How Should We Pick Songs To Sing In Church?

How do we decide which songs to sing in church?

What criteria should we use?  Should we pick songs simply because they feel good or move us emotionally?  Should we pick them because they give us some kind of “worship experience”?

In Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, T. David Gordon says that in the past, churches did not include the criteria of “contemporaneity” (whew – I can barely say that word) when selecting hymns for their hymnals.  In other words, hymnal revision committees didn’t select songs just because they had a cool contemporary sound.  He gives the following list of some of their main criteria:

  • theologically orthodox lyrics
  • theologically significant lyrics
  • literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics
  • lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visible people
  • well-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form
  • musical setting appropriate to the lyrical content

In other words we should choose songs that:

  • Are doctrinally sound (Is it biblically accurate?  Years ago, we sang a song about blowing a trumpet and victory and when I looked up the passage in the Bible it was about God’s judgment on his people)
  • Are significant  (“Joy is the flag flown from the castle of my heart when the king is in residence there” – wave your handkerchief above your head as you sing -  it’s probably true but is it significant?)
  • Have creative lyrics (Come on now, we can do better than “You saved my soul and made me whole”), yet “literarily apt and thoughtful”  (One man I know once said, “God is so good – he’s like a greasy piece of fried chicken” – creative, but the metaphor doesn’t work too well)
  • Have good music (Raise your hand if you want boring music and melodies)
  • Have music that’s appropriate for the lyrics (Does a snarling death-growl vocal fit lyrics declaring the holiness and majesty of God?  Maybe it could to some, but if possible we should seek to appeal to a wide audience).  We should seek music and melodies that highlight the lyrics.

Sometimes a theologically sound and significant hymn can be revitalized by giving it some fresh music.  Sometimes cool contemporary songs have powerful music, but shallow or biblically inaccurate lyrics.

It’s not a question of old versus new or hymns versus choruses.  It’s not so much a matter of musical style.  We want to sing the truth.  And we want the music to serve the lyrics.

We want to choose songs with lyrics and music that will best enable us to fulfill Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

photo by Leo Reynolds

  • Matt

    I wonder… in what sense should we use the word "cool" to describe ANYTHING associated with our worship of Father, Son, and Spirit?

    • Mark Altrogge

      Good point Matt – I could have just left the word "cool" out. I meant music that would have a current sound, which I might describe as cool. Probably would have been better just to leave it out.

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  • Elaine

    We are thankful our church strives to sing songs that are musically excellent and theologically sound; what a blessing to know our children are growing up with that as an expectation of corporate worship. We are grateful.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Thanks so much Elaine. You are always so encouraging. I love it that your daughter is on the worship team too!

  • http://www.theverticall.blogspot.com Blaine

    In my observations, the songs that really move people in our church (whether they realize it or not is perhaps another question) are the ones that are the strongest theologically and doctrinally. It just so happens that these tunes also have a satisfying melody and arrangement. Believe it or not, these are the songs our teenagers ask for again and again!

    • Mark Altrogge

      That's great Blaine!

    • http://etimodnar.livejournal.com Kathryn

      The first song that really grabbed me as a pre-teen was 'how deep the Father's love'. I wanted to sing it over and very, and it brought me to tears. Even now I love it and would say it fulfills all that criteria.

  • http://www.theverticall.blogspot.com Blaine

    …and I might also add that these songs span the ages. There are songs written in every era that are worthy of congregational celebration of our Savior. :)

    • Mark Altrogge

      Amen – and those are the kinds of songs we should be trying to write and choose for our worship. And I like what you said earlier – they are strong theologically and have a satisfying melody. Theology/doctrine is prime, music secondary, but good music can enhance or support the theology, like a black velvet background can make a diamond stand out more beautifully.

  • ekcbntmkr

    Not to be snooty, but in the last paragraph is should be versus, not verses.

    • ekcbntmkr

      To prove I'm not snooty I make a grammatical error while correcting yours. Facepalm.

    • Hope

      Yeah, normally I try not to get hung up on misspellings, but in this case *verses* are part of the matter under discussion. I stared at the words for awhile, trying to figure out if “old verses new” had something to do with the writing of new melodies for old verses. Eventually I realized it would read far more easily as *versus*. :-)

    • Mark Altrogge

      You're exactly right. I'll change it. Thanks! The nuns who taught me in grade school would have circled that in red.

  • http://sightregained.com Louis Tullo

    As someone who sings at church I couldn't more agree with your criteria. It's so great when you can get enveloped in worshipful singing at church because the song leader carefully thought out what they'd be doing. A lot of leaders should be asking themselves these questions when picking their song sets. :)

    • Mark Altrogge

      Thanks Louis! Yes the job of worship leader is serious – the lyrics we sing feed our souls and preach the truth to us. It's not just a warm up for the preaching.

  • fredokie

    And it must be loud – to get God's attention!

    • Mark Altrogge

      Or for us old people to hear….

    • Woody Bailey

      Or to aid in losing our hearing.

  • Tim

    Excellent insights. I particularly agree that we should always start with orthodoxy, then move to the other areas. Nothing makes up for bad doctrine.

    Tim

    • Mark Altrogge

      You are so right Tim, "Nothing makes up for bad doctrine" – even the best music.

  • http://vyrso.com ann metcalf

    I struggle with this topic. I do not want to criticize churches for singing songs, but it is painful to go to a service where it is all about fluffy emotional love songs to Jesus where so much of the worship is focused on "me" and "I" and not on Biblical words. Our church sticks to mostly Hymns and pslams this helps me memorize scripture!

    • Mark Altrogge

      Years ago I sang a lot of man-centered songs, ann. I agree, our songs should be focused on the Lord – his character and deeds. And it is painful to go to services where man is the focus.

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  • Daniel Lyle

    Thanks for this resource Mark! I'll definitely be making use out of this!

    • Mark Altrogge

      Great Daniel! Thanks!

  • Drew Jones

    From my experiences the main criteria is that the title begin with the one of the first 5 letters of the alphabet. I start in my "A" folder and by the time I make it to my "E" folder, I have enough. Any song title beyond "E" is lost to history.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Wow Drew, I never thought of that criteria. I'll have to remember that next time I attempt to write a song.

  • Andy M

    Mark
    Really good summary. Grateful for this article. Now to get the CCLI to have some form of rating on their songs so worship leader's can't claim ignorance if the song sets chosen for your service are theologically bankrupt and of the "Jesus is my homecoming date" sort of sappy romanticism. :-)

    An observation (for what it's worth). I've recently started having a short session of family worship with my wife and infant daughter every night. a short passage of bible reading and exposition on it, prayer, and a song.
    Many of the songs we love to sing in our church are superb when there is a strong band to direct timing and tone, but when sung acapella by two very amateur singers, the awkward timings in many contemporary songs make things difficult. Is this an artefact of the guitar driven tunes we have in contemporary music?

    • Mark Altrogge

      I don't know Andy – it could be. Many contemporary songs have rhythmic phrasings. I haven't thought much about it, but I'll probably be more sensitized to it since you mentioned it.

  • FrodoFan

    I would add the following criterion: The song must have a melody that's singable by a congregation. That means not too wide or high a range (limiting to an 8va and a 3rd works well, and nothing above about a D or Eb), and not so rhythmically syncopated or tricky that you need a degree in rock 'n' roll and jazz to accurately execute it. Keep it simple!

    • MarkAltrogge

      Excellent addition!

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  • jun ang

    very wonderful and, as always, informing and encouraging. That's why I probably like all mark altrogge songs even if I didn't know you wrote those songs (or even if this doesn;t make sense). :-)

    • Mark Altrogge

      Thanks jun! I'm grateful you'd like any of my songs! Even if you didn't know I wrote them!

  • Peter

    Hi Mark. Excellent thoughts on matters of lyrics and melody, but what about some of the other significant ways music can impact a congregation? For example, I have been in some services where the repetition of words or musical/rhythmic techniques are being used as a form of psychological manipulation. As the beat and volume builds to a frenetic climax, the entire congregation is worked into an ecstatic frenzy. Is this something we should be concerned about or is it okay because people are still "worshipping Jesus"? Thanks.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hi Peter, I've not been in any meetings like you described but like I said, the music should serve the lyrics or the doctrine we're singing. People should be moved by who God is and what he has done – by the truth – by theology – rather than whipped into a frenzy by music. And I would not see it being "worshipping Jesus" if it's just becoming emotionally moved by music. Thanks for asking this question!

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  • http://www.tulipgirl.com TulipGirl

    "lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and his visible people"

    This is an aspect with which our current place of worship struggles. It is not only an interdenominational congregation, but also international. Some of the more complex rhythms and melodies, as well as word patterns, are not conducive to corporate worship — especially with a congregation worshiping in English but with a wide variety of mother tongues.

    I haven't know how to approach the leadership about this. . . those who facilitate the music aspect of the corporate worship are volunteering their time and gifts. While they are talented, they are also extremely busy. I don't want to be negative or complaining. . . yet, it is difficult to join corporately in worship when there are barriers such as these.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hi TulipGirl,

      I think you could approach those in charge and tell them about this without being negative or complaining – you could tell them how much you appreciate all they do and then humbly offer your observations – your motive is that God would be glorified and his people built up! I know we would appreciate these kinds of observations. At least I hope we would!

  • David Wilcox

    I very much agree with everything you've written here, Mark. Thanks for an excellent overview of how to pick songs.

    If I could be so bold, I'd like to ask you to nuance a bit more this one parenthetical idea – "If possible we should seek to appeal to a wide audience." What exactly do you mean by that? How wide to you mean?

    As far as musical style goes, I think I see many churches falling into three traps: 1) choosing songs based on a style they think will appeal to the people they want to have come to their church; 2) choosing music based on various styles because it's cool to be "eclectic" and "creative" ; 3) using the same style for all songs because that's what we've always done.

    I'm beginning to think that what is most important in style (and other factors) is who is already in the congregation. What style is going to most easily allow them to sing to God without having them think about the music.

    Thoughts?

    • Mark Altrogge

      I like your last paragraph David – "What style is going to most easily allow them to sing to God without having them think about the music" – that's basically what I had in mind with seeking to appeal to a wide audience. I think we should consider our congregation, because we want to serve those we already have, yet I can also see the value of considering choosing songs that those we want to come could relate to musically, so they can hear the gospel in those songs. For example, if a congregation is mostly older, and they want to reach more young people, should they consider including some songs that musically appeal to younger folks or rigidly hold to a style of music they like more? I think churches should do both if possible – both more classical sounding hymns as well as more modern sounding songs – IF the lyrics remain the most important thing.

      And in arrangements we can be "creative" because God is creative and we're made in his image, as long as our creativity doesn't obscure the lyrics.

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  • daniellyle

    Hi Mark, I was just reading another post on the same subject and I was wondering if you would be willing to offer your thoughts on it. If so here's the link. http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/12/a-c