Using Praise Songs in the Assembly

So far this week, we’ve been talking about praise songs, sometimes pejoratively referred to as “7-11” songs. We’ve looked at why these songs may not be as bad as we think they are (and what can make them better), and two things that they do well (perhaps better than more traditional songs). Now, I want to look at practical ways we can use them in the assembly for maximum benefit. Continue reading

Two Benefits of Praise Songs in the Assembly

In our previous post, we considered the biblical precedent for the modern “praise chorus,” or “7-11 song,” as it is pejoratively-known. We also looked at what makes for a useful praise chorus, one that has the greatest potential to benefit the assembly. In this post, I want to consider two key benefits of praise songs in the assembly. Continue reading

Those Dreaded 7-11 Hymns

Perhaps one of the most polarizing issues regarding the repertoire of the musical worship of God’s people is the use of more contemporary hymns. To be certain, there are more modern hymns that bear a striking resemblance to those written in generations long ago. Some were written by our brethren (such as Charli Couchman’s “Sing and Rejoice in the Savior’s Birth,” John Trimble’s “Our Father Forever,” or Mark Coulson’s “Praise Christ, by Whom the Worlds Were Framed”), while others have come from pens in broader Christianity (such as Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone”). On the other hand, there are those which seem to do a very good job of saying very little, but saying it a lot.

Songs of this nature are often collectively referred to as “7-11” songs. The generalization is that they repeat the same seven words 11 times. For many, these songs represent everything that is wrong with Christianity today when it comes to shallow understanding of God’s word. For many others, these songs are much beloved expressions of simple spiritual truths.

The “Original” 7-11 Song

For a long time (relatively speaking), I was not a fan of the 7-11 song. In fact, when Sumphonia sent out the hymn survey in 2006 in preparation for the hymnal that would eventually become known as Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, in the final comments section I wrote two or three paragraphs railing against the depravity of much of the contemporary repertoire. Granted, I was all of 19 when I wrote it. In the intervening years, my opinion mellowed, though I still preferred (and do today) songs that say more over songs that say less.

But one counter-example, pointed out in the last year or so, has helped to moderate my thinking on this point further. A brother in a Facebook group posted this in reference to Revelation 4.8:

| : Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come : |
(repeat forever)

For those who aren’t as versed in musical notation, “|:” and “:|” represent opening and closing repeat bars. Now, while there are certainly more than seven words in this text (there are 16 in this rendering), when we start thinking about unique words and such, we aren’t much above that level (and in fairness, most so-called 7-11s have more than seven words). So it is that we have the heavenly equivalent of a 7-11 hymn.

This makes it hard to outright condemn all 7-11 songs on the basis of what they are. But does that make all 7-11 hymns “okay”? What makes a 7-11 song beneficial to the public worship?

The Defining Difference

In a more traditional hymn, there is a lot more material to work with to develop a topic or even imbue peripheral content. Consider that a four-verse hymn like “In Christ Alone” has around 225 words in it. Now, I think that hymn writers should give care to each word chosen for maximum impact, but longer hymns with higher word counts have a lot more wiggle room. When a song consists of only a few words, every word becomes that much more important. It becomes very easy for such a song ultimately to say nothing. There may be words there, and they may be words of praise, but is there a strong, coherent, original message?

Here are some things that writers (and consumers) of modern praise choruses (aka 7-11 songs) should strive for to maximize their effectiveness and utility in the assembly:

  • A strong, focused message. In the case of the Revelation 4 example, can there be any stronger message than God’s unique holiness? In the Bible, repetition is used to intensify a thought or to signify its importance. While there are many biblical thoughts worthy of our consideration and expression, we are probably best served by limiting this degree of repetition to the really big themes of the Bible: God’s glory, our Savior’s sacrifice, etc. I’m not as convinced that we are as well-served by extensive repetition of “Let there be love in our homes” as we are by something like “Great is the Lord our God, and worthy to be praised.”
  • Fresh expression. This one is a bit more subjective. While repetition can be good, we should strive for variety in our expressions. I realize that “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” is verbatim from Revelation 5.12, but my question is whether that line needs to appear in every song about Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s a well-known line, and it’s easy to throw into a song, but I wonder, though, if we are missing a whole range of worthy biblical thoughts about that sacrifice because we default to that one (or a few).
  • Limited musical difficulty. This final point is even more subjective, but we need to be mindful of the difficulty of music. The use of a repeated phrase in some cases leads to a “theme and variations” approach to the music, where each repetition begets further musical embellishment, counter-melodies, etc. This really gets to questions of whether the song is used as a vehicle for expressing worship or as a vehicle for demonstrating musical virtuosity. There are a couple of songs I have recordings of where by the time they’re done, there are four or five different musical (and lyrical) lines intermingling at one time. Here’s a reality: many congregations can’t sing these songs. The one where I am at can’t sing these songs and have them sound like anything. Many of the ones that I am acquainted with—even those who have trained musicians who can sing each part—would have (and have had) difficulty in executing these songs correctly. Do we really want to impose this (some would say, “inflict this”) on congregations for the sake of a certain sound?

Question: What other things do you think make praise choruses/”7-11 songs” more effective as a part of the repertoire of assemblies of God’s people?

Verse Selection: Things to Ponder

To this point, we’ve considered the potential problems created by always singing every verse of hymns and by omitting verses arbitrarily. In this third installment, I want to consider some things for song/worship leaders to consider in effective verse selection. As I think I’ve mentioned, my default is to sing every verse of a song, with the chorus following the verses, but here are some reasons why I do occasionally omit the chorus, lead the chorus only at the end, or lead only certain verses. Some of these may have been touched on already, some may not have. Continue reading

What You May Miss with Verse Omission

In our previous post, I looked at four reasons why we may not want to lead every verse of a hymn in the assembly. As I said there, that does not mean we should never do that, but simply that we should be mindful of whether it is most effective to do so. Similarly, I know many who routinely omit verses, and the practice of omitting the third verse from a four-verse song is so common that hymn writers debate whether to write four-verse songs, and then whether to write the third verse as a throwaway verse or to make it the most important verse so that leaders will be more likely to sing it.

So what might you be missing if you omit one or more verses from a hymn? Continue reading

Four Concerns in Leading Every Verse of a Hymn

I have been told that American churches are strange in that we do not lead every verse of every song we sing in the assembly. Indeed, we lament the third verse of a four-verse song, and I have been to congregations where the closing song is routinely only sung with the first verse. In fact, our hymnals are sometimes the subject of criticism because their editors choose to include only three verses of songs that may have six verses or more.

But is leading every verse of every song, every time always the best practice? I admit, my default practice is to lead every verse (and every chorus, if present) of the songs that I select, but there are exceptions to this, which we’ll get into later. But why might leading every verse not be optimal in the assembly? Continue reading

Hymns and “Proof Texting”

One of the great perceived evils of modern preaching is proof texting. As commonly defined, proof texting is using a passage (usually a single verse) to make a point without any regard for its context. To be certain, some measure of risk exists in such preaching and many a false doctrine has been propagated by means discarded context. But what we commonly refer to as proof texting is not inherently wrong. In fact, Jesus did so when He referenced Exodus 3 to prove that there is a resurrection. That wasn’t the main point of that passage, and Jesus didn’t even address the main point. Of course, I’ve just proof-texted Jesus, because I’ve chosen not to deal with that context of that passage.

So why talk about this on a blog about hymns? If a purpose of our singing is to teach and admonish one another (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16), then hymns constitute the most ubiquitous case of proof texting ever known to Christians. If you’ve not already read it, take a look at the analysis of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” as an example of throwing all manner of references together into a single text. Some of my fellow hymn writers and I joke about playing “Scripture bingo,” to see if we can fit one more reference into a hymn without overloading the hymn with too much content to process.

There simply is not sufficient space in a hymn to expound upon more than a handful of biblical expressions, much less explain the use of every reference or the points that the hymnist might be making from them. As much as it might be interesting to have an annotated edition of our hymnals, (1) the footnote numbers would be distracting, (2) it would be nearly impossible to run down every reference, and (3) the resulting work could be as much as twice as thick, depending upon the verbosity of the annotator.

As has already been discussed, this is why we need to use scriptural expressions according to their use in Scripture. That is perhaps my chief objection to saying that the Father turned His face away in “How Deep the Father’s Love”—if I go to the places where that expression (or something like it) is used and really wrestle with the context, personally I have a hard time making the use in the hymn fit with the use in Scripture.

We should strive for scripturally-consistent use of scriptural language so that even without a human interpreter, we have a divinely-given interpreter in the Bible. If our hymns consist of biblically-used biblical expressions, then the Bible can tell us what those expressions mean. If we can’t explain it, we probably need to be thinking about whether we can sing it. And yes, this is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 14.

So what do we do?

  1. For everyone, we need to demand biblical content in the hymns. Can the hymns we sing be understood in a biblical context, or do we have to perform “mental gymnastics” to make it fit a biblical understanding? The more contortions we have to do to make a lyric scriptural, the more concerned we should be.
  2. For song/worship leaders, we need to be the congregation’s guides in understanding the songs we sing. We are the last line of defense in making sure that scriptural songs are being sung. Some allusions are not as obvious as others. “For God so loved this sinful world, He gave His Son to die” is a fairly well-understood reference. “Here I raise my Ebenezer” not so much. Make sure all can sing with understanding.
  3. For hymn writers, we need to strive for clarity in our writing, and ensure that when we make reference to Scripture, that our references are not the product of mental gymnastics and the twisting of those references. Obscure references are fine (any excuse to motivate Christians to read their Bibles, right?), but when people find the reference, will it make sense?

Hymns that do not use biblical content biblically have a hard time teaching and admonishing. Hymns that do not teach and admonish have a hard time being expedient (beneficial) to the musical worship of God’s people. Hymns that are not expedient probably shouldn’t be sung.