Singing the Gospel: Three Questions for Worship Song Selection
There is no lack of songs for worship leaders and youth pastors to use in our local churches. We have easier access to music through digital downloads, streaming, and convention physical copies than ever before. The availability of music that can build up Christians in the faith is a gift, but it also means youth ministers need to be even more prudent when it comes to choosing what songs we will sing in gatherings with students. We cannot simply default to the catchiest or most popular songs. As with any aspect of our ministries, we must approach musical worship with intentionality.
The call to sing to the Lord is present throughout Scripture. The psalmist invites us to sing and shout (Psalm 95:1) and through our songs to make known what he has done (Psalm 105:1). Paul instructs Christian believers to make music from our hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19) and to teach one another through our singing (Colossians 3:16).
As leaders in the church, the question is not if we are to sing, but instead how or what we should sing. It is extremely important that we are selective in our song choices to ensure that the songs we sing are as grounded in truth as our teaching is.
Whether you are a professional musician or a youth pastor simply trying to organize your student worship times, as a song selector you have the weighty privilege of choosing words to put into the mouths of your students. It is imperative that those words are true, clear, understandable, and gospel-rich, meaning they reflect the way God has saved sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The songs we sing have the capacity to communicate love and truth—or ambiguity and confusion. So where do we begin as we filter through the oceans (pun intended) of readily available worship music?
In Colossians 3:16, the apostle Paul instructs believers saying, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Paul is encouraging the Colossians to let the Word fill their entire lives. And since we believe that Scripture is the ultimate authority, our ministry, our services, and our songs should reflect that conviction. Scripture ultimately points to the gospel, the Good News of what Christ has done. So we must sing the gospel – all of the gospel.
We must sing about who God is and what He has done. We must also sing about humanity—the reality of the Fall and our sin and the implicit, as well as explicit, realities of such a broken condition. This would include how we have been taken from death to life through the power of Christ. And we must sing about Jesus. His life, death, resurrection, and awaited return.
As leaders we should seek to provide a holistic view of the gospel to our students in all we do—a complete, well-balanced theological diet. If we lean too heavily on any one of these categories, we miss the beauty and truth that the others offer. For example, there is no hope in Jesus’s resurrection without the second coming. There is no comfort in knowing that we have been saved by God if we don’t understand the depths of human sin. We would never need to repent or worship God if we didn’t clearly see our own sinfulness. Singing about these truths teaches theology and gives a holistic view of the gospel of grace.
There is a lot to think about when preparing for our student gatherings, so establishing set criteria for song selection can help. Here are three questions to ask of current songs and potential new songs.
1. Is this song biblically sound?
Lyrics should be clear in their claims, and readily supported by Scripture. There are many songs that sound good and are fun to sing; however, a catchy melody does not necessarily mean a song is rich with biblical truth. In some cases, popular worship songs may actually contradict Scripture, so we must use extreme care. For example, I love the modern worship song “Death Was Arrested.” We sing it often at our local church, and our congregation finds it edifying; however, while the verses clearly tell the narrative of someone’s salvation and Christ’s resurrection, the term “arrested” isn’t the most biblically accurate word to describe Christ’s victory over death. He conquered, defeated, destroyed death—not just arrested it! Still, we must be careful here. Songs are poetry, like the Psalms. So, when vetting songs on lyrical content, try to strike a balance between songs that are deep with theology and songs that can effectively convey the emotions believers experience.
2. Is this song singable?
Not everyone has the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, so make sure your songs can easily be sung by your students. Songs with melodies that are difficult to follow will be difficult to teach to your students. This can create a disconnect as students sing. When I was in high school and had just started leading worship for my youth ministry, the song “With Everything” by Hillsong Worship (at the time was called Hillsong Live) was incredibly popular. As a young, proud, and foolish worship leader I thought the screaming melody of that song paired with the simple, yet passionate lyrics would set off an expression of gratitude and praise to God. But the melody was so hard and difficult to follow that no one sang along. It was definitely not one of my shining moments as a worship leader. As youth pastors or worship leaders, we have a responsibility to equip our students to sing as Scripture teaches (Psalm 47, Psalm 96, Ephesians 5). When songs have great lyrical content but difficult melody, it will often discourage participation.
3. Is this a song our students will connect with?
Some songs will meet the first two criteria but are not necessarily appropriate for your context. More times than not, something like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” probably isn’t the best song choice for youth group. Although the lyrics are true and rich, they contain vernacular that is challenging to understand. The militaristic tone of the original composition is foreign to our students’ context. This is an example of many songs that have great lyrics and are singable, but don’t seem to connect with the students. In this situation you have to ask yourself, should I continue to play this song or find another that can be an effective substitute?
As you think about these three questions, consider the balance that Jesus spoke about when he said the true worshippers would worship “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:23). Good song selection will reinforce biblical truths in our minds and will encourage our hearts to worship in the Spirit.
As we seek to make disciples, we cannot afford to be content with songs that are lacking rich theological and biblical truths that students need to hear. We must simultaneously use songs that will engage our students’ hearts and emotions. Our aim is to glorify God by “teaching and admonishing” (Colossians 3:16) students through gospel-saturated music. We trust that God will be at work through this practice to give our students a greater understanding, appreciation, and love for Him.