The Worship Wild West

Over the past quarter century, a dramatic change has taken place in the way that congregations receive new hymns. Formerly, churches sang out of hymnals. These hymnals were limited in the number of hymns that they could include, and the hymnal editor assessed the merit of each inclusion. Of course, none of these editors had perfect judgment, but they all kept much that was unsingable, unworthy, or both from appearing before the congregation. They were gatekeepers.

Today, there are no gatekeepers. Anybody with a passing knowledge of Finale or other music-notation software can make slides for a hymn or a praise song, and any song leader who can read music or find the tune on YouTube can introduce it to the assembly. We live in the worship Wild West.

This creates two main problems. First, the vast number of unfamiliar hymns introduced makes worship more difficult for Christians who can't read music. Recently, my brother-in-law and his wife visited my congregation. Out of nine hymns in the service, they knew only two or three. My sister-in-law is a devoted disciple of Jesus, but she isn't an ace sightreader. Consequently, worship was a struggle for her, and her struggle is repeated countless times every Sunday in churches across the country.

The solution to the problem is not to freeze the repertoire and introduce no more new hymns. However, we must remember that every new hymn comes with a price tag. If we bring in too many, we will overdraw our account. 

Second, the quality of many new hymns and praise songs is inferior. This has always been true. Most hymns written in any era don't deserve to be sung. However, the weak hymns of bygone centuries mercifully have been forgotten, while the weak hymns of today regularly make their way from Christian radio into our slide decks. 

Spiritual songs can fall short in several different ways, but for various reasons, I wish to focus on shortfalls in content. The correct question here is not whether a song is “Scriptural” or contains some minimal amount of teaching. Would we apply that standard to a sermon or Bible class? Instead, we should ask whether it thoughtfully and powerfully expresses the truth of the word. 

This standard is appropriate not only for songs of instruction but also for songs of praise. Consider the Psalms, which contain the greatest expressions of worship ever offered from human lips. None of the praise psalms are shallow. All of them are deep, rich, and thought-provoking. When we prune the trendy, thoughtless, and emotionally manipulative from the songs that we sing, we will bring our worship into closer alignment with this inspired model.

Recently, I was talking hymns with a friend of mine. He mentioned that he was trying to introduce some new hymns where he worships, but the elders there regarded his efforts skeptically. Frankly, I think this is appropriate. Our default should not be to introduce and incorporate a new song. It should be to reject and exclude. Only hymns of merit, comparable to the great hymns of centuries gone by, should overcome this presumption. Every addition should enrich our repertoire rather than diluting it.

We don't need more songs to sing. We need more good songs, songs that will draw the worshipper closer to God and help them on to heaven. This may be the era of the worship Wild West, but that doesn't mean that we have to embrace every new hymn that comes drifting into town.