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How do we choose our hymns?


I was sitting in the pulpit of a little hall in County Antrim, and the fresh-faced, smiling young man who was convening the service had just risen to his feet. “Now somebody must have a favourite!” I cringed, and hoped that nobody in the congregation noticed my discomfort, as the lady at the back shouted out the hymn that she called for at every meeting where such an appeal is made, and we stood, once again, to sing ‘Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine.’

A scenario like that is re-enacted in churches and halls all across the country every week I suppose and some will see no problem with it at all! So why did I feel such discomfort at the procedure? Just think about it for a moment, and let us ask ourselves an important question, “Should the choice of hymns and praises to be offered in worship to the Holy and Almighty God, be left to the personal whim of a member of a congregation, whether previously determined or sought at such short notice?” Some might argue that the hymn was very meaningful to the person concerned. Perhaps it was a hymn which was sung at the meeting where they were converted. Maybe it emphasised some deeply significant spiritual experience, or the words were personally challenging. Are such subjective preferences the correct criteria for choosing the hymns that we sing?

We learn in the Bible that the worship of the Lord’s people is not for the purpose of pleasing the worshippers, but must be acceptable to the Lord! In the wider church, there has developed a tendency to think that everything that we do in church must be entertaining, and appeal to human emotions. The argument goes that we will never attract people to our churches unless we pander to their tastes in format and music and unless we make our meetings ‘culturally relevant.’ Our world looks for entertainment and informality in everything these days. In our futile attempts to make the church attractive to modern man, we allow what appeals to human emotion to be incorporated into divine worship where it prevails. Subjectivity reigns today, and the post-modernistic ideas of the world, where objective truth is discarded in favour of subjective experience are too frequently allowed to penetrate the Lord’s Church, where they do immeasurable damage to the cause of the Gospel and the worship of the Lord.

Yet God has laid down for us in His Word, how we are to worship Him. Jesus said, in John 4:23-24, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” God wants us to worship Him in the way that He has ordained, not in any other way. In fact the Bible tells us that God is displeased with man-centred worship and will punish those who worship in such ways, “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2) There is therefore a basic Biblical principle for whatever we do in church, including the singing of hymns, which must be pleasing to the Lord. This will only be so if carried out in the manner He commands. In Reformed churches this is called the Regulative Principle.

Having established the first principle, how do we choose hymns for worship and how do we ensure that they will be acceptable to God? In the Bible the singing of hymns has two purposes. Firstly, all hymns must glorify God, not man. The Psalms are full of exhortations to praise God, and to express that worship in song unto Him. In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet recalls how he was confronted with the presence of the Holy and Transcendent God. Particularly interesting are the actions of the seraphim around the throne who are totally dedicated to the worship of God. Their worship is an example of how ours ought to be, directed to God, offered up in reverence to Him who is thrice holy, “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3) How different is their worship from the man-centred singing and worship of many of Christian assemblies today. Godly ministers leading the people in God’s praise have given way to ‘worship leaders’, many of whom are more concerned with their own image, or with trying to keep the congregation entertained and amused, than with the true praise of Almighty God. Hymns and praises must give glory to God and not man. Remember the words of John the Baptist, who said in John 3:30 “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Secondly, there is another Biblical command regarding the hymns that we sing. Hymns must edify the church. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” So for Paul, hymns had a secondary, didactic purpose. They are to reinforce teaching in the church. People very often remember the words of hymns, when the words of the sermon have been long forgotten. It follows that hymns must contain Biblical truth, so that they strengthen and support the Biblical teaching that comes from the pulpit.

A story from the early church illustrates the importance of this. One of the most dangerous false teachers in the early church was Arius of Alexandria who, prior to the Council of Nicea in AD 325, believed and taught among other errors, that Christ was a created being. His serious error spread throughout the whole Roman empire, not just through the force of his preaching, but because he taught his false doctrine to the sailors at the docks in the form of catchy little songs. The sailors sang these choruses all over the world, and in turn, other Christians learned them and the whole church was involved in controversy, error and heresy. In a modern parallel, there is an abundance of ‘worship’ songs with dubious lyrics, doubtful theology and little meaning, they are sung on the basis that they have a nice tune or a catchy rhythm. Some may have been featured on some semi-religious television programme, or promoted on a ‘worship’ CD by a recording company, hungry for new materials to keep its presses rolling and its profits boosted.

The choosing of hymns and other items of praise is an important and demanding responsibility. Whether hymns are chosen by the minister, the convenor of a service or the choirmaster, whether they are traditional or modern, they must give glory to God and not to man. They must also have a teaching content which will reinforce the teaching of Biblical truth.

Trivia and doggerel simply will not do, for the worship of our Holy God is a serious matter which must be done in a solemn and reverent manner. In the matter of presenting our praise in song unto the Lord in public worship, ‘my favourite hymn’ is of little relevance. Subjective choice is never an option.

From → Hymns and Praise

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