad public encounters Christian doctrine; therefore, the poetry should permit the least educated to comprehend (although not necessarily at first reading), yet give the discerning mind something to ponder.”4

Musically the same is true. There is a wide range of musical abilities represented each week in every congregation. Melodies must be in singable ranges, and the intervals not too complex. Melodic cycles and sequences are crucial for learning tunes quickly, but vain repetition in a melody will soon grate on the congregation’s ears.

What About Psalms?

Even if your conviction is that the church should exclusively sing Psalms, the above criteria still apply to the settings of the psalms we use. If exclusive psalmody is not your position, it is an important one to familiarize yourself with as an elder since undoubtedly at some point in the life of a Reformed church the issue will be raised. Certain church orders give no leeway, dictating the use of the psalter exclusively. Other church orders give preference to the psalms5 while others remain silent on the issue. Though space restricts a full treatment of this important topic, some discussion is in order to help elders make thoughtfully informed decisions in this matter.

Consider the following points.

1. Psalmody is our heritage. By this I am referring not only to the fact that something close to exclusive psalmody was the sole practice among Presbyterian and Reformed churches up until 1740.6 I am referring to the fact that by faith we are grafted into the people of Abraham, into Israel, and the psalms are literally our history. Beyond its historical pedigree in our ecclesiastical circles, this fact should commend the singing of psalms to our churches. Moreover, the psalms belong not only to us but also to Jesus Christ himself. This was his songbook, sung by him, and it is meant to be sung for him as well. We can have full confidence that as we sing these inspired words we are pleasing our Lord. As John Calvin said, “There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God.”7 In an age when the church’s music is commonly marked by man-centered words and performances there may be no better remedy than to return psalm singing to its prominent place in the corporate worship of God’s people.

2. Hymnody is our heritage, too. While hymn singing took a prominent place in Christian public worship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (thanks in part to the likes of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley), it would be incorrect to assume it was nonexistent before then. On the contrary, there is a rich history of Christian hymnody reaching all the way back to the early church. Roman governor Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113) in a letter to the emperor Trajan observed a Christian worship service and noted that the people “meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.”8 We have today, and many churches still sing, hymns by Ambrose of Milan (c. 339–397), Gregory the Great (540–604), Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090–1153), Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).9 To dismiss hymnody out of hand by claiming it is novel ignores history. As children of the Reformation, it is impossible to deny the tie we have to hymnody. Hymnody was a hallmark of the Reformation and a vital aspect of its propagation, as we have already seen through the widely popular songs of Martin Luther. In this regard we should cherish hymnody and be proud of its history in the church.

3. The evidence in Scripture for extra-psalm worship songs. More important than the rich tradition of the church is the witness Scripture itself gives to the use of hymns. For one thing, we have Paul commanding the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). But, more than that, Paul himself seems to quote what many scholars agree are portions of ancient Christian hymns in Colossians 1 and Philippians 2. More explicit are the canticles we find at the opening of Luke’s Gospel. These are all instances of New Covenant hymnody included in the canon of Scripture not only for our edification but also for our worship.

4. A full salvation deserves a full song. Throughout the Bible we find God’s people often lift up their voices to praise the Lord at key revelations of his salvation and work. Israel sang immediately in response to their safe passage through the Red Sea (Ex. 15), Deborah and Barak praise God in song for his rescue (Judges 5), and Mary sang in response to the news that she would bear the Christ child (Luke 1:46–55). This side of the cross, are we not compelled to lift up our voices in praise to God for the work of Jesus Christ? Our singing should reflect—fully and explicitly—the work that God has done on our behalf through Jesus. This is also what Revelation 4 and 5 demonstrate for us. Of course, this conviction is what launched the career of Isaac Watts. He saw that the psalms got us almost the whole way there, yet he was determined to make explicit in his psalm settings how Christ has come in fulfillment of what the psalms portrayed and promised.

Beyond the Songbook

My assumption is that most Reformed churches use a common songbook that meets many of these criteria. That is great, but it can only get us so far.

Our singing should bring unity through diversity. As we raise our voices in one holy accord we display the power of the gospel to unite a group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Our singing should reflect that diversity as well. Most hymnals (due to space constraints) are unable to represent the breadth of cultural and experiential diversity present in the visible church. When appropriate, the pastor, guided by the elders, should have the freedom to introduce new songs for the congregation’s use that supplement the hymnal and meet this need.

Another obvious setback of any hymnal is that it remains frozen in the time it was published. Undoubtedly, though the psalms and many hymns of the faith have stood the test of time, we should also be singing the worship songs of today. Churches should promote the composition of hymns and worship music in every generation, and this can begin, in part, by the elders permitting the singing of God-centered, biblically rich, musically excellent new songs in corporate worship. Incidentally, a failure to introduce new music to a congregation is one reason why transitioning from one songbook to another can be a traumatic experience for a church.

Singing expresses the heart of the believer. It is a topic which generates much discussion, but when it is done properly, a congregation knows that they join a chorus of heavenly voices praising our great God. Recognize the privilege and honor we have of worshipping the Lord God.

1. Michael Horton, In the Face of God (Dallas: Word, 1996), 214.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 59.
3. Terry L. Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is According to Scripture (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2010), 36.
4. Jones, Singing and Making Music, 96.
5. CO, art. 39.
6. See D. G. Hart, “Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety,” in Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 61–77.
7. Beeke and Selvaggio, Sing a New Song, 18.
8. Pliny, Letters, 10.96
9. See Hughes Elephant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 40–42.

Rev. Jonathan Landry Cruse pastors Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

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