What Makes Church Music Good?
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.
Lyrically, songs should be biblical, theological, and personal.
Biblical – This should perhaps be a given, but our songs should be rooted in the Bible. This means more than simply “not being unbiblical,” although I suppose that is a good starting place. We want the words we sing to be rooted in biblical language and imagery. We want the storyline and events of Scripture to permeate our worship.
There is particular value in songs that directly call God's people to sing parts of Scripture. Given the power song has over memory, it would be foolish for us not to use it to get as much of God's word as possible into the minds and hearts of those singing. Obviously, not all songs need to be such transliterations, but they should occupy a special place in our worship repertoire.
Theological – Good worship music has content. People should, as they sing and come to know it, grow in their understanding of the Christian faith. This does not mean songs should become treatises – more on that below – but it does mean that they should communicate a robust understanding of God and His work in the world.
How do we tell if a song is theological? Perhaps the best test is to ask whether it only states truths about God or whether it explains them. To say that God is good, love, awesome, or whatever adjective we wish to apply isn't enough – the song ought to explain what those words mean. Bad worship music expects the hearers to supply the content for those words, and inasmuch as the hearers lack that content, it cannot function. Good worship music actually trains the hearers in what those words mean – the best songs, if memorized and understood, actually serve as teaching for believers.
Personal – Taking the Psalms as our guide, we want to approach the first two points in a way that personally engages the singers both individually and together as Christ's body. While singing should be doctrinal, it should not become doctrinaire. The particular medium of music exists not simply to communicate truth but rather to teach our hearts how to feel about those truths. More than that, Biblical music addresses such truths to our personal situations. The Psalmists regularly take their lived experiences in the world, including things like fear, suffering, and brokenness, and then apply the hope of God as a salve to those wounds.
One of our consistent struggles in this regard is to distinguish between the personal and the emotive. Perhaps the best way to recognize this distinction is in terms of what it is within the song that calls us to worship. Too often, lyrics focus on simply willing ourselves to do what God requires. Some worship music is simply a laundry list of “things I do” - praise, love, clap, etc. Such responsive elements are not wrong, but they are meant to be responsive. There must always be a recognition of some truth about God that underlies them. Otherwise, we are relying on the music rather than God's truth to effect change in our congregants.
Musically, songs should be accessible, appropriate, and diverse.
Accessible – Songs in worship are meant for singing. Obviously, learning any new music is a challenge. However, there are musical realities that can make it more and less challenging. Good worship music should have a singable and relatively simple melody line and rhythm, a reasonable range, minimal difficult intervals, and less ornamentation than would be found in performance-oriented pieces. This does not mean such songs need to be boring, but if congregants fail to sing because the music eludes them even with effort, we have failed at our task.
Appropriate – The purpose of liturgical music is to wed the emotive power of the song with the truths of the text. The simplest failure in this regard is when there is an obvious disconnect between the two – a mournful minor key calling for joyful praise, for example, or a peppy anthem about sin and struggle. There is no simple rule here, and we should beware of how peculiarities of taste might shape our sense of what is appropriate, but as much as possible we want harmony not just between the musical elements but also with the words that accompany them.
Diverse – One of the traps many churches fall into is to make worship music into a genre. This can happen in music whether it is contemporary (soft rock, pop ballads) or traditional (rinky-dink camp revival songs, dragging organ dirges). Our people occupy a world with a variety of musical styles, and we should utilize as many of them as possible to serve the texts we use. In our day, this is especially needful as we think about churches serving people from varied backgrounds. A worship regimen that includes elements of folk, gospel, blues, and even international music communicates the diversity of Christ's body without ever needing to say anything about it.
One clarification to all three of the above points. Obviously, the implementation of such ideas will be tempered by the giftings and abilities of those involved. While musical proficiency is important in order to keep the congregation from being distracted, musical excellence is something we will realize in different (and always imperfect) degrees based on who is serving the church. This is fine – music is meant to be a ministry of some congregants to others, not a professional show to be consumed and critiqued. However, we are all called to grow in our thoughtfulness and skill as we serve the body, and music is not an exception.
Liturgically, songs should be congregational, holistic, and God-glorifying.
Congregational – Gathered worship is a participatory event, and we should be doing everything in our power to help the congregation participate in singing. The primary instrument in any worship service should be the voices of God's people. There are musical choices we can make, whether through overly-performative contemporary music or resounding pipe organs and choral complexity, that implicitly discourage folks from singing. This is destructive both because it teaches those in such services that worship is primarily the duty of the few people up front and because it deprives them of the soul-nourishing good of singing praise to God.
Holistic – In this case, I mean that our songs should cover the breadth of the liturgy. While church liturgies take different forms, they all cover both the high and low points of the Christian experience. In worship we praise, we pray for help, we confess our sins, and we hear from God and recommit ourselves to seeking to follow His ways. Music that is only about causing the heart to pump in enthusiasm or soar in ecstasy fails to communicate the broad range of experiences we should have as we come before the living God.
God-glorifying – While there are many practical reasons we sing in church, the ultimate reason is that God is worthy of our songs. In our music, like in every aspect of gathered worship, we are serving as an outpost of heaven enacting the world as it should be in the middle of this present, broken age. This means that our chief end in singing should always be to exalt God. More than that, it means that singing is actually part of the work of worship. Each of us has a job to do when we come, proclaiming God's excellencies to Him and to each other.
In light of this purpose, we must work to train our congregations and our musicians to view themselves as serving in worship rather than viewing worship as serving them. Obviously, this should cut against the egos and showmanship that sometimes creeps into those serving in visible roles. More subtly, it should also inform how we talk about what we are doing in the church. The tendency of many to talk about “getting a lot out of” worship is actually to miss the point – what matters most is not what we take but what we are giving to worship.
In terms of sources, songs should include the new, the rich, and the Psalms.
The New – The Psalmist calls the people to “sing a new song to the Lord.” (Psalm 96:1) Throughout the story of Scripture, we see songs being composed to celebrate God's work. Miriam, David, the Sons of Korah, and the early church all composed contemporary music. It is appropriate to seek out excellent new music for our churches. However, we should also be wary of the “cult of newness.” It is the criteria we have already discussed, not a song's current popularity or radio airtime, that should guide us in terms of what new music we should be integrating. That said, I am a firm believer that every church should be seeking to stretch its members by finding at least a few new songs each year to help them grow in their faith.
The Rich – At the same time, Scripture nowhere says to “sing only new songs.” We have the Bible and 2000 years of church history as a resource; to draw all of our music from the last decade will unavoidably impoverish our music. A song that has served the church well for centuries is probably one that will also serve our people well today, whether we are using its original melody or a retuned musical accompaniment. That said, just like with new songs, we ought to test such older songs along the same above criteria. Some old music has endured because of its richness; in other cases, it is really the 19th-century equivalent of a pop radio hit, with a catchy tune or maudlin emotionalism rather than substance.
The Psalms – One of the peculiarities of modern worship in both its “traditional” and “contemporary” forms is that it often ignores the God-given hymnbook in the middle of our Bibles. While we ought not sing only Psalms, as some small sects within Christianity have argued, it does not follow that we ought not sing them at all, which is often what has ended up happening. We should be giving thought to how to incorporate them into our musical repertoire, especially because they often stretch us in ways we are uncomfortable bending.
One final note on all of this – regardless of where you fall in thinking about these categories, change takes time and should be done gently. Growth is an organic process; I am not a toddler one day and an adult the next, and if I somehow magically made such a transition, the stress would probably kill me. The same is true of a body of believers. Inasmuch as we conclude we need to change within these criteria, it is usually best to do so a little at a time. Even more, it is essential that we explain these goals to our congregants as we make changes. Often (although certainly not always), resistance to change comes because we haven't brought people along for the journey but simply insisted they move to a new destination. That said, growing in these ways is a destination worth traveling toward, and I pray we can all continue to pursue it.