Draft Selections on Music from Worship and Worship Services

Draft Selections on Music from

Worship and Worship Services

Gregg Strawbridge

All Saints Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor

Exemplary Psalmody

In a certain sense the exclusive psalm-singers actually minimize the importance of the Psalms, since they sing them but do not obey what they say in respect to "singing a new song" (Psa 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 40:3, 144:9, 119:54). To add, most within the exclusive psalmody camp also deny the validity of musical instruments in worship. Rather, we should use the Psalms not only for the content of our singing, but as a manual for praise to guide our services, applying its commands of how we are to express praise to God, and most of all we should see Christ in them. "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me" (Joh 5:39).

Though I have argued that exclusive psalmody is too narrow, the Psalms still remain a vital and important part of Christian worship. Worship is clearly exemplified in the Psalms. The preeminent writer of the Psalms has the heart after God. We need an exemplary psalmody in worship rather than an exclusive psalmody. This is true both in following the heart-exposing expressions and emotions of the psalmists (the how of worship), as well as the motivations of the psalmists to worship (the why of worship), and especially in following the psalmists in the content of worship--worshiping the God of the Psalms (the what of worship). Perhaps then we will be more like David, a man after God's own heart (1Sa 13:14).

As a guide for the songs we sing in worship, the Psalms form an exemplary model of what is truly good. We learn that the psalmists not only sing praise and give thanks to God, but also cry out to God in deep grief and personal anguish (e.g., Psa 55). The psalmists praise, pray, plead, repent, imprecate, and inspect their own hearts in every kind of lyrical expression. The psalmists praise because of their vision of God's greatness and goodness, reflecting on His redemptive acts in history and call for worship that is congregational, individual and omni-situational, joyful, audible, novel, lyrical, instrumental, physical, professional, continual, cross-cultural, and universal (see Appendix G: "Categories of Praise").

We find very simple assertions and mini-choruses like Psalm 117 (only 2 verses),

Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! 2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD!

And we find acrostics of thematic poetry like Psalm 119. There are profound statements with vast theological depth, "Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne" (Psa 97:2)--i.e., that though God is both righteous and just, still darkness surrounds him (mystery). There are repetitious refrains like, "For His lovingkindness is everlasting" repeated 26 times in Psalm 136. Many biblical songs in the Psalms display a depth in meaning so that the interpretation is not immediately obvious, especially when drawing upon the ancient peoples, lands, and geographical references (e.g., "Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me" 2:12). The Psalms model transparent expression, profound imagery of the Most High, and even poetic elusiveness. Many Psalms are prophetic and typological, referring to David initially and ultimately to Christ (e.g., Psa 16 & 22). Some are even analogous to Messiah's reign (Psa 72).

Sometimes critics of contemporary music too hastily conclude that "contemporary sacred song expresses more feelings, emotions, and conditions about 'you,' 'me,' 'my,' and 'I' than it communicates about the Lord." (1) Using the Psalms as our model would prevent such an unreflective conclusion since in the 150 Psalms the pronoun "I" is used 557 times. "My" is used 595 times. "Me" is used 464 times. "You" is used 113 times. That totals 1729 usages of such pronouns in inerrant lyrics, an average of 12 times a Psalm. Now I also share the basic concern of such critics, that many contemporary writers express a basic "man-centeredness" in their songs. A more biblically comprehensive response is needed. My plea is for a truly balanced understanding of worship music, using the Psalms as our model. Further, if the Psalms guide worship, the varieties of emotional-musical expression in the Psalms will find a place in worship. (2)

The Three-fold Designation: Psalm, Hymn, Spiritual Song

The New Testament, in two places speaks of a three-fold designation of songs, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. O'Brien is substantially correct in stating, "taken together these three words 'psalms,' 'hymns' and 'songs' describe 'the full range of singing which the Spirit prompts.'" (3) Upon examination, a biblical balance for song content may be deduced from these passages.

1. We should sing the Old Testament Psalms. Principally, this is singing Scripture itself. The benefits of this are replete; but, an obvious one is to learn the words of the Word. Singing Scripture, for example, in Scripture songs, canticles (songs other than the Psalms in Scripture, e.g., Mary's Magnificat, Zacharias' Benedictus, etc.). Within this category, we may also consider singing the Psalms in metrical form. Singing Scripture in the most direct fashion should be a central part of the musical diet of a healthy church.

2. We should sing theocentric and Christocentric hymns. Principally, these are doctrinal songs which express and articulate our Christian theology. Here is the place for the classic hymns of the ancient church (e.g., At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing), the Reformed church (e.g., A Mighty Fortress is Our God and I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art), and the modern church (e.g., Watts, Newton, Cowper, Wesley, etc.). Such examples are full of direct biblical content and scriptural images. Moreover, the biblical content is interpreted by a doctrinally mature writer. These songs extol God in a poetic and theologically in-depth way, as is fitting for a mature church (Eph 4:11ff).

3. It is also important that we sing spiritual songs (4) --odes-- which may be simple and personal. This is the place for the contemporary praise choruses which express praise to God and truths regarding our relationship to God (e.g., I Love You Lord, I Will Come and Bow Down, Majesty, etc.; also, gospel songs like To God Be the Glory, Jesus Saves, Trust and Obey). The content of this category of songs is surely simpler, yet no less true expressions of the biblical faith in which a child may wade and a philosopher may drown.

The success of maintaining biblical worship with differing musical and textual sources is making music the slave of liturgy, not the master of it.

Selected Principles of Church Music

1. Music of the people of God should flow from their deepening experience in the Word of God. Therefore, congregations growing in theological depth should be encouraged to express this in new songs and hymns, as well as by singing songs of past generations.

2. Music of the people of God should purpose to tactfully teach truth and correct error. This is especially needful in a time when psychologists have replaced pastors as physicians of the soul. We must "counsel" (noutheteo) one another with song (Col 3:16).

3. Music of the people of God should involve the words of Scripture as well as theological and experiential summaries consistent with Scripture. We cannot afford, in this day of biblical illiteracy, to miss any opportunity to lead people in learning the Word of God, especially with such an effective means as music.

4. Music of the people of God should be performed by the "one anothers" of the body of Christ. There is a balance between professional skillfulness and the oft repeated commands for the congregation to do music. The balance is found in each congregation as pastors and church musicians should work to raise a new generation of Bachs who have a robust theology, a worldview grasp on music, and perform unto the Lord with excellence.

5. Music of the people of God should subjectively be performed with gratitude from the heart and an attitude of prayer ("unto the Lord"). Aside from all the correctness of the doctrine, the majesty of the poetic form, and the excellencies with which music is carried out, the congregation

must be encouraged to worship "in heart."

1. 1Music in the Balance, Frank Garlock and Kurt Woetzel (Greenville, SC: Majesty Music, Inc, 1992), p. 120.

2. 2See the chapter on "Ordering Worship" for more information on using the Psalms to guide worship.

3. 3O'Brien, p. 211.

4. 4Notwithstanding all I have said about exclusive psalmody, I must lament the fact that so many churches major on spiritual songs, erroneously calling them "hymns," and hardly ever sing the Psalms or doctrinal hymns.