Last week at the Quest conference for men I had two opportunities to speak to groups of worship leaders from Sovereign Grace churches. The first was a group of about 30 guys who lead on Sunday mornings, the other a larger group of maybe 100 guys who lead in a small group context.
One of the questions I addressed in both meetings was the process of choosing a group of songs for a meeting. That process can be one of the more frustrating aspects of leading congregational worship. Here’s a portion of what I shared.
We pick the songs we do for various reasons. Maybe a song is in a key we like or our voice sounds good on it. Maybe everyone knows the song or we’ve had great experiences in the past with it. Or maybe we choose a song because it was written by Matt Redman, Stuart Townend, Isaac Watts, John Newton, or whoever our favorite worship songwriter happens to be.
All of those might be considered in choosing a song. But I wouldn’t use any of them as the ultimate determining factor.
I communicated that it helps to know our broader purpose for singing before we start putting together a list of songs. Our first purpose is this: to give people a clearer picture of God’s glory in Christ. We want them to walk away from a time of singing more impressed with God, not our song selection or arrangements. We want them to be more aware of God’s character, his nature, and his works. We want them to be astonished at the mercy, grace, and holiness of God displayed in the cross of Christ. That means I need to think hard about the words to the songs I plan to lead. Will they help people proclaim the wondrous deeds of the Lord (Ps. 75:1)? Will they be so clear and understandable that people won’t be able to miss the truth we’re singing?
A second purpose flows from the first. We want people to understand how God’s worthiness and works relate to their life. We can sing biblically faithful words, rich doctrine, and theologically accurate songs, but walk away unaffected and unchanged. We want to help people make the connection between what God has done and the problems they’re currently facing.
For example, we don’t just sing sentimental songs about the cross of Christ. We help people see how we have been freed from condemnation as a result. Or we point their eyes to the hopelessness of trying to impress God with anything we’ve done. Or we celebrate the fact that we are now God’s children, fully adopted into his family, enjoying the blessings of his care and provision. Or we impart faith in their fight against sin by reminding them that at the cross Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). Those kinds of thoughts can be communicated either in the songs themselves, or by a spoken comment. The important thing is that one main thought governs the progression and selection of songs.
Once we are clear on a purpose, choosing songs to express that thought is much easier. At that point we can consider issues like keys, tempos, and familiarity. But if you want to point people’s hearts and minds to the glory of God in Christ, make what you want to say more important than the music you use to say it.