What Makes a “Worship” Song?

One of the perennial issues I receive comments on is on the music we sing on a Sunday morning, and whether or not it’s actually “worshipful.” So what exactly makes a song a “worship” song? And is that the question we should be asking? A song is made up of a few different things: melody/notes, rhythm and words. Let’s look at each one of these.

  • Melody

The songs we sing on Sunday shouldn’t jump around too much, and should be easy for the entire congregation to sing. This means rap wouldn’t be good to use as a tool of worship with the congregation. This doesn’t mean that songs that have melodies that jump around a lot can’t be used as a tool to worship, but they shouldn’t be one of the songs we sing on a regular basis at church. And a melody doesn’t inherently make make a song worshipful or not. When Martin Luther was writing his hymns he wrote them to well known bar tunes so people could join in and sing with him. The focus for Martin Luther, and for us, is that the congregation sings together (Col. 3:16). Therefore, any melody can be used as song of worship, but a certain melody does not a worship song make.

  • Rhythm

As I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was Audio Adrenaline’s ‘The Houseplant Song.’ A line in there said, “If it’s syncopated rhythm then your soul is gonna rot!” (Coincidentally, this was one of the first songs I learned on guitar!) Once again, you can have a song that is used for congregational worship with all sorts of different rhythms, the key is making it a rhythm the congregation can sing. Are there too many words in too short amount of time? Are there too few words for the pace of the music? Is it in a weird time signature that’s hard to pick up (like 7/8 or 5/4)? As weird as it sounds, this is why I think it’s important to keep up with top 40 music, so we can learn what our congregation is listening to and what is shaping their ideas of music. Once again, a worship song can have a wide range of rhythms and still be a worship song.

  • Words

That leaves us with words. Words alone make Christianity unique. Jesus is the Word made flesh. God revealed and reveals himself to us through his Word, the Bible. A phrase that gets thrown around a lot that I despise is “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” Supposedly St. Francis of Assissi said it. I don’t hate it because he never said that, but because the gospel by definition, requires words. The word we translate as gospel more literally means “good news.” How can you hear news unless someone tells it to you? (Rom. 10:14) So, the only thing that makes a song worshipful or not, is the words. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the WORD of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The Word alone and the words alone of the song are what make them useful for worship. Are these songs teaching us truths we see in the Bible?

Most of the complaints I get about the songs we sing on a regular basis are because of the melody or the rhythm being something that someone doesn’t like. A more helpful question to ask is: does this song help me teach those around me the truths of Scripture? If it does and the melody is relatively easy, and the rhythm allows us to catch on quickly, let’s proclaim that truth together, but apart from the words we can’t tell if a song is worshipful or not. How can you ensure that the word of Christ is dwelling in you richly? By paying attention to the words you’re singing!

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What Do We Believe?

I have been in the Evangelical Free Church of America for pretty much my whole life. The statement of faith of the denomination is comprised of 10 points that all churches who are a part of the denomination agree to. I took this 10 points and wove them in to our services for 10 weeks to help us remind each other what we believe.

One of the purposes for us to regularly gather together as the church is to both remind each other of the gospel message that transforms us, and encourage each other to live out that gospel message as we continue to be the church scattered throughout our various vocations and locations during the week. We, as finite humans, are forgetful people, who are so easily distracted by the things that are going on around us (Hebrews 12:1), and we need the weekly reminders of what we actually believe, and how that affects our daily lives.

This is part of the reason having something like “The Apostle’s Creed” memorized is so helpful! It’s the early church’s attempt to have a succinct statement about what we as Christians believe. Obviously, this does not explain every detail about God’s story, but it does an amazing job of summarizing what makes Christianity unique.

So at the end of a weekly gathering, are you reminded what you believe? Are you able to encourage others to remember what they believe?

Formed By What?

We all have habit and routines that shape us. As my beloved Adventures in Odyssey taught me: addictions can be habit forming. The same is true of our weekly worship services. Whether we like to admit it or not, our corporate gatherings are times that shape our view of God. This means we need to think through the songs we sing, the architecture and decor of the church and even the use of the Bible in the services. Everything we do affects our view of God, either positively or negatively.

Bryan Chappell in his book Christ Centered Worship argues that throughout history, the church has followed a gospel centered liturgy. That means that our worship services from the flow to the language used in the service should lead us through the gospel message each and every week. In the book, he lists several components that comprise a gospel centered service:

  1. Calls
  2. Prayers
  3. Scripture Readings
  4. Music
  5. Offerings
  6. Creeds and Affirmations
  7. Benedictions and Charges
  8. Rubrics
  9. Sermon
  10. Sacraments
  11. Expressions of Fellowship
  12. Testimonies
  13. Oaths
  14. Ordinations and Commissionings
  15. Church Discipline
  16. Fasting
  17. Other?

All of these will not take place every time we gather, but should be regular parts of our worship. Which of these do you see taking place regularly, and which ones do you not see? How are some ways you think the church could grow in their reminders of the gospel routine? How can you personally better grow in your re-telling of the gospel in your own life?

Being Contextually Aware

The past month I had the wonderful privilege of leading music at 2 incredibly different conferences. The first was the EFCA Theology Conference in Chicago, where over 300 pastors gathered from across the country to hear lectures on the Reformation. The time was rich and deep, and we sang many hymns that are hundreds of  years old, as well as some new hymns. The instrumentation was just me playing piano. There is something incredibly unique about 300 men raising their voices together! Then, this past weekend, I got to lead the music for our district Middle School retreat where something like 500 middle schoolers gathered in Estes Park hyped up on energy drinks and excited to be away from parents for the weekend. This time I had my wife singing, an electric guitar, a drummer and myself and we only did songs that have been written within the past 10 years! Instead of sitting behind a piano this time, I got to dance around and jump along to upbeat energetic songs, and it was a blast! But it was funny to me to compare the 2 situations, and reminded me of the need for both in our corporate worship.

Some services we need time to dance and get excited about what God is doing among us! And other times we’re going to need the simplicity of 1 instrument and 1 lead vocal singing songs that are a thousand years old. This is the beauty of singing the gospel together: it covers every spectrum of the human emotion. There is no right or wrong way to join together in worshipping God, and we should all allow and encourage those around us to continue worshipping God with their whole lives! God is worthy of our dancing, and our piano playing, and I hope that whatever is played and sung is an opportunity for us to be made more like Christ.

The Importance of Ordination

After being at Grace Church for almost a year, I finally got my books organized! As I was organizing them I found a book I read for Seminary last year by Eugene Peterson titled, “Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.” In it, he argues that Pastors have a tendency to get caught up in the day to day administration in the church instead of what we have been called to: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. If you haven’t read it, and are in pastoral ministry, I’d whole-heartedly recommend it. There is one small section that has stuck with me that I’d like to share, it’s long, so bear with it! Peterson explains what a church is doing when it calls people to be their pastor, and he says it as only he can:

Century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed by the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once make love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – or at best only fleeting glimpses of then. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We only see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looks that way to Ezekiel: it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believed it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens of can happen is that we are no longer dismembered by we are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with Word and Sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives–in our work in the play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficulty belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing–God, Kingdom, gospel–we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”

That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry by Eugene Peterson, pages 16-18.

The Need to Ask Questions

I have read a couple articles a while back about Rob Bell and the fallout from his book Love Wins that came out 5 years ago. Bell was most popular for asking really good questions about things many Christians assumed to be true, but either didn’t have the confidence or desire to question what they’d been told their whole lives. There seemed to be a resurgence in asking questions when I was growing up. Rob Bell was hitting his stride, Donald Miller was Blue Like Jazz, and youth group was where we’d go to have fun. I agree that it’s an incredibly important aspect of our faith to ask questions, God will NEVER be fully understood, but there are some things that are true, and will remain true, and we need to remember to proclaim.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement we can be sure about. It’s so easy in churches to get bogged down in the confusion of eschatology or blow small comments out of proportion instead of keeping our focus on Christ. One of the most impactful verses for me in my biblical interpretation over the past few years has been Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The point and purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. It’s a book for him and about him, and he should be the focus of all of our lives. This also needs to be the focus of our corporate times of worship. If Jesus is the focus, it shouldn’t matter what kind of music we sing, how long the services are, how long you stand or sit, or how many people you’re forced to interact with. The point and purpose needs to be Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t ask questions at all! Some of my biggest times of growth have come from asking questions, or someone asking me a question I didn’t know the answer to. But, as Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” We can trust in the God that has chosen to continually reveal himself to us through his Word and his people. This is why it’s so important for us to gather as the body. The church doesn’t exist as a single component of the body (you can’t have church by yourself in the mountains), but when we gather, we are to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will never completely understand everything, but we serve and worship the God who does.

Passively Engaging with God

One of the most difficult aspects for me during a worship service is to be actively engaged with what is happening. Someone moving down the row from me, or someone coming in late, or a child crying or a funny joke all distract me from the primary purpose I’m there: to commune with the family of God and to spend time in awe of who God is. It takes a concerted effort to be engaging with people and with everything that happens during the service. This is the difference between being an active participant and being a passive participant.

Being a passive participant means I expect everything to go my way, for the music to be my favorites that I enjoy, for the sermon to be perfectly applicable to me and relate to me. This leads to both an entertainment model of church and a me-centric model of church. Church is all about me and what I get and want from the weekly services.

Being an active participant means I look for opportunities to serve those around me. Instead of wanting the music to be my favorites, I look for the ways these songs can serve us as a whole. I actively listen to the sermon and think through ways I can encourage the pastor for being faithful to the Word, ways I can grow as a believer, and support those around me.

This is part of the reason I ask for people to stand when we sing. By standing people are forced to be more engaged in what they are doing. Not to mention, it’s much easier to sing with correct posture, like you have when you stand.

Instead of looking for ways that we can get something, I hope we as a church can look for ways that we can engage with the Word of God and allow that to change our lives and the ways we interact with each other.

Individual vs. Corporate

I get many e-mails and comments from people about songs they’ve heard on the radio or from friends that they love and really want to sing at church. I’ll listen to all of them, but very rarely have they been a song that will make it to the list of songs we sing at church. Often it’s not because they’re bad songs (although some are!), but it’s usually because they’re either lacking in clarity, difficult to learn to sing, or far too individualistic.

One of the primary things I look for in songs for the congregation to sing is that it speaks to a wide range of people. This is incredibly difficult to do well. With hundreds of people attending church in a weekend it’s impossible to do that every week, but if it’s something that can be easily universalized then I think it’s very helpful. This is where it’s incredibly important to note the difference between songs that are helpful for individuals verse songs that are helpful for congregations.

One of the most stark examples of a song I use for my own edification and personal worship is “When I Lose My Heart to You (Hallelujah)” by Hillsong United. The chorus would be incredibly difficult for most people to sing, but I love the message of the song and will often use it for me to sing praises to God.

The other component to think through in this is active verse passive engagement with songs, which I’ll address at some later point. But the goal of our time together on Sundays is active engagement with everything that happens. This means being actively engaged during the message, announcements and singing. Which also correlates to the songs that we’ll sing: hopefully they encourage active participation.

Worship in Adversity

We began a new series this week at Grace on the life of Elijah titled ‘Adversity.’ As I confessed during the beginning of the corporate singing, it was pretty tough to find songs that we know that deal with this important issue. This week I found a blog by a pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs who asked the question: how many minor keys are we singing at church? Looking at the 104 top CCLI songs from the past 25 years, there were 7.

Paul in Romans 12:15 tells believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In my experience, we tend to do a great job rejoicing with those who rejoice (at least outwardly, even if inwardly we’re jealous) while a poor job at mourning with those who are mourning. It seems that we want people to mourn for a short time and then move on to being happy. Instead of actually mourning we offer poor platitudes, while not actually relating to any seen or felt needs.

This is also true of some songs that deal with our response to difficult situations. In trying to find songs that related to this theme, one of the first that came to mind was Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’ He wrote that right after 9/11 when he realized that many of the songs the church sings don’t have any aspect to dealing with difficulties. Yet that song is still in a major key and resolves in a hopeful statement.

I introduced a new song to the church this week, ‘Give Me Faith’ by Elevation Worship that hopefully helps put words to how we as believers can deal with difficult situations that arise: through faith. Hebrews 11 talks about the faith that many people have demonstrated throughout history. My hope and prayer as we go through this sermon series is that we can  pray for the faith to trust God even when our lives feel like a mess.

Singing Through Generational Trends

One of the most difficult things of leading congregational worship through singing is the wide range of opinions people bring to church. Some listen to only top-40 radio, some blast KLOVE all day, others don’t listen to any music, and others only listen to classical. How do we bring all of those together on a Sunday morning? This is an area I have struggled to work through since I began serving in the church.

First, remember that no one will enjoy the same thing. The point and purpose of our corporate gatherings are not to appeal to the masses, but to encourage better pursuit of God. Every week it seems that there are some people that like every song I do, and other people that hate every song I do. And there’s weeks where I feel the same! Ultimately this isn’t about us, but about God.

Second, listen to various genres of music. All genres have some music merit that people can learn from. This is a great reminder that it isn’t just about an individuals preferences. God was a creative God who made things as seemingly mundane as ants all the way up to the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. If God finds pleasure in everything he made, I think we can find pleasure in various forms of music.

Third, learn to speak the language of difference generations. Many of the complaints lobbed at me about newer songs it that they “lack the depth of the old hymns.” I think this may have been true 10-15 years ago when “worship music” was just gaining traction, but I don’t think this same complaint hold weight today when there are such rich and deep songs that have been written over the past 5 years. At the same time, there is a rich history that is connected to the hymns of centuries ago, and refusing to do any hymns loses our sense of connectedness to our history. In my interactions with many people who prefer hymns, I ask them to think through the words we sing in the newer songs. Are any of them biblically erroneous or leading people to not think rightly of God? Or is it merely a preference for a specific style of music?

Fourth, have a long-term view and plan in mind. Looking at the day-to-day doesn’t give a good perspective of how people are growing. Instead of being discouraged, think of specific ways you can help the congregation to grow over the next month. We have eternity to look forward to getting this down right, so don’t be discouraged by what seems to be a lack of growth on earth.

Finally, love and pray for your congregation. You have been tasked with the great honor to point people to Christ through your singing. Do your best to be honoring and loving toward those who may malign you. And remember that the reason we gather together is for God, not for us.