You Are What You Sing – Pt. 4

Over the last few weeks, we have taken a look at some of the music being led by song leaders in the evangelical church, particularly those promoted heavily through Christian radio and the biggest names in the contemporary worship industry. We noted, using a food analogy, that there are different kinds of songs available to us, from empty-calorie songs that lack theological depth, to poisonous songs that cheapen God and lead singers astray, and nutritious songs that fill us spiritually with the knowledge of the God revealed by Scripture and an emphasis on the Gospel.

But how does a song leader ensure that the songs chosen for worship are appropriate? What are the tools and resources available to

1. Make sure you intentionally build your liturgy.

Every worship service has a liturgy, whether spoken or unspoken. Even if you’re thinking, “We change things every week to make sure we don’t have a set liturgy!”, then all you’re saying is that you build a new liturgy every week. But there still is one.

So why not be intentional about the liturgy you build? The liturgy of my church, built out of the historic Reformed tradition been indispensable for me as I help design worship services. Every service has a Call to Worship, a Prayer of Confession, an Assurance of Pardon, an expository sermon, offering, sometimes a sacrament, and a benediction. Once the elements of worship are in place, song leaders are able to pick songs that function to enhance the thrust of the service.

For example, the first song of the worship service should dialogue with the call to worship. Does the song demonstrate the greatness of God and the obligation of the believer to respond with praise? How does the song immediately following the Assurance of Pardon lead congregants in celebrating the good news of the gospel? Will the song after the sermon help congregants respond to the Word preached?

These questions help song leaders see that having a repertoire of songs with solid lyrical content isn’t enough. We need to use those songs constructively in order to lead congregants through a worship experience that teaches the mind while it ministers to the heart.

2. Work with the Pastor.

Having a healthy working relationship with your Pastor is vital to your success as a song leader. After all, the Pastor is the worship leader, not you. He or she is the one who guides the congregation from element to element, teaching all the while. Even if the Pastor has assigned you those transition duties, he or she is ultimately the one in charge of worship. It would be silly to plan worship without the Pastor’s input and direction.

Also, the Pastor may have theological training and acumen that you don’t have. Pastors, in most denominations, are required to endure rigorous theological and biblical training for their profession, whereas many song leader qualifications are more focused on musical ability than theological awareness. If you’re not theologically trained, you are certainly not disqualified from being a song leader. You might even be a really good one. But know your limits. Present new song ideas to the Pastor so that he or she can help you see doctrinal trouble spots. You may know the best melodies and arrangements for corporate worship, but the Pastor may be able to sharpen your song selection and your theology as you discuss each new song choice.

3. Discuss the lyrics of each song with your team BEFORE you make the final decision to include it in your repertoire.

I can’t tell you how many times this has helped me. In order to illustrate this point, allow me to walk you through how a new song is added to the repertoire at my church.

First, I sift through as much of the current music that I can. I listen to every major worship album that is released, always looking for a song that could be added to the rotation. Remember, I’m not just looking for quality songs; I’m also looking for songs that can be used well in the liturgy and that may go well with an upcoming sermon series.

If I find a song I think would fit worship well, I move to the next step which is to consult the Pastor. Because of my theological training, I don’t always feel the need to bring him into the loop (and he appreciates this; he has a lot on his plate). But if a line in a song is theologically questionable or if I think another pair of eyes would be helpful, I make sure he sees it.

To be honest, most of these songs don’t make it past my or the Pastor’s desk. But if I do find a song I like and the lyrics are edifying and useful, I bring the song to the team. After playing it through for them, we go line by line through the lyrics together. This serves two purposes.

First, your team is agreeing to play these songs with you. They need to have bought into the lyrical content and be excited to help you lead the congregation in singing. Second, team members can often spot theological problems or ask probing questions that stimulate edifying conversation. There have been a number of times that I have brought a song to the team only to have it rejected. Song leaders, hear me: you must be willing to allow your team to reject songs that you love! If you’ve brought the song forward, chances are you like it. But if your team is not on board, put the song back on the shelf and find another. This will foster trust among the team and also adds another layer of lyrical accountability to the process.

Once you, your Pastor, and your team have analyzed the song and agreed that it would be good for worship, then you can introduce it to your congregation.

4. Remember your role as a servant.

This is the last thing I want to say to song leaders. Remember your place, brothers and sisters. You are servants of God and servants of your congregation. Yes, you may like the latest song that pushes theological boundaries. You may be profoundly touched by the song you heard on the radio today. But just because a song is catchy or edgy doesn’t mean it’s good for your congregation.

I fear that some song leaders lose perspective after a while. They begin to revel in their own talents and treat the job lightly. Friends, you have been set aside by your congregation to serve them by leading them in song. What a privilege! Don’t take it lightly. Serve well. Choose songs that will edifying and strengthen. Develop a liturgy that displays the Gospel. Work together with the Pastor to sharpen worship for the good of the church.

In the end, song leaders are servants. And so I call on you: Serve well.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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