Few subjects generate such controversy in the church as music in worship. The shift to an entertainment-driven aesthetic in evangelical worship may shoulder part of the blame. Similarly, the notion that corporate worship prioritizes Christian outreach might also contribute to the imbroglio.
This blog post, however, will not address the reasons for the controversial nature of the subject of music in worship. Rather, it will seek to explain what we sing at Cornerstone, and why we sing it. If you are uncomfortable with our worship music, we hope you will at least consider why we do what we do. Our desire is not to point the finger at anyone else. We want to positively explain how we view music and singing in our worship.
What We are Singing at Cornerstone
We sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We utilize the Trinity Hymnal along with a songbook made up of Psalms, hymns, and songs from the likes of Indelible Grace and the Gettys, among others. Please follow the links for more information about these sources. Of course, one of the best ways to understand what we sing in worship is simply to visit and experience it for yourself! Still, more may be said about what we sing in worship.
The Psalms were sung by the Old Testament people of God in worship. They are an important part of our heritage as Christians. Further, they reflect the variety of spiritual, emotional, and physical experience of God’s people. Life has its times of pain, sorrow, and suffering. It also has its times of joy, happiness, and celebration. In the Psalms we find joyous praises, painful laments, and songs of longing expectation. In this way, the Psalms train us to sing praise to God in every kind of life situation we face currently, and we will face in the future.
At Cornerstone we customarily sing accompanied by piano. We are not in principle opposed to other instrumentation. However, it is vitally important to us that instrumentation does not overwhelm congregational singing. For that reason we value simplicity in instrumentation. Accompaniment should advance our purpose of worshipping God in corporate singing; it must not overshadow the voices. If the instruments distract from singing, or if the instruments drown out congregational voices, we believe they have overstepped their bounds. Our hope is that accompaniment serves the congregation in singing exuberantly.
We sing to both traditional and contemporary tunes. If a hymn tune has survived from the seventeenth century, for example, there is likely good reason. It has stood the test of time. Usually such tunes are well-suited to congregational singing. Unlike many of the tunes written for worship in the contemporary setting, hymn tunes that have survived were written specifically to be sung by congregations. For that reason they are more likely to be singable by a congregation than a tune that was written specifically for performance by an individual vocalist, or even a smaller group.
At the same time, however, we are glad to sing tunes written in our own time. We believe that each generation within the church has written music worthy to praise God. So long as a tune is singable congregationally in a form suited to worshiping God, we embrace it. Nevertheless, some have visited Cornerstone and felt that our music is too “traditional” or too “outdated.” It is not our goal to have “traditional” music in the way that some people use the term. We are not interested in returning to some idealized glory day in the past when everything was perfect. Nor, on the other hand, is it our intent to impress with our musical sensibility. Instead our purpose is to sing the best congregational songs available to praise God. We seek to sing songs that reflect the heritage of the faith, including the best contemporary expressions.
Why We are Singing What We Sing
A vital principle that shapes congregational singing at Cornerstone is that worship is not limited to singing. We have an order ofworship that we believe reflects how God calls us to worship Him. Our service begins with God’s call to worship. It includes praising Him in prayer. We certainly do sing! We confess our sins and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. We listen to the Scriptures being read, we confess our faith, and we hear God speak through the proclamation of His word. We participate in the Sacraments, give thanks to our God, give our tithes and offerings, and receive the Lord’s benediction. All of these elements constitute worship, and all are important! We thus balance singing with these other crucial elements.
God is the primary audience in worship. We believe that the overarching purpose for corporate worship is for believers to worship their God. He has called us together to praise, honor, and glorify Him. Certainly we trust and hope that God will bring unbelievers into our midst. But even then, it is not our responsibility to make the Christian faith palatable. We should not seek to needlessly offend; we should certainly welcome hospitably. But if an unbeliever joins us in public worship, he or she should find us worshiping as God has revealed in His word. God’s preferences are the ones that should shape our corporate worship. Thus, we must aim to sing especially what pleases Him. We sing to worship the Triune God.
We also trust that the Lord works in us as we worship Him. Since He is our primary audience, and since He also works in us, we sing theology. For us that means the Scriptures as understood by a reformed Christian perspective. A song’s content is extremely important to us. It has often been said that what the church sings profoundly shapes her for better or for worse. The words of the song must accurately reflect our understanding of the Scriptures. They must speak truth about the Triune God whom we are worshiping. We emphasize songs that reflect the Triune nature of God. The song’s words must speak accurately about salvation, and about the nature of the Christian life. If they fail these criteria, we will exclude them from use in worship. No matter how wonderful a tune, how historic a hymn, or how popular a song, if it fails the test of truth content we will not sing it.
At Cornerstone it is fair to say that we highly value theologically rich and deep songs. Hopefully as a body our songs will reflect the breadth and depth of Scriptural truth. They should explore the variety of human experience in light of Scripture. What we sing should give expression to the profound nature of Scriptural truth. However, at times it is also appropriate for us to sing simple songs, including those that feature repetition. They can be a wonderful blessing for children, the aged, those who are in some way mentally incapacitated, and even the rest of us. Some Psalms model such repetition (e.g. Psalm 24, 29, 42, 118, 119, 136). While a full diet of such songs would be unbalanced and thus unhealthy, they have their place in our worship.
As mentioned above, we sing songs from the past as well as the present. Because each generation of believers may have its spiritual and theological blind spots, we believe it is wise for us to sing the best hymns and songs available from the past. We do not exclude the Psalms or hymns from the ninth or sixteenth centuries simply because they are not “current.” Nor do we exclude modern hymns or songs simply because they were written within the last few years. Likewise, it is also appropriate for us to give expression to what it is like for us to live as believers in our time. Assuming that a more recent song meets our content criteria, it is worth singing because it may give voice to our contemporary experience as believers.
Finally, our worship songs must be singable congregationally. Undoubtedly there is some subjectivity involved in determining what is corporately singable. It might even vary somewhat from one congregation to the next. At the same time it is probably also safe to say that much of what finds its way into current public worship was never actually written for congregational singing. Just because a song is wonderful when listening to it, does not mean it is suitable for corporate singing. Some tunes are so highly syncopated that they do not lend themselves to congregational singing. Similarly, a song may be so musically complex that it will be too difficult to sing for the average congregation. Our congregation is made of people of all ages. We aim to sing songs that everyone in the congregation is able to sing.
Invariably over time a congregation develops its own tradition with regard to worship music. Certain songs we sing become part of who we are as a people. Even though we have only been around for a relatively short time, that is certainly true for Cornerstone. What we sing now, in part, is a reflection of what songs we have come to value. That should not mean that we are unwilling to learn new songs. Nor should it mean that we refuse to be corrected if we are singing songs that fail to meet the above criteria. But it certainly does help to explain why we sing what we sing at Cornerstone.