Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - Singing the Truth of God

A third way that God speaks is through the singing of his truth. The Psalms, the worship texts of ancient Israel, were filled with truth about God in his person and work on behalf of his people. The titles of many psalms reflect their use in temple worship. They were likely not read, as we normally handle them today, but rather were sung corporately or by a choir as the expression of the heart in response to the greatness of God. The New Testament contains texts that were possibly hymns of the early church (cf. Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16).

The role of singing in worship is two-fold. Singing is first directed to God as praise. These are songs not sung about God so much as they are sung to God.[1] Songs are also directed to others as teaching. Ephesians 5:17 and Colossians 3:16 both speak of the teaching and admonishing aspect directed to one another in the music of the church.[2] As such, singing in the church fulfills a didactic purpose as the congregation rehearses the truth about God corporately so that all assembled are both teaching and being taught. Thus singing is a proclamation of truth.

Because music teaches and proclaims truth about God, it supplements the pulpit ministry.[3] What is sung is just as important as what is said. Therefore, the foremost requirement for worship music is doctrinal fidelity. A song that communicates doctrinal error must be rejected. A song may be acceptable if it is imprecise, or incomplete. It is not acceptable if it inaccurate.

In evaluating songs, we must also evaluate the intelligibility of a song. Wording that engenders confusion or obfuscation are little better than songs that communicate error. In some cases, the lack of clarity stems from obtuse poetry or stilted syntax driven by the need to conform to a poetic form rather than the need to clearly communicate. Such lack of clarity can be minimized by explanation, but perhaps should be used sparingly. In other cases, lack of clarity stems from unfamiliar words, some of which should be explained and others that should be abandoned. If people do not understand what they are singing, they are not worshipping.[4]

A song should also be appropriate in its presentation, both textually and musically. It must correspond to the God whom we worship. Since it is possible to say right things but in a wrong way for the occasion or the person we are talking to, the style of the words as well as the style of the music must be carefully evaluated for its suitability and appropriateness in worship.

[1] See discussion of this below.

[2] While there is a technical distinction between a hymn, an anthem, a song, etc., these distinctions are not useful for this discussion, though they are not without merit.

[3] There is too often an unfortunate distinction between “worship” and “preaching.” I would suggest this distinction may arise from the (false) idea that worship is an emotional response, and since music most easily draws forth that emotional response (often without respect to the song text), it is most closely associated with worship. The argument here is that preaching is as much worship as music.

[4] I would suggest that the first priority of a hymnwriter be doctrinal accuracy in intelligible form. Rhyme and meter should be secondary.

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