I remember walking into church as a child and going on tip-toes to try to a glimpse of the wooden board that hung on the front wall. “Hymns for the Day” it said, and below it were carefully placed page numbers of our playlist for the next hour.
Someone chose those songs. Someone practiced those songs. Someone slid the numbers into place on the wooden board. Someone typed up those transparencies.
There was always a “someone”.
One doesn’t have to look far to find articles, blogs, and interviews with hundreds worship experts who want to help you make wise decisions about what you should and should not sing. Rubrics and extensive vetting systems have been designed, all with the end goal of curating a healthy song diet for your particular congregation. As the options available continue to grow, with hundreds of new worship songs released each month, we need as many tools as possible in our toolbelts when we sit down to plan the next Sunday service.
The difficulty in cultivating music for worship is that worship is contextual. You’re not making wise choices for the church down the road. You are selecting songs for your people. What you say “yes” to because it is a congregational heart song, someone else says “no” to because it’s too hard to sing or has controversial language. Every congregation is different (praise God), and every congregation will have different songs that form their faith and lift their voices in worship each week.
Twice a year, CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International), puts out a Top 100 list with the most sung/reported songs. This isn’t limited to one denomination or one geographic area - it’s meant to be comprehensive. It shows trends, demonstrates clicks and downloads, and gives a visual representation of what worship sounds like broadly in churches around the world. In 2015 a team from the United Methodist Church began a CCLI Top 100 vetting project. They looked at each song individually, putting it through their own extensive vetting process, resulting in a document that contains recommendations for UMC churches to consider. When their final data was released, the Center for Congregational Song invited other denominations to follow suit and create vetting documents for their own churches.
Formative Worship Planning
Below (in the PDF attached) you will find the work of a team of Reformed worship leaders, pastors, and theologians who vetted the Top 100 list published in early 2024. In our first meeting, we talked extensively about criteria and Reformed distinctives for how we would analyze songs. Within our small team, we quickly realized the diversity in worship practices and styles in our settings was going to pose unique challenges. Every song has strengths and opportunities, and we greatly respect the prayerful and Spirit-led decisions made across our tradition each week as worship planners get to work. So instead of a simple “sing this/don’t sing this” approach, we humbly submit this document. It contains things we think should be taken into consideration from a formative perspective. Worship is faith formative and singing is faith formative. Over time, what we sing and what we say in worship forms us. Formation doesn’t happen in a single song or on a single Sunday, but gradually over time as songs take root in our souls and become part of our faith language.
Many of the songs on this list had little to no concerns. For those that gave us pause, we attempted to provide specific points we hope you will consider. They generally follow several prominent themes we observed throughout the project.
- Biblical and Theological Concerns. What a blessing that creative writers prayerfully pour into new songs and new words for the church to sing. There were several instances where the writer took artistic liberties with the Biblical text and we had concerns about the accuracy of the hermeneutics. There were also instances where a text might be theologically sound in another tradition, but not in our Reformed tradition. When singing these songs, be thoughtful about how your “in-between words” and other service elements either reinforce or correct these issues.
- Individualistic vs. Corporate. Many of the songs are highly individualistic, lacking language that reminds us of our worshiping in community. When our primary language week after week is individualistic, it gradually forms us to contain worship to MY service, MY relationship with God, MY, MY, MY. When we worship corporately we experience both the joy and the responsibility of living in community. We have the joy of participating in worship that resounds far beyond the walls of our building. We participate in the important work of covenant renewal with siblings in Christ. We also hold the precious responsibility of bearing with one another, caring for one another, and learning to love one another through our worship. When singing these songs, we encourage you to frame them in such a way that emphasizes the corporate nature of our worship.
- Minimization of Human Reality and Suffering. Of course, you are not going to fill your entire service with songs of lament or petition each week. We sing words of praise, thanksgiving, joy, and gratitude. We sing words of reassurance to each other and sometimes to ourselves about God’s power and presence. We encourage you to be particularly mindful of those in your congregation who suffer - either publicly or silently. A continual barrage of “be happy - God’s got this!” minimizes pain and presents a problematic long-term understanding of God’s presence or absence in human suffering. Allow ample space for honest and truthful lament. When singing these songs, we encourage you to acknowledge that we don’t always sing words because they are true to our current reality, but because they are our hope for the future.
- Congregationally Unsingable. We recognize this is subjective because every congregation is different. But there are several songs where we highlight the difficulty for average church members to sing and learn a song well. Reformed worship places a high value on the participatory nature of corporate worship. We strongly encourage a song diet primarily filled with songs that can be SUNG by your congregation.
On a final note, there were many other criteria discussed that have not been included in this document. We did not account for the mega-church movements and their associated controversies (Hillsong and Bethel). We encourage you to be mindful and make wise choices for your particular context, but we did not include this as part of our vetting. We also noted certain instances of gendered language but did not eliminate songs based on that. We do wish to note that changing lyrics in any way is a violation of copyright and we do not encourage it.
Thank you for being the “someone” in your congregation who makes small decisions each week that have a large impact over time. We know these are difficult decisions, sometimes met with criticism and strong opinions. We see you and appreciate you. We are hopeful for you, and with you for vibrant, healthy worship practices in our Reformed churches. What a joy it is to partner in the gospel through song.
Katie Ritsema-Roelofs (Project Lead)
Erin Hollaar Pacheco
**For full document, click the pdf below**