Do you wonder why some songs become instantly popular in your church and across the country, while others fall flat? If you’re a worship leader, do you have a systematic way for evaluating new songs or do you just look at the latest CCLI top 25 to find song ideas?
Thoughts about CCLI
I think the CCLI list has merit in finding songs that will be easily recognized by church members and visitors alike, since many of these songs are also played on Christian radio. But if you rely exclusively on these lists you risk a couple of dangers: 1) you’ll miss out on some gems that originate from less common sources; 2) you’ll develop a distorted worship theology in your congregation as most top 25 songs avoid many important topics like lament, repentance and judgment; and 3) you will also not find many songs with rich, thoughtful lyrics (In Christ Alone by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend being the only exception on the current list).
You may notice a very narrow list of contributors on CCLI’s top 25 list. For example, Chris Tomlin’s name appears 6 times. Paul Baloche, Matt Redman, Brenton Brown and Joel Houston each appear twice. In most cases, the songwriters who appear often on these lists have built a popular audience through conferences like Passion, through a mega church like Hillsongs or through commercial publishing houses like Integrity Music, Maranatha Music or Word Music. Those are all great sources and audiences and budding songwriters should take note that having a built-in audience gives your song a great chance for broad acceptance.
I find most of the songs on the top 25 to have a fairly short shelf life. That doesn’t mean I won’t use them—I’ve actually led all but 3 of the currently listed songs, but most of these have already dropped off my active list because they are lacking in one (or more) of the following ways.
7 Questions for Evaluating New Worship Songs*
I evaluate worship songs on three fronts: words, music and impact.
1) Timeless message – Do the lyrics rehearse the classic Christian faith from a fresh, but timeless approach? Can I imagine my parents singing this just as easily as my children? In other words, do the lyrics transcend generational and regional idioms? Do I get bored singing these lyrics after a few times?
2) Lyrical content – Does this song address an aspect of the Christian life not currently in your repertoire? Is it biblical? Does this song jive with your theological tradition (e.g. a Calvinist congregation would struggle to sing an Arminian song about salvation)? Are the lyrics worth putting in people’s minds and hearts? Assume you’re going to sing this song at least 5-6 times in the next year. Do you want people singing this song throughout the week?
3) Biblical artistry–Do the lyrics feel like good art? Too many modern worship songs focus on the melody and the lyrics feel like an after thought. A timeless worship song will have lyrics that feel like good poetry (the rhyme and meter work).
As much as I like the songs Revelation Song and Forever (and I’ve done them both this month), I find it difficult to lead these songs as a group because the melody has to change for each verse to fit the lyrics. That can be tough for a congregation unless you commit to doing the song numerous times. I’ve worked around this by having a soloist sing the verses.
4) Memorable melody – Do I find myself singing this song after the first or second time of hearing it? Does the melody fit within a normal singer’s range (C to C is best with the occasional D or E)?** Could a non-musician grasp this melody easily (if not, maybe it’s best done as a presentational song and not congregational)?
**As a side note, if you’re not a trained musician and don’t know what the melodic range of a song is, find a pianist to help you. I remember visiting a church where the pastor was going hoarse before his sermons because the worship leader was leading songs in keys that only tenors can handle. Selecting the right key is a pastoral concern: you want all your people to be able to sing. If a song doesn’t fit your vocal range, but is good for the congregation, find someone else to lead it.
5) Interesting music and/or arrangement – Does the song feel timeless in it’s musical palate (chord progressions, harmonic choices, tempo and rhythmic possibilities)? Does the music fit the musical genre in which it’s written? Many of the top worship songs feel instantly familiar, yet somehow fresh every time you sing them.
As an illustration of this last point, note these different renditions of In Christ Alone. Keith Getty intentionally tries to write songs that can be approached from many different genres. That’s not easy, but serves the church’s goal of trans-generational worship.
4-part a capella:
6) Worshipful – Does this song move me to worship or do I leave thinking more about the musicians or myself? Does the song connect my heart and mind to God? Without being manipulative, does the song engage my affections?
7) Gospel-centered – Does the song point me toward Christ or the Father? While not all songs should rehearse the specifics of the gospel, they should be fuel for a gospel-centered life. Does this song show me my need for Christ or increase my thanks for his grace?
Looking for Sources of Music
One of the places I consistently find music that nails all 7 of these questions is Sovereign Grace Music. Bob Kauflin brings together songwriters from throughout the Sovereign Grace movement to write songs that address a wide variety of theological themes. I find they do a great job of writing theologically rich lyrics set to modern musical arrangements that are accessible to most congregations.
One of my current favorite songs from Sovereign Grace is Jesus Thank You. I started singing the chorus yesterday in the car and my daughter kept singing it the rest of the day. That’s the sign of a good song!
If your congregation enjoys singing old hymns to modern music, there are many great sources. I encourage you to check out these:
It’s Your Turn
How do you evaluate worship songs? What sources for new songs have you found to be helpful?
*While these questions have become my own over the years, I want to give a shout out to Keith Scherer at Naperville Presbyterian Church for starting me on this track 6 or 7 years ago with a list of 13 questions he asks of every song he hears. Some of Keith’s questions have inevitably found their way into my list. Thanks, Keith!