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The Songs That We Sing

by Wayne S. Walker

As I was growing up, I loved to join in the singing of hymns and gospel songs during church services and other occasions where people gathered together to praise God in song, and through the years with my general love of music I have maintained an active interest in the songs that we use in our worship, not only leading singing whenever possible but also extensively studying and writing about hymns. It is no secret to those who have read much of my writing about worship in song that I am not a big fan of the modern "praise and worship song" genre. These songs have become extremely popular in denominational churches which promote "contemporary" and "blended" worship and are rapidly finding their way into churches of Christ. My concern with such songs is not because I object to having, learning, and using new songs. Both while a teenager and during the time of my preaching work I have constantly encouraged brethren to learn hymns with which they are unfamiliar, and, in fact, I have even composed a few "new songs" myself. Sometimes it has been difficult for me to put my finger on what troubles me about many of the modern praise and worship songs, and thus it has not always been easy for me to explain the questions and doubts that I have about them. However, a recent experience has provided me some additional insight.

Not long ago, we attended the lectures conducted by Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. During our week in Florida, we attended three church services at two different congregations where nearly all the songs used were of the modern "praise and worship song" variety. However, at the lectures the three nights of singing which preceded the speeches consisted mainly of the grand old hymns and gospel songs of Zion that brethren have known, sung, and loved through the years. The rather stark contrast between the two kinds of songs channeled my thinking again into why I prefer the one and not the other. And let me say right here that I recognize that much of what I have to say is personal preference. I cannot, and therefore will not, say that all who sing the modern "praise and worship songs" are sinning or that Christians must use a particular musical style of religious song (that I happen to like) in worship to be right with God. However, I would also like to think that my preferences have been honed and tuned by years of studying God's word about acceptable worship and my experience in seeking to apply its principles.

Subjective Nature

I have decided that my basic trouble with the modern praise and worship song style is that for the most part it tends to be much more subjective than objective. Now, the difference between objectivity and subjectivity in religious songs is sometimes a rather fine line, but I believe that there is a distinct, if not always easily identified, difference. The older style hymns were primarily objective in that they centered upon Deity as the object of our praise and devotion. The gospel songs that developed during the nineteenth century were largely somewhat more subjective in their nature, but even in their subjectivity they focused upon what should be our appropriate response to Deity as taught in His word, so there was still a sense of objectivity about them. However, the impression that I am left with after singing so many of the praise and worship songs is that their main emphasis is on how we feel or what we think about certain aspects of our relationship with God. They remind me of the "touchy-feely" kind of religion that is so popular among the denominations today.

This observation brings up the subject of emotionalism in worship generally and in singing specifically. Surely, if we love God with all our hearts, that will include our emotions, and singing is one of the ways that we can rightly express our emotions in our worship. "...Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" (James 5:13). I certainly do not advocate an emotionless kind of worship. Rather, I encourage fervent and wholehearted participation in singing as well as all other acts of worship. However, I am concerned about things becoming too emotional and thus tending toward being emotionalistic. It is a fact that the vast majority of these modern praise and worship songs come from a background of highly emotionalistic worship services and other religious activities. That does not necessarily make them wrong. The old-style Holiness camp meetings often turned the singing of many standard gospel songs into toe-tapping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping hoedowns. Yet, when I hear some of the praise and worship songs, the picture that comes to my mind is of a group of people closing their eyes, holding up their hands, and swaying back and forth in an emotionalistic worship service. It is interesting that at the church services we attended in Florida, the singing of the praise and worship songs (yes, I actually did sing) really did very little for me. Yet when we were singing the older hymns and gospel songs at the lectures I found that I would occasionally have a catch rise in my throat or a tear come to my eye. I have to wonder which kind of song really stirs genuine, godly emotion and which kind is merely
emotionalistic.

Repetitious Words

Another concern that I have about most praise and worship songs is the nature of their lyrics. We are to "teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16). Teaching and admonishing, at least in a scriptural sense, requires words. The purpose of words is to say something, but the fact is that the typical praise and worship songs simply do not say very much. Some have referred to them as "7/11" songs -- seven words sung eleven times. Aside from their subjective, emotionalistic characteristics, they also tend to be very repetitious. Of course, all repetition is not necessarily wrong, and some is even helpfu
to the memory. However, we need to be careful about "vain repetitions" (Matthew 6:7). One of the criteria that I use in evaluating a hymn is to read it over as poetry without thinking of the tune (admittedly, this can sometimes be rather difficult). Does it say anything? Does it make sense? Consider this example of an extremely popular praise and worship song. If you are familiar with it, try to read it simply as poetry without thinking of the tune.

  1. Father, we love You, we worship and adore You;
    Glorify Thy name on all the earth,
    Glory Thy name, glorify Thy name,
    Glorify Thy name on all the earth.
  2. Jesus, we love You, we worship and adore You;
    Glorify Thy name on all the earth,
    Glorify Thy name, glorify Thy name,
    Glorify Thy name on all the earth.
  3. Spirit, we love You, we worship and adore You;
    Glory Thy name on all the earth,
    Glorify Thy name, glorify Thy name,
    Glorify Thy name on all the earth.

It is amazing that something which, purely as poetry, would likely be considered practically as trite doggerel almost magically becomes a"spiritual song" when set to a catchy tune! Yes, it is true that many of the older style gospel songs, and especially some of the earlier twentieth century southern variety, are also rather repetitious. One that was brought to my attention years ago is "The Glory-Land Way." If we sing all three stanzas, we will have sung the phrase "I'm in the glory-land way" (or its equivalent) some fifteen times by the end of the song. Yet compare this to "Glorify Thy Name," again reading it simply as poetry without thinking of the tune.

  1. I'm in the way, the bright and shining way, I'm in the glory-land way;
    Telling the world that Jesus saves today, Yes, I'm in the glory-land way.
    I'm in the glory-land way, I'm in the glory-land way;
    Heaven is nearer and the way groweth clearer, For I'm in the glory-land
    way.
  2. List to the call, the gospel call today, Get in the glory-land way;
    Wanderers come home, O hasten to obey, For I'm in the glory-land way.
    I'm in the glory-land way, I'm in the glory-land way;
    Heaven is nearer and the way groweth clearer, For I'm in the glory-land
    way.
  3. Onward I go, rejoicing in His love, I'm in the glory-land way;
    Soon I shall see Him in that home above, O I'm in the glory-land way.
    I'm in the glory-land way, I'm in the glory-land way;
    Heaven is nearer and the way groweth clearer, For I'm in the glory-land
    way.

It seems to me that this somewhat egregious example of gospel-song repetition at its worst comes across as nearly "classic poetry" when stood side by side with some of the praise and worship songs.

Style of Music

Still another question that I have about the praise and worship song is the suitability of the music. While it is the words which praise God and teach and admonish one another, God apparently felt that there was some benefit in having the words set to music and sung, or else He would have just told us to recite poetry together in worship. Some have called praise and worship songs "new age church music" because their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structures do seem to be taken from that genre known as "new age" which appears to be a blend of light jazz, modern folk, and pop styles. Obviously, people are going to differ in their opinion of what constitutes appropriate music for religious expression. Many who held to the eighteenth-century hymn tune decried the bouncier melodies of the nineteenth-century gospel song, and even those who liked the nineteenth-century gospel song often derided the sentimentality of the early twentieth-century southern gospel song music. Yet, through the years, one standard that many have used to determine a truly good religious song is whether it is simple enough for the average congregation to sing it. And, brethren, I must say that while a lot of the praise and worship songs have very catchy tunes, with their highly syncopated rhythms and unconventional harmonies they are not easy to sing at all! Even I, who have had a good deal of musical training, sometimes have trouble figuring them out. And I have been in places where people like the songs and even seem to know them but still appear to have great difficulty in getting them straight too.

It is for this reason that I ultimately came to object to a large number of the "Stamps-Baxter" type of songs as well. When I was growing up, the congregation where we attended used Christian Hymns No. 1 and then Christian Hymns No. 2. These were good hymnbooks with standard hymns and gospel songs. We first obtained Sacred Selections, with its change of emphasis to more of the country/southern style gospel songs, when I was a teenager, and attending area singings where these songs were sung with gusto, I eagerly jumped into them and tried to introduce them where we worshipped. However, they usually "fell flat" simply because the congregation did not have the ability to follow them with all their special parts and other musical intricacies. I eventually came to understand that such songs were never intended for use in congregational worship services but in country music singing conventions with trained quartets and choruses, which is why they are out of the reach of many congregations. And most of the praise and worship songs were not written for congregational worship services but for "praise bands" and "gospel" concert groups. Admittedly, some of the older hymns, especially the German chorale tunes, can be difficult too, but they still use standard melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures common to Western music which can be easily learned. However, while the style of praise and worship songs may be familiar to young people who have grown up on a steady diet of rock and roll, I sometimes find it very difficult to keep up with them.

Conclusion

It is not my desire to make my personal likes and preferences the standard for everyone else. I understand that many of the observations that I have made concern matters of judgment, and not all brethren are going to agree with my judgment. We are not told precisely what style of music the early Christians sang in worship other than it consisted of "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19). Within those parameters, each generation of God's people will find its own form of expressing praise to God in song. My intention is not to say that all the modern praise and worship songs are necessarily evil. In fact, I think that some of them are salvageable and can be used for good. However, at the risk of appearing as an "old fogey" who is "out of step with the times" and thought of by some as simply being "born in the objective case and the kickative mood" (which I try not to be), I would just like to warn us that we use discernment in choosing the songs that we sing in worship which will actually praise God (not just say "Praise God, Praise God, Praise God" a dozen times) and edify our minds with teaching and admonishing from God's word. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).