Choosing songs to sing in corporate worship is tricky business. Everyone in the church seems to have an opinion. How then should a pastor or team of elders select music that glorifies God and serves the body?
The style and quality of the music matters, of course. (For some helpful thoughts on church music that touch more on music, see Ed Stetzer’s post here.) Yet I’d suggest that the lyrics are a primary concern—so here are ten questions to ask about the words of any song that you’re considering including in corporate worship.
1. Are the lyrics true? Each song is like a sermon. A preacher should be committed to speaking only those words which accurately reflect biblical truth. Likewise, lyrics must be read carefully before they are selected to be sure they also communicate biblical truth.
2. Are the lyrics true but misleading? Lyrics that are technically true can still be misleading. So it is not enough to affirm the truthfulness of the lyrics; their clarity is important as well. I believe the Brian Doerksen song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” falls into this camp. First, to say that now is the time to worship is true, yet does it lead people to think they were not worshipping during the drive to church? Second, to say “Come, just as you are” is technically true, but does it run the risk of ignoring the important truth that we should come to God with clean hands and a pure heart?
3. Are the lyrics rich? Most of our songs should be not just a theological appetizer, but a feast. Thankfully, there is a growing demand for rich lyrics, which explains the renaissance of older hymns, sometimes set to new music, and even new lyrics with greater theological depth.
4. Are the lyrics God-centered or man-centered? This is a complicated idea. Some man-centered lyrics tend to focus on our response to the Lord’s character or work—and they can be very appropriate. But an abundance of man-centered lyrics can give the congregation a heavy dose of moralism and even discouragement.
Other man-centered lyrics tend to focus upon how we are feeling, how we are doing, or how excited we are about what God has done. Though this may be appropriate, an abundance of this kind of song can lead to shallowness (I’m singing that I feel great when really, I don’t) or pride (it’s all about me). But if the lyrics focus on who God is and what God has done, then we are drawn out of our moralism and our pride and the lyrics begin to preach truth to our hearts, leading us to think and feel the right things.
5. Do the lyrics praise God for who he is and not merely for what he has done? We should be content to sing often about God’s character and not merely about his work. God is honored when we sing his attributes as well as his actions. To sing only about his work is to imply, even unintentionally, that God is good because he saved me. And though this is true, it is also true that God is good because he is good—and we should recognize that truth in song.
6. Do the lyrics explicitly address the atoning work of Christ on the cross? Though not every song will explicitly mention the cross, the majority of our singing must be cross-centered since that is what makes it Christian. Though it is wonderful to sing the psalms, and we should sing them, we should be aware that a good Jew could sing them, if not always embracing their fullest meaning. The lyrics of our songs should specifically teach the congregation about the atonement.
7. Are the lyrics beautiful? Some writing is better than others. What makes one set of lyrics more beautiful than another is a topic for another day. But several factors should be considered: 1) the use of rhyme and assonance; 2) the use of imagery; 3) the use of elegant versus inflated or florid language; and 4) the use of repetition.
8. Are the lyrics understandable? Some of the older hymns are wonderful for theology students who spend hours reading the Puritans, yet they leave many others scratching their head thinking, “I know I should like this but I just don’t know what it means.” This is where a good service leader makes all the difference. Lines that are hard to understand can be explained beforehand. Or, simple changes can be made to the text so long as the integrity of the hymn is preserved.
9. Are the lyrics familiar? While it is important to introduce new lyrics, every congregation should have a canon of well-worn lyrics that they can return to regularly. Just as good writing rewards re-reading, repeating singing of good lyrics can drive their meaning more deeply into the heart.
10. Do the lyrics fit the theme of the day? Most good song lyrics are appropriate for any service. Can you find any sermon text in the Bible where it would not be appropriate to sing that day of God’s holiness, love, mercy, grace, or the hope we have in heaven? Of course not!
And yet every set of lyrics has one or two clear emphases. And we should choose lyrics that will underscore the meaning of the text we are about to hear preached. This should not be done by simply finding songs with the “love” in the title if the theme of the day is God’s love (though titles may be a good way to start). It is better to ask some more questions. What aspect of God’s love are we considering that day? His love as Creator? His love as Redeemer?
Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.