Gospel Centered Worship

I recently wrote about how to better serve our congregations by introducing fewer but more intentional new songs. In order to implement this intentionality, we need to first be asking the right questions when we do go searching for new songs.

While this is not an exhaustive list, here are six important questions to ask when introducing a new worship song:

1. Does it have clear biblical content?

The first question we should always ask is “Is this song saturated in scriptural truth?” Additionally, we must also evaluate if the song’s content is presented with clarity. Just because a song uses words like “Jesus”, “love”, or “the cross”, does not mean that its message is clear or even scripturally correct. 

A good test to see if a new song has clarity is to listen for lyrics that could be easily misinterpreted theologically. We should also listen for lines that are poetically ambiguous and therefore confusing. Our songs need to put words in people’s mouths that clearly and correctly speak about God.

2. Is the melody singable for my congregation?

While there are many factors in crafting a singable congregational melody, two of the most important are range and rhythm.

a. Melodic Range

Range is the span or width of a melody – how high or low it travels over the course of a song. Not everyone has the professional singing range that we hear on a lot of worship recordings. If we sing songs outside of our churches’ range, we will lose them to spectatorship or force them to drop the octave, which can result in distracted singing.

While each church’s range will differ slightly, I have found that a trustworthy place to start is to stay between a low A and high D (an octave and a fourth span). We can occasionally go a little lower or a little higher for a few notes, but most average congregations can’t sustain much beyond that.

b. Melodic Rhythm

Rhythm is the movement of the melody, or the pattern that it repeats. Because melodic rhythm is contextually dictated, different congregations will be able to sing significantly different types of rhythms.

For example, older generations sometimes find syncopated rhythms difficult to learn, while younger generations find syncopation more accessible. It is important that we know what types of rhythms our churches can sing.

3. What sermon series are we in?

The church circles that I run in tend to preach expositionally through books of the Bible. Usually there is a set of themes that repeatedly surfaces throughout each sermon series. It can be extremely helpful and strategic to introduce new songs that support and reinforce the Word being taught.

During our sermon series through Galatians, we introduced “Come to Me” by The Village Church. “Come to Me” focuses on the freedom and rest we can have while trusting in Christ’s finished work of salvation. The song reinforced the themes in Galatians of freedom from the law and salvation by grace alone.

4. Where is our songbook weak?

Historically, churches selected their weekly songs from a hymnal. Most hymnals went through a rigorous process of filtration and selection to ensure that they had a wide breadth of songs to choose from. Take a minute to look at a hymnal index and you’ll see what I mean. Oftentimes the songs are ordered into 30-40 different themes to help in worship planning.

Now to be clear, I am not advocating for or against the use of hymnals – that’s another post for another day. However, using a similar thematic filter when evaluating new songs helps to expose our songbook’s weaknesses.

For example, many churches have a wealth of songs celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death (and rightly so), but few songs lamenting the effects of sin and death that often surround us.

5. Where is our church at spiritually?

We must know our congregations in order to answer this question accurately. It requires that we have a pulse on the spiritual climate of our church—walking alongside and caring for our people.

What type of spiritual season is our church experiencing? Are the members walking through suffering or a time of abundance and joy? Where is their understanding of God lacking? Where do they need to be shored-up in the gospel?

6. What is our church’s context?

We may have a personal bias towards certain types of songs or worship artists, but that doesn’t mean that they will work in our churches’ context. There have been a few times that I have made the mistake of trying to force a new song that either lyrically or musically did not connect with my congregation’s context. Instead of complaining about this, we should find songs that our people will sing!

Here are some starter questions to help determine our churches’ context:

  • Who is coming to our church (demographics)?
  • Who are we trying to reach in our city?
  • What types of musicians & instruments are we working with?
  • How many of our people grew up with hymns instead of choruses? (or vice versa)

Instead of trying to copy another church we admire, we should start to think more contextually about the church where God has placed us. We need to ask ourselves intentional questions that will help guide us in choosing new songs – songs that will serve and minister to our churches for years to come.

by Calvin Hemphill
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