**Warning: Lengthy Read, but well worth it.**
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.”
In recent years…well…actually, for the better part of a century many people have been discussing within the church and asking the question, “What is a ‘good’ worship song?” It is not a new or novel idea for this generation or this time period. However, it seems that in our post-post-modern culture many more people have become vocal, and at times “non-Christian” in their efforts to defend their personal beliefs, or rather, their personal preferences for what should be considered “good” in congregational worship.
Many still claim that “hymns” are the only thing we should be singing as a congregation. I do agree (sarcasm inserted) because the very definition of the word hymn is a religious song or poem of praise to God. By all means, when the church gathers, we should sing songs of praise to God!! Yet, what these people are more likely referring to are songs set in stanzaic form sometimes to include a repeating refrain, and most likely canonized into a collection in book form which has been entitled “Hymnal.” Are they correct and is their argument valid?
Others claim we should be singing only new songs written in the last few years, explaining their reasoning as being culturally and generationally relevant. I agree (sarcasm inserted, again) because it is clear that Psalm 149:1 says, “sing unto the Lord a new song.” What this squad is really saying is that the newer the song, the more likely it is to not sound “old” and therefore the poetic nature, chord structure, and melodic phrasing will reach a younger generation, and allow for the continuation of future generations singing God’s praises. Are they correct and is their argument valid?
I conjecture that both arguments are wrong. I believe that both arguments have fallacies and there is and only will be one way to determine the sustainability and “goodness” of a song for congregational worship. You see, style doesn’t matter–if it did, the remote tribes of South America are singing songs that are not “good.” Tempo doesn’t matter–if it did, then the rural American churches that are struggling to find any instrumentalists and has to sing a cappella are sing songs that are not “good.” Instrumentation doesn’t matter for the aforementioned reason and because the churches in Africa are using handmade artifacts created from bottle caps, collected on the side of the road. Newness and oldness doesn’t matter, because every song was once new and will become old. There is only one thing that matters in the selection of a “good” song: LYRICS! What are the lyrics saying? What are the lyrics allowing congregations to collectively say about the nature, character, and person of God, and our redemption in light fo the Gospel.
“Historically, it’s the hymnody of the church that has, alongside preaching, been one of the most powerful means by which a church is taught.”
Now, hear me out, there will be songs that have melodies that are more singable in the local church. There will be chords that are more associated with a geographical region and are more suited for allowing a congregation to sing with excitement. There will be rhythmic natures of songs that are more adaptable to a particular people, or people group. (All of those things are where a worship leader has to constantly put aside personal preferences and fads and pray to the Lord Almighty for wisdom, leading, and direction.) YET, the only thing that truly matters in selecting a “good” worship song is this question: Does it share the truth of the Good News of the Bible?
To aid in the selection of “good” worship, you can scroll to the bottom and read practical ways that will aid any congregation (large or small //urban or rural //rich or poor //muli-ethnic or multi-generational). However, let’s revisit the fallacies of the two previously mentioned camps and site some examples of the flaws in light of the idea that “good” worship songs are selected based on the concept of lyrics.
The Hymn-Lover’s Fallacy:
Just because a song is old, and just because a hymn is included in a canonized collection of songs does not make it worth being sung by a congregation of believers that is centered on the Gospel. (As an aside, I do enjoy any hymns. We teach many of the “good” ones to our children at home, and the local body where I lead worship also sing these same melodies and words–with a more modern instrumentation–remember the instrumentation doesn’t matter.) The hymn “Sunshine in My Soul” is one such hymn (there are many others) that simply teaches bad theology. The lyrics of the verses and refrain all paint a picture of rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops for the Christian. Yet, numerous times Paul mentions in his writings that sufferings and persecutions will happen (2 Corinthians seems to be an ode to suffering for the believers). Look at Job, he suffered. Look at the disciples, they suffered and were persecuted (nearly everyone suffered a martyrs death). Even Jesus tells us that He is the only thing that can give us peace: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Of course we want to have joy in our hearts and in our lives, but as this song repeats, “when the peaceful, happy moments roll,” we are neglecting to teach our congregations that joy comes in the “happy moment”, but also in the sad, persecuted and suffering moments of life as well…because of the Gospel of Jesus! “Good” songs must teach truth as we sing them together.
The New Songer’s Fallacy:
Yes, Yes, Yes. We should have new songs in the church, and it is Biblical (Psalm 144:9, Isaiah 42:10, Psalm 149:1, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 33:3, Psalm 96:1). In Revelation, we sing a new song being sung for all of eternity (Revelation 5:9, Revelation 14:3). Yet, one thing that has been mistaken, especially in recent years is the fact that God gives the new song (Psalm 40:3). AND, if God truly gives the new song, it will not will never contradict His scriptures. It will place an emphasis on God! It will celebrate God’s story! It will sing about God! It WILL tell the Gospel! The emphasis will be for God and about God because God placed the song in our (or the song writer’s) mouth. Some modern songs never mention God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, yet we are encouraged to sing these songs with fellow-believers to the Lord. I have said it before: there are 177,000 words in the English language and song writers have the ability to artistically, yet with precision create songs that sing about God (not symbolically, but in actuality). Many songs display incorrect soteriology and eschatology, and several speak in generalities. These songs that have been deemed “boyfriend/girlfriend” songs because they could just as easily be sung to a boyfriend or girlfriend are growing in number and popularity–at a rate that is frightening. One such recent super popular song (2018) is Stand in Your Love written by Josh Baldwin. (If you think I am exaggerating the popularity, it has 4.3 million views on YouTube, and counting.) The lyrics never mention the triune God in any single word or line of text (it does mention the rock in the bridge) . It also never mentions the Gospel message, or any of the characteristic of God, and it doesn’t celebrate God in a precise or specific way. It is scary that many congregations have already sung this song, and will continue to do so. “Good” songs must teach truth as we sing them together.
6 STEPS TO SELECTING “GOOD” WORSHIP SONGS
- PRAY. It seems simple enough, but many today have a mindset of “let the Holy Spirit move in worship.” I agree with that statement, but the Holy Spirit can begin to move, even in the preparation stage as songs are selected for congregational singing. Ask for guidance. Ask for wisdom. Beg for God to lead.
- Are the lyrics of the song Gospel-centered or Gospel-rich? Pick songs that systematically and intentionally tell the message of the Gospel. Gospel rich lyrics remind believers of the greatness of God and also allow the unbeliever to have a small glimpse into why we are celebrating God together. These can be testimonial or ascriptive in nature.
- Can we find any of these lyrics directly in scripture? Not every song has to be a direct quotation of scripture, but if it does, you know it is true.
- Do these lyrics align with the truths of scripture? If you can not find a direct scriptural quote, then the song should align with the truths of scripture given in an accurate, historical interpretation of the Word of God. Songs should properly present the the truths of who God is according to scripture.
- There are 170,000 words in the English language. Did the writer choose the correct lyrics so that the song says what it means to say? Remember, if God put the song in the mouth of the song writer, it will not cause confusion, it will scream of the truth of who God is. It will celebrate God! It will sing about God! It will relay the message of God!
- Does my pastor read these lyrics and know that the song will teach, encourage, edify and direct our church in a Gospel-centric direction? This is a humbling time for a leader–presenting songs to a person in authority–and sometimes having that authority figure say, “no.” Yet remember, he is the “shepherd” that local body of believers, and shepherd will always want what is best for the sheep. Trust your pastor’s decision and rejoice when he rejoices over a song and release, when he releases a song as not worthy.