Music: Contemporary or Traditional? (Part 2)
In my previous article, we asked an important question: Should music in the church be contemporary or traditional? The answer is that music should be both. Paul commands us to “[speak] to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19). The musical styles that Paul lists encompass both contemporary songs and hymns. Therefore, the church should use both in corporate worship through song. What really matters is whether the music is theologically accurate and rich, as well as congregationally appropriate.
Last month, we saw how music can (and should) be theologically accurate and rich in content, per Colossians 3:16. Since the word of Christ should dwell in us “richly,” our songs should have rich theological truths, rather than simply repeating five words over and over again. Some readers may conclude, then, that we can only sing hymns. While it is true that many contemporary songs fall short when it comes to doctrine, that does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bath water. In recent years, song writers such as the Gettys, Sovereign Grace Music, and several individual writers have focused on writing contemporary songs that are theologically rich and appropriate for congregational worship.
This leads to the second issue at hand: What makes a song congregationally appropriate? This is easily the most confused issue when it comes to music in the church. Many people hear a song on Christian radio that they enjoy, and they automatically assume that it should be sung in corporate worship with the church body. So, the church quickly plugs this song into their corporate worship without considering the appropriateness of the song for the church body as a whole. Consequently, the church begins to disregard corporate worship through song because the music is no longer appropriate for a congregation, and the singing goes silent. So how do churches determine if a song is appropriate for corporate worship?
First and foremost, it is important to understand Scripture’s command for the church to sing. When Paul tells the Ephesian church and the Colossian church to speak to one another through song, the command is for everyone—no surprises there. That means everyone in the church is commanded to sing, from the oldest to the youngest. That also means that everyone in the church should be able to sing songs in corporate worship, from the oldest to the youngest. Even though an individual may not be the greatest singer, the music should not be so difficult that they are discouraged from singing.
So, what makes a song difficult, and thus inappropriate for corporate worship? There are typically two problems: the range and the rhythm. The range refers to how high or how low a song is sung. If the range is too high or too low, the congregation will often stop singing because they physically cannot sing the range of the song. While many songwriters tend to have an impressive range, the average Christian does not.
For instance, Chris Tomlin has written a number of songs that are theologically rich and would be good for corporate worship. However, Tomlin has a very broad range and can sing extremely high notes and extremely low notes. As a result, most of his songs are written to reflect that range, and if a congregation attempted to sing one of these songs, they would be discouraged because they do not have the vocal range that Tomlin has; thus, the music is out of reach.
The second potential problem in appropriateness of songs in corporate worship is rhythm. The rhythm of the song is what gives the song a beat, and it can be problematic if the rhythm is too difficult for a congregation to follow. Compare these two songs: “The Gospel Song” (by Sovereign Grace Music—a contemporary song, by the way) and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” After listening to each song once, I would venture a guess that a congregation could easily sing “The Gospel Song” but would struggle greatly through the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The difference is not theological but rhythmic. Many songs have a rhythm that is beyond the capacity of a congregation, and thus they should not be sung during corporate worship.
So, what makes a song congregationally appropriate and accessible? It needs to be in an appropriate range (which is typically A3 to D5 on a piano), and it should have a fairly simple rhythm. That’s it. There is no need to divide between hymns and contemporary songs. Paul shows us that we should sing both, granted that the song is theologically true and rich, as well as congregationally appropriate.
With an understanding of the content of our singing, there is one more aspect of corporate worship through song that needs to be considered: the direction of our singing.