As the musical aspect of evaluating worship songs is a very contextual question (see part I), lyrics are the primary way I evaluate songs for inclusion in my song lists.  Along with the development of a worship set or liturgy (see my earlier series Worship in 7 Movements), this is perhaps the area most in need of theological reflection in the contemporary worship scene.  The first thing to realize is that just because someone is a “worship artist,” does not mean everything they write or perform is going to be appropriate for congregational worship.  In general, five values inform my selection of congregational worship music:
God-focused: Worship is about what God does, not about what I will do.  It’s an easy trap for worship songwriters to fall into.  Songs often come out of deep emotion, and beginning lyrical phrases with “I” is often the most natural way of expressing that emotion.  And yes, worship is about response.  But the act of singing is itself the response – the lyrics should express the reality we are responding to.  If we continually sing about what I will do, we never actually get to the content of God’s promises.  However, if we begin with that content – what God has done – it is easy and natural to move into response. 

Communal rather than individual: Counterculturally, our relationship with God happens primarily in the context of community.  Our worship should include more "we's" than "I's".  Biblically, God relates to humanity mostly through Israel (OT) and the church (NT).  The wonder for the New Testament writers was not simply that Jesus died “for me,” but that I (and everyone else!) am included in the community that receives God’s promises. 

So to review so far: God, not me; and not “I” but “we.”   Should we then strike all “I’s and “me’s” out of our worship?  No, but we should be conscious of them as leaders.  Another problem with too much first-person language is that we may put words in worshippers’ mouths that may not be true for them in that moment.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped singing in worship because what was being sung did not express my heart at that time.  But if we are singing about God – or if we are singing as a member of a community – we can sing about deeper truths whether or not we feel them at the moment. 

Anchored in Scripture: Scripture is the primary anchor for lyrical themes.  The language we use in worship is extremely powerful.  Language gives shape to reality.  If we are using “small” language, our concept of God and of our relationship with God will correspond with that.  I am not saying that the more ten-letter words we have, the better.  I am referring more to concepts.  Our language should be intentional—not just regurgitated Christianese.  When held all together, our worship should tell the whole story of Scripture and of the gospel - from creation and fall through redemption and renewal.  

The language of Scripture is not small (although of course, if you sing ten songs based on the same verse, its likely to lose its power).  Songs that are born from specific passages of Scripture, therefore, are more than likely to pass the “small” test.  But there are two other “anchor points” that derive from Scripture: liturgical function and season of the church year.  Both our worship order (assuming it is formed throughtfully!) and the church year are themselves informed by Scripture, and especially by the gospel.  So songs can also be properly anchored to a specific part of the service (confession and absolution, Holy Communion, etc.) or to a season of the church year (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, etc.)

Gospel-centered: Our worship follows a two-part rhythm: acknowledge our need, celebrate Christ as fulfillment of that need.  In choosing worship songs, we need both parts.  Not necessarily in the same song; but we need songs that do each. 

Hopefully this gives you some things to think about as you choose songs and plan worship on behalf of your community.  Have fun, and let me know how it goes!
 


Comments

02/12/2013 4:56pm

Matt,
I've got a slightly different take on "I" v. "we" language, in that I believe it's important to use both. We should sing some songs that are "communal", while we should sing some songs that are "personal." That's because people are both individuals and part of a community.
If we use only "I" language, we don't make reinforce the connection to our community or to humanity. Christianity can easily become about Jesus and me, or worse, me and Jesus. This is the privatization of religion.
Flip side, if we use only "we", maybe it never actually gets personal for us. There is a very personal relationship with Jesus--we want to encourage people to actually encounter Jesus in worship. I think that's best accomplished by consciously using both communal and personal (but not private) language.
Thanks for your work in this area.

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02/13/2013 7:32pm

Thanks, Jay.
You're absolutely right. Both are important.

Part of what I'm getting at is that the personal side is usually not lacking if you are using contemporary praise songs. Most likely it's going to be there automatically, because contemporary worship is already so heveily weighted that direction. We often need to be more intentional about including the communal part.

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Jay Egenes
02/14/2013 6:14am

You're right about the need to be intentional. The biggest challenge I think is finding good "senders." Songs about our response, and going to either tell the world about Jesus or (especially) the desire to go out and serve the poor, do get written and recorded. But they don't get much radio play. You need to go look for them. " Awesome is the Lord Most High" and "Mission's Flame" are both great senders, neither got airplay.

02/14/2013 3:41pm

Speaking of songs that don't get enough airplay, one of my favorites for that kind of "sending" song is "Changed" by Aaron Niequist, one of his many great songs: http://www.aaronniequist.com/music/index.html

Other ideas: Tim Hughes - Jesus Saves; Bluetree - God of This City (also recorded by Tomlin; not as direct but still works); and songs with "shine your light," like Mighty to Save.

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Jay Egenes
02/15/2013 9:52am

Thanks for "Changed." That's great. I hadn't heard it before.

We find God of This City isn't up enough musically to be a good sending song, although it works as one lyrically. Maybe we have to find a way to rock it more. :)
I agree on your other suggestions, although I don't think we actually know "Jesus Saves".

We also use Tomlin's "Let God Arise", David Haas' "We Are Called", and "Step By Step" (now aging, I think it was recorded by Rich Mullins). "This Little Light of Mine," the old gospel song, is a great sending song.

Matthew Anderson
02/15/2013 2:47pm

You're right about God of This City. It would work better right after the message, perhaps, but could still have a kind of "sending" function in that place.

I Hadn't thought of "Let God Arise" in that vein, but I can see how that works. The focus is more on God's action than our agency (not a bad thing of course!)

"Jesus Saves" has really grown on me, along with Hughes "Happy Day," which sounds cheesy at first but is such a great Resurrection song.

Thanks for the input, Jay!

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Jay Egenes
02/12/2013 6:20pm

We try to use something of a "V" in the structure of the service. In any given week our 6 to 8 songs and hymns may not fit the pattern exactly (because we're also mindful of fitting the lyrics to the biblical text(s) of the day and to the season or theme, as well as having the music fit together, but here's the kind of thing we attempt.
Start with music that has a communal focus, contemplating the gathering of the community together to worship, inviting people to "Praise the Lord" or encounter God in worship.
At some point in the middle of the service (the transition doesn't happen in the same place every week), we'll have language that is more personal, contemplating the individual's relationship with Christ or the Holy Spirit, for example, Spirit of the Living God, Fall Fresh on Me; Take Oh Take Me As I Am; or Take My Life.
At the end of the service we'll broaden out to use communal language again, inviting people once more to praise God or contemplating going out to serve our neighbors or share the good news.

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02/13/2013 8:09pm

Sounds like a great pattern. James MacDonald's Vertical Church might present an interesting read for you. See an excerpt here: http://www.jamesmacdonald.com/assets/files/Where-Is-This-Service-Going.pdf

Do you find that your worship includes the two-part rhythm I referenced toward the end of the article? (acknowledge our need for God/celebrate Christ as fulfillment of that need. I've written about it extensively in earlier posts.) To me this simple rhythm allows people to encounter the gospel, much in the way confession/absolution and kyrie/song of praise were meant to do with traditional liturgy.

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Jay Egenes
02/14/2013 6:21am

Thanks for the tip Matt. MacDonald's scheme looks somewhat like what Robb Redman describes as the Pentecostal model. I might pick that up--because I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. What we try to do is synthesize the Vineyard approach to structure of a worship set with the historical four part service structure. It lays out a little better I think in terms of flow if you use the Anglican structure than the Lutheran--but the basics are the same.

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02/14/2013 3:46pm

I'd be interested to hear how that might converge with with the "7 movements" structure that I lay out here: http://www.worshipindepth.com/1/post/2012/09/worship-in-7-movements-part-ii-the-order.html

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