Music is an integral part of any worship service. In movies worship is often depicted with a strong musical presence, just look at the “Baptism Scene” from The Godfather, all the Sister Act movies, even Home Alone had a scene in church which used music to set the tone.
Music in Contemporary Worship is no different; in fact, it may play a more prominent role because it is often used to create the larger atmosphere and tone for worship (though how is that any different than a beautiful Fugue by Bach as a prelude, none, but we tend to view that with a different bias).
Vicky Beeching, one of my favorite composers/artists, does a great job of putting song choice in perspective when she says we are more likely to hum the songs from worship Tuesday afternoon than ponder the talking points of the pastor’s sermon. So how do music leaders pick the songs for worship: sing-ability, the theology of the song, context within the day’s message, and what about new music? Of course all of these questions should come into play when choosing the songs for worship.
A song for congregational singing must be singable. If the congregation cannot participate in the song it is no longer a song for communal worship; rather it is an offering of music for worship. We as music leaders must take care and be aware of the song’s range and tendencies. If a song is a bit high, try lowering the key. In time there will be a certain number of keys that you find you are constantly working in. But be aware that there are some songs that will not “sing” in a lower key. It may just be too familiar and hearing it in another key just doesn’t sound right. When that is the case I try to rearrange the song and give it a different character (ex. Amy Grant’s version of I Can Only Imagine). Tessitura is another issue relating to range. Some songs just hit the high note (ex. Chris Tomlin’s Amazing Grace, My Chains are Gone.. “and LIKE a flood”), while some will just stay in the upper register (ex. God of this City, the entire chorus). Now, just because a song gets high does not eliminate it from worship, we simply must take care that it is within appropriate range for our settings of worship. If a song just jumps high for a moment it is usually fine, but when a song stays über high it can be exhausting. Remember these songs are for congregational worship, not a performance by the music team. Though there will be times when you come across a song that you really believe in, good lyrics & melody, but it may be not be as accessible. Stick with it, try introducing it as an offertory or as special music. Use it in consecutive weeks or play a recording before/after worship. I believe congregations enjoy good songs, so we must try to avoid pandering to the lowest common denominator.
New songs are exciting, fun, and at times very tough. Isaiah 42:10 says, “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” Seems rather clear to me, after all, we would like our pastors to come up with new prayers for each service. So why limit ourselves to a certain catalog of music? Let’s use those songs that are now on the radio or making the conference circuit. And our congregations love good music, and once they learn a song it is no longer “a new one.” While new songs we find are great fun, we must not overwhelm the congregation. Tim Hughes’ has found that many congregations do their best with two new songs a month, and I would agree. This also works well for your music team. It will challenge them without leaving them frustrated. And the congregation can anticipate that there will be new songs in the future.
The theology of a song should trump all other aspects. There are many songs by Christian artists I love, I own the CD, love to sing and play, but will not play during worship because I do not believe in the theology, the message behind it, or I find it rather vapid. Music leaders are obligated to read the lyrics, keeping in mind that the words we sing may make the biggest impact on someone during worship. Sometimes a quick change in lyrics can produce a fix. And there are times when learning the story of a song’s birth can provide insights and new meaning to the lyrics, making them appropriate as long as this new info is passed along. Such as with “Blessed Be Your Name;” I’m not a fan of the bridge, You give and take away… But that song was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and was the Redmans’ dealing with that situation as they saw it.
Songs in worship should strengthen the sermon and paint the meanings of the message in musical form. If a song does not do this, what is its function? Just to be awesome? Aligning songs and sermons require planning and coordination between the pastor and music leader. Sometimes this is super easy, the pastor will simply give themes or passages from the bible for the music leader to draw from. But some ministers do not like to plan their sermons far enough in advance for the planning of music. When that is the case I advise music leaders to use the lectionary and keep a theme within the music. Music leaders should always respect the pastor’s process and find out what works for them – every situation is different – and sometimes we may be left with only the faith that the sermon and music will work together. Hopefully, when song choices are made prayerfully, the sermon will line up with the music in some way.
Choosing the music for worship could be the most important task for music leaders. It should be approached with care and prayer. I believe when we choose songs that are musically sound, have a strong theology, and work within the service, have the best chance to give someone the tools to continue their walk of faith.