The Songs We Sing

The following article is a guest contribution by Peter Kemeny, pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church in Frederick, Maryland. It was first published in the monthly church newsletter and is republished here with the author’s permission.

We are a congregation that largely sings historic hymns and psalms. Our song list includes only a handful of contemporary hymns. Occasionally I’m asked, “Why don’t we sing more contemporary songs?” That’s a fair question. My answer is that we are indifferent about the era in which a song was written. Our interest is in singing songs that join quality lyrics with quality music.

Lyrics that are scriptural – Martin Luther said, “Give me the hymns of the church and you can teach whatever you want.” Luther understood the tremendous influence that music has in shaping our views of God and of the Christian life. For this reason we seek to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” so packed with biblical truth that they enable “the word of Christ [to] dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). These are songs that fuse lyrics and music with an artfulness capable of depositing God’s Word into the inner recesses of our hearts. Once deposited, these songs will minister to us at times when we’re paralyzed with fear, standing over the grave of a loved one, or suffering a dark night of the soul.

Lyrics that are God-centered – We seek to sing songs that worship God for his character and works rather than sentimental songs that focus on individual Christian experience (e.g. “In the Garden,” “He Touched Me”). This is one of the reasons we sing more hymns than contemporary songs. In a survey of contemporary worship music, historian David Wells found that 59% of the songs offer no doctrinal grounding or explanation for the praise. Bill Gaither’s “Let’s Just Praise the Lord” is a good example: “Let’s just praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let’s just lift our hearts to heaven and praise the Lord; Let’s just praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Let’s just lift our hearts to heaven and praise the Lord!” We don’t sing this song in our worship services because it repetitively calls us to praise God without providing a reason for doing so. How different from the seventeenth century hymn, “Praise to the Lord the Almighty, the King of creation.”

Lyrics that express a broad range of Christian experience – Another reason that we sing more historic hymns is that they touch on a broader range of themes than do nineteenth century Gospel songs and contemporary songs. While contemporary songs are big on celebratory themes like joy, love and grace, David Wells found that only four percent of the contemporary tunes mention the themes of sin, repentance, and longing for holiness. T. David Gordon, a religion professor at Grove City College, told the students in his Psalms class that half of the Psalms are laments. Upon learning this, one curious student examined the praise-chorus book employed in the college chapel and found that it contained not a single lament (Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 135-6). David Wells discovered that the church is mentioned in only one percent of contemporary worship songs. In contrast, 22% of the classical hymns are explicitly about the church, more accurately reflecting its prominence in Scripture (Losing Our Virtue, 44).

Lyrics that are literarily apt – A simple test of the quality of a song’s lyrics is to read the lyrics apart from music. Good poetry stirs the heart in its own right. It is compact; it employs just the right words; it progresses; it has pleasing sound patterns, and so on. Without humming the tunes, read the lyrics of William Cowper’s, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774) and the lyrics of Paul Baloche’s widely popular “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (2000). The poetry of the first song is poignant; that of the second is vacuous.

“God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform;/He plants his footsteps in the sea,/And rides upon the storm./ Deep in unfathomable mines/Of never-failing skill/He treasures up his bright designs,/And works his sovereign will./ Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;/The clouds ye so much dread/Are big with mercy, and shall break/In blessings on your head./ Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;/Behind a frowning providence/He hides a smiling face./ His purposes will ripen fast,/Unfolding every hour;/The bud may have a bitter taste,/But sweet will be the flow’r./ Blind unbelief is sure to err,/And scan his work in vain./God is his own interpreter,/And he will make it plain.”

In contrast: “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord/Open the eyes of my heart/I want to see You/I want to see You/Open the eyes of my heart, Lord/Open the eyes of my heart/I want to see You/I want to see You/To see You high and lifted up/Shinin’ in the light of Your glory/Pour out Your power and love/As we sing holy, holy, holy/Open the eyes of my heart, Lord/Open the eyes of my heart/I want to see You/I want to see You/
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord/Open the eyes of my heart/I want to see You/I want to see You/To see You high and lifted up/Shinin’ in the light of Your glory/Pour out Your power and love/As we sing holy, holy, holy! (Repeat two more times)”

Music that is well crafted – The melody, harmony and rhythm are finely written and
appropriate to the lyrics. Dr. Paul Jones, Music Director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, explains:

“Harmony should be interesting and follow rules of good counterpoint and voice-leading. These are perhaps the most commonly missing elements of much new church music. Rhythm should match the text, placing strong syllables on strong beats, and should invigorate the singing… Many of these basic musical features are found wanting in much Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). Melodies tend to be monotonous or to move in extreme ranges. Harmony often is simplistic and consists of repeated standard
chords that have little direction or contrapuntal logic. Rhythm, especially, is often much different in “performance practice” from the way it is notated. And since the congregation will rarely have access to printed music or know how to read it (much less follow the particular rendition by the praise team of the morning), the soloistic nature and rhythmic complexity of most CCM pieces elude the congregation, rendering successful unison singing difficult. Many…”gospel songs”…also exhibit trite harmony and melody and repetitive rhythm” (Singing and Making Music, 278-9).

We try to avoid the one extreme of singing worship songs with irregular rhythms that were written to be sung by soloists and the other extreme of singing monotonous, dirge-like hymns. Honest Christians sometimes disagree about which songs fall into these categories, but this is our intention.

If you would like a fuller explanation of our approach to congregational music, I recommend two excellent resources on this topic: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns by T. David Gordon, and Terry L. Johnson’s “Worship and Music Today”.

It’s one thing to have a philosophy of worship music. It’s another thing to carry it out with excellence. Prepare for the great event of public worship by reviewing the songs before the service. John Wesley exhorted, “Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”