How Do Churches Examine New Worship Music?

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I figured that since Joyce Borger is present on here from time to time and there are many other individuals who are well versed in reformed theology and have a wealth of experience, I would solicit some feedback on how churches (councils/worship committees/what have you) evaluate the songs used in worship services. I know the denomination recently released Lift Up Your Hearts and that is a fantastic resource, but what do you do with the new music that is continually coming out? What do you do with the music that didn't make it into the hymnal? (Admittedly, I don't know if churches in the CRC are supposed to use only music from an approved hymnal). Either way, there is currently music outside of the hymnal being used in corporate worship services.

With this, sometimes I end up wondering if a song was examined but rejected by the committee putting together the hymnal and we are now utilizing the song unaware of its theological/musical/whatever shortcomings. In some ways I wish there was a group that would examine songs and make available to CRC churches a list of "approved/not approved" songs (with reasons why songs are not approved). Or, as another thought, that Reformed Worship would highlight a song or two in each issue and talk about what makes the song great for corporate worship in the reformed church.

These are my thoughts and wonderings, as unrefined as they are (consider this a disclaimer - I didn't fully flush out my thoughts/ideas because I am looking to start a conversation). Looking forward to hearing from everyone!

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Community Builder

Hi Adom, 

Great question(s) and worthy of some discussion.  Since you mention me by name I will try and answer some of them from where I sit but I hope others will engage as well. There is a lot of wisdom out there. 

First, the question about what is or is not allowed to be sung in our worship.  There is no longer any requirement that churches solely use music from one of our published hymnals so in essence you are free to take music from whatever resource/website you have access too.  But, in our polity (church rules of governance) the elders are charged with the task of overseeing worship which includes making sure that the music that is sung is appropriate for worship in a Christian Reformed Church. 

That of course begs an answer to your second question or a rephrase of it, "what qualifies a song as appropriate".  Let me begin by saying just because the editorial committee of Lift Up Your Hearts chose not to include a song doesn't mean that we deemed it inappropriate for use in the CRC.  The fact is that we looked at at least 3,000 songs as a committee and by using up every bit of real estate in the hymnal we managed to include about 850.  So there are a lot of songs we didn't include.  We began with an outline for the hymnal with a rough estimate of how many songs we felt we needed in each section, we were also committed to including songs from a diverse number of genres in each section (roughly global, contemporary, traditional hymnody).  For Christmas for example, we aimed for between 20-25 songs which when you put in the songs that are "required" left little room for anything else.  Many good Christmas songs were left out due to space alone.  Other times we had two songs of the same stylistic genre that said pretty much the same thing so one had to go.  

But there were many additional songs that we let go due to theological or musical concerns.  However, here is another reality when it comes to hymnal publishing.  We were needing to think very broadly about the church which in this case encompassed two denominations spread across two nations.  So it could very well be that a song that we deemed not appropriate for the hymnal might pass scrutiny in a more specific context.  In my own church we have sung a number of songs, even the Sundays I've preached, that did not pass the hymnal committee because of textual concerns.  In our context the problematic reading of the text would never be raised, but given another context that same text would be offensive.  That's where the wisdom of the leadership is important.  It could also be that even though few people will raise their eyebrows at a text it still isn't appropriate for our worship because every song we sing forms us.  

Choosing congregational songs then is a bit about the context but not entirely.  If we take the formative power of worship seriously (and we should) then what people sing will form their understanding of God, God's relationship to us, and our relationship to each other.  As pastors, elders, and others who are tasked with worship's oversight we need to take that priestly and prophetic role very seriously.   Here are some guidelines I have found helpful (though there are exceptions to every rule):

 

Music Guidelines

  • Singable by congregations rather than a soloist
  • Preferred range: c-d1
  • Rhythmically accessible to congregants
  • Fits the text and supports its message
  • Well-crafted memorable melody
  • Interesting with some predictability but not trite
  • Playable by non-professional but trained musicians
  • Follows the principles of standard music theory, unless compositional style demands otherwise

Text Guidelines

  • Biblical
  • Theologically Reformed
  • Gender-neutral language for people
  • Poetic texts ought to reflect good poetic techniques
  • Grammatically correct (with some poetic license)
  • Artfully written, not trite or mundane
  • Cohesive in thought
  • Understandable message (not puzzling to the singer or needing too much unpacking)
  • Captures the imagination or results in further reflection
  • Communal (we/you not I/me...exception for African American, Psalmody, and other music where I=We)
  • Words fit naturally with selected tune

One of your final comments was whether or not Reformed Worship could highlight a few songs.  We have always highlighted congregational song through our Songs for the Season, then Noteworthy, and soon Sing 10! columns, but we haven't solely focused on newly composed or specifically songs from the contemporary/modern genre but rather sought to highlight songs from diverse genres. The problem I fear with a quarterly journal is that currently we are planning the Lent/Easter issue.  If we provide a list of songs now with critique by Lent/Easter they will already be in use in our churches. Worship folk aren't going to and shouldn't have to wait for the next issue of RW to decide whether or not to use a song. 

As for other means of evaluating new songs for their content I think the Network could be a great place to do that.  I encourage all worship leaders to share their newest finds and offer some reflection on why they commend them to other churches.  And who knows maybe someday we will come up with a system for evaluating new songs on a more regular basis.  Until then do share with each other the best that is out there, and when necessary offer cautionary remarks.  

Hope this helps...happy to engage more. 

 

Community Builder

Thanks for the fast reply Joyce. I appreciate your expanding on the process for the hymnal and your outlining of some of the criteria you use for evaluating music.

Great question and excellent response, Joyce. It would be great if this question and answer could make their way into The Banner as it's relevant regardless of the style of worship applied.

At my church, neither elders or our pastor get very involved in selections of songs used in Sunday worship. Instead we have 4 worship leaders who choose the songs. Once in a while, some feedback will come to us either from the pastor or from congregants about the appropriateness of certain songs or lyrics within songs, and sometimes we'll change the words slightly to address the issue.

In general, though, I think we follow most of the principals you've outlined, each applying our own lens. But it's nice to have these lists and I'm going to share them with my fellow leaders. Sometimes the songs we choose are relevant for a "season" within our church; other times they have longer legs.

I would also challenge churches to reach a little further and work a little harder, creating and incorporating our own original music into worship and keeping our ears open for good new music that hasn't reached the CCLI charts. Jeremy Zeyl (https://soundcloud.com/jeremy-zeyl), for example is a Reformed contemporary musician from within our own circles (Talbot Street CRC in London, ON) who is creating some rich and original songs that fit all of the criteria above.

Community Builder

Yes, great reminder James to go beyond the top CCLI songs.  There are so many other avenues for good Reformed, contemporary songs, newly written like Jeremy Zeyl or new arrangements of traditional hymns.  Some additional people to consider are: 

  • Sarah and Phil Majorins from a CRC church plant in Davis, California (Church of Christ, Davis);
  • Bruce Benedict (Hope College Chapel, Holland, Michigan);
  • Aaron Antoon (CRC church planter also in California);
  • Greg Scheer (Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids).  

Also consider looking up music from:

  • Sovereign Grace (Kevin Twit),
  • Urban Doxology (David Bailey)

For more modern arrangements of traditional hymns search those hymns on sites like: 

  • bandcamp.com
  • spotify.com
  • soundcloud.com

I'm doing this off the top of my head so I am sure we can add people/websites to each one of these categories.  Please do add your additions.  A suggested key requirement for adding names: the music the individual is writing must have been picked up/used in worshiping communities beyond their own. 

Also note that in the Advent edition of Reformed Worship there is an article on "Reawaken Hymns" by Nathan Drake who explains some basics to taking traditional hymns and playing them in a modern/contemporary style.  The article will include a link to a teaching video as well.  

Excited to see this beginning list grow! 

 

Community Builder

Interesting that Jeremy Zeyl is coming up here as we as a church have decided to introduce his song "I Am Not My Own" over the month of July as we have recently finished an adult study of the Heidelberg Catechism. It's great to see the efforts he has made to write quality worship music with a reformed theology. 

I have an extension question to your comment on the music being picked up/used in worshipping communities beyond their own - do you have any recommendations as to how an artist might go about achieving that? Outside of your wheelhouse maybe, but I'm curious what you have to say, if anything.

 

 

Community Builder

Here are some ideas for getting your music out there:

  • share music via the Network and your own facebook page especially if they use a creative commons copyright allowing free use (unless someone is using it for their own monetary gain in which case they need to seek permission from you.)
  • Start with your own congregation, if they like it they will spread the word. 

I'd also encourage new text/tune writers to look for opportunities to work on their craft.  Few people can sit down and come up with a great song the first time around.

  • Go to a writing workshop to hone your skills.
  • Create a group of trusted individuals (to whom you are not related) to give you constructive feedback
  • Reach out to another singer/songwriter and ask if they would be willing to offer a critique.
  • Keep writing, even if it is only for yourself or your own community.  

 

Again these are real quick off the top of my head so others please add your input... 

I got to experience worship with Jeremy and his band, Body + Soul Collective at the Canadian Gathering recently. They lead with humility and reverence, and the original songs that they do fit all of the criteria that Joyce outlined. To me, that's a must for any music we introduce, whether it comes from ourselves, members of our congregation, local churches, our denomination or the great beyone (i.e., CCLI). 

Excellent response by Joyce!  As a church musician for over 40 years, I've enjoyed the changes and have been rewarded by the education given to me by the younger musicians involved in our worship. Still, I do rely on 2 major guidelines (contained within Joyce's response).

1 - Does the text of the song fit within and amplify the message of the service?

2 - Does the music inspire congregational participation in the singing?

And, I'll always remember a lesson given to me over 40 years ago by my teacher.  During congregational singing, church musicians are there to accompany in worship, not to perform.  Yes, occasionally we must assist in teaching a new song and that may require more volume but I often find the community of singing can be destroyed by overwhelming musical accompaniment.  Of course, I'll still pull all the stops for at least one verse of "A Mighty Fortress" but I'm also prone to stop playing altogether for a verse and hear beautiful a capella singing and, as a musician at the front of the church, I often have the best seat in the house.

Community Builder

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the response! I'm wondering though if you can expand on your first point at all - do you have "criteria" for determining this?

My personal opinion is that, If possible, musicians should try to choose music that is connected to the pastor's message or the concerns of the congregation.  I realize that, especially for praise teams, practices often happen before the sermon outline has been provided (or determined) by the pastor.  But, at the very least, I think music leaders should, before choosing their music, consider whether or not there is a part of the liturgical calendar that should/could be connected to OR an event in the congregation (or society) that could be addressed.

As an attendee at various churches in various denominations (part of my former employment), I'd often hear a song that was "new" to me. Sometimes, I'd be wondering "What were they thinking?"  And, if I was thinking of suggesting it as a song choice for our own congregation, I'd first read through the lyrics as if it were a spoken message to determine if it was spiritually moving.  Often, I'll come across new songs that have a great tune but the tune appears to be wasted by incorporating extremely redundant and boring lyrics.  It's like reading the lyrics of "Happy Birthday".

Of course, that's an opinion that varies from one listener to another and, if a worship team is involved, members' opinions should be sought.  I've learned lots from the opinions and enthusiasm of others.

I can't imagine trying to plan a worship service without the Scripture and sermon theme. To me those are essential to choosing songs that lead the congregation through a rich worship experience. The spirit moves as we plan worship while reflecting on the message and events that are happening in the church.

 

Participant

Thanks Adom for starting this discussion, and to everyone who has added to it.
There have been lots of great points made already.

When considering a new song, (in addition to all the things others have already brought up) I think it's important to understand how the song will sound when your team does it. I think a lot of people get tripped up by this. Here's what I mean (sorry if this seems like a blog post I never wrote; it is).

You hear a great song for the first time and you immediately think of using it at your church. It's catchy, emotionally engaging, theologically sound, singable... it seems perfect. You ask others if they've heard it; they have and they like it. Excellent! So you listen to it constantly for a week straight, get a copy of the sheet music, and watch some very well-done instructional videos on YouTube. This is going to be great!

Your enthusiasm is markedly diminished, though, when you start practicing the new song with the praise team. Even though the whole team likes the song and feels they can play their part well, it just doesn't sound right. Sure, you knew it wouldn't sound exactly like the professional recording, but something's off. It could be one or more of a few things.

First, you might not have all the essential instruments. Our church, for instance, has no bass guitar player and usually no lead guitarist. We often have the keyboard player add the low notes and, for some songs, play the melodic hook. While this usually works well enough, sometimes it sounds pretty wretched. Some riffs sound great on the electric guitar, but dull and lifeless when played with a keyboard or violin. So if that riff doesn't sound good on the instruments you have available (or, honestly, if no one on your team can play it really well), you should leave it out.

Second, the team might not be grooving together. What? We're talking about church here. Yes, I know, but most songs sound best when each instrument complements the others effectively. Even though everyone knows the song, they might not be playing something that works really well with what everyone else is playing. You're probably the only one who watched a video on how to play the song. There are countless videos on the web for guitarists, but hardly any for bass or keyboard. And the other instruments are no doubt making it up as they go along. You may need to go through the parts one at a time, making sure each one works, before bringing the whole ensemble in. This requires tremendous patience, so don't get discouraged.

Finally, you might simply have to do the song your own way. Maybe the song works well in completely different style. Shane & Shane's version of "Because He Lives" (Worship Initiative, Vol. 6) is a fantastic example of how to re-imagine a good song in a style that suits the artist or audience. You could do something similar, according to the skills/resources of your team and the needs of your congregation. Maybe by slowing the song down, speeding it up, leaving out the riffs (or writing new ones), or changing the rhythm, the song will suit your church wonderfully.

Obviously, many songs are not so complicated as to present the concerns I mentioned. Still, I think it's good to intentionally go through the process of thinking through a song with your own church in mind.