I recently saw a list of considerations someone posted online as a kind of guide for whether or not to use a worship song on a Sunday. You may have seen something similar—a concise theological corrective to the some of the weaknesses that tend to show up in modern worship music. These guides have been helpful for me as a young worship leader. With the amount of worship songs we have available to us (both good and bad), careful consideration and evaluation is essential. The songs a church sings Sunday after Sunday have a formative effect on how that church views God. The selection of a “set list” for Sunday should be anything but arbitrary.
Is the song centered on Christ and the gospel? Is it focused on God or focused on the self? Does it celebrate and magnify the Triune God as revealed in Scripture? Is it vague, or specific and clear? Is it light on sin? These questions, and many others, are of upmost importance.
I would argue, however, that these questions are most aptly applied to a canon of worship songs and their use in the context of a particular worship service, and not the right questions to ask of songs individually. Put more pointedly: If our theological grid for selecting songs doesn’t allow us to sing the Psalms, we might need to rethink it.
If our theological grid for selecting songs doesn’t allow us to sing the Psalms, we might need to rethink it.
Have We Overcorrected?
I’ve tried my hand at writing a few worship songs, and I gravitate heavily toward a hymn-like format in my composition. In the attempts I’ve made, the songs (hopefully) lay out a clear and explicit overview of God’s redemptive work; they highlight Christ’s atonement for sin, reconciliation with God, and the future glory that awaits believers. More recently, though, I began trying to adapt a psalm to music. After I had made some progress, the alarms went off in my head when I looked at what I had written. Is this too vague? Is it focused on me rather than God? Is it driven more by emotion than by truth?
I wonder if our correctives to unhealthy trends in worship music have gone so far that we have become more fear-driven than gospel-driven in our song selection.
Take a look at Psalm 63:1–4:
 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
 So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
This psalm talks more about the psalmist than it does about God. It uses phrases that will be written off by many as “Jesus is my boyfriend” language. There’s a lack of the kind of specificity we’d like to see. There’s no mention of Jesus. For many of us, we would have difficulty signing these words today without some kind of qualification or explanation. And if that’s the case—if our responses to the emotive language of the Psalms are a catalyst for concern and fear, rather than praise—something has gone wrong.
If our responses to the emotive language of the Psalms are a catalyst for concern and fear, rather than praise—something has gone wrong.
If all Scripture is God-breathed, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), then all Scripture should inform the songs we sing in church. If the Psalms were the songbook for the people Israel and the early church, we would be foolish to neglect their wisdom today. If they were on Jesus’s tongue more than any other Old Testament book, they should be on our tongues too.
Psalms for the Whole Person
Not only do we need to sing the Psalms, but they should also inform and inspire the way songwriters write songs for the church. We need songs that address the whole person—head, heart, and will. We need songs that reflect the literary diversity found in the Bible: songs that distill the theological precision of the epistles, songs that capture the imagination and metaphor of Jesus’s parables, and songs that reflect the emotional depth of the Psalter.
Gospel-centrality is essential, but as it relates to worship, it is best to evaluate our liturgy and our canon from this standard. On any given Sunday, our church members should adore God because of his glory and grace, be confronted with their own sin and the brokenness of the world, find relief and assurance that their sin has been paid for and they’ve been made right with God through Christ, and be commissioned into the world as heralds of this good news.
If you took the list of songs that a church sings over the course of a year, you should find that they fall into similar categories. When our liturgy and our canon are gospel-centered, we are freed up to let every psalm, hymn, and spiritual song work together to glorify God and point people to Jesus.