What is worship music?

January 20th, 2021

The power of music 

“This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace, for lands afar and mine.” As a teenager, I learned “Finlandia” in church, but it really took hold of me when I was a camp counselor. As we sang it around campfires and in the dining hall, it taught me that God’s world is much bigger than the “cloverleaf and pine” in my own backyard and that God loves every land, not just mine. Years later, shortly after the United States invaded Iraq, I attended an Indigo Girls concert. Throughout the evening, the energized audience danced and sang along with the exuberant folk-rock music. To the audience’s surprise, the concert closed with an a cappella version of “Finlandia.” I was stunned at how still and quiet the concert hall became as the song seemed to bind us — people of different faiths and none — together in a prayer for peace. Such is the power of song. 

In their book A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and her dad, Don Saliers, write: “The act of singing praise, lament, thanksgiving, or prayer to God goes beyond the surface of words and beyond the passing sound of the voices. . . . If the words and the musical forms are adequate to the mystery of being human — to suffering and joy — then the sound itself becomes a medium of formation and transformation.” 

As Professor Emeritus of Worship and Theology at Emory University, Don Saliers is widely known in ecumenical circles for his writing about worship and music. In writing about “the integrity of sung prayer,” he says that music is “not an ornament,” but “an embodied form of praying.” For Saliers, music offered in worship shapes and expresses the patterns of emotions which constitute Christian life. Music helps the worshipful embody the full range of our spiritual experience, from gratitude and joy to humility and even to our sorrow over sin. 

Criteria in choosing worship music 

A basic challenge in music selection, given the wide range of genres available today, is singability. Drew Willson, a United Methodist pastor and singer/songwriter in Richmond, Virginia, says he relies mainly on The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) and The Faith We Sing (TFWS) because of their singability — a trait missing from much of the music sung by recording artists. In addition to the hymns, Willson draws from highly singable Iona and Taizé spirituals, civil rights anthems, and occasionally, some contemporary music. 

Worship music selection is also complicated by the theology embedded within the lyrics. Michael Hawn, Professor Emeritus of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology, says that the focus of most contemporary worship music is “almost totally” on “love God” (a personal relationship) and very little on “love your neighbor.” Music has a way of strongly influencing us, so what we sing in worship helps form what we believe. If our beliefs influence our actions like they are supposed to, the theological integrity of worship music becomes essential. As we worship, we want to be formed into disciples of Jesus who stand with and for the good of our whole community. So, it’s important that we sing songs of justice and social concern alongside the tried-and-true songs about our personal relationships with God. 

Discipleship Ministries, an agency of The UMC that provides resources for church leaders, has published criteria on its website aimed at helping congregations choose theologically sound as well as singable contemporary music. Diana Sanchez-Bushong, director of music ministries for Discipleship Ministries, explained that the tool was created because pastors and song leaders were asking, ”Should we be programming this, putting this [song] into our worship?” Their response was to develop a tool to vet the songs in the Christian Copyright Licensing International’s (CCLI) Top 100 list. Jackson Henry, a member of the vetting team and director of music ministries at Franklin First UMC in Tennessee, clarified that, “The end goal . . . was not to create a list of approved songs,” but to provide “criteria by which [worship leaders] would then do their own analysis.”

The adequacy of worship music 

Yet another aspect of selecting good worship music is whether the songs are able to truly speak to the lives we live and the real challenges we face, both individually and communally. Joe Stobaugh, pastor of modern music at Grace Avenue UMC in Frisco, Texas, says that selecting adequate, appropriate music requires wisdom and compassion. He says hymn writer John Thornburg’s questions have been a guiding light for him: “What is God calling the church to sing to become what God is calling the church to be? . . . What is God calling us to be in our discipleship out in the world? What do we need to sing to do that? . . . sometimes that’s a song from Kenya [and] sometimes that’s a song from India. And other times it’s [songs] that the Taizé Community can provide. And sometimes we do need a block of praise.” 

Michael Hawn adds, “We need to be considering how music can shape the faith not only of the individual worshipper, but also build up the gathered body of Christ. Right now, if we aren’t addressing the hate that is filling our country and if we’re not addressing ecological issues, I’m not sure why we’re existing as churches. We have something to say about those two things. Otherwise, I think we’re just twiddling our thumbs on the Titanic.” 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus