The use of the word proper in referring to the selections of hymns for services of worship strongly implies the existence of a standard by which one estimates the propriety or the impropriety of a given hymn, aside from the purely personal decision of whether we like the hymn or not.
It is entirely fitting and reasonable to the Adventist mind that there should be such a standard. We are trained to revere and respect various standards', such as the Bible and the law of God, and to abide by their dictates, regardless of personal inclination. It is well that we should have a standard. We have, however, not one, but two standards. I suspect them both to be imperfect.
The first, which we may speak of as the intellectual test, is advanced by many of our more highly trained musicians. The hymn or gospel song, according to this school of thought, should be accepted or rejected according to its appeal to the intellect. Emotional appeal and intellectual appeal are said to be incompatible, so if it appeals strongly to the senses, this would indicate that it is not acceptable.
The second standard, which perhaps may be spoken of as the emotional test, is adhered to by those who see no value in a hymn which appeals more or less abstractly to the intellect. They would accept or reject the hymn according to their ability to get the feel of it.
Needless to say, the devotees of each standard are able to produce many strong arguments in their favor. This is frequently done, somewhat to the confusion of the young minister, who must of necessity use hymns, and would like to arrive at some valid conclusion as to a sound basis of evaluating them. It is frequently represented to him as being a matter of deepest principle. It is a difficult thing for him to decide which standard he will accept and use. During his college days he is likely to be strongly influenced in both directions.
In my own experience I have seen some songs and choruses used which aroused only disgust in me. I have also traveled with a very talented choir whose repertoire included so much Bach, Brahms, and Palestrina that it became difficult to obtain an audience toward the end of the season. I have heard of the evangelist who said good night to his audience at the door, and observed, to his consternation, a couple dancing down the aisle to the rhythm of a song being sung by the choir. I have also heard extolled the virtues of a certain highly trained organist who simply refused to play when a hymn was announced which did not meet with his approval. All of this caused me great bewilderment and uncertainty until I discovered a true standard of judging music.
I believe the best standard for the selection of hymns and gospel songs is aptly expressed by the phrases the ministry of music. I submit that the primary function of music in any religious service is to minister to the spiritual needs of those for whom the service is planned. If we accept this premise, we have provided ourselves with a workable standard, and one not easily abused. If the question uppermost in our minds when we select a hymn is, "Will it minister to the spiritual needs of my congregation?" there is little likelihood that we will make any of the gross blunders made by enthusiastic proponents of either an intellectual or an emotional standard.
If the well-educated members of our congregation should not be insulted by the use of something cheap and trivial, the uneducated member has an equal right not to be bludgeoned with a highly intellectual hymn designed to educate him, but which for him has no message. In any circumstance the hymn that will fully minister to the spiritual needs of the congregation is the hymn that should be used, and the hymn that is found wanting when judged by this criterion should be rejected, regardless of how ardently it may be praised by devotees of either the intellectual or emotional test. The congregations of our churches will rejoice when our use of church music becomes a true ministry of music.