Ten Commandments for Worship

I modestly suggest ten rules for the introduction of new music without pain, if sensitivity and careful explanation are used in the exercise.

  1. The best in traditional hymnody should be preserved and used. Much modem worship may supplement the old, but it cannot possibly replace it.
  2. New songs should be biblical in emphasis and in actual wording.
  3. Heavy use should continue to be made of the Psalms (in one form or another). This is our only God-given hymn book.
  4. The music should be appropriate to the words. This is easier to feel than to define—but we all know when it happens, and when it doesn’t.
  5. There should be a judicious mixture of styles, age, rhythm, length of hymns, shortness of songs, etc.
  6. At least some of the hymns and songs should be credal, confessional and Christological (ie stating the great facts that we believe, especially about Jesus). Traditional examples are ‘At the name of Jesus.’ Splendid modern examples are ‘These are the facts as we have received them’, ‘Jesus is Lord! creation’s voice proclaims it’, and the more brief ‘God has highly exalted Jesus’.
  7. At least one hymn or song should be trinitarian (ie proclaiming the persons of the Godhead and what they mean to us). Traditional examples are ‘Thou whose almighty word’ and ‘God is in his temple’. It is significant that many of the modem songs are specifically trinitarian: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord’, ‘Father, we adore You’, and ‘Father, we love You’ to quote but a few.
  8. There should be a balanced mixture of the objective (what God is, whether anyone believes it or not) and the subjective (how we feel about it and what we experience when we believe it).
  9. Use the right instruments for the appropriate words.
  10. If you can’t find any modern hymns to fit your sermons, there’s probably something wrong with your sermons. If you have the same problem with traditional hymns, quit preaching.

Getting rid of prejudice

A gentle insistence on the above principles can do a great deal to defuse bad feeling. Most of the principles favour and preserve the traditional (at its best), but all of them can be expressed in modern worship (at its best). More important (even) than keeping both sides happy, these principles surely remind us what worship is all about.

We must also be firm about the irrational emotion, the prejudice and the outright mythologising which so often accompanies competitive views on music and worship.

To the traditionalist, it has to be said,

  • Not all old hymns are good. Some are terrible; mawkish, doctrinally unsound and in poor taste. Does anyone really want to sing, ‘ “I’m about to die,” said Willie’, or ‘Salvation like a bucket is’ (Yes, really!)?
  • Your traditional hymns (as they are now) were originally considered to be radical, unacceptable and a threat to someone else’s traditions. That includes the really glorious compositions of Martin Luther, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. In their own day they were criticised as human inventions in danger of displacing the word of God. Only biblical paraphrases used to be sung.
  • You have every right to go on cherishing and using your own favourite hymns. You have no right at all to prevent other Christians from using their favourites. If you wish them to see the virtue of yours, at least give them the chance to display the virtue of theirs.
  • Doesn’t public worship have something to do with praising God together.

To the trendies, it has to be said,

  • Christian worship has very deep roots indeed. What moved and motivated earlier generations might well have something to say to you too.
  • Don’t slip into the snare of what C S Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’: the fallacy that anything new is automatically an improvement and the converse assumption that anything which has been used for a long time is bound to be worn out and redundant. That may be true of motor cars and washing machines, but you are not a robot.
  • Don’t confuse ‘spirit’ (human) with ‘the Spirit’ (divine). A song that lifts you up and triggers joy may be from the Holy Spirit. But it may just be a combination of exciting sounds, emotive chords and a good digestion.
  • Don’t imagine that noisy, unstructured worship is automatically ‘spiritual’ and quiet, structured worship is automatically formalistic. The first supposition is presumptuous and the second impertinent.

Let me finish with two quotations. First, a modern one.

“We must apply to all our music and songs the criterion of helpfulness. This will mean that very few of us, if any, will be totally satisfied with the music and songs of our church. But we have to realise that it is much more important that we love one another than that our church is in the vanguard (or the rearguard!) of the Christian music scene.” (John Samuel)

The other rather older: from someone who radically and controversially altered church music; the composer of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ and ‘Jesus shall reign where’rthe sun.

“While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is nearest akin to heaven. It is a pity that this should be performed worst upon earth.” (Isaac Watts)

Taken from ‘How to Spot a Church Split Before It Happens (and do something about it)’ by Donald Bridge, Monarch, 1989, pp. 40-42.