Worship Leader: You Shouldn’t Play that Song

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A few months ago, I spent some time with another worship leader here in Grand Rapids evaluating our worship song libraries. I revamped my library in Planning Center a couple years ago, but it was due for a revision. There were categories were missing, categories that needed to be split up, and songs that needed to be reevaluated.

I recently read through Constance Cherry’s “Selecting Songs for Worship” and used some of her criteria to come up with categories. I use the categories not only to find songs in the library each week, but to evaluate songs as they’re added and to evaluate the library as a whole. It allows me to see where the library is strong, where it’s weak, and where there are holes because our worship songs teach us a lot about God and we need to make sure they’re teaching the right things.

Our worship songs teach us a lot about God and we need to make sure they're teaching the right things. Click To Tweet

In traditional churches that use hymnals – especially denominational hymnals – you can be sure that the content of the hymnal covers many important areas of doctrine and has hymns that contain doctrine distinct to your particular denomination. As a worship leader in that style of church, you need only to select from that body of music.

But with modern church music, there’s more of a challenge. The worship leader has more work to do and has an important role in the spiritual life of the church because the songs that they choose for the congregation to sing teach them a lot of theology!

I’m a firm believer that worship leaders need to be students of theology. If you don’t know deeply what your church believes you can end up either choosing songs that are shallow or theologically weak or worse yet selecting songs that are contrary to your theology. In many denominations and circles, there’s already a disdain for “contemporary*” music. Let’s not give them any more fuel by doing our job poorly! 

Not every Christian song is fit for worship, and not every worship song should be sung in your church. Click To Tweet

Not every Christian song is fit for worship, and not every worship song should be sung in your church. There are many that conflict with your church’s theology and you’ll need to have a way to recognize and identify which ones can and can’t be used.

There are lots of different ways to learn and grow in your own understanding of theology:

  • Talking with your pastor regularly should be your first step. The more you’re on the same page, the stronger your worship services will be.
  • Get some basic books about theology. There’s a catch here, though: make sure you get some resources that reflect your church’s theology. As a Lutheran, picking up a copy of the Episcopal church’s catechism isn’t going to help me understand my church’s theology. Check out your denomination’s resources or talk to your pastor – he’s pretty helpful! (If you’re interested in the books that I recommend for a Lutheran perspective, let me know in the comments.)
  • Look at what the other side is saying. In a church with a liturgical history, such as the Lutheran church, there are more than a few who are not fully supportive of “contemporary*” worship. Rather than tuning them out, take time to learn what their concerns are. Chances are, you might share their concerns too. For instance, one of the complaints I hear frequently is that “all contemporary worship is happy-clappy fluff. There’s no substance to it. It just makes people feel good and that’s why they like it.” That’s a concern that I can get on board with. While I would argue that not all modern songs are like that, there are more than a few that are. But there are also lots of songs that have a depth of theology that rivals classic hymns too. It’s possible to have modern worship and theological depth. It just takes some effort.

As you grow in your understanding of your church’s theology, it also helps to know the theology of the songwriters behind the music you sing. Not that it needs to rule them out or exclude their songs, but it can help you know what to look out for in songs that might not reflect your church’s theology. As a Lutheran, I need to watch out for songs that reflect an Armenian or “decision theology” (references to “I have decided to follow Jesus.”) for example.

Looking at the CCLI list of top songs right now, the denominations of the writers behind them are quite varied:

  • Church of England: Matt Redman; Tim Hughes
  • Assembly of God: Hillsong (Jonas Myrin; Jason Ingram; Ruben Morgan; Ben Fielding; Joel Houston)
  • Vineyard: Jeremy Riddle; Brenton Brown
  • Baptist: Christy Nockles
  • Catholic: Matt Maher
  • Non-Denominational/Evangelical: Kristian Stanfill; Keith Getty; Stuart Townend

If you know what you believe and have an understanding of what other denominations believe, it will help you to select songs that fit your church’s theology and strengthen your congregation’s understanding of God and faith.

Our song library is strong in songs that teach about aspects of who God is (Trinity/Power/Holiness/Mercy/Love/His Name/etc), the death and resurrection of Christ, and that have to do with salvation/justification/grace/faith. Where we are weaker is songs that relate to our baptismal identity or our life in Christ. Now I’ve got my sights set on songs to fill the gaps that are missing!

How about you? Have you taken a look at your song library’s theology lately? What topics are strong or weak in your library?

*Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of the term “contemporary” worship and instead prefer the term “modern worship.” For some background on why, read this

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

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