Music in churches is a tricky topic. It stands at a chaotic confluence of personal preferences and impulses about the direction and purpose of the church itself. Sorting out all of these debates is impossible in a piece like this one, nor do I have any interest in trying.
That said, one of the problems with such debates is that they often lack a set of basic categories on which participants can agree. We often boil debates down to a simple spectrum of “traditional” vs. “blended” vs. “contemporary.” I often get asked, “What kind of music do you do at your church?” My canned response - “Hopefully, the kind that glorifies God” - is almost never what people are wondering about. Yet it seems to me that those concerns, along with others that transcend such stylistic categories, are what we really should be talking about. Regardless of approach or instrumentation, there are a number of deeper levels at which we should all be examining our musical choices.
My hope in what follows is to lay out twelve such criteria, grouped into four broad questions – those of lyrics, music, their function in the broader liturgy (structure of a service) and the sources from which we draw them. All of these criteria are intended to be style-neutral. Admittedly, some of them might prejudice certain parts of the discussion. I readily admit that I have biases, although they don't simplistically fit on the spectrum. Mostly, I am biased toward musical creativity and variety in the church rather than accepting any overly-predictable paradigm. That said, I hope the following will help as we talk about church music and how to do it well.