Worship Wars: Determining Musical Excellence

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I prefer the older hymns of the faith over modern praise choruses. Other people feel strongly the other way. So I’m not surprised that full-scale music wars have erupted in some churches.

But is there a right and wrong kind of music for worship?

One expert on church music says yes, there is.

Donald Williams is director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. In his excellent Touchstone magazine article, “Durable Hymns,” Williams notes that there have been wars over music almost as long as there’s been a church. So what’s the answer?

Williams says we should study the music of the past to “learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present.”

Much of today’s music is of poor quality, he writes. But so was some music written centuries ago. The difference is the old hymns have endured a centuries-long weeding-out process. If we hope to identify the best new music, Williams writes, we must know “those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.”

These marks of excellence “are not arbitrary.” They “are derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship.” They come, Williams writes, “from an understanding of the nature of music and how it can support those biblical goals.”

Among these marks of excellence is biblical truth. Lyrics need not to be literal Scripture, but they do have to be faithful to it.

Another mark of excellence—theological profundity. Think of how the words to this great hymn encourage us to worship God with our minds:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes

By contrast, some contemporary choruses are often “so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started,” Williams says.

A third mark of excellence is poetic richness. For instance, the use of a question in the hymn “What Child is This?” helps us capture “the wonder of the Incarnation.” In “Amazing Grace,” the word “wretch,” Williams notes, is “a simple but evocative” choice.

A fourth mark is musical beauty. In great music, “there are certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody.” And the right harmony “can make that melody more memorable . . .,” he writes. For instance, “Be Thou My Vision” “rises and falls like an ocean wave or a sine curve.”

Tragically, Williams notes, “more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”

Now, some songwriters are creating excellent music today. But, warns Williams, only those musicians who are musically gifted, and historically, biblically, and theologically trained are qualified to help churches choose the best new music “as a supplement to the church’s rich musical heritage.”

I couldn’t agree more. And—in the end—all sides of the music wars can agree that we want to praise God by singing hymns and spiritual songs that are biblically true, theologically profound, poetically rich, and, yes, musically beautiful.


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