Choose Wisely: Song Selection for Lord’s Day Worship

What is our aim as we gather for Lord’s Day worship each week? Puritan theologian John Owen argued that our chief end should be to “sanctify the name of God; to own and avow our professed subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ; to build up ourselves in our most holy faith; and to testify and confirm our mutual love as we are believers” (Worship and Order in the Church, Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2017, p.17).

From this definition, we can draw out three aims that possess the witness of Scripture: Our aim is to exalt the Lord, edify the church and evangelize the lost as they witness our exaltation and mutual edification. Our music, likewise, should seek the same ends.

Our aim is not to serve as the congregational disc jockey, just playing the latest hits from Christian radio. Our aim is not to make much of the musicians or vocalists. Our aim is not to be the most cutting edge nor to hold the line of pure tradition. These are all pragmatic aims that seek to please men, including ourselves.

Our aim as ministers of music should be to exalt the Lord, edify and educate the church, and evangelize the lost as we sing the truth.

Mike Harland wrote, “Music can be dangerous. Those of us who teach and preach with the language of music had better be respectful of its great power” (Mike Harland, Worship Essentials, Nashville: 2018, p. 55).

We must understand that music is a powerful teaching tool as well as a tool designed by God for the purpose of worship. The posture of the songs that we sing matter. The theological statements that we sing matter. The messages we convey matter. The participation of the congregation in worship matters. I contend that – as music ministers who are blessed with the great opportunity and responsibility of leading God’s people in worship through singing – we must carefully consider the songs that we employ in corporate worship gatherings.

Allow me to provide clarity on a couple of points. First, I am not contending that one style of music is better or more holy than another. At First Baptist Church in Talladega, we employ hymns – from ancient to modern – simply because the particular style best lends itself to congregational singing in our particular context. Second, I am not writing to tell you whose music to sing and not to sing. Your song selection must be according to your own conscience. Rather, I simply offer you the three-tiered filter through which I run every song that is utilized in our corporate gathering.

1. Is the particular song God-centered? Does a song magnify the greatness of God? David wrote in Psalm 145:3, “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 72:18-19 says, “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, Who alone works wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever; And may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.” Psalm 150:1-2 implores the people, “Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” Glory should be given to God alone in the churches and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever (Ephesians 3:21).

Practically speaking, what does this look like? If a song is centered on the self and found to be lacking in adequate praise to God alone, it is rejected from our corporate worship. To borrow a statement from Bob Kauflin, “What size does our God appear” in our songs? (Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008, p.61). To further quote Kauflin, “God is not small. He is great. Magnifying and cherishing His greatness is the heart of biblical worship” (p.90). The late J.I. Packer gave us this word of caution: “Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are – weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic. But this is not the God of the Bible … [L]ike us He is personal; but unlike us, He is great” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1993, p.83).

Who is made much of in our songs? Our aim as music ministers is to lead people to exalt the Lord, to magnify His name – for He is great and He alone is worthy to be praised. Our songs must communicate our affections for God. But our affections must be connected to Biblical truth, which brings us to the next tier of the filter.

2. Is the particular song doctrinally sound? Kauflin wrote, “In Scripture, when the people of God gather to worship Him, God’s Word is at the center” (Kauflin, p.90). Our songs must be Word-centered. They must be theologically sound. They must communicate the truth of God with accuracy.

After all, music, while exalting, is also educating and edifying. Again, as stated earlier, “Music can be dangerous. Those of us who teach and preach with the language of music had better be respectful of its great power” (Kauflin, p.55).

Much of the theology I held as a child came from songs that I had learned during Lord’s Day worship. Perhaps you could say the same. Singing was created, I believe, in part to be such a teaching tool.

If we sing questionable doctrine, are we not teaching questionable doctrine? If we sing the truth, are we not teaching the truth? The words we sing matter more than the style of the song or its popularity. We must be about the business of the Father in serving our role well in sanctifying the people of God in the truth – and His Word is truth. Our songs must be doctrinally sound.

3. Is the song able to be sung by a congregation? The people of God are called to lift up their voices together in praise to the Lord (Psalm 100:1-5; Psalm 81; Psalm 47:1). They are not called to be spectators of a solemn ritual. They are not called to be concertgoers. They are called as the people of God to magnify the glory of God as they sing songs to and about God.

Furthermore, they are called to sing in order that they can encourage, edify and even admonish one another while lifting their voices as one to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). If we are thus commanded, it stands to reason that our song choices should be easily sung by a congregation. We must take careful consideration of the key and range of the song. A man cannot, in most cases, easily sing notes that soar on the wings of eagles. Women, in most cases, cannot easily sing notes that reach down to the deepest depths.

We must take careful consideration of the tempo and rhythms incorporated within the song. It is my opinion that simple is best. You must be the judge for your own congregation, but it is my conviction that a song must be easily singable. Intricate rhythms often confuse rather than foster congregational songs. Songs that are overly wordy tend to frustrate rather than promote participation.

I would furthermore ask, for any who would choose such intricate, difficult songs: What is the purpose of your leading? Is it to display your skill or simply to lead the people of God in the worship of God?

In conclusion, the Lord’s Day is meant to be centered on the Lord Himself. The people of God are called to sing together as they exalt the Lord, edify one another and communicate the truth evangelistically to the lost among them. This should cause us to consider more carefully the songs we select for Lord’s Day worship. May we sing songs together that magnify His glory, encourage His people and communicate His truth clearly!

All Scripture above is from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

Heath Walton serves as associate pastor for music and students at First Baptist Church of Talladega.