How Familiar Should Songs Be?

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

  1. Give away copies of the lyrics and/or the music on the Sunday you teach the song.
  2. Let them know the CD’s they’re recorded on. If possible, sell them at your bookstore.
  3. Sing from hymnals.
  4. Organize nights where you gather simply to sing new songs.
  5. 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.

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11 Responses to How Familiar Should Songs Be?

  1. Ryan April 28, 2006 at 9:39 AM #

    Thanks for the article! I just recently found your blog and enjoy it.

    This is such a good topic that I just dealt with. Just last week, my pastor and I were trying to come up with a closing song for our service. We had two in mind. One, we had sung just a month before and we sing it frequently (not overly, but regularly), the other we used to sing all the time, but hadn’t sung it for 8 months.

    We decided that since that song content of the one we hadn’t sung for awhile was great, and we didn’t want the song to disappear that we would do that one. I wondered if the many new members and visitors would know it, so we decided to do it as a ‘gathering’ song as people are walking in, so they could hear it as they came in to the sanctuary. At the end of service, people sang it just fine.

    When I introduce a new song, I usually do it as a ‘gathering’ song for one or two Sundays, then sing it in the ‘opening set’ for two Sundays, then close with it on the third. After that, I wait for a few weeks and bring it back. That seems to work really well. We also will sometimes print the melody in the bulletin.

  2. Brad Pearson April 28, 2006 at 11:21 AM #

    I’m a worship pastor in Spokane WA, and I have a question concerning recommendation 1.
    At the risk of revealing my ignorance concerning my CCLI license and basic copyright law, isn’t it a violation of copyright to give away copies of lyrics and/or music? Thanks for clarifying that.

  3. Marshall April 28, 2006 at 12:38 PM #

    *** 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?” ***

    Great point, Bob. It can be tempting to be distracted by peripheral issues when deciding what songs to and not to do. Thanks for keeping us theocentric.

    You’re a gift of God to His church.

  4. Mark April 28, 2006 at 1:51 PM #

    Hi there Bob, I’m really finding your blog helpful – many thanks.
    I think your comments on familiarity in worship are really useful. If I could add a couple of comments:

    1) I attended a seminar recently where the leader pointed out that as musicians we have a tendency to get bored of songs more quickly because we play them so often. We can sometimes underestimate how long it takes a congregation to feel comfortable enough with the music of a song to really engage with its lyrics.

    2) Sometimes I think we focus too much on a combination of the newest songs and the older classics, neglecting those that we learnt a few years ago. Recognising how much you’ve got to choose from is important. I’m currently working on a spreadsheet for our church that lists all our songs by themes, and details when we last sung them. Service leaders will be able to search the sheet to find songs that we know and are suitable but will also be able to assess if it has been sung (too) much of late. Overall I’m hoping it will keep our song choice fresh without needing to constantly teach new songs. No doubt other churches perhaps do something similar.

    Enjoy the rest of the conference!

  5. Micah Mills April 28, 2006 at 10:31 PM #

    Thanks for addressing this today. my pastor and I have recently faced this issue in my church as I lead worship, and this has been a helpful resource for me. Thanks again for your wonderful blog.


  6. Ian April 28, 2006 at 11:43 PM #

    I love you bro! It amazes me how I will be thinking through something and then you write about it on your blog. The Spirit is very gracious to use you in my life this way.

    Is my wife letting you know what’s going on in my life? Just kidding!

    We have been wrestling with some of these very questions over the last 6 months. We are in a re-church plant situation where very few people have been exposed to SGM music and were choosing not to sing a lot of theologically rich hymns.

    I was strongly suggesting that we not feel bad about introducing new music for many of the reasons you have stated. (That’s encouraging) What we have seen is that our people’s love and passion for the theology of the “new” music motivates them to learn more quickly because it resonates so profoundly with their soul’s desire to find words to express their joy and delight in the glory of God in the gospel.

    My “shepherdly” thinking is that most people from our church family will be singing something in their heads at work, something out loud in their showers, something along with a CD in their cars. And what I long for as a Shepherd is for what they sing, what they are memorizing to be rich and clear expressions of the gospel. We can fuel this in our corporate gatherings if we are willing to teach them the music that “best” assists in accomplishing this goal.

    If there are brothers out there who are struggling with changing the direction of your music selection, let your struggle keep you begging the Spirit for wisdom and humility to do something about it! It is so worth it. Hebrews 13 reminds me that it is worth it—we are watching for souls.

    There is a vast theological difference between:

    “Oh when He rolls up his sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz . . .There is thunder in his footsteps and lightning in his fists . . And the Lord wasn’t joking when He kicked ’em out of Eden; It wasn’t for no reason that He shed his blood His return is very soon and so you’d better be believin’ that Our God is an awesome God”


    “Dead in transgressions and sin, without God, without hope in this world, then the glorious light of your gospel broke in; The Father stood up from His throne opened His arms as He called out my name; Grace irresistible drew me, opened by eyes to see—You are the Way, You are the truth, You are the life Jesus . . .”

    We have a choice and it is so worth it.

    I hope this does not come across the wrong way, I trust my comments come across kind and caring for the sake of the gospel.

  7. Alex Leung April 29, 2006 at 1:26 AM #

    Hi Bob, thank you so much for posting this! It was simply perfect time, and this can only be attributed to His Spirit’s working.

    I’m a 22 year old lead worshipper at Toronto Jaffray Chinese Alliance Church in Toronto, ON, Canada. I shared this entire blogpost with my team tonite as a devotional & we were able to conclude that we should not shy away from those “new” songs that are filled with Biblical truth…enabling us to engage in true worship of our triune God.

    For this Sunday’s worship service my team is leading, I sent them a listing 4 of the 6 songs last Friday. I finalized the set Wednesday night, but it was not until last night (Thursday) that I got notice of some *worries* about our set this week by 2 of my team members, that we kind of have too many new songs. The concern brought up was for the parents in our youth/young adults -filled English language congregation; their knowledge of the modern songs is lacking and have a harder time following the rhythms.

    We were introducing 1 brand new song to the congregation, teaching a less familiar hymn for the 2nd time, 1 song that most know but don’t fully understand the metaphors in the verse lyrics, and 1 song that I felt the congregation knew well but apparently most of our team didn’t know. I wrestled all of last night of what to do–I had a well-planned out set that flowed well musically and theologically, and yet it seemed that everything boiled down to “familiarity”.

    After reading and meditating on what God’s voice through the lyrics of the music set, & upon contemplating all that you’ve written…I was thankfully able to strike a balance between the new+engaging and the familiar+engaging songs. I switched one song with an upbeat praise song that had not been sung during service in a while, and I think God was pleased with what I decided. And of course, the team agreed we had decided on the right path.

    In short, thank your enlightening words of wisdom!

    For His renown,

  8. Bob Kauflin April 29, 2006 at 2:41 PM #


    You asked about the legality of giving away copies of lyrics and/or music. If your church is a member of CCLI, you’re permitted to do that. Their website states that you can “Print songs, hymns and lyrics in bulletins, programs, liturgies and songsheets for use in congregational singing.”

    Thanks for asking.

  9. Jeff Bourque May 3, 2006 at 12:20 PM #

    Thank you for encouraging us with this post, Bob! I can attest to the long-term benefits of song choices that are first theologically sound and lyrically rich, then congregationally singable. I don’t think I’ve ever had a visitor to our church complain to me about not knowing the songs. Rather, I’ve had many come up to me and say something like, “I didn’t know most of the songs you sang, but I sure appreciate the content!” I believe that when our focus as leaders is to display God’s glory and character through the songs we choose, He will use it to disciple His people and those who seek Him will be fed.

    However, I must confess that I’m tempted to do the opposite of what was conveyed in the question – I shy away from the more popular songs because I don’t want to be seen as a “bandwagon” worship leader in a city where everyone’s looking for the next big song. Shame on me! Ignoring popular songs because they’re popular is the same thing as doing them only for the sake of popularity. So, when I focus on what is being said in the songs and where we are going in a service theme-wise, rather than guaging it’s value in the service by how popular or familiar it might be, choosing songs becomes more simple and less man-pleasing.

  10. Brendt May 3, 2006 at 2:25 PM #

    Well, you answered my CCLI question. ;-)

    A few other tips that we use at my church.

    * The worship leaders usually introduce a new song at the Wednesday night service. Then when the song is repeated on Sunday, there are at least a few more folks (than just the worship team) who are familiar with the song. This also helps build confidence of those around the ones who are more familiar with the song, so that they start trying to sing out loud sooner.
    * At the risk of offending the 7/11 crowd, always repeat the first verse (or at whatever other natural break there is before the melody changes drastically — usually at the bridge or chorus). Otherwise, you’ll have people just catching on to the verse melody when everything changes and they’re back at square one.
    * On the slower songs, sometimes we start out with sparse instrumentation and only one vocal. Not only does this work aesthetically, but on a new song, it also lets the congregation know, “Hey, it’s OK not to sing yet. The BGV folks are not even singing yet.”

  11. John Green May 5, 2006 at 12:40 AM #

    Wow. Thought-provoking blog and responses. Our church rotates in new songs, ensuring that they are repeated for several weeks so people can learn them, then they are rotated on a slower basis. Plus, we rotate in some older songs that don’t get used as often.

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