WHY WE SING THE SONGS WE SING
*[This post was written for the Grace Seattle blog, which can be seen here.]
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
For a few thousand years, singing together has been an integral part of the worshipping life in the Christian church. But considering how our way of life and culture has changed over the millennia, why do we continue to gather on Sundays and attempt to unite our voices (however good or bad they sound) in adoration of our Lord? Quite simply: scripture instructs us to. The biblical authors understood and experienced the unique power that singing has in our heads and hearts. In song we’re bound together in melody and harmony as we commune with God, proclaiming the tenets of our faith. Whether you consider yourself a musician or not, singing corporately is a powerful method of spiritual formation that can lead to a deeper understanding of the gospel and how it relates to our lives. Singing helps us bring honor, glory, and thankfulness to the triune God. It gives us words to process the ups and downs of our life with God in a broken and chaotic world, appealing to both our emotions and intellect. So what songs, then, should we sing? Below is a list of guidelines (not exhaustive) that help me as I select songs for the liturgy we use in worship at Grace Seattle:
Our songs should be saturated in the word:
Paul’s instructions to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is fairly broad. What's the difference between a hymn and a spiritual song? Don’t some hymns use psalm texts? The type/style of song to be sung seems far-reaching, but the goal is to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Therefore, the textual content should be permeated in biblical truth. The great news is, scripture provides much to draw from! In most cases, it should be easy to pinpoint scripture references when analyzing the text of a particular song. This goal keeps worship grounded in God's word and helps to avoid songs that are more self-serving than spiritually edifying.
Our songs should be old AND new:
Our faith is one of deep tradition. If we desire our faith to be passed on from generation to generation, one of the best ways to do so is by passing on songs that have been meaningful in worship beyond our own lifespan. Not only do certain songs connect us to churches around the world who sing the same ones, but they also bind us to generations of believers before us. However, it is also important to “sing to the Lord a new song.” If the Holy Spirit is truly at work in my life and in our congregation, we should feel inspired and encouraged to create new songs that bring glory to God! We should be inspired by the God of creation to create! Many people and churches are creating new songs for corporate worship that speak to their culture in relevant ways and we should be looking for these, while at the same time creating our own.
Our songs should address a broad spectrum of spiritual and emotional needs:
The Psalms are the songbook of the bible and are a perfect guide for the range of topics and emotions that should be addressed when considering song-choice in a worship service. Praise, thanksgiving, lament, terror, supplication, triumph, death, defeat, fear, joy, and awe are all included in the Psalms. Every Sunday, there are people in the congregation who are dealing (often in combination) with these things in their life. It is important to remember that though you can’t choose songs that are perfect for every person in every moment of their life, it’s good to strive for enough variety that congregants find moments where God’s presence is personally felt in their lives. While I may not be struck by grief or lament on a certain Sunday, there are people in the congregation who are and who need to be comforted by a merciful God who understands their pain.
Our songs should be singable:
Simply put: songs should be memorable, in a decent key, arranged in a way where the text is discernible, and sound natural when sung by a large group. These things are all fairly easy to decipher after you’ve sung a particular song a few times in a service. Don’t be afraid to scrap a song. Some simply don’t work for particular congregations; even if you think they’re great. That’s ok. The goal of choosing songs and leading them in worship is to help the congregation (which happens to be a large group of mostly untrained singers) praise God. So make every effort to serve the congregation by choosing songs and keys that work well for your community (whether it’s in your personal best-interest or not). For example, most of the songs we sing at Grace Seattle are in a lower key than I would prefer personally (I have a tenor range, while most males are closer to baritone). To serve the congregation I have to sacrifice quality in my own voice. Choosing songs that have repetitive elements and melodies that move in intuitive ways is important if you want to help people sing confidently and connect with the text. It’s also important to be aware of tempos, rhythms, and pacing, understanding that people need enough space to absorb and know the words they are singing. Ultimately, if you believe that the songs you sing in corporate worship are spiritually formative, they should be songs that stick! One of the greatest joys I have as a music director is hearing stories from congregants about their kids walking around the house singing a hymn that we do in church.
Know what songs we need to sing:
I have discussions with my pastor often about the songs in our church’s canon. The reason we have these discussions is to pinpoint certain themes (theological, liturgical, cultural) that we aren’t addressing enough in our liturgy. These conversations lead me to searching for (or writing) particular songs and texts that address and bring light to aspects of our faith and lives that need more attention in our particular community. Rather than choosing songs that I (we) simply like, I try to choose songs that I (we) need.
Know the songs that fit your community:
Every worshipping community is unique and different. The hope is that your songs and worship reflect that. It’s impossible to do this in a way that is all-encompassing, but it’s important to understand your congregation’s sensitivities and choose songs that will best serve them in worshipping God as authentically as possible. Grace Seattle, for example, will probably never sing “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” even though it is currently one of the most popular worship songs. It just doesn’t fit our community. However, I do feel it’s important to stretch a community outside of it’s comfort zone if you sense it is being limited (or limiting) in a particular way because of the natural sensitivities in the group. There is always room to grow, but you must understand your environment (and pray!) to know how and where to grow.
Singing together as the body of Christ is a great gift and an important part of our spiritual formation as followers of him. This is why I take song-selection for congregations so seriously. So let’s make a joyful noise!