Choosing great worship songs can be a major hurdle for worship leaders. When I’ve worked with churches who are just branching into “contemporary” worship, or worship leaders who are just starting out, the missing ingredient is often a consistent worship identity. And a lot of that comes down to song choice.
Turns out not every Contemporary Christian Music song is appropriate in worship, he said with a more jaded tone than was necessary.
I’ve learned to go through a checklist when choosing worship songs. Next time you head to Spotify to find your next new song, see if you can tick these boxes:
1. Does the song mention God? (Yes I’m asking this)
In the great expanse of albums created by Hillsong-esque megachurch bands, here and there you may find a catchy bop that sounds like a worship song, but doesn’t actually mention God. Or maybe you’ll find a song that implies God, or is inspirational or thought-provoking.
None of these things are bad, and maybe they can be used during other parts of the service, like Offering or Prelude. Or maybe they need to be introduced differently. Our main goal here is to worship God, so our songs should be clear about who we’re singing to. On that note:
2. Are you singing TO or ABOUT God?
I’m about to give a steaming hot take, as someone who works in a Lutheran Church: Borning Cry is not an appropriate song to sing in worship.
Here’s my reasoning. Borning Cry is truly a Lutheran classic and meaningful to many people (so much so that it’s sung wherever possible — baptisms, first communion, confirmation, weddings, potlucks, funerals…it’s like Lutheran Sriracha; it goes with everything), but it’s sung from the perspective of God.
Worship is our response to God’s love and faithfulness, so our songs should be exactly that: to God, from us. Songs like Borning Cry create a weird worship dynamic, where we’re singing to God, as God, to…ourselves? See what I mean?
Songs like this are great during Offering, or in the Special Music spot, if your church has that. As a worship song, though? Nope.
3. Is the song relatable?
This is the rule that causes me to nix the most songs. For my example, let’s use MercyMe’s Word of God Speak, which isn’t commonly used in worship nowadays (I want to tread lightly after messing with Borning Cry!):
“I’m finding myself
at a loss for words
and the funny thing is, it’s okay”
There may be some people in your congregation who, at that very moment, are literally finding themselves at a loss for words and feeling okay with it. I’m willing to bet most aren’t, though.
Our worship songs should be accessible to as many people as possible, so no one’s left thinking “This does not apply to me”.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to what assumptions the song makes. This doesn’t happen often anymore, but some songs will assume the singer is male. Be Thou My Vision sometimes includes the line “thou my true Father and I thy true son.”
Maybe you can play it that way at your church’s Men’s Retreat. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to rewrite — or toss out — a song that is not relatable to your congregation.
While you’re at it, check out my post De-gendering God: How Inclusive Language Revolutionizes Worship.
4. Is the song teachable?
It doesn’t matter how cool the song is. If your congregation can’t sing along to the chorus the very first time they hear it, it’s probably not worth bringing to worship.
When you listen to a song, pay attention to see if you’re able to catch on to the chorus right away. If you can’t do it, your congregation is going to struggle.
5. Is the song playable?
This is for the worship band whose stage setup doesn’t include three MacBooks.
A lot of new music out there — especially songs by the Hillsong-esque megachurches — have band setups that don’t look like a typical five-piece worship band. A song that sounds easy when you’re listening to it may be more difficult when played by your band. Play through it on your own and see if it translates.
For example, So Will I (100 billion x), which is a great song that mentions evolution as a way that creation praises God (!!!), has a repetitive rhythm that becomes nuanced and enhanced by complex electronic instrumentation. When it’s played by a five-piece band, however, it’s really easy for the song to plateau. For a six-minute song, that’s agony for everyone involved. That’s why we have to pay attention to dynamics and rhythms, so it works great with our bands.
COMING SOON: Progressive Worship Spotlight: So Will I (100 Billion x), in which I show you the solution I came up with for this very problem!
6. Is the song liberating in some way?
It’s time for this to be front-of-mind when we’re choosing songs. Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us forward — our songs should reflect that.
Does the song have patriarchal language? Does the song have violent language, or a wrathful God? Does the song shame your worshipers, using “total depravity” language? Does your song equate “white” with being good, and “black” with being bad? Think about such things.
Our worship music should always contribute to the liberation and spiritual growth of our churches. If we have an emotional worship experience, but don’t become more like Christ in the process, what’s the point? Be bold in your commitment to representing the gospel of Jesus in your worship music, and equally bold in your willingness to abandon a catchy song with regressive theology.
Friends, your worship will be richer and more powerful and more meaningful the more intention you put into your song choices. May you be blessed as you choose new songs to lead your congregations in worship.