The case for “both/and” church music: A review of ‘Songs of the Saints’

Whether invoked online as an Old El Paso meme, or pulled into a board room from Jim Collins’ Built to Last, the idea is simple but powerful: why have or when we can have and? Why settle for one unsatisfactory half when the whole is within our reach?

Songs 265

In Songs of the Saints, Mike Raiter and Rob Smith sound an urgent call for doing and rather than or when it comes to singing in church. ‘We long to see,’ they explain, ‘the church passionate and discerning about the songs we sing.’ Why should we settle for having either our emotions or our intellects stirred by church music? ¿por qué no los dos?

What follows is an enjoyably feisty, deeply biblical and (ultimately) inescapably persuasive argument for raising the bar on the songs we sing in church.

The method is simple but effective – the first ‘movement’ of the book offers a series of close readings of Old Testament songs (the song of Moses, the battle songs of Judges, the Psalms of David, and so on), sprinkled with examples from the best (and, occasionally, the worst) of modern hymnody, baked with a thoroughly biblical theology of church music, and served with a generous dollop of anecdotes from their many travels all over the church music world. The result is delightful, insightful and easy to digest.

There are two sermons in any service, Mike and Rob argue – the one from the pulpit, and the one from the music stand. So, are we preaching songs, like those in 1 Chronicles, that explain why we are praising God? Do our songs wrestle, like the Psalms, with the sadness of life as well as its joys? Or are we, as they caustically tease, ‘happy to sing anything as long as it mentions “the Lord” and “worship” and has a catchy melody’?

The second ‘movement’ takes us into the New Testament, where Mary’s Magnificat and the songs of Revelation set the bar high for theological reflection in song. This section is more systematic in approach, establishing the purpose and nature of songs in the church from the pastoral epistles. Their conclusion is characteristically balanced: ‘only when congregational singing is focused on both the glory of God and the good of others, does it fulfil the powerful purposes for which God has given it to us.’ 

The third movement is where the snowball of observations about the songs of scripture, which has been gathering weight throughout the book, lands its imperative punch. With a refreshingly balanced and thoughtful flair, the authors address hot button issues in church worship such as the place of emotions and the power of music to help us draw near to God.

The authors ultimately endorse ‘blended worship’: a discerning mix of traditional and modern styles. The book wisely avoids fuelling the tired argument over whether hymns or modern songs are best, finding examples to emulate in both. My only gripe here is that the contemporary examples may date the authors for some readers; I would have loved more examples of great song writing from the last ten years.

All their arguments are, I think, thoroughly persuasive – with one possible exception. The authors regularly (I think I counted five times!) bemoan that we don’t hear ourselves sing anymore: ‘Too many modern “worshippers” stand stony-faced and close-mouthed during the songs’, and so ‘congregations are sung to more than they sing themselves’.

Now, I agree with them that ‘the main voices we should be aiming to hear during corporate singing are those of the gathered saints’ (although we could talk more about whether this is a biblical mandate or an aesthetic preference, and whether corporate singing is necessarily more edifying than everyone taking a turn singing an item).

However, their diagnosis of why congregational singing is in its ‘death throes’ in many churches seems too simple, and I suspect therefore that the cure they then offer is incomplete. If only it were simply (as they suggest a few times) that the amplified music is turned up so loud that the congregation ‘simply cannot compete with those who have the assistance of amplification and so just give up.’ In that case, it would indeed be a simple matter of turning down the lead singer’s microphone.

But I think the problem, and therefore the solution, is usually much more complicated – cultural, social, musical and generational issues are all at play. Indeed, in one church I attended the problem was architectural! When we moved from an acoustically dead lecture theatre to a purpose-built auditorium with a carefully balanced ‘live’ natural reverb the corporate singing was transformed instantly.

This complaint aside, the book is excellent and it should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to suggest a song for Sunday – or complain about one, for that matter! There are many good books on church music, but this one’s focus on the content of our singing and its method of careful attention to the songs of scripture make it a unique and timely contribution. While the book does not back away from detailed exegesis of key passages, it remains accessibly written with a palette full of colour: personal anecdotes, rousing quotes from reformers, pop-science, and great stories from history.

I’m grateful that Mike and Rob have put their communicative flair, insightful reading of scripture and diverse ministry experiences to work on this topic. The songs of scripture show us that there is no choice to make between praising God with our heads and our hearts. We can, and must, do both.