A recent discussion has come up regarding praise songs in worship. Though the Missouri Synod continues to stew on this topic, I felt it worth digging into in a little more detail. The question was whether praise songs are acceptable within the divine service.
In the Missouri Synod, there are many proponents of what we broadly call “traditional” worship. These folks are often vehemently opposed to “contemporary” worship. I’ve discussed the inadequacies of these categories before. For the purpose of this discussion, the problem is that contemporary music is often seen as almost entirely praise songs that focus heavily on emotional content. Anything that smacks of contemporary worship thus brings with it a knee jerk reaction from traditional worship proponents. It’s true that these songs are usually devoid of meaningful content and make the individual the center of attention, rather than God. However, not everything we might term “contemporary” falls into the category of praise songs and not all praise songs are contemporary.
If we set the traditional vs. contemporary worship debate aside and consider the basic question, the answer must be a resounding, “Yes!” We are meant to be in conversation with God. We were created with this very purpose in mind. What are we to share with God? Well, just about anything you can think of. Our prayers are simply everything we have to say to God, requests for aid as well as thanks for what God has done for us. Prayers can be formal, but they don’t need to be. Anything you say to God can broadly be called a prayer. God speaks to us and we respond.
In that sense, a song or a hymn is just a prayer set to music. Anything you can pray in worship you can sing too. That isn’t to say there can’t be standards for what we do in worship. There absolutely should be. God demands our best. The divine service isn’t the place for things that are casual or flippant. They certainly aren’t the place for things that are focused on us. Hymns of praise can be high quality and reverent. The divine service already has some built in. The Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc Dimittis are both hymns of praise, sung in response to God’s gifts. The fact that we’ve had them in the divine service for centuries doesn’t mean they are functionally different from other hymns of praise.
Our response of praise isn’t a “good work.” It doesn’t merit anything from God. It doesn’t determine whether we are forgiven or not. Rather, we respond with praise because we are forgiven. Our thanks and praise are what complete the conversation. We sing praises to God to acknowledge that what we have been given truly was undeserved and unmerited. It acknowledges that we are flawed humans who are completely incapable of attaining our own salvation. The only solution is a loving and almighty God who brings salvation to us. Singing God’s praises is what helps keep everything in its proper place and, for that reason, hymns of praise are indispensable. Discussions over quality, form, and all of that are right and good to have regarding the music used in the divine service. But don’t label all praise songs the same. Don’t throw them out because many of them are bad. There are also many good ones. They, like all good songs of worship, are there to help you.