How to choose songs for your church

By Kenny Klinglesmith

As a worship leader, one thing that I have learned is that art is very subjective and contextual. For example, while The Mona Lisa may be considered a masterpiece in Western Culture, for the uncontacted Awa tribe of Brazil, the same painting may seem strange and even ugly.

The same principle is true for the Church. While certain traditional Catholic congregations in Spain may prefer Gregorian chants in corporate worship, many young evangelical Americans prefer the contemporary, full-band stylings of groups like Hillsong Worship and Bethel Music.

The preference in musical style is a powerful force, and unfortunately, many churches have split simply because “the music is too loud” or “the songs aren’t seeker-friendly.” While I recognize there is a weight to this subject, I do not hope to persuade anyone to take on my personal preference of what songs or musical style your church should choose. Your congregation has a specific context, and the songs that you choose to sing will be subjective to an extent.

My aim is to present three biblical, objective truths that I believe apply when choosing songs for any church that longs to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

1. Choose songs that communicate scripture.
Pastor Tony Merida once taught that music is “portable theology.” In other words, music transmits messages in a way that can stick with us long-term. A lot of times, it is easier for your congregation to remember a chorus of a song than a chapter of scripture. What you sing matters because people remember it.

When one considers the reality of putting words on the lips of the people of God every Sunday morning, that should scare us a bit and should communicate the weight of how important song selection is. The best way to ensure that the songs our people are singing are true is to make sure every song we sing is written out of scripture.

Church planters, establish this in your culture immediately. Vet your songs intensely; don’t just sing a song because it is popular or gives people energy. Psalms 19:7 says “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” Your congregation’s souls need the revival that only the Word can bring.

2. Choose songs that communicate the gospel.
Romans 1:16 says that The gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” If you want to see people saved and changed, access the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A litmus test that I will use in selecting songs is this: “Does this song communicate at least one element of the gospel?”

If a song does not communicate the holiness or power of God, the sinfulness of man, the death and resurrection of Jesus or the promise of eternal life because of what Christ has done, it probably should not be sung. There likely is no power in it.

Both hymns and contemporary songs communicate the gospel clearly. Classics such as “I Stand Amazed in the Presence” and “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” communicate the gospel, as do modern songs like Man of Sorrows” and “O Praise The Name (Anástasis).”

Sing the gospel, and your church will experience the power and life-change that comes from the incredible news of Jesus Christ.

3. Choose songs that lead to action.
I believe we are not properly defining worship accurately if we equivocate worship with exclusively singing. Romans 12:1 says “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Worship through song should lead to worship through laying down our lives. The songs our churches sing should include themes of surrender and sacrifice.

“You Are God and You Are Good” by Austin Stone Worship asks God to be the Father of the fatherless, but also calls our personal congregation to seriously take the initiative of adopting foster children in our community.

“Father” by Hillsong United asks God to reveal His love to “the widow, the slave, the famous, the beggar, the King.” This calls the congregation to live on mission, that everyone may have an opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to urge you, church leader, that we must take song selection as serious as we take our sermon preparation. Both are of high importance and will shape the culture and the flock that we shepherd.

Published May 24, 2017

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Kenny Klinglesmith

Kenny is a worship resident, under the supervision of Brett Land, with Austin Stone Worship. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, and leads students in worship at Austin Stone's Downtown campus. He is an avid supporter of Young Life, Kentucky Basketball and Selena Quintanilla.