Worship Corner - Columns/Blogs, Song Stories and Articles
About Gerrit Gustafson

Gerrit Gustafson, based in the Nashville area, is a songwriter (Only by Grace, Mighty is Our God), producer - publisher (wholeheartedworship.com), author (The Adventure of Worship) and worship teacher (worshipschools.com).

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

A Paradigm for the Church of the Future by Gerrit Gustafson

All of us have personal preferences. Some prefer blue over green. Some prefer a trip to the beach over a trip to the mountains. Some favor grits over hash browns, country music over rock, and almost everyone favors the home team over the visitors.

But whereas we smile at some of our preferences, our religious preferences are often quite a different matter. For some reason, our own special religious traditions and experiences tend to concretize our ideas of what God's preferences are and aren't. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of worship styles. How quickly our preferences become biases. And how easily our biases become walls which keep us from the larger Body of Christ and from fuller expressions of worship.

The sum total of these distinctives and preferences is termed culture. Every individual and group is part of a culture. Worship and culture are very closely related. It is interesting that the root word for culture is cult, which is simply a system of worship or devotion. You could say our culture reflects our worship. We should neither despise nor deny our culture for it helps to give us the initial parameters for personal identity, but we must thoughtfully evaluate all our ways in light of God's ways. When God says that His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9), He is saying that His divine culture is higher than our human culture. The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 appeals for churches to be "deeply rooted in Christ and closely related to their culture. Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture.... The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness.... Churches have sometimes been in bondage to culture rather than to the Scripture."

Denominations within the church are usually cultural divisions before they are theological. They have to do with conflicting folkways. A Presbyterian pastor made this observation: "Part of the problem in coming into unity is that we have recruited people into the personality distinctives of our own congregations and traditions, rather than into Christ. As a result, their loyalties are more to these distinctives than to Christ's Kingdom." In the spirit of Lausanne, we need to evaluate our traditions of worship - whether historic traditions or more recent renewal traditions - in light of Scripture to see if we are adherents of an approach to Christ or of Christ himself.

Toward Understanding Divine Preferences

Music powerfully communicates culture. That's why the church's music is so vital in communicating its life. Even the effects of a vibrant sermon can be canceled out by lifeless music. Some would observe that the music more accurately reflects the life of the congregation than the words spoken.

What are we communicating culturally? Are our cultural preferences the same as God's? What kinds of songs should we be singing? Does God even care what we do musically in the church? If so, what are the parameters of Biblical worship? Do our biases keep us from a fuller expression of worship? The easy answer to these kinds of questions is incomplete: God is only concerned with the attitude of our hearts, not the forms of our expressions. Granted, the heart's disposition is primary, but should we not allow God to transform and enlarge our forms as well as our hearts? It's not that our worship traditions are intrinsically wrong, just incomplete.

Consider these three statements as beginning points in this discussion of Biblical patterns of worship:
  1. True worship is both spiritual and intellectual. “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
  2. Heavenly worshipers worship the God of the past, present and future. “Day and night they never stop saying: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8; see also Rev. 1:4,8).
  3. In the New Testament, God endorses three primary song forms: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16; see also Eph. 5:19, 20).

Spiritual and Intellectual

Today some segments of the church specialize primarily in Spirit. Favorite teaching topics in the Spirit churches are "Hearing God" and "Being Led by the Spirit." Leaders encourage followers to develop intuitive skills. Worship is generally spontaneous and Spirit-led.

Other segments of the church specialize primarily in truth. Among these groups, Biblical scholarship and critical thinking are held in high esteem. Here worship is more orderly and structured.

Each tradition is suspicious of the other and often reinforces its own uniquenesses to justify its existence. Facing these tendencies is very difficult but very necessary.

Jesus said that true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth, not one or the other. If we love to "flow in the Spirit" but are impatient with the process of making careful observations, we are not yet the kind of worshipers God is looking for. If we are diligent students and yet we can't make room for someone to base a claim on revelation, we are not yet worshipers that please God.

If the worship in our congregation only attracts the critical thinkers, it's time to do some critical thinking about our own cultural preferences. If our congregation is attracting only the intuiters or feelers, it's time to ask the Spirit to lead us into all truth. Biblical worship is to be spiritual and thoughtful.1

Past, Present and Future

Some of us are more familiar with what God is saying than what God has said, to the point that we disdain any reference to history. I have heard this referred to as the Cult of Contemporaneity. Someone asked me to evaluate a prophecy born out of a time of prayer. One part of it quoted God as saying that He was not the God of the past, but rather the God of the now. I suggested that maybe God was saying He was not only the God of the past, but the God of the present as well. After all, if God is not the God of the past, who is?

Others are well-versed in what has gone on before us and yet out of touch with what is going on now. One pastor confidently told me that nothing of any significance has happened in the church in the last 250 years. Most likely the church he pastors will be populated with those who are friendly to that point of view.

A third sub-standard alternative is to be so future-oriented that we fail to worship the God of the past and the present. We must not try to confine God's kingdom exclusively to past, present or future reality. Each are only partial containers of God's magnificent glory.

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Some charismatic churches tend to sing choruses to the exclusion of hymns. Some traditional churches sing hymns to the exclusion of choruses. And a very small percentage of churches have any significant experience with spiritual songs. In contrast God's Word invites us all to express our gratitude through all three song forms.

To sing a psalm is not necessarily the equivalent of singing from the book of Psalms. A psalm is a song. The term psalm, like song, can be used in a general or a specific sense. In the general usage it could include hymns, just as there are hymns included in the book of Psalms. A hymn is certainly a song.

In the specific sense, however, a psalm would contrast with a hymn. Similar to what we today call choruses, a psalm, or song, is generally simpler, shorter, more testimonial and less theological than a hymn. A hymn would usually carry a greater sense of history; a psalm, or chorus, would be more personal. The psalm is also more contemporary and has a shorter life span. The spiritual song is even more a song-of-the-moment than a psalm. The spiritual song, which consists of spontaneous melodies and words, inspired by the Holy Spirit and sung around a chord or slowly moving chord progression, has been referred to as the song of angels because of its mystical, other-worldly quality.2 Even as the Spirit is the believer's down payment of the future age,3 the spiritual song must be a foretaste of heavenly worship itself.

The genius of these three song forms is that each is uniquely appropriate to express a dimension of God's nature, and each will speak for a different kind of personality, as well as to the different facets of the individual. The hymn will satisfy our hunger for truth and depth of understanding; the psalm will speak to our need for encounter and experience; and the spiritual song will stimulate the visionary in us.

The command to employ psalms, hymns and spiritual songs requires a greater cultural flexibility than we have had so we can enjoy the variety of worship expressions. For instance, the youth of the church will probably prefer a more contemporary style of worship than the older ones. The common solution to this cultural problem is to segregate the youth church from the adult church. The psalms-hymns-and-spiritual-songs paradigm begs for a different solution: unity within diversity. This new paradigm allows the contemporary and the historic to stand side by side and challenges our hearts to greater love. We don't have to choose between being reverent or celebrative. Be reverent and celebrative! Be objective and subjective! Structured and spontaneous! Testimonial and theological!

Instead of affirming our own strengths and acknowledging the limitations of other traditions, we must begin to recognize the limitations of our own traditions and affirm the strengths of the others. The result will be that our own preferences will be enjoyed by others, as well as enlarged by others. Like an onion in the stew, we will both flavor the other ingredients and be flavored by them. All the while, we remain an onion.

Paradigm for the Future

The church of the future must become transcultural. The evangelical church must learn to sing spiritual songs; the charismatic church must rediscover hymns; and the traditional church must begin to sing a new psalm. The young church must respect the older church and vice versa. Bridges of cooperation and counsel must be built between the black and white churches. The stagnating pools of our cultural prejudices must be flooded by the river of His divine purposes. Accepting and practicing God's standard of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in our worship is a simple but challenging exercise designed to break us loose from our idols of ethnocentrism. Where will all of this lead us? To the most exciting celebration imaginable: the international, interdenominational, multilingual, multiethnic celebration of Christ Jesus, the Son of God!

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

Dare we look upon what John saw: representatives from every nation, tribe, people and language, declaring their praises together with a loud voice... overwhelmed with gratitude for this majestic King who had made them into a united kingdom!4 If we can see that, we can see our destination. The heavenly vision is that of worshipers of many different stripes who are more conscious of the greatness of Christ Jesus than of their cultural distinctions.

If worship styles have been the source of divisions among us, let's turn the tables and allow God's design for worship to be a source of unity among us. Let's pray that heaven's worship will overtake earth's as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

  1. These two components are implied in Romans 12:1 in the phrase "logikos latreia," which is translated in the NIV as either "spiritual act of worship" or (in the margin) "reasonable act of worship."
  2. Although spiritual songs are generally not written down, some have suggested that the Gregorian chant is a codification of early spiritual songs.
  3. II Corinthians 1:22 and Hebrews 6:4,5.
  4. Revelation 5:9,10.

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frankwhe Posted 3/30/2014 6:02:54 AM
It will help us analyze the comprehensiveness of our worship format. Sorry for the three posts, it was limiting me to just a few lines.
frankwhe Posted 3/30/2014 6:01:29 AM
lms and many of the contemporary choruses are hymns due to their content, their words. So that could be one of our challenges, to include all three types of songs within the various styles of music, according to our gathering and preferences. If we keep a clear distinction between style and type,
frankwhe Posted 3/30/2014 5:56:25 AM
I agree with the content of your article, but there is a tendency to shift between a discussion of styles of music and types of songs. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs vary in their content, and can lend themselves to certain styles of music, but not necessarily. Some of our "hymns" are really psa
Anonymous Posted 3/3/2008 9:39:08 AM
Thank you for this well-balanced article! In my many years as a Christian and attending different churches, the one church, in my opinion, whose worship was most well balanced and fulfilling included all three music styles in each service. There was respect for great theology through hymns, respect for modern music styles through choruses, and openness to the Holy Spirit through spiritual songs. It was healthy for all. My current church, in a backlash against "legalism", has eschewed all hymns in favor of worship choruses only. The result is a different form of legalism, I think, and a generation of worshipers who are being cheated out of the broader knowledge and deeper worship they could be experiencing.
Anonymous Posted 2/28/2008 7:27:25 PM
The conclusion that we need to have more balance in our worship, drawing from historical worship styles as well as contemporary is a good one. My personal experience has been observing a movement to more and more praise choruses that are woven together in a "worship" service. However, it is my contention that more focus needs to be placed on the content of the hymns, choruses, spiritual songs, etc. when choosing which songs to use in our worship services. If the content is substantial and draws us to attributes of God or our walk with Him, we will be more likely to enter into His presence in a meaningful exchange. Along a similar vein, we need to move back to sermons that preach from passages of scripture, so we tackle the difficult and hard aspects of living the Christian walk, and yet drawing strength from God Himself, who is able to sustain us. The music supporting this type of preaching will reinforce these concepts and create a receptiveness in our hearts to change more and more into the image of God, rather than follow our own path. I agree with a lot of what this author said, but the issue needs to be not if it is a hymn, psalm or spiritual song, but instead what are we singing and to whom?
Anonymous Posted 2/28/2008 5:25:47 PM
This is a very encouraging word. My husband and I are fairly new worship leaders, and this article brought a lot of answers to light that we've been searching for. No doubt, our reading this was divine appointment. Thank you for writing it. There is always a pull from different directions about what style of worship to do, and now we have more of an understanding that all three "styles" reach us at different levels and therefore all are important. Thank-you for the good word.

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