Music that Instructs: Choosing Worship Songs Part 2

Over the past 7 years as a full time worship leader, I’ve found several resources that have been incredibly helpful in my ministry.  One of those resources is  NRT is an online magazine that announces the release of almost every Christian album in any given week including albums from the major labels, indie projects, and independent releases.  This has been a made my job immensely easier as I can keep track of every worship album that is released.

Of course the problem is the sheer amount of music that I know I to listen to.  On average there are anywhere from 5-10 worship albums released a month, each containing between 10 and 20 songs.  From so much new music, how do I find the right songs to sing for our congregation?

That’s what this series on choosing worship songs is all about.  Last week I posted that my first criteria in choosing music is accessibility. In this post we’ll look at criteria number 2:

The second criteria I use when choosing new songs is theology.

Head,_Shoulders,_Knees_and_ToesThe reason for this criteria is actually pretty simple.  Music is instructional; it teaches. Think back to your days in elementary school, and try and remember one specific lesson your teacher taught you.  If you’re like me, you can probably remember certain principles or subjects, but individual lessons are difficult to recall.  Now try and remember a song you learned in elementary school.  That’s easier to do.  You may even be able to remember a few songs.  For some reason music lodges itself in our minds in a unique way, allowing us to recall it faster.

The same is true for worship music, except that instead of teaching children the months in the year or the colors of the rainbow it instructs the congregation in theology.  What we sing has a direct impact on what we believe.  This is one of the reasons it is vitally important that pastors not view the worship time as merely the warm-up for the sermon.  People by their nature are far more likely to be influenced by the songs we sing than the sermons we preach.

Because music teaches, we need to be very careful that our songs are teaching good theology.  When analyzing the theology of a song I look for two things:

Theological Accuracy

When I look for new songs it is vitally important that what we sing reflects what we believe as a community about God, ourselves, and the world.  Most worship songs aren’t full of heresy or bad doctrine, but sometimes the way a songwriter expresses a thought or an idea can lead to confusion or misunderstanding.  Other times lyrics come from other Christian traditions that may affirm different points of doctrine than we do.  We always want to make sure that the words we are teaching through the songs match what we believe, so I’m very careful in choosing songs that are faithful to our own convictions.

Please note the emphasis on community.  This is not about what I believe as an individual, but what we believe as a congregation as expressed through our statement of faith (or confession or catechism depending on your tradition).  As worship leaders we are called to serve our local church, not be lone ranger theologians using our own beliefs as the standard, especially when it comes to controversial subjects.  If for some reason you can’t affirm your church’s statement of faith, you have bigger problems than what new song to introduce.

Now the tricky part about pursuing accuracy is that in poetic forms like song lyrics, it is very difficult to describe deep theological truths.  Roger Olsen does an excellent job of describing how to handle questionable lyrics in classic hymns.  My rule for contemporary songs is that if there’s any question about the doctrinal accuracy of a song, I simply don’t use it, mostly because there are often plenty of other good songs that can take its place.

(Note: you can read my views on using worship songs from churches I disagree with theologically here.)

However, as important as I think accuracy is in worship music, I think the next aspect is far more important.

Theological Necessity

I know that’s a weird phrase, but it basically refers to whether we need to sing and proclaim the doctrinal truth in this song.  But isn’t labeling doctrines this way dangerous?

346px-Rtriangle.svgWell, think of it this way.  Imagine you’re in a geometry class where the teacher works with the students on how to find the area of a triangle, an important foundational concept.  Now imagine that over 6 months, the teacher teaches the same thing day after day after day.  While learning to find the area of a triangle is important, it is not exhaustive.  Students need to learn to solve the areas of other shapes, find the degrees of an angle, solve proofs, etc..  And when students have a problem with one of these concepts they need to spend more time on it to ensure they master it.

I have found that many churches, often unknowingly, are Triangle Teachers when it comes to the worship music they sing.  There are a few key points of doctrine that get repeated over and over while others are lost entirely. Last year I attended a worship conference where one of the speakers pointed out that there are far more songs about the crucifixion than the resurrection.  He’s right. In fact I would dare to guess that the only time some churches sing about (or event mention) the resurrection is on Easter Sunday.  This is a major problem.

So this gets us back to the question, what do we need to sing?  What central elements of the faith are we not proclaiming enough in our churches?  Off the top of my head the Trinity, the resurrection, justice for the poor and marginalized, and the community of the church, among others, are all vital elements of doctrine that are not found in the worship songs of most churches.  So I specifically look for songs that do proclaim these things.

Likewise, what are our blind-spots as a church? Where do we need to be challenged more on a deeper level?  As a small example from my own ministry, we live in a very individualistic society and culture that tends to downplay the need for community.  Because that is the natural tendency of the people in my congregation I try and find songs that use the pronoun “we” instead of “I”.  It’s a small thing but one that can gently move people to a greater understanding of their part in the larger community of God.

I encourage all worship leaders to constantly ask the question, “What do we need to sing as a congregation?”  That is how we can honor our role as teachers through music.

I strongly believe that Theological Accuracy and Theological Necessity are vital considerations for choosing worship songs.  Whether we realize it or not, what we sing directly impacts what we believe.  Let’s make sure those beliefs are true and helpful.


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 Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Music that Instructs: Choosing Worship Songs Part 2

  1. Meesh Feesh says:

    Are there any mainstream worship songs that you don’t use because you don’t find them theologically accurate, even if it’s one line? Our discussion about “Healer” on your article about churches you disagree with reminded me of this topic.

    i.e. A friend’s church doesn’t sing “Above All” because they believe the line “You thought of me above all” is selfish and inaccurate. They also have to change the “mercy seat” line in “Revelation Song” because God the Father sits there, not the Lamb who was slain, as they feel the song says.

    My grandma didn’t like “I Surrender All” because she didn’t believe that anyone truly surrenders all.

    Others I know don’t like “The Wonderful Cross” because they feel it worships the cross, and not Jesus.

    In “Amazing Love (You Are My King)”, some worship leaders change the line “In all I do, I honor You” to “In all I do, to honor You” because nobody honors God in literally all they do.


    • I see two issues with some of the songs you mention. One is theology; I consider the other accuracy. As far as theology goes there are a few songs that I’ve chosen not to use because of possible confusions with some of the lyrics. We don’t sing “Above All” because of the same line you posted. It’s not that I think the line is terrible or even totally inaccurate, but I could see some of the congregation misunderstanding what it’s talking about. But if I’m at another church or conference and it comes up, I sing right along with everyone else. “The Wonderful Cross” doesn’t bother me much because while it gets a little lost the chorus, the song was a whole really does focus on Christ as the center of worship. There are a couple of other songs that I haven’t used for theological reasons, but nothing that’s terribly popular at the moment.

      The concern about accuracy is more interesting to me. I consider the issues people have with songs like “I Surrender All” and “Amazing Love” concerns about accuracy instead of theology because it’s more about whether I live up to the standards of the song rather than does the song live up to certain doctrinal standards. I can certainly appreciate people not wanting to sing things that aren’t always true about themselves (like surrendering all, or honoring God with everything). But if we only ever sang about what we could say was true for us every moment of every day, I’m not sure we’d have much left to sing. I consider some songs aspirational, in that they may not be a perfect reflection of where I am right now, but they are a reflection of where I want to be, and I think that can be both convicting and worshipful at the same time.

      As far as changing lyrics go, I’ve done that a couple of times (more for practical reasons than theological ones), but I generally don’t encourage it. There was a bit of a controversy last year when a Presbyterian Hymnal tried to change the line in the song “In Christ Alone” from “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” Keith and Kristyn Getty didn’t approve the change so it didn’t make it in the hymnal. As someone who has done a very little bit of songwriting myself, I can understand their protective stance against changing their lyrics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like that Accuracy vs. Theology method, and your point about some songs being aspirational and doctrinally sound.

        “The Wonderful Cross” doesn’t bother me much either, especially considering that the verses put the focus on Jesus. In fact the “Where the whole realm of nature mine” verse is one of my favorite verses from any song ever!


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