How to Evaluate Songs for Congregational Worship
Congregational worship is one of the most important things that a church does. It supersedes missions, evangelism, service, and counseling (though it could be argued that these are, in a way, forms of worship--see Hebrews 13:15-16). John Piper has said the following:
"Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be not more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.” (Let the Nations Be Glad, p. 17)
So, worship supersedes all these other activities because God is ultimate, not man, and these all exist so that other people will be brought to see the excellencies of God through His church, and will in turn become worshippers themselves. The glory of God is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “the end for which God created the world” (Romans 11:36, Isaiah 43:7, Ephesians 1:5,6,12,14, Psalm 29:1,2and Isaiah 48:11).
All churches have this privilege of worshipping God corporately, and all churches include singing as part of that worship (in obedience to the commands in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19). Singing is an expression of joy, celebration, awe, and even repentance, brokenness and contrition.
Although no specific criteria is given is Scripture for choosing songs, yet we may apply other principles to aid the decision-making process. For example, as servants of the Creator, redeemed by the death of His Son, we must strive for excellence in all we do (Colossians 3:23). We should seek to glorify God in all that we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). We must also make sure any words taught the congregation are sound in doctrine (Titus 2:1). To fail to evaluate songs for worship is to invite careless worship, and careless worship can have devastating consequences (see Leviticus 10:1-3)!
Though excellence should be our goal in every aspect of song selection, the primary emphasis is on the words. But how does a congregation, or the leadership or worship team, select songs? What criteria should be used? What follows is an attempt to answer that question. Hopefully, it will serve as a springboard for discussion related to the question, “how will we choose our church’s congregational song list?”.
Of course, few songs will meet all of the criteria listed below; however, I feel that we should strive to meet as many of them as possible; and certainly the more important criteria should always be pursued in song selection.
1. Are the words man-centered or God-centered? Do they exalt and extol the wonders of the Triune God, or do simply talk about one’s experience?
2. Similarly, are the songs about God, or about worship? Do they speak more about what I will do (“I will worship, I will praise You, I will lift my hands”), or do they speak about who God is (God, you are…)? Tim Challies calls the former ‘songs of procrastination’—focusing on acts of worship that we intend to do, but telling us nothing of the God to Whom the worship is due. It’s true that some psalms use this language, but never alone—they always go on to describe why the psalmist intends to worship God (see Psalm 63:3-4, Psalm 7:17, Psalm 9:1-4ff, Psalm 13:5-6, Psalm 89:1-2, Psalm 108:1-4, Psalm 144:9-10, et al.). So, songs that speak of our intention to worship should also explain our reason to worship.
3. In terms of the song’s substance, it’s good to ask: are the words specific, or vague and insubstantial? Do they instruct us specifically regarding scriptural truths about God, or do they reflect things that are assumed about God? Also, are the words to the song cohesive? Do they go somewhere, and do they tie together related ideas? Or, are they instead a string of unrelated “glory phrases”?
4. Additionally, are the words specifically Christian? We may sing some songs which, for example, are taken from the Psalms, and don’t speak of Christ, yet they are still in accord with Biblical revelation of who God is. Some songs, though, are so vague, that they could be sung about anybody’s god. Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and cults could sing the songs in complete agreement with us. For example, many praise songs sound much like this:
My sweet Lord
I really want to know you
I really want to see you
My sweet Lord
These words were actually taken from former Beatle George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord”, and were written while he was dabbling in Eastern mystical religions (later in the song, he intertwines the “Hallelujah” with “Hare Krishna”). It is usually easy to spot whether a song was written by a theologian, pastor, or mature believer (as were our most beloved hymns), or whether they were written by an immature Christian who happens to play guitar or piano really well.
5. Are the songs instructive? Do they teach us something about God’s character, His actions, or His plan of Redemption? According to Colossians 3:16, we are to “Let the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in (our) hearts to the Lord”. So, songs to be sung to the Lord, AND instructive to one another? But aren’t these two aims contradictory? Should a song be sung to one another, or to the Lord? According to this verse, it’s not “either/or”, but “both/and”! The words of a song should inform our understanding of Who God is and what He’s done; the awareness of the truths learned should not lead us to cold contemplation, but should result in warm, heartfelt worship.
Mark Altrogge puts it well when he says “the church needs a full-orbed diet of worship songs. We need songs about:
1) The cross
2) The attributes of God – e.g. immanence and transcendence, sovereignty, faithfulness
3) Trinitarian worship songs
4) Songs about the great doctrines of our faith: the incarnation, the resurrection, redemption, justification, election, reconciliation, adoption, the preservation of the saints
5) Songs for times of suffering
6) Songs that are prayers, e.g. songs requesting more passion, etc.”
6. Are the songs cross-centered? Many of our songs should reflect the goal of God’s redemptive plan for all of history. This should never cease as a reason for us to sing and worship. In fact, Revelation 5 tells us that, in heaven, even then, we will not get over the cross. It’s not, “the cross was in the past; what do you have for me now?”; rather, the substitutionary death of our Savior for our sins should be the theme of our worship now, just as it will be for all of eternity: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ ” (see also v. 12). Even in eternity, we will not get over the cross!
Also, care should be given not to include too many songs which omit the reason we are able to approach God in worship. Bob Kauflin puts it well:
“Through our songs, we can (erroneously) communicate or convey the impression that worship is unmediated… that we just worship, as though it required nothing unusual, nothing spectacular, nothing amazing for us to stand before God and honor Him. But we can’t do that by ourselves; we would be consumed if we sought to do that in our own strength, with the accomplishment or the benefit or the merit of our own works. We can’t do it! So we must boast in something else; we have to boast in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Through Him (Christ) then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God (Hebrews 13:15).
7. Do the songs exalt the character and actions of God?
A study of the early church hymns quoted in the New Testament shows the criteria from # 5 and #6— cross-centeredness and/or a focus on God’s attributes or actions — were the emphasis of the songs sung by the early church. See Php 2:6-11, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Tim 6:15-16.
8. Are the songs theologically sound? Since leaders in the church are to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and since songs have an instructional element in worship (Col 3:16), all songs should be evaluated as to theological accuracy. It does not glorify God to speak things about Him that are not true.
9. Do the songs promote affection in the heart for the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit? Or do the words present true doctrine in an unemotional, unaffected tone? Good worship songs should promote warmth of heart and love for God as they are sung. The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, in teaching on the great doctrine of our reconciliation to God, warned his readers, “I fear lest, while I am treating (this doctrine), you would not apprehend the excellency of it, and not relish the sweetness of it” (Gospel Reconciliation, p. 12). In the same way, singing, which by its very nature promotes emotional responses, should cause us to “relish the sweetness” of the truths of which we are singing.
On the practical side, further criteria should be:
10. Are the notes of the song too high to be sung well by the whole congregation? (Bob Kauflin says that the songs should be in a range between a low A and a
11. Is the melody of the song relatively easy to learn and easy to sing? Some songs sound great when sung by a trained singer, but when sung by the congregation, the result is obvious struggling to find the melody. This distracts from worship rather than facilitating it.
12. Songs should not be chosen simply because they’re popular, or because they have a good melody, or because they’re fun to sing; neither should songs be selected because they will be most attractive to visitors. Songs are not for the utilitarian purpose of growing our church, or because they foster an emotional aesthetic experience. Songs are to promote the glory of God by putting His excellencies on display, that we joyfully respond with adoration and praise. Following our worship services, people should not respond by saying, “I love that church’s songs”, but “I love that church’s God”. The response to the singing portion of the service should not be “What a great song!”, but “What a great God!”.
13. It is equally important to ask: is there a compatibility between the melody or rhythm, and the truth being sung? As an extreme example, singing “Be still and know He is God” to a punk beat or with death metal guitar parts is simply not a good match! As we see the greatness and holiness of God through the words of a song, it may highlight our sinfulness and create a sober mood; we may be broken, repentant, and tearful when singing such songs. Other songs are more joyful and celebratory, depending on the words being sung. The melody and beat, therefore should match the subject matter.
Further, songs, being written for God’s glory, should reflect (in some measure) the excellence and creativity of the God who is both the subject and the source of the songs. Great words with a poorly written melody may take away from worshipping God through song, rather than being helpful.
14. The words to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs should not be too cryptic. Worship songs are not poems. Poems can use heavily symbolic language, and rely on metaphors. The meaning does not always need to be clear on the first reading. By contrast, the basic meaning of worship songs should be evident the first time it is sung (although enough content may be packed into a song that the one singing may discover new truths after several times singing it which weren‘t noticed the first time). Symbolism may be used, but only when its meaning is evidently apparent, or when the meaning is explained within the song itself. Songs which are too cryptic will be in danger of either being sung rotely and without thought, or else result the singer spending the time trying to “de-codify” the song rather than worshipping the Savior.
15. A word about complexity vs. simplicity: While some criticize simple songs as being “7/11” songs (songs with 7 words, repeated 11 times), singing simple truths can be beneficial. Some of Scriptures simplest truths are the most profound, and are the ones which move us the most emotionally. There is nothing wrong with simple truth! One of my favorite songs has only four lines; yet listen to the beauty of its truth:
Holy God in love became
Perfect man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin
By His death I live again
Having said that, it is probably not a good idea to have the main diet of a church’s songs to be choruses with minimal words. Remember, if the singing of songs is viewed as an extension of a church’s teaching ministry which results in praise to God, then enough songs with some theological depth should be present to promote this. If the people do not go down in depth, their worship cannot go very high in praise. As one author has said, the of simple songs in a worship service should be like dessert at a meal: used sparingly, it can enhance the savor of it; used alone, it can lead to malnutrition.
16. Are the songs too complex for the musicians in your church to play well?
17. Does the song selection reflect the Scriptural principle of caring for the weaker brother? (See Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10). Many church divisions have occurred when someone, zealous to change a church’s music style to “do worship like such-and-such a church does it”, make the change too drastically and suddenly. Many, in good conscience, believe certain musical styles are not helpful in worship, and to force them to sing along with these styles may be to cause them to go against conscience. Granted, there are those who will resist anything, and who will unreasonably resist any change in music style or instrumentation; however, our concern here should be to be sensitive to those who are not like us.
Another example of insensitivity to others in song selection is not thinking through the implications of the words on current life situations facing the church’s members. For instance, if we know someone in the congregation who has just this past week lost a loved one to cancer, we should probably show concern for them and not sing about “the God who heals my diseases”. Or, if the congregation has been impacted by a sudden tragedy, songs should be selected which reflect God’s comfort and sovereignty, rather than songs that may appear, in the context of the situation, seem to speak flippantly about how happy we are in God.
18. It may be a good idea to select songs on a weekly basis which underscore truths related to the sermon, or to a certain theme (a particular attribute of God, for example), rather than a loose association of multiple songs (although the latter can be done, and still have the result of good, God-honoring worship service, since a broad spectrum of God’s excellencies have been paraded before the people to admire in aggregate).
19. Care should be taken, especially if an individual generally selects the songs, to avoid “doing this song because it’s one of my favorites”. True, it may be your favorite because it is a great song and is a great help to you in your private worship. However, this may show insensitivity to the preferences of others. It may also reflect one’s musical preference (perhaps the song has a great melody, or is fun for guitar players to play, but isn’t the best choice to inform the congregation about God). There may also be a temptation to do the song so frequently that the words fail to impact the people. “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
In summary, when selecting songs for corporate worship, we should strive for glorifying God, for a humble heart which is willing not to get its own way, and for a concern for the needs of others.