I recently received these questions from Lisa, a music coordinator whose church has had an influx of new guests. People are starting to comment more frequently that they don’t know the songs being sung. That situation has raised these questions:
1. How important do you think familiarity is in facilitating worship?
2. Do you limit your pick list somehow, even “retiring” good songs? If so, how?
3. How can we help our congregation familiarize themselves with the songs we sing, outside of church?
I’ve often heard it said that singing familiar songs contributes to people engaging in true worship of God. While a well known song can often help us more freely express the truths we’re singing about, there are problems with thinking that familiar means better.
Who determines whether a song is familiar or not? Guests? Long term visitors? Church members? Hard to say. If we want to choose songs that are familiar to new people, we’ll be aiming at a vague, moving target, since we never know exactly who’s visiting. Or we’ll be allowing what’s “popular” to determine what we sing. Some churches believe that new songs won’t be conducive to true worship and end up using the same tired list of songs for years. Also, familiar songs can sometimes cause us to zone out mentally, rather than help us to engage with God.
Since songs are a means of teaching and admonishment (Col. 3:16), the primary question to ask about a song is not, “How well do people know this?” but “Will singing this song help clarify our view of God and magnify our affection for Him?” Pastors should be involved in answering this question, taking into account your community, the maturity of your people, and your history.
When we planted a church in Charlotte, NC, we started with about 40 songs, which we repeated quite frequently. When a visitor asked why we didn’t do certain more popular songs, I often had to reply that the songs they requested, while more familiar, lacked good lyrical content. As the guests stayed around, the “new” songs became familiar songs, and they grew to appreciate biblical truth that fed their minds and hearts.
In a single meeting, we typically never teach more than one song that is new for the church, although there have been exceptions. Of course, every song might be new for a guest. But here’s what I’ve noticed. Those who don’t like to sing unfamiliar songs are often focusing on the wrong things. People who want to worship God are generally affected by lyrics that help us exalt the Savior with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It doesn’t matter whether they know the song or not. Here at the Together for the Gospel Conference, I’ve had numerous conversations with guys who have been deeply affected by singing songs they had never heard before. In addition, most people can join in on a song after hearing it only once. So familiarity, while a factor to consider, isn’t the final determiner of what songs are best to sing. Pastors should consciously seek to teach their congregations songs that provide a rich variety of biblical themes and responses, confident that every new song that’s good will eventually become a familiar song that’s treasured.
We keep the songs we currently use (about 150) in three ring notebooks which we keep on stage. Annually, we look through the index and take out those we don’t use any more. However, all the songs we do are kept in a database and can be retrieved for any given Sunday.
How do people learn songs outside meetings? Here are a few thoughts
- Give away copies of the lyrics and/or the music on the Sunday you teach the song.
- Let them know the CD’s they’re recorded on. If possible, sell them at your bookstore.
- Sing from hymnals.
- Organize nights where you gather simply to sing new songs.
- After introducing a new song, sing it on two Sundays in the following four weeks.
Hope that’s helpful.
If you’ve come up with a creative solution to these questions, I’d love to hear your thoughts.