Choosing songs for worship used to be pretty easy. You simply grabbed the hymnal, maybe peeked in the back at the keyword index, and “take your pick.” Any song will do.
Today, it’s a different story. Modern worship planners stand beneath an avalanche of praise and worship choruses. With more than 100,000 songs available and hundreds of songs playing on the radio, never before have we had so much music to choose from.
And never before have worship leaders shouldered as much responsibility for the quality of music as they do now. In bygone days, hymns were included in hymnals only after a panel of theologians and musicians had deemed them appropriate for worship. In the modern worship era, that job falls to individual worship leaders.
All this may leave you wondering: How does a worship leader select the songs? Here are three simple-yet-important questions I ask when considering a new song for worship.
Are the lyrics appropriate?
Nothing is more important for a worship song than the lyrics. Worship leaders bear the responsibility of choosing songs that are theologically sound and express our love for God. Conversely, the catchiest song on the planet will not please God if the words are inappropriate — or even seem inappropriate.
As an example, let’s consider a song called See The Way, written in 2005 by a young lady named Misty Edwards. In every way, this song is absolutely gorgeous. Lyrically, it is nothing short of poetic, describing the majestic power of a God who is powerful enough to hold the stars in His hands, yet loving enough to hold our hearts. The melody, the music, the instrumentation, the passion — stunning.
But then halfway through the song, the writer throws in this line:
God is a lover looking for a lover, so He fashioned me.
Now, I know what Ms. Edwards means — God created us so that He could be in a loving relationship with us. And if you’re a believer, you probably understand too. But to a new Christian or a seeker, speaking of God as “a lover looking for a lover” could come off as, well, a bit seedy.
Because I never assume everybody in the congregation will understand, I would not choose this song for worship.
Other songs are Christian in their content, but not worship. Often I’m asked to do songs that someone will hear on the radio, and some of those songs just wouldn’t be appropriate for congregational singing, even though they’re perfectly good Christian songs.
For example, if a song talks about the specifics of someone’s personal experience — say, God’s hand in overcoming drug addiction — that’s a great song subject, but it simply doesn’t apply to everyone. Worship songs must proclaim universal truths.
Certain songwriters have shown a consistent ability to pen lyrics that honor God in every way. I often “go to the well” with these songwriters because they’re always solid. Some of those include Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, Matt Redman, Kari Jobe and several others. And you thought we only chose their songs because they’re on the radio!
Also, if you ever look at the credits for their songs, you’ll see they usually list several co-writers. This collaboration is intentional: Calling on many experienced eyes ensures the song is strong lyrically.
Is it singable for the average person?
I feel very fortunate as a worship leader in that I’m sort of an “everyman.” In other words, I sing in a pretty average way. My range (the lowest note I can sing to the highest) is pretty typical for a man. I don’t have the ability to sing super-high notes like Chris Tomlin, so I don’t even try.
Hopefully that means the songs I choose are appropriate for your voice, too.
And I’m not going to ask you to do “vocal calisthenics,” meaning really difficult melody lines that only a professional singer can handle.
That being said, we’re not always going to keep things in the comfy range. Here’s what the bible has to say:
You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.
God’s word says we are to LIFT OUR VOICES with His good news. That means I’m going to challenge you from time to time to sing louder and stronger and higher than your comfort zone may allow.
But as Isaiah says, “do not be afraid.” Be bold! Sing it out! Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. A former pastor used to tell me, “God makes a miracle between your voice and His ears.” The voice He hears is your heart voice. So do your best, and remember — if it’s a challenge for you, it’s a challenge for me, too!
Catchy enough to learn “first time through the chorus”
A song can be singable and appropriate lyrically, yet still be a dud because it’s just not catchy. It’s the reason we don’t sing Gregorian chants. They’re very God-honoring, but not terribly memorable. And I don’t want to burden you with songs that are so complicated that you never want to sing them again.
The test I use is simple: I call it the one-time-through-the-chorus rule.
In other words, if you’ve heard the song’s chorus once and you can sing it fairly easily the next time around, then it’s a keeper.
Songwriters often call it “the ear-worm effect.” If the song is memorable and stays in your head, it’s probably a good song for worship (assuming it meets the other criteria). Why? Because if the song stays in our heads, then we take worship home with us!
A few years ago, a worship-leader friend of mine in Texas asked me for the chord chart to a song of mine called “Here To Praise You.” He loved the song and wanted to introduce it to his congregation. I was flattered — and happy to send him the chart.
A few weeks later, he called me to tell me about how the song was received by his congregation. “It was amazing,” he said. “After worship, a bunch of little kids were running around the church singing, ‘I’m here to praise You … and nothing’s gonna stand in my way, NO NO!'”
That’s not a victory for Bob. It’s a victory for God. Any time our worship follows us home, God wins!
What you can take from all this
First, when we introduce a new song, look at the lyrics on the screen and think about what they’re saying to you. How do they make you feel about God? What do they say about Him?
As you listen to the song, try to sing it with us, even if you don’t know it. Offer Him your heart as you sing. Don’t worry about singing the wrong note or the wrong word or in the wrong timing. God listens to your heart — and He loves the sound.
Finally, try not to judge — the song, the band, the singing, the sound operator, the video, anything. This isn’t American Idol. We’re not here to critique each other. We’re here to make a joyful noise to our Lord.
In all things, focus on Him, and your worship will soar.by