Embracing Participation and Excellence in Songs for Congregations

Being raised in the Catholic Church, and growing up around what is academically often called ‘Early Music’ was perhaps always going to make me suspicious of contemporary-styles of music in Christian Worship. I was always going to be a sucker for a chunky organ and a soaring soprano. In the 90’s, just before and after I was converted, I was amazed that Christians listened to music that sounded to me like the cheesiest, cheapest pop music imaginable.

I’m still conflicted today. I like good music. And I’m not content to settle on some subjective definition on what that means. Music is an art form and, because I’m a Christian, I want to affirm there are real ways we can discuss the quality and excellence of a song. There is such a thing as God-glorifying beauty and truth, which can be present to a greater or lesser extent.

But I know how easily that can drift into forms of elitism, whether expressed in a preference for ‘early music’ or (more likely in my circles today) variations of ‘alt-rock/folk/country/blues/indie’. 

So here are two guide-rails for navigating this tension in congregational contemporary music.


1. Embrace participation

If we’re writing or choosing songs for the people of God to sing together, then we have to embrace all that this means for our words and our music. Only by exception should our tunes emerge gradually, only rarely should our words need careful thought to be understood.

So when you write a song, ask: Is it participative? It’s not enough to say that a congregation could sing the song. We want to be able to say that this is a song that finds its life and purpose when put on the lips of the gathered people of God. Gathered Worship should be the context where the song is shown to its best advantage.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t like Christian artists making subtle, nuanced music. I just don’t think it’s a good diet for a congregation.


2.  Embrace excellence

If we’re writing or choosing songs for the people of God to sing together, then we have to embrace all this means for our words and music.  Our tunes need to be catchy and memorable, but if they have nothing to commend them after the first couple of listens then they’re simply not up to scratch. Similarly, our words need to be accessible, but if they don’t reward careful thought then they’re probably simplistic.

So when you write or choose a song, be sure to ask: Is it excellent? Truly. It’s not enough to say that people enjoyed singing it. We want a non-Christian who likes a good tune to hear it and love it. We want our music-making to commend our God who made good things and calls his people to do likewise as his image-bearers. This requires hard work; it needs Christian songwriters to take some risks in order to make something new, something (dare I say) daring.

We don’t want songs that get into our church hymnody because many Christians are nice people who settle for a good-hearted sentiment adequately expressed.

Reflecting on a personal memory; I still remember what I thought of Christians because of some of their music. To be (brutally) honest, I thought they were well-intentioned airheads who would rather say something trite rather than something true, something fake rather than something real, something obvious rather than something thoughtful. Even now, I’m sad to say that I’ve only been really expected to get into the Eurovision Song Contest since I’ve been a Christian.

Does that mean that there’s no room for a simple tune which can be sung once or twice and be helpful? Of course not! But I don’t think such songs are a good diet for a congregation.

CS Lewis talked about the ‘high-brow’ and the ‘low-brow’ in music for worship, and called for a spirit of charity and grace to prevail amongst the ‘high-brows’ and ‘low-brows’. Good advice; but I’m not sure we need to worry. All our music should be ‘high-brow’ in the sense of being intentionally excellent. All our music should be ‘low-brow’ in the sense of being determinedly participative. In this way we look forward to the day when all our voices will come together perfectly, singing beautiful songs to the one worthy of our unending praise.