Last week’s post discussed ways to find potential new songs for you to use in worship. Today we will look at some tools to evaluate the songs you discover to see if they are useable in your church’s worship.
As you begin to select the songs that your church will sing, remember that people recall far more songs than they do Bible verses. If you were to poll the people in your church, I am sure you would find that most people can quote many more songs from memory than Bible verses. Because of this, we need to realize the enormity of the our responsibility to select quality songs that reflect good theology.
The Foundation of Evaluation
As you begin the process of selecting music to be a part of your church’s vocabulary of worship, seek the Holy Spirit’s direction and wisdom.
Evaluating the Lyrics
Next, take a careful look at the lyrics.*
- Are the lyrics biblically and doctrinally sound? Do the lyrics distinctively and accurately reflect Biblical language or ideas? Do they contain Scripture and/or scripturally inspired thoughts? Do the lyrics reflect sound theology and Christian practice? Note: there could be one line in the song than can disqualify the song from use.
- Are the lyrics spiritual and God-centered? Do the lyrics stimulate spiritual reflection and contemplation of truth? Do they induce genuine praise, thanksgiving, contrition and joy that is God-directed? Do they leave one delighting in God’s character and deeds or upon ourselves and/or worldly values? Worship must glorify God.
- Are the lyrics edifying and instructive? Do the lyrics enhance one’s understanding of truth? Do they bring helpful words of encouragement, admonishment and exhortation to godly Christian living?
- Are the lyrics clear and understandable? Do the lyrics clearly communicate the message in an understandable way? Is the message obscured by outdated language or overly popular language that will soon be outdated? Is there an enduring quality to the words chosen?
- Are the lyrics addressed to the heart and mind? Do the lyrics address the heart as well as the mind (i.e. songs that provoke proper affections of the heart as well as godly intellectual reflection)? Is there a balance between songs that are weighty and thought provoking (i.e. songs that focus on deep truths) as well as those that are simple (but not trivial), meditative, repetitive, and responsive in nature?
- Are the lyrics of the body of songs you are singing marked by variety? Do the lyrics reflect songs addressing God directly (first & second person) as well as those which speak about God (third person)? Do they focus on God’s character as well as His deeds? Do they reflect doctrine and theology (what we believe) as well as experience and practice (what we do)? Do they emphasize a corporate dimension (the church) as well as a personal dimension? Do they reflect the wide variety of responses of worship (i.e. contrition, thankfulness, joy, praise, peace, celebration, reflection, exaltation, etc…)? Is the variety of songs primarily devoted to God as the subject (rather than ourselves)? God is the focus of our worship.
- Additionally, are the words specifically Christian? Some song lyrics are so vague that they could be sung about any religion’s god. A popular Beetle’s song is one example:
My sweet Lord
I really want to know you
I really want to see you
My sweet Lord
These words were actually taken from former Beatle, George Harrison’s song My Sweet Lord, and were written while he was dabbling in Eastern mystical religions (later in the song, he replaces the “Hallelujah” with “Hare Krishna”).
Evaluating the Melody
- Is the melody singable and easy to learn? Does the song easy enough to learn and sing by the average person? The melody should be attainable by the “average” singer.
- Appropriate range of melody: A-D (Eb). (See previous post on this) This is one of the most ignored “rules” of worship. Ignoring this rule can gravely damage participation in worship. Worship leaders who are sopranos and tenors have to be particularly careful not to pitch songs too high!
- No difficult skips in the melody
- Not too syncopated
- Is the melody memorable? Does the music help one to remember the lyrics lodging its truth in the heart and mind?
- Is the melody a good marriage with the lyrics? Do the two go well together as an appropriate expression of the message or meaning of the song? Does the music lend itself to the spirit and content of lyrics for worshipping God rather than music for mere enjoyment? Does the melody hinder or enhance the message of the lyrics given the particular kind of emphasis (e.g. the mood – joyful, solemn, majestic, etc…)?
Other Considerations In Selecting Songs
- Does the song cause bad associations?
- Will the church be focusing on some specific topics or emphases soon that you will need music to reinforce?
- Are you selecting songs of different styles and tempi? Variety is important.
- Does your church need simplicity or complexity? Some churches can handle more complex music than others. Be aware of the needs of the church you serve.
- What is the skill level of your vocalists and instrumentalists? Do not select songs that are too difficult for your musicians to handle with excellence. Yes, you want to stretch them, but don’t have them use a song in worship that they cannot play well.
- What are the desires of your pastor? Your pastor may have some special requests. Be willing to follow his leadership in this area.
What are some filters you use in song selection?
*(Some of these criteria come largely from Pastor Scott Christensen’s document, How to Evaluate Songs for Congregational Worship. Summit Lake Community Church, Mancos, Colorado.)
Is anyone interested in expressing thoughts about the source of a song? i.e. The church or theological beliefs of the writer’s church? This has been brought to my attention as a worship ministry leader and I’m wondering how far this should go. If the song has theologically and biblically sound lyrics should I throw it out just because the songwriters attend a church that is departing from sound doctrine in fundamental areas (such as the deity of Christ)?
The argument has been made by singing these songs in church we are promoting and financially supporting these errant churches. Any thoughtful comments will be appreciated.
Thanks for your great questions and struggles. This post may help with your concerns: https://www.renewingworshipnc.org/can-we-sing-their-songs/
Understanding all the other criteria as givens, two stand out to me. The songs we sing need to be congregational, i.e. they need to have memorable melodies that are singable. And, second, the lyrics we sing need to retell the glory and grace of God – they need to start somewhere and go somewhere. These two are the hard work of songwriting. It’s easy to play chord progressions and repeat short phrases many times. This may create a mood but don’t, it seems to me, lift people into the presence of God. The gifts of the Spirit (like songwriting) don’t make ministry easy, they make the impossible possible. They deserve our diligent effort to glorify God the best we can.
Excellent set of guidelines!
In regard to the “specifically Christian” comment, I once heard it said, “If you can substitute “Pepsi” or “Buick” or “Peggy Sue” for “Jesus” and the lyrics still make sense, don’t use it.
I also appreciate what you said about the melody (and setting) being appropriate for the lyrics and for Christian Worship. The music by itself also sends a message. To quote Louis Armstrong, “You can say what you want to with a horn, but you gotta be careful with the words.”
And if Jesus is never mentioned? “reckless love”? 🙂
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”– Jesus, Luke 15
The words of Psalm 19:14 and Psalm 104:34 came to mind as I was reading this regarding the “meditation” of our hearts. What do we have in the background of our minds throughout the day? My wife would say that there is only a dull hum (like a long highway trip) in my mind as I go about my day… maybe sometimes 🙂 But seriously, the thoughtful, spirit-led choosing of songs can mean the difference of someone meditating on God or… not. For example, in 2010 I really connected with a song titled “While I’m Waiting” by John Waller. When I faced some challenges and was waiting on God’s leading on the next right step, I would recall the lyrics “while I’m waiting— I will serve You” and would meditate on that. We do tend to recall songs much easier than scripture… what if we just sang the whole Bible then… 🙂 Worship Him in all you do.
I think that’s a good list. This discussion turns into a harder hitting issue when we start calling out some popular songs and hymns that do not meet these criteria. Maybe another post? If not, I don’t blame you for not wanting to wade into those waters.
I’m a pastor with some experience in leading music as well, so this is a topic that I get excited about. Here are the five criteria I’ve given to our musicians at our church ,and told them that any song should meet at least three of them…
“God-centered” rather than “Us-centered”
Contains Biblical Languages and Themes vs. Extra-biblical language and Themes
Contains the Gospel vs. Doesn’t Contain the Gospel
Everyone Can Sing Comfortably vs. Clear Feminine Imagery
Produces Awe and Reverence of God vs. Feels Familiar and Casual