Should We Sing That? Picking Songs For Corporate Worship

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“Hey man, listen to this new song from _____. The vibe is sick…” is how the email started. And 3 lines in I heard a lyric that sent me running for my Bible, searching for chapter and verse. Does the Bible really say that? Should we sing that?

This I Believe_MPCCIt’s an exciting time to serve the Church in worship ministry. Some incredible songs are being written today that express sound theological concepts and help to create amazing moments for our churches in corporate worship. Fresh arrangements of cherished hymns are introducing our history – our story – and our experience to a new generation of Christians. That is awesome and I am all for it.

There is a lot of music to wade through as we pick songs for our congregations to sing in corporate worship. How do you choose? What criteria do you use?

Let me lift up a list of questions that I ask about every song we consider using at MPCC. I have developed this list over 25 years in worship ministry and I hope it will be helpful, or at least get you started in writing your own list. And, by the way, I do hope that you have a list. As those who plan and lead worship we need to be prayerful, thoughtful and creative as we plan experiences for our churches.

Here’s my list of questions that I ask about every song we consider using.

  1. Is it true? Obviously we want to make sure that our songs are supported by scripture and that they express ideas and themes that line up with the Word of God.
  2. How is the Holy Spirit speaking to you? Spend time in prayer. Pray for your church, your pastor and your team. What kind of season is your church walking through? How does a particular song speak to your heart? Worship leading comes out of your own experience with God and how He is leading you.
  3. Does it fit us? Worship Leader 101: Know Your Congregation. At our church we do music that fits within a large range of diverse tastes. We embrace multi-generational worship (all ages worshipping together) which I really love, but it does present challenges and the pressure of feeling like we need to hit all age ranges. (sometimes this can leave everyone feeling unsatisfied) This question has several facets to answer. Does it fit our church? Does it fit our culture? Does it fit our team? (who will sing it, who will play it, etc…)
  4. Is it singable? This is a huge one. The vocal ranges of many of the songs are absolutely nuts. Octave jumps within a song are becoming the norm. My stance – and we work to hold fairly firm on this – we rarely ask the congregation to sing above a D. When we do, the guys stop singing and the ladies aren’t sure what to sing. If a song satisfies the other questions and can be transposed into a singable key without losing the integrity or power of the song, we will probably use it. Some worship leaders choose song keys based on their own ability and how they sound in that key. Resist this temptation. It’s not about you.
  5. After listening once, can I tell you what it’s about? This is something I learned from Gloria Gaither in a songwriting class in college. If a song really lands after the first listen and I can give you a good idea of what it’s about (the theme or big idea) and even remember some of the lyrics…the song has accomplished something. Now you need to listen to it in light of your other questions too. I always try to remember…by the time we do a new song in our services, I’ve probably listened to it 100 times. But, many in our congregation will be hearing it for the first time and we are asking them to enter in and participate. (I’ll write later about how we work to teach new songs)
  6. Does it encourage participation? This is a must. Corporate worship is not a spectator sport or concert. There are moments when we have songs that we want the congregation to sit and listen to but for the most part, we are looking for a high level of participation. We want to ENGAGE them in an experience where they connect with God in a powerful way so that He can change their lives.
  7. What is our theme? We plan thematically. What that means for us is that we plan around the theme of the message OR around an attribute of God that fits the theme.
  8. Does it fit with the set we are planning? Flow is so incredibly important. We work hard to make our sets flow theologically, thematically and musically. Each song leads us into the next one with as little distraction as possible. We try to never make awkward key changes and when we do change keys we make sure it is an easy musical transition over a common tone. This is an art form that we are losing. As a worship leader you need to be a musician that works at his or her craft. Your congregation will notice the difference. Study music theory and have an understanding of how to make smooth musical transitions.
  9. Does it challenge us? As I mentioned earlier, Worship Leader 101 is to Know Your Congregation. Get to know their hearts. Learn how they respond. You will get a feel for how much you can push them musically, how frequently you can teach new songs and what styles or arrangements fit the culture of your church. From that foundation, you can decide on how much to experiment. Here’s an example. We don’t do a lot of southern gospel music at our church but a few times a year, we will pull out a song from that genre and I have been really encouraged to see our congregation enter in and go with it.

Be prayerful. Be thoughtful. Do new songs and old songs. Vary your styles and listen to a lot of music from a wide variety of bands and artists. God deserves our best efforts in planning and preparation and so does our congregation.

MPCC Night Of Worship 2015 :: Photo Credit - Chris Williams

MPCC Night Of Worship 2015 :: Photo Credit – Chris Williams


11 Responses to “Should We Sing That? Picking Songs For Corporate Worship”
  1. Erik Boehm says:

    I would add on to ‘Is it singable?’, to rarely go below B. The ideal range is Middle C to the next C an octave above, however most songs stretch this in some way. Preferably go a little lower, as A to C is the spread many use, but Tenors are going to have difficulty with the lower end. More than anything, the phrasing is going to make the difference. If it hits the more difficult notes when you have had a chance to catch your breath and just passes on by them, it will probably be fine. If you have to sustain them or the song lives in the extremes of those ranges, it probably won’t work for congregational singing. Unfortunately, many newer worship song don’t seem to take this into consideration at all, however many old hymns didn’t either (as the melody line was usually written just for Sopranos). There isn’t anything wrong with those songs. Many are good, meaningful songs, but I save them for a Solo/Special Music Gifts, instead of using them for congregational singing.

  2. Brian Tabor says:

    Great thoughts, Erik. Thanks for reading!

  3. B. Lynn says:

    Our church’s playlist mostly consists of the K-LOVE contemporary Christian Top 40, plus whatever People’s Church or Prestonwood are doing. Leaves me bored, and not in a particularly worshipful state of mind.

    Take one of the latest hits, Chris Tomlin’s version of “Good, Good Father”. It has a whopping three-note vocal range–do, re, mi–for verse and chorus, branching out to add fa and sol for the bridge. Plus it’s pitched in A, so “sol” is a high E for an alto; or if you drop it the octave, “do” goes below middle C for a soprano. Great for young tenor lead singers, not so much for the rest of us. And the depth of the lyrics! “It’s who You are, it’s who You are, it’s who You are, and I’m loved by You, it’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am.” Repeated ad libitum, ad infinitum. With the odd–I mean “cutting-edge” chord structure, it’s nearly impossible to harmonize with if you aren’t a trained musician: A sus, D2, Bm7, E (add 4). So I sit there and don’t sing.

    Our worship pastor does try to work in arrangements of old hymns, or even newer hymns such as those from The Gettys. But the hymn alone isn’t good enough for the arrangers, who have to “improve” it by interpolating 8 to 16 measures of musical gems such as “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, ohh.” (do, re, mi, re, mi, re, me, sol, mi) between verses [In Christ Alone]. Think the congregation can sing that back easily? Will they remember, on the repeat, to sing sol-do instead of sol-mi? Nope. So they lip-sync, or just stand there.

    We used to do a much wider variety of music, from “Holy Highway” to “People Need The Lord” to “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name”; arrangements by Camp Kirkland, Don Moen, Jack Price, Randy Vader. But that went by the wayside 20 years ago with a change in leadership. Now everything sounds alike. Similar tempos, similar chord structures, a small range of keys that are easy for the praise band and praise team.

  4. Brian Tabor says:

    Ranges of songs are definitely a challenge today.

  5. David Hobbs says:

    Music “of the church” today is truly sick. Please don’t offer your one exception. K-“luv” is the blind leading the blind. Trivial lyrics and trivial music are the tools of trivial, cheap spirituality. The business of Christianity has invaded Christian music and worship in a big way. Sadly, the talent pool does not seem to be there to turn this around. From the pulpit to the “performers” it’s all more about keeping the big “show” rolling on rather than addressing the state of things. I hope and pray for a new thing. What we have now in place of worship will never stand the test of time. Sick? Maybe unto death. I hope the church will demand more and not just continue to wander away.

  6. Brian Tabor says:

    I hope and pray that you can find the worship experience you are searching for. I can’t speak for the Church as a whole, and would never assume that ability; but, I believe that there are a great wealth of new and old songs alike out there that are allowing us to sing Biblical Truth. I respectfully disagree that music of the Church is sick. To the contrary I believe we are living in a time where Church music is bringing Biblical Truth to life in fresh and new ways.

  7. Jerry Patterson says:

    Years ago, I read a book “How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious. I believe it was by a Smith. At any rate, it had a chapter that told how to divide good and bad songs. Good songs were songs that made you feel good about yourself. Bad songs were those songs that glorify God. Of course, this is satire. The first criteria for a worship song should be “Does it glorify God, or does it just brag about what I have or am going to have? I will illustrate: Fannie Crosby’s great hymn, To God be the glory.” “To God be the Glory. Great Things He has done. So loved he the world that He sent his own son. Who yielded his life an atonement for sin. And opened the life gate that all might go in.” The opposite is what we have in the popular, “I’ve got a mansion.” All of this is not about what God has done, it is man-centered on what I am going to get. By the way, when I have preached on this, I have felt that people resented me pointing this out.

  8. Brian Tabor says:

    Amen and absolutely our music needs to glorify God!

  9. susan says:

    Such a good article – thank you

  10. Ginger Lawson says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this!

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  1. […] Brian Tabor shares nine questions to ask about a song before you add it to your worship catalog: […]

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