Pastors and Song Lists image

Pastors and Song Lists

If our doctrine is shaped more by what we sing than what we hear—“show me your song list, and I’ll show you your theology”—then song selection is an important pastoral task. That doesn’t necessarily mean that pastors need to meddle in the specific choices that are made each week, whether in the form of the hymns on the board or a set list (although sometimes, what looks like meddling is actually shepherding). But it does mean that they—we—should be attentive to the list of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that are sung by the congregation. In some cases this will mean choosing a particular hymn book. In others it will involve shaping the “song pool”: the shortlist of songs that are most commonly used in the church. It will rarely involve ignoring it altogether.

One of the things that makes this difficult, however, is the number of ways in which our song lists need to be balanced. There are several axes, if you will, rotating at the same time. Balance on one axis does not necessarily mean balance on the others. For instance:

Celebration vs Lament. The Psalms are remarkably wide-ranging. There are songs for all seasons: tragedy and triumph, mourning and dancing, cries of “hallelujah!” and “help!” If, out of a desire for our people to be incessantly happy, we offer a liturgical diet of non-stop celebration, we unintentionally do two things. We fail to give voice to the sizeable number in our congregation who are suffering, grieving and facing injustice. And we eviscerate the Psalter.

This is not a matter of form, but of content. Plenty of songs are in the minor key; far fewer express the emotional range of the songbook that Jesus grew up on and the apostles urged us to use in church (and don’t get me started on the imprecatory psalms). We mustn’t overcorrect here and turn every song into a dirge, but from where I am standing, that is hardly the danger we face. For an extended rant on this subject, see chapter three of Spirit and Sacrament.

Old vs New. Nobody after drinking old wine desires new, for they say, “the old is better.” In songwriting terms, they often are. Old hymns and spirituals have been threshed by history, blowing away the fluff and keeping only the decent ones. They enable us to sing alongside the church triumphant, as well as the church militant. Melodically, they are usually easier to learn: there is a repeated tune for every verse, rather than an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge and an outro, all of which are musically different.

Yet despite these benefits, and the inverted chronological snobbery that accompanies them in some circles, there are also great advantages to singing new songs as well. One is that we are told to, both in the Psalms (“sing a new song to the Lord!”) and the letters (“psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”). Another is that, free from the constraints of metre, rhyme and antique prose (and occasionally grammar), they can express truths in simple, pithy and memorable forms that connect with ordinary people, especially those who don’t normally go to church. They encourage creativity in worship. They prevent the church from being needlessly mired in the eighteenth century. They get into commuters’ cars and onto teenagers’ playlists. Therefore every worship leader who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Reflective vs Emotive. This is a harder point to make, but bear with me: there are songs whose musical shape seems designed to prompt reflection and consideration, and songs whose musical shape seems designed to elicit an emotional response. The classic hymn form, in which the melody repeats every verse, is very well suited for reflection; by teaching you the melody in verse one, and repeating it in verse two, it ensures you don’t have to think about it by verses three and four, and can focus all your attention on the words. This doesn’t exclude emotion, by any means (When I Survey, anyone?), and by articulating rich truths it often makes people feel things more deeply rather than less. But songs of this form—and not just hymns, but more reflectively structured songs in general—aim at revelation rather than response, to use Matt Redman’s helpful distinction.

At the same time, music is incredibly powerful, and it is entirely appropriate for songwriters to use melodies, rhythms, dynamics and instruments to assist in emotional responses. This is not exactly a new development, as anyone who has experienced Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem will testify. Why else would the Psalms call for people to rejoice with loud cymbals, horns, pipes, harps and lyres? Why all the musical directions, from liturgical breaks (selah) to the choice of melody (“to Jeduthun”)? Admittedly, the contemporary pendulum has swung towards the musically epic in the last few years—the acoustic first verse, the second verse with the rhythm section added, the big chorus, the drop, the huge chorus with the octave jump, the dramatic middle eight which puts Fix You in the shade, the fade into applause—and there is a risk of overdoing it. But God has given us music to stir our emotions, and it is right that we do—provided, as Jonathan Edwards put it in a slightly different context, that the emotions are proportional to the truth being sung about.

Musical Style. This isn’t exactly my area, so I won’t say much about it. But it seems to me that the musical style of corporate worship should at least attempt to reflect the diversity of the congregation. This is needed generationally (older folk will often feel just as alienated if the entire song list has been written since 2010 as young people will if it’s non-stop hymns, even if they are more accepting about it), but it is also needed culturally (despite my personal preferences, an endless diet of white boy rock can be pretty exhausting for many people in my city). And please don’t think this is only possible with a huge array of session standard musicians. Many of the most powerful spirituals, choruses, hymns and gospel songs can be sung with no instruments at all.

Theological Balance. I’ve saved the most important for last. Songs teach us doctrine. Music makes truth memorable. So there are numerous teaching psalms, and apparent fragments of early Christian hymns in the epistles (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:14-16; etc), and plenty of doctrinally rich songs in Revelation—and Paul urges us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Our songs do not just express our theology; they shape it. Which means that we should be aware not just of whether our songs are true—hopefully they are, although not always!—but also of whether they reflect an appropriate theological balance.

Let’s say your last meeting included five songs. Based on those five, would a new person be able to tell that you believed in the Trinity? In the cross? In the resurrection? In the return of Christ? (Note that these questions become much more pressing in churches where there is no other formal liturgy, because there are no Creeds, set prayers or confessional statements to help carry this kind of catechetical weight.*) I have been in churches that seem never to sing about the cross; I was once in a church that (literally) never sang about anything else. The problem in each case was not the songs that were sung, but the ones that weren’t: the lack of balance made the worship feel anaemic, or gloomy, or excessively sugary, and simply failed to instruct people on foundational Christian teachings. This is not the only purpose of corporate worship, but it is a vital one nonetheless—and if we think our deficiency here will be compensated for by our preaching, we are probably overvaluing our gift, overestimating the impact of listening, and underestimating the power of singing.

Balancing those five axes is difficult. It takes time, gifting, experience and wisdom. Worship leaders will always benefit from our encouragement and our prayers. But when it comes to choosing song lists, they may also benefit from our help.

*Is there any more satisfying word to say out loud than “catechetical”?

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