I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.

Ralph M. Petersen

Please follow this blog to keep notified of new entries.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Is your Church growing like a Mushroom, or an Oak?

Historians say that the sacred music of the Christian church, such as that of Palestrina, Allegri, and Tallis, is one of the greatest gifts of the gospel to Western civilization and on a par with the splendor of the magnificent European cathedrals, such as Chartres and Lincoln. 

Yet this rich treasury is an unknown world to many Evangelicals, whose worship music often draws only from songs written after 2000 and does not even include the rich heritage of Celtic Ireland, St. Francis of Assisi, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Crosby. Thank God for magnificent exceptions, such as the rich, deep hymns of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, which will join the music of the ages. 

But much of the run-of-the-mill renewal songs, which are repeated endlessly and constructed more on rhythm than melody, confine Evangelicals within as shallow theology, threadbare worship, fleeting relevance, and historical amnesia.  Along with soft preaching and a general rage for innovation, such music is another reason why many Evangelical churches resemble a field of quick-growing, quick-disappearing mushrooms rather than a longstanding forest of oaks. Again and again, I have been regaled with the church growth maxim, “You have to sacrifice one generation to reach the next.” 

But this turns on a false assumption, and it leads to the telling fact that the fatal weakness of Evangelical church growth is succession.  Church growth “success” without succession will always prove a failure in the end.

Os Guinness, Impossible People, pg.175-176

Sunday, February 18, 2018


This past week we have seen another tragic mass shooting resulting in 17 deaths at a Florida high school and, again, we are reminded of the grief and utter helplessness that grips us when we suffer the loss of loved ones.

But death is inevitable, and it visits every family.  And, when it does, we all want to support and encourage those who are sorrowing. 

In times of chaos, tragedy, or great loss, our worlds are turned upside down it is comforting to know that Our God never changes; He is always with us. 

For Christians, there are a few good hymns of comfort and consolation. ABIDE WITH ME is one that has become known as a funeral hymn.  There is no doubt that the author had his own inevitable death in mind when he wrote it.  But the hymn also assures us of God’s constant abiding presence in our everyday lives.

Henry Lyte was a pastor in England for 24 years.   He was forced into retirement because of his failing lungs.  His doctors told him that the tuberculosis was terminal and that he should prepare to die. 

On Sept. 4, 1847, at the age of 54 years, he preached his last sermon from the text in Luke 24.  Two disciples, on the road to Emmaus, met but didn’t recognize, the risen Christ.   When they reached their home, they invited Him to, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”

Henry addressed his congregation with these words, “I stand among you today as alive from the dead, that I may hope to impress upon you to prepare for that solemn hour which must come to us all.” 

Then he preached the gospel and pleaded with them to trust in the Savior.  At the end of the sermon, he served a farewell communion feast, and, in his closing prayer, he committed his grieving congregation to the Lord’s care.  That was the last time they saw him. 

After church, he went home to rest awhile, and then took a walk on the beach.  When he returned, with his sermon still on his mind, he wrote a prayer asking for God’s presence and help.  By late evening, he had crafted that prayer into an eight-stanza poem -- ABIDE WITH ME.

The next day he boarded a ship to France. Henry’s doctor had suggested that he should leave the damp climate of the English seaside and move to a drier climate in Italy.    But he never reached Italy.  On the way, his condition worsened, and, with his last weak breath, he whispered the words, “Peace, Joy,” and he passed into the arms of his Savior. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Jimmy Owens wrote the song, “HOLY! HOLY!” in 1972.  He wanted to create something that could be easily learned and sung by a church congregation.

There’s a general attitude among many traditionalists, that modern worship songs are too repetitious, and they lack depth.  This song might seem that way at first, but it really is rich and profound in doctrine.

Lyrically, there are two things going on simultaneously.  The author makes some declarations about the nature of God, (His attributes) and then he instructs us about the attitudes of our worship.

The first, characteristic or attribute of God, that we encounter, is in the title and the opening lines.  Our God is Holy!  In fact, His holiness is expressed here, in three couplets (Holy, holy; Holy, holy; Holy, holy).

Of all God’s attributes, His holiness is the one that is uniquely and superlatively emphasized is scripture.  In the book of the Revelation, John saw four living creatures surrounding God’s throne, and honoring Him by crying out continuously, day and night forever, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”   And that is what we, His Church will do also.  We will worship Him in His holiness forever as we bow before His throne and cry out, “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will, they existed and were created.”  (Rev. 4:11) 

But why the three-fold repetition, "Holy. Holy, Holy?"  

In addition to holiness, the author introduces another of God’s attributes; His tri-unity.  Our God is One holy God in three holy persons.

I am disturbed by how many biblically ignorant Christians, today, are so quick to embrace heretical beliefs.  One of them, that is rapidly gaining in popularity, is the denial of the Trinity.

The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God.  And these three persons are One God.  The Father is not the Son and He is not the Spirit.  The Son is not the Father and He is not the Spirit.  The Spirit is not the Father and He is not the Son.  I don’t understand that and there are NO known analogies to explain it.   But that is how God has revealed Himself.
In this song, as worshipers, we approach God with our offerings of praise; we “lift up,” to Him, our hearts, our heads, our hands, and our voices.

In verse One, our praise is directed to our Triune God, and it emanates from our surrendered hearts.  Our hearts are the seats of our desires.  And God wants us to seek Him, desire Him, and love Him above all other things.

In verse Two, our praise is directed to God, our Father.  We lift our heads to Him for life and sustenance.  He wants our attention; He wants our thoughts and our understanding to be influenced by the Truth of His Word.

In verse Three, our praise is directed to Jesus, our Savior, and Redeemer.  We offer Him our hands.  This is NOT about just raising our hands while we sing. 

When my mother used to call her children to supper, we all came running to the table.  And before we could sit, she would ask, “Did you wash your hands first?”

My little brothers threw their open hands up toward her to show her their clean hands.  That is the same kind of reaction we should have before coming to worship.

Jesus’ blood has cleansed us from the penalty of our sins but, while we are still in this world, we continue to sin and so, before we approach Him with our worship, we must confess our sins.  He expects us to come to Him with clean hands.

In verse Four, our praise is directed to the Holy Spirit; our Comforter and Guide.  We have been redeemed and we have Life.  So, we offer our sacrifices of praises; that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks. (Hebrews 13:15) 

“Great is the Lord; and greatly to be praised” (Ps.145:3). The song ends with a continuous string of Hallelujahs - “Praise the Lord!”  He is worthy to be praised.

Sunday, February 4, 2018


In the late 1970s, the deacons in an evangelical Baptist church called a meeting with their pastor.   Deacon John was accusing the pastor of teaching false doctrines about the nature of God. 

In the meeting, John unloaded his complaint - “Pastor, I just can’t believe what you are saying!  You are telling me that God’s plans cannot be thwarted and that He controls all the events of human history for His own purposes--is that fair?  I’ve always thought of God as a gentleman, the kind of fellow that presents His case to you, and lets you work things out.  He lets human beings work out the world their own way, except when He decides to intervene in some special case.”

Pastor Bob asked him, “Where do you find that in the Bible, John?  God never claims to be fair--only just.   Fairness is a human standard that changes as often as our perceptions change--But God never changes, and His decrees are never altered.  God is not, and cannot be, judged by any standard established by men!”
He opened his Bible and read about God’s ruling the affairs of nations, and His plan for redemption through the sacrifice of the Cross.  Then he looked at John and asked, “Was it fair for God to send His Son to die for us?  Did God ever promise to take our thoughts, whims, and petty human pride into account in His eternal councils?  No! John, God is either absolute, or He is not God!”

John stood up, walked to the door, and said, “You and I don’t worship the same God.”

After that, John would not answer his pastor’s phone calls and he never returned to the church again.  Instead, he moved his family to a liberal church across town.

This is not unique; it happens too often.  Not long ago I asked my friend, "Do you believe that God is Sovereign?"  

He answered, "Yes!"  

Then I asked, "Is He sovereign over all things?" 

And again, he answered, "Of Course."  

One more time I asked, "Do you believe He is sovereign in salvation?"  

This time he answered, "Well, He is to an extent." 

To an extent? -- in other words, my friend thinks there is a limit to God's sovereignty.  But if God is not sovereign in all, He is not sovereign at all.

Deacon John was like a lot of people, including my friend; they have unbiblical concepts of God.  And they have created a false god who thinks and acts the way they imagine a god should act.
We can know nothing about God, except that which He has revealed to us in Scripture.   If the god you worship is less than, or different from the One true God of the Bible, then your god is one that you have created in your own imagination. 

In our Wednesday Bible studies, we have been looking at some very difficult and astonishing truths about the attributes or character traits of our God.    I would think it’s probable that God is infinitely more than the total of His revealed attributes but, certainly, He is nothing less. 

IMMORTAL, INVISIBLE, GOD ONLY WISE was written by Walter Smith who, in the late 1800s, pastored the Free Church of Scotland for forty-four years.
The opening line is a paraphrase of 1Tim. 1:17, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honour and glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

In rapid succession, Smith identifies at least 23 of God’s character traits.  The original hymn had five stanzas but, in most hymnbooks, the last two have been carefully combined and what we have today, is an amazing hymn of reverential praise to the greatness of our God. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018


I have been bringing these hymn commentaries for about three years, now, and I have tried to present interesting and edifying illustrations, stories about the faith and struggles of the authors, or the importance of the hymns in church history.  Today's hymn does none of that.  This is the most difficult hymn commentary I have ever written.

Barbara Hart was born in 1916 and she wrote A CHRISTIAN HOME in 1965.  And that's all there is; I’ve searched dozens of printed and Internet resources.  I’ve found no biographical information about the author, no history, no illustrations, and no backstory.

It is published in very few hymnals and I was inclined to just pass over it, but the subject is too important and has a strong message that is appropriate for today’s sermon.  We sang it last week and a few of you mentioned, then, how much you appreciated it.
The hymn is a prayer that asks God to work in our families.  It reminds us that He is the Head of our
homes.  It challenges us to the same kind of determined commitment that Joshua had when he said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Most of our songs and hymns build up and strengthen our faith, they bring joy to our souls, they inspire us, they encourage us to good works, they teach us great truths, they comfort us in difficulties, they cause us to be thankful, and they help us in our praise and worship to our Savior.

This hymn didn’t do any of those things for me.   In fact, I found it to be uncomfortable and convicting because the lyrics revealed my own disobedience and failures as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father.  And it reminded me of a phrase in Psalm 119:6, “Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.

I looked up the meaning of the word, shame, in a Bible dictionary.  Shame is a consequence of sin.  Feelings of guilt and shame are subjective acknowledgments of an objective spiritual reality.  Guilt is judicial in character; shame is relational. It emphasizes sin's effect on our self-identity.  Sinful humans are traumatized, before a holy God, when we are exposed for our failures to live up to God's laws.

And, if we had the time to read through the entire 176 verses of Psalm 119, we would all be driven to the trauma of guilty shame.  So, what is the remedy for this shame?  It is in keeping ALL God’s laws. 

None of us can do that but praise God that His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, kept every jot and tittle of the law perfectly and God the Father has imputed His Son’s righteousness to us. 

So, as I think about the prayer of this hymn, I am thankful that even though I have failed in my goals and good intentions; and I break His commandments every day, I can rejoice in knowing that God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving. 

(Listen, here, to the hymn recorded by Evie)

Sunday, January 21, 2018


“…the church has always been beset by heretics and false teachings, and church history is full of the evidence of this.

“Obviously, then, we who love the Truth cannot automatically shy away from every fight over doctrine, especially in an era like ours when virtually every doctrine is deemed ‘up for grabs’. Christians need to be willing and prepared to contend earnestly for the faith.

“Clearly, there are two extremes to be avoided. One is the danger of being so narrow and intolerant that you create unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ. The other is the problem of being too broad-minded that you settle for a shallow false unity with people whom we are commanded to avoid or whose error we are morally obligated to refute.”

(Phil Johnson, Executive director Grace to You)

Throughout church history, there have always been open doors to false teachings and practices in the Church.  One of those doors has been the pragmatic approach to evangelism. 

But another common breach is in worship music.  Music has a powerful effect;  it tends to lull people of different faiths, doctrines, and practices into a false unity. 

Christians are often too quick to accept or are easily influenced by religious ideas without first examining the doctrines and origins of the music we use in our worship services.  Such was the case with a Roman Catholic song that has been accepted and sung by millions of Protestants unaware of its history and true meaning.

Frederick William Faber was raised in a reformed protestant family. His father was an English minister of Huguenot ancestry (The Huguenots were reformed French Christians who were persecuted by the Church of England.).  Faber was opposed to the doctrinal tenets of the Roman Church but, as a young man, he came under the teachings of John Henry Newman, the most prominent English Roman Catholic scholar of the 19th century. 

Faber was lured toward Roman Catholic beliefs and practices and was influenced by a “works righteousness” movement that stressed that the only way to a true religious experience was through liturgical and ceremonial church practices. Eventually, he rejected the reformed doctrines of grace.  He resigned his parish, converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and became known as Father Wilfrid.

Having experienced the way religious hymns influenced the life and outreach of the Protestant churches, Faber was determined to compose hymns that supported the Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. He wrote about 150 of them. 

With his hymn, FAITH OF OUR FATHERS, Faber’s original intent was to remind Catholic parishioners of the suffering and martyrdom their forefathers endured during the reign of King Henry VIII and the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.  And in one verse (printed below), the hymn expressed the hope that someday, by the effectual prayers of Mary, the Church of England would be won back to the Roman Catholic faith.

(original text of the problem stanza)

Faith of our Fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

The origin of this hymn obviously had to do with Christian martyrs — and we are always inspired by those kinds of stories. In his epistle, Jude exhorts us to “Contend (or fight) for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3) 

So, after many years and several attempts to correct and revise it, the hymn we sing today stands as an appropriate reminder of those who, in every age, have remained faithful to God and His Gospel even in the face of great persecution and death.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Most Important Elements of Church Music Ministry

These are the most Important elements of church Worship Music.

1. Accurate lyrics- Most Christians, whether they are aware of it or not, learn doctrine from the songs they sing in church or hear on "christian" radio stations. Therefore lyrics about the nature and attributes of God, or the Person and work of Jesus must be doctrinally accurate. They cannot contradict the Word of God.

2. Christian Worshippers- Real worship occurs in Spirit and in Truth. Unregenerate attenders cannot worship God; they are observers desiring to be entertained or emotionally stimulated. If you are doing it right, they will be convicted by the Gospel and converted OR they will go somewhere else.

3. Leadership- Music is selected and directed by a Christian who is accountable to God for the appropriate content, message, and application of the lyrics.

These elements are NOT Important.

1. Lights

2. Instruments

3. Emotionalism

4. Talented Entertainers

Expanded from a Tweet by Tim Bates (@TimmmmBates) and shared by Dan Phillips.