For the last twenty years when church leaders have thought about balance in a congregation’s worship music diet they have thought almost exclusively about the “contemporary” – “traditional” issue.  Style is certainly one contemplation, and not an unimportant one for the worship leader, but is far from the only one.


There are a myriad of considerations that enter in to selecting music materials for healthy Christian worship.  Notice I said “healthy” Christian worship.  There are many means of decision-making regarding this subject that can lead to unhealthy worship environments and practice.  I have a friend and colleague whose doctoral study centered in evaluating worship.  More specifically, it was a project in which he sought to aid churches in determining what variances exist between their embedded worship theology and their stated worship theology (written or otherwise voiced), assuming they had one (I fear many of our churches and leaders do not have a theology of worship at all, leaving them to drift by experiential practice or imitation of other churches).  My own work in the area of the dynamics and effect of congregational worship singing on worship renewal was always in tension with other questions regarding ecclesiology (theology of church) and with the repertoire being sung in churches.  No doubt all these issues and more form a matrix of critical concerns for the diligent worship ministry leader.  Questions can be overwhelming as can the proliferation of possible “answers” which are offered by a plethora of sources from the blogosphere, books, popular and noted worship leaders, etc., etc.  Gone, it seems, are the days of doing college, followed by seminary, and popping out the other side as a bona fide Minister of Music, ready to serve alongside a learned pastor with whom the struggle for answers could resume as a lifelong partnership and shared journey of learning.


Selection of healthy song material has always included serious consideration of text and tune match, a contemplation that has not gone away.  The burgeoning effects of cultural influence and charismatic movements within church cultures continue to present challenges to song selection that form worshipers into people of mission, ministry, and Kingdom citizenship, as well as people who love God and love people.  Lionel Adey divides hymns and worship songs into three categories; objective, subjective, and reflexive.  Objective texts state theological theme or biblical event; subjective include implications for the worshiper; and reflexive songs focus on the act of worship itself.  In truth there are balances to be achieved within each of these divisions, but for the sake of brevity and focus, let’s just consider balancing the three; objective, subjective, and reflexive.  As point of concern let’s especially consider the latter.  Peter Ward in his book, Selling Worship, says the following:


The emphasis upon encounter with God in the present has lead to songs that focus upon the worshipper and what is happening in the present moment.  The ‘now’ of the worship song indicates the extent to which attention is directed to the present intimacy between the worshipper and their Lord.


More traditional hymnody tends to offer a more objective emphasis on factual events in the life of Christ and the Gospel narratives as the focus for our worship and adoration.  More contemporary desire to sing songs “to” rather than “about” God has tended toward a lack of interest in the traditional theological content of hymnology, or, indeed, Psalms.  Ward goes on to  point out that the more reflexive hymn has always been a part of worship.  In its right place it offers a sense of urgency and significance to a worship service.  He further cautions, though, that a steady diet or overuse of reflexive songs present serious issues.  The most obvious is that reflexive song often substitutes gospel content for metaphors related to the intimacy of worship.


Historically a case can be made that imbalance in our diet of worship songs that tips one direction is often followed by a period of imbalance in another direction.  In either case the change does not usually occur overnight.  As worship ministers we are responsible to consider how our worship is helping to form worshippers over their lifetime.  Often it is those who are most in need of a balanced diet, who are in their growth spurts if you will, who become target of imbalance at their most vulnerable points.  We must comprehend what is going into the mind and heart of our children and teenagers as developing worshipers/disciples, and not give in to the shortcut of product-marketing schemes that seek to simply adapt Christianized products to fit cultural norms.  It seems imperative for us to know well that culture is never neutral and to serve as pastors to those we lead in Christian worship, giving prayerful consideration to how our congregation’s worship language is forming us into a Christlike people over weeks, months, years, and even our lifetime.





Explore posts in the same categories: Church Music, Congregational Singing, Hymnals, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leader Relationships, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship


  1. Ben Stapleton Says:

    Paul I so relate to this comment- ” He further cautions, though, that a steady diet or overuse of reflexive songs present serious issues. The most obvious is that reflexive song often substitutes gospel content for metaphors related to the intimacy of worship”. Our youth director (who is my very good friend) LOVES these songs with metaphors that are hard to understand and to which I certainly don’t relate. Also, they don’t really say that much about God. It’s more just about the writers feelings about his relationship with God. He knows I don’t like them because I tell him everytime I’m helping out with Youth praise band. 🙂 I think he feels it’s more of a generational thing and that may be part of it, but not all. (After all 26 and 38 aren’t THAT far apart).
    Needless to say, I avoid these kind of songs for our main contemporary worship. Writers like Laura Story, Steve Fee, Glenn Packiam, and of course the Gettys and Townend impress me as people who have something to say about God and not just our feelings toward him. But I agree with the crux of the article that there needs to be a balance. I guess I’m just pointing out there are some songs that are better left out altogether.


    • Paul Clark Jr Says:

      Ben, your reply indicates the kind of convictional thinking needed by those who plan and lead worship through music. Thank you for your response and your important ministry.

  2. bbbbarry Says:

    I’d be fascinated to hear more about this topic, except including the content of music *other* than lyrical meaning. For instance, just yesterday our congregation sang “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us,” a song pitched toward the ages, with a strong factual gospel content sitting right alongside an emotional first-person narrative. But if that text is all we pay attention to, we miss the important feature of the music itself, the way the third phrase raises the voice to an emotional high and then the fourth brings you down for a landing: it adds meaning to *each* of the verses of the song, so much so that by the end, depending on how it’s played (yesterday, the musicians really leaned into that third phrase on the final verse, then shushed for the final one — powerful and riveting!), there’s a reflexive text going on, a message about the very experience of worship, that isn’t present in merely the words. The very best worship songs, whether centuries old or written last week, contain this kind of content, only glancingly commented on in forums like this. I’d love to see it tackled.

    • bbbbarry (am I stuttering?),

      Read Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie for insight to theological implications of meaning in music. Although these, like Patrick Kavanaugh does, focus primarily on music material such as in classical literature composition, application can also be made to music that is connected to lyric.

      • bbbbarry Says:

        Excellent! Thanks for turning me on to those authors. I couldn’t find anything from Steve Guthrie that looked pertinent, but Begbie’s “Music, Modernity, and God” and “Beholding the Glory” are already on my list.

  3. bbbbarry, I remembered another author you likely want to look into, and that is Methodist Don Saliers. He has a book, “Music and Theology” that deals a bit with music material. Also from a secular approach, Leonard Meyer’s seminal work, “Emotion and Meaning in Music”

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