At the beginning of the month, I participated in a learning trip to Northern Ireland, studying peacemaking and reconciliation with staff from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, leaders of the Telos Group, and pastors, scholars, and worship leaders from around the United States. One of the questions posed to us for contemplation was, “How does or could worship contribute both positively and negatively to the cause of peacemaking?” Do our worship practices lead us to pursue justice, reconciliation, and peace? Or do they reinforce negative perceptions of the “other” and serve as an insulator, a sturdy and protective wall of liturgy and song?
We therefore had a fascinating conversation one afternoon about the use of psalms in worship. Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at using any of the 150 psalms in worship. They’re in the Bible, after all. They’re the songs of God’s people. Theoretically, they’re all fair game. But, the question was raised, should we be attentive to what psalms we use, and how we use them, because of what those psalms actually say?
An obvious example is Psalm 137. How exactly ought one (if one should at all) incorporate the words, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” into a Sunday morning service?
Or, particularly pressing these days, is the question of how to use psalms with explicit Zionist language in them. How do we pray for the peace of Jerusalem in Psalm 122 (a perfectly good and right thing to pray for!) without exclusively praying for peace for the people of Israel and neglecting the Palestinians?
We wrestled with these questions using the psalter Psalms for All Seasons, exploring how various songwriters have interpreted these texts. In “Rejoice, Rejoice, Come Sing with Me,” Adam Tice reframes “Jerusalem” in Psalm 122, expanding it to mean a city in which God dwells…so everywhere. In “God of Memory,” Richard Leach casts Psalm 137 in a reflective light, sung by one looking back on a time of anger and anguish, naming (and confessing) the desire for vengeance. “God of memory, I remember children tumbling, not in play. I will not forget the longing to strike back in that same way.” In both cases, much thought was given as to how to stay true to the sentiment of the psalm while also writing lyrics that don’t contribute to a culture of vengeance, bloodshed, or hatred. How we use the psalms in worship matters.
A couple days after returning from Ireland, a project was published that a group of Reformed worship leaders, pastors, and theologians, led by Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, the worship consultant for the CRC’s Thrive ministry, had been working on for a number of months. Our task was to vet the list of the top 100 most sung/reported songs listed by CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) based on agreed-upon criteria. A team from the United Methodist Church began a Top-100 vetting project in 2015, and I remember digging through their work as a seminarian, wishing we had something similar in the Reformed church. I was delighted, then, to hear that the Center for Congregational Song was inviting other denominations to follow suit and create their own vetting documents based on their particular theology and sensibilities.
The results of this project are fascinating, and I strongly encourage you to read through the comments. While we aren’t saying you shouldn’t sing any of the songs on the Top 100 list, we are encouraging people to be thoughtful about when and how they include some songs. As Katie notes in her introduction, there were a few themes that stood out amongst the songs that gave us pause:
- Texts that are unclear or unbiblical in their imagery (what does it mean that God’s love is “reckless?”) or that make sense in some theological traditions, but not a Reformed one (i.e., when singing “Come to the Altar” in a Reformed church, what are we actually inviting people to do?)
- Songs that are highly individualistic instead of reminding us of the corporate nature of worship. This is true of many of the songs on the list, even the ones we green-lighted.
- Songs that minimize human suffering. This is a really interesting theme to me. Of course, we should sing songs of praise and thanksgiving – Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, ‘Rejoice!’” But if all we do is rejoice…and if our songs boldly declare that God responds to our praise by granting us victory over all that ails us (“I raise a hallelujah, my weapon is a melody”), what are we telling people who are experiencing a dark night of the soul, or who then feel abandoned by God in the midst of tragedy?
- And of course, singability. There are just some songs that not every congregation can pull off.
Again, we’re not saying any of these songs should be expressly off-limits…but care should be taken when selecting music for a congregation. What we sing repeatedly shapes us over time. There are songs on this list that my congregation loves, but that I’ll incorporate into, and frame within, a service with more care now.
I encourage you to look over this document, and to pass it along to the people in your circles who are choosing songs for worship. It’s important to note that many of the songs on the Top 100 list were recommended with no or only minor reservations. This isn’t a question of contemporary songs being bad and hymns being good – hymnals have their own vetting committees choosing what songs are worthy of inclusion, because, let’s be honest, not all of Isaac Watt’s 700+ hymns are winners.
What we sing matters. How we sing matters. Our context for singing matters. So give this document a look – I’m curious what you make of it, and how it might be useful in your own worshipping communities.
P.S. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the phenomenon of contemporary worship music, a group of academics is doing some fascinating work in the area. Check out Worship Leader Research to peruse their articles and findings, or come to the Calvin Symposium on Worship to hear some of the group speak on the topic.