When it comes to the art of selecting worship songs, everyone has a rooted opinion. Most of the time we are quick to disregard someone else’s opinion because it does not coincide with ours. So how do we select worship songs if everyone has a different opinion?
The key is to find a barometer that goes beyond each individual’s personal preference. For me, the measuring stick always goes back to active participation. If the congregation is unable to participate in the songs that I am selecting, then I must go back to my music library and select different songs.
When I break down worship songs, I see three parts: the lyrics, the melody, and the arrangement. If a song can pass all three tests, then I will consider the song for worship and look for opportunities to place the song in one of our worship gatherings.
In this article we are going to take a look at each part and identify what we are looking for and what kind of questions we need to be asking to select songs appropriate for our congregations.
This is the first part of a worship song that I look at. It does not matter how “catchy” the melody or how “cool” of an arrangement the song has. If we are not singing sound theology, then I will not consider the song. Not only do I look for orthodox theology, but I also consider whether the song has any denominational “flavors” that, while many congregations might never catch the subtle nuances, may be suitable for certain congregations, although not others.
Whether you select songs that fit the “theme” of the worship gathering, are able to select any songs you want, or select songs to fit a particular liturgy, all of your songs must sing sound doctrine. This will require you to become skilled at understanding words and images. This skill will take time to develop, and that’s okay. I look back at some songs I would select for worship 5-7 years ago and wonder why I ever thought that was a good idea! This is an okay experience to go through! We are all learning as we go.
The next part of the song that I look at is the melody. This will be the most important part of the song for active participation. If the people cannot sing the melody, they will not sing! Each congregation is comfortable singing different kinds and types of melodies. Some congregations are able to sing the syncopated rhythms of some contemporary songs, while others belt their voices when invited to sing a hymn. This is where knowing your congregation is important.
This is not to say that you cannot teach your congregation new songs with new types of melody lines. Be discerning in the process, and your congregation will probably come to love singing these new melodies! It is usually easier for congregations to go from singing highly syncopated melodies to less syncopated melodies than vice versa, so keep that in mind.
Lastly, it is good to consider the arrangement of the song. Whether you are covering someone else’s arrangement or arranging your own version of a song, your arrangement does have an impact on whether the congregation will sing with you or not. If you normally sing hymns from the hymnal, playing a jazz arrangement of a great classic may take time getting used to. Likewise, if you normally play soft rock arrangements, a blues arrangement may need a few efforts to get people familiar with the sounds before they are ready to sing with you.
As musicians, we want to become the best we can. We should always be striving to improve ourselves, and this will probably often show in our arrangements! Always be sure of two things: that the arrangement is contextually appropriate and that the arrangement is appropriate for the lyrics. Do your best to avoid singing “Christ is risen!” to a lament-like arrangement. Write a joyful sound that is appropriate to the song!
My goal here is to give you principles, ideas, and safeguards that will help you in selecting worship music. As you serve in different churches and/or settings, you will find that while the principles of selecting worship music do not change, the music will change based on where you are serving. Right now I am guest leading across several churches and my song selection looks different for each church. The congregations have different histories, are in different contexts, and consist of different people. Therefore, the music selection reflects all of these differences.
In fact, these differences will push you as a worship leader. You may need to learn new songs, expand your music library, and even learn new sounds and styles! All of this will make you a better musician, a better leader, a better worshiper, and a better shepherd. I pray that the Spirit will guide you in your decision-making, as it can be a difficult one. But with God’s grace, we can surely lead our congregations in worship for His glory and His glory alone. Peace be with you all.
Jason Palmer is the Administrator of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.