Musical Judge, Jury and Executioner: The Case for Being Selective About Worship Songs

Earlier this week I wrote a post about why I still choose to play worship songs from churches that may have points of theology I disagree with (this was in response to Dan Cogan’s post on his Anchor Line Blog).  My original point was that I believe worship songs stand on their own merits regardless of secondary doctrinal disagreements I have with the authors.

opportunity-396265_640That said, one might assume from my previous post that I am not very picky when it comes to the worship music I select at my church.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In fact I am incredibly selective in how I decided what worship songs we’re going to sing in my congregation.

Over the next week I’ll share my 4 criteria for how I choose songs, but in this first post I’d like to argue for the need for worship leaders to be selective in the songs they choose to introduce to their congregations.

Choosing the Right Songs

One of the roles of the worship leader’s job is to establish and maintain the musical repertoire of his or her church.  In the old days (like 40 years ago) denominations had pre-established repertoires found in their hymnals.  The job of a worship leader was a bit easier then as all they had to do was find the topic (or section of the lectionary) for that Sunday and then choose from the handful of hymns that were applicable to that particular week.

These days, things are more complicated, especially for those who lead contemporary worship services.  Hundreds of new worship songs are written every year.  New worship teams from growing churches around the world are making their offerings available through online media.  Heck, Chris Tomlin comes out with albums faster than Apple introduces new iPhones.  So how does a worship leader wade through the morass of new (often good) music to find the right songs?

For me the trick is to remember what my mission is in selecting music.  As a worship leader it is my job to choose the songs that my congregation needs to sing.  Now that may seem simple on its face, but that statement carries with it several important considerations for selecting songs.

1.) My Congregation

Ok, I know, I know, it’s God’s congregation.  I don’t mean to take some sort of ownership here.  Rather I do want to point out the need to consider the local community in these types of decisions.  In other words, my congregation is unlike any other congregation on the planet, and so is yours.  No other local church has the same variety of ages, cultures, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses as my local church.  And because of that uniqueness, I have to be particularly selective of the songs we sing.

I have this sense that many worship leaders choose songs based on what’s on the local KLOVE station or what’s at the top of the CCLI charts.  Those are not inherently bad places to look for new music.  Yet, what works for one church may not work for another.  For instance a popular worship song that works in a church of 4000 may not be as effective in a church of 150.  Likewise a church made up of older, white, north-easterners will probably respond to a song differently than a group of young, asian-american, southerners.  Each church is in a given context and knowing and responding to that context is essential for choosing songs well.

2.) Needs

Again, this word may sound like worship heresy to you.  “Worship isn’t about my needs, it’s about glorifying God,” you’re probably saying.  That’s true, to a certain extent.  Yes worship is about glorifying God, but according to the New Testament it is also about edifying the believers.  Paul chastises the Corinthian church for using uninterpreted tongues in their gatherings, not because it is dishonoring to God, but because it creates chaos and confusion among the believers.  He writes:

So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 1 Cor. 14:12

In the end, one of the main goals of our worship services, and the songs that we sing is to build up our local congregations.  So I ask what does my church need to sing?  A church that has been through a season of trial needs to sing songs of hope.  A church that too easily succumbs to the temptations of the world needs the challenge of songs of consecration.  A church that has seen God’s blessings in miraculous ways needs to sing songs of thanksgiving.  The needs of a congregation will end up disqualifying a lot of good worship music that just doesn’t fit in that season.

3.) To Sing

worship handsIt should seem obvious to those of us in vocational worship leader positions, but more and more I find this sentiment taken for granted at churches: the goal of my team and me leading songs every sunday is to get the congregation to sing. I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts over the last couple of years lamenting the fact that congregations have stopped singing in worship (a quick google search can lead you to all the relevant literature).  It seems that more and more worship leaders are becoming less and less concerned with encouraging those who show up to services to sing along.

Now certainly a person can worship, and even worship corporately, without opening their mouths.  But the problem is, scripture gives very clear commands on the need for all the people of God to sing together.  Paul writes:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Eph. 5:19-21

Singing is essential not just for individuals but for the church community as a whole.  And when people don’t sing, essentially they’re taking away the blessing that their song would be to the congregation.  If we introduce songs that the average person can’t sing, or so many songs they will never learn them all, then we are depriving the community and God of the worship of His people.

Prioritizing Our Goals

The real issue is about prioritizing our goals.  What are we really trying to accomplish as we lead people in worship each week?  If our goals are to glorify God and build up the church (which is what scripture says they should be) then we need to focus on singing songs that meet the needs of our local congregations.  There are many excellent worship songs written every year, but only a handful of them will lead any given congregation to the fullness of worship that God desires.

So be selective in your song choices and don’t apologize for it.  It’s ok to be judge, jury and executioner when it comes to finding the right worship music for your church.

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About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
This entry was posted in Practical Worship Leading and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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