Selecting Songs for Worship

May 25, 2021

Author: Pastor Bruce Konold

How do we decide what songs to sing in worship? Should we only sing Psalms or traditional hymns? Should we sing songs from Hillsong, Bethel, Int’l House of Prayer (IHOP), Vineyard, or Maranatha? Should we sing secular songs? How do we decide? In this blog I want to discuss why we have chosen to sing songs from Bethel, Hillsong, and other groups.

The Evangelical Worship Tradition

Protestant Reformers primarily sang metrical Psalms, chants, and some denominationally specific hymns. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the “father of modern hymnody,” introduced his Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. However, most viewed Watts’ hymns as too emotional and not based strictly enough on the Psalms for use in worship. Charles Wesley (1707-88), John Newton (1725-1807), Lowell Mason (1792-1872), and others also introduced new hymns. From 1800 to 1850 hymn singing became popular in churches. The landmark Hymns Ancient and Modern published in 1861 became the first widely used hymnal to include hymns from various denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). Evangelical Protestants began a rich tradition of singing hymns which they viewed as biblically faithful irrespective of the hymn’s authorship or denominational background. Protestant hymnals did not include hymns from heterodox groups like Mormons, and later, Jehovah Witnesses.

Two observations are important here. First, Protestant denominations could sing each other’s (and Catholic) hymns because they understood and agreed upon historical orthodoxy. Each denomination had distinctives which made it into their hymns, and they often slightly edited each other’s hymns to reflect their distinctives! Second, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Charismatic movement introduced thousands of new songs for Christians globally. While some objected, most churches viewed this in a similar way to singing hymns from different denominational traditions. Each song was accepted based on its biblical faithfulness, not the authorship or denominational group from which it arose.

Five Factors Cloud the Issue Today

Five factors cloud the selecting of songs today.

• The decline in understanding orthodoxy. Orthodoxy (correct belief) is historically based on adherence to the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, and other foundational confessions of faith. Historic Creeds and Confessions of faith (believed to distill biblical teaching) are the primary measurement of orthodoxy.

• The decline of denominational and ecclesiastical authority. While Creeds have been the primary measurement of orthodoxy, proper ecclesiastical authorities have made the determination of who is heterodox (outside the bounds of orthodoxy). The orthodoxy/heterodoxy of an individual or group by an ecclesiastical authority has historically involved proper charges and evaluation. Denominations have declared groups like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, who do not adhere to traditional Christian Creeds as heterodox, or not part of the Christian religion.

• The rise of non-denominational churches. The decline of denominations and the rise of non-denominational churches has created a void of proper ecclesiastical authority to determine the orthodoxy/heterodoxy of groups.

• The rise of self-proclaimed “experts” labeling others as “false teachers.” In the void created by declining denominations and ecclesiastical authorities, self-proclaimed “experts” (under no authority but themselves!) are determining who are “false teachers” or heterodox. The result is a spiritual anarchy where individuals determine (not proper ecclesiastical authority) who is orthodox/heterodox based on their beliefs (not based on historic creeds or confessions) without charges or evaluation (no due process).

• The rise of hyper partisanship in America polarizing everything. Americans like to either accept a group and individuals 100% or reject a group and individuals 100%. Partisanship is too easy, and often destructive. Discerning the good and the bad within groups and individuals is difficult but necessary. No one should get a free pass; everything should be discerned. Paul wrote, “Test everything, hold to what is good, reject the bad” (1 Thess. 5:21).

The result of these five factors is this: without an understanding of orthodoxy or ecclesiastical authority, self-proclaimed “experts” label groups they disagree with as heterodox, then tell Christians to not sing any of their songs. The groups and their music are 100% rejected based on the proclamation of the “expert.” The entire historical process for determining orthodoxy and the Protestant-Evangelical tradition of singing songs from different traditions is abandoned. To be clear, I do not know of any denomination or ecclesiastical authority that has condemned Bethel or Hillsong as heterodox groups like Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses. Therefore, I reject the spiritual anarchists’ condemnation of these groups. Please, this is not a 100% approval of Bethel or Hillsong (I can see many issues with these groups!) but it is a call for discernment. We simply must get past the 100% approval of the “good list” and a 100% rejection of the “bad list.” We must test everything, hold to the good, and reject the bad.

Three Criteria for Discerning a Song

First, are the lyrics biblically faithful? The Protestant-Evangelical tradition judges’ hymns and songs by the biblical faithfulness of their lyrics. If we judge hymns and songs by the groups or authors from which the song originates, I am unsure where to draw the lines of what are acceptable or unacceptable hymns and songs. Many beloved hymns come from highly objectionable groups or individuals. Should we return to the early Reformation standard of only singing songs produced by people in our own ecclesiastical tradition? The best way forward in my view is judge each hymn and song by their biblical faithfulness.

Second, is the song from a heterodox group? The Protestant-Evangelical tradition rejects singing songs from heterodox groups like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. While individual evangelicals should discern the biblical faithfulness of an individual or group, historically, this discernment stops short of judging the individual or group as heterodox (that judgment is left for ecclesiastical authorities). Therefore, while an individual may not agree with elements in a group or individual producing a song, I do not see a problem using songs from such groups or individuals in the spirit of the Protestant-Evangelical tradition of using songs from different denominational traditions in worship provided the song is biblically faithful.

Third, can the song be slightly edited to make it more biblically faithful? Many churches do not sing certain stanzas of hymns that they find objectionable. Hymnal editors slightly revise hymns to make them more suitable for their audiences. In fact, it is difficult to find a hymn that is not edited from hymnal to hymnal. Pick a hymn, and check out five hymnals, you might be surprised!

Application to Eagan Hills Church Today

Following the Protestant-Evangelical tradition, I see three applications for EHC today.

• Songs from groups that have been condemned by proper ecclesiastical authority (like The Christian and Missionary Alliance, or the Evangelical Theological Society, not rogue self-proclaimed “experts”) as heterodox should be avoided in EHC worship.

• Every song should be evaluated by EHC for biblical faithfulness.

• EHC may edit songs to make them more biblically faithful and useful in our worship.