As the new year began, three thoughts came to me about the kinds of songs we should be leading in our churches or ministries. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but it might serve as the bare minimum for how we choose our songs.
1. Choose songs people CAN sing.
This should be obvious. But important things often are—obvious and neglected.
In one sense, people can sing just about anything. I’ve been in concert settings where crowds are belting out high Gs, complicated rhythms and obscure lyrics with unbridled enthusiasm and gusto. Even though it might not sound that pleasant, there’s no question that they’re singing along. But it’s because they’ve listened to it a gazillion times.
In the church (and even at a conference), we shouldn’t assume people have the same songs on their iTunes. Or that everyone even uses iTunes. That’s due both to our individualized musical culture and the multigenerational nature of the church. In the church, we haven’t gathered to use the key that makes the leader sound best, because the entire congregation is singing!
So, here are some suggestions for how to know whether songs are “singable.”
1. They can usually be picked up after the first or second hearing, primarily due to melodic or rhythmic repetition.
2. They typically fall within a range of a low A to a high D. You can get by with higher or lower if the song doesn’t stay there long.
3. They don’t have melodies with a lot of unexpected twists or ones that are so bland no one can remember them.
4. The leader sings the melody consistently and doesn’t add stylistic variations every other bar.
2. Choose songs people WANT TO sing.
I’ve read thoughts from well-meaning individuals that make it sound like God cares nothing about musical likes and dislikes. That may be true in some sense, but not categorically. Singing is meant to be pleasant (Ps. 135:3, 147:1)! Of course, the primary reason it’s pleasant is because we’re meditating on and proclaiming the works, word and worthiness of our great God and Savior.
But it can be musically pleasant as well. A great lyric can go unheard for decades, if not centuries, because it’s wedded to a poor melody. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” was around for decades before it started getting traction when it was set to an American tune.
Here are a few thoughts on determining whether people want to sing a song:
1. People comment on how much they enjoyed singing it.
2. The majority of the congregation is actually singing the song with enthusiasm.
3. The melody grows on you rather than sounding old or tired by the end of the song, or after the second week.
4. The melody emotionally affects you and the people you lead.
5. The rise and fall of the melody correspond with the emotional rise and fall of the lyric. In other words, when you want to belt out some truth about God, you’re in the higher range of your voice.
3. Choose songs people SHOULD sing.
You can choose songs people can sing and want to sing and still fail to choose songs that people should sing. This category may actually trump the other two categories at times. Songs that feel good aren’t always songs that are good for you. Songs that we should sing will eventually feel good to us because they conform our minds and emotions to God’s Word.
The Psalms are the primary reference we have for the kinds of songs we should sing as God’s people. They contain a number of phrases that we generally feel uncomfortable singing. Lyrics about discouragement, trials, questions and disconnectedness. They also contain a lot of words. They’re also more focused on lyrics than musical setting. Lots to learn from the psalms.
Col. 3:16 says we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God. That “word of Christ” is the gospel of Christ, the good news that Jesus has come to rescue sinners from sin, judgment, death and hell through his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross.
It includes the fact that he was fully God and fully man, lived a perfect life of obedience, died in our place, rose from the dead, ascended to the Father’s right hand and is now interceding for his people and will return one day to reign forever. Do our songs make those realities clear in people’s minds and hearts?
Here are some thoughts on how to know which songs we should sing.
1. People know better who Jesus is, what he did and why he did it through singing our songs.
2. They help people deepen their theology and connect with history.
3. There’s a good chance we’ll be singing these songs a year from now, maybe even five, maybe even 100.
4. People walk away with truth that changes them, and not just tunes that move them.
5. There is enough content in our songs to stand on its own without any music.
6. A particular song brings a variety of feeling, depth and/or length to the songs we’re singing (i.e., psalms, hymns and spiritual songs).
Like I said, this is in no way comprehensive and I don’t intend these to be hard and fast rules. But if you’re responsible for choosing songs, I pray this post nudges you toward being more purposeful and selective in the coming days. Songs are just one part of the Christian life, but led intentionally and wisely, they can be a means of grace to change people’s hearts and transform lives for the glory of the Savior. Let’s not miss the opportunity.