About once a week I get an email, or an offhand conversation after church, or a text message along the lines of: “Have you heard this song _______? I think we should do it next Sunday.” Which is awesome because it means that people care about what we’re doing Sunday morning! I’ve decided to share my process for picking tunes to sing.
Prayerfully – This is the only place to start and here’s how it looks practically:
I listen to a lot of and learn a ton of music for our church (from stuff I discover on my own, suggestions from the congregation, the radio) but before I pick anything I spend time praying through scripture, asking the Spirit to soften my heart and tastes. In the midst of my listening and practicing I’m praying for God’s direction.
Pastorally – If it doesn’t connect to God’s people, it’s won’t work.
Below you’ll see a lot of criteria for how I sift through songs but if a song fits all of those criteria and doesn’t work for the congregation I’ll toss it to my “Potential Songs.” Here’s how I determine if a song will conncet with the congregation – and it’s not a guarantee that it will, I won’t know that until I introduce the song:
1) Can the congregation sing it? Is the genre appropriate? Is this good for our musical diet? Some songs have difficult melodies and harmonies that would be too dificult to sing together. This could be because they’re stylistically unfamiliar, or the range of the song is too difficult. Genre is important because if musically the church loves hip-hop than a folk tune probably won’t land. But, on the flipside, it’s important for our worship “diet” to be well-balanced. We need to be stretched musically to understand that our tastes do not determine the quality of our worship. The quality of our worship is exclusively on the quality of our God. And when taste becomes our god than the quality of our worship is poor.
2) What is the congregation experiencing currently? What are our greatest needs? Our personal experiences are not lived in a vacuum. So, by talking to folks and praying with people I keep a pulse on what God is doing among us. For example, as we were moving to a new location I was picking songs that pointed to God’s faithfulness – by singing our anthems from the past to remind of us God’s previous faithfulness and by singing songs that point to His continuing faithfulness. When many people have ailments – both serious and not – I’ll pick songs pointing to God bearing our burden. If the church is a time of great joy we sing songs expressing that.
3) Where is God leading us? How is God wanting to grow us? What does He want to remind us of? This gets determined through prayer, scripture studying, and following the pastors’ leads. It is my pleasure to work for an awesome group of pastors who prayerfully consider what God is doing in our midst and plan our yearly focus (2014: “The Year of Jesus,” 2015: “The Year of Faith…”), our sermon schedule, our vision and mission. My job is to choose songs that compliment what we’re doing as a church. As this year is “The Year of Faith” I realize that what strengthens our faith is beholding God, prayer, and the scriptures. So the songs I’m choosing this year tend to be based on the action of looking to God, or based on the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms.
Theologically – Is what we sing true?
1) Does this song say accurate things about God? Is it clear, precise? There are objective truths about God, immutable truths about God. Which dictates that there are objective untruths about God. It is my responsibility to make sure the songs we sing are truths about God, and not untruths. But more often than not if a song is theologically fuzzy it’s because poetry has outclassed truth. I love poetry. I write it. I read it. I study it. Poetry is my bag, yo. But sometimes our metaphors confuse truth instead of illuminate it. So, in choosing songs I check on how clear and precise a song articulates truth.
2) Is it horizontal or vertical? Are we balanced? In a lot of contemporary praise and worship music we have a horizontal focus. Songs about us, with a dash of spirituality for good measure. Songs about how well we worship, or benefit from worship, or about our actions in worship. I’m convicted in my belief that our worship should focus vertically to God and the cross. Before I swing the pendulum too far though – the psalmists often talk abou their predicament, their action in worship, etc. The Psalms often work from this pattern: God – Man – God. I choose songs to keep a horizontal/vertical balance of seeking God first, God speaking into our situation – not our situation speaking to God, and us submitting to what God would have us submit to.
3) Is it Gospel-centered? The progression of our worship – each included song and prayer – should effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ clearly.
Liturgically – Do the songs fit the shape of the service?
Our service has a certain shape and there are elements I try and make sure we hit. If I have too many songs about God’s Glory than I’ll probably avoid choosing another one, if there are too few songs about Confession I’ll gravitate in that direction. I’ve already written extensively about liturgy and you should check out that series for more indepth conversations.
Tommy Welty – What We Talk About When We Talk About Worship
- Part One – Worship’s Formula
- Part Two – The Elements of Worship
- Part Three – Scriptural Response
- Part Four – Why Worship Has a Form
Zac Hicks – How I Choose Songs for Corporate Worship
Aaron Niequist – Liturgy is Not a Style, but a Feast
New Songs at New Song Inland Hills