Harmony in Cacophony: How to Select Biblical Songs for Corporate Worship

Harmony in Cacophony: How to Select Biblical Songs for Corporate Worship February 11, 2017

Ours is an age of unparalleled excess in the realm of worship music. Just 60 years ago, many churches only had one hymnal from which to select their hymns for the Sunday morning service. Now, in the digital age, churches have access CCLI, which boasts of having over 100,000 worship songs from which they can select. If those tasked with selecting from ~500 hymns thought that was tiresome enough, I feel sorry for those tasked with choosing from over 100,000 songs! Yet choices must be made, for no church can sing every song. What then are the criteria for selecting songs to include in Sunday worship? Good criteria can dramatically reduce the number of songs to select from and help place the one selecting them on a firm foundation as he prepares to lead God’s people in singing His praises.

In his essay, “Selecting Hymns,” Dr. T. David Gordon argues for the following criteria, ranked in order of importance, from theological to musical.

Theological Criteria

  1. Theologically orthodox: the song in question should be within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy as defined by the historic creeds and confessions of the church.[1]
  2. Theologically significant: there are many points of theology that, while being orthodox, are not necessarily significant enough to sing about in corporate worship (e.g. Shamgar in Judges 3:13 is probably too obscure).[2]
  3. Theologically appropriate to a meeting between God and His people: the form of the song should be referent and doxological, but not neither academic nor flippant. It should be designed for corporate worship, not a lecture hall or a 5-year-old birthday party.[3]

Liturgical Criteria

  1. Suitable to a meeting between God and His corporate people: corporate worship is just that, corporate. This means that some religious subjects are more appropriate for corporate worship than others. For example, it is more appropriate to sing about the objective redemptive works of God than the subjective experience of faith.[4]
  2. Promotes congregational participation: since Sunday morning worship is fundamentally corporate, the song in question should encourage participation by being singable, that is, not excluding some members of the congregation from singing it because of key, tempo, rhythm, etc.[5]
  3. Situated properly liturgically: this is not necessarily a criteria for selecting songs, but for placing them. For example, it makes sense to have a song inviting the congregation to worship at the beginning and a song of thanksgiving near the taking of the offering.

Musicological Criteria

  1. Musical score appropriate to the lyrical score: the medium is the message; if a song addresses a very serious religious topic with a flippant tune the whole thrust of the song is thwarted.[6]
  2. Musical properties promote congregational participation: music is composed of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, and form. This should all work together to form a song suited for a congregation to sing together. For example, the melody might be too complex for the congregation to remember or the rhythm too syncopated for the congregation to sing together.

In addition to these criteria, I would add a few of my own.

First, intelligibility. The meaning of any given song should be clear to the average congregant after two readings. On one hand, lyrics can be so complex and archaic that it takes a professional in order to understand them; on the other hand, lyrics can be so vague that they don’t really say much of anything at all. Both extremes should be avoided.[7]

Second, thoughtful and deliberate structure. Like the Psalms, a song used for corporate worship should be well-composed. That means that the verses (and chorus if there is one) should build off of one another and focus around a central theme. The movement of thought from the beginning to the end of the song should be comprehensible to the congregation; the song should not jump from one topic to the next like a theological hot potato.[8]

Third, suited to the redemptive-historical situation of the congregation. The New Covenant church should sing songs suited to their particular situation in redemptive history. We live having seen the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. That means that we should not sing as if we were living under the Mosaic Covenant (e.g. some imprecatory/lament Psalms might not be appropriate to sing, as they are reflective of Israel as a geo-political entity with a physical land and other geo-political enemies. When David says in Psalm 3, “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me… Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” he was speaking of actual enemies who sought his life and was praying for God’s physical deliverance from them – not a situation in which most Christians find today).[9]

One more consideration often presents itself to those selecting songs for corporate worship. Does the theology and/or morality of the composer disqualify a song from being sung in corporate worship? I raise this question at the end because the majority of songs written by those with poor theology and/or an immoral lifestyle will not meet the aforementioned criteria. Yet there are some; Matthew Bridges, a Roman Catholic, wrote “Crown Him with Many Crowns;” both Charles and John Wesley wrote many hymns and are known for their Arminian theology; Isaac Watts had questionable Trinitarian views. Do these disqualify all the songs that they wrote from being used in corporate worship? Not necessarily; more questions need to be answered before a decision can be made.

  1. Is the song itself doctrinally heterodox?
    1. It should go without saying that if any of their songs teach the specific errors that they held to, then they should not be sung in corporate worship.
  2. Is the author/composer well-known for their teaching apart from writing music?
    1. Even in the cases where the song itself is doctrinally orthodox, if they are well-known for their erroneous teaching, it could still make use of the song more harmful than helpful.
  3. Is there a likelihood that congregants will seek out the author/composer and read or listen to his/her theological teaching?
    1. Time is our friend here. Although Watt’s Trinitarian doctrine is suspect, the separation of a few hundred years makes it extremely unlikely that any congregants will go read his Trinitarian works simply because they sang some of his hymns in church. However, with groups such as Hillsong and Bethel Music, the erroneous teaching is much more available and popular; therefore, much more caution should be taken with newly composed songs.[10]
  4. Is the music associated with something antithetical to biblical truth?
    1. Musical associations can be tricky, but some are more obvious than others. For example, the hymn “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”[11] is often sung to the tune “Deutschlandlied”[12] which happens to be the national anthem of Germany and has been since 1922. For many, especially in Europe, this tune cannot be sung without immediately being associated with Nazi Germany and WWII. There is nothing innate in the music that associates it with the atrocities of WWII, yet because of its cultural associations it is inappropriate to use in many congregations.[13]

The main point of all of this is to encourage those selecting songs for corporate worship and hopefully to give them some tools that they can employ to make their job a bit easier. Congregational song is a serious thing and should not be taken flippantly or apathetically. I will close with a quote from Ambrose of Milan on the important teaching function of song in the church. In response to his Arian detractors, he said,

[They say that] the poetry of my hymns has led the people into deception. I certainly do not deny it. This is an important formula and there is none more powerful. What indeed is more powerful than the confession of the Trinity, which the people repeat many times each day? All strive to be faithful in acknowledging the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in verse. This has made them all teachers, who are scarcely capable of being followers.[14]


[1] Michael W. Smith’s song “Above All” contains the line, “You took the fall, and thought of me above all” which is contradictory to the doctrine that God has Himself and His glory as the chief end in all his works. On this, see The End For Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards. “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin contains lines “Oh, it’s love so undeniable / I, I can hardly speak / Peace so unexplainable / I, I can hardly think” which are clearly anti-biblical sentiments. God’s peace does not negate our minds.

[2] Kari Jobe’s “The More I Seek You” portrays a very individualistic, semi-mystical vision of Christ, which is not fit for the corporate gathering of God’s people. Similarly, see “In the Secret” by Chris Tomlin.

[3] Gordon gives the example of “The Law of God is Good and Wise” (Matthias Loy) as an example of one that sounds academic. Examples of the other extreme abound, such as, “I’m Trading My Sorrows” by Darrell Evans (and really any commonly used VBS song).

[4] “One Thing” by Hillsong is one example among many that focuses on the subjective experience of the singer; another example is “I Come to the Garden Alone” by C. Austin Miles.

[5] This criterion has to do with both the style of music and the style of performance (if such a word can ever rightly be used of a worship service). Some music (rap, classical, rock, etc.) cannot be sung effectively by a congregation. One example that falls into the category of being too difficult musically is R.C. Sproul’s album of hymns, “Glory to the Holy One.” While they are orthodox and mostly congregational in their content, the music is simply too far above most congregation’s ability to sing well. On the other hand, many churches with contemporary services adapt their services to minimize congregational participation by dimming the lights and amplifying the voices of the worship band so as to overpower those of the congregation. One litmus test to use is to ask the question, “Does this encourage me to close my eyes and focus on myself to the exclusion of the worshiping body of Christ?” If so, it probably does not fit in corporate worship.

[6] Examples of songs whose music contradicts the message abound in children’s music. Topics such as sin, judgment, wrath, propitiation, redemption, resurrection, holiness, etc. require serious treatment. That is not to say that they all require somber treatment, but they should never be treated lightly. For a humorous example of this being done with secular songs, listen to “Girlfriend in a Coma” to the tune of “Tiptoe through the Tulips.”

[7] The realm of contemporary Christian music is rife with songs that are so vague and ambiguous, any concrete meaning eludes the reader. “Holy Spirit” by Jesus Culture contains the repeated line “Your presence Lord” without connecting it in any grammatical or conceptual way to what precedes or follows it and so leaves the singer unsure as to what he is actually singing about. See Meaningful Song and Singing with Meaning for more on the importance of intelligibility in worship.

[8] The song “You Make Me Brave” by Bethel Music contains no real structure or flow of thought, but rather consists of disjointed statements with no real connection between them. How does God make the singer brave? What does the “shore” represent? When does the “calling” take place? The song leaves all these questions unanswered.

[9] I am not saying the imprecatory Psalms cannot be used in our liturgies, but that often they require too much interpretive explanation to be suited for congregational singing. “Days of Elijah” by Donnie McClurkin is inappropriate for corporate worship on this ground as well.

[10] Assuming any of their songs pass all the criteria.

[11] Written by John Newton.

[12] Written by Joseph Haydn.

[13] For more about worship music and associations see, Musical Universality, Ethnodoxology, and Associations, On Associations, and Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy.

[14] Ambrose, Sermo contra Auxentius, in: Music, David W. Instruments in Church: A Collection of Source Documents. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1998, p. 26.

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