Music Set Apart: Choosing Worship Songs Part 4

One of the unique features of the CCM Worship world is the prevalence of live recordings.  In most contemporary music genres live concert recordings are a relative rarity.  Usually a well known artist will release a handful of studio albums and then make a live concert recording while on tour.  This allows fans to have the experience of attending their favorite band’s concert whenever they want.   A well known artist or band may only make 1 or 2 live recordings in their entire career.

IPlanetshakers_2005n contrast, many well known worship bands do the opposite.  Bands like Hillsong United, Elevation Worship, Gateway Worship, and others primarily release live recordings of worship concerts.  Only rarely do they release a studio recording.  Because worshiping in a crowd is part of the experience they wish to convey, having the voices of the concert attendees is an essential part of their recordings.

These live recordings can be especially helpful for worship leaders looking for new songs, because they demonstrate how the song works in an existing congregation.  That doesn’t necessarily mean all the songs on the album are right for every congregation, but it does add an extra dimension of credibility as the songs are already being sung in a local church.

Over the past several posts I’ve laid out my first 3 criteria for choosing new worship songs. Now we’ll complete the series with criteria 4:

The fourth criteria I use when picking new songs is particularity.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Particularity is closely related to the previous two criteria of artistry and theology, but I consider it an independent category because it’s deeper than just those two considerations.  When I look for particularity in a new song, I’m assessing how unique the song is.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, there are a myriad of new worship songs released every month.  Yet what is interesting about the large mass of new worship songs is that a great many of them cover the same ground: they sound the same, address similar themes, even use the same melody structure and phrasing of lyrics.  The goal of considering the particularity of a song is to ensure that the repertoire of my congregation contains a level of diversity.

Elements of Particularity

Here are some of the elements I consider in relation to particularity:

Theme: I mentioned in the post on theology in new songs that some themes are well worn in worship music while others have barely been explored.  There are thousands of (mostly very good) songs about the cross, but only a fraction that focus on the resurrection comparatively.  And even fewer mention the Trinity, let along focus on it.  I look for songs that will add to our theological repertoire as much as our musical repertoire.

Purpose: Likewise, different songs serve different purposes in a church service.  Some songs are calls to worship, others are sending songs; some are songs of rejoicing while others are songs of confession; some focus on thanksgiving while others are prayers of consecration.  Local churches need all of these in their repertoires to be able to express the right worship for the right time.

Style: At the very least style can refer to the feel of the song, usually coming from the speed and arrangement.  Put simply, churches need to sing both high energy and low energy songs.  But on a deeper level, style address things like common chord progressions, melodic structures, lyric patterns, and other compositional elements.  One easy way to think about it is to consider the songwriter.  Chris Tomlin writes songs like Chris Tomlin.  That’s not to say all his songs sound the same (a classic dis of any songwriter), but rather that he has a particular writing style that comes through in all his music.  The same is true for Kari Jobe, Laura Story, and bands like Planetshakers.  If I do too many songs by any of these writers, I won’t have enough diversity of style.

Of course style diversity brings up the issue of multicultural worship.  That’s a post for another time, but I will say that ideally all the cultures of a local church, and the community surrounding that church, should be represented in worship.  That is far easier said than done (our church still has not waded deeply enough in those waters) but it should still be the goal.

There are other areas of particularity as well that can and should be considered including range (some songs are easier for women to sing, some easier for men), instrumentation (having some songs where the electric guitar is not the lead instrument, a rarity these days), and focus (singing to God vs. singing to each other).  The main point is to look at a church’s repertoire and find songs that fill in the gaps.

Brining the 4 Criteria Together

So in the end the four criteria I look for in new worship music are accessibility, theology, artistry, and particularity. Each of these categories are complex enough on their own, so how do I even hope to take all of these into account for every new song?  The trick is to be both firm and flexible.

I’m firm on certain elements of each of these criteria.  If a song is completely unsingable I won’t do it.  If it is theologically questionable I won’t do it.  If it represents poor artistry or sounds like a carbon copy of another song in our list I won’t do it.  These provide the boundary lines for what songs I will or won’t consider.

Within these boundary lines, however, there is room for me to move and be flexible.  Sometimes a song might be a stretch for our congregation to sing, but explores a particular point of theology so profoundly that it is worth pushing our congregation on their vocal skills.  Other times a song may seem artistically bland, yet fills such an important function in our repertoire that I will add it without hesitation.  The trick is to constantly assess the needs of the congregation, and choose the songs that will allow them to worship best.

No song is ever going to be perfect in all of my 4 criteria.  But assessing songs in this way helps me to filter out the hundreds of songs that are not right for my context, and allows me to pick the gems that are left.



About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
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