What makes a worship song great? In this article, John Chisum shares with you his “acid test” for writing and choosing songs that make worship leading easy!
Choosing songs to use in your worship ministry is one of the non-negotiable skills of successful worship leading. Without the ability to recognize an excellent song to lead in your church, you may unwittingly subject your entire congregation to poorly crafted songs that are difficult to follow, to understand, or to sing with any gusto. If you’re like me, there’s nothing quite as unnerving as having the entire congregation just standing there with their arms folded, staring at you like you just landed from Mars. The best way I know to avoid this uncomfortable moment is to pick songs that are accessible to the most people in your congregation and teach them over a number of weeks. Listening to your group’s musical preferences is very important if you’re going to meet them with songs that they can identify with, worship with, and enjoy.
One of my favorite songs to lead is Kelly Carpenter’s Draw Me Close. Even before Michael W. Smith popularized it, I loved this song and used it often in my own private worship moments and in leading worship publicly. It has a beautiful melody, strong lyrics, and it just always seems to work for me! This song stands out in my repertoire among a handful that I go back to time and time again, a standard for me, you might say, and I imagine using this one for years to come. One of the things that makes it special to me is that it passes my “acid test” for what makes a song great. While there are many songs that I enjoy listening to, when it comes to writing for my congregation or leading songs written by others, I always look for three key things that insure that I will meet with success in leading others with that song. The three exceptional qualities that I always search for in a congregational song are: heart, art, and good doctrine.
Heart is that intangible quality in a song that makes it both universal and personal. It is relatively rare to find a song that can speak to huge crowds and to the individual simultaneously. These are the songs that we sing with great passion in our corporate celebrations, or when we’re alone driving in the car. Songs that would qualify as having authentic heart for me are great hymns like How Great Thou Art, Be Thou My Vision, or Great Is Thy Faithfulness, and newer songs like Lord, I Give You My Heart(Morgan) and Worthy is the Lamb(Zschech) from Hillsongs (of course, there are too many to list here – these are just a few examples). The songs with heart will outlast other songs that are less impacting on the level of the soul. In fact, we could use the word soul instead of the word heart and not lose a thing – people have used that word to describe secular songs for years, so why can’t we? Great songs have soul and we know it because it touches our own soul in some way, calling up emotion and feeling. The songs with the most heart can be worn out if we use them too often with our congregations –and we need to be judicious in their use (Chris Tomlin’s How Great is Our God falls in this category, for me – it’s so good I don’t want to wear it out!).
Art is not as intangible a quality as you might imagine. A song is either well-crafted or it is not. I don’t have to name any songs in this category because most of the less-than-well-crafted songs don’t last very long – if their form is off or they’re difficult to use for some reason, we discontinue using them and they fall out of our repertoire. Good art is accessible to the most people, especially when we’re discussing facilitating public worship. When worship leaders forget that they exist to serve the people, they sometimes start choosing songs that please their own preferences instead of facilitating the corporate voice of the people. Composer Brian Wren has stated,
Popular music today is soloistic; popular songs are not generally geared to audience participation; live music is no longer the norm, so our role as listeners is reinforced. Studio sound has become normative; the result is “electronic discouragement” because the quality of the pre-recorded sound persuades us that our own voices have little value. 1
Michael Walters states further that, “If no one in the congregation is singing, it doesn’t matter how good the worship band is. Musicians must take great care to keep the congregation clearly in focus as service music is chosen.” 2 We, as gatekeepers for congregational worship, must guard the connection between music (including all creative arts) and our people with something far beyond mere diligence – we must be fierce, aggressive, and jealous for the glory of God – insuring that everything we do liturgically fuels the fire of white-hot worship to the One Who alone is worthy! Anything less ceases to be authentic congregational worship and slides down the slippery slope of performance for the glory of the creature (us) instead of for the glory of God. This is no excuse for mediocre performance – we must always give our best – it is a reminder that we exist to help others find their voice of praise and not just let them hear ours, as pleasant as we think that might be to them. Good art, at least in the public worship arena, will always seek to facilitate the largest number of worshipers.
Good doctrine. Again, Walters says, “The ancient church understood that lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. Theology is primarily a reflection upon worship; they are inseparable. To find our way in the current landscape of worship, we need more theology, not less.” 3 The ongoing debate over the use of hymns and choruses is partially rooted in the idea that hymns contain more theology than choruses and it is often true – the very format of hymns lends them to contain broader themes and longer lines in which to express theological concepts. Consider a verse from the Luther classic, A Mighty Fortress:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
The song is an entire sermon in itself, as you would expect from Luther, and the whole thing holds together exquisitely from start to finish in thought and consistency. This first verse is actually incomplete without the rest of the verses because it pronounces the victory of the name of Jesus over the enemy mentioned at the end of this verse. In this strophic (AAAA) hymn style, Luther is able to develop a lot of supportive material in the lyric that modern chorus writers aren’t able to provide due to the shorter verse style we currently employ. Think of a song like Marie Barnett’s marvelously intimate and worshipful song Breathe:
This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me
I’m desperate for You
I’m lost without You
I’m lost without You
Copyright 1995 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing/ASCAP.
The song is no less meaningful to us for its brevity and is very accessible to worshipers young and old. Its intention of drawing us close to the Lord in worship is accomplished every time we sing it and I believe this is a song that will last for years to come, as well. It’s doctrinal content isn’t as obvious as Luther’s, but it is there, nonetheless. The metaphor of God’s presence being our breath or our spirit links well with the Greek word for breath and spirit, pneuma. That His word is our daily bread alerts us to hear His voice through the Bible and in prayer. That we are lost without Him is the Gospel itself and it’s all wrapped up in a beautiful melody that is singable and easily learned by congregations everywhere – well done, Marie!
I draw close to God through these and other finely crafted songs. We as worship leaders are the primary gatekeepers to the heart, art, and good doctrine that our congregations receive. I’ve heard it said that the church receives the vast majority of its doctrine through its song and the odds are that your people won’t exit the building this coming Sunday humming your pastor’s three points, poem, and prayer. What they will be humming is the last thing you sang together. Will it be something that leads them in their worship, facilitates more faith, and ingrains the Gospel in their hearts? With the help of hundreds of years of great hymns and a few decades of some wonderful new songs, you are equipped with more than enough material to pastor your people in praise and worship. As you pray for wisdom, I believe that God will empower you to be the wise steward of Matthew 15:32 who brought out of his storehouse “treasures old and new” that will draw you and your people ever closer to the heart of God.
Heavenly Father, God of all praise and worthy of all worship – May Your praise be alive in me, Your wisdom welling up in me, and Your worship living large through me today. Draw me close to You, forgiving every moment that I have strayed. Remind me of Your presence, speak to me in the night seasons of Your love, and receive the love I offer back to You through Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Amen.
1 As quoted in Michael Walter’s book Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (page 134).
2 Michael Walter’s Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (page 134).
3 Michael Walter’s Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (page 50).
© Copyright 2007 by John Chisum. All Rights Reserved.
For reprints or other permissions contact John at Chzsong@aol.com.