Why We Sing What We Sing
By Ben Bechtel
Below is a criteria that I put together for my church, Community Evangelical Free Church of Harrisburg, to function as a guide and criteria for the songs that we sing on Sunday mornings. It was originally posted at Benjamin Vrbicek's blog, Fan and Flame.
Selecting what songs to sing on Sunday morning is a lot like walking through a wooded forest with tons of different trails—all while a crowd of people shouts at you which path they think you should take.
Christians ought to love music and be passionate about the songs we sing on Sunday mornings. But we don’t all agree on what makes for a good song. Some want fast songs; others want slow songs. Some want hymns; others want the songs played on Christian radio. Still others want “hipster worship songs,” songs you’ve probably never even heard of.
It doesn’t take long to get lost in this massive maze of musical possibility.
Let’s look at it by the numbers. If you sing five songs per week, that is around 260 songs per year. Now consider that many of those songs are repeated. This leaves only 75-125 unique songs. This may sound like a lot of variety but consider the thousands of songs that have been written over the history of the church. As a director of music in a local church, this feels overwhelming.
To find a way forward, I knew I needed to create a map to help navigate this maze. The following is my attempt to sketch this map. I’ve drawn it for my particular local church but I hope you’ll find it helpful too . . . even if, in the end, you choose more hymns or hipster songs than we do.
1. Gospel-Centered and God-Centered
We sing songs on Sunday morning to ascribe glory and honor to God. Our primary factor for determining a song to sing is whether or not it focuses on God and His action in history to redeem sinners. They should be songs inspired by and based on the Word of God, which always presents God in his rightful place—the main character of the biblical story and our lives.
Songs that have their primary focus on what we are going to do for God or those mainly about human feelings, are not helpful because they have a tendency to take our focus off God and place the focus on us.
The kinds of songs we want to sing in corporate worship, are those that primarily have a Godward focus, emphasizing who He is and what He has done.
Good Example: “Before the Throne of God Above” by Vikki Cook (Spotify, YouTube). This song is filled with gospel-rich content that talks about how Jesus, as our great high priest, makes intercession for us before the Father.
Bad Example: “One Thing” by Hillsong (Spotify, YouTube). When I listen to this song, I love the first verse. It is a confession of how all things other than God fail to satisfy our desires. Amen! And yet I think the rest of the song focuses more on us in terms of our actions of obedience and desire for God instead of shifting our attention from our sin and idolatry to what God has done for us in the Gospel. I don’t think this song is necessarily wrong, but I do think the focus is misplaced.
2. Theological Accuracy
We desire to sing songs that accurately speak about God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Just like we would not value a biography of Abraham Lincoln that contained details about him that weren’t true, so we do not value songs that do not speak accurately about our God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.
This point does not come from a desire to dictate which songs are in our specific “theological tribe” and which aren’t. Rather, it’s an attempt to help our local congregation think about which artists—from a theological perspective—are making the most helpful music.
Good Examples: “When My Heart Is Torn Asunder” by Phil Wickham (Spotify, YouTube) . This song addresses an issue that is not normally sung about in worship music (suffering), and it does so with language and truths drawn from the Bible. It’s a great example of a modern song written with theological accuracy about a hard topic, all the while being done in a contextual and relevant way.
Bad Example: “Great I Am” by Jared Anderson (Spotify, YouTube). Although there are certain aspects of this song that I like a lot, I think there is a certain line that makes it unusable for congregational singing. The first two lines of the song read, “I want to be close, close to your side / so heaven is real and death is a lie.”
At best, this line is just imprecise and careless, but at worst, it undermines the work of Jesus. Death is not a lie. Death is incredibly real. It’s so much a part of reality in this fallen world that God the Father sent his Son to come and die a terrible death to reverse the curse of death.
P.S. I’m not advocating theological nitpicking, but I am saying that we must be sure that what we are singing lines up with the truth about God.
3. Theological Clarity
The phrase “theological clarity” simply means that the song not only doesn’t teach heresy, but it goes a step further in that the song must also be theologically precise. Songs that talk about concepts of God in vague, unclear, and cliché categories are unhelpful to corporate worship.
We want our songs to be filled with truth about God that is presented in a fresh and creative manner, but not at the sacrifice of theological clarity and coherence.
Good Example: “Rejoice” by The Modern Post (Spotify, YouTube). This song talks about many biblical-theological themes such as adoption, reconciliation, suffering, and holiness—all with precise and creative language.
Bad Example: “Holy Spirit” by Bryan and Katie Torwalt (Spotify, YouTube). This song is wildly popular right now and is one of the five most commonly used songs on CCLI. However, this song is a prominent example of how theological ambiguity is unhelpful.
The song talks a lot about the Holy Spirit and His presence. Although the song doesn’t come out and say it, it assumes two big things. First, this song assumes that the Holy Spirit’s presence is manifested most in times of corporate worship (singing). Second, it assumes that the way His presence is manifested is through a subjective feeling.
In a song titled Holy Spirit, you would expect to hear some clear thoughts about the Holy Spirit. Instead, there is only a plea for the Holy Spirit to come and fill a space where corporate singing is taking place.
In its ambiguity, this song teaches that the main way we experience the presence of the Spirit is in singing corporately. The Bible, however, teaches that the Holy Spirit is with us always—not only in the corporate gathering of believers. He is with us—empowering us to be His people—in the mundane, every day stuff of life. He is with us at 3:00 PM during our workday just as much as on Sunday morning at 10:00 AM. Due to its lack of clarity, this song subliminally teaches a theology of the Holy Spirit that is problematic.
We should not just be selective about the lyrical content of the songs we sing as a congregation but also the music itself. There are few things more distracting from the worship of God in a time of singing than a melody that is overly complex and difficult to sing. The only thing more distracting would be a two-minute Van Halen-esque guitar solo in the middle of a song.
Congregational singing is not a concert or a recital. We take great care to select songs that are able to be sung and followed by all.
Good Example: “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music (Spotify, YouTube) and “This Is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham (Spotify, YouTube). Both of these songs have anthem-like melodies that lend themselves very easily to congregational singing. These songs don’t have huge interval jumps or cover multiple octaves. They both have simple, singable, and memorable melodies.
Bad Example: “The Power of the Cross” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (Spotify, YouTube). While the lyrical content of this song is spot on and helpful, the melody of the song itself drags it down. The musical intervals of the melody are hard to follow and jump around a lot. This song, although it teaches great theology, is not easy to sing and thus, isn’t a good fit for congregational singing in our particular church.
We desire that the songs we sing in corporate worship center around one or several main themes and have lyrics that develop and build upon these themes. We do not want to sing songs that are filled with random, generic Christian lingo. Rather, we want to sing songs that flesh out themes from the biblical text in a cohesive yet creative fashion and display them to the church.
Good Example: “Behold Our God” by Sovereign Grace Music (Spotify, YouTube). This is a wonderful song about God as Lord over all creation. The song builds by asking questions of man framed by biblical passages, designed to focus our attention on God as King and covenant Lord over all His creation including ourselves. It then builds to a climax in verse 3 where it speaks of Jesus being God the Lord incarnate who has died, risen, and ascended into heaven where He now sits on His throne. This is one of the best modern examples of beautifully, logically, and coherently building the lyrics of a song.
Bad Example: “You Make Me Brave” by Bethel Music (Spotify, YouTube). When you read the title and hear the bridge of this song, which is the main tagline, it seems as if the main theme of this song is that God casts out fear. Great! That is 100% true.
However, as you listen to the rest of the song, it seems like a random assortment of clichéd phrases bundled together that do not build up to that conclusion. There are neither specific lyrics that lead us to the conclusion that God makes us brave nor any lyrics that explain why we have nothing to fear in life or death. Rather, there is overdone ocean/water imagery and stream of consciousness-like statements about God’s love.
At our church we desire to have a repertoire of songs that gives voice to the full range of human emotion and experience, as well as honors all the aspects of God and His work in the world. We don’t want all of our songs to focus on the love of God or the grace of God, although those are central characteristics of God. We don’t want all of our songs to be happy in tone, although we should rejoice for what God has done in Christ.
There are certain topics or emotions not commonly evoked in modern worship music. Thus, as we add new music to our library, whether it be a new song or an old song rediscovered, we want to have an eye toward enriching and diversifying the various songs we sing.
Good Example: “Speak O Lord” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (Spotify, YouTube). This song blew me away the first time I heard it. This song is a prayer asking for God to speak to His people through His Word. The content of this song, coupled with it’s emotional, prayerful tone, makes it a heavyweight. As far as I am aware, there truly is no other song like it.
Bad Example: Adding a mediocre new song about God’s love when we have a plethora of incredibly written songs about the love of God.
P.S. This is where the Psalms and particularly poetic songs come in handy. The Psalms contain poems of joy, praise, sadness, lament, despair, longing, fear, and all human emotions in between by people seeking to love God in all of life. Whether read or sung, this book is invaluable to our corporate worship because it puts words in our mouth to pray and sing to God in all times of life. As well, poetic songs have a tendency to say old things in fresh, vivid ways. For instance, we recently played the old hymn “The Love of God”, which contains beautiful, poetic language describing God’s love. Consider this stanza:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky
This song, and songs like it, have a way of stirring the affections towards characteristics of God that we may have become stale to us because the ordinary ways of speaking about them are, well, ordinary.
7. Past and Present
I believe there is a great need in worship music to have balance between old and new songs. This is not motivated by the desire to please young people with contemporary music and elderly people with hymns.
In the midst of modern worship culture, we need to remember that the music we sing, and the church for that matter, didn’t start 20 years ago when Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman popped on the scene (although we owe a great deal to them!). Ever since the beginning, God has placed songs in the mouths of his people. Singing lines from the Psalter and old hymns that date back to the Reformation, and even before, reminds us of the rich tradition we have as the people of God and helps keep us anchored in our own history.
Good Example: For our church, a good example of this is when our set on a given Sunday contains both contextualized hymns and contemporary songs. Our goal is to have both in every service.
Bad Example: I think the worst example for us would be a one-dimensional service where we play either all contemporary songs or all hymns.
8. Symmetry with Sermon Themes
One thing we stress very heavily at our church in planning the liturgy is that our songs and Scripture readings should point towards the content and themes of the sermon. The preaching of God’s Word is the most important aspect of the gathered church and we believe that the songs we sing should serve that endeavor.
A carefully crafted worship service with the same biblical themes brought out in all its various aspects allows us not only to hear truths about God but also to praise him for those same truths. Thematic song selection drives the Word of God deeper into the hearts of the people we are leading in worship and produces a greater joy and gladness in God as a result.
Good Example: A service that centers all the elements of the liturgy on several themes from the passage being expounded. For example, our church just recently went through a short series on the book of Titus. The first sermon of the series was on Paul’s greeting to Titus at the beginning of the letter. Although there are numerous themes brought out in this letter, we sang songs such as “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher (Spotify, YouTube) and “How Great Thou Art” (Spotify, YouTube) to capture the themes of resurrection life and the greatness of God and His plans. Then, immediately before the sermon, we sang the song “Grace and Peace” by Sovereign Grace (Spotify, YouTube) which explicitly picks up on the “grace and peace” greeting from many of Paul’s letters and expounds it. This is just one small example of how we structure the service at our church to bring out sermon themes.
Bad Example: There are two errors to beware of. The obvious error is to pay no attention to sermon theme when selecting music. However, another error is to try to select every song around one specific theme in the passage. For instance, if the sermon is on God’s faithfulness, you don’t need to sing five songs on God’s faithfulness (although I’m sure you could!). Rather, a better approach would be strategically placing two or three songs that highlight God’s faithfulness while interspersing a few other songs that highlight other themes in the passage or that simply complement the songs about the specific theme.
9. Reflects and Projects
The songs that we sing, much like the sermons we preach, need to reflect the DNA of a church. As well, the songs that we sing, forecast and project where we want to be and where we are headed in the future.
In selecting songs it is important to know what the people need to sing and the songs that have been particularly impactful in the past. There are certain songs that a church holds dear because of a specific time in the life of the church, and that is great! Songs have a way of defining communities, and I believe this should be celebrated and encouraged with good Gospel-centered “regulars” in the song catalogs of a church.
I also think that songs, just like preaching, need to address issues that will come upon the congregation in the future. Song selection needs to incorporate where the church leadership sees weaknesses and the need for change so that the songs together with the preaching can forge a path for the future by the Spirit of God. In this way, songs will shape the future of a church—again, just as preaching does.
Good Example: Currently our church is seeking to plant a church as well as grow in certain key areas. As I am selecting music, I need to keep an eye on choosing songs that address what we hope to be as the people of God in our local context moving forward while still maintaining who we are currently.
Bad Example: Selecting songs without careful attention to the people in the congregation and the leadership of the church.
10. Best of the Best
Finally, if a song meets all of these criteria, I want to ask, is this song great? Will this be a song worth singing for the next ten years? With the abundance of worship music being written in our day, it is important to be selective. We want to sing only the best that is out there. There are only so many songs you can introduce without overwhelming people. Ultimately, I want to introduce the best songs, both musically and lyrically, for the ultimate goal of serving and aiding the people of my church in giving glory to God through music.
BEN BECHTEL is the director of music and youth ministries at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, PA. Ben earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Liberty University where he met his wife Whitley. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA. You can follow him on Twitter.
 This idea of good and bad examples also comes from Hicks’s article.
 Christian Copyright Licensing International, as of April 2016.