Originally published August 2006. These ideas are in a rough and unpolished form. I wrote them down one evening while they were in my mind for some reason, and since then several people have told me this was very helpful in their own work in worship music. This is still very much how I do things for my own church or for other worship events. –EMP
I. How to evaluate songs
1. Consider lyrics as theological statements.
a) How does the thought expressed in the words match up with the teaching of Scripture?
b) Every word is significant–could something have the wrong implication?
c) Approach the song from the viewpoint of an uneducated person who will accept it at face value. Examine it also as a theological scholar who will weigh every word judiciously.
d) This is another reason it’s important for the worship leader to be thoroughly familiar with the Bible and its teaching.
2. Consider lyrics as poetry.
a) Broadly: How well is this idea put?
b) Are there mixed metaphors, poor grammar or nonstandard English usage?
c) Are there any awkward or unnatural phrases?
d) Are the words accessible to most members of the congregation, without sounding “dumbed down”?
e) Will any words or expressions be unfamiliar to the hearers? (It’s okay to use unfamiliar words, as long as they’re explained when necessary. There’s nothing wrong with building a congregation’s vocabulary!)
f) Has the text been altered from the original? How so, and why? (Especially important to know when selecting hymns from newer editions of hymnals–often hymn texts are needlessly altered for “gender inclusive” language, or sometimes seemingly for no reason except to degrade the poetic quality! Other alterations may be for valid theological concerns.)
a) Is the melody “catchy”, i.e. easily remembered after only a few hearings? Something you can walk away humming or replaying in your head?
b) Does the melody fall in a comfortable range for a congregation to sing? (In general, keeping the notes within the staff lines is safe.) If not, would it help to transpose?
c) Does the melody have a natural contour and climax?
d) Does the emotional mood of the melody match the intended emotional mood of the text?
e) Does the rhythm of the melody match the natural speech rhythm of the text?
a) Does the harmony follow the conventions of the style?
b) Do the chords follow a harmonic progression (sounds natural and flowing), or just an arbitrary “chord pattern” (sounds repetitive)?
c) Are there any gaffes in basic music theory, such as parallel perfect fifths or octaves, or retrogression from V to IV?
d) Will your musicians be able to handle this harmony? (E.g. Some chords are easy on piano but very difficult on guitar.)
e) Does the harmony serve to underscore the text as well as the melody?
II. Music style?
A. “Style” affects instrumentation, melody, harmony, rhythmic patterns, vocal technique and diction.
B. What styles are there?
1. If the only styles of music you can name are “Contemporary” and “Traditional,” your musical experience is too limited! (For one thing, these aren’t even musical styles but very broad classifications based on usage.)
2. Jazz, American Folk, Latin, Classical, Minimalism, Reggae, Southern Gospel, African-American Gospel, Spirituals, Celtic, Soul, Country, Bluegrass, Broadway, Rock, Rap, et cetera, et cetera are all common genres of music in our own culture.
3. Each of these genres has many sub-styles–e.g. “Classical” contains Baroque, Classical Period, Romantic, Impressionistic, Modernism, and other forms; the same is true of Rock, Jazz, Country, etc.
4. Most if not all of these styles already have a wide body of worship or ministry songs written in them. Some are easier to come across than others–but they can be found! Make lists of good Christian artists and songs in each style.
5. It should be the worship leader’s responsibility to be familiar with these styles and determine which of them are appropriate to use in worship in this particular context of ministry.
C. What’s an inappropriate musical style for worship?
1. Any style of music that, even if good in itself, would cause offense or confusion for another believer (Romans 14)
2. Any style of music that is unavoidably associated with sin, including idolatry, immorality, etc. (Deuteronomy 12)
3. Use plenty of discernment; just because a song is “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily acceptable.
D. Get creative!
1. Don’t put styles in pigeonholes–it’s perfectly acceptable to mix and match different styles even in one song.
2. Imagine a Celtic melody arranged with Jazz harmonies and Latin percussion–the possibilities are endless!
3. Wider stylistic variety will appeal to more people, as well as creating a unique musical sound that forms its own niche.
4. You’re limited only by your own creativity and the talents of the musicians available to you!
III. Planning a service
A. Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray!
1. Just as you wouldn’t do a concert without preparing musically with plenty of practice, so you shouldn’t lead worship without preparing spiritually with plenty of prayer.
2. Prayer determines the focus, direction, and spiritual power of the worship.
3. Prayer is a more important work of preparation for a worship service than musical practice is!! (This from a professional musician!)
4. Not perfunctory opening prayers before you get down to the “real work” of practicing or planning. Prayer is a vital part of the real work. If you’re not praying constantly, you’re shirking the burden of the real work!
5. Actually seek (ask for and don’t stop till you’re confident you have received) God’s guidance and strength for each area of your work.
6. Don’t just ask God to take over where your ability leaves off–pray especially about the things you know how to do.
7. Pray for the “big” things like people’s hearts to be reached, and for the “little” things such as musical and technical details. What can God’s power not control? Where can God’s Spirit not guide?
8. Philippians 4:6-7 “In everything.”
9. Luke 11:13 The Father will give the Holy Spirit to whoever asks. We need the Holy Spirit in our worship, therefore we should ask for Him!
B. What’s the theme of the service?
1. Work together with the pastor or speaker (whenever possible) to find out what the Lord is leading him to speak to people’s hearts. This will probably suggest many song ideas.
2. It’s not necessary to restrict yourself to one theme only for the entire service. E.g. Just because the sermon might be on “The Love of God” is no reason to avoid using a hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” if that’s what you think God is leading you to do.
C. Find good songs for this theme.
1. Pray for ideas!
3. Search hymnals, songbooks, etc–have a wide variety of resources available.
4. Ask opinions of people you trust
D. Put the songs in order
1. Is there a theological or scriptural progression of thought in the songs? E.G. a song of repentance could be followed by a song about forgiveness, leading to a song about hope in Christ.
2. Consider natural musical flow–tempo, key changes, emotional impact
3. Consider structure of service: How much time will the songs take? Where will they occur in the service? What should the emotional / spiritual atmosphere be at this point in the service?
4. Don’t get in a rut–e.g. always starting with an up-tempo song and working your way down to a quiet “worshipful” song. Vary things from service to service.
E. Consider other aspects of the service
1. There’s more to worship than music!
2. Could the service be enhanced with multi-sensory elements–e.g. visuals, lighting, art, decorations, or other effects? Let your creativity loose!
3. Scripture readings ought to play a prominent role in every service (1 Timothy 4:13). (The pastor reading the three verses he’s about to speak on does not count!) Consider including readings both corporately and by individuals. How can these be integrated with the music? How can these be done expressively so as to put across the meaning?
Your turn: chime with any questions, comments, thoughts, or tips of your own. Be sure to subscribe or register if you haven’t already!