Corporate Worship: Opening Hymn

Dear Church Family,

For many people, singing is one of the most affective parts of worship. By its very nature, music effects our emotions unlike many other things. When the people of God sing together, they join in one voice giving expression to both the content and the affections of their faith in a unique way. Perhaps this is why, for many, when they think about worship they think only about singing and music.

The Uniqueness of Singing

Indeed, singing is a unique element of worship as it incorporates the many aspects of our being: mind, heart, and body. And because music and singing is such a powerful thing, it is important that both the theological content and the music itself be commensurate with one another, and appropriate for the worship of God. Just as the words of a song convey specific thoughts and ideas, the musical setting of a song conveys specific emotions and ideas.

Singing is also unique in that it simultaneously emphasizes the horizontal and vertical aspects of worship. When God’s people sing together, they sing with their voices such that others may hear them and they hear the voices of their neighbors. This is what we might call the horizontal aspect of singing. And, when God’s people sing together, they are addressing their Creator and Redeemer – praising and thanking Him, confessing their sins before Him, expressing their faith to Him. This is what we might call the vertical aspect of singing.

One of the most interesting verses in the Scriptures that addresses these two unique aspects of singing (incorporating the whole of our being and including both the vertical and horizontal aspects of worship) is Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Notice how our singing is both ‘word-based’ (the word of Christ) and includes our emotions (with thankfulness in your hearts). Also, notice that in singing, the people of God ‘teach and admonish one another’ (horizontal) while singing ‘to God’ (vertical).

Unhelpful Dichotomies

In contemporary discussions, some Christians (without knowing it) think of music in worship in a similar vein as the composer Richard Wagner or the philosopher Friedrich Nietsche. Wagner “wrote at length about the relationship between ‘music,’ which he thought of as passionate and receptive, and ‘text,’ which he thought of as rational and aggressive…Nietsche wrote about how the history of Western music is characterized by a contest between a formal and rational impulse and a romantic and evocative impulse. The one he called Apollonian after lyre-playing Apollos, the Greek god of reason and war. The other he called Dionysian, after flute-playing Dionysus, the Greek god of passion and wine. Wagner’s and Nietzche’s discussion are by no means the final say. But they do give us vocabulary for exploring why Christians wrestle with music. Milan’s bishop Ambrose (AD 339-397) championed lush music in worship. His disciple Augustine was afraid the beauty of the music would distract him from the texts. Ever since, we have recognized we have a volatile mix on our hands” (Kidd, Reggie M. 2005. With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship, 138-139).

While this dichotomy may be an over-simplification or over-stressed, it is still helpful in understanding why it is that Christians have such differing assumptions, opinions, and views when it comes to music. Some view music as simply an irrelevant or inconsequential vehicle to ‘get at’ the text. Others see music as an essential means of connecting with the text, perhaps even more important than the words of the song. In both camps are people who have very strong opinions as to what kind of music is appropriate for the worship of God. However, in the Scriptures, we are admonished to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), as well as to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). The two (mind and heart) always go together.

Engaging all of our Emotions

We must avoid the two extremes of sentimentalism (emotional expression devoid of rational content) and hard-heartedness (rational content devoid of emotional expression). Instead of thinking of words and music as being in conflict with one another (though that is sometimes the case in individual songs), we must come to see that God has made us in His image, complete with minds, hearts, and bodies – all aspects of our human nature are engaged in worship, particularly in singing.

The Psalms give us a wide variety of theological and emotional content: praise, adoration, thanksgiving, historical remembering, confession of sin, confession of faith, contentedness, discontentedness, etc. Some churches hold to exclusive Psalmody in their worship – singing only the Psalms of Scripture; others never even consider singing from God’s inspired song book – avoiding the Psalms altogether (we might call this ‘excluded Psalmody’!). At Hill Country Church (PCA), we hold to what we might call ‘inclusive hymnody.’ We sing traditional hymns and Psalms, with a sprinkling of new hymns or older hymns set to different music.

In so doing, we are rooting the corporate singing in the Scriptures and the history of the Christian Church, while recognizing that branches continue to grow out from our biblical and historic traditions in ‘new songs’ (e.g., Psalm 149:1; Revelation 5:9). Typically, in each worship service, we seek to employ a wide variety of emotions in the selection of songs.

The Opening Hymn

There are no hard and fast rules for the selection of hymns in our order of service; however, typically the first hymn is a song of praise or adoration that is connected in some way to the overall theme of the service, but particularly connected to the call to worship. So, quite often, we will antiphonally recite some verses from a Psalm in the call to worship and then sing the words of that Psalm in the first hymn.

The Psalms themselves call for us to “enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). As God has summoned His people in the call to worship, it is good to enter His presence remembering His lovingkindness and faithfulness and praising His name. Sometimes we do this with hearts bursting with love and thanksgiving; sometimes we do this with majestic awe; sometimes we do this in humility and quietness.

Whatever the case, we sing with the whole of our beings (mind, heart, and body). We sing to God for the glory of His name. And, we sing to one another for the edification of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!