For centuries Christians have gathered to hear God’s word preached, partake in the sacraments, enjoy one another’s company, and sing. But what and how Christians sung has never been the same thing. Have you ever heard Gregorian Chants, participated in the Scottish practice of lining, enjoyed a cappella singing, or embraced the meditative repetition of Taize? God’s worship is truly diverse, as every people, community, and city are all different. It’s beautiful.
There’s a tension in the church today — what should we sing? Should we sing the songs of old or the new songs? For us at Iron Works, the answer is BOTH! We value old songs. Just because songs may be old, does not mean they are the best. We should write and sing new songs. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 96, NIV). Throughout the biblical story, we see a pattern. Every time that God rescues his people, his people respond in worship. They don’t exclusively rely on the old songs, they write new ones too! The greatest moment of our salvation, the climax of our redemption is finished by Jesus’ atoning work. We even have a picture into heaven, where the angels are singing to God: “Worthy is the lamb that was slain, holy, holy, holy is he” (Rev. 5:12). That picture is what our worship should be like.
Before I continue - let me state the obvious - songs should be singable by a congregation. Our worship should be participatory, where young and old are able to unite their voices together in praise of God.
So how do we pick our songs?
The songs we sing must glorify God.
Glorify means to make much of God. So we want to make much of him - singing songs that speak to his character, to his deeds and more. We want to make much of God so that he is famous. Worship, after all, is primarily for God. He’s made this world. He loves us to life. It is good; it is right to worship him. We worship God for who he is and what he has done. The classic hymns, Holy Holy Holy and Rock of Ages, are two great examples of this.
This means that we sing songs that are true.
We’re not the judge of truth. God is, and his word is true. So the songs that we sing take their cues from Scripture. One of my favorite contemporary musicians is Sandra McCracken, and she has a whole album dedicated to the Psalms. Another contemporary songwriter is Dustin Kensrue, who wrote Rejoice! So another way to look at this is that we sing songs that are born through thoughtful meditation of Scripture. When we do this, then we are going to sing songs from the whole range of human experience.
We sing songs from the whole range of human experience.
If you look at the songs throughout Scripture, you will see some songs that are pure adoration and praise of God, you will find other songs are that are laments and protests at the brokenness of the world, and you will see songs celebrating life with one another. Singing should make us more human; singing should help us discern what to do about our love, grief, anger, and hope. Singing should help us act out our faith.
But what do you do when you don’t feel like singing? What do you do if you don’t believe what the song says?
The reality is that life is messy and emotions are complicated, and worship helps us be more fully human. It's true that life is messy, and our emotions are complicated. So we ought to expect that everyone is coming to worship God from a different place than everyone else. Perhaps some had great weeks, and perhaps others did not. Perhaps a couple got engaged, and perhaps others received a cancer diagnosis. Whatever music we sing is going to pastor and help one another along by modeling: “Hey, this is what you should feel in this moment.” So whether you are confessing sin, you should feel conviction; if you are hearing the gospel then you should feel loved and the relief that comes from being fully known; if you are lamenting, then you should ache about the world that is. The psalms do this beautifully, but so does Bifrost Arts and Sojourn Music.
Worship should help us become more emotionally aware of ourselves, where we are able to encourage one another as we follow Jesus together. This is a reason to sing intentional and pastoral songs that help us become more human as we worship our one, true king.