This is the first in a short series of posts looking at the task of choosing songs for Sunday services. The aim in this series is to provide a model for music leaders, pastors and others involved in selecting the songs you sing. We’ll look at the big picture, the nuts and bolts, and the particular challenges and opportunities we have as we plan what our congregations are going to sing. First up is the big picture as we clarify the task:
A ministry of the word…
Singing in church is not entertainment. It is not a warm-up. It is not a filler. It is primarily a ministry of the gospel word by Spirit-filled believers, who respond to God in praise and build up one another by singing. Clarifying this purpose of singing helps us to better navigate the process of choosing songs. It gives us a goal to our ministry, an aim, which is nothing less than the message of Christ (the gospel) dwelling richly among the people of God as they fulfil their role of teaching and admonishing one another through song (Col 3:16).
Pointing out when this takes place can help reinforce this aim. I experienced this last Sunday when I looked out at the congregation and saw a frail, elderly lady who sits to sing (because she can’t stand), singing with every ounce of her being songs that I didn’t realise she knew (I’m not sure she can read them any more) with joy and hope emanating from her face. The very fact that she sang helped the words we were singing to take root in my heart in that moment, and helped me know that they were truly true. One song included the lines, “Creation longs for his return when Christ shall reign upon the earth. The bitter wars that rage are birth pains of a coming age.” (Getty, Townend, © 2008 Thankyou Music) Our passage for the sermon on Sunday was Romans 8:18-30, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (v22-23).
The fact that the song beautifully reinforced the passage being preached that day was no accident. As singing is a ministry of the word, it follows that choosing songs is a ministry of the word. This has implications for who is involved in the process of song selection.
…overseen by ministers of the word…
Those responsible for overseeing the teaching of the Bible in your church have this added responsibility of being ultimately responsible for what your church sings. To ignore this would be like being a dietician who plans part of the week’s diet incredibly carefully for their patient, only to throw the rest of the eating plan together with whatever food was on offer in the first aisle in Tesco’s. If that is our approach to song selection, then the spiritual health benefits will not be what they could be, or even what they should be.
Added to this, the very nature of song both encourages memorability and the engagement of the affections. This doesn’t elevate singing over and above the preached word in importance, but it does make us mindful of the reach and influence that songs have – into the hearts and minds and daily lives of our church members, their families, their future, and their outlook on life.
The general principle, therefore, is that the selection of what the congregation sings should be under the direction of prayerful and godly leaders who are responsible for Bible teaching in the life of the church (typically pastors, vicars, elders). They could choose to delegate this to others that have gifts in this area, while maintaining clear oversight.
How this is achieved in practical terms will vary from church to church. Where this is done well, the key is often a good relationship between those who are the primary preachers of the word and those who lead the music. If all involved in that process are seeking this same goal when it comes to what is sung, and they communicate well with one another, in good time, serving one another humbly, putting preferences aside for the good of the congregation, then a good foundation is established for healthy song selection.
For more on this, see Session 2 of the Dwell Richly Course that you can sign up to here. We’ll also get into this process in more detail in the next post in the series.
. ..that the word might dwell richly in the congregation.That’s the goal of our singing together. Achieving that aim will take time, preparation, faithfulness, and perseverance, just like any faithful preaching or teaching ministry will. It will mean we are driven by this desire to feed our congregations healthy songs, rather than swayed by fashion or particular styles. It will mean developing discernment to tell when ‘popular’ songs (the ones everyone seems to be singing) are also good and healthy, and when they are not.
It would not be right to devote the same amount of ministry hours to choosing songs as we do to preparing sermons and talks. However, to the extent that we plan our Bible teaching and other elements of our services, we should also be prayerfully planning what the congregation sings, so that when we do sing, the true gospel and its implications dwell richly among us with clarity and consistency. Next week we will look at this planning process in more detail, working week by week and season by season to achieve this goal. Part 3 will wrap things up as we think specifically about introducing new songs.