(Go here for Part 1)

6. We should strive for excellence in the musicality and the poetry of the songs we sing.

I’m not for a moment suggesting elitism. A tine has to be relatively simple for hundreds or thousands of people to sing it at the same time.  But we can still insist on undistracting excellence (to use Piper’s phrase). We want the cross to be the stumbling block, not our poor musicianship or faltering powerpoint.

While I believe a wide variety of styles can be used in worship, I am not a musical relativist.  Some songs are better than others. Some styles work better than others. And when it comes to lyrics, we should avoid obvious sloppiness like using thee and you in the same song or heaping up trite cliches. I heard a song on the radio a couple weeks ago whose chorus had something about a fragrant rose in the early spring and an eagle soaring to spread its wings. If your church sings this on Sunday, love your worship leader all the same. But if you’re the worship leader picking this song, try for something with a little more artistry, something that doesn’t sound like it came from a random page in your inspirational pocket calendar.

Some songs are simply deep and some are deeply simple, but there is a way to do both well.  With so many songs to choose from, there’s no reason churches can’t make an effort to sing songs with some sense of poetry and musical integrity. The Hallelujah chorus is repetitive, but it’s musically interesting. Most songs, choruses, and verses aren’t good enough to be repeated for very long.

7. The main sound to be heard in the worship music is the sound of the congregation singing.

Everyone is responsible to sing.  The young girl with her hands in the air and the old man belting out the bass line. What people want to see in your worship is that you mean it. And no matter how chill or how reverent your worship is, if no one is singing, it’s lame.

And if the main sound is to be the congregation singing, this will have implications for how we play and choose our songs.

  • Is it singable? Pay attention to range (too high or too low), and beware of syncopation and lots of irregularities in the meter and rhythm. Make sure the melody makes some intuitive sense, especially if you don’t have music to look at or people can’t read music. When your guitar strums between G, C, and D there are a lot of notes to choose from.
  • Is the instrumentation helping or inhibiting the congregation to sing? This means checking the volume. Is the music too soft to support the human voices? Is it so loud it’s drowning them out? One mistake music teams make is to think that every instrument needs to be used with every song. Some songs should get the whole kitchen sink, but just because you have a drum, piano, guitar, bass, lyre, zither, flute, chicken shaker, banjo, cello, and djembe up there doesn’t mean you have to use them all.
  • Is this song familiar. People cannot handle a new song every week, let alone two or three new songs. Stick with your basic sound and core songs and go out from there. On occasion you may have to admit, “That’s a great song, but I don’t think we can do it well.”

8. The congregation should also be stretched from time to time to learn new songs and broaden its musical horizons.

Every church will have a musical center. You should not reinvent the center every week. But you should not be enslaved to it either. We need to be stretched once a while, not only with a new song but a new kind of song–something from the African-America church, or something from Africa or Latin America (with an English translation so it is intelligible), or something from the classical choral tradition. It’s good to be reminded that belong to an ancient and global church.

9. The texts of our songs should be matched with fitting musicality and instrumentation.

Music should support the theme of the song.  Different texts have different moods. The words for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” would not work with the tune for “Children of the Heavenly Father.” The campy song “Do Lord” does not quite capture the mood of the dying thief’s final words. On the other hand, you have to love the Getty song “See What a Morning” where the triumphant, celebratory music perfectly matches the resurrection lyrics.

Musical style is not neutral, but it is elastic. Music conveys something. Some melodies are too syrupy or too raucous or too romantic.  I’ve always felt like “This is the Air I Breathe” was too sensual sounding. Plus I’m not sure what the song means. But styles are not rigid categories.  There isn’t a sharp line between contemporary and traditional, or classical and popular, or high culture and low culture.  We don’t have to make absolute rules about musical style, but we do need to be intelligent.

Let me just say a word about organs. No church should die on this hill. But if your church already has an organ my advice is to keep using it. Organs were originally associated with paganism.  So there is nothing inherently spiritual about them.  When they were introduced into churches, the average Christian in the Middle Ages new as much about organs as your average teenager does today.  They were introduced into worship because of the fitness of the instrument. As Harold Best argues in his fantastic book Unceasing Worship, there is no instrument we know of in the West better suited to support congregational singing (73). The organ fills in the cracks, provides an underneath sound, and encourages churches to sing louder and freer. If you don’t have an organ they can be expensive to get. We mustn’t lay down any commands. But if an organ is an option for you, don’t ditch it.

10. All of our songs should employ manifestly biblical lyrics.

We must start by asking of all our songs: is this true? Not just true, but accurate to the biblical text. For example, I like the Third Day song “Consuming Fire” but the lyrics, while true, misuse the biblical text. According to the song, our God is a consuming fire because he reaches inside and melts our cold hearts of stone. That’s true, but the text in Hebrews is about God our judge.

Similarly, our songs should be manifestly true. That is, we shouldn’t have to put a spin on the lyrics to get them to be ok. We are looking for subtlety. We don’t want to sing songs that leave us wondering “what exactly does that mean?”

On the flip side, don’t be too hard on “I” songs. About 100 of the 150 Psalms have the word “I.” “I” is not the problem. The problem is with songs that are too colloquially, or use I thoughtlessly (I just want to praise you – well then praise him), or never move from how I am feeling about God to who God is and what he’s done to make me feel this way.

In all our songs we want to be teaching people about God. If we aren’t learning good theology and biblical truth from our songs, then either we don’t care much about our songs or we don’t care much about rich biblical truth, or both.

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47 thoughts on “Ten Principles for Church Singing (Part 2)”

  1. chialphagirl says:

    Lyrics matter a lot. We sing a song in our church where the chorus is good but all of the lyrics in the verse are really wordy and umcommon and it is distracting. Worship songs should not be a practice in tougue twisters. :)

  2. JackW says:

    Bullseye.

  3. David Shane says:

    Amen to #7. I know it is a huge encouragement to me to listen to other people worshiping. I hate it when the organ or guitar drowns them out.

    (On a more personal note, I have visited URC once, and that is one thing I liked about my experience there.)

  4. The “nuancing” you’ve done here is very good and helpful. I will pass it on to our music ministry coordinators. Thank you. We work through this kind of material at the leadership level. On a congregational level, attitude is everything! (Romans 14:3).

    When people are interested in being part of our Church, we “put them on page” about a number of items. Music is one item we address specifically because it is perhaps the most divisive matter in the Church today. We tell them that we fear no instrument and do not “fight” over music. We tell them that we have two non-negotiable issues: 1. We must sing lyrics that are biblically faithful. 2. We must be led by faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

  5. I’ve not seen the other five, but I strongly agree with these. Well written and great thoughts. Thanks.

  6. kpolo says:

    I would love to see more songs like those by Marty Goetz (www.martygoetz.com) incorporated into the Church. Marty is truly a modern day Psalmist. I memorized Ps 23 listening to his song over and over again. His list of Psalms and other scripture set to music, almost word for word is very impressive. Just from memory:

    Ps 1, 8, 16, 23, 139, 91, 92 …

  7. malin friess says:

    Let’s put “This is the Air I breathe” to rest…as you mentioned what does that really mean?

  8. Great balance and theology as always. Well done, Kevin.

  9. Thanks Kevin. I totally agree that we need to strive for musical and poetic excellence in our worship music while emphasizing sound biblical truth. Your point about the singability of songs is well taken. There are some songs we do at our church with are ok lyrically, but aren’t really singable for the congregation.

    I do have a question though. How can you graciously lead others to choose the excellent over the mediocre, or to use criteria like you lay our rather than going with “well, I just like this song”?

  10. Thomas Pryde says:

    Amen… we spend a good deal of our energies seeking to proclaim this balance in our ministry, and it is such a joy to see it written by others! Music is part of the message, and we should never dismiss or ignore either or musical heritage or the current cultural milieu of musical communication.

  11. Rick Owen says:

    Good thoughts. Elders and deacons should be involved in overseeing and participating in music thoughtfully and theologically.

    I wonder if point # 8 (stretching the congregation to learn new songs) might also include stretching the congregation to create new songs and/or introduce new songs. As the Holy Spirit works in various members of Christ’s body, it seems that such fruitful creativity and overflow should be expected as an expression and extension of membership in God’s royal priesthood, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

    There is an individual aspect to Paul’s directions, as well as James’ comments about singing in the church. We read of “one another,” “each one,” and “anyone” being involved in singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:15, 26; James 5:13). Edifying contributions of praise and prayer in song, as in other expressions of our service to God and one another, appear to be individual as well as congregational.

  12. Cliff Hughes says:

    I think another another issue to consider is: who in the church is responsible for the songs that are sung and who leads them? Often we (a collective we) delegate these responsibilities to the young guy who can play the guitar and sings really well with little or no thought to his spiritual maturity or theological soundness. As one of my former pastors says, “being able to play a few Chris Tomlin songs on the guitar doesn’t make you a worship leader.”

  13. Rafael Alcantara says:

    Kevin, do I have permission for contact a friend to translate this principles in spanish?

    Rafael
    http://www.verdadyamor.com

  14. Rosanne Brown says:

    This is the air I breathe: Your Holy Presence living in me….

    It is about abiding in Christ. I don’t understand why this is so mysterious. It is an acknowledgement of God’s condescending to send His Holy Spirit to dwell in us, and a gratitude that this is so.

    Now, I certainly don’t think every song should be like this (I make sure there is a theologically rich song following this, whether a Getty/Townend creation or something on that level, and end that time with a rousing song of praise), but I see nothing wrong with beginning a season of song during communion with this sentiment, and feeling grateful for the privilege of being in His presence and partaking of his Body and Blood as we stand in His courts.

    Am I just dreaming to think this???

  15. JIm Hurlburt says:

    May I have permission to share this in our church newsletter?

  16. Melody says:

    I agree with Rosanne, I always liked that song in college and never felt at a loss for what it means.

  17. Paul Hartsock says:

    Thank you Rosanne, I was thinking of a response until I read further and found yours. We need to be wise in efforts to avoid the shallowness or other percieved dangers of some cont. praise music that we don’t swing the pendulum so far back that we negate songs of todays christian song writers or categorize them as lesser than.

  18. Paul Hartsock says:

    Kevin said “On the flip side, don’t be too hard on “I” songs.” I agree. Again the danger is that of a self centered versus God centered approach to worship, but the mere presence of the pronouns “I”, “Me” or “My” does not make a song less “God centered”.If that were true than the Book of Psalms would be in need of editing. Psalm 23…The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh ME to lie down.. He storeth MY soul… Hopefully that adds a little needed pespective for anyone so opposed to pronouns.

  19. Sally says:

    Excellent article and spot on….

  20. Chad says:

    Spot on, Kevin, on the “This is the Air I Breathe” song. In my opinion, “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs tend to be a bit trite.

    I agree with your sentiment on #6, however I think that while excellence is what God expects and desires from us, often times a church and its music director stop short at choosing qualified, musically competent participants to lead a congregation in worship. Most if not all churches would never allow a person behind a pulpit to preach a sermon, on a regular basis, who was an amateur, or worse, an incompetent speaker. Is it just me or do many churches allow mediocrity to abound on Sunday mornings when it comes to music? Or better question — when it comes to music, should a church’s focus be on participation? Or on musical quality and excellence in ALL facets of a musical presentation?

    In general, I agree with just about all you’ve said, and I realize with a ten-point list it’s difficult to cover all of your bases when it comes to this subject. But I think it is often overlooked that many churches let downright amateurs participate on the music team on a regular basis, and quite honestly it is a “stumbling block”, as you alluded to in one of your opening points. Consider how many people in the average church choir or worship team can’t read music — it’s many more than you might think. That’s like a pastor who preaches a sermon that can’t read. Or allowing a person to work in the nursery who has seen, but never held a baby before. Is the church encouraging musical competency? Or is it complacent to just let anyone who wants to participate give it a shot?

    In short, when in comes to music, and particularly music in the church, EVERYONE is an “expert”. But again, if we continue to allow unqualified people to make musical decisions and choices that are best left to professionals and true experts in the musical field, what more should we expect?

  21. Paul says:

    Kevin,

    Excellent thoughts although not ones that address the questions I have about musical worship. I’d be interested to know your take on the questions, maybe in a future post if you are so inclined:

    1) To what extent should churches change their musical style to reach out to people? For example, if a church believes that ditching hymns and the organ and going to ccm with guitars is necessary to attract young families, is there a problem with that?

    2) Is it OK to have a non-Christian on the worship team or as an organist (or as a sound engineer)?

    3) Is it OK to sing songs in church where the music or words or both were written by a non-Christian?

    2) and 3) are not purely hypothetical issues in my church :-)

    Paul

  22. Joe says:

    Ok, so reading along these nice, practical principles and then “chicken shaker” caught me off guard – hilarious! Come on though, you know they fit well in every song, with every instrument. Give me more chicken shaker!! (I’m envisioning a cowbell type spoof here)

  23. christopher says:

    There appears to be some tension between #7 (“beware of syncopation”) and #8 (“be stretched…with…something from the African-America[n] church.”) i would suggest that the warning is unnecessary (unless the point is preclude the possibility of clapping or dancing in corporate worship), and indicative of personal/cultural preference. Syncopation does not render a song un-singable…at least not for predominantly black congregations.

  24. Jenni says:

    @Chad

    I think you’re being a bit harsh, though I understand your point. I don’t know what size of church you come from, but it seems the larger the congregation, the less grace we’re willing to extend to the musicians and speakers. Large congregations demand perfection, from physical appearance to presentation, whereas a small church just loves the pastor with a speech problem b/c he loves them. As a worship leader, let me just interject two thoughts: 1- finding truly God-centered (can we agree that’s MOST important), truly excellent/talented musicians who can faithfully commit to weekly service is VERY hard. You only need 1 gifted speaker weekly, but a band is usually 5-8 people. That’s a big demand. And 2- I think modern live praise albums by groups like Hillsong, Tomlin, etc. have raised the expectations SO HIGH for what Sundays should sound like, that no local worship team can compare. Most worship team members are volunteers doing the best they can…they are not professional musicians. Again, let me say I understand your point, and at some level agree, that playing/singing, like public speaking, is a skill that can be developed. And some are just naturally more gifted at it than others. We must remember it’s not a performance you’ve paid for a ticket to see, it’s a chance to worship the Lord together through song, and when given the opportunity, to love and show grace to our brothers/sisters when they miss the repeat of the second bridge…

  25. megan says:

    I’m surprised you never mention TEACHING HOW TO SING! Just like the Israelites we have a Chief Musician to instruct and help us learn new songs once a month after we feast together. I never learned how to sing even though I went to church all my life. Now I am learning how to sing alto and while it has taken awhile, it has been such a blessing.
    Megan, mother of six.

  26. Rick Owen says:

    That’s great, Megan. I visited a church of Christ once with some friends. They had a class each Sunday evening for teaching people to sing. They did not use instruments but the whole church sang beautifully like a well-trained choir.

  27. megan says:

    Our little children belt out the benediction and have many songs memorized by heart to sing with us! Regardless of what you choose to sing, growing in understanding and ability makes a marked difference on the whole congregation. And there is NOTHING like a congregation where the MEN are unabashedly singing heartily to the Lord. Corporate worship is so potent when the congregation is EQUIPPED to sing. My husband always reminds me the Israelites sent the singers into battle first….

  28. Michael says:

    There are a lot of guidelines here. I’m not sure that all of them are useful. “Don’t ditch the organ” is not terribly modern. I’ve been in great churches with no organ and had no issues following the music. If you want to use an organ then use an organ. If not, use something else. I just hate to see churches focus more on their traditions and existing congregations than they do on reaching those who are on the outside. Peter knew boats. He loved his boat. Jesus called him out of it–and off he went. Let’s be supportive of those who are doing their best to learn from Peter’s example.

    About requiring that melodies make intuitive sense, I think we want to be careful not to oversimplify our worship music to the point that it’s no longer interesting. That’s what we did in the late 80s/90s when praise choruses were so popular. Too much predictability can choke the life out of you from a worship perspective.

    At the end of the day, the goal is to worship/honor God and help worshipers fully connect with Him. Worship in this context is primarily about relationship rather than about teaching theology. Remember the goal and you will do well.

    Son Followers Blog

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  30. Zakh says:

    We can make a good relationship with God if we know about Him clearly (theology), so theology is important thing for create a church music’s lyric.

  31. V says:

    @Chad

    I thought the same things you do…up until I started leading my church’s music a couple of months ago. It’s very difficult to find people who are both able and willing to serve on a music team, especially on any regular basis….and if you can find someone who wants to do it and is teachable, you’ll do much better than having an expert who doesn’t want to be there and is flaky about keeping up with their commitments.

    Also, they can only get better as they continue to practice. I’m totally with you on not allowing the music to be poorly played, and I think that God is honored by music played well…but the point of music in the context of the church is not a fantastic show. The point is that we worship God. We don’t want to be distractingly bad, but if they’re able to facilitate worship, a missed note here or there is not the end of the world. I’ve got several fearful, stage-fright-ridden, eager, teachable new musicians in a small church…and they want to be good at this so badly that I’m confident they’ll be a really talented, solid team with a little time and a little grace.

    It’s not what I ever expected out of leading a music team, but it’s apparently what I’m here for. :-)

  32. David says:

    Thanks for a great blog, Kevin! From my perspective 2 things: First, mainstream evangelicals have copied the techniques of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement gradually over the last 3 decades; replacing renewed Christ-like thinking & sound teaching with emotional excess. Singing repetive like Hindu chants with shallow doctrine, swaying in a trance-like state, self-aggrandizing copy me movements. More individualistic than corporate musical expression! Though some are probably sincere most are just caught up and have shallow doctrinal views, and flows into the way they live. Second: I think most of Reformers and Puritans would be appalled how we have elevated a small group of talented or not people up front on a platform with an almost unlimited musical range to the detriment of congregational singing. Music is more precious than preaching, teaching and certainly prayer. Sort of like the Roman cult segregating the people from all the “hocus pocus”, choirs, clerics, ornateness, etc, etc, ad infintum, ad naseum up front. So I have said it: reversion to Romanism in several ways, and adoption of a quasi Pentecostal/Charismatism. Lastly I am not from a “high” church viewpoint, have nothing against reverential accompaniment from a variety of instruments, like some contemporary Christian music, and don’t want to throw the baby out with the dirty bath water, but there is alot of bathwater!

  33. Marty Guastella says:

    WOW! I think this blog/article is right on target! Thanks so much for the concise illumination of this well written guide!

    Praise Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior! May all we do in the Music Ministry at Parkside Church of Bainbridge, Ohio honor Him and Him alone!

    Blessings to you,

    Marty G.

  34. Lisa Kuper says:

    Thank you for your insights – very practical guidelines.

  35. Tim Stromer says:

    How did I help? (Sorry, not remembering) There are some good points here, but of course it doesn’t address the Holy Spirit at all, or the acts of the Holy Spirit. My friend with his acoustic guitar, would come on Sunday morning with sometimes 3-5 new songs that were always some of the most anointed songs I have ever sung. God sang them to him. He would carry around a recorder, then God would start singing, my friend would grab his recorder and sing them back into the recorder. Anointing, what is that? King David was anointed King of Israel when he was still a boy, but before that he was anointed to write and sing songs to the Lord, songs that would chase demons away from King Saul. Anointing is like a special manifestation that comes when God calls you to something and then blesses your obedience, it’s like His stamp saying, I have called this one to do this one thing. Often you can feel the power of God all over what they do. I have seen people anointed to play certain instruments. I have seen people with an anointing to play over people and they are healed of sicknesses.
    Is God even calling a certain person to lead, or be a part of the music part of worship? If you’re not called, please, find out what your calling is, but don’t just “do” worship. God can anoint anyone, even if they don’t have musical gifts. Andre Crouch could not play the piano, at all. His dad was the pastor of a church, their piano player didn’t show up. His dad looked down at him and said, go play the piano. (He was a really young kid) God anointed him, he played beautifully, as if he had been playing for years, and could play always after that. Andre Crouch has received many hundreds of songs from the Lord.
    Did God even give us that song? Did He write it? Rich Mullins (Writer of Awesome God and hundreds of others) wrote a song called Mary Picked the Roses. In it he claims God as the song writer and he just the vessel chosen for the song. Annie Herring of the 2nd Chapter of Acts says she’s a song receiver, and not a writer. When we claim ownership of a song, maybe we should keep it because just like a sermon, I want to hear what The Lord has to say, not some another sheep, I hear enough from my own kind, I want the Good Shepherd to lead me!
    Peter said to the Lord, “You alone have the words of life, where else should we go?” when Jesus asked who people said that He was. If Jesus alone has the words of life, then what source are we getting our music from if not from Him. And if we are not getting it from Him, who exactly are we getting it from?
    It’s the Spirit Himself who bears witness with our spirits….if there is a powerful anointing on a song, the singer and the players, then you will feel it, wow will you feel it. And in some cases, you will see it. People will be healed, people will be broken, and mended. Jesus Himself will inhabit those kind of praises. The ones of a shepherd boy just singing to His God who he has a heart after.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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