Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Choosing Worship Songs Well

As a volunteer worship leader at my church, it’s my job to pick new songs for our worship team to play and for our congregation to learn.  In the past we have set somewhat of a precedent of trying to learn and introduce one song to the congregation per month.  If all goes well, this of course means that we learn and introduce 12 new songs each year.  It doesn’t always go that way, however.  There are some months when the worship schedule is just too busy to be introducing a new song.  There are other months when we do introduce a new song, but it quickly becomes evident that the song will not work with our congregation for whatever reason.

Our worship team is having its usual meeting tonight to look at the schedule for the upcoming summer season, and this is the time when I usually roll out new songs for the team members to be thinking about and listening to, as we will gradually be introducing these songs into our repertoire.  It’s been more of a struggle this season than most for me to find good, quality worship songs for our team to sing/play.  I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian radio, so I don't get many ideas from there.  So when I go looking for new worship songs for our church, I usually frequent the CCLI list, songs that are trending on iTunes, and my old stand byes like Sovereign Grace Music.  Usually from these sources I can piece together some songs for us to do.  It's actually quite an involved process and I spend a lot of time on it.  

From time to time people have recommended songs to me that they suggest we sing in the worship service, but when I check them out it seems to me that they would not be conducive for corporate worship at our church.  How do I determine that?  In order for us to introduce a song to our congregation, a worship song has to meet four different standards.  Here they are, in brief:

1. Content.  Is the content of the song good?  Is it biblical?  Does it use the words of scripture as lyrics?  Are the lyrics God-centered?  This is the most important criteria, in my opinion.  If a song has good, theologically solid lyrics, I'm willing to give on the style of it for the sake of communicating the message of the song.  Plus the other elements of the song can be tweaked and changed to fit our congregation more, such as style, rhythm, speed, etc.  If I find a song with good lyrical content, chances are I'm going to try to use it in some way.  Unfortunately, these days in contemporary Christian music, songs with home run quality content are few and far between.  But there are some good exceptions, like this song we recently introduced. and groups like Sovereign Grace Music always make a point of ensuring that their songs have good, biblical, God-focused content.  Kudos to them.  The best words to use in order to sing about God, are God's own words.  The closer we can stick to the message of scripture in our singing, the better.

2. Corporate Appeal.  Does the song lend itself to being sung by 250 people at the same time?  This is important, because in my opinion it's not right for a group of people to be singing songs that were meant to be sung by an individual.  Moreover, there are many worship songs that talk about an individual's (the songwriter's) experiences.  Well, his experiences are not necessarily mine, or that of the other 250 people who attend my church.  I try to look for songs that can be sung meaningfully by the whole body of Christ, not just one member.  Furthermore, there are some songs with intricate melodies that a person could sing by himself or herself, but it would could not be done by a larger group.  I try to avoid these types of songs in corporate settings.  There are some songs with fantastic content, but because of the intricate melody, simply can't be sung by a congregation.  But beyond these reasons, there is a theological reason for choosing songs that can be sung by a congregation, and that is that we are the church.  We join together to sing praise to God and offer him our worship.  Worship leaders should be choosing songs that make singing in large groups as easy as possible so as to accommodate this reality.  

3. Staying Power.  Does the song have the potential to be sung by the church in a hundred years from now?  Think of your most-loved hymn.  Chances are it's at least 100 years old.  We should be looking for songs that we can sing today and a hundred years from now.  This doesn't mean that we never include songs that are more particular to a time or setting, but those are rarities.  Some songs are written in such a way that the time it was written in is very evident.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but when you sing that song it's going to take you back to the time when it was written, such as this song, or this song.  Just something to be aware of.  We want to shoot for songs that we can always be singing and using in worship, no matter the time or setting.  And why do some songs last longer than others?  I would argue it is because the truth they communicate is more clear, biblical, and timeless.  So we should not only be looking for songs that have stylistic staying power, but also songs with content that can stand the test of time (see point 1).

4. Quality.  What is the quality of the songwriting that went into the song?  This criteria is probably the most subjective of the four.  It's quite simple, really: there are some songs that are products of bad, unimaginative, and un-creative songwriting.  How do I know which songs those are?  Well, I guess I'm the judge of that, at least for my church.  I probably have a different standard than you do.  But for instance, I tend to think of songs that are made up of just one verse and one chorus as being bad quality.  Is it too much to ask to put in another verse?  Or if the chorus of a song is the same phrase or words just repeated over and over.  These are what's known as "7-11 Songs."  You sing the same seven words eleven times in a row.  For example, I know two year old children who could write a better chorus than the one in this song.  We can do better.  We can write good and deep songs, and lots of them, because God gave us brains and talents to use in this process.  We do him and ourselves a disservice when we don't engage our God-given talents, abilities, and brains in the process of creating worship music.  

So there you have it, in brief.  Those are the four things I'm looking for when I look at new songs.  And to be fair, songs will meet these criteria to varying degrees.  Some songs are home runs, and some songs are stand-up doubles.

You might notice that none of my criteria include any notes about the style of worship songs.  That's because I don't really care too much about style.  The way I see it, if a song fits these criteria, then we can work with the style.  Plus style is such a fluid thing that changes all the time.  It would be foolish to judge a worship song on its musical style, and a song would never pass the test of having staying power if it were judged by itse musical style.  Plus the body is made up of all different kinds of people with all different kinds of taste.  A change in style is probably for the better most times.  That doesn't mean I'm insensitive to stylistic preferences, but to me it is of secondary importance.

It dawned on me that I don't think I've ever shared this process with anyone before, and there are undoubtedly people wondering how I make decisions about which songs to sing in worship, and even some who think that I'm terrible at selecting worship songs.  Well, for better or for worse, you can at least take comfort in the fact that I'm not just arbitrarily coming up with whatever strikes my fancy.  In fact, a lot of times we're doing songs that absolutely do not strike my fancy, but because I think they would be beneficial to the body of the church, we do them.  After all, it's not about me and what I like.  It's about what God likes.  And whatever I can do to lead the congregation toward pleasing God as a group on Sunday mornings is what I'm going to do.  

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