A key aspect of music ministry is choosing the right songs for our congregations to sing. Considering that CCLI® SongSelect® hosts over 100 000 worship songs, there is clearly plenty of material to choose from.
If we agree that Music ministry is a word ministry, then like all other word ministries the ultimate responsibility falls with the elders/leaders of the church. Whilst we might not feel musically gifted ourselves, as gospel ministers we should take an active role in appraising the songs we sing in our churches. But what criteria should we use to assess the songs that we sing?
Biblically speaking, singing is one of the ways that we allow the word to dwell in us richly (Col 3:16). The first criteria then, is asking whether the lyrics of a particular song are biblically informed, but also clear, helpful, and memorable. As Bob Kauflin notes: “For better or worse, our churches will remember more words from our songs they sing than from the sermons they hear.” It is therefore essential our people are singing songs that are worth remembering.
What generally makes a song memorable is not just the words but a combination of the lyrics, melody and rhythm. It is possible then, that a biblically faithful song might not necessarily be the easiest to sing or remember or particularly easy for the band to play. The second criterion then is how easy the song is to actually play and sing in church. ‘Catchy’ tunes with recognisable and repeatable melodies allow our congregation to more easily engage and sing along. A simple indicator would be asking if you can recall and repeat the song yourself.
Along with these two key criteria are some subsequent considerations. Firstly, there is wisdom in playing to your strengths. So if, for example, your music group is guitar led, then it makes sense to generally lean towards guitar led songs. If you are blessed with confident and capable singers then you can be more adventurous leading the congregation with complex melodies, but if, like me, it can be a struggle to hold a tune, then pick those with simpler melodies.
That said, it is worth also saying that there is also wisdom in occasionally stepping outside of your comfort zone and finding strengths you didn’t realise you had! For example, whilst we might think traditional hymns are best left to organists, they tend to have a rhythmical meter that can be played just as well by modern rhythmical instruments such as a guitar.
This leads to another key consideration: balance. In our repertoire, I deliberately have a mixture of both hymns and songs, the theologically sharp and the emotionally aware, the old standards and new additions. I don’t see this as catering for a wider audience, but rather exposing our congregation to a fuller depth of sung worship. It would be a shame to miss out on theologically rich and beautifully crafted hymns, as much as it would be to miss out on more simplified and yet emotionally engaging modern songs.
Ultimately, the final benchmark of a good song is whether or not it actually works. Generally, for us, if the congregation pick it up and sing it well, it stays, but if a song bombs after a few attempts, then we are not afraid of ditching it. It’s not as if there aren’t any others to choose from.
Applying these conditions to individual songs should enable you to create a ‘bank’ of songs that will work in your context and therefore edify and encourage the church. A number of years ago, I heard someone irreverently ask Graham Kendrick whether he regretted penning ‘Shine Jesus shine.’ He humbly and wisely responded ‘I stick by the song, but the church played it to death!’ This highlights the danger of ‘overplaying’ songs so that they lose their impact, but we can also fall for the danger of ‘underplaying’ songs so that our congregations never get familiar with them.
Therefore, in our context, we have deliberately limited this bank of songs to roughly 100 songs. That’s because singing 5 songs a week means that each song gets sung 2 or 3 times a year, with the exception of new songs. New songs initially have to be repeated a bit more often so that people have the opportunity to learn them.
The next step is to use the song bank to pick songs week by week. Rather than randomly spacing out these songs across the year, we have further categorised our songs so that they match with the different phases of our church service.
Our usual service arc follows a pattern: call, confession, corporation, children’s slot, consecration and commission, adding communion when necessary. By tagging songs that reflect the various phases means we can pick appropriately to emotionally connect with our congregation at that point in the service.
Arguably the most important song is the one that follows the sermon, as we noted earlier people remember the songs more than the sermon, it is important to try to get a song that reemphasises some aspect of the sermon. There is wisdom in consulting with the preacher at this point.
Finally, I record all this information in a document. The document contains the song bank, a record of what was played when, a plan for the next term, and finally the frequency that song have been used each term, year and over all time. This is not only invaluable for reporting to CCLI, but helpful in achieving balance.