Worship 102: Putting the “Congregation” in Congregational Worship
December 18, 2020
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.
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A Litmus Test for “Truth” in Music
Songs that are unambiguously “true” are typically not going to be debated by Christians about whether or not they’re biblical. By and large, Christians are generally going to agree on good, solid, doctrinally-rich songs.
So, an easy way to test whether a song is “true” is to simply pass it around to a group of Christians in your church and listen to the collective response (generally, it should be those who are reasonably mature in the faith, especially your elders). Out of 20 Christians, is there a pretty even split between for and against? Well, there’s a pretty good chance that song will alienate half the congregation on Sunday morning. But if there’s general agreement that a particular song is doctrinally solid—especially when the opposing voices are outliers or based on obscure arguments that no one else is really thinking about—that gives us a lot of confidence that a song meets that truth requirement.
And we can even broaden our scope: Is a song confined primarily to a particular cultural or theological subset of Christianity? If not, but rather is sung by charismatics and presbyterians, or by Christians in 1800 and Christians in 2020, or by Christians in underground China, the American south, and coastal California, it’s probably “true” according to how we’re trying to understand it.
Letting the Spirit Lead
There’s more here than mere democracy, by the way. Looking to the collective consensus of God’s people really is a way of truly ‘letting the Spirit lead’ when it comes to our congregational worship.
A primary role of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant is to write the truth of God on the hearts of his people at regeneration (Jer. 31.33, Ezek. 36.27, Rom. 8.16, 1 Cor. 2.12-14, 2 Cor. 3.14-17, Gal. 4.6, 1 Jn. 2.20). This is one of the test cases for inspiration as well as for identifying essential Christian doctrines. For example, nearly all God’s people everywhere have always accepted the Gospel of Matthew, but have always rejected 1 and 2 Maccabees, as authoritative, divinely-given Scripture. That is an indication that Matthew is inspired Scripture, but that 1 and 2 Maccabees are not. In the same way, nearly all God’s people everywhere have always insisted on the affirmation of the deity of Christ as essential for salvation, but that same universal insistence has been absent with respect to church polity (independent vs. denominational, bishop vs. elders, etc.). That is an indication to us that the former is essential, but that the latter is not.
This may be a little technical, but the point is simply this: by being watchful for songs that receive broad affirmation among God’s true people, we are in a very real and biblical sense ‘listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit’ in our congregational worship.
“By being watchful for songs that receive broad affirmation among God’s true people, we are in a very real and biblical sense ‘listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit’ in our congregational worship.
Helpful Questions for Choosing Church Songs
We’ve said a lot, but in really practical terms, here are a handful of questions that help us determine whether or not a song is congregational—that is, how well it stacks up against our criteria of “clear” and “true”:
•Is there wide debate among Christians about its doctrinal content or theological quality?
•Overall, is this song putting something on display for me as an observer, or is it designed for my participation?
•Are its dominant themes musical genre or style? Are its key features the creativity, talent, or skill of the performer?
•Is the language itself comprised of themes that are intentionally, explicitly sacred or biblical, or is the language more colloquial, casual, or consisting primarily of cultural themes?
•Is the vocal style characterized by a lot of syncopation, off-beat rhythm, improvisation by the singer, runs, or “vocal acrobatics”?
To be clear, we are fully persuaded that there is nothing inherently sinful in any of these things. For instance, if a song is heavy on “vocal acrobatics,” in no way does that mean it is sinful. On the contrary, music is a wonderful gift from God, and we enjoy it and thank him for it (1 Tim. 4.4, 6.17), and there is an infinite number of situations in life where it’s appropriate for us to crank up that volume on all kinds of non-congregational songs. Let’s be clear on that.
What we are saying, rather, is that congregational worship is a special, unique time for the people of God collectively in which he has certain objectives that he is trying to accomplish in us. Therefore, a framework like the one we’ve worked out here helps us maximize the biblical mileage we get out of the music we do when we are gathered together in the Name of the Lord Jesus.
About the Author
Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church where he has served since March of 2020. He is an MDiv student at The Master’s Seminary, and also runs his own studio, de la Riva Brands, which specializes in branding and web development. Tony is originally from Fresno County in Central CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children, Chloe, Daisy, Manasseh, and Israel.
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