If you’re a worship leader or music minister there’s a good chance you’ve heard another leader talking about the new song they just introduced. They describe it as the most “incredible, life-changing, awesome, heaven-releasing, God-calling-down, what-you-haven’t-heard-it-yet” song they’ve ever done. You heart sinks as you realize that not only have you not heard the song, you didn’t even know the CD was out. When you think of the 80 CD’s on your desk you still haven’t listened to, you really feel like a loser. “How can anyone in my church even worship?”
If you’ve ever had those thoughts, you’re not alone. The problem lies mainly in our sinful hearts. We don’t want to be out of the loop when it comes to what’s happening in the worship world. We don’t want to look like we have our heads stuck in the sand. After all, we only have to spend a few minutes on the web to know what’s going on. It’s not like you have to go to a record store…But somehow we fall behind in our new song awareness, and start to panic. That’s our pride showing.
The worship song industry doesn’t always help us. Recently I received this advertisement for a new CD in my in-box:
51 Must Have Modern Worship Hits
Few music collections capture the very best moments of an entire genre of music, but 51 Must Have Modern Worship Hits does just that. Packed with the best of the best songs that have shaped modern worship as we know it, this essential 3-CD set includes…”
I realize that this is simply a company trying to package and promote songs that God seems to have used in the church. I have no doubt there are some great songs being offered. But I think it reveals a flaw in the way many of us think about worship songs. I wanted to draw attention to how the way these songs are described might tempt us as we seek to serve our churches.
Must have… Are there really any worship songs that we “must have?” I don’t think so. I can think of hundreds of songs that are God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, biblically rooted, singable, memorable, and useful for praising God. But none of them are indispensable or irreplaceable. Only the Song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3) fits into that category, and we won’t hear that until we’re around the throne. Hopefully, I can still praise God passionately, biblically, and effectively with the songs I already have.
Modern… I thank God for the fresh energy, perspectives, and expressions that new songs can breathe into congregational worship. But some of us can be gripped by fear that our song list or services might be outdated, out of touch, or irrelevant. That’s certainly a valid consideration, but not if by “outdated” we mean anything older than 6 months. “Modern” may describe a musical style, but isn’t a great way to describe worship itself. God has given us one way to worship him in the new covenant – through faith in the atoning sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s no requirement that our music be modern, ancient, traditional, contemporary, new, old, amplified or acoustic. And rather than simply satisfy the musical preferences of our church or non-Christians, shouldn’t we teach them that God’s glory can’t be contained in one musical style, including what they happen to have on their iPod? We need to be freed from the mentality that “modern” means “better” or that “new” means “true.” The unchanging Gospel frees us from a temporal arrogance that ignores how God has worked in the church throughout history. We lose something precious if we never sing the songs that have ministered to Christians for centuries.
Hits… What makes a worship song a “hit?” It could be any one of a number of factors. A catchy melody. A strong musical hook. A great performance. Association with a well-known artist, ministry, or church. Good promotion. It could be an advertiser trying to persuade us that we’re missing out if we don’t buy their CD. Or it could be a song that expresses God’s truth in a way that has affected hundreds of thousands of people. A “hit” is simply a song that a lot of people like. But there’s no guarantee it’s liked for the right reasons. Given a choice, I’d rather lead a lesser known song that says exactly what I think will feed the church than a popular song that may produce a more worshipful “experience,” but whose lyrics are less clear. Restricting our song list to “hits” means we’re allowing an industry or an undefined majority to determine the song diet of our church. That isn’t wise or necessary.
Of course, there are many “worship hits” characterized by biblical truth, sincere passion, and musical appeal. Songs come to mind like “How Deep the Father’s Love,” “In Christ Alone,” and “Blessed Be Your Name.” There are many more. And there are many Christ-exalting, God-glorifying songs yet to be written. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing songs, training songwriters, or helping to produce CD’s for Sovereign Grace Ministries.
But it’s humbling to remember that many of the best songs for congregational worship have already been written by folks like Isaac Watts, John Newton, Fanny Crosby, and Charles Wesley. Let’s make sure that we’re not so enamored with the present and future that we miss out on what God’s given us in the past.
And next time you feel like you’ve missed out on teaching the latest worship hit—relax. If it’s really that great, it will still be worth learning a few years from now.