If there is any part of our worship service that holds the power to bring people together or tear them apart, it’s music. Sometimes it seems like people care less about the type of message they hear than the genre of the songs that are sung. It shouldn’t be that way, by the way.
There is a plethora of “Christian” songs that are available for the general public to listen and learn these days. Not all are appropriate for corporate worship. Because our family is musical and has frequent opportunities to minister to churches through music, as well as lead worship, we have to stop and consider what qualifies as good. So how can we determine which songs are appropriate, and should we be sensitive to the fact that some perfectly wonderful songs could become a tool for divisiveness in our assemblies? On the flip side, how can we help bring people into agreement with the songs we sing? These are some that come to mind:
Are the words Biblical? Are they true? If they are not true, then the song is not appropriate. We should listen to the lyrics of our songs to pull out the message. Can you find a scriptural basis for the song? If not, it might not be “service safe”. If the scriptural basis is evident, then that song is teaching a biblical message and it can be a wonderful addition to the congregation’s repertoire.
Is the music appropriate? This can depend on the corporate setting. I really like the song, Freedom, by Jesus Culture. It is wonderful for the worship events held at camp where the younger generations come out to enjoy a couple hours of singing and praising. They love it; but, I would not introduce that song in the country church full of older members… they might ask me if I want a disco ball and flashing lights to go with it.
Is the song easy to follow? What I mean is, is the music simple enough to follow? In an age where much of our worship music is radio music, there are a lot of songs that cater to performers. We need to remember that we are not in church to perform, but to praise God together. The average worshiper is not into difficult vocals. Most of the trills and frills need to be saved for another setting, and keep songs simple enough for everyone to feel comfortable participating.
Can people understand the words? This may seem like a strange thing to throw in, but corporate worship is not only a way to praise, but to teach. I hope there are children in the sanctuary, participating in singing with their families. Some songs, particularly hymns, use big words and some old words. In order for children (and maybe some adults) to benefit from the music, we may have to explain what some of these songs mean, and that’s okay. My daughter recently gave a guitar lesson to a girl who had heard her lead the hymn, “Up From the Grave He Arose.” This girl wanted to learn to play this hymn, but she didn’t know all of the words. “What does foe mean?” she asked. They had a great conversation about how Jesus, when he rose from the dead, triumphed over all of his enemies.
Contemporary versus hymns. This is such a touchy subject, it breaks my heart. I’ve seen worship leaders thrown under the bus and churches split over this simple controversy. People relate to music. That is why it is so powerful. Hear a familiar song and it can unleash old emotions and memories as though they were fresh. Every generation has its favorites, and yet, we are called to be one body and worship in love and unity. I think if we get down to it, it is more about familiarity than one genre.
I grew up in the south, attending church where you couldn’t use instrumentation. Back then we only had hymns, but if you brought in a piano, everyone would button their lips. When I moved north, hymns still made up the majority of the songs sung in church, but strange thing… I didn’t know 90% of them. Imagine that? Twenty something years of singing hymns, you’d think I would know them all, right? 🙂 I guess congregations or regions have their favorites.
It was frustrating to not know any of the songs, I admit it. It’s not the same to have to read every word and sight read the music to follow along. Were the songs any less scriptural? No. Were they any less worshipful because I didn’t know them? No; not unless my heart was in the wrong place. Why was I singing? For my own gratification or for the Lord? It probably took me 2 years to become well acquainted with all of the hymns sung in our up north church, and for them to take on more personal meaning, but eventually I got there. And when they introduced something new, I sang along until I learned that too. We also read, as a congregation, a book called “Who Stole My Church”, which covered the history of church music over the past few centuries. Apparently, there has always been resistance to something new. If you struggle with it, I recommend the book.
We are living in a unique time. For the older folks to sing along with contemporary music, they have to be willing to learn something new. And for the younger generation to meet them half way, they also will need to put some effort into learning some hymns because most of them have not grown up with them, and contemporized hymns don’t make the cut for our older generation. But if we are committed to loving each other deeply, as Peter tells us, we should be willing to meet half way.
When our family ministers at churches that are mostly comprised of the older generation, we go heavy on hymns and light on contemporary. When we minister to younger congregations, we may do all contemporary. And if it is a mixed congregation, we do some of both. It works well. People appreciate you meeting them where they are.
There are things we can do to Draw People In.
- How often have you sung a song over and over because the tune is snappy, and yet, never connected with the intent of the words? When there is obvious scriptural foundation for a song, sharing the scripture and tying it together with the lyrics can help people connect with the message so that the song develops greater personal meaning.
- Reading the lyrics before singing it; putting emphasis on the motive of the song can help people experience those head-heart connections.
- Some songs warrant explanation. For example, the song, “Holy Spirit, You are Welcome Here,” says:
Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord
If your congregation has a lot of children and new believers, it may be helpful to explain that Holy Spirit is always with God’s children. We don’t have to invite Him in order for Him to be present. If we are together, He is there; but, this song is expressing our desire for Him to know how much we love Him and desire for Him to influence our hearts and our worship.
- Some congregations ask a member, monthly, to share one of their favorite songs and why it is so meaningful to them. Then they sing it as a congregation. I love this idea. Again, it pulls people into worship, sometimes giving fresh insight into music; but, it also draws our members together because we get to know one-another’s stories and relate to each other on a more personal level. “I needed to hear that today,” is a common response.
- Along those same lines, sharing who wrote a song and why can also compel people to worship because we relate.
- Weaving songs together in a specific order for the purpose of developing a particular theme or message can bring people’s hearts along, especially when scripture and prayer are involved.
- Songs can be spring boards for targeted prayer. Songs of praise can lead to prayers of praise, songs of petition can lead to prayers of petition, songs of repentance can lead to prayers of repentance, and songs can become private prayers in the heart of the one singing–privately to the Lord–in the midst of a corporate gathering.
The best thing to remember when choosing music and participating in corporate song? It’s not about us, even though we benefit from worship. It is what we were designed to do. We all worship something, and that’s really the point. What is our emphasis on?
It’s all about HIM.
Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95:1-7, ESV