On Choosing Songs

It is the  contradiction for worship planners:

Pick songs your congregation knows YET pick new songs for your congregation to learn.

Yep, we gotta sing songs people know, otherwise, they won’t sing.  How can they?  Yet, if we keep singing the same songs again and again, we go nowhere in the ongoing story of God’s salvation.

Here are some thoughts that I would toss out to a worship leader who might be in the throes of picking songs for Sunday.  These principles are tested and proven mostly right in my short experience in congregational worship leading.

1) Don’t start with a new song.  Think of the worship service as a balloon.  High energy calls to worship, hopeful scripture readings, and genuinely joyful worship leaders are all elements that inflate with the wind of the Spirit.  Included in that inflation is the familiarity of the right song.  No, not always fast, but always familiar.  A new song says “you’re not invited to this — this is for us”, which doesn’t do much for getting people engaged in worship.  It’s like an inside joke that you’re not part of.  People are laughing, but you’re just waiting for the moment to pass.  Worst of all, new songs deflate, which is okay, as long as you replace the air.  Use the air carefully.

Instead — teach a new song nestled between a couple of well-known songs.  Bridge unfamiliarity between two sturdy piers.  Give people permission to learn it, run it through, and then move on to familiar territory.  Bring it back next week.  Keep the balloon inflated.

2) Piecemeal and marry the better known songs with the really well known songs.  There’s something about going from a classic like How Great Is Our God into a grand classic like How Great Thou Art.  That’s a good marriage.  Can you fit Mighty to Save with All The Way My Savior Leads Me?  of course.  Don’t force it, but do play matchmaker.

3) Pay Attention.  Worship Leaders get into ruts.  I think it has to do with how we rehearse a line, a lick, a riff — again, again, again.  We have to pay attention to where the congregation locks in.  They’re not musicians (most of them) and so a song/melody/version that resonates deserves special attention.  This may only be for a season.  For example, for about 18 months, Revelation Song was an incredibly moving song for a congregation I served.  Today, it would be a nice remembrance.  But we’ve moved on.  Pay attention to that, too. And don’t overuse the good ones, lest you prematurely kill them.

The Holy Spirit will be an amazing help in all of this.  Listen.

Epilogue: I am still amazed by the staying power of hymns.  I mentioned How Great Thou Art as a song that even marginally churched people could probably recall by v2.  Try that with Shine, Jesus, Shine, and it just won’t be the same.  Could the hymns have some kind of Spiritual power that runs in tandem with revival?

If you’ve read this far, I sure would appreciate it if you could add to the conversation, even pointing out the places where you think I’m off (or grumpy).  Comment if you dare, either here or on fb.






About radamdavidson

When I'm not blogging, I'm hanging out with my family, pastoring a church, or listening to vinyl. I think and write about Jesus, music, communication, organizational leadership, family whatnot, and cultural artifacts from the 1980's -- mostly vintage boomboxes. You can read my blog at www.radamdavidson.com, watch [RadCast], a daily 3 minute video devotional, or find me on socials (@radamdavidson). I also help Pastors in their preaching and public speaking (www.CoachMyPreaching.com).
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9 Responses to On Choosing Songs

  1. Ed & Donna McMurray says:

    As one of those that loves the hymns, I think you have given a new slant to incorporating new with old that I could live with.

    I still love hymns and could sing them until the day I die, without ever singing a praise chorus. The theology of the old hymns speaks to me and many others. I’m sorry, but singing them again and again doesn’t stop me from going somewhere ” in the ongoing story of God’s salvation.” You’ve read the Bible more than once right?

    When I first became a Christian, I didn’t know all those hymns that the Free Methodists sing/sang. I grew to love them and they touched my heart then and still do.

    A generous mix of old and new works for me. Some of those praise chorus’ touch my heart just like the hymns do. What I don’t like is LOUD, the singers screeching to be loud, and the 7 – 11 songs……you know the same 7 words eleven times. There is no sustenance in that for me.

  2. Good point, Ed (& Donna/or Donna). I was just talking with a professor friend of mine who teaches worship arts about “hovering” — where a congregational song hovers over the same chorus and sings it 38 times, aka 7-11.
    Interestingly enough, some of the Psalms are quite redundant. Psalm 136 says “his love endures forever” like 26 times.
    There is something to be said about the power of repetition, as long as it is used carefully and thoughtfully. In other words, if we’re going to repeat something, let’s repeat the right something the right number of times.

  3. Dorothy Evans says:

    Thanks for this well thought out message. I sing like a frog but enjoy singing the more familiar music best. (Oh! No! Now you will only play unfamiliar ones.) I do find it hard to keep singing verses over and over near the end of the song. There is always one song that remains with me through out the week. I love that.

  4. Many songs get stuck in my head, Dorothy. It’s always best when the stuck song is a hymn like “And Can It Be?”

  5. I haven’t spent much time picking songs (COUGH!), but if I were to try it sometime:

    1. I would try to pick songs which best complement the Scripture reading or sermon. “There Is A Fountain,” for example, is one of my favorite songs, but if we’re not approaching Holy Week, and the sermon doesn’t refer directly to salvation, redemption, baptism, drowning sinners in blood, etc., then I’m a little less inclined to see a connection.
    2. I would spend a lot of time studying the Scripture references for the week before picking a song. I would try to know as much, if not more, about the passages being read or referenced as my pastor. For example, once I know that my pastor is going to preach from Matthew 11, and that the chapter begins with Jesus reassuring his condemned cousin, and ends with Jesus saying, “Come to me, all of you who are weak and heavy-laden…,” then a song like “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” means something extra special.
    3. I would stay in touch with the pastor to keep track of where he’s being led with each week’s sermon. I’ve been to services where it felt as though the pastor and worship leader never talked to each other before the service, and I’ve been to ones where it felt like the two shared an office. I’ve had better
    4. On a technical note, I would probably try to either mash old and new songs that complement each other in a meaningful way. Are they both in the same key and meter? If not, can I transition from one to the next well? Is one song fun and simple, but limited in its depth, while another song is in a tricky key, but gives weight to the lighter song?

    Of course, now some of you are thinking, “Well, if you have so many ideas, maybe you should start selecting songs for your church’s worship service.”

    Well, anonymous person, maybe I will. Maybe I will… 🙂

  6. Well, Pastor Adam, you present a well-thought approach which I agree with, esp.” 3) Pay Attention.” I also agree with comments above that there seems to be something special about many of the old hymns (familiarity?) that appeals to me. And I, too, find that too many repetitions of a phrase tends to irritate me – so does overly loud music. To me music should be pleasant even if it is a “joyful noise”, and when it hurts my hearing it ceases to be pleasant no matter how much I like the song. By the way, I like nearly all the songs we have heard the past several months, but not always the volume.

    • Ed & Donna McMurray says:

      John: Fortunately for me when the music gets too loud, I just turn down my hearing aids.

      I can remember talking to the music leader after he came back from Rick Warrens church (which is really loud I’m told) I complained that music was too loud. His response was that’s the effect we are trying to achieve. Which apparently was turn up the music, turn down the lights and never again open the pew hymnals.

  7. I remember a Southern Gospel quartet doing a concert at a church where I was on staff. Amazingly, their sound system was louder than what we had in house, but no one complained about the volume. Seriously — like over 90db, but not a one complaint from over 1,000 attendees. We came to two conclusions:

    1) Loud seems really loud if the sound isn’t clear (most churches have older sound systems that first show their age in speaker efficiency, woofer travel, etc.) Plus, some sound systems are variable in their amplifications — like the 1KHz zone — which can seem downright piercing to some ears, palatable to others. Newer sound systems have better preamps, amplifiers, and speaker coverage.

    2) Loud seems loud if you don’t like the music that much. If, however, a listener thinks it’s better than sliced bread, it doesn’t seem loud because its so enjoyable.

    I find the second point especially true at home. I’ll crank up something I really dig, and Emily will usually turn it down when I’m not looking. Yet, if she’s listening to something that I’m not all that into, I just wanna leave because it almost hurts. Hurts!

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