Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs — Part II

In my previous post, I advocated for giving the song back to the congregation, complete with scriptural support (Ephesians 5:18-21).  I gave a defense for the use of a balanced approach to worship music.  I want to continue that topic with a further look at two aspects: “nutrition” and the role of the Choir.

Nutrition.  Huh?  

Medical science has pretty much solidified the notion that our physical bodies need a balanced diet of grains, fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry, legumes, nuts, and dairy (there are probably others I’ve forgotten).  Some of us have to restrict some of these for various reasons, but the idea is that these different foods provide the essential nutrients for our bodies to function optimally:  too much or too little of one type or other may potentially throw our system out of kilter.  

Let’s apply this rationale by considering worship music as a form of food for our spiritual lives.  The use of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs virtually guarantees a well balanced diet of worship music.  From the ancient psalms, chants, and canticles through the plainsong, through early Reformation hymnody, to the devotional and inspirational hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries, and to praise music, scripture songs, and other contemporary styles, we are exposed to a wealth of textual artistry that gives the Christian faith a way to express itself more fully.  

Take the Psalms, for example: nearly every conceivable human emotion is packed into 150 poems… we see how the authors thought, felt, and ultimately talked to — and listened to, God.  Some contemporary hymn writers give us eloquent ways to ask God about natural and manmade disasters… how do we respond as Christians to these situations?  

The pioneer of devotional hymnody is considered to be Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  His hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” gives voice to the Christian’s response to the death of Jesus upon the cross.  Prior to this hymn’s creation, the Church’s liturgy tended toward etherealizing salvation (a broad generalization, to be sure)… it was out there somewhere; true, but not relevant to one’s personal life.  Hymns like this are an important part of the worship music diet.

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

So, psalms, hymns AND spiritual songs (and all Christian hymnody in between, provided it’s solid musically and textually) give our Christian lives a healthy and balanced diet of texts that enrich, empower, and educate us.  Worship leaders, music ministers:  let’s be musical nutritionists!

The Role of the Choir

When I say, “let’s give song back to the congregation,” I do not mean to imply that the Choir is no longer needed (one could substitute the word “praise team” here).  But when choral music supplants congregational singing to the point that the congregation is relegated to being passive listeners, “Houston, we have a problem!”  

Nearly 20 years ago on one of my Sundays off, I walked to the local Russian Orthodox church (essentially a magnificent basilica) to attend their morning mass.  I felt as though I “stepped back into the pages of the Old Testament;” the ancient worship traditions, the splendid choral singing:  a rich experience for me!

The Priest used his homily to exhort the people to reclaim their song, to learn once again the chants and other worship music and participate!  “The liturgy belongs to the people.”  He was in no way minimizing the role of their fabulous choir, but rather redefining it: from being performer to worship leader (enabler).  He wanted the congregation to sing and the choir to help!

Western sacred choral music, in all its styles and forms, is one of the greatest gifts the Christian church has given to music history.  And it should be presented in worship, because, again, it gives voice to the Christian experience of encountering Almighty God.  And if presented properly, choral music can lift the listener to another realm of beauty and holiness.  Further, it gives those persons called and gifted to the choir ministry an avenue of service. (There is scriptural support for choral ministry — look at David’s regulations for Temple worship.) 

But, in Christian worship, the choir was never supposed to take over.  The choir was never supposed to carry on an exclusive conversation with God up there in the choir stalls, while the rest of us sat immobile in the pew, for fear our squeaky seats would disrupt the piety of the moment.  

Rather, the choir is an extension of the congregation.  The choir enables the congregation to express itself in stalwart hymn singing.  Except for special times of worship in which choral music may be the focus, anthem repertoire should not preempt congregational song.  We worship leaders need to program a healthy balance so that everyone can voice their praise, meditation, prayer, joy, sorrow, and all the other viable Christian expressions.  

I firmly believe that if choirs will embrace this role of worship leader, the congregation will more readily accept and receive the role of choral music in worship.   Again, it’s a matter of both/and, not either/or.  Let’s get out of this either/or mentality that has so permeated our corporate discussions in the last few decades.  We can do it!

Finally, I would like to refer you to the following article:

Keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart!


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