Two types of worship music.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 December

And no, I don’t mean gospel and contemporary Christian music. Yeesh.

There are two types of worship songs we tend to see in churches.

And yeah, some Evangelicals are gonna assume I mean traditional worship (i.e. hymns and old-timey gospel songs) and contemporary worship (i.e. spanning from the worship choruses of the 1970s, to the Christian pop songs of today). I don’t. I consider those styles of songs; the only real difference is in presentation. You could put a backbeat on a hymn and turn it into a pop song; you can put a pop song in a hymnal and sing it with that very same cadence.

Type refers to the purpose and content of the song, and generally there are two of ’em.

INSTRUCTIVE describes the songs written to deliberately teach an idea—to put it to music, and get it into Christians’ heads. They teach us about amazing grace, about what a friend we have in Jesus, about how great God art, and that he’s holy holy holy. They tend to have a lot of verses, various complicated words… and no I’m not only talking about hymns, though a lot of ’em totally fit the description. And a lot fit the other:

MEDITATIVE describes the deliberately simple songs. They have few verses, or lots of repetition; their ideas are basic Christianity, like how there’s wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb, or on Christ the solid rock we stand, or God’s a good good Father. Their purpose is to give us something we already know by rote, and we can sing ’em and not ponder the words… and instead meditate on God and his greatness, and pray to him while our lips go on autopilot. Yep, exactly like when we pray in tongues.

Humans are creatures of extremes. Christians included. Some of us love one type and hate the other. But we don’t always know why we have this preference, and think it has something to do with the style.

So they claim they “love hymns” because hymns are so detailed and deep. (Yeah, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” isn’t. Plenty of others likewise aren’t.) But you can swap the instruments used to perform it—instead of keyboards, electric guitar and drums—and they’ll still like the song… although that guitar solo was absolutely gratuitous. Pop song or not, they seek depth. They want the content of their songs to make ’em think. They wanna be “spiritually fed”—by which they mean learn something. If there’s nothing to learn in the music, they consider it time wasted.

Others, who “love contemporary worship,” might love hymns too… but y’notice they only sing the first verse, over and over and over, and ignore all the other verses. (Which drives the fans of instructional music bonkers.) Sometimes they only sing the chorus and ignore all the verses. Sometimes they make a pop version of the song which eliminates all but their favorite hooks. Again, they’re not singing to learn. They want something repetitive and familiar, which they can use to help ’em focus their prayers, and solely concentrate on Jesus. That, they consider worship; not so much the music, although they love music. Interrupt that meditative time, and they consider it time wasted.

Some of us do a little of one, and a little of the other. And some of us don’t like music at all. Or don’t get what we’re trying to do with it, and consider it dead religion and time wholly wasted. These would be the people who find various excuses to show up for church services in the middle of the very last song: They’re only here for the good parts. Like the sermon, holy communion, getting prayer, or interacting with fellow Christians after the service. Phooey on music.

Me, I’m one of those little-of-one, little-of-the-other types. But my church? Full-on going for meditative music.

Worship songs as mini-sermons.

I’m not sure which of the two, instructive or meditative songs, came first in ancient Christian worship practice. The psalms in the bible have a little of both, y’know. For every Psalm 119, a super-long acrostic poem about how awesome God’s Law is, there’s the super-basic Psalm 150, which just tells various people to praise the LORD.

But the ancient Christian songs we kept tend to be the instructive songs. The rote prayers Christians have memorized and prayed for centuries, often started off as instructive worship songs. Sometimes get turned again into songs, ’cause some songwriter rediscovers them, or has always prayed ’em and wants to put ’em to new music. Nothing wrong with that.

These instructive songs, like the instructive psalms, are mini-sermons. The writer wants Christians to learn something. Either new stuff for new believers, or re-emphasized stuff for old believers. Sometimes it’s about a particular scripture; sometimes it’s topical, and is about Jesus’s sacrifice or forgiveness or prayer or something we oughta know about God.

As a song, it’s meant to stick in your brain. And they do. In fact you’ll find a lot of Christians base their beliefs on the songs they know. Not on the scriptures: They don’t read their bibles! But they know Christian songs, and can recite all their lyrics… which is why it’s important for music pastors to put some thought into what they have everybody sing. You don‘t wanna make an earworm out of heresy!

Because Arius of Alexandria did exactly that. He taught his particular heresy (that God created Jesus) by getting the people of his churches to sing his song “Thalia”—

…He who has no beginning, made the Son the beginning of all he made
And he made him into a Son for himself, making a child
Nothing unique to God within his particular person
He’s not equal, but isn’t the same being as God…

—and thus got all those Egyptian Christians to think Jesus isn’t really God. Arius realized how very useful instructive songs could be. Pity he was heretic.

In comparison, authors like Charles Wesley definitely used worship songs to teach. Songs like “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” or “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” or “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” or “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” Plus some 6,000 more. Seriously, that many. Wesley left the sermonizing to his brother John, but his pulpit was the hymnal.

Worship songs as rote prayers.

But as I explained about rote prayers, once we’ve got such a prayer (or song) in our heads, we can meditate on it every which way, or use the prayer to help us focus on God. We have space in our brains to move around a bit, and try to be instructed by God directly, instead of through the music.

So like rote prayers, people will repeat choruses and lines over and over and over. And of course get rebuked by Christians who think we’re not allowed to do that. (Who clearly haven’t read the psalms which do that.) In fact they’ll get really annoyed when a music pastor keeps repeating choruses, and wanna know when we’re finally gonna sing the verse she skipped, or move to the next song: “She repeated that bridge nine times! Nine! What’s wrong with her?” She’s meditating on the bridge. As should you be.

To be fair, some music pastors are playing their favorite parts over and over and over, like a kid who discovered there’s a repeat button on their iPod, or like a jazz musician who’s found a bit he really wants to riff on. Still, just because they’re not meditating doesn’t mean we should stop meditating.

Ideally Christians should worship God with both types of music. All of one, or all of the other, means our worship lives are off balance. If your church prefers the one type, go ahead and listen to the other type on your own time, and use it as part of your personal devotional time.

And if you’re hung up on the style—you don’t care to listen to hymns because you prefer music that rocks—you do realize various Christian rock musicians have rockin’ versions of hymns, right? (Just for fun, here’s Phil Keaggy’s take on “Be Thou My Vision.”) Likewise there are acoustic versions of contemporary songs. There truly is something for everyone these days. Dig around for it, and worship God with it.