Why We Sing What We Sing, Part II of II
Last week, Ben Bechtel, the director of music and youth at Community Evangelical Free Church, shared Part I of how he chooses worship songs for our church, which you can read here.
Below is the second half of his post.
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Why We Sing What We Sing, Part II of II
By Ben Bechtel
At our church, we desire to have a repertoire of songs that give voice to the full range of human emotion and experience, and simultaneously honor all the aspects of God and His work in the world. We don’t want all of our songs to focus on the love of God or the grace of God, although those are central characteristics of God. We don’t want all of our songs to be happy in tone, although we should rejoice for what God has done in Christ.
There are certain topics or emotions not commonly evoked in modern worship music. Thus, as we add new music to our library, whether a new song or an old song rediscovered, we want to have an eye on enriching and diversifying the various songs we sing.
Good Example: “Speak O Lord” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (Spotify, YouTube). This song blew me away the first time I heard it. It is a prayer asking for God to speak to His people through His Word. The content of this song, coupled with its emotional and prayerful tone, makes it a heavyweight. As far as I am aware, there truly is no other song like it.
Bad Example: Adding a mediocre new song about God’s love when we have a plethora of incredibly written songs about the love of God.
P.S. This is where the Psalms and particularly poetic songs come in handy. The Psalms contain poems of joy, praise, sadness, lament, despair, longing, fear, and all human emotions by people seeking to love God in all of life. Whether read or sung, this book is invaluable to our corporate worship because it puts inspired words in our mouth to pray and sing to God in all times of life. As well, poetic songs have a tendency to say old things in fresh, vivid ways. For instance, we recently played the old hymn “The Love of God”, which contains beautiful, poetic language describing God’s love. Consider this stanza:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky
This song, and songs like it, has a way of stirring the affections towards characteristics of God that may have become stale to us because the ordinary way of speaking about them sounds, well, ordinary.
7. Past and Present
I believe there is a great need in worship music to have balance between old and new songs. This is not motivated by a desire to please young people with contemporary music and elderly people with hymns.
In the midst of a modern worship culture, we need to remember that the music we sing, and the church for that matter, didn’t start 20 years ago when Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman stepped on the scene (although we owe a great deal to them!). Ever since creation, God has placed songs of praise in the mouths of his people. Singing lines from the Psalter and old hymns that date back to the Reformation, and even before, reminds us of the rich tradition we have as the people of God and helps keep us connected to the history of Christianity.
Good Example: For our church, a good example of this is when our set on a given Sunday contains both contextualized hymns and contemporary songs. Our goal is to have both in every service.
Bad Example: I think the worst example for us would be a one-dimensional service where we play either all contemporary songs or all hymns.
8. Symmetry with Sermon Themes
One thing we stress very heavily in planning the liturgy is that our songs and Scripture readings should accentuate the content and themes of the sermon. Hearing from God’s word is the most important part of the weekly gathering. Therefore, we believe that the songs we sing should help to highlight that endeavor.
A carefully crafted worship service with the same biblical themes brought out in all its various aspects allows us not only to hear truths about God but also to praise him for those truths. Thematic song selection drives the Word of God deeper into the hearts of the people we are leading in worship and produces a greater joy and gladness in God as a result.
Good Example: A service that centers all the elements of the liturgy on several themes from the passage being expounded. For example, our church just recently went through a short series on the book of Titus. The first sermon of the series was on Paul’s greeting to Titus at the beginning of the letter. Although there are numerous themes brought out in this letter, we sang songs such as “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher (Spotify, YouTube) and “How Great Thou Art” (Spotify, YouTube) to capture the themes of resurrection life and the greatness of God and His plans. Then, immediately before the sermon, we sang the song “Grace and Peace” by Sovereign Grace (Spotify, YouTube) which explicitly picks up on the “grace and peace” greeting from many of Paul’s letters and expounds it. This is just one small example of how we structure the service at our church to bring out sermon themes.
Bad Example: There are two errors of which to beware. The obvious error is to pay no attention to sermon theme when selecting music. However, another error is to try to select every song around one specific theme in the passage. For instance, if the sermon is on God’s faithfulness, you don’t need to sing five songs on God’s faithfulness (although I’m sure you could!). Rather, a better approach would be strategically placing two or three songs that highlight God’s faithfulness while interspersing a few other songs that highlight other themes in the passage or that simply complement the songs about the specific theme.
9. Reflects and Projects
The songs that we sing, much like the sermons we preach, need to reflect the DNA of a church. As well, the songs that we sing should forecast and project where we want to be and where we are headed.
In selecting songs, it is important to know which songs have been particularly impactful in the past. There are certain songs that a church holds dear because of a specific time in the life of the church, and that is great! Songs have a way of defining communities, and I believe this should be celebrated and encouraged with good Gospel-centered “regulars” in the song catalogs of a church.
I also think that, just like preaching, singing needs to address issues that will arise among the congregation in the future. In selecting songs, it is important to be mindful of the vision the elders have for the future of the church. The hope in doing this is that the songs along with the preaching can forge a pathway for the future of the church by the Spirit of God.
Good Example: Currently our church is seeking to plant a church as well as grow in certain key areas. As I am selecting music, I need to keep an eye on choosing songs that address what we hope to be as the people of God in our local context moving forward while still maintaining who we are currently.
Bad Example: Selecting songs without careful attention to the people in the congregation and the leadership of the church.
10. Best of the Best
Finally, if a song meets all of these criteria, I want to ask, is this song great? Will this be a song worth singing for the next ten years? With the abundance of worship music being written in our day, it is important to be selective. We want to sing only the best of what’s out there. There are only so many songs you can introduce without overwhelming people. Ultimately, I want to introduce the best songs, both musically and lyrically, with the goal of helping the people of the church glorify God through musical worship.
[To read Part I, click here.]
BEN BECHTEL is the director of music and youth ministries at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, PA. Ben earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Liberty University where he met his wife Whitley. In the spring of 2017, he will begin a masters of divinity program. You can follow him on Twitter.
[Picture by William Iven / Unsplash]