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.

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.

Missional Part 2

One of the “buzz” words in the church today is the term “Missional.'” It seems that an increasing number of people and churches want to be considered missional and will proudly tell others about the missional communities at their church. I got to spend some time this past semester looking at the missional movement in a little more depth and focus than I had before, and am still attempting to work through all the ramifications of it, but suffice it to say, I’m slowly being converted, with a caveat. In my Pastoral Theology class we read 2 books on the missional movement, The Missional Leader, and Church Unique. While I’d heard the term before, and even some explanation of it, I initially scoffed at it because it is the trendy thing to talk about right now (and because it also seemed to be very closely connected to the emergent church movement). Yet as I have thought through the ideas behind it and have seen the increasing ways Evangelical Christians are marginalized in American culture, I am beginning to see the merits of the missional movement and have begun thinking and praying through ways I can help lead the church I serve to become better equipped to be on mission to those around them. A large part of the change for me has taken place because of an opportunity I had to hear from Jeff Vandersteldt this summer at the EFCA National Conference, in addition to reading his book Saturate.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am converting with a caveat. My biggest hesitation with the missional movement is that it can sometimes diminish the role of the gathered church and make being a Christian all about being the church scattered. I was grateful to hear Jeff hold in high regard the local gathered church. So this month I decided to read through the book of Acts in my devotions to get a better idea about what the early church emphasized and encouraged, and came across Acts 5:42 which says,

Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (italics mine)

Teaching and preaching was an integral part of the early church, in addition to being the church scattered. We need the church to be the church both gathered and scattered, and must cling to both parts of the church to be effective in Christ’s command to make disciples. As I continue to explore what this means for the local church I’m sure I will be writing and sharing more thoughts about the missional movement. Has the church you attend joined in this thought process, and if not do you think they should?

Stop. And Think About It.

Selah.

Scattered throughout the Psalms there is that one word, repeated at seemingly random intervals. It breaks up the flow of thought and signifies a pause in the reading or singing of the Psalm. While these are often thought of as a musical interlude, it also is a time for one to pause and think about what was just said.

Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation.
Selah.

There is enough in those three lines for us to think about for eternity! What does it mean to bless the Lord? How does God daily bear us up? How has God been your salvation? Where do we turn for salvation? Our human nature and tendency is to throw out words like our daily garbage, without giving them a second thought. Words having meaning. Through words God spoke the world as we know into existence. Jesus was the revealed Word of God. James 3 addresses the importance of the words we use in our daily life. How often do you stop to think about the words you use?

What about the words we use to sing praises to God on Sunday? Do you stop to think about what you’re saying or who you’re saying it to?

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song

Once again there is a treasure to be mined in just those few phrases! But so often as soon as we’re done singing we’re done thinking about it. This is why I will often have musical interludes during a song. This could be the same chords repeated, a guitar solo, a piano solo, or the pads play in the background. These times give us space to reflect on the words we just sang and better contemplate the God we are worshipping. One of the most effective tools I use during this time is displaying Bible verses on the screen during these musical breaks that speak to the sermon that is going to be preached as well as the song that we’re singing. This past week, during an interlude on “Revelation Song” we projected the words from Revelation 5:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Not only does this help us to reflect on God’s goodness and the Lamb who was slain, but it also reveals why we sing that song: it takes the phrases from the Bible and puts them to music. This is one simple way we can continue to remain submitted to God’s Word during our worship services. If we truly say we are people of the Word, which I hope we would, I think we should give Scripture the prominent place in our worship services. How are some ways you have given prominence to God’s Word in your services?

Easter Sunday and Liturgical Readings

This past Sunday ended a three month “experiment” where we followed the liturgical calendar for Scripture readings during our Sunday morning services. Stemming from a concern that many people do not know the Bible well enough, and wondering how we could better indicate our desire to be led by the Bible, I approached the elder team to see if they would be willing to do a reading and a prayer each Sunday morning and take turns doing so. This gave the congregation an opportunity to see who our elders are as well as give the elders opportunities to model both Scripture reading and prayer. It was fascinating for me to hear the various readings from all parts of Scripture. We read from the Psalms, the Old Testament, and the New Testament throughout the past three months and I enjoyed hearing it read from different voices than my own. Many people expressed how grateful they were to hear various Scripture passages read, and it is an easy way to elevate the Bible to the place of prominence it should have in our services. I think we can easily assume people know the Bible, but if the only time it is being read is during the message, what is that communicating to your congregation? Are there any ways you have discovered that can reveal Scripture to be the ultimate authority in our lives as believers?

During our Easter services this Sunday, we sang:

  • Christ the Lord Has Risen Today
  • This Is Amazing Grace (Phil Wickham)
  • At the Cross (Passion)
  • Man of Sorrows (Hillsong)
  • Lamb of God (Vertical Church)
  • Mighty to Save (Hillsong)

Sing Your Heart Out

Tim Chalies posted a really good article on why people should be singing their hearts out that you can read here. One aspect not addressed in the article, however, is that we should sing out simply because we’re commanded to. Ephesians 5 says we are to sing, Psalm 96 says we should sing to the Lord a new song. So Christians, sing!