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Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Music is a gift, but too often it doesn’t feel that way as it becomes the”bone of contention” in our churches. Our churches are filled with opinions, convictions, and passions about what is good, right, and proper music for God’s people to sing in worship. We all have opinions, convictions, and passions, but I wonder if we can establish at the very least these ground rules related to our congregational singing?

Our congregational singing should be marked by:

Biblically Informed Words: Whatever we sing, it must be biblically informed. The song is Christian and meaningful in worship, because of the words sung. If the words are wrong and unbiblical then the song has no place in Christian worship.

Theologically Accurate Words: Some songs can be Biblically informed and yet theologically inept. A Professor I enjoyed during my seminary days used to say, “Bible, Bible, Bible, everyone uses the Bible.” He was telling us in his own dramatic way that most heretics in the history of the Christian faith have used Biblical language; what they lacked, was theological accuracy according to the whole counsel of God’s Word.

Theologically Profound Words: The songs we sing as a body before the throne of God should reflect the very nature of God, who He created us to be, and what He desires from us. We are to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37). We are to worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). The songs that we sing before Him should be filled with the glories of His truth and thus have an air of reverence about them. There are times and places for overly simplified songs, but when we are teaching and admonishing one another (Col. 3:16) and offering corporate worship to God through the Son, it should have some tenor of profundity.

A Simple Tune: Some tunes are just too complex for corporate singing. They may be beautiful, but what good is it if everyone stops singing because they can’t sing it? Most of us have been in a service where a song begins and everyone tries to sing along, but after awhile the only people left singing are the select few who put the service together. This is corporate worship and sometimes the “corporateness” of it is destroyed by making it too complex.

But Not a Simplistic Tune: But let’s be careful with the above suggestion. We also don’t want simplistic tunes. It should be complex enough that it speaks to the weighty nature of our God and the worship we are enjoying. A tune like “Row Row Row Your Boat” if used in worship (Though it seems absurd, I have heard similar tunes of simplicity in worship) would actually undermine that worship.

A Consistent Tune: A lament should sound like a lament. A song of thanksgiving should sound like thanksgiving. Some hymns and songs have the wrong tempo with the message they are asserting.

The People’s Voice Being Heard: Congregational singing is congregational singing. That may seem axiomatic, but for many well-intentioned churches this is not the case. When God’s people sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” we should be able to hear God’s people sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The loudness of the instruments or the individuals/individual leading the congregation can actually drown out the voices of the congregation. I love musical instruments and I love hearing a good voice, I just shouldn’t hear them in place of the voice that matters in congregational singing: that of the congregation! In addition, when instruments, musicians, and audio equipment are too loud they tend to create silence within the very quarter they are seeking to promote it in. A congregation that can’t hear those next to them singing, let alone their own voice, will become mute.

We may not agree on whether we should sing traditional hymns, psalms, contemporary hymns, praise songs, etc. We may disagree about whether congregational worship music should be accompanied by an organ, a piano, guitar, or praise band. But whether we love hymns or songs, traditional or contemporary, it seems like these above points are a starting place in determining what music should be at the center of our congregational singing.

*Tomorrow’s post will provide some helpful advice from John Calvin about our convictions regarding worship.

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32 thoughts on “Worship Wars–Proposing a Few Ground Rules”

  1. Paul Enns says:

    Hello Jason. Thank you for this post. Many of us have been saying these kinds of things for many years so it’s always encouraging to find others offering helpful guidance.

    The one point of disagreement I have is with the title. “Worship Wars” was a common term in North America in the mid-late 90s and always seemed to me to be a lamentable description of disagreement between followers of Jesus. It was and is, Lord have mercy, often an accurate description of what takes place in churches but to continue to use the term only reinforces the extent of disagreement or conflict. This does nothing to move us forward towards the love for one another that we are called to.
    Now that I’m in the UK and my church circles are dealing with these issues for the first time, I’m avoiding ‘warfare’ language at all costs. Rather, I’m speaking of biblical principles that guide our disagreements. It’s okay for Christians to disagree but going to war against each other is not an option.

    Again, thanks for the helpful post. Looking forward to tomorrow’s.

  2. Chris Julien says:

    I’m also looking forward to tomorrow’s post. I have a few comments, however:

    I’m not sure how I feel about the paragraph “Theologically Profound Words.” I guess I’m not convinced that the words used in worship must “have some tenor of profundity.” Here are my thoughts, though they are varied and out of order, but here goes: So, I’m gonna jump the gun and say that you’ll advocate the use of many hymns for their profound words, and also some contemporary songs for their profound words. Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see tomorrow! But nevertheless, I think we would agree that hymns have “profound words.” And let me say that I love hymns, and that I was raised singing hymns (as well as contemporary songs), and I also sang in a professional boy choir growing up, so truly, believe me when I say that I like hymns. But let me be honest- I like hymns even when I don’t grasp the full meaning of the text. And I think this may be true of other people (just maybe?) and at least for teenagers who grow up singing them or people who are new to the faith. They might not comprehend the meaning of the lines they are singing, but they enjoy them because “they’re hymns, and they’re holy!” I guess my point is, hymns may have been sung by the church for hundreds of years, and they may have profound words, but I fear that many people don’t understand what the words and lines actually mean. And zeal without knowledge is not pleasing to the Lord.

    An example, my favorite hymn: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died he, for me, who caused his pain, for me, who him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?” So, what he’s really saying is, “Is it true that I have an interest in Christ’s blood? I’m the one who caused his pain, who pursued him to death-yet he died for me? This is amazing love, how can it be! that God would die for me!” Maybe I’m the only one who’s had this experience, but I didn’t realize that that’s what the verse meant for quite some time. I don’t think it was that the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the meaning either- I just think the archaic structure and words were beyond my comprehension until I took a moment to think about it. And I suppose, to remedy this problem, someone would just need to explain the song to a person who was confused about a song. But that never happened in my church, and I didn’t think to ask someone. After all, how could I not know what I was singing? It honestly didn’t occur to me that I didn’t really understand the text- I knew the gist of it, what more was needed?

    The second paragraph that I’m unsure of is that the music must not be a simplistic tune. In one sense, this just comes down to personal definition (or congregational definition, I suppose.) I think maybe the term you use could be refined; do you instead mean “trivial?” Row, row, row your boat would not be inappropriate in worship because it’s simplistic but because it is trivial. Maybe I’m splitting hairs. But again, I could see this as a problem for churches that sing “complex” hymns, which are now complex in our day because many people cannot sing well (or lack a large enough range to sing well) and cannot read music.

    Just some scattered thoughts. I look forward to tomorrow’s post.

    God bless.

  3. Fred Zaspel says:

    Excellent summary points, Kevin. Thanks. May this sanity spread!

  4. I would have to disagree with the “people’s voice being heard” point, to some degree. I think there is a very powerful dynamic which exists when people who are normally very shy or afraid to sing out, can shout praises without any fear of the person next to them hearing them. If the music is quite, these people will also often remain silent. I would, however, say that this is by no means the ideal, but it sadly is the state in which many Christians now live. If we crank up the music to break them out of the shell long enough, hopefully we can tune it down and they will still be shouting praises to the same level!

  5. Jonathan James says:

    Chris, T. David Gordon gives this example of a theologically accurate, yet insignificant lyric (imagine it sung to a jaunty tune):

    “There was a wedding at Cana
    was a wedding at Cana
    was a wedding at Canaaaaaaaaa
    And Jesus made some wine.”

    Perfectly true, yet not appropriate for worship for lack of weight and profundity. It does nobody any good.

  6. Warwick says:

    You talk about using theologically accurate words, but you don’t really use the word ‘worship’ in a helpful way. Romans 12 lets us know that worship is about holy and righteous living, and John 4 lets us know that worship is not about place.Perhaps words such as praise, lament, etc would be more appropriate. I think it’s important for church leaders to make it clear that worship is not limited to Sunday singing, but is a lifestyle. I think it is excusable for the average Joe to use the word worship to describe singing and music, which it can include, but as you’ve said, it is important not just to use the bible, but be theologically accurate. Leaders have a high responsibility.

  7. Quentin Whitford says:

    I have to agree with the article’s “people’s voices being heard” point. The wall-of-sound approach to modern worship tends to create isolated worshipers rather than creating one unified communal voice. The sensory overload of incoming sound often blocks your ability to hear your fellow brothers and sisters, thus leaving you alone and prone to consuming rather than offering. I think it is valuable to approach worship in a “unified-trajectory”. Our trajectory of worship should be aimed at God in a collective voice. The moment the trajectory is “forced” (maybe unknowingly) upon the worshiper and isolation is created, we are missing out on the powerful treasure of communal worship. There is plenty of time in the inividual’s life for isolated worship, but for the small amount of time that we “get” to worship with our church family, I think it is very important to foster communal worship by allowing our collective voice to be heard.
    This is also a great article on this issue:

  8. John says:

    Simple Tune
    This is my favorite. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood silent in church because the new song we are supposed to learn only sounds good if one has the musical inclinations of Taylor Swift. Music is supposed to be a shared experience, and in our culture that means simple tunes.

  9. Tyler says:

    Good thoughts, Jason. “Worship Wars” or “Music Wars” – a sad reality that this is what they often are – plague the western Church and rob the body of their true mission and calling. I find it interesting that the book of Acts never references “congregational singing” (unless you consider Paul and Silas in the jail cell). And in the remainder of the New Testament (outside of Revelation), singing and music are referenced in limited places. Seems to me that the enemy’s ploy all along would be to distract us from our true mission – the sharing of the Gospel and the glory of God – with something as petty and “trivial” as what we are going to sing on Sunday morning. Just an idea…

  10. Can we allow enough room under the heading “simple tune” for different ethnicities? Sure, my white, suburban church gives up when a song becomes syncopated, but an urban African-American church engages syncopation without difficulty. If we compose ‘Ground Rules,’ let’s be sure to think larger than our own cultural biases.

  11. Matt Timmons says:

    Congregational singing was a great highlight of the Reformation. Up until then it was often done in Latin and by choirs. Today we see a return to pre-reformation times as church music is often unintelligible and done mainly by the worship team.

    The Reformers understood that the voices of congregation members was a vital part of the gospel ministry too. “Music is a vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God,” declared Luther.

    Perhaps this was his way of saying what Paul said in Eph 5 and Col. 3: “Addressing one another in” or “teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom” by Psalms, hymns & spiritual songs.

  12. I think the “volume” issue for “congregational singing” is (as has been stated earlier) a matter of taste. After leading worship for 15 years…the volume (as either being too high or too low) is a bit like asking a room full of ladies what they think about the thermostat. Half will say they are freezing and the other half are about to burst into flames. This is tough because most people in modern worship need the music just soft enough to not be too loud, but loud enough that they aren’t self-concious about singing loudly. That’s a tricky ‘sweet spot’ to find most sundays…

  13. Walt says:

    Matthew is absolutely right about diverse musical languages and expressions. Calling a tune “simple” is not a musically accurate way to describe a song. As he mentioned, what is simple in some cultures (syncopation, poly-rhythms, folk-like melodies) may be very difficult, and completely foreign, to other cultures.

    I think that the majority of a congregation’s worship music should be culturally relevant to that congregation, regardless of it’s “simplicity” when viewed through the lens of the Western classical tradition.

  14. Melody says:

    I wish you would have given some examples of songs with some of the accusations. You may be justified and it may be that I attend an excellent church and don’t know what you are referring to. Then again maybe I lack discernment. I doubt it since I am known to object to some songs my kids like because they sound like an everyday love song to me.

    As for the volume thing, I’m sorry but that just isn’t true and I would challenge you to give me a bible verse to back up your position. As someone that can’t carry a tune in a bucket, especially funny in light of the name my parents gave me, I like to sing. A church with a nice sound system is the one place that I get to do that, other than my car. I don’t think I should be robbed of making a joyful noise just because you want to be able to hear your own voice. You won’t hear mine because if it is that quiet then I just don’t sing. It is only necessary that God hear me and being the powerful God that He is, I know that He can distinguish me from the bass even if you can’t.

  15. Dustin Price says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. I want to cover a blind side I believe your point “A Consistent Tune” has. Sometimes there is not a consistent tune because, like life itself, many Christian songs combine joy and sorrow. Because the God of the bible is great no matter what our circumstances are, we in pain at times proclaim like Job that “Blessed is the Name of the Lord”. Songs like Come Thou Fount, How Deep the Father’s Love For Us, Beams of Heaven by Indelible Grace, etc. resonate because of their honesty about our state as believers. Good words, thanks.


  16. MatthewS says:

    Unless I misunderstand, I think Getty and Townend music (In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love, etcl.) matches all these.

  17. Stephen says:

    Chris, I don’t think anyone has responded to your specific examples so if I may chime in. On “And can it be,” I am confused as to where your paraphrase is different than the hymn lyrics, especially since you didn’t say what you previously incorrectly thought.

    It seems that the two most obscure phrases are “I should gain an interest” and “for me, who him to death pursued.” On the first, I believe the meaning of interest that Wesley was after was “advantage” or “benefit,” as in that we as believers are the beneficiaries of no longer being under God’s wrath as a result of Christ’s shed blood.

    The second is a result of what you call ‘archaic structure’ and what I would just call poetic inflection, a wording to keep intact the iambic meter (many modern hymns also have a fairly rigid meter like “In Christ Alone” – ). There are two competing first-glance interpretations of the phrase, “I pursued Christ to death” or “Christ pursued death for me.” Wesley uses three pronouns back to back (me who him) and thank goodness pronouns, unlike modern English nouns, still decline into cases. The “me” is clearly parallel with the early “for me” and restates that Christ did in fact die for me; the reason this phrase is restated is so that Wesley can compactly give a clear antecedent for “who” – the who is me. “Who” in non-careless or informal English will always be the subject of its verb (“pursued”) and “him” will be the object. So, that should settle it for the 1st interpretation, which you gave. I have a little bit of theological hesitancy about this, but I’ll let someone else pick that up if they may (Did I push Christ to die? Or did God, and as a result I benefited?). The second interpretation would only be supported by some inversion of the grammar, “for me, whom he to [even his] death pursued” or something similar.

    That it took me so many sentences to explain this probably proves your point about the need for similar explanation in church. As better examples I might have used a song like Come Thou Fount which uses rare words like Ebenezer and fetter.

  18. Steve Folker says:

    Indeed it is difficult to please everyone with the “volume” as both points made here are correct. Too loud for some, not loud enough for others. There is that sweet spot.

    Agreed, worship music should honor who we worship, and not be repetitious dirges lacking any musical content, and words should reflect accurate theology. So how do you introduce new music that may be a little difficult to sing at first instead of just throwing it out there in the midst of worship certain to grind participation to a halt? We from time to time would more often than not, invite the congregants to sing a prelude with us to warm up their voices, and perhaps learn new music. It’s very informal, people love it, and we could tell from how well a song is sung in prelude that it was liked, and ready for worship. A song or two before the service starts, with no pressure on anyone to sing along, always makes that first opening song really engaging, as worshipers were all warmed up and ready to really sing it out. It made the rest of the singing go much easier, too. From time to time I have been amazed at how well those assembled would sing what might be considered an otherwise difficult song.

  19. Walt says:

    The Psalms can teach us a little about what type of songs are appropriate for corporate worship. Some psalms are really short (Psalm 117), some are numbingly repetitive (Psalm 136), some probe the depths of the human condition (Psalm 51, 139), some are lengthy and highy structured (Psalm 119), and some are just about praising the Lord with everything we have (Psalm 150). Many psalms were also used for specific purposes at specific times (Psalms of Ascent). There are psalms of joy, sadness, history, anger, instruction, ceremonial purposes, etc.

    Saying that one style of music or lyrical quality is appropriate for corporate worship seems to me to go against our Biblical model for worship: the Psalms. We need songs with deep theological meaning. We also need songs that allow us to repeat our thanks and praise to God over and over again.

  20. Paul Cummings says:

    @Walt I completely concur. There is a lot of simple “praise the Lord”, ” God is holy and awesome”, “Hallelujah” and “who is like our God” in the Psalms…pretty straight forward. I would assert that sometimes in our hymnody and songs we think that high theology creates better (more Godly) music when in reality it usually just befuddles the congregation. Explaining it is great, but making it more accessible to begin with is better.

  21. Leah says:

    These are all quite good but I’d have to disagree, to a small degree, with the statement “A congregation that can’t hear those next to them singing, let alone their own voice, will become mute.” I find it is actually quite the opposite in some churches, including my own. People who are not confident singing will stop if all they can hear is themselves and their neighbours, because it will lead them to think the people nearby can hear them. They WANT to be drowned out. But this leads to an issue of acoustics more than sound volume. I think a church should have good enough acoustics that you can not just hear the person on either side of you but the entire congregation, so that people do not feel alone in their singing. Higher volume of the worship leaders HELPS, but they should not be all the worshipper hears, either. Obviously, the worship leaders also need to be loud enough that the congregation can follow along.

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