Songs for Worship: How Do We Filter New Songs for Our Setting?
Last week, I discussed how to begin your search for the best new songs to introduce to your congregation by discovering the possibilities as we look at a number of key sources. This week and next week, I will begin to discuss filters to determine if the song is right for your congregation. The songs we have our congregation sing influence their understanding of God and will form much of their theology. We are discipling our congregations through the music we select, so we must guard our song selection by choosing appropriate songs. See also the post, You Are a Theologian.
The majority of the content of the next three sections comes from the writing of Pastor Scott Christiansen of Kerrville Bible Church in Kerrville, TX. When I discovered his evaluative tool, I felt it was the best I had seen to determine the worthiness of songs to use with our congregations. I have used these writings with permission.
Evaluating the Lyrics Of Each Song
First, look carefully at the lyrics of the song you are considering. Answer these questions:
Objective Criteria: Lyrics – Where Biblical principles must control the content of the words (John 17:17)
- 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 that 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? Does it leave one delighting in God’s character and deeds or upon ourselves and/ or worldly values? Worship must glorify God.
- 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 Is the message obscured by outdated language or overly popular language that will soon be outdated?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?
- Additionally, are the words specifically Christian? Some song lyrics are so vague that they could be sung about any religion’s god.
In addition, if you are not the senior pastor, I would ask the senior pastor to sign off on any new song to make sure he confirms the usability of the song.
Evaluating the Music Of Each Song
Subjective Criteria: Music – Where personal preferences must be guided by Biblical principles (Phil. 4:8):
- Is it wholesome? Does the musical style reflect worldly values or that which can be distinctively identified with historic standards of artistic truth, dignity and beauty?
- Is it excellent and creative? Does the music meet standards of excellence? Does it have a well-crafted form with a good melody, harmony and rhythm? Is it original and artistic, rather than formulaic or trite? God is glorified by giving Him our best. However, our goal is not perfectionism but God’s honor. Furthermore, worship is not mere conformance to some external standard but must come from the heart (Mark 7:6-7).
- Is it memorable and singable? Does the song have a memorable tune? Does the music help one to remember the lyrics lodging its truth in the heart and mind? Does the song lend itself to the average person to learn and sing? Does it have a reasonable melody and rhythm that allows for easy congregational singing or can be adapted for such? Is the vocal range within acceptable limits for most people to sing (see below for more on this)? Congregational singing should not require professional abilities.
- Is it compatible? Does the music fit 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 that is distinct from music for mere enjoyment? Does the music hinder or enhance the message of the lyrics given the particular kind of emphasis (e.g. the mood – joyful, solemn, majestic, etc…)?
Evaluating Your Body of Songs (on Your Song list)
In addition to having songs with great lyrics and appropriate music, we need to utilize a variety of songs in worship. Look at the songs on your song list and consider these points:
- Are the lyrics of the songs addressed to the heart and 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 (e.g. note Psa. 136) and responsive in nature?
- Are the lyrics marked by variety? Do the lyrics reflect a balance in emphasis (cf. Eph. 5:19 & Col. 3:16 – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs)? Do they 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.
- Are the songs stylistically balanced? Does the music reflect a balance and variety of different styles (cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) and instruments (cf. Psa. 150) that communicate to a broad range of tastes and aesthetics (e.g. older as well as newer) while retaining wholesome and excellent values? Is there a balance between historic hymns and songs as well as contemporary choruses and musical styles? Is there an appreciation and utilization of the wide variety of aesthetic expressions and creative abilities God has endowed us with? Personal preference should not be elevated to the status of a Biblical principle, thus promoting legalism. Scripture nowhere commands a particular musical style (Mark 7:8-9, 13). Believers should respect and defer to the tastes and preferences of others and not seek merely their own (Phil. 2:3-4).
More on Key Range
Here’s the bottom line. The sweet range of the average voice is the octave C to C–seek to pitch songs with an octave range in this zone. Select keys for songs that have the lowest note the congregation will sing at an A. The highest note should be a D (or occasional Eb). The average person will struggle with E and above. (This is such an important concept that I have participants in my worship conferences to raise their right hands and pledge that they will never again lead the congregation in inappropriate keys!) If parts of the song stay at the high end of that range for a lengthy period, it will tire voices fast, so those songs need lower-key considerations if the lowest note in the range is in acceptable limits.
This is such a serious issue, that I will devote next week’s post to exploring this in depth.
Can We Sing Songs From Questionable Sources?
I hear this question quite often. People feel we should not sing songs from this writer or that church because they do not agree with something that is represented by the writer or the church. I have heard it said that King David was an adulterer and set up someone to be murdered, yet we still use his Psalms in worship. I believe the best treatment of this question comes from my friend Mike Harland that I published earlier.
Can We Sing “Their” Songs?
by Mike Harland
This is a complicated question with a simple answer. Restated, the question is, “Can we sing songs written by someone that believes differently than we do?”
The question is all too common these days. A powerful, amazing song is written, and we love it! It is Biblical and teaches something we want our people to know. We want to sing it and can’t wait for our church to sing it. Then, we do our research and discover that they wrote it. Oh, no!
My opinion? Sing it. Here’s why –
ALL TRUTH IS GOD’S TRUTH.
If a song says something that is Biblically true it is not because the writer received some kind of revelation of truth now captured in a song. It is because the truth of the song was settled by God Himself and was true before the song was written and will be true after it is forgotten. Truth is eternal and the songs we sing in worship should bear the markers of His truth. The truth they express should never be attributed to a human author as if the writer came up with it. If a song is true, then God is the One who made it true.
THIS IS THE SLIPPERIEST OF ALL SLOPES.
If you think about it just a minute, you will quickly see how slippery this slope really is. I will resist naming names here, but if we started making a blacklist of compositions we can’t sing because of the theology of the composer, it would be shocking how much of our hymnal we would lose, not to mention masterworks and standards of choral literature. If we applied that same criteria to the great books and sermons we love to cite, our pastors would struggle to find very many source quotes for their sermons. God uses all kinds of people to instruct us. And, just because a person is wrong on one point, doesn’t mean they can’t be trusted with any other point. I’ve made a few subtle theological shifts in my life as any disciple growing in Biblical knowledge would – that doesn’t mean that every song I wrote when I was younger should be tossed out. (Granted, a lot of them should be tossed, but for other reasons, like they weren’t very good… )
IT DEFLECTS FROM WHAT REALLY MATTERS.
If the theology of the ministry that supports the writer is a concern, then by all means, look even closer at the theology of the song. But, if the song expresses Biblical truth, then the most important step is still ahead. What the writer meant when he wrote it is interesting to know, but what the singer means when he or she sings it is absolutely critical. You can make application of a song in any context and apply an understanding of it to your congregation. Instead of pondering what the writer was doing, focus on what you are saying when you sing it.
That’s the part God is measuring. God will not hold us responsible for what they believe and teach. But He will hold us responsible for what we believe and teach when we sing it.
One more thought — don’t die on this hill. There is not a single writing team in the world that, if your leaders asked you not to sing their songs, would result in the collapse of your ministry. Pursue unity and understanding on this question and take care of your flock at all costs.
Approach this subject with humility. Be careful what you criticize. Shepherd your people well.
Check back next week as I dive into the right keys to sing congregational songs and why this is so important. This will be the most comprehensive treatment of this I have published to date. Stay tuned!
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Information about this series
- How do we find the BEST songs in a pool of hundreds of news songs?
- How do we filter possible songs to see if they are suitable for our congregation, knowing that every congregation has its unique DNA?
- How do we introduce new songs in a way that will capture the hearts of our people and help them adopt the song as their own expression of worship?
- Why is the original, artist version of a song usually not a good idea for our congregation?
- How many songs should be on rotation in our church–i.e. how many songs should be on our song list from which we plan worship?
- How do we help our congregations REALLY sing the songs (active participants) in worship rather than be spectators?
- What does the song repertoire look like in a church that seeks to be unified/multigenerational?
There is so much to unpack here, but I invite you to journey with me as we sincerely seek to be the best worship leaders we can be in helping our congregations truly worship.