Top Tips for Choosing Songs Pt. 2 – Everything else!

In the last post I gave some thoughts on matching song themes with preaching, the liturgy of a service and he liturgy of the church’s calendar.
Let me move on and give you (more briefly) some further considerations when choosing songs for Sunday worship.
2. Old and New
This depends a little on your setting, but it seems right to me to have a mixture of ancient and modern material. This serves to remind us that faithful Christian believers have been working out their salvation for two thousand years – and some of them have a lot to teach us! Using ancient material can also help us to balance our theology – as different ideas or doctrines tend to be favoured or neglected in different periods of history. A mix of old and new also keeps us from the arrogance of thinking that all the best songs were written in the last five, ten or twenty years. Such a mix of styles also helps people prefer the needs of others – since all will find some music they don’t love. This makes the point that church is about our mutual edification, not our individual entertainment.
3. Familiarity
It’s wise to balance things the congregation will know well with newer material. We all want to keep our song lists fresh – learning new songs is great for the church. Be careful, however, to avoid having to many newish songs in a service, there’s nothing worse than the congregation feeling they can’t join in because everything is unfamiliar. I make it a rule never to have more than one brand new song in a service, and to place something very well known in close proximity to a new song being taught.
4. A variety of musical keys
More practically, there’s nothing worse than everything being in the same musical key. This tends to lead to things sounding a bit dull and repetitive, even to the non-musician. If you’re choosing songs and you’re not a musician you would be well advised to learn a little about this. It’s especially important to have a little knowledge if you’re singing two or more songs together and you want your band to link them as some keys are easier to transition between than others. If in doubt – seek help!
5. Approach – God-centered songs vs People-centered songs
Ask ‘what, or who is this song actually about?’ Some songs are more about God – his character, attributes, word, deeds in the gospel etc, and some songs are more about us – our commitment to God, promise to live for him, expressions of praise, our sin, our dependence on God and so on. We do need both, so it’s worth checking through to see if you have a balance. If the balance is swayed one way or the other, I generally prefer to sing more about God than about us – most of us don’t need any encouragement to be introspective, and help comes from the Lord, not from within!
6. Plurality – ‘I’ v ‘We’ songs
Similarly some songs are written in the first person (‘I will offer up my life…’) and some in the collective (‘Strength will rise as we wait…’). Again a mix is good although I rarely allow myself to have more ‘I’ than ‘We’ songs in a service, after all we are the gathered church singing together and it seems right to reflect that, on the whole.
7. Complexity vs Simplicity.
Some songs and hymns are complex, developing a theme or themes thoroughly, giving rich insight and teaching. Others are much more simple, shorter, with fewer words. We can be inclined to think that the former always trumps the latter, (after all who doesn’t benefit from the thoroughness of ‘In Christ Alone’, or find ‘Immortal Invisible’ stretching). However, I do (again) think both are valuable; the simplest truths of the scriptures can sometimes be the most profound. Leaving space for meditation and heartfelt response can also be a weakness in our circles. One tip I’ve found helpful is to pair up a complex and a more simple song on the same theme and sing them one after the other. For example a simple song of heartfelt commitment like ‘Jesus, all for Jesus’ might work wonderfully after ‘In Christ Alone’ (depending on what keys you play them in of course!).
8. Being realistic
Can the musician/s (whatever your style) pull it off and play it well? If not then it’s almost always better to try something else. The positive effect of a song may be entirely lost if the congregation spend the whole time anticipating a musical train-wreck. This is a particular problem today as many of us pick up new songs from conferences (where the musicians are often better players/singers than at your home church) or from CDs (where the musicians are always better players/singers than at your home church!). Think carefully! Just because something sounds great on the latest and greatest CD played by top session musicians doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate easily into your Sunday morning service. You’ll need to hold your nerve when making a judgement call like this, as others may have the same CD and not be so discerning!
9. Helping the repertoire
Regardless of the specific themes of a particular service, what should your church be singing at the moment in order to teach it to people, or to keep it fresh in their minds? Careful planning along these lines will mean you keep things in the repertoire which are in danger of drifting out of the collective memory as well as teaching new songs thoroughly over a number of weeks.

Peter Turnbull

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