Well, lots of tunes have been written. Defining a good song is tricky, but the main test of melodies—likewise, harmony and form—is the same for any art: the test of time. Poor quality doesn’t last long.
Which begs the question: Why are some worship songs poorly written? Notice I did not say all worship music. Nor was all the church music I grew up with of stellar quality. All church worship leaders can select the best quality music and texts, but we often fall into familiar ruts of style and content.
Now the risky part: making assertions, comparisons, and drawing conclusions without citing specific music titles. It’s not for laziness or lack of examples. In fact, because there is so much worship music available, presenting lists of titles would be distracting. Try this: as you to read, come up with your own examples for each point. If your experience leaves you without any musical examples for items discussed, then congratulations! You have been worshiping in Church Music Heaven, where all music has achieved perfection. If this is not the case, read on.
For decades hymnals were the main vehicle for corporate singing: music and texts in a handy book. What treasures lie in those books! Scriptural truths and testimony wrapped in exquisite verse. The music enriched, even educated, the singer, offering good melodies, four-part harmony, and logical forms. Theology (of various sorts) was paramount, presenting the Gospel in a variety of styles. But let’s be honest—some of the hymns were a bit awkward, and many of the gospel songs were light on theological and musical content, while heavy on repetition.
Many of us in Evangelical churches sang choruses to augment the hymnal fare; songs that were more “popular” in style (lagging respectfully behind actual pop culture), sometimes rather quirky, with novelty tunes and texts. Many of these choruses have been nearly forgotten, and it’s probably not a great loss. They worked at the time, but tastes changed. Remember the songs you sang in your church youth group? After the warm fuzzies subside you may say to yourself, “I can’t believe we sang that and thought it was so amazing!”
A common denominator of these old songs and choruses was that they could be learned rather easily—of necessity because “back in the day” simplicity was key; but then, so were related chords, symmetrical phrases, and normal word stress and syllabication. Overhead projectors helped, but one characteristic reigned: the music itself had to be singable.
Some current worship music challenges congregants with textual and musical hurdles that hinder participation. While worship styles are ever changing, human nature remains stubbornly consistent: participation hinges on confidence. The words may be projected, but it’s still the inconsistent and awkward qualities of some tunes that prevent folks from joining in.
Now here is where I’ll draw a line in the sanctuary carpet: Which are the singable songs, and which should be cast into utter darkness? While still not naming particular songs—the astute reader no doubt has come up with a working list by now—I will offer some practical suggestions for evaluating and using worship songs.
1. Who is participating? High school and college students know pop styles, and a song’s novelty won’t throw them. Other worshippers may not be used to irregular-length phrasing and atypical word stress. It’s not their fault when they were born. Know who’s in the pews and make musical choices accordingly.
2. Analyze the songs. Evaluate each tune for ease of singing. If the learning curve is steep, use the song frequently. It goes against the way we learn to present new information once, then pull it out later and expect everyone to remember it. How do kids learn new songs quickly? Repeated listening.
3. Balance. I don’t mean equal minutes of new songs and old hymns. Present a balance of styles, whatever the source. The new song with the novel rhythms will go over a lot better if balanced with some music that provides predictability. Singer fatigue sets in after too many similar songs (except at a Junior High lock-in.)
4. Adapt. You hear a song and think, “This would be perfect for next week’s Liturgically Blended Coffee House & Communion Service.” Run it though the first three filters. It passes? Great! Now, are you going to use the key from the recording? (Often too high.) What tempo? Instrumentation? These are basics, yet we’ve all witnessed songs fail in worship services because the key was too high, the melody couldn’t be heard, or the tempo was off. Worshippers aren’t professional singers; remove as many hurdles as possible.
5. Compose. Songs don’t appear through spontaneous musical combustion; people compose them. Be one of them. Use your skills to write meaningful music. Work with someone who knows more about music than you. Try your new song with real people! Think about the last time a worship song went over really well with your whole congregation. Analyze that song and learn something from it.
You’ll be surprised how accepting congregations can be if you treat them well musically. It takes work, thought, and prayer.
Take encouragement from John Wesley’s Directions for Singing: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” Let’s work together to make this happen in the Church.
Dr. Jeff Bell is professor of Music at Olivet Nazarene University. He has worked in various positions of Church Music leadership for the past 30 years, and is currently organist and choir director at College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais, IL.