How to know what kind of music to select
As a great grandfather, I am pained by the opposition of some fellow elders to contemporary worship music. Personally, I can hardly stand some of it either, and I love hymns of my generation; however, such nostalgia of a disappearing epoch has a fatal focus that has emptied thousands of churches in Europe and America. Many devout Christians now simply cannot tolerate the older style of music and the dogmatic attitudes that sometimes go with it. Some ask, “How can those older people inflict such ugly noise on God’s ears?”
The apostle Paul warned mature believers that when their scruples about non-essentials differ from those of a weaker brother in Christ, the mature are to yield in order to avoid offence (Rom. 14). Unfortunately, many older churches do just the opposite. If some believers must endure pain during worship because of diverse preferences, God requires those who are more mature to bear it. Let us not turn away the younger generation from Christ because of our selfishness. And who are we to say that our music is more Christian? Do not Psalms 149 and 150 encourage noisy instruments and dancing? Do not other Psalms encourage loud clapping and shouting? Many younger musicians, like David who danced for joy, follow God’s Word more closely than some older elders like to admit.
I Corinthians 14:26 and other Scriptures requires total participation in worship, including in singing: “When you come together, let everyone have a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation, a revelation. Let all things be done to edify.”
This powerful dynamic in new, small churches among the less educated, is evident in many countries. It is beautiful, highly edifying and enriched by the obvious presence of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not last; the churches in time become influenced by more traditional, popular performance patterns and abandon the New Testament pattern.
The New Testament emphasis is on total participation. In new, small churches, including churches among the illiterate, I often saw a time of “participation” in which everyone was expected to contribute something briefly. Some would repeat a Bible verse, often a verse of praise from the Psalms, that they had memorized. Children would say or sing something they had heard recently. An older person would give a brief word of wisdom or exhortation. Newer believers would give brief testimonies of Christ’s work in their lives. Some composed short, simple songs and sang them, which often appeared to be the most inspiring highlight of the worship time. An elderly woman with no front teeth would sing a solo off key because she had no radio and was not very familiar with music. She would get the words wrong because she was illiterate. Yet, everyone was blessed because their highest value was placed on total participation; they would have been disappointed had grandma not entered into their joyous, spontaneous worship activity.
How to get everyone to sing during worship, as God requires
1. Choose songs with melodies easy to learn and recall, with variety.
Some worship leaders are so intent on selecting songs that fit a sermon topic that they use music that is new to everyone, so few sing. The music of some contemporary worship songs is hard to recall, and should be used sparingly. Paul allowed for different kinds of songs to be sung, not only during worship but also during the week. He urged believers to sing to themselves in their hearts. One can sing during worship and during the week, as Colossians 3:16 requires, if a song has a melody easy to recall.
2. Avoid performance mentality.
Some songs were written to be sung easily by everybody; others were written to be performed by expert musicians. The contrast is stark, if you observe the congregation. Are they singing to God or admiring the performers? If a congregation does not sing as a body, then something is desperately wrong. Some churches with contemporary worship have the musicians play off to one side out of sight, with the result that everyone joins in singing heartily instead of passively observing skilled performers.
3. Sing a new song two or three weeks in a row, until people recall it easily.
4. Let people hear each other sing, and instruments be an aid to singing.
The Hebrew word from which we get “psalm” came from the twang sound made by a stringed instrument; God meant worshippers to sing the psalms, and intended instruments to be an aid to singing, not a hindrance. Instruments impede singing when they loudly drown out the congregation’s voices or have excessive amplification. David and others composed songs written for the harp and other instruments. He and other musicians left us the inspired Psalms, many of which had amazing prophecies of Christ.
5. Balance passion with self-control.
There are times during worship when participants, like David, feel an emotional thrill of devotion to God. Does this come from the Holy Spirit, or from one’s adrenalin glands? Is it human emotion or God’s influence? Of course, such feelings do not have to be only one or the other, since God intends both to happen together. A wise leader, whether in a large congregation or a small house church, will avoid both extremes. Unbridled, incoherent excitement and cold, unfeeling repetition of worship forms are both grotesque mistakes.
6. Practice the corporate aspect of singing as a united body.
Avoid a common Western individualistic, private mentality. Sing songs that say “we,” “us,” and “our,” instead of “I,” “me,” and “my.” Some worship leaders have simply changed the pronouns in some songs to avoid the Western emphasis on private individualism in worship.