This is the final part in a series of posts looking at the task of choosing songs for Sunday services. The aim in this series has been to provide a model for music leaders, pastors and others involved in selecting the songs you sing. In part one, Clarifying the Task, we saw how singing is a ministry of the gospel word by Spirit-filled believers, and so the task of choosing songs has a goal – to help the gospel to dwell richly among a congregation. Working week to week to achieve this goal (part two) will involve planning well, serving faithfully, and regularly reviewing our diet of songs.
At some point you will want to select a song to sing that your congregation has never sung before. The rest of this post is about that process. Where are good new songs coming from? How can we tell that they are good? How can we best introduce them to our church?
“Catch it. Bin it. Kill it.” Is the advice we get to prevent germs from spreading, and I suppose we might want to do that with really, really bad songs that would damage our church if we sang them(!) But when we’re on the lookout for good new songs, and we think we may have found one, what other verbs might give us some helpful pointers?
Find it. File it. Sift it. Select it.
The first task in introducing new songs is finding songs that are worth introducing. This is both much easier and much harder than it used to be. It’s easier because there are so many songs out there being written and produced from a huge rage of writers and artists. As a result, it’s also harder. Just because something is new, it isn’t necessarily better. To believe so is mere chronological snobbery.
We try and give impartial reviews of new releases where we can on this blog, so do check back from time to time when we discuss new songs and their suitability for congregational use.
Once you’ve found a good song you think you might want to introduce at some point, the temptation is to sing it straight away. This is particularly true if it’s a huge hit song that everyone is talking about. However, the best thing to do at this point (most of the time) is to file it. This helps us to ensure that we are being driven by the word of God and the needs of our particular congregation, rather than by the forces of new songs themselves.
In the last post, I introduced you to the running termly list of songs I create. The first page in this document is a long list of good new songs I’ve heard that I think would be good to introduce at some point. I currently have about 70 songs on this list. Around half of these have been successfully introduced over the last 3 years. Some have been sitting there for a year or two – they are good songs but not right for us at this moment in time.
Filing songs on a list like this also helps you to sift the song and see if, on reflection, as far as you can tell, it is really going to be a song that is worth teaching – full of great truth, modelling healthy response to the gospel, easy enough to sing etc. Yes, there may be songs that only tick some of these boxes but would work really well for a season, but we need to weigh up the value of introducing a particular song. Is it a ‘must sing’ song? And why?
I heard someone say at a conference recently that with new songs we are the “live sifters.” The great hymns of old have been sifted for us. What remains are the ones that have stood the test of time, largely for good reason (there are exceptions!) The challenge for us today is to do that sifting process responsibly, with reverence for God and humble service of our congregations.
Having been through that process, you can be fairly confident that this is a song your church should be singing, and you will want to select itfor them to sing. However, just throwing it out there on an order of service is not going to get the best out of the song, or the congregation’s voices, which brings us on to…
Prepare it. Share it. Teach it. Repeat it.
To introduce a new song well, we want to prepare and plan how and when it will be taught and used. Firstly, we will see if there is a particular preaching series that this song would be really helpful to sing generally. It may be that it’s just a good new song of praise that would help us focus on the LORD in a fresh way or help us to do the kinds of things we regularly want to do in our services (confess sin, lament, be assured of the gospel, prepare for the word). Those are also good reasons for introducing a new song.
The second page on my working document (see above) has a table outlining the upcoming Sunday services (morning and evening) for the term ahead. On this table I will plot when we will sing a new song, marking down at least the first 3 times we plan to sing it, which should be spread over no more than 4 weeks.
One tip for this process is to work from smaller to the larger groups of people, and from the core to the fringe when teaching new songs. In my context this means we invariable introduce songs for the first time at our Sunday eveningservice (fewer people than morning service, higher proportion of core church members). Here a core group become the first to learn, and they will help the song to take root in other services where a higher proportion of people would be new to church, or less keen on singing.
But before we get to that service where we sing a song for the first time, we can help everyone prepare by sharing the song.
Here is where YouTube, Spotify, and social media can be really helpful:
YouTube – Almost all new songs you are likely to sing will have some sort of YouTube video where you can at least hear the song, sometimes with words overlaid.
Spotify – You can create playlists of new songs for people to listen to.
Social Media – You can share these songs / playlists on Twitter / Facebook / Instagram
When preparing to teach a new song, a great way to prepare your congregation (and your musicians) is to share the words and music (video or audio) of the song so they can listen and begin to learn it. Of course, the one big caveat to communicate to your congregation is that this song will not sound / look like the YouTube version, and that’s a good thing. Model for your congregation that these media tools are just that – tools to help you learn, not alternative worship experiences to hanker after.
Pop a link on your church Facebook or Twitter account, or in an email to people in the week leading up to the new song being introduced. To work more long-term, you could consider creating a playlist of songs that, Lord-willing, will be introduced over a period of time. Our church has a few Spotify playlists on the go: “favourites” (songs we regularly sing to give people a feel for us as a church), “recently introduced” (songs we have learnt together over the last year or so), and “coming soon” (songs that are likely to make an appearance in the coming months.
In terms of the practical teaching of the song within a service, there are some great pointers for this in Appendix 2 of the Dwell Richly course, which you can register for and work through with your teams. Feedback from the congregation on new songs will invariably be varied. Encourage those who love the new stuff to sing up with the old stuff too, and vice versa.
Repeating the new song is the last key to it helping the gospel to dwell richly in the congregation. It takes a good 3-4 weeks of singing a song for a congregation to get used to it. It will also then become more obvious if this is a song that is just not working, or was only for a season, or could become a ‘must sing’ in the congregation’s diet.
Once you’ve sung it for those initial few weeks, make sure it is used from time to time (where appropriate) in the coming months, until it becomes part of the regular diet that people know well, or until it becomes obvious that it needs to be put aside.