Six Criteria for Judging Worship Music

Hymn PageIn his book, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, Dr. T. David Gordon laments how much modern worship music is not scrutinized by any fixed standard. One of the key points in his book is worship music, both lyrics and the music, is not a matter of taste or indifference. We are worshiping the living God. What we sing and how we sing it matter. Here is his list of six criteria for judging worship. He notes that you could add more. The criteria are his while the comments are mine.

  1. Theologically orthodox lyrics-This is the one almost everyone agrees with. The lyrics must be orthodox. But theology is not always simple, especially when talking about things like the Trinity, Christ’s incarnation, the atonement, etc. It is not as hard to be heretical or at least unclear as one might think.
  2. Theologically significant lyrics-The lyrics should not be childish or banal. A truth is true no matter what. But there is a sharp difference between Jesus Loves Me and O Sacred Head Now Wounded or O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High. Do the lyrics reflect the majesty and grandeur of God and his works of creation, providence, and redemption?
  3. Literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics-Hymns should be good poetry. They should read well, not just sing well. There should be a depth to them that can sustain extended thought, but also a simplicity that does not make them too difficult to understand. Is this hard to do? Yes. That is why we need theologically trained music pastors.
  4. Lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visible people-One burden of Gordon’s book is to convince a culture that has lost any sense of a special time and place that worship is a unique event in the life of God’s people and should be treated as such. Worship music should not be like music you listen to in the car or work out to or dance to. Why? Worship is none of those things. Worship is where God’s people come before their Lord to sing his praises, learn who he is, what they are to do, and pass on the teachings of Scripture from generation to generation. Does our music reflect this?
  5. Well written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form-Dr. Gordon does not spend a lot of time on this. But I think he would say that the music needs to be singable by God’s people. Many praise choruses began as songs written for a solo artist or a band, not for a large group of people of all ages and voices. He encourages modern worship  musicians to write more choral pieces or pieces intended for numerous voice ranges. This will help them write better pieces for corporate worship.
  6. Musical setting appropriate to the lyrical content-In other words, if the lyrics have a lamenting tone so should the music. If the lyrics are joyful then the music should be. If the lyrics are pensive, then the music should be pensive. This also implies that lyrics should be varied as to tone, length, and content.

I believe there are two key ways we can help worship songs begin meeting the above criteria.

First, we need theologically sound, musically trained, and pastorally wise music pastors. We don’t need anyone with a burning love for Jesus, a good voice, and the ability to play guitar to write and lead songs. We certainly don’t need more youth ministers or older guys who act like youth ministers writing songs. We need men trained to shepherd God’s people in this area. Dr. Gordon says, “Few things influence our Christian life more than how we sing praise to God.” Why would we leave this monumental task to those not trained in theology, church history, music, and pastoral ministry?

Second, anyone who is going to write music for God’s people must know the Psalms backwards and forwards. The Psalms provide us with lyrics that are deep, beautiful, and varied. Those desiring to write worship songs need to have the Psalms and the others songs in Scripture in their bones. Without this biblical foundation our worship music will be impotent and transitory, which is exactly the opposite of what the worship of the Triune God should be.