I want to wade into the precarious waters of the worship wars. What is the worship war? It is the ongoing discussion/debate/debacle inside the local church over music and music styles. For the most part, the internet is adrift with good arguments for hymnody and why the Church ought to sing songs that teach good, rock-solid biblical truth. I agree with the arguments in favor of didactic worship. Our songs should instruct. The best of theology should be sung in the local church. Good theology has always led to good doxology. We sing because we believe certain things about God and what He has done in human history for us and our salvation. That being said, I think the middle of the road is likely where the Church ought to be. We should have blended worship times that utilize the best hymnody and contemporary praise and worship songs. I’ll give my arguments in favor of this position below.
First, the Bible commands different worship styles. Ephesians 5:18-21 says, “”18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How are we to become filled with the Spirit? One way is addressing one another in a variety of song styles. Commenting on these verses, Clinton E. Arnold writes:
The form of the music covers a wide range and represents significant diversity….The terms suggest a variety of musical forms should be used….Paul probably used the combination of the three terms to commend a variety of forms and musical styles in his multicultural churches, which were comprised of Jews and Greeks. (Ephesians, Ephesians: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 353).
Diversity is commanded within our worship settings. Peter T. O’Brien agrees in his commentary also noting:
Although firm distinctions cannot be drawn between the terms, nor can an exact classification of New Testament hymns be made on the basis of the different words, taken together ‘psalms, hymns, and ‘songs’ describe the full range of singing which the Spirit prompts. Through these songs members of the community who are continually filled by the Spirit will instruct, edify, and exhort one another. (The Letter to the Ephesians, 395-396).
Why should you have blended worship? I think the most important reason why is you are commanded to by the God who sings Himself over His people (Zeph. 3:17). Paul writes again in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Second, all the arguments against contemporary praise, and worship songs aren’t sufficient to build a case against them. Why are they not good enough? Every argument against contemporary praise and worship songs unfortunately could apply to various Psalms in the Bible and those songs are inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself (2 Tim. 3:16). Want me to illustrate this? Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are too predictable, lacking in depth, shallow, or doctrineless. Well check out Psalm 133. Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are too repetitive. Check out Psalms 118, 136. Psalm 136 literally repeats a phrase 26 times. How is that for repetition? Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are too personal and stress individualistic notions about God. Check out Psalms 6, 13, 27, 34 and highlight ever first person personal pronoun used. Some say contemporary praise and worship songs have way too many words for people to learn. Have you ever read (or tried to sing) Psalm 119? Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are too simple. Go read Psalm 117, which is literally two verses. Some say contemporary praise and worship songs have odd theology. So does Psalm 51 at some points. Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are too difficult for the elderly in our churches to learn. Well, there are 150 individual psalms in the book of Psalms. The people of God have had the same problem for ages. Some say contemporary praise and worship songs are almost too artist-concert focused. Well, there are musical instruments listed throughout the Psalms as well. The Psalms were the songbook of Jesus and the early church because they were the songs of the covenant people for millennia. These were the jams the people of God and the Son of God sang. The irony is many of our contemporary worship songs have more of an affinity to the Psalms than our hymns.
Third, there are really good arguments one could make against an unblended worship that consists only of hymns. For example, many times hymns are too theologically complicated. They’re more complicated than the worship we find in the book of Psalms. Also, they’re just linguistically complicated. We do not speak, pray, or think in Elizabethan-era English. Contemporary hymns and worship songs utilize language that is easily understood. Sometimes hymnody is not able to be understood by the common man. This is a contextualization and evangelistic issue for churches. How can we invite people to our worship service if they cannot understand what we are singing? I have often polled youth to ask about the words we use in a song to find nothing short of blank stares and faces. According to a 1992 study for the National Center for Education Statistics, most American adults themselves read at a 8th or 9th grade reading level. If students and adults literally cannot understand the words we are singing, how can we argue that we should just use hymns? This is not catering to ignorance but simply contextualizing so God’s people can worship. I believe we need to raise people up and disciple them in such a way that they understand the Lord. Yet, they does not require us to sing songs that are intelligible only to a few, educated people sitting in our churches.
Shall I go on? The complicated nature of the hymns betrays their original intent. Hymns were originally written to help the common man learn theology. Yet, sometimes our hymns go over peoples’ heads. We have therefore betrayed the theological principle the apostle Paul clearly taught in 1 Corinthians 14, which is there must be intelligibility in corporate worship. The melodies of some hymns are too musically complicated for those not musically trained. Most are not trained classically in music and therefore struggle to sing hymns. Want men and women to not sing in worship? Utilize only hymns with melodies that can only be sung by the trained. Furthermore, most local churches have talented musicians who are able to do more. Our commitment to Anglo-Saxon hymnody is merely preference; not any sort of commitment to anything found in the Bible. As I’ve shown earlier, we have explicit commands from God to utilize blended worship. It is undeniably that some contemporary songs are theologically weak. There is no debate concerning that reality. Yet, it is also equally undeniable that many of them aren’t. We ought not to throw the proverbial baby out with the baptismal bathwater.
I do not want to be divisive on this issue. The music of Hillsong is simply not a hill to die on. But, I think returning to the center within this debate is the best possible way forward. We dare not elevate our preferences to the level of biblical command or prohibition. We have no right to do so. We need civility, understanding, and wisdom in deciding what is best for the disciples and potential disciples in our pews. Personally, I have immensely benefited from the best of hymns and also the music of Tomlin, Christ for the Nations, Phil Wickham and others. What I don’t get currently in my local church, I make up for it in my own personal devotion times and as I go through my daily routines. But, in regards to what is in fact best for the Church in general, blended worship appears to be better than exclusively using one style.