Rocky Springs Church sits back from a rural road and is bordered by – depending on the year – corn, soybeans, or hay. The building is long and mostly featureless, built of whitewashed cinderblocks and set split-level into a hillside. It has the look of a structure built by the people who use it, displaying proudly its strata of improvements made over many decades by volunteer labor. The people who worship there are mostly a mix of retired elderly folks, farmers, sons of farmers turned factory workers, office workers, homemakers, students from the college down the road, children from various schools or homeschools, and the two musicologists who wrote this website. On Sunday mornings, we enter a sanctuary of white cinderblocks trimmed out in honey-colored oak with a floor thinly carpeted in medium blue, and we sit in wood pews that are as dark as the rest of the space is light. When the time comes to sing, old men, ladies, boys and girls stand up while the pianist plays a few bars of the tune so that we can all remember how it goes. We then all sing. A little girl at the end of the pew, barely old enough to read, struggles (without a hint of embarrassment) with some of the words but, as she knows the “Alleluia, Amen” bit well, she sings it as loud as she can toward the back of the old fellow sitting in front of her. Though his hearing is bad, he hears her just fine and finds himself consciously agreeing with what she is singing. He will tell you that he isn’t much of a singer, but you would never believe it from his lively participation—he has something to sing about and he knows we all need to hear it. Indeed, Rocky Springs makes no boast about being musical. If a critic, overhearing us, declared fully half our number unable to carry a tune, it would not trouble us. We can hear the tuneful just as well as the tuneless and are as glad for the exhortation and teaching that both offer. When we sing a hymn familiar to all, the oak trim seems to rattle in sympathetic vibration. During such songs, many do not even look at the hymnal. They look up or at each other, as if they were having a conversation with God and everyone in the room all at once. As the whole congregation sings, each understands the other and all are teaching, taught, exhorting and exhorted. And God is glorified.

Of celestial fruits that grow from faith and hope on earthly ground, few are sweeter than that of God’s people wholeheartedly lifting their voices together to praise him and to exhort one another in song. Insofar as Scripture uses it to describe heaven, the congregation that sings the gospel and means it has something in common with a healthy marriage, the sacraments, and a Sabbath rest. Through these biblical pictures, the Holy Spirit frequently convicts us of worldliness and drives us to worship. Where can one turn, other than the Word of God itself, for more vivid evidence that God is saving a people for himself?

Augustine discovered this in Milan in the days after his baptism in 387.

How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This [distilling of the truth] caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience. The Church of Milan had begun only a short time before to employ this method of mutual comfort and exhortation. The brothers used to sing together with both heart and voice in a state of high enthusiasm.[1]

In their services of worship, the Christians in Milan were comforting and exhorting one another in communal song, sung with both heart and voice, and thereby truth was distilled into the heart of him who would become one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Years later, when abuses of church music led him to consider ridding the church of especially melodic or rhythmic tunes, it was partly his recollection of Milan that restrained him.[2]

Similarly, Calvin’s belief that congregational singing was an essential church ordinance was doubtless confirmed when, upon arriving in Strasbourg in 1538, he witnessed what the spiritually-minded German congregations there, equipped with good hymnals, were capable of. He set out to publish a hymnal for his own French-speaking congregation in short order, and the second edition of the Institutes, which appeared in 1539, “strongly commends” singing in public worship. Six years later (and four years after Calvin’s return to Geneva) a young Walloon from Antwerp seeking refuge in Strasbourg wrote to his cousins in Lille:

On Sundays . . . we sing a psalm of David or some other prayer taken from the New Testament. The psalm or prayer is sung by everyone together, men as well as women with a beautiful unanimity, which is something beautiful to behold. For you must understand that each one has a music book in his hand; that is why they cannot lose touch with one another. Never did I think that it could be as pleasing and delightful as it is. For five or six days at first, as I looked upon this little company, exiled from countries everywhere for having upheld the honor of God and His Gospel, I would begin to weep, not at all from sadness, but from joy at hearing them sing so heartily, and, as they sang, giving thanks to the Lord that He had led them to a place where His name is honored and glorified. No one could believe the joy which one experiences when one is singing the praises and wonders of the Lord in the mother tongue as one sings them here.[3]

Echoes of the heavenly congregation indeed.

But fourth-century Milan and sixteenth-century Strasbourg were exceptional: Augustine criticized his African churches for singing sluggishly,[4] and many sixteenth-century congregations resisted pastoral efforts to get them singing.[5] In the primary sources of church history negative descriptions of congregational song—from protests against heretical lyrics to ridicule of ugly performance practices and laments over disengaged congregants—may very well outnumber positive descriptions. We can account for the high incidence of disappointing worship through the ages in all sorts of ways. Churches suffered from misguided leadership, derelict leadership, illiteracy, theological ignorance, or musical insecurity. In the final analysis, however, we know that great congregational singing is a matter of the heart and not something men can generate of themselves. No amount of pastoral, musical, and educational resources suffices to ensure Spirit-filled worship if the church does not abide in the Word of God as its only rule of faith and obedience.

A Biblical Model

This website is written for all who love the church and long to see it worship the one true God with conviction and understanding. There can be no doubt (Zwingli notwithstanding) that the Bible directs us to include singing as an element of worship and provides many models for its content (praise, confession, proclamation, exhortation, petition, and thanksgiving); it does not, however, prescribe particular forms (lyrics, tunes, mode of performance) and circumstances (place in the order of worship) but provides instead general principles for determining these. The lack of particulars is not a shortcoming of Scripture but part of God’s providential care for the church. It is his will that we persist in figuring out how to order our songs according to biblical principles.

If some conclude that where God declines to specify particulars it makes no difference what forms and circumstances we choose, such a conclusion would be a gross distortion of how we are to relate to things “indifferent.” When faced with a choice between lawful alternatives, Christians are free to choose that which will glorify God—without their consciences being burdened by human laws. But, that said, there is nothing about which Christians are truly indifferent. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Christian liberty is freedom for something. It does not imply aesthetic relativism. Because some forms communicate the good and the true more effectively than do other forms, faith in the Bible rules out aesthetic relativism as much as it does moral or epistemological relativism, and, although no church can declare its particular forms and circumstances obligatory for other churches, neither can it declare them to be up for grabs, to be determined by whatever criteria seem most pressing to men. The aesthetically responsible church leader, having submitted to God’s definition of what congregational singing is and what it is for, will diligently seek out the forms and circumstances most conducive to realizing that definition. When nice churches get saddled with bad liturgies, it is attributable to one of two errors: either biblical principles have been misunderstood, or they have been applied inconsistently. When we fight over music, it is because somebody—and very likely everybody—has applied human principles instead of biblical ones, or because we have applied biblical ones sloppily.

But do conflicts over church music really stem from problems of principle? Do they not rather stem from differences of musical taste and preference? Certainly, to some extent. And yet consider the meaning of “taste” and “preference.” Are these not merely a sense that certain forms realize our purposes better than do other forms? Tim prefers a stationary bike so he can read as he exercises; Sally prefers a traditional bike so she can breathe fresh air and see the countryside. Tim prefers an orange for his snack so he can perceive its array of aromas, tastes, and textures; Sally prefers orange juice so she can quench her thirst. As with bikes and snacks, so, too, with everything: people with preferences may or may not be conscious of their purposes, but if they were to have no purpose at all—no end to attain—they wouldn’t have a preference. When Christians prefer different kinds of church music, it is because they disagree about what it is for. Different theologies of church music naturally result in different styles, as we search out the forms that most effectively realize our purposes.

Many church leaders believe the purpose of congregational singing is to do something to the congregation. Recognizing the priority God places on heartfelt worship, they look to music to kindle the love and sincerity that God demands of us. Or they look to music to communicate something to the singing congregant: the gospel, the presence of God, etc. Given these presuppositions, it is understandable why these leaders make the stylistic decisions they do. However, this view of church music, so widespread now, is relatively novel. The Bible itself does not present a model in which music does something to the congregation but, rather, a model in which the congregation does something with the music. In this model, the measure of church music is not what it does to us but what we are able to say with it.

From exegesis of the scriptural warrant for church music as summarized in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, this website posits four prescriptive theses:

1. Church music should function primarily as a means by which congregants communicate to God and to each other.
2. The singing congregant should communicate (to God and to fellow congregants) the message, wording, and aesthetic values of Scripture.
3. Our principal consideration in designing the form of church music should be its communicative function: namely, its potential as a medium for congregants to lift their voices in praise to God and in exhortation of one another.
4. Congregants should be encouraged to mean what they sing.

The first four sections of the “Biblical Model” part of this website address these theses in turn. Each section presents the biblical basis for affirming its thesis, considers the implications of its thesis for congregational singing (that branch of church music which evangelicals have always and rightly considered most important), and envisions forms and circumstances ideally suited to implementing its thesis. The authors aspire to outline a biblical, reformed, and practical aesthetic of congregational song. To repeat an earlier assertion: only when Christians have figured out what congregational singing should be and be for, can they think critically about its forms. Readers who disagree with our interpretation of Scripture and readers who do not subscribe to the regulative principle of worship will naturally disagree with our conclusions. We are content to hope that readers who share our convictions about the absolute authority of Scripture will find our arguments convincing and our recommendations helpful. May God be pleased to bless any implementation of those recommendations, that Spirit-filled congregants might more freely worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Hymn Studies

The hymn studies that comprise the second part of this website differ in purpose and scope from those that evangelicals have traditionally published and read. Rather than recounting the biographies of hymn writers or the origins and reception of hymns—stories that certainly merit recounting, but not here—we aim to demonstrate the beauty of great hymns through literary and musical analysis. By the word “beauty” in the last sentence we do not mean some esoteric quality appreciated for its own sake. We mean a formal aptness or eloquence that abundantly communicates a biblical message, in lyrics and melody suitable for people of ordinary voice and ordinary literary sensibilities to sing together. Beauty has nothing to do with vagueness or sentiment. It has everything to do with the clear declaration of truth. A beautiful hymn is so clear that it can be learned and understood by a child, and it so richly proclaims the word of Christ that the child can sing it over and over again to his Christian brothers and sisters through all the seasons of life and never outgrow it. Singing beautiful hymns can be a profoundly emotional experience precisely because the objective truths of Scripture are so vividly conveyed.[6] That is, the better the form, the more truth will be conveyed, and the more we will be moved by that truth, not by the form itself or by how the form itself makes us feel.

Defined in this way, by their potential communicativeness, the superior beauty of great hymns is readily demonstrable through literary and musical analysis. Such analysis may contribute to the reader’s appreciation of the hymns, but that is not the main point of these studies. Analysis is no more necessary for the appreciation of hymns than it is for the appreciation of any other beautiful thing. In astronomy, spectral analysis may or may not make us wonder more as we gaze at the stars, but one thing is for sure: men appreciated the beauty of the heavens long before the invention of spectrographs. And yet our love of the stars has everything to do with those qualities of light explained by spectrographs. Likewise, we can be moved by a great speech without analyzing its rhetoric. We can admire an iris in bloom without formal study of its taxonomy, anatomy, and physiology. Analysis may prove helpful, but ultimately all that is necessary for appreciation is careful attention and reflection. The measure of a hymn’s greatness, then, is not the extent to which it contains hidden layers of meaning to be uncovered through study. Quite the contrary. There is no time for studying during the singing of a hymn.

The main point of the second part of the website is to demonstrate certain formal properties found in great hymns that make them especially communicative and that account, at least in part, for why the church has cherished them. Beauty is explicable. It is not a matter of mere taste or social conditioning, but an objective property about which we can think critically. When we note the aptness of a particular image or the memorableness of a particular structure, we are not claiming that congregants consciously appreciate these devices, but rather that these devices help to communicate a particular message. And it is the message that moves, or should move, the congregant.

Since the point of the hymn studies is demonstration rather than appreciation readers may, with good reason, find them a bit tedious—a laundry list of interesting observations. Nevertheless, their thesis needs to be demonstrated to today’s church, which suffers a false dichotomy between form and content. We like to think we have rejected the pharisaism of formal religion, but in fact we have embraced an incommunicative formlessness. We have settled for a message so impoverished that it can be communicated in ugly forms or, put slightly differently, so impoverished that communication is beside the point. Against such aesthetic relativism this particular demonstration may prove helpful.

To make it as practical as possible, hymn texts are presented not as a critical edition of the poets’ original intentions but as poems sung by congregations today. They appear exactly as in our denomination’s Trinity Hymnal (1990), except that we find it helpful to distinguish between the vocative “O” and the exclamatory “oh.”

We have not notated every tune in its entirety, so readers will need to refer to whatever hymnal they have at hand to follow the musical analyses. Anyone who wants to skip a particular discussion of music can do so easily, as it always comes at the end of each study.

The number of hymns included, 120, is a sufficiently large repertoire for most congregations, though congregations could follow after our model and consider others in like vein. We should after all, as Watts puts it,

Then let our songs abound,
   and ev’ry tear be dry;
we’re marching through Immanuel’s ground
   to fairer worlds on high.
Continue to section 1, “Communication.”


[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. Henry Chadwick) 9.6–7.14–15.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 10.33.50.

[3] Quoted in Charles Garside, The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536–1543, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 69, part 4 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979), 18.

[4] “Pleraque in Africa ecclesiae membra pigriora sunt.” Augustine Letter 55 18.34.

[5] Joseph Herl has copiously documented this in sixteenth-century Lutheran churches. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 14–16, 67–68, 70–83, 164–66.

[6] This view differs from the very prevalent view that singing should be made into an emotional experience because an emotionally charged listener will be more receptive to whatever truth is conveyed. The prevalent view gets the cart before the horse, though more on this in sections 1 and 5.