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Congregational Song: Where Do We Go From Here?

  • Bob Kauflin Director of Worship Development, PDI Ministries
  • 2001 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
Congregational Song: Where Do We Go From Here?
If you're just joining us, we've been taking a brief look at the first 2,000 years of Christian congregational song. I'll be the first to acknowledge the vast amount of material we have not been able to discuss due to time and space constraints. We've limited our focus to some of the highlights of the Protestant Western world, leaving out other significant developments, including black spirituals, liturgical traditions, hymnody from other cultures and countries, and more. Maybe we'll get to those in another series...

However, there are a few lessons we can learn, even from our limited overview.

First, nothing can stop the church from singing. Even when laws, opinion, or misinformed tradition dictate against it, congregational song will always be common among God's redeemed people. Whether a cappella or with instruments, whether slow and reverent or up-tempo and celebratory, whether accompanied by a contemporary band or a pipe organ, one this is certain: God's people will sing.

Second, stylistic changes are a fact of life. As much as we'd like to hold on to our traditions and personal or corporate preferences, God's Spirit consistently inspires fresh and meaningful ways to communicate unchanging truths to contemporary cultures. (Otherwise, our worship songs would probably sound a lot like modern-day Arabic folk music!) In fact, it seems that every time a Scriptural truth or emphasis brings genuine spiritual awakening to the church, new songs are birthed that proclaim the message of renewal and unite God's people in worship.

Third, we have seen how composers can play a central role in shaping church history. John Calvin and others taught the church to prize the singing of God's Word, especially the Psalms. Isaac Watts opened the door for personal expressions of faith. The songs of Charles Wesley enabled the church to climb to new heights of freedom and passion. Because they combine sound doctrine with Godward devotion, the influence of these musical vehicles upon the church have continued long after their composers passed on. What an inspiration for today’s songwriters!

Most songs composed for congregational worship provide a brief light for a single generation. Only a few stand the test of time, shining brightly decades or centuries after they were written. In light of this truth, those who love modern worship, with all its advantages and blessings, ought to exercise caution. A passion for the contemporary, the relevant, and the modern can cause us to forsake the rich store of powerful spiritual truth available in the time-tested music of our Christian heritage.

"While we should never say that popular music is out of place in Christian expression, we must protest when shallowness is the chief preference. The gospel is heavy and it is deep. The question is: How can CCM [or the modern worship movement] point beyond shallowness toward deeper engagement with deepening content?" (Harold Best, "Music Through the Eyes of Faith," p. 175)

On the other hand, those of us who look only to the distant past for congregational song will missing many opportunities to sing newer songs that can inspire worship with fresh, godly vigor. The great hymns of the church are invaluable, but they do not represent all that God has done or will do in the area of musical composition for congregational worship. No one culture says it all, past or present, sophisticated or
simple.

May our gratitude to God for the hymn writers of the past be regular and profuse. May our appreciation for those He has given us today be equally as passionate.

For His Glory,

Bob