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Sometimes it seems that pastors should be trained in a fight club!

For example, mention “predestination” – and you better be wearing body armor!

No issue, however, creates more heat and less light than the subject of appropriate music in worship.

I heard a seasoned pastor say, “people will change their theology before they change their music.”

Perhaps an overstatement, but not by much. People feel strongly – very strongly – about their worship music.

I’ve been accused of siding with the devil by allowing drums in worship. I’ve been told I’m totally irrelevant if we use any song written before 2000!


For many of us, it boils down to personal preference.

Some prefer hymns. Others prefer Southern Gospel/Bill Gaither – or 1980’s Maranatha and Integrity/Hosanna – or Tomlin/Redman/Crowder/Passion – of Christian Indie Rock – or the resurgence of old hymns in new dress.

I just read the Breakpoint article by Chuck Colson, who asked,

“Is there a right and wrong kind of music for worship?”

His answer?


Donald Williams is director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. In his excellent Touchstone magazine article, “Durable Hymns,” Williams notes that there have been wars over music almost as long as there’s been a church. So what’s the answer?

Williams says we should study the music of the past to “learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present.”

Much of today’s music is of poor quality, he writes. But so was some music written centuries ago. The difference is the old hymns have endured a centuries-long weeding-out process. If we hope to identify the best new music, Williams writes, we must know “those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.”

These marks of excellence “are not arbitrary.” They “are derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship.” They come, Williams writes, “from an understanding of the nature of music and how it can support those biblical goals.”

Among these marks of excellence is biblical truth. Lyrics need not to be literal Scripture, but they do have to be faithful to it.

Another mark of excellence-theological profundity. Think of how the words to this great hymn encourage us to worship God with our minds:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes

By contrast, some contemporary choruses are often “so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started,” Williams says.

A third mark of excellence is poetic richness. For instance, the use of a question in the hymn “What Child is This?” helps us capture “the wonder of the Incarnation.” In “Amazing Grace,” the word “wretch,” Williams notes, is “a simple but evocative” choice.

A fourth mark is musical beauty. In great music, “there are certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody.” And the right harmony “can make that melody more memorable . . .,” he writes. For instance, “Be Thou My Vision” “rises and falls like an ocean wave or a sine curve.”

Tragically, Williams notes, “more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”

Colson concludes…

Surely all sides of the music wars can agree that we want to praise God by singing hymns and spiritual songs that are biblically true, theologically profound, poetically rich, and, yes, musically beautiful.

What do you think?



  1. I do love the drums in church and certainly do not think it is siding with the devil. Boy what a way to worship!

  2. “the rules of good composition”…

    Hey, who wrote those rules? God? (Answer: No. It was the music faculty at OBU and your grade depended on agreeing with them.)

  3. i served as Minister of Music in a church where ANY song that didn’t come from the 1956 edition of the Baptist Hymnal was of the devil. this was in the early 90’s…and Vinyard (along with a few others) was putting out some great stuff at that time. i tried to introduce some freshness but they would have none of it.

    now, i’m in a church that is desperate for genuine worship. most Sundays, it’s just me and my feeble guitar skills…but i learned a long time ago that when i’m worshiping (and leading by example), people who want to worship will join me at the Throne.

    true worship isn’t about style…it’s about the heart.

    if we want to worship, we will. if we’re looking for excuses to avoid worship, we will never sit at His feet and bask in His glory.

  4. There are good traditional hymns, and there are good contemporary hymns/songs. There is also a lot of garbage being passed off as hymns/songs both traditional and contemporary.

    As a church musician for almost 43 years, I find it important to read the lyrics first and foremost. Is there a message that speaks to my heart? Will it speak to the hearts of the worshiping church? Is it theologically sound? Will the lyrics support all the other areas of worship; the Word, the Lord’s table, baptism, giving, and the spiritual gifts?

    If the lyrics pass the tests, is it singable? Are there musical characteristics that will endear it to those who will sing it? Are there other tunes that can be used with the lyrics for variety–this brings us to the use of the metric index found near the back of most denominations’ hymnals.

    Very few church musicians understand the benefit of the metric index. Most hymns have a tune name listed along with several numbers each followed by a period. Those numbers represent the number of syllables per phrase. If one wants to find a different tune to sing with the lyrics, he/she can turn to the metric index, locate the same sequence of numbers, and then the list of all tunes that have the same number of syllables as the lyrics you may wish to sing to a different tune. I have found several hymn lyrics are better sung when an alternate tune is used.

    Ultimately, music prepares the church for worship. It is not an entity unto itself, but a significant part of the whole and should always compliment all other aspects of worship.

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