There are times when I look at the traditional church and think to myself that they might be onto something…
Just think about how it works for us Lutherans: At the synodical level, a group of musicians, pastors and theologians come together to review hymns, approve them, catalog them by theme, scripture and season and assemble them into a hymnal, complete with a guide for which hymns to use on each Sunday of the church year. They do all the heavy lifting and now the local church music director has a large batch of appropriate hymns from which to choose – often as many as 800!
For those of us not primarily using hymns or the hymnal as our primary source of music, all that work gets moved to the desk of the local church music director. For those of you out there like me who are charged with finding good worship songs, here’s some pointers that I try to keep in mind.
1. Examine the Lyrics Alone First
Music is a tricky thing. Sometimes we can fall in love with a song and have no idea what it’s about! It’s not just a worship music thing either. Have ever looked at the lyrics of some pop songs? Some don’t even make sense if you really stop to think about them – they’re just there for the rhyme.
When I come across a song for the first time, I’ve gotten into the habit of looking at the lyrics alone before I hear the song. It’s really easy to fall in love with the harmonies or the melodic hook or the great chorus line. But the single most important part is the lyrics.
A church’s worship music is its sung theology. We learn through our songs almost as much as through sermons, so it’s critical that our music be theologically sound and the ideas and nuances presented in the song need to be correct. Properly doing this will mean two things: First, it requires a deep knowledge and understanding of your church’s theology, doctrines and understanding of scripture. Some songs have very subtle ideas in them that might not mesh with scripture or your church’s theology but that subtle idea could be teaching or proclaiming something you don’t believe or that isn’t true. Second, it takes a thorough examination of the lyrics – much more than just a cursory glance. Pick apart the ideas, themes and statements in the song. Do they agree with scripture? Do they fit with doctrine? This is an incredibly important step and one that is too easy to skip – especially if the song is one that’s seemingly common or widely used. Just because lots of churches are using a song doesn’t mean it has proper theology.
While you’re looking at the lyrics…
2. Consider What the Song Does
It bears stating that not every Christian song out there is or should be considered a worship song.
Songs for worship generally fall into one of two categories: either they fill a role in the service or they teach us something about God. Other Christian songs may be about life experiences or even elements of our Christian walk or struggles, but they aren’t worship songs. (Side note: there are certainly times to use non-worship songs during worship, such as to illustrate a point or setup a message. But as a song to be added to the rotation of songs for the congregation to sing, they don’t qualify)
Songs that fill a role in the service act as a part of the liturgy. The liturgy is simply the pattern of worship, but traditional liturgies contain important things like the Invocation, Confession of Sins and Confession of Faith among other things. In our “Non-liturgical” style of worship, we still incorporate elements of the liturgy in our service – just in the form of a song and not responsive readings.
Songs that teach us about God need to be grounded in scripture. Because of the way worship songs tend to be written, you may find that there are several ideas present in a song, with just a line or two about each idea.
» For more about choosing good lyrics, check out this post from a few years back.
3. Look at the Melody
Once you decide whether the lyrics and role of the song are appropriate, it’s time to give it a listen. When evaluating the musical side of the song, keep these things in mind:
- How difficult is the melody? Is it highly syncopated? Are there lots of wild jumps or crazy-long notes? If this is a song that the congregation is going to learn and sing, it needs to be singable. That might mean simplifying the song if that’s possible.
- Along with the difficulty, note how wide of range the melody spans. While a wide range might be interesting to listen to, the closer the two ends of spectrum are together the easier it will be for the congregation.
- Look at where the song sits on the musical scale. Congregations are comfortable with melodies that stay between B flat below middle C and D a tenth above that. It’s possible to briefly go beyond those limits but too far and it becomes difficult for many to sing. If the original key doesn’t work, change it.
What are your criteria for a worship song? Share your thoughts in the comments.