Thoughts on Seeking the Best Hymnody for Our Church

By | December 1, 2022

If I could say something to my church about hymnody in 1,000 words or less, the following would be my thoughts. This rough guide is just a few paragraphs, each of which could be expanded into a book and indeed have by others who articulate these matters better than me. I list various kinds of hymnody that we do not want and then what (I hope) we do—what is biblical and best. 

We do not want a hymnody based on Praise & Worship.

As a formal system of thought, Praise & Worship believes that, as the cloud descended on the temple in the Old Testament, so also we can praise God until He “comes down” to inhabit the assembly’s praises today (cf. Hebrews 11:15 with Psalm 22:3b), a descent manifested through tongues, prophecy, and other ecstatic phenomena. This theology misunderstands God’s presence in worship and stems from continuationism. Ironically, though this tradition began with a heavy use of Scripture (especially the OT), it melded with contemporary worship in time, a pragmatic philosophy of worship.

We do not want a hymnody based on Contemporary Christian Music.

Pragmatic from the outset, intentionally or not, Contemporary Christian Music was “experimental,” using novelty for the sake of winning a crowd. Novelty meant the church using the world’s popular music to bring the world into the church, shifting the purpose of the assembly from edification to evangelism. Ironically, though this movement began with an emphasis on evangelizing the world, its pragmatism and church-marketing methods led to targeting certain groups. Boundaries were little to none. Its theology misused Paul’s personal method of evangelism as the mission of the church, becoming all things to all men (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:22).

We do not want a hymnody based on Gospel Music.

“Gospel music” as a category comes from musicians who wrote music intended for revivals and not for churches. These musicians also tested their music in revivals to see which ones would make for good sales in hymnals over time. This music and its hymnals crept into the churches nonetheless, as supplements or supplanting traditional hymnals altogether. Good hymnody gave way to the easy-to-sing, nondenominational, sometimes sentimental, popular camp-meeting choruses of the day. Ironically, because of gospel music’s generally conservative heritage, many churches still sing these songs, not realizing that these “traditional hymns” are actually popular hymns meant for revivals back in the day.

We do want a hymnody using the best hymns, old or new.

The best hymns let the word of Christ dwell richly among us, teach and admonish us about Him, and express thanks to God from our hearts (Colossians 3:16). The Spirit guides our melodies as we are sung to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18–19). We have 2,000 years of church history, and especially since the Reformation, we have many good hymns to sing. Our own hymnal (Hymns of Grace and Glory) has many psalms and good hymns by Calvin, Luther, Watts, Wesley, Spurgeon, and many others. We have a self-published hymnal supplement with more psalms and even hymns by pastors and members of our church.

Some hymns can rise beyond questionable origins to become timeless staples for us today. New hymns can encourage us for a season but may not stand the test of time. Perhaps chapels, colleges, and camps can have simpler songs as long as churches do not replace their liturgy with lighter things. “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). When the local assembly gathers to let the word of Christ dwell richly in song, however, we must sing psalms and the best from Christian hymnody.

So how can we maintain a good hymnody for our church?

Here are some basic suggestions to scratch the surface of answering this question.

Have an infinitely high view of God.

We worship Him, His way, according to His Word. Man’s innovation never glorifies God. We glorify Him only as He allows. As we hold Him and His Word as our standard, our worship will be in keeping with Him. 

Continue our practice of expository preaching.

By preaching and knowing the word of Christ as God has given it, and by having this standard for our pulpit, we will expect biblical content in our hymns and have a high standard for the times in our services when we sing as well.

Have pastors who oversee what is sung.

As pastors, we need to be choosing and encouraging the best hymns, whether for the congregation, a group, or a soloist. Pastors steward the whole household of God, hymns included. We cannot overlook what God means us to oversee.

Love one another.

Realize that in churches great or small, there are people who are more or less conservative, or perhaps have not given hymnody any serious thought at all. I believe that the rule of thumb is to be more conservative when gathered as a congregation so as not to violate anyone’s conscience (cf. Romans 14:1–15:7). Each church has its own heritage and tradition, and the matter of worship of song must be handled with patience and care by pastors and everyone else.

Encourage excellent music.

There is no good substitute for excellence in leadership and accompaniment in music, whatever the instruments may be. A pastor or a godly man should lead (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8, 11–12), and instruments should be played in such a way so as to aid and not distract from singing or the text. This does not mean perfection but the best that we can give.

May God help us to sing our praises to Him and His Son by the Spirit to glorify Him.