Some years ago, I attended a worship music conference and was struck by a statement one of the seminar presenters made about song choice and song repertoire. He said,
Much like a preacher who sees his job as bringing out the diamond (the Scriptures) each week and then turning it so that his audience can see the different beautiful facets it contains, so we as music leaders in the church should do the same…
I find this statement incredibly helpful and very challenging.
Just as a preacher bears responsibility to teach the multifaceted glory of God, we too as music leaders bear responsibility to do the same. Because music ministry is a ministry of the Word (Eph 5:19, Col. 3:16), we are responsible to serve our congregation well through diverse and well-chosen selections of songs – a balanced diet, if you will to help them grow in knowledge, discipleship, faith, adoration, and proclamation.
It is not enough to simply learn popular songs from Christian radio, or scan the CCLI ‘Top 100’ list. Song popularity does not equal “beneficial to the health and growth of the church”, and sometimes a song with dodgy theology can ingrain in church members an inaccurate view of God. Whether paid staff with the luxury of time to peruse music, or as a volunteer seeking to serve well – we need to embrace our calling as so much more than ‘song leaders.’
What criterion should we consider?
Songs that accurately represent the God who has revealed Himself in the Scriptures & the Gospel, and songs which do not contradict His Word. Content over Coolness. (Psalm 145:18)
- Varied Biblical themes
Are you helping your congregation respond and prepare Biblically for every season of life? When the walls cave in and the floor drops out, or when life threatening persecution does come, will they sing of God’s faithfulness (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
Does your song repertoire include songs of:
- Desperate Longing
- Consecration / Dedication
- To God, About God, and Testimony/Witness
– Do you sing mainly songs to God?
– Do most of your songs only sing about God?
– Do any of your songs come from a place of individual or corporate testimony?
The Bible includes songs that hit all of the above
- Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Eph., 5:19 & Col. 3:16)
Dig into the meanings of how these were defined in the first century, and then form your opinion of what should be sung, rather than assume ‘hymns’ simply means any European church song during the 16th – 18th century.
- Lyrically Simple & Lyrically Rich
The book of Psalms includes #117, #119, and various lengths in-between. Don’t simply craft your services and song based upon your preferences.
Remember that while worship songs, in part, help us know God and build the church and our faith, they are not simply didactic lessons set to music. David’s songs are mixtures of heart-cry and head knowledge.
- Musical diversity
Yes, this gets tricky – but do look for songs that, while still being easily singable, don’t just conform to 4 chords in a 4/4 rhythm.
Do you have songs that are exuberant as well as songs that are contemplative? Not everything has to be above 120 bpm, nor below 70 bpm.
This one is critical. Our role is to enable the congregation to sing fully. The voice of the congregation is the aim – not how great your vocal chops are or how the sick guitar riff is easier in the key of E. As a general rule of thumb, songs should not stray for too long past D above middle C for most congregations. Otherwise, you reinforce passive observation rather than active participation
Not every song of a person of faith is “happy” or “sunny.” Seek strong songs in minor keys to expand your song list to accompany the difficult times of life
- Number of Songs
This takes discernment over time, but the goal is that you’re singing your repertoire of songs often enough that your congregation know them well enough to sing fully, but not so often that they are bored with only the same handful of songs. The goal is heart-engaged worship, not gigging the latest song weekly or sending your people into lacklustre auto-pilot. I think somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60-80 strikes that blend. Also, re-evalute your songs list yearly and shelve any songs that seem to have run their course.
- A Blend of New & Historic
“Sing a new song to the Lord!” is not just about singing a different one to the song of life you used to sing. Every generation raises its voice with new songs, because though our God is the ancient of days, because He is eternal, He is never wearing out, wearing down. He is as omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent as ever.
Look for new songs that are easily singable and full of Biblical truth – they do exist! Groups like Sovereign Grace Ministries and City Alight and Emu Music and many others are leading the way in this. Also, Music Ministry UK frequently updates a Spotify song playlist to feature some great new songs.
Yes, seek new songs that will be beneficial to your congregation, but don’t completely discard historic songs of the faith.
And mine old hymnals for great songs that will be ‘new’ to your congregation! They are rich and powerful and help root us in the heritage we come from.
A word of caution: There are some really wonderful ‘refreshed hymns’ out there, bringing them musically into the 21st century without changing the tune of the song. But there are also some real clonkers out there as well.
As an example – when we first moved to the UK I was delighted to see the hymn “May the Mind of Christ My Saviour” listed in the morning worship programme, but when led with a melody and tune written in 1994 I was totally lost. Different can, sometimes be helpful – but this tune is incredibly difficult to catch on to and felt a bit schizophrenic with its ping-ponging melody and held notes/words in odd places.
Is this a tall order? Yes! But we have been tasked with a sacred trust – leading the people of God together in the worship of God in His presence.
Serve. the. congregation.
A friend of mine frequently quotes another pastor and says, “Jesus said, ‘feed my sheep’, not ‘experiment on my rats.’”
Turn the diamond.