“Let me write the hymns of a church and I care not who writes the theology.” R. W. Dale
R.W. Dale, a nineteenth century English pastor, understood the vital importance of our congregational song lyrics. When music is used to accompany text, the text is heightened to a new level of remembrance. That is why people leaving a worship service are more likely to be singing the words of a worship song than recounting the points of a sermon. Congregational songs are not “filler” that leads to the sermon time. Through our worship songs we praise, pray, encourage and teach. One way worship leaders can disciple their congregations is through thoughtful song selection with great attention to lyrics.
Here are a few biblical principles to consider when choosing songs for congregational worship.
- Our songs should be scripturally sound. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy to “rightly handle the word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2:15. Later in chapter 3 Paul reminds Timothy that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” As ministers we must give priority to the Word in worship and ensure it is rightly handled. When people are gathered in worship, we want everything spoken and sung to be rooted in Scripture. Is the song we are choosing scriptural truth? Not all worship songs are created equal in this way. Some popular worship songs can actually not be scripturally sound. As worship leaders we must have a theological foundation so we can wisely choose scripturally sound songs.
- Our songs should be expressed in clear, intelligible language. In his discussion on Christian gatherings Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 14:17 about speaking words that are clearly understood. Old hymns and new worship songs can have issues with clear, intelligible language. Some of the old hymns are written in a poetic style that today’s worshiper may not understand. How many times have we sung “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and not understood the meaning of “here I raise my Ebenezer”? Many newer versions of the hymn have changed this phrase. Hymns are not like Scripture. We would not want to change the text of a Scripture passage but we can update a word or phrase of an old hymn to make the language more intelligible to our people. Another solution when using “Come Thou Fount” is to simply explain the Old Testament concept of “Ebenezer.” Wise worship leaders seek to select songs that are expressed in clear, intelligible language.
- We should use a variety of songs. In Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 Paul describes songs in worship as “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” There has been a lot of discussion concerning the meaning of this phrase. One simple explanation is that we as worship leaders should use a variety of worship songs. We should use Scripture songs like those we see in the book of Psalms. We should use songs that are deep in biblical truth (like our hymns) along with simple songs of praise (spiritual songs). I often think about walking through a cafeteria line and comparing this to song selection. When we eat we want to select foods from the line that will give us a balanced diet. Although we love desserts or breads or meats, all of one of these is not healthy. When we choose songs we should look for balance between strong doctrinal songs and songs of praise that are often simple in truth but an important part of our expression in worship. A variety of songs in worship is desired.
- Our songs should teach and admonish. Colossians 3:16 reminds us of the teaching function of our worship songs. An important part of our worship ministry is discipleship. In order to faithfully instruct our people through worship songs we must be careful to choose songs that express clear biblical truths. Have you ever sung a worship song and wondered the meaning of a particular sentence or phrase (or the whole song)? The songs we choose should not be vague in their meaning but express biblical truth in such a way that it is edifying to the Body of Christ. We have no time in our worship services for the expression of vague principles. It is helpful once or twice a year to look at a list of worship songs the church has sung to see exactly what we are teaching. It could be that we are missing important truths about the Christian life.
When choosing songs for worship, let your first consideration be the lyrics. We can use a variety of song styles, but if the lyrics are unintelligible or vague, find another worship song. As worship leaders when we choose a song to use in corporate worship, we are actually putting words into people’s mouths. We must be good stewards of this responsibility and give them biblical truth expressed in such a way that our people can understand and be encouraged.
Greg Brewton is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Biblical Worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY