Top Tips for Choosing Songs Pt. 1 – Matching the Themes

You know the feeling. You’re staring at a blank computer screen. The cursor flashes, begging for content… and Sunday is coming.


For whatever reason it falls to you as the pastor / music director / song leader / cleaner / only one who has remembered…. to chose what to sing when the church gathers on Sunday.


Your task feels harder than ever. You have access to more songs, in more songbooks, on more CDs and online than ever before. You’re aware of pressures from all sides to sing more or less of certain songs or styles. How do you cut through the noise and work out what to sing on Sunday? How will you structure your service and your singing to help your church family leave knowing and loving Jesus more?


What follows, like all the best ideas, if stolen from Chris Edwards (now Director of Music at All Saints Crowborough) who taught it to me some years ago. These ideas have become invaluable to me, and are deeply ingrained in the way I think about song selection. We’ve been able to teach them to a number of Music Ministry Trainees here at Christ Church Fulwood too. I pray they might be helpful to you, my fellow song-chooser!


We’ve split this into two posts – there was simply too much to say! This first post deals with the core idea of ‘Matching Themes’, the second will follow and develops a whole host of other (briefer!) considerations.


Matching the themes


This is a balance of the following three things…


1.The theme of the preaching.

We read in Colossians 3:16 that we are to… ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing…’ Put another way, the preacher and the musicians are not supposed to be on opposing teams. We have the same goal, that the word of Christ would be deeply understood. taken to heart, enjoyed, celebrated, and responded to by those who hear and sing it. It’s just sensible therefore to sing and teach along the same thematic lines – so that the scriptural ideas being taught and digested are not so disparate as to lead to confusion, but rather that content is united around the theme of the preaching, helping us to learn and respond to the word of Christ deeply. This doesn’t mean that every word of every song must speak explicitly of the passage or idea being taught, but that we avoid leaping dramatically from one theme to another.


By way of example, at our church we’re due to be teaching through Hebrews in the coming months and I’ve just been planning our singing. We will come, on one particular Sunday, to Hebrews 4:11-5:10. This passage begins with an exhortation to obey God’s living, active, all-exposing word so that we may gain eternal life, before concluding that we ought to hold firmly to our faith since the priestly work of Jesus is so complete and wonderful. ‘Before the throne of God Above’ was a natural fit as it expounds the priestly work of Jesus, and urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus amid temptation and despair – a strong theme in Hebrews. We also elected to sing the hymn ‘How sure the Scriptures are’ before the preaching – this was an appropriate hymn to prepare our hearts for hearing God’s word, but also one which pretty much paraphrases Hebrews 4:12-13.


So far, so straight forward. But what about when you’re faced with a passage addressing a quite specific issue, a topic on which you’re unlikely to find songs? I find it helpful in these cases to try and assess ‘the theme behind the theme’. If for example, the text preached was 1 Corinthians 5 – Paul’s command to expel the proud, sexually immoral brother from the church, I would try to write down some ‘theme-chains’ like these…


Pride – Sin – Holiness (ours) – Holiness (God’s)


Church discipline – Church – God’s love for the church


It may sound simple, but I find this helps tremendously to clarify my thoughts and results in more balanced and helpful services. To that end, I think there’s also sometimes a place for ‘balancing’ the teaching of a specific passage (as any good preacher will) against the rest of scripture – this can help us to care pastorally for people. For example, the passage mentioned in 1 Corinthians might unwittingly leave a humbled, repentant believer with feelings of guilt and condemnation because of past sexual sin. It might be wise to balance things by singing about the kindness and compassion God shows in the gospel to the humble and repentant. Of course, singing of the gospel is always good for us.


2.The liturgy of the service. 

Another aspect of ‘Matching the Themes’ is to think about the liturgy of the service. Ask yourself ‘what things ought we to do when we get together, and how can our singing help?’  Will your planned service leave opportunity for praise, adoration, confession, prayer etc..? Not all of these aspects will always be done through music – I’m sure you’ll have prayer led from the front, perhaps spoken liturgy or extemporary prayer etc – but it is worth bearing this in mind when you choose songs.


3.The liturgy of the church year.

Remember to think about the festivals in the church’s calendar (Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Petntecost, Advent etc). Of course, the extent to which these are marked will vary from church to church, although I’m sure we all mark at least two of them…!


4.Finding the flow

Finally, you’ll want to create a good thematic ‘flow’ to your services. Jumping around from a song you’ve chosen because it’s currently Advent, to a more general song of praise, to something which ties in with the preaching can leave things feeling fragmented. In other words – realising that you’re trying to satisfy multiple priorities can make things feeling more disjointed if you’re not careful. I find it helpful to try and find songs which (as it were) do ‘multiple jobs’ in a service. If, for example, my service lacks opportunity for praise, or there’s no hint at Advent, what I really need is an Advent themed song of praise! And if I can find one which ties in with the passage being taught then so much the better! Once you’ve chosen your songs, try also to think through the ‘journey’ of the service (and remember the person in the pew hasn’t just spent the last hour with you planning!). Ask – ‘does this make thematic sense?’ ‘does it flow from one idea to the next?’ ‘do loud bits follow quiet bits in an unhelpful way?’ and so on.


More Generally…

When thinking through ‘Matching the themes’ another top tip is to look thoroughly through the songs and hymns you’re considering – right to the end. Very often we know songs only by their first line, or first verse at most. We might discount something for not matching well, without realising that there’s a lyrical idea, or even a whole verse or chorus buried lower down the song which makes it the perfect choice.


Remember too that song selection is a huge balancing act. I’ve already given you plenty of things to consider (and there are eight more briefer considerations to come in Part 2!). When you’re trying to match and balance a preaching theme like church discipline, give opportunity for praise, have a sense of celebration yet a sense of reverence in your meeting, get a good sense of flow, and remember that it’s Advent… you just need to do your best and pray for God’s help to balance things well. Remember too that song selection is a long term thing. You’re feeding and equipping your church family over the course of weeks, months and years to know, love and respond to the Lord Jesus, so don’t be filled with pride or despair over individual services, instead pray for the Lord’s help to grow a Music Ministry which is a long-term blessing.


Tune in next time too, for more considerations…


Peter Turnbull

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