Proposed Criteria for Selecting Worship Songs
by Greg Kabakjian
To select four songs on any given Sunday is to simultaneously reject thousands of other Christian worship songs. So why choose the songs we do? How do we decide which ones to reject permanently? How can we fulfill, to our greatest ability, the Biblical paradigm for congregational singing? This brief list is an attempt to ensure a regard for Biblical principles by creating six foundational criteria for each song to meet. Any thoughtful well-written worship song will easily meet these six.
1. Theologically Orthodox – Quite obviously, the lyrics of every song sung should be in agreement with the Christian faith and based off of Scripture. Additionally, the lyrics should be explicitly orthodox. The singer shouldn’t have to do any intellectual gymnastics, saying “well, it says x, but it actually means y.”
Charles Wesley’s famous hymn “And Can it Be” has a line that says “that Thou my God dist die for me.” A proper understanding of the hypostatic union reveals that it would be impossible for God to die and that it was Christ’s human nature that died on the cross. This hymn forces the singer to either accept that we worship a god that can die, or, that the lyrics simply do not mean what they appear to mean.
2. Theologically Significant and Clear – We ought not settle for a song, or resolve to sing it, simply because it lacks heresy. A song selected for worship must be theologically significant in that it addresses an important aspect of the Christian faith.ii A song should also be clear and perspicuous in its intended meaning.
The singer shouldn’t have to read their own meaning into the song in order to sing something substantial. One of the purposes of gathering for corporate song is that we all mean the same thing when we sing. Think of the song “Deep Cries Out” by Bethel. The song repeats the phrases “Deep Cries Out to” multiple times without ever explaining what is meant by “deep crying.”
3. Lyrically Comprehensible – Though this is rarely an issue with pop-styled worship music, it bears to mention that worship songs are not academic lectures. Song lyrics should be able to be understood by the average layperson in the congregation.
By able to be understood, I do not mean that all the songs are simple such that everyone can sing them with perfect understanding the first time they hear them. Some songs will take work to learn, there will be unknown words and even unknown concepts. The point is, that with some effort, the vast majority of the congregation will be able to comprehend the intended meaning of the song.
4. Appropriate for, and Applicable to, a Congregational Gathering – A song being sung by all should not focus on the individual, but on the whole of those gathered. Individualistic songs have a place in our private devotional activity, but not in the corporate Assembly of God’s children. We should celebrate what is common to all of us, not just to some.
Therefore, we should be cautious around songs that focus on human feeling or repeatedly use singular first person pronouns. For example, the song “Amazing Grace” has a line that says “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.” I cannot sing that line truthfully, for I do not remember the time of my regeneration.
5. Musically Singable – In addition to lyrical simplicity, the musical score selected shouldn’t be too musically difficult for the average layperson to learn and sing. Some songs might be perfectly fitting for an individual to sing, but not a group. For example, although I love classical and rap, both of these genres are unfit for congregational singing because of their lack of ability to have lyrics sung by a group.
6. Musically and Lyrically Congruous – The form of music, in addition to the lyrics, conveys meaning. You wouldn’t play a kazoo at a funeral, because the form of music the instrument produces conveys a meaning that is contrary to the seriousness of a funeral. For a comical example, listen to some “One Song to the Tune of Another” episodes by “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” on YouTube. Or try singing “Hurt” by Johnny Cash to the tune of “Tiptoe through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim.
Because both music and lyrics carry meaning, it is necessary that these meanings not conflict with one another. It would be unfitting to play a kazoo at a funeral, it would likewise be unfitting to pair worship lyrics with a song that is musically inferior. T. David Gordon writes in his essay “Criteria for Selecting Hymns” that “Music is an emotional reality, and when the emotions evoked by the musical score differ from those suggested by the lyrics, the resulting dissonance is unsatisfying, if not emotionally distracting.”
GREG KABAKJIAN is the associate pastor at West Shore Baptist Church in Camp Hill, PA. Greg earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Messiah College where he met his wife Alexis. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA.