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Choosing Music for Worship
By Richard Hickam

I clearly remember my first day of training at a classical radio station in college. I had just met the girl who was to train me, and she showed me the index of music, which was being sorted by time. She eyed the countdown clock on the CD player and told me to pick a song near the time of 3:02 that would bring the music to the top of the hour. As I scrolled through the songs that fit that length, my mind was flashing. What should I pick to follow up this orchestral work by Ravel? Should I contrast this with a solo piano piece by Beethoven? Was that choice too obvious? Maybe a more sophisticated choice by early female composer Hildegard von Bingen would make me seem inclusive to my broadcast journalism trainer. 

My new colleague asked me hurriedly what was taking so long, and I responded that there were so many choices with all of these great songs. She looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Wow! You know some of those? I just grab one that fits the time I need.”

Hopefully, when people are choosing music for worship, they aren’t quite that dismissive. However, it seems that a comprehensive process for choosing music is often missing. Besides looking in the back of a hymnal, there are songs being written daily by both hymnists and CCM composers that can be found on the internet. How do you decide where to start?

It may seem a little too obvious, but the first move in the decision-making process should always be prayer. Give God the opportunity to use His Spirit to influence your song choices. How many times have you heard, “I really needed to hear the message of that song today?” That’s the Spirit working. Remember, it’s His service!

I found a great little book by worship professor Constance Cherry on this subject recently. She uses an evaluative instrument, a rubric, to help worship leaders choose songs.  She lays them out in three categories: Theology, Language, and Music. Most sacred music functions in the following ways: Proclamation, Petition, Praise, Exhortation, or Call to Action.

Cherry further assigns a point system, giving the most points if the song holds to these descriptors of a given category:

  • is faithful to Christian teachings that are central, nonnegotiable to Christianity or to a doctrinal distinctive of a given tradition
  • clearly and completely states the teaching
  • elaborates upon the teaching
  • expects the worshiper to respond in specific ways (to praise, change, serve)

  • includes sound theological instruction concerning prayer
  • is consistent with biblical patterns of prayer

  • clearly states true aspects of God’s nature and character
  • develops a deep understanding of God’s nature and character
  • connects praise to the creative and saving actions of God
  • relates praise to the appropriate economies of the persons of the Godhead

  • focuses clearly and consistently upon encouragement of edification for the purposes of godliness and successful Christian living
  • clearly reflects the larger purposes of the Kingdom rather than personal piety alone

Call to Action:
  • declares explicitly what the singer will do
  • clearly associates this intention with the need for divine grace or assistance
  • clearly associates the intention with the larger purposes of the Kingdom

Further considerations are given to the lyrics: How is the sentence structure/grammar/usage? What about the choice of lyrics and tone? Is the writing coherent? Does the sound of the lyrics use interesting rhyme? Do the lyrics show artful use of figurative language, imagery, and specificity?

Finally, the category for which everyone has been waiting: Music. This evaluation is not for type, but for quality:
  • Does the music have a strong melody that uses leaps and steps judiciously? Does it have a balanced vocal range and use standard melodic features? Can it stand on its own, and is it memorable? 
  • Does the rhythm have direction? Is it interesting? Does it portray the action of the text, assist in good declamation, and is it reasonable for for the singers to master? 
  • Is harmony allowed to support the progression of the melody without covering it? Does it use helpful amounts of consonance and dissonance and lend itself to singing in parts? 
  • Do the musical components contribute significantly in supporting, highlighting, and interpreting the text? 
  • Is the music accessible for corporate singing in relation to vocal range, structural repetition, and ease of unison and/or singing in parts?
These ideas are not meant to be a definitive for or against any particular song, but they’re a starting place to consider the wide variety of songs that are now available with the click of a mouse. We have so many choices and should use a breadth of different types of songs in our congregational singing. Harold M. Best summed it up well when he said, “When all Scripture references to music making are combined, we learn that we are to make music in every conceivable condition: joy, triumph, imprisonment, solitude, grief, peace, war, sickness, merriment, abundance, and deprivation. This principle implies that the music of the church should be a complete music, not one-sided or single faceted. And in the spirit of Paul’s instructions about praying (Philippians 4:6), we should make music in the same way, with thanksgiving and excellence, whatever our condition.”