For two millennia, the Church has tried to steer a safe passage through the dangerous waters of ecclesiastical music. History shows us that this is no easy task and in hymnody, as in other areas, the Church has failed and repeated that failure.
Often, in trying to correct hymnody, the church went to the extreme and failed in other areas. Gregory the Great made this mistake when he banned congregational singing and Ambrosian hymns. Calvin made the same error at the time of the Reformation when he refused to use the hymn, when Luther became the father of congregational singing, after centuries of clergy domination. As the Reformation took hold on the English-speaking world, congregational hymn-singing rose up again in the 18th century, because the Church is a singing Church.
However, hymnody has gone through many changes since then. It is the obligation of the Church to continually reform. Every generation needs to re-evaluate the hymnody of the Church. There are two extremes to be avoided. One is getting stuck in the conservative past and singing hymns that have lost relevance and do not minister effectively to a current generation. Another extreme is attempting to be so relevant that we lose hold, not only of the Psalms but of the theologically weighty hymns of better times.
In addition to these two extremes, there are other pitfalls that we must be aware of. Let me suggest five general guidelines for church music.
Church music must relate to the Scripture reading and the sermon. The singing of Church, on a given Sunday, as well as the prayers, act as a funnel to bring us to the preached Word. If the preaching is the centerpiece of congregational worship, then everything should serve to focus on the Word.
Church music must be guided by the Elders. Music is not a supplement to the ministry of the Church, but an integral part of the ministry, like preaching and prayers. As part of the ministry, then, the music must not be left for a group of young enthusiastic musicians, or the choir, or the pianist. The criterion for choosing the music of the Church is that same that governs the pulpit. It is not musical interest, musical enthusiasm, or musical talent, but theological and moral fitness that gives one the right to choose the music of the Church.
Church music must have an emphasis on congregational participation. Corporate worship is not a spectator event. People do not go to Church to listen or to watch others worship. For two thousand years, the Church has battled for congregational singing. The centralized authoritarianism of Rome robbed the people of this right for many centuries. Today the evangelical Church is messing with congregational singing again. In some parts of the Church there such an emphasis on worship groups, teams or bands, that the congregation becomes an audience. In other parts of the church choirs or soloists take a more prominent part of song-worship than the congregation.
Church singing must never be determined by the attractiveness of the tune or the style of music. We should not choose hymns because we like the tune, or because it is popular. The tune and the music (i.e. harmony etc.) act as the vehicle to carry the text. True, it should be an attractive and comfortable vehicle, but it is still only a vehicle. The text must maintain pre-eminence.
Church singing must include both old and new. When the Church militant meets to worship, we join the Church of all ages in worship. Our singing should include Psalms and hymns from every age of the Church and should not exclude contemporary compositions because they are contemporary. Drawing from every age, the Church is not only reminded of the continuum of Church history but will enjoy a range of expressions of theology that they would otherwise not get.