Doran (and Spurgeon) on Hymns and Hymnwriters

Three Qualities of God-Honoring Worship Songs by Dave Doran is a must-hear message. It is the “church” version of a lecture he delivered at the most recent Mid-America Conference on Preaching and is therefore free. (A$ oppo$ed to the me$$age I ordered from MA¢P for $5. Ni¢e.) In it, Doran urges church leaders to exercise discernment as they choose music for corporate worship. Most helpful, I think, is the portion in which he helps in that discernment process by suggesting that songs be measured on the basis of accuracy, appropriateness, and accessibility. Noticeably absent from that list is association, which he might have used as a fourth alliterated point, but which he instead minimized to a degree.

Speaking of association, Doran quotes Spurgeon on the issue, effectively settling the question for time and eternity. The quote isn’t included in the “church” message, so I guess I got something for my $5. What a bargain. It’s from Spurgeon’s introduction to the hymnal he and others compiled for use at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, brilliantly entitled Our Own Hymn-Book:

“The area of our researches has been as wide as the bounds of existing religious literature—American and British, Protestant and Romish, ancient and modern. Whatever may be thought of our taste, we have exercised it without prejudice; and a good hymn has not been rejected because of the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first appeared; so long as the language and the spirit of it commended the hymn to our heart, we included it and we believe that we have thereby enriched our collection.” (The quote is from page 320 of Spurgeon’s autobiography and can be viewed here.)

Doran’s insights on corporate worship music are extremely helpful. Give it a listen.

(Note: Doran’s gracious recommendation of the hymns available at MTC is also missing from the “church” version—and the MACP version, for that matter. There must be some mistake.)


23 Responses

  1. “Accessibility” seems to be, in a sense, the “dumbing down” of music, and a further reason to dump hymn books in favor of projected words-only songs. Maybe even make the music “culturally-relevant?” Accessibility, in my opinion, covers a hole big enough to drive a Rick Warren praise band through.

  2. Andy, did you come away with that idea even after listening to the message? He’s calling for discernment in these areas, and he’s urging accessibility along with accuracy and appropriateness. I don’t understand your concern.

    Of course, the opposite of accessibility is, well, inaccessibility. We can sing The Holy City Sunday, and it will protect us from praise bands, but I’m not sure it will really move us any closer to worship in spirit and in truth.

    BTW, I don’t get the phobia about projecting song lyrics.

  3. The issue of accessibility intrigues me. Who gets to decide what is “accessible” and what is “inaccessible”? Is it a scientific issue, a sociological issue, or an issue of personal opinion? I got a little bit of all three from this sermon, and didn’t find the examples all that helpful.

    I’m inclined to think, with Andy, that this criterion, as it stands, is too undefined. I’d like to see this point developed further, with tighter parameters.

  4. I attended the MACP session and later listened to the church version. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Doran ever intended to give lock-down paramenters on this thing. He argued for an accessiblity within the congregation’s ability and culture, and it seemed to me he recognized that there would be some legitimate differences of application (congregations have differing ability and are found in differing cultures). But the crucial point is that he argued for accessibility in the context of accuracy and appropriateness. That narrows the “Rick Warren praise band hole” considerably.

  5. Thanks, David. Were “accessibility” the only test, I could see the concern. That’s clearly not what he said.

    At some point, we’re going to have to exercise discernment rather than just looking for lists of songs that someone somewhere has decided “check” or “don’t check.” The idea that anything that doesn’t originate “in here” is dangerous is schismatic and unreasonable, especially when it is obvious that much (not all) that is being produced “out there” (say by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty) is superior to what fundamentalists are writing on all three points—accuracy, appropriateness, and accessibility.

  6. Chris, my response is a result of both listening to the sermon and attending the MACP presentation. I appreciate the call for discernment evidenced with accuracy and appropriateness.

    Accessibility, in part, means our congregation cannot read music, so we won’t bother trying but just give words on the screen. Rather than develop this area of our corporate life, accessibility seems to pan out, in part, to mean we just don’t try very hard.

    By way of rough illustration, if you encounter an illiterate, would you teach him to read so he can study scripture, or would you just get him an audio Bible recording and leave it at that.

    A quote from Edwards, rather lengthy but pertinent:

    —begin quote—

    Second, do you not live in sin, in living in the neglect of singing God’s praises? If singing praise to God be an ordinance of God’s public worship, as doubtless it is, then it ought to be performed by the whole worshipping assembly. If it be a command that we should worship God in this way, then all ought to obey this command, not only by joining with others in singing, but in singing themselves. For if we suppose it answers the command of God for us only to join in our hearts with others, it will run us into this absurdity, that all may do so. And then there would be none to sing, none for others to join with.

    If it be an appointment of God, that Christian congregations should sing praises to him, then doubtless it is the duty of all. If there be no exception in the rule, then all ought to comply with it, unless they be incapable of it, or unless it would be a hindrance to the other work of God’s house, as the case may be with ministers, who sometimes may be in great need of that respite and intermission after public prayers, to recover their breath and strength, so that they may be fit to speak the word. But if persons be now not capable, because they know not how to sing, that doth not excuse them, unless they have been incapable of learning. As it is the command of God, that all should sing, so all should make conscience of learning to sing, as it is a thing which cannot be decently performed at all without learning. Those, therefore, who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship.

    —end quote—

    My “phobia” is not against using projected words. But I still think the hymn book is second in importance only to the Bible. If all the Bible references are projected, people don’t use the Bible. If the songs are projected only, people don’t learn to sing.

    I am not debating the overall value of that sermon or the MACP presentation. I am saying that parts of “accessibility” are an unnecessary and inadvisable concession.

  7. I was planning to stay out of this, but can’t resist following that last comment.

    Andy, on what biblical basis can you make the claim that you have? For most of church history God’s people did not have music printed out for them.

    Further, you have assumed that your practice is somehow the biblical standard so that doing something other than it is somehow a “concession.” You’ve begged the question.

  8. Andy,

    Are you the “Andy” planting a church in Florida?

  9. I really appreciated this message. My pet peeves when it comes to congregational singing are: (1) singing songs designed to be sung by soloists or as special music that don’t work well congregationally; (2) singing songs to tunes that are obviously dated – the popular music of the early 1900’s ( I thought Dr. Doran’s examples here were outstanding); (3) singing songs with lyrics and tunes that are trite; and (4) singing songs with tunes that are too close in style to the Praise & Worship and early CCM songs that I heard growing up in west-coast conservative evangelicalism.

    One of the things that struck me when I read Joel Carpenter’s book on Fundamentalism, Revive Us Again, was our history as a populist movement. Early Fundamentalism appealed easily to the common man by incorporating elements of popular culture that were readily accessible. The problem that Fundamentalism faces today is that we can’t do that any more because of how wicked popular culture has become. So, now, we either use outdated music that is as appealing today as leisure suits and plaid pants, or we go back to more timeless hymns and tunes that might not be as accessible to the common man. We need to bring people along so that our great hymn heritage is not lost but at the same time we need talented musicians who can write accessible modern congregational music that does not copy the style of today’s wicked pop culture.

  10. A major factor in the “accessibility” discussion, I think, is not just a songs simplicity, but the question of singability. Some tunes are just bad. They may not be too difficult, just too…well, bad. For example, Toplady’s text A Debtor to Mercy Alone is beautiful, but it is fairly obscure simply because it has traditionally been connected to tunes which (IMO) are hideous—not inaccessible in the sense that they’re difficult and need to be dumbed down, but in the sense that they’re not at all compelling or memorable. The tunes which cyberhymnal recommends (like this one) are just awful.

    I think a positive example of this is Vikki Cook’s new tune for Before the Throne of God Above. That’s a text that was rescued from obscurity and now is pointing people around the world Christ-ward in large part because it has been wed to an accessible and appropriate tune.

    At any rate, accessibility need not mean trite or childish, much less faddish. Indeed, I think Doran argued against that very thing.

  11. Andy, I agree with everything you just said. Right on.

  12. BTW, when Doran dealt with the question of accessibility, he did argue for “bringing people along” by explaining allusions like “Ebenezer.” He’s not arguing that we sing stupid or throw out classic hymns.

    I do agree that we can and should continue to “stretch” people by introducing great texts and tunes, whether old or new. It need not be all simple or all complex. We’ve enjoyed some of Townend’s music and something as simple as Kauflin’s The Gospel Song (which our children’s choir introduced to the congregation) and we now sing corporately. On the other hand, we love to sing a hymn as complex as How Sweet and Awesome is the Place which is about as full of biblical allusions, poetic imagery, and deep theology as any hymn I can think of. I’d argue that all of these are “accessible,” or can be with some instruction, though their depth varies.

    I hope that makes sense. I may just be talking in circles.

    Andy, I appreciated your comments, as well. Can you elaborate on your pet peeve number 4? Can you give examples?

  13. Chris,

    No. I always sign in as Andrew Henderson, and the last time I spoke about music on your blog you were making fun of me for listening to the Cathedrals many years ago. Do you think for one moment that I am going to stick out my neck again?

  14. Dave, for most of church history, God’s people also did not have God’s Word in their hands. While we can sing without written music, to have it and not use it is a shame and a loss.

    Further, this is not begging any questions, merely agreeing with the key thought from Edwards…”Those, therefore, who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship.”

    Chris, seems like a surplus of Andys here. I am the one in Alberta.

  15. Not to be argumentative, but I didn’t realize that Edwards was the basis for establishing that something is sin. And I believe you’ve misused his last sentence in light of its context. He is not arguing for what you’ve argued. He is saying that the claim to not know how to sing does not remove one from the obligation to sing, so such a person must learn how to sing.

    That does not imply that the church has an obligation to use hymnals and teach people to sing by parts, and I know of no Scripture which teaches this. So, to claim that singing songs that are within the culture and capabilities of the congregation is a concession does beg the question. For instance, a concession to what? a concession of what? why is it a concession? You’ve assumed something that you need to prove, namely that contextualizing worship is wrong and working to engage the congregation in singing praises is wrong.

  16. Andy, I agree that concession is a bad word, or at least an unexplained word. To what are we conceding when we use projected song texts? New evangelicalism? Contemporary culture? Now if you were to say this is a step backward in engaging people in worship, I think you could make a case. Not everyone would agree, but the case could be made.

    Both you and Doran have made the point that for most of church history believers didn’t have printed music … or printed song texts or even printed Bibles. But when these became available, they were adopted because people recognized their contribution to stability, unity, and broader participation in the church service. Now we have something new–power point. But because of CCLI laws, using power point involves the loss of something very valuable–the score. This is a loss that could be argued as more detrimental than power point is a gain. If you said that, Andy, I could warm to your comment.

    I do experience some unease when I go into churches that project words on a screen, but it’s not because I think that these are “concessions” to culture or neo-evangelicalism (they do copy patterns established there, but that does not necessarily make them concessions). My discomfort comes from the realization that unless I already know the songs, I won’t be able to sing because I don’t have any music. This is why, for me, a hymnal makes worship so much more accessible. Hand me a hymnal and I never have to stand there looking stupid–I have everything I need to join in with the corporate worship. Take away the score, and, to me, half the song is gone. And to me that detracts from worship.

    Obviously, a hymnal is not a “biblical standard” and as such can’t be “compromised.” But I still think an argument can be made that the church is better off having a text AND a score in concrete form in the hand than they are with really big words on a screen that immediately disappears after the song ends.

    I wonder, Dr. Doran, if you could comment. I’m sure you wouldn’t say that “for most of church history believers didn’t have printed hymn TEXTS,” and then make a decision to sing hymn TEXTS strictly from memory. But changing the word “texts” to “musical scores” seems to make this argument acceptable to you. To me, both arguments rise and fall together—what am I missing?

    Again, I’m not trying to go to war with anybody over this issue. I don’t think it’s worthy of a war. But the discussion is helpful, and I think it helps to get all of the pertinent issues on the table.


  17. Clarence,

    I appreciate the question, but I think you’ve turned the argument a little. I’ve not said that anyone is wrong to say it is better to do such and such. I’ve said it is wrong to argue that it is biblically required.

    So, I’d also say that it would be wrong to say that we must print the text of the songs for people in order to have biblical worship. In other words, I believe it would be wrong to accuse someone who advocates memorizing the texts of being in sin.

    Your question helps sharpen the point, i.e., my is that too often people impose a cultural development on worship as if its a biblical mandate. I have no problem with discussions about what’s better or not better, but when they get couched in terms that directly or indirectly question the biblical fidelity of the other position, then there better be biblically based proof for that charge.

    I also appreciate your point about whether the use of a screen could be something similar, in some ways, to the “advance” to hymnals. I appreciate it simply for the fact that it reminds us that we stand on early advances in ways that sometimes (often) assumes things have always been as we are accustomed to. Just as we should not assume that progress necessarily means improvement, we should not assume that doing something new is regress.

  18. Chris,
    Before I answer your question, let me put my comment into context. I grew up in California and Washington State in what I would now call conservative evangelicalism. The Christian schools I attended and to a lesser extent the Churches all fed me a regular mix of fairly good songs along with the obligatory Amy Grant, “California choruses” (e.g., Give me oil in my lamp, It Only Takes a Spark, etc), and other types of CCM. I certainly remember El Shaddai, unfortunately. It was pretty bad and I can’t stand it – not because I “don’t like it” but because it cheapens the worship of God so much.

    I say all that to say this. I don’t appreciate congregational singing that reminds me of those days. So, songs like “People Need the Lord,” “Alleluia,” “Majesty”, “My Tribute,” and the like, are not songs I can sing with any real heart for the Lord. I could mention more but that’s probably enough to get me into trouble.

  19. Thanks for the reply, Andy.

    On one level, I understand. I grew up surrounded by that kind of music, and I often have the same reaction to campfire songs, CCM songs, etc. A couple responses, though:

    1. Comments focusing on personal histories make profitable discussion almost impossible. We’re back to the association issue, but now it’s a two-edged sword, addressing the song’s associations and even the individual’s associations. For example, per your post, we’re not just dealing with the real associations of a song like “Majesty” (e.g. its origin in the CCM movement, its writer Jack Hayford, etc.), but now also with your personal associations—“I don’t appreciate…reminds me of those days…not songs I can sing with any real heart for the Lord,” etc. Now we’re talking about choosing music based on the individual’s history or feelings, which would make an already difficult issue practically impossible to discuss with any degree of objectivity. And of course, rating music on the basis of an individual’s “blessing scale” opens a can of worms that will have us singing all kinds of weird things.

    2. While I do understand what you’re saying and have some of the same responses, I’d still suggest that we judge songs on their musical and textual content rather than on their origins or the memories they may inspire. That will mean that many (or most) of the stuff you mentioned is eliminated, but not merely because of associations. We’ll eliminate “Pass It On” or “Give Me Oil” because they are irreverent and meaningless, for example. But it may mean that some will use songs which in and of themselves aren’t objectionable—say, “We Shall Behold Him” or “Be Glorified” or “There Is a Redeemer” or even “Majesty” or “Great Is the Lord.” Despite my history, I’ve appreciated some tasteful (usually instrumental) renditions of some such songs personally, though we may not use all of them corporately. Anyway, as Dr. Doran said, we need to give each other space to disagree on what we all know is a fairly subjective issue.

    3. You’ve never argued for this, but it’s particularly frustrating to hear fundamentalists criticize praise choruses and the like when their hymnals are full of ditties like “Are We Down-Hearted,” “Come and Dine” and “Cheer Up, Ye Saints of God.” Evangelicals don’t have a corner on silly music. And too often, I’ve heard these “back of the hymnal” songs chosen to merely communicate that “we’re friendly” or “this is a casual service, not Sunday morning,” even at Pastor’s conferences. What a waste!

    4. I think the discussion today is especially focused on new hymns that are clearly doctrinal and Christ-honoring in their content—“In Christ Alone,” “The Power of the Cross,” “The Gospel Song,” “I Will Glory in My Redeemer” and such. These songs are much more difficult to brush off than campfire songs. Indeed, I don’t understand why they should be brushed off at all.

    Of course, I’m glad to let people disagree with me. :)

  20. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” would be another example of a newer hymn with which readers may be familiar. It’s being used by very conservative churches and institutions by virtue of its textual and musical excellence, frankly, without regard for its author Stuart Townend or his preferred performance styles.

  21. […] on Songs and Associations Posted on February 23, 2008 by Chris A couple weeks ago, I posted thoughts from Dave Doran and C. H. Spurgeon on the process of selecting music for corporate worship. Part of the discussion centered on the […]

  22. […] Doran (and Spurgeon) on Hymns and Hymnwriters […]

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