Music: Contemporary or Traditional? (Part 1)
In many churches today, there is a never-ending battle over the type of music that the church uses. Some assert that the hymns are the only option for a church to use in congregational worship. These folks often say that contemporary music is too wishy-washy and has no substantial content. On the other side of the pew, people complain that the hymns are far too old and boring, and that the church needs to get with the times and use some more lively music. They argue that the contemporary songs contain just as much theology as the old hymns, and as a bonus, these contemporary songs won’t put you to sleep!
This argument is so prevalent that many people choose which church to attend simply based on the style of music that is used. Churches, in an effort to accommodate everyone’s preferences, have begun offering both traditional and contemporary services. If you don’t like one, you can go to the other!
Unfortunately, the only thing these services have done is create a greater divide within the church, to a point where essentially two different churches are meeting in the same building with the same name. “Come on over to Christian Church! We have a traditional service at 9, and a contemporary service at 11!” If the preaching of biblical truth is the same in both services, why should the music be any different?
Besides the repeated command for believers to sing (mostly found in the Psalms), music is not a large focus of Scripture. But the apostle Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, does provide some insight into the matter. In Ephesians 5:18–19, Paul says to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” In Colossians 3:16, he similarly writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one other with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratefulness in your hearts to God.” Notice how in both passages, Paul gives the exact same list of musical styles: Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It is not just one style of music that the church is commanded to use, but several. We are commanded to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
So when I get asked if our church is contemporary or traditional, I say neither—we are biblical. We sing songs that were written just last year, and we also sing songs that originated as far back as the 6th century. We sing hymns, and we also sing contemporary songs. Just recently we introduced a simple hymn whose tune origin is unknown, and the words were written in the 19th century. Back in January, we started singing a song that had been released merely a few months prior.
Our focus is not (nor should it be) whether the song is a hymn or a contemporary song. That does not matter. What matters is whether or not the song is theologically accurate and rich, as well as congregationally appropriate.
Let’s take Colossians 3:16 as our guide. The first aspect to teaching and admonishing one another though music is that the word of Christ needs to dwell in us richly. This is where songs need to be theologically accurate and rich. We do not sing about our ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, or all the cool things that we have. We sing about Christ and His word. We proclaim His attributes and His actions which are laid out for us in Scripture.
And notice that little word “richly.” It qualifies the way we are to dwell on the word of Christ, and it has the idea of saturating ourselves with Scripture, allowing ourselves to be filled up completely with the word of God.
Many songs in the church today take a small concept and repeat those words over and over again. For example, I could write a song that has just three words in it: “God loves me,” and we could sing those words repeatedly. Sure, we may be singing words that are biblically accurate, but have very little content (or “richness”) to them. On the other hand, we could sing the verse of a famous hymn: “Here is love vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood. When the Prince of Life, our Ransom, shed for us His precious blood.” There is much more to be said about how God loves us in the second example, rather than simply singing “God loves me” on repeat.
So first and foremost, the content of our songs in corporate worship needs to be theologically accurate and rich. Next month, we will look at what it means for music to be congregationally accessible in corporate worship.