Think about this: when you choose a song to be sung by the congregation in Christian worship, you are asking every member of the congregation to take those words into their mouth and offer thanks and praise and commitment to God through them. Some songs, though, have faults which can distract some people from worship, and may even kill the sense of worship altogether.
The goal, when you choose worship songs, should not be that everyone should have their turn at feeling their heart uplifted in worship, but then have to groan at the next number, feeling that they have to bear with it for the sake of others in the congregation. Rather, shouldn’t your goal be to make such discerning song choices that everyone can worship resoundingly with every song, with one heart and voice?
If that is your wish as a worship leader with responsibility in an age-diverse and educationally-diverse congregation, read on! I have some ideas that I think you will find useful.
Two problems that many younger members will have with a lot of older hymns are archaic language and dreary tunes. And not just the younger members! When I was a child, singing in the choir of my local Anglian church, I thought that “All People that on Earth do Dwell”, sung to the the tune “Old 100th”, was a sort of oxymoronic combination. “Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice”—well then, why were we doing the opposite? (No, I didn’t know the word oxymoronic back then, but it describes in hindsight exactly what I was thinking.)
And, now I am no longer young, I still feel the same way about that hymn. It is good to include in our worship some of the older hymns, but they need updated language and apt tunes so that the whole congregation can worship through them. Happily, I don’t think it is hard to find ones that are suitable.
The bigger task is to find contemporary Christian songs that young and old can rejoice in singing together. A significant number of modern songs have faults in their lyrics that are invisible to many, but which may grate in the minds of any others and make worship impossible, so the chooser of songs needs to know how to discern those ones and avoid them.
In the rest of this post, I will describe some of those faults As I do so, some readers will want to say, “Don’t be so nitpicky! Get over it! Tolerate the song for the sake of others in the congregation”. A response like that misses several points. (1) If God has given you the privilege of selecting songs for use in a service of congregational worship, it is your task to choose songs that all will rejoice in. If you choose songs that some feel unable to take into their mouth, you have failed in that responsibility; you have let God down. (2) The faults I will discuss here will be felt by many, not just me. Those perceptions are facts of congregational life. If you are choosing songs that would require some in the congregation to enrol in a year of therapy so they could recover from their “issues” and enjoy those songs, you are overstepping the bounds of your task. The issues, if real, are pastoral matters and need to be dealt with pastorally, not by confrontation through insensitive song choice. Shouldn’t you match your worship song choices to the congregation as it actually is, not as you think it ought to be?
Faults that May Disqualify a Song for Congregational Worship
1. Doctrine that may be true, but is ineptly stated
If a song contains a line that is doctrinally clearly wrong, it should have no place in a Christian service of any kind. However, some songs have lines that are doctrinally ambiguous. Anyone in the congregation who knows how important it is to keep Christian truths sharply stated will be stopped in their worship tracks when they come to such a line. Their mind will be diverted away from the worship of God, to wrestling with the question, “Can I give the songwriter the benefit of the doubt and sing this line anyway, or do I have to pass on it?” The uncertainty, the discomfort, will spoil that song for them. They will never be able to truly worship God through it.
The otherwise excellent song, See His Love (Tom Lockley :: Jesus Culture, 2005) contains one word in one line that spoils it for me: “See Him there, all in the name of love”. No. God so loved the world…” indeed (John 3:16), but when dealing with the theology of the cross there is much more to be said. (Consider, for instance, Romans 3:25-26). The word all in Lockley’s line therefore falls short of the full Biblical truth, and I don’t think our congregations should be singing a song that implies that “love” is the full and sufficient explanation of the Cross.
Another extremely popular song, In Christ Alone (Stuart Townend, Keith Getty :: Newsboys, 2001), is spoiled for me because of one badly expressed line, “Here in the death of Christ I live.” The Biblical emphasis is, rather, that our union with Christ in his death is something that occurred in our past, as signified by our baptism. We now live, not “in the death of Christ” but in him in his resurrected life. (See Romans 6:4-11, and also consider Galatians 2:19-20). If the songwriters had said, “Here through the death of Christ I live”, I would have been happy to sing it, but they didn’t, and I won’t sing what they did write.
Above All contains the lines,
You took the fall and You thought of meAbove All (Paul Baloche, Lenny Le Blanc :: Paul Baloche, 2000)
Now it is true that we can all say, with the apostle Paul, that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20), but isn’t it therefore nonsense to say that he loved me “above all”. What about all the others whom he loved and for whom he died?
Also, “took the fall” seems to be using the phrase that is common in crime stories, where someone who is not guilty accepts the punishment for someone else, usually someone more senior in the crime hierarchy. While the songwriters might want to defend this as an apt metaphor for the atonement made by Jesus, I don’t think it is, as Jesus died for his inferiors, not his seniors. And, besides that, many will mistakenly take “the fall” to be a reference to the Genesis 3 Fall, and will find the line puzzling.
Example 4—Two-thirds of the Trinity
Beyond our galaxy You are holy, holyGod of Wonders (Marcus Carey, Steve Hindalong :: Caedmon’s Call, 2001)
Holy, holy is our God AlmightyIt is You (Pete Furler :: Newsboys, 2002)
Holy, holy is his name alone
The full Trinity wouldn’t scan right, so these songwriters eliminated one of its persons.
Here is yet another potentially great song that is spoiled by a bad line. The song is “I Am” (Mark Schultz), and the line is “In every heart (I am)”. If “heart” is meant to refer to the non-physical seat of human emotions, the statement is false, but it if it is meant to refer to the literal, physical heart, in conjunction with the omnipresence of God, the statement is true but banal. Mark, why oh why did you write it?
Everything You [God] do is beautifulThank You (The Katinas, 2001)
But is it, at the times when God acts in judgment?
2. Bad Poetry
A worship song is something that is intended to be an offering that praises and glorifies God, but some so-called worship songs have lyrics that are so poorly crafted that numbers in the congregation would feel genuinely ashamed to bring such words to God. Some examples of bad poetry are listed below, in no particular order.
Let me be clear, though: many a Christian who is not a good poet has written a worship song that expresses their wholehearted joy in God, and has brought their song to God in their personal devotions. In that context, the bad poetry does not matter in the least. But, my point is, such songs should not be used for congregational worship. A higher standard is needed there.
Phrases Chosen to Fit the Tune
Some songs contain phrases that may be pious but make no coherent sense in their immediate context, leading to the suspicion that they were inserted merely to fit the lyrics to the pre-decided tune. Many in the congregation may be oblivious to such clangers, but others will think, “The songwriter could not be bothered putting in the effort to craft better lyrics. I cannot worship God through this”.
Consider these two lines:
Who am I, that the eyes that see my sinWho Am I” (Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2003)
Would look on me with love and watch me rise again?
“Watch me rise again” makes no sense to me in the context of the preceding line, or of the rest of the verse. Maybe the songwriter could give a good explanation if asked, but that line unexplained will cause many to pause and puzzle, and will interrupt their flow of worship. The meaning of every part of a song’s lyrics should be self-evident to any mature Christian, if the song is to have a place in congregational worship.
This fault is similar to the previous one, except that this time it is an entire line, not just a phrase within a line, that has no meaningful connection with the lines immediately before and after. Once again, such lines seem to have been inserted to fit the demands of the tune, rather than to fit the demands of the worship of God.
In the arms of Your mercy I find restEast to West (Bernie Herms, Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2007)
That’s potentially a great line—it just doesn’t connect well with the line before or the one after. (I will say more about East to West below, where you will be able to see this line in a fuller context.) The line is true, but it falls flat because its message is not reinforced by the surrounding lines.
(I’m including this fault under “bad poetry” rather than “bad doctrine” because the examples seem to fit best here.)
I’ll never know how much it costHere I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes, 2001)
To see my sin upon that cross
I can see what Tim Hughes meant by these lines, but—seemingly driven by the demands of the tune— Hughes has compressed the thought in such a way that it seems to say that the costly event was the songwriter’s seeing rather than the Saviour’s sin-bearing, which is nonsense. Hughes could have avoided that impression if he had used more words, something like this:
I’ll never know how much it cost
So I could see my sin upon the cross.
However, that wouldn’t scan correctly, so a bigger rethink would have been needed by the songwriter. (And, I know—many reading this example won’t sense any difference between the original line and my change. I am sure, though, that many others who are sensitive to the nuances of English will feel as uncomfortable as me with the line as it stands.)
Jesus, can You show me just how far the east is from the westEast to West (Bernie Herms, Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2007)
‘Cause I can’t bear to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again
In the arms of Your mercy I find rest
‘Cause You know just how far the east is from the west
From one scarred hand to the other
This song has some good ideas in it—excellent, worshipful potential. In fact, in my rating system for Christian songs (which I’ll discuss in a future post), I score this one 100 as regards the Biblical conformity of its content. However, the lines quoted above are a mish-mash, with various pious thoughts thrown together randomly. Even though the content of each individual line is unobjectionable, their combined effect makes no coherent sense.
Some songs are nonsense almost from beginning to end. One such is City on our Knees. Three sample lines follow:
Love will fall to the earth like a crashing wave…City on our Knees (Cary Barlowe, Jamie Moore, Toby Mac, 2009)
It’s all love tonight When we step across the line…
We can sail across the sea To a city with one king
This is a crime committed by amateur poets of all kinds, not just the writers of Christian songs. It occurs when a line ends with a word that adds nothing meaningful to the song’s message, and was clearly just chosen because it made a convenient rhyme with its partner line. In great poetry that uses a rhyming scheme (not all great poetry does), the rhyming words feel so right and meaningful in their context that it as though, even if this were a piece of prose and not a poem, those exact same words would have been used.
As I’ve already said, East to West includes a line, “In the arms of Your mercy I find rest”. I suspect that the line is there because the songwriters needed a rhyme for “west”, and that is how they arrived at a line that is a non-sequitur.
And we are His portion and He is our prize,How He Loves (John Mark McMillan :: Jesus Culture, 2005)
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes
Some may argue that the second line is somehow metaphorically true, but I think it paints too incomplete a picture to be acceptable. The things that draw us to redemption are many, and the metaphorical grace in the eyes of Jesus is just one of them. And, even if the metaphor is accepted, it still seems to me that the writer invented it because he needed a rhyme for “prize”, so the line still grates.
And who taught the ocean You can only come this farRedeemer (Nicole C. Mullen, 2000)
And who showed the moon Where to hide till evening
Whose words alone can Catch a falling star
The last line of those three is a nonsense line that was seemingly driven by the need to find a rhyme for “far”.
3. Unusual Poetry
There is a lovely song by Jeremy Camp, This Man (2004). It’s message grips my heart, but it’s lyrics are written in what seems to be a breathless, stream-of-consciousness style. As a poem, it’s good, but it’s unusual style is likely to throw many and puzzle them, so I don’t recommend that it to be used in age-diverse worship, nor any other song whose poetic artistry or innovation is out of step with what an ordinary congregational member expects to find in a poem.
4. Feeble Confession
A feeble confession acknowledges sin in a “sort of, but not really” way. It whitewashes the sin, calling it a mistake or a weakness rather than what it really is, an offence against God.
I suspect that, often, the songwriter doesn’t actually make light of their own sin, but a more forthright confession wouldn’t scan right, so a half-hearted one gets substituted. Whatever the reason, some in the congregation will feel uncomfortable if asked to take such a self-excusing confession into their mouth.
I know I still make mistakesYour Love Never Fails (Chris McClarney, Anthony Skinner :: Jesus Culture, 2008)
So take me as you find me All my fears and failures Mighty to Save (Ben Fielding, Reuben Morgan :: Hillsong United, 2006)
Saved the Day has a line that, if it were the only line of its kind in the song, I would count as feeble confession:
Rescued from the shackles of my failure Saved the Day (Michael Neale :: Phillips, Craig & Dean, 2006)
However, there is a later line that is a strong confession, and so the earlier line can be understood in the light of the later one, and not seen as a fault:
Oh God, You rescued me From my iniquities
5. Improper Prayers
It is right to make petition to God in our songs. David does it many times in the Psalms. Not every prayer is a good and God-honouring prayer, though.
At line 5 we proclaim, “Here I Am to Worship“. But look at what we have just sung in lines 2 to 4:
Open my eyes let me see Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes (2001)
Beauty that made this heart adore you
Hope of a life spent with you
This seems to give the game away. We are not really here to worship; we are here to get another fix of the ecstatic vision of God that has previously aroused a sense of worship in us. And, we are also here to seek a deepened assurance of our standing with God, rather than worshipping him for the standing he has already given us. (See, for instance, Romans 5:1-2).
To his credit, Tim Hughes soon after includes a number of lines of true, seeking-nothing worship:
You’re altogether lovely
King of all days
So highly exalted
Glorious in heaven above
For me, though, and I expect for others, they do not undo the damage done by the previous lines. Our priority has been announced up front, and it is us, not God.
Pour out Your power and love As we sing holy, holy, holy Open The Eyes Of My Heart (Paul Baloche, 1998)
- In Acts 4:31, the disciples received a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit when they had re-avowed their commitment to God in the face of persecution. Paul Baloche seems to encourage us to seek the same merely for singing “Holy, holy, holy”.
- God’s love for us never changes. The prayer “pour out your love” should strike us as an offensive denial of his goodness.
I covered that topic in my previous post, so there is no need to say any more here.
7. Poor English
Depending on the audience they have in mind, songwriters may sometimes justifiably use slang or bad grammar in their songs to make them more approachable to people who aren’t sensitive to grammar, and for whom slang just feels like a normal part of language. However, if you are choosing songs for congregational worship, and your congregation is diverse in age and background, please don’t choose that kind of song. People in the congregation who have ears for good English, and who dislike slang, will feel unable to worship God via such songs. You will have excluded them from the worship at that point.
When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just putting on the ritz… Awesome God (Rich Mullins, 1998)
And the Lord wasn’t joking When He kicked ’em out of Eden…
It wasn’t for no reason That He shed His blood…
And so you better be believing that Our God is an awesome God
The chorus and second verse of this song have some powerful, wonderful, non-slangy lines, but the lines I’ve quoted here from the first verse mean that the song just isn’t suitable for use in an age-diverse congregation.
vastly lost in this world Sea of Faces (Aaron Sprinkle, James Mead, Jon Micah Sumrall, Kyle Mitchell, Ryan Shrout :: Kutless, 2004)
Back to high school, please, Aaron Sprinkle and team!
I don’t need a temporary man-made deity One True God (David Allen Clark, Mark R. Harris :: Mark Harris, 2007)
When I got the real thing
I got! I got! Why? “I’ve got” would have scanned just as well. I would have rated this excellent song a perfect 100, but for that piece of poor grammar. Certainly, it’s a tiny slip, but it’s enough to rile many older members of the congregation. Songwriters, you could have catered for them without making your song any less approachable by younger people, if only you’d taken the time to care about it and think!
The next few paragraphs describe some particular kinds of grammatical transgression, but there are many others.
Ill-Fitting Changes of Tense
In some songs, the tense changes from past to present or vice versa for no apparent reason other than to make the number of syllables in the verb fit what the tune needs at that point. A craftsperson truly concerned with the glory of God would labour to find some way to rewrite the whole line, or even the whole song, to avoid the problem.
Missing Needed Words
Sometimes, a line plainly needs another word in it to make it grammatically correct, but the songwriter hasn’t supplied one, apparently because doing so would not work within the constraints of the tune. To my mind, that’s not good enough for something to be offered to God in the context of corporate worship.
With one voice we proclaim His great worth Great is Our God (Eric Marshall :: Young Oceans, 2012)
Lord our God
“Lord our God” should be “The Lord our God”. It’s a small matter, but it bugs me and it will bug others.
The dead are raised God, You’re So Good (Brett Younker, Kristian Stanfill, Brooke Ligertwood, Scott Ligertwood :: Passion, 2018)
The sinner saved
The work of your power
To be grammatically consistent with the first two of those lines, the third one needs a verb—e.g., something like, “This is the work of your power”.
The opposite problem is when a line contains unnecessary extra words that make it scan, but also make it ungrammatical.
The moon and stars they wept Forever (Bryan Johnson, Kari Jobe, Kari Jobe, 2013)
“They” is unnecessary. If the songwriters had written “all” instead of “they”, the line would have been grammatically correct and would still have scanned. But they didn’t.
E.g., ’cause instead of because. There is no need for such abbreviations—it is not hard to sing two syllables on a single note, if that’s what the metre of the tune requires.
There’s a nearly-wonderful song, “Cry Out to Jesus” (Max Powell :: Third Day, 2005). Nearly, but the last line is “Oh, yeah”. Don’t do that, young songwriters! Find words that everyone, of all ages, can rejoice to sing.
and God, right here all I bring is all of me I Will Lift My Eyes (Jason David Ingram, Jeffrey Stephen Norman :: Bebo Norman, 2006)
“Right here” is the kind of verbiage that will spoil any song for many in the congregation. Likewise, “right now”.
8. Sloppy Sentimentality
“How He Loves”, mentioned previously, contains this line, “So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss”. Some people are offended by it, others (e.g. Mel Wild) defend it. It is not my purpose here to adjudicate, but it should be obvious that something so divisive is not a wise choice for worship in a diverse congregation. It might be received well in a homogeneous congregation such (apparently) as Wild’s own, but the average congregation is not like that.
The whole of “How He Loves” is an example of a Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) sub-genre that some have termed the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type. Regardless of your own preferences, Mr or Ms Music Curator, please don’t ever include such songs in your selection for a diverse congregation. Don’t exclude a significant proportion of the congregation from participation!
Altogether wonderful to me, my love “Here I Am to Worship” (Tim Hughes, 2001)
Some, including many who have a deep and adoring relationship with our Saviour, will feel uncomfortable when asked to sing such a line.
Preview of my Next Post
In my next post, I plan to publish a list of contemporary Christian songs that don’t have any of the faults that I have discussed here in this post, and so which I believe provide a good starting point for anyone trying to select songs for use in an age-diverse and/or education-diverse congregation.
So far, I have analysed about 130 of the most popular contemporary Christian songs from the past thirty or so years. I have found 38 that I rate at 100% on my evaluation scale, and a further 20 that score from 90 to 99 and so might still be candidates, depending on the exact profile of your congregation. There is, then, plenty of choice available!
If this serious of posts then continues to roll out as I envisage, I will in a later post explain my rating method, but I thought readers would like to see the list of the best first, and perhaps start putting it to use.
Image source and attribution: Diliff, St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, Dublin, Ireland – Diliff, Cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0