Music: What’s important about a hymn or song?
“If someone was born in our church and grew up singing our songs, over the course of twenty years, how well would they know God?”
That’s the challenge Bob Kauflin gives in his book, Worship Matters. There are tens of thousands of hymns and songs that can be use to lead congregations in praise and wonder of God. Old, new, hymns, songs, choruses, chants, 7 verse slogs, two line responses, full choral works and simple melody lines – what’s important in a hymn or song?
Words. They’re really important.
In answering Bob’s question – it’s the words of our hymns and songs that will define how well we will come to know God. In comparison the tune, the setting, when it was written and how long it takes to sing, is of little consequence to the words. The lyrics to a hymn or song can usually be split into three categories.
Objective lyrics tell us something true about God that help us to know him better. A great example of this would be
Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
(Rejoice and Sing 67, youtube version here)
When we choose to use hymns with objective lyrics it is really important that they share what the Bible tells us to be true about God. Not every song or hymn in every hymnbook does that, so watch – you don’t want people to remember something that’s not true, especially when it’s something about God!
Subjective lyrics express our response to God – a really good example of these kind of lyrics would be:
Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee;
take my moments and my days
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
(Rejoice and Sing 371, Chris Tomlin’s version of this hymn can be found on youtube here)
When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves.
Reflective Lyrics express what we’re actually doing as we worship God – the eager-eyed reader will notice that some reflective lyrics are masquerading in the last line of the first verse of Immortal Invisible. Another great example would be:
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
with angels round the throne;
ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
but all their joys are one.
(Rejoice and Sing 382)
It’s important that hymns and songs reflect what we actually do, either theologically, as in Isaac Watts’ hymn above, or practically – I remember thinking how bizarre it was to sing ‘We lift our hands to worship you’ in a congregation that very definitely didn’t lift their hands to worship God!
Thinking about the type of lyrics being used can help us place hymns and songs in a beneficial place within a time of worship, and ensure that we not only sing about the great truths of who God is, but are also given the opportunity to respond to God’s gracious call on our lives and that we sing about what it is like to be in the presence of God worshipping him. We do that through using hymns and songs that challenge and encourage us in our response, reflect what we’re actually doing, and above all are full of Biblical truth. Then, we’ll see churches of people not just looking the part, but worshipping with an obvious and real sense of wonder and amazement as people ‘Before the throne of God’, and of course over twenty years, by the Spirit’s work, they’ll come to know God very well indeed.