Communication is critical in song choice.
Most songs are poetic: it’s one of the qualities of a good song. Having a good tune, whilst highly subjective, is also a mark of a good song. However, neither of these things are the most important, in this blogger’s opinion.
Songs have to communicate. They have a message based on the truth of Scripture and this message should be communicated. The message should be clear to Christian and non-Christian alike.
If this is true of a song or a hymn, it is doing its job. If a great tune and poetic phrasing enhance this, all the better; this is why music and singing can be so effective, they communicate to us on multiple levels.
Together in harmony
Not to turn this into an essay on musicality, it is worth considering if the poetry and musical accompaniment are fitting for the subject matter of the song.
To take a modern example, Tim Hughes’ ‘The Greatest Day in History (Happy Day)’ seems to resonate because the lyrics, the music, and, I’d suggest, even the tone of the language all work together. They all point in the same direction, dictated by the thrust of the song’s message.
To use a slightly older example, I believe ‘I stand amazed’ (Charles H. Gabriel, 1905) successfully does the same thing:
How marvellous! How wonderful!
This my song shall ever be:
How marvellous! How wonderful,
is my Saviour’s love for me.
This chorus doesn’t skip around the point – Jesus’ love for us is marvellous, and wonderful – this Biblical truth is expressed through emotive words, that work together in rhyme and rhythm, to a triumphant, major melody.
We know this type of effective communication is not limited to singing, or even to the church itself. To remove us from the gospel context, consider two colleagues sharing about their weekend:
1: Did you watch the game?
2: Wasn’t it amazing?! That goal at the final whistle?! Incredible!
1: No way sounds amazing!
You can really feel the excitement – perhaps you’re even able to imagine the look on the second colleague’s face. He has communicated his message effectively, with emotion and conviction.
Let’s consider another similar conversation:
1: Did you watch the game?
2: Yes. It was good. There was a goal at the end then we went home.
1: Oh… Good.
Can you feel the excitement here? No.
Actually, the second man was just as convicted that it was an amazing game; he used the word ‘good’. He only ever uses the word ‘good’ for the very best games. But we don’t know this, even if it’s true, because his words and his tone haven’t properly communicated his meaning.
Let’s bring this back to the gospel: the good news. There is no message more important, nothing truer, more worthy of urgency, conviction, excitement and jubilation. Yet, when we talk about it, teach it or preach it – to others or to ourselves – which of the football supporters are we most like?
The same goes, not just for the songs we choose, but for how we introduce them. If we always sing the same sort of songs, or introduce them by reading the first couple of lines without emotion or meaning, it’s possible that we are just going through the motions. Even if we’re not, it may come across this way.
In my experience, the way a song is introduced has a direct impact on ‘how well’ the song is sung – whether the congregation let’s the words habitually mumble from their lips or whether they’re sung to shake the rafters. It’s worth thinking about – and not just because it’s nice to hear a church in good voice.
Paul says this of the Christian life, that we should be:
Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is talking about real worship here, that comes “from your heart to the Lord.” These are songs from the Spirit, full of thankfulness and praise. Everything we do around music and song in the church should be guided by this aim! Our hymns should ring with excitement, and this excitement should come from the lyrics speaking gospel truth to our hearts, reminding us of God’s grace.
So whether it’s your responsibility to pick the songs, to accompany or lead them, to introduce them or just to sing them – consider not just what you’re singing, but how you’re singing it. Consider how the congregation are likely to think and feel in response to the words and music you choose.
It would be irresponsible of me to ignore the reality of sin – we may indeed have the best news of the greatest day in history (we do), we may have some brilliant words and melodies with which to sing this news to others and ourselves (we do). We may have some fantastic musicians to lead us in this worship and yet we may ‘feel’ nothing. I’ve been there, in conferences with hundreds or thousands of worshippers, being led by the most creative, talented music groups, and yet feeling as if I’m the only one there not ‘feeling’ it.
On one such occasion, at the WorshipGodUK conference in 2014 (click for my blog post from back in the day!), the singing was followed by teaching from the wonderful Bob Kauflin.
Bob acknowledged this state of not being able to get yourself feeling like you’re worshipping (for lack of a better phrase). He taught that, yes, it’s part of our sinful nature – we often have flawed responses. So why not, as with any other sin, confess it, explaining to God how helpless you feel against it, and then keep worshipping anyway. Sometimes that’ll help you to move past it, but even if not, you’re acknowledging that God is worthy of your worship, whatever your mood or feelings at that time.
This is similar to how David resolves to trust God in the Psalms, despite his emotions. He even does this several times in the same Psalm (42 and 43):
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
This seems like a good place to conclude. If you’re not aware of it, you should visit Bob Kauflin’s excellent blog, ‘Worship Matters‘.