By Josh James
Worship leaders/pastors are teachers. The fact of the matter is that music is one of the most important parts of church gatherings. From my own experience growing up in church, I left the gathering singing a song we sang together more often than I would remember large chunks of the sermon or message. There’s a good chance I am not an anomaly.
This does not mean that our singing together is more important or impactful than the teaching of the Word. It just taps into the fact that, as humans, we are able to quickly store and remember bits of information when they are presented to us in patterns of sound, such as alliteration, assonance, repetition, and rhyme.
Why is this important?
The words that you choose to sing together on the weekend are embedded in the minds of your people. Therefore, worship leaders and pastors are teachers.
So, how should we go about choosing songs?
First, we have to acknowledge that there is no one way to do this. Most of worship leading begins with being a part of a community that you know, love, and understand.
This community allows you to wisely choose songs that will resonate with your congregation, so it is going to look different for everyone in every city and every environment. But there are a few things that we should be aware of when choosing songs.
First, lyrically, the songs we sing have to be true about God and about ourselves. It does us no good to use music to emotionally attach the congregation to a wrong idea about God. While we have to make sure that our songs are true, this doesn’t mean that all of our songs have to be theologically “deep.”
For example, John Mark McMillan’s “King of My Heart” echoes a chorus that sings three words. But there’s something incredible that happens when groups of people sing a song of trust that rests on the true goodness of God, “You are good.” This is an important song for people to sing, but it doesn’t involve a deep exegesis of a text. People understand it and identify with it easily.
In addition to making sure the songs we are singing are true, I think it is important that the songs we sing are clear. Being an artist is something that is very close to the heart of God. And from the beginning, God intended us to be creative (Gen 2). However, sometimes our artistry in worship songwriting can present an unclear and ambiguous view of God and ourselves.
What I am saying is that if you listen to a song and think afterwards, “I don’t really know what that means,” please don’t lead this song. Chances are, other people won’t really know what it means either, and there’s probably something better we could sing.
What I am not saying is that being really artistic and creative is bad. It’s a really good thing, and it is important that talented songwriters continue to write creative songs for the church. And if you don’t clearly understand something in a song you hear, that doesn’t mean it is wrong or not helpful. In my opinion, I just don’t think it would be helpful in the context of singing with a large group of people, especially when there isn’t an opportunity to pastorally discuss the possible lack of clarity after.
From a sonic, melodic perspective, the songs we sing should not be impossible to sing. They should be easy to catch on and remember. They should be within the vocal range of a normal person. This doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice creativity. Instead, I think it presents an incredible challenge to put our creative efforts towards creating songs and environments that promote singing together.
Part of teaching is storytelling. Worship during our gatherings is telling a story. Worship pastors/leaders are in charge of telling the story of the Gospel. In terms of themes, a well-rounded song selection is important. If we only sing songs about how “bad” we are, we might quickly forget how good God is. If we only sing songs about Jesus dying on the cross, we might quickly forget that He is alive.
It is important to tell the story of the Gospel, from creation all the way to restoration, as best we can each Sunday to remind our people what story they are really a part of. This is part of the beauty of singing. It is one of the most unifying human experiences. And no matter where you are leading at and how you lead, we are all part of the same story and we all worship the same King.
Worship leaders, you are teachers! Let’s be good stewards of the gifts and roles God has given us.
Josh James is lead director – Arizona for The Likewise Worship Collective, which exists for the purpose of discipling worship leaders that God is calling to shepherd His people, www.likewiseworship.com.