By Amanda Furbeck
Is it time to “fire” some of the songs that have long been on your setlist? Find out a good way to filter through your current music.
What would it look like if you wrote a job description for every worship song in your church’s repertoire? How about this: The appropriate worship song candidate will demonstrate a catchy hook and a sing-able and memorable melody line. Proper qualifications will include delivery by a famous, trusted Christian artist with a tightly rehearsed band. Candidate must receive plentiful airplay on Christian radio and show evidence of a crafted lyric that presses in to the tender part of the soul. Biblical theology is a bonus.
Did you catch that?
How important is the theology of the songs we sing? Sure, we make reference to the time-tested, old faithful hymns as theological treatises set to music, but what of commercialized worship music? Does the umbrella term of poetic license cover over any vague or weak theology of even very well-written lyrics? Sure, you could explain away the broken theology, or shed some light on that lyric that is perhaps questionable. It might be easy to justify an incredibly popular song. But really, how much explaining should a worship song require? How much before the song has lost its value for use in worship? More importantly, what picture does it paint of who God is?
Christian radio and commercially available Christian music are both an obvious blessing. You have 24/7 access to songs that are moral, spiritually uplifting, and centered on Jesus. And what’s not to love about playing grown up music that is safe for a child’s little ears and heart? As a worship leader, you can easily keep up to date on the latest worship music by turning the dial to your local Christian radio station.
But there is a downfall to commercial Christian music. We all know how music leaves an imprint on the heart, mind, and the soul that words alone simply cannot. It is precisely this reason that makes worship leading so amazing and simultaneously so controversial. This music we make is incredibly universal, and yet, intensely personal. It communicates what words cannot. It is remembered where words alone are often forgotten. In short, music makes memorable the content of its lyric. The average Christian will spend far more time listening to music (Christian or otherwise) than they ever will spend reading their Bible. This means that whatever goes in those ears will make a longer lasting impression on the brain and the heart than what is read. In short, what you sing on Sunday may well still be lingering in the ears of your congregation the following Saturday night. This is both a gift and a responsibility to make a lasting impression for the duration of the week. How might you use it wisely?
Devise a real job description for your worship music. What criteria will you use to add or remove songs from your church repertoire? What is most important? Theology? Sing-ability? Musicality? Performing forces? Which songs will be hired and which ones will be fired?
Become a scholar.
If you haven’t already, take a class or two in theology. Read some books on understanding the Bible. Find out what your denomination believes so you can make the best choices of song selection for your congregation.
Use a commentary.
If you know that a particular song is based on a passage of Scripture, you can look up the Scripture in a commentary in order to get a fuller understanding of what the text means. This will help you decide if your new song is in line with the Bible or not, as well as help you worship through it more fully.
Know your church’s theology.
What does your church believe about the finer points of Christianity? For example, does your home church believe in a literal seven days of creation, or a figurative version? How does this affect worship songs that stem from the creation story?
Use the worship song in the proper context.
There is an old joke referring to the feud between pastors and worship leaders. In one particular story, the passionate pastor expounds a message on prohibition, declaring that all wine should be thrown in river. The worship leader, not to be outdone, implored the congregation to stand and sing the old hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?” This joke not only points to the need for pastors and worship leaders to be in good standing with one another, but also the need to use worship music in an appropriate context.
Ask your pastor.
When in doubt, ask for help.
Have you considered the Holy Spirit’s guidance for choosing worship music that is Biblically accurate, emotionally moving, and musically appealing? Ask God for wisdom and discernment in selecting worship songs and worship sets. God loves to give wisdom to those who ask it.
Read your Bible. Read books on theology. Read devotional books. Be as well-versed as possible on matters of theology, especially in the context of worship music.
There are no perfect worship songs in this imperfect world. No untouchable standards of greatness that will withstand the refining fire of every church’s theology. There are many exceptional songs that clearly stand out as better; some that are obviously not. Standards will vary from denomination to denomination, from congregation to congregation, and even from Sunday to Sunday depending on the needs of the congregation and their understanding of the lyrics. But when you find –or hopefully write – the next greatest, most famous worship song, always ask yourself this: How does that song stack up against the Word of God?
Amanda Furbeck serves as a worship pianist at Bethany United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. She is also a free-lance writer, piano teacher, and cosmetologist. Amanda has led worship in a variety of settings, including women’s ministry events and as music pastor in previous churches. She has a heart for helping people connect with God through music and is pursuing a Master of Divinity at Liberty Theological Seminary.