As we tried to lay out in part 1, God’s design for music in the church is that it be congregational. Just as the corporate assembly is for worship and edification of the saints, so music as an element of the assembly is also for worship and edification. Not only should music in the church be for the participation of God’s people, but it should also ‘grow them in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
In light of this, when music in the church is genuinely congregational, it will be both clear and true. Here we will attempt to define those terms, which will give us a kind of objective framework to help us think through the music we do as a church.
And it’s helpful to do that, because what’s the alternative? “I like this song,” or, “I don’t like that song.” “This song does / doesn’t feel worshipful for me.” Not only are those not good reasons for choosing songs, but they’re also totally subjective and don’t mean anything.
Now, obviously there are going to be differences of opinion when it comes to what “clear” and “true” mean, and our definitions are by no means infallible. However, at the very least, they’re helpful for us at Firm Foundation, and hopefully you’ll find them helpful as well.
Congregational Music Should be Clear
When we say that congregational music should be “clear,” we mean at least three things:
The truth in church music should be easy to see and understand. There is definitely a place for ambiguity in art—and music, of course, is certainly art. There is even a place for ambiguity in Bible truth: for instance, Jesus spoke in parables to hide spiritual realities from his antagonists (Mk. 4.10-12); and predictive prophecy is often unclear until the foretold events come to pass, at which time all God’s people say, ‘Ah, that’s what that meant’ (cf. Genesis 3.15, Isaiah 53, Daniel 11). But by nature of the case, when instruction is the objective, ambiguity undercuts learning. If you don’t understand what is being taught, you’re clearly not going to learn.
However creative a song might be, if it is being used for congregational worship, its doctrinal content should not be ambiguous. Rather, it should be immediately and effortlessly clear.
The singing style of a congregational song should not be overly artistic, technical, or complex. High levels of artistic creativity, technicality, or complexity are present in songs when the goal is to highlight and emphasize the skill of the singer or the musician. And that’s great so far as it goes. As the people in my church often hear me say, I love Sam Cooke. I love a beautiful voice and a great performance just as much as the next guy. But when the goal is that everyone in the congregation sing, all those features that mark high levels of individual skill, creativity, etc., are simply counter-productive. Vocally speaking, a congregational song should be straightforward enough so that just about anyone can sing it.
3. Designed for Participants
Along those same lines, congregational music is designed for participation, not performance. And again, I love a great performance, but the reason I’m there when I’m watching a performance is to watch it, not to participate in it. Congregational music is designed for mass participation, not mass viewing. It doesn’t exist to display the skill of the performer, but to facilitate participation among the assembly of all God’s people.
“Congregational music is designed for mass participation, not mass viewing. It doesn’t exist to display the skill of the performer, but to facilitate participation among the assembly of all God’s people.
Congregational Music Should be True
When we say that a congregational song should be “true,” we mean that it should be made up of clear statements and affirmations of the great truths of the Christian faith and of the Gospel to the point that most Christians will see that and not debate it.
The Great Debate
Some years back, a friend of mine asked me about a particular popular worship song, and my response was that I thought the song was kinda shallow and emotion-driven. I never would have volunteered that critique, by the way; Christians have both the right and the ability to be edified by songs that don’t edify others. One person is encouraged by a song because of its strengths, while another is turned off or even offended by a song because of its weaknesses. And both of those responses honor the Lord so far as it goes (Rom. 14.6). So, if I would have had dinner at my friend’s house and that same song was playing on his Alexa, I never would have even brought it up. But in this case, he wanted my opinion and I gave it to him.
Well, he responded to my critique with what he felt was a biblical defense of the song, and you can probably guess what followed: a back-and-forth discussion on the doctrinal quality of the song. His goal was to persuade me that my take on the song was wrong, and my goal was simply to tell him why I didn’t like the song and that he could take that or leave it. As is typically the case with conversations like that, we were going nowhere fast, plus I felt like I had sufficiently said my piece, so I ended the conversation before it got ugly or personal, which I think is what God wants us to do in those instances (Rom. 14.1, 2 Tim. 2.23, Tit. 3.9).
In any case, our point is that, yes, Christians are going to differ in the truth—or lack of it—that they see in different songs. When a song is “true,” however, its truth content and its doctrinal and theological quality will be obvious to the point that nobody’s really going to debate that. So while my friend and I disagreed about that particular song, we would have been in total agreement on, for example, “In Christ Alone” by the Gettys.