The Crest of the YouTube Wave?
I will not forget attending a wedding some years ago - but not for the right reasons. Not the beauty of the bride or the solemnity of the occasion, no, I remember it because I was unable to join in any of the sung worship. Why? Because I had never heard even one of these songs - even though I listen to and love contemporary Christian music.
It was as if the great river of historic Christian hymnody was irrelevant for today.
As if no-one in that congregation mattered unless they were between the age of 18 and 30.
As if Christian music was invented in 2010 and the current crest of YouTube Christian music was all that counted.
Such an event stands for a mindset that believes we should sing whatever Christian songs are riding the apogee of YouTube popularity. It does not really matter - not really - what the words are, nor whether the tunes are singable, all that matters, or so it seems, is that we are keeping up with the musical Jones'.
But if riding the crest of the wave is not the way forward, how do we choose the songs we sing?
For some folks the die is set by tradition. Some will only sing the Psalms, for example, because only those words can truly and fully regarded as Biblical. That's fine.
Others put their trust in the editors of one particular hymn book, outside of which heresy doth lie. That's fine too.
Remember we all have traditions and traditions are good. Without tradition a church lurches from chaos to chaos week to week. Even people who don't think they have traditions have traditions for "we don't have traditions" is their unique and particular way of doing stuff.
Many believers are wide and eclectic in their choice, not wanting to chain themselves to any particular stream or tradition (apart from Gospel truth) but wanting to sing the best of the old and finest of the new. Such are convinced that Scripture allows us to sing a wide palette of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16).
How then shall we choose?
Principle 1: Do the words line up with Scripture?
This is the first, and in one sense the only principle. Are the lyrics doctrinally accurate and sound? Songs are remembered by the mind and they enter the heart and soul, so we want to make sure that they are in line with Scripture.
One great principle brought back from the New Testament during the reformation was "sola scriptura." Scripture alone shapes all of our doctrine and life, whether at home or in the church.
Scripture alone should set the standard of what we sing. Do the words we sing line up with the doctrine of Scripture?
There is a danger here of adding to Scripture Alone other principles; of adding Scripture Plus principles.
Scripture + Author is one common but flawed Scripture Plus. This could also be called the argument of "guilt by author's life" We come across a song that is doctrinally sound but then - and we can do this today like never before with the internet - we examine what we can of the author and if we find it wanting we reject the song.
The problem with this approach is, Where do you stop? If you are to be consistent you should examine every single author, not just the newbies. When I Google my college lecturers from just the 1980s Google returns no results - so this method is going to be rather limited, if Google is where you go for your info. It's inconsistent and unfair to condemn living authors but leave past ones unjudged.
And surely, if we decide to use this "how good is the author" principle, no-one should sing the hauntingly beautiful - but surely sound:
1 Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.
2 O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!
3 But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.
...because the lived-around-1100 AD author, Bernard of Clairvaux, played a major role in stirring up Crusades in which hundreds of innocent people died for a profoundly unChristian cause.
It could be argued, using Scripture + Author, that singing any song by Mr Clairvaux is tainting our hands with innocent blood.
And to be completely consistent with Scripture + Author, should we sing any of David's Psalms, for was he not an adulterer and a murderer?
The moment we deviate from Scripture Alone we end up in a quagmire of impossible inquiry which turns us - dangerously - into the judge and jury of all hymn writers, ancient or new.
And suppose we manage to give a particular author the green light? Do we really know that that man or woman did actually live a godly life? Especially if they lived before the internet age? Better, surely, to be tuneless than to be sorry.
I say 'before the internet' age, as if the internet was the deposit of truth. Tragically it is all too often the locus of slander, bias and prejudice.
Another flawed Scripture Plus approach is Scripture + Stable. In this method we may be happy with both the words and the author, but we regard the theological stable he or she comes from just a wee bit too dodgy. A stable too Arminian perhaps, an association too Charismatic, whatever. This argument could also be called "guilt by association."
So we find a wonderful song, we have every reason to believe the author is a true believer, but we discover - on the web again - the truth or the lie that he or she is connected to the wrong people. At some time in their lifetime they spoke to this dodgy person, went to that dicey conference, hung out with this shifty movement. So the sound song is condemned because of some connection, real, imagined or slandered on the web.
The fatal flaw of this "guilt by association" Scripture Plus methodology is that if you look at all the wrong places on the world wide web you could most probably discover slander that says Charles Wesley ("O for a thousand tongues to sing") was a multiple murderer and Frances Havergel ("Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee") was a petty thief.
Slander is a big sin on the Internet. Slander is a really big sin to God but many fine Christian songwriters are suffering slander on the web. Slander is one of today's under-the-radar sins.
There is of course a valid point behind both of these cautious approaches. If a church sings lots of songs from one particular stable which has significant doctrinal weaknesses then members of the congregation in these days of internet surfing may possibly be led astray by that stable. And if a present author was living a known immoral lifestyle then we would not want to be seen to commend that.
For all sorts of reasons, on a case by case basis, local churches may decide not to sing this song or that.
But to make Scripture Plus, whether Scripture + Author or Scripture + Stable the blanket principles behind our choices will either render us either hypocritical judges, or if we are truly consistent, mute worshippers, since all authors are sinners, and the only perfect Man who has ever lived, did not leave us a song.
No, the only reliable, the only objective, the only humble principle is Scripture Alone.
Principle 2: Is the tune 'congregational'?
A secondary but important principle for congregational singing is: How easy is it for the congregation to sing the tunes? Some tunes are fine for practised musicians but mighty difficult for the ordinary believer in the pew to join in with.
And, thinking of the tune, we must not become so intoxicated by the melody that we lose our judgement about the words. It's happened to me. I have so loved the beauty of a melody that I have overlooked the soundness of the lyrics.
Principle 3: Does the Song have wide appeal?
One of the great reasons for choosing older songs is that the church has had time to weed out the poor stuff. How many hymns did Charles Wesley write? The BBC tells me 6000. How many do we sing today? One thousandth. A Handful. Why? Because time has culled out the poor ones.
The church, over time selects the good and rejects the bad. (For that reason could it be a sound principle not to sing any song until it is at least ten years old?!)
Old and New
The wisest approach is surely to combine the old with the new. When the Psalmist said "Sing to the Lord a new Song" (Psalm 96:1) he did not add "And chuck out the old."
Our worship songs should straddle all the age ranges found in our churches. The saints who have sung the songs of Zion from Christian Hymns, Redemption Hymnal or Mission Praise should not feel excluded.
Nor those of us who love the precious new.
And all to the praise and glory of God.