One of the great strengths of the church at the moment is the wealth of contemporary worship songs which are being written at the moment, and I love learning and playing some of the latest offerings. However just because a song is new or well-known doesn’t necessary make it something I want to introduce to St Michael and St Barnabas. Most people express their faith through the songs that they sing, so it is important to choose carefully what we learn.
So what makes for a “good” song? You may say the answer is a matter of personal preference, but here are some questions I think we all need to consider:
First of all, can the congregation sing the song? That sounds rather strange, but a lot of songs are designed for a worship band where worship is led by a number of trained singers. They may sound great on an album or in a large church, but mostly they are unusable in a small church with perhaps just one or two instrumentalists and no choir.
Does the song express Scriptural truth? In Colossians 3:16 Paul sees the singing of psalms, hymns and songs as one of the most important ways in which the word of Christ can dwell in us richly. Of course songs should reflect the personal experience of the songwriter but in too many cases they can move us simply through the emotional impact they have on us, without helping to build us up in our faith. If you can remove the name Jesus” from a song and successfully replace it with the name of your partner/dog/favourite singer, then you have a problem.
Where are the songs which recognise we belong to one another? Of course we need some songs which are personal expressions of our faith, and you just have to read the Psalms to see how many are about the individual experience of the psalmist. But we also need songs which recognise that in Christ we belong to one another, and I struggle to find enough songs which talk about our relationships with each other. Just look at any hymn or songbook, and there are so many more songs which begin with “I” rather than “We”.
Where are the songs which reflect the whole range of human experience? Again, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is joy, and there is no doubt our worship is an opportunity to celebrate in the gift of our salvation. But sometimes we need songs of confession or lament; sometimes we need songs which look out to the world we serve and face the challenge of making the good news of Jesus known in the world. Once more it seems to me that we face a dearth of such songs, or more accurately, songs which also manage to be clearly Scriptural at the same time.
However, ultimately it is churches and congregations who decide which songs stand the test of time. Some are given to the church for a season, and then are quietly laid aside. Some lay dormant for many years, to be rediscovered by later generations. And a few will become part of the repertoire that will become part of the fabric of our worship for generations to come. And this leads to the most important point, that what makes for a good song is not necessarily whether it is old or it is new. There are some who favour contemporary music; some who favour hymns. But in my experience it is through a blend of the old and the new that we are most effectively built up in the faith, as we see what the Lord is doing now and reflect on His faithfulness throughout generations.