Evaluating New Songs
by Mark Roberts
in Abundant Life via Meditate on These Things
For the longest time it seemed brethren were fairly certain Sacred Selections contained just about every hymn that needed to be sung. Like it or not, that has certainly changed. Many congregations are now using some other hymnal other than Sacred Selections. Many congregations have also added a "supplemental" book (often paperback) that contains all kinds of new hymns. Several brethren are actively writing and publishing new hymns, with an emphasis on songs of praise. All of these new song books and new songs have dramatically expanded the options in our singing, but is that a good thing? Just how do we go about evaluating all these decidedly newer songs?
Is it too much to suggest that the criteria for new songs is no different than that which should be used for old songs, indeed, for every song? The New Testament mandates acapella singing of "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19) but allows us considerable liberty in choosing those songs. We can sing fast or slow, in four-part harmony or in unison. There is nothing inherently good about old hymns nor is there anything inherently wrong with a song simply because it was written yesterday. We are at liberty to sing old or new songs, but there are some important considerations that should apply to every hymn we sing.
For example, a song ought to be a scripturally accurate. The most important element of any hymn is the words. If those words reflect or teach false doctrine then the song fails. This is true of any hymn, old and new. Singing has a teaching aspect to it. Who wants to teach error?
Of course, hymns receive some poetic license because they use poetry and imagery to express our emotions and feelings. This is true in the Bibleís psalms (see Psalm 51:5, for example). Thus, if our standard is to go over every song with a fine tooth comb and a magnifying glass we may end up unable to sing even the inspired psalms in Scripture! That isnít fair to any hymn, and it is certainly unfair when that standard is only applied to new songs. Yet if something notably stands out as being inconsistent with New Testament Christianity why should we have such a "fly in the ointment" in our worship? We have no shortage of hymns. Let us sing what is clearly and obviously scripturally correct.
A song ought to be sing-able. In Restoration Days most hymns were sung to the same tune so that brethren could concentrate on the words instead of its music. We have come a long ways since then! More melodies have been introduced, and then four part harmony became popular. As brethrenís musical sophistication grew so our taste for more and more complicated songs has grown. Now we sing hymns with repeats, different parts "leading out," all kinds of musical notation and a variety of choruses and endings. Some hymns are so complicated one needs a roadmap to get through them! We need to remember that if a song becomes too complex for "regular folk" (especially those without formal musical training) to sing then it loses its functionality in worship. If the worshiper is paying too much attention to the repeats and holds then he or she may not be giving sufficient attention to the words and that is not good at all!
A song ought to edify. In a meeting once I found myself singing with
a congregation from their "supplemental" song book. We sang a hymn where
each part (tenor, alto, soprano, bass) were singing different words all at the same time! I wonder if an elementary school used four different teachers teaching four different subjects simultaneously if the students could learn anything at all? Such chaos and confusion is not conducive to learning, so what was such doing in the assembly of the saints? For certain, the hymn we sang sounded very beautiful but I could not pick out any specific words or hardly keep up with what I was singing. From a spiritual standpoint, it seemed like a complete disaster. How could anyone be edified when nothing could be distinctly heard? Colossians 3:16 says we are to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." "Teaching and admonishing" requires some degree of clarity, doesnít it? Further, it is fair to note that teaching also requires a message that is being taught.
Some songs repeat the same word over and over. Repetition can be a part of scriptural singing (see Psalm 136). But what is taught, what is the message, in the continual repetition of one word?
Singing is one of the easiest acts of worship and also one of the hardest. It is easy because it involves a physical action on the part of the worshiper, it is something we can all participate in. However, it is hard to keep oneís heart engaged while doing the mouth and tongue sing, isnít it? We should be glad that new songs are being written that help us praise God and edify one another in contemporary terms and through new music styles. Just their newness may help us "re-engage" in singing in a better way. That said, all that is new is not necessarily good. Let us choose wisely, both from our rich heritage of grand old hymns and these new songs, so that when we are singing our music is beautiful to God because we are "singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord."
I commend Brother Robertsí article to you.
In connection with the point that "A song ought to edify," consider also I Corinthians 14:9: "So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air." I will add a great big "AMEN!"
In a similar vein, a friend recently made the following observation to me. "I am increasingly aware of the difference between the songs that are so popular and the hymns that are so spiritually significant. I try not to be critical and to see whatever good there is in any song, but in a congregation where I was visiting recently we sang 'The New Song.' I became so saddened by its emphasis that it was difficult for me to continue singing. It is so all about 'Me' and 'I.' The only thought of Jesus was to 'see the Master bringing a precious life crown that I may own and wear.'