How do you choose the songs we sing in church?

Over the years (28 of them leading worship in the church), I have been asked this question hundreds of times. I thought it would be useful to address this question again.

First – it is important to note that in the last 15 years especially, evangelical congregations are emphasizing corporate, congregational singing to a much greater degree than what we all grew up calling “special music.” (Choirs, solos, ensembles, etc., singing “for” the congregation vs. singing “with” the congregation). I believe this is a healthy trend, as the more participatory the congregation is in worship, the more engaged they will be in their hearts and minds. One of the results of this trend is that congregations are singing more new songs and more different types of songs than ever before.

In the past, congregational singing was limited to whatever content existed in the hymnal. The trend toward more and more congregational singing, along with technology (computer graphics, projectors and screens with easily produced lyrics) have opened and expanded the church’s “hymnal” exponentially.

But what types of songs are legitimate for use in church? That question is debated endlessly and volumes of strongly held opinions are available on the topic. I am not sure there is one, correct answer for all churches. It seems to me that every congregation is so unique – how can “one size fits all” musical choices work for each church? There are so many factors that should inform these choices: the make-up of the congregation (diversity of ages and cultural distinctions), the community where the church is located, the denomination or tradition the church belongs to, the unique, God-given leadership of the church . . . it’s a complex and different answer for each congregation, in my view. That is why it is so unwise to simply think that because one approach to worship works in this “hip, cool contemporary church over here” – or in a “traditional mega church over there” is right for every other church. Simply put, every church is different, and their musical worship should reflect who they are.

So then – what music shall we choose? Why do we sing the songs we sing?

We should first look to the Bible, of course. Music and singing are very often mentioned in scripture – In fact, we have the “hymnal” of the Jewish people in the Psalms. References to singing and instruments, festivals, celebrations, and, yes, even dancing before the Lord, are found in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, we have the example of Jesus and the disciples singing together on the evening of the Last Supper. Paul exhorts us to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Ephesians and Colossians. It is popular today to try and equate “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” with particular modern forms of church music – but an accurate reading of the Biblical text reveals that Paul was referring to three different types of songs in the Psalter – not “man-made” texts or songs. However, we also have several passages in the New Testament (Philippians 2:5-11, for example) that scholars believe were actually “hymns” of the new, Christian faith – songs focused on the deity and work of Jesus Christ, so we know that new songs were being born out of the early church.

Thus, to put it in the simplest of terms – the Bible encourages us to sing Scripture-based songs, as well as new songs that exalt Jesus Christ as Lord. We should note that musical style has not yet entered the conversation! That is another lengthy and unresolved debate. I will only say that the musical style should support and compliment the message and meaning of the text. I enjoy all types of music, and I believe that a variety of musical expressions, reflecting God’s awesome creative genius, is healthy in the church – provided that the message and meaning of the song come through clearly.

At First Baptist Carrollton, we allow the Biblical text of the message to drive our musical choices. Thus, we choose songs – both old and new – to support the sermon and theme of the day’s message. For us, this is more important, appropriate and significant than choosing songs based on style – either traditional or contemporary. My sense has always been this: Musical style divides people based on their personal preferences, but the Word of God and an emphasis on Jesus Christ as Lord bring unity to the Body.

I say this with humor – but I also know it is true: If you prefer strictly traditional worship music, our services will frustrate you – and if you prefer strictly contemporary worship music, you will also be frustrated! We have made a decision not to emphasize style as the criterion for how we “do worship.” In general, we tend to be more contemporary than strictly traditional, but the fact is that EVERYONE defines these terms differently. What seems contemporary to one person is very dated and old-fashioned to another. What seems traditional to a person from a Baptist background may be completely inappropriate and irreverent to a person who grew up in another tradition. You simply CANNOT win the style game – so I choose not to play it.

We sing the older, traditional hymns because they reflect the changeless nature of God and His faithfulness across all of time. When we sing a song that is hundreds of years old, we are connecting with saints across the years and giving testimony to the fact that our faith is true, faithful, constant and enduring. It is also important to note that these songs that have “stood the test of time” do so for a reason – they are effective and they resonate across generations. We must admit that some of the contemporary songs don’t have that same quality about them. As a case in point, it is always interesting to me that the contemporary worship songs that were the most popular five or ten years ago are now deemed “old hat” by some worship leaders who are the most passionate about contemporary worship.

However, the contemporary songs we sing are just as important as the traditional songs because they reflect that God is active, working and moving in the hearts of men and women today. The new songs remind us that ours is not a “dead faith” or a relic from “the old days.” We are not a museum – we are a vibrant, growing, dynamic, and living church that sees hearts and lives changed every day. The new songs reflect this reality, and they ensure that we are relevant to the culture around us.

The fact is, musical tastes and preferences do change constantly, and church music has always reflected that reality. The most beloved Baptist hymns and gospel songs (“Victory in Jesus”, “Nothing But the Blood”, etc.) were written in the “camp meeting” style of the late 19th and early 20th century that reflected the growth of folk and country music being heard most often in bars and dance halls. These “new songs” had a very difficult time being accepted into Sunday worship in most churches as they were considered “profane”. Sound familiar? They might be acceptable for an outdoor camp meeting or revival, some said, but we should not sing them on Sunday morning . . . some things never change . . .

Finally, when Paul instructed the early church to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” he also said that we should “sing with the Spirit and with understanding.”
(1 Corinthians 14:15) Our musical worship must engage both heart and mind – the message of the Word of God – that “understanding” element – must be present.
In addition, he said to “make melody in your heart” (Ephesians 5:19) This is the most important element of all- the condition and attitude of our hearts – no matter what song we are singing! Our hearts and minds must be surrendered to the Lord in grateful worship, thanksgiving and submission. If they are not, it doesn’t really matter what song we are singing, it will not be authentic worship before the Lord.

Let this be our prayer, no matter what song we sing:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
 be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:14 (NKJV)