Everyone in D.C. knows that nobody moves here to live here. They move here to work here. Sometimes it feels like people move here just so that they can move away. It’s been challenging to figure out how to build a Christian community around shared faith and traditions in such a transient area. This affects how our church approaches many issues (preaching & teaching, community groups, finances), but the one that I’d like to discuss is music and worship.
Over the past ten years, Grace Church Alexandria has been home to Christians from many variations on the American Evangelical tradition (sometimes even beyond that). We come from “traditional” churches that rejected formal liturgy, liturgical churches with skilled classical musicians, urban mega-churches with first-class bands, or almost anything in between. One thing the people at GCA all seem to have in common is that each of us grew up in a different kind of church.
This creates unique challenges when curating a body of songs for our people to sing together. Some are most comfortable with old, familiar hymns. Others gravitate towards modern worship songs. Maybe you’ve wondered how we choose what to sing together. Here are two verses that (hopefully) drive our selection:
Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord. – Ephesians 5:19 (CSB)
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. – Colossians 3:16 (NIV11)
These verses really encapsulate the what we want Grace Church to sing, and the why behind it.
We want to sing biblical worship songs.
There’s something interesting about Colossians 3:16. When I think about how to really get God’s Word into my heart and life, my mind goes to listening to sermons or memorizing Scripture. Obviously, these are essential disciplines. Yet when Paul writes about how to give the gospel a rich dwelling in the church, he first talks about singing to each other. This may go against the grain of our inclinations. We like to think we can “brain” our way into spirituality. Certainly, we are to love God with all our mind. But the corporate singing of biblically-rich songs is a New Testament priority for inclining our hearts towards God.
That’s why it is so important to sing song that are biblically-rich. Sometimes, this involves several verses of line upon line, deep, theological ideas. Other times, this means singing an arrangement of a Psalm or other biblical passage. And in some cases, this means a simple song that repeats a sublime truth, urging us meditate on it. Whatever the style of the song, our commitment is to sing songs that bring us back to the gospel.
We want to sing worship songs that build each other up.
It’s important to note that before Paul points us above in our worship, he points to the person next to us. He urges us to build each other up through our singing. Among other things, this means our body of songs should endeavor to capture the whole of Christian experience – conviction, confession, pardon, exultation, grief, lament, joy, hope, confidence… and bring the gospel to bear in each of these. This is what we should be singing to our brothers and sisters.
In addition, this affects how we sing. Everyone exhibits emotions differently, but we should be willing to display our joys and griefs to each other. My fellow-elder Ron Bean has often told us, “Worship is not a spectator sport”. Your downtrodden brother needs to hear you sing lustily about the grace of God! My doubting sister desperately needs to hear me express my confidence in God’s sovereignty. Our jaded fellow-laborer needs to see us musically grieving over the brokenness of the world and looking forward to when Jesus will set things right. Our children need to be surrounded by believers singing earnestly about the grace of God in all of life.
We want to sing a variety of worship songs, old and new.
God loves variety and creativity in music, even in corporate worship. Paul is likely using the terms “psalms, hymns, and songs” as broad synonyms to promote a variety of forms. Consider the menagerie of instruments in Psalm 150. In the Western church, we have a wealth of music at our fingertips. However, not all of this music is appropriate for every congregation. Here’s an example that most can agree with. Excellent, gospel-centered rap and hip hop music has stepped onto the stage in recent years. Some of these pieces rival the hymns of Watts and Cowper in their theological depth. However, the average church member would be at a loss to participate in singing them. Most of us would agree that these songs just aren’t suited to corporate singing.
Still, we will have ongoing differences about what exactly is singable. Some quality modern worship songs don’t suit our congregation, even if the lyrics are solid. We’ve also tried to sing some rich hymns that that just don’t work for us. (Anyone remember Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending?) There’s no hard and fast rule here. Members of our congregation will differ regarding which songs they find easier to sing. Our goal is to find a wide sweet spot – a variety of songs that the congregation can sing well together.
Love Covers a Multitude of Preferences
Embracing variety is one simple way to show love for our neighbor. I know some church members who find well-known hymns as comforting as coming home after a long absence. I also know some members who sincerely struggle to fully engage while singing songs of that tradition. The reverse holds true when considering modern worship songs. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that as people grow, they’ll like the same music that I do. In reality, the church is better and stronger when we have differences. It provides an opportunity to die to ourselves, our preferences, and serve each other. Ultimately, it’s good to remember that God’s musical preferences are much broader than our own.
How do you choose?
By now it should be evident that curating songs for our church isn’t an exact science. Week to week, we try to shape our service to reflect the priorities above. Sometimes this means adding new songs to our repertoire. Most of the time, it’s not a problem finding great songs. The real challenge is having to leave out so many excellent songs. I’ve largely framed the discussion above around two questions: the objective “It is biblical?” and the subjective “Can we sing it well?” If the answer to both of these is “Yes!” then we have a potential song for our congregation. But other questions are important when choosing between several excellent songs.
How does this song ground us historically? Does this song help us engage culturally? Does this song have a vertical or horizontal posture? Is this song accessible for children? How familiar might a visitor be with this song? Does this song address a theme that we need to focus on right now? Will this piece challenge us or limit us? Does this song set a contemplative or celebratory tone? The answers to these questions will not rule a song in or out. However, they are helpful in choosing which songs are best for our congregation to sing, whether planning weekly worship or picking out a new song to learn.
You might be curious where a lot of our songs come from. Well, here’s a short list of resources that have been a great help to me:
- The Worship Hymnal – our hymnal, published by Lifeway
- Sovereign Grace Music – a good mix of different styles of songs
- Indelible Grace Music – this is where retuning old hymns really hit its stride
- Cardiphonia – a collaboration of independent artists and musicians
Below is a link to a Spotify playlist I put together with most of our songs. You may notice that there are songs we used to sing that aren’t on this list. Additionally, some songs are on the list that we won’t be singing in 10 years. Indeed, that’s the nature of art, and also a topic for another blog post. Ultimately, whichever songs fade away and whichever ones stand the test of time, I hope the what and why will remain unchanged.
I know this post doesn’t really cover everything it could, and maybe you’ve still got questions. I’d love to hear them, so feel free email me.