The Importance of Over-Thinking Your Worship Music

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One of my students asked me for an example of a song that I used to sing when I was in high school. For whatever reason, the “I like bananas” song popped into my head and that’s what came tumbling out of my mouth. For the uninitiated, here are the lyrics:

I like bananas, I know that mangoes are sweet
I like papayas (PAPAYAS!), but nothing can beat
The sweet love of God

I was walking in circles five miles an hour
Tryin’ to find my way back to the Heavenly Father
The world tasted sweet, but soon it turned sour
And then I asked Him in and received His power

If you grew up in Evangelical church circles in the 90’s, there’s a good chance you heard or had these lyrics burned into your brain. I know that I’ll never, ever disassociate my love for Jesus and papayas (I didn’t even know what a papaya was until the early 2000’s). My students couldn’t believe that this was one of the songs that we sang for worship in my youth group. Upon reflecting on the lyrics, neither could I.

I am sure you are much more discerning than this in regards to the worship that is being sung in your youth group, but we can never be too careful. The truth is, long after my youth students leave our group, they will remember very little of the details of my sermons and Bible studies. But they will remember the vast majority of the lyrics of the songs we sang, week after week, year after year. The melodies and the lyrics will be seared into their collective consciences, and I wonder if we’re taking advantage of this.

In a Wall Street Journal article about music and memorization, Dr. Henry L. Roediger, professor at the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, talks about how certain parts of our brains are wired to process millions of pieces of information every day. “Getting the information into those areas is relatively easy. What is difficult is pulling data out efficiently. Music provides a rhythm, a rhyme and often, alliteration. All that structure is the key to unlocking information stored in the brain—with music acting as a cue.”

Knowing that much of what we say from the pulpit will be forgotten, we cannot underestimate the future impact that our worship song selection will have on our students. This is why we must sing songs that express solid doctrine, theology, and the heart of the gospel.

We must also take into consideration that our corporate singing time is both vertical and horizontal. While it’s our desire to sing songs to the Lord, we are also singing songs to one another. In Ephesians 5:19, the Apostle Paul encourages us to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. This is an explicit encouragement to utilize the Scriptures in the songs that we’re singing, and anything that helps to make God’s word more vivid and memorable is a win. Our job as youth pastors is to disciple our students; the way in which we direct (or don’t direct) our students in this area will shape their faith for years to come.

Here are a few questions designed to help us evaluate the songs we’re singing and whether or not they are ultimately helpful in discipling our students:

Are the songs gospel-centered?
Are the songs that we sing allowing our students to reflect upon the gospel each week? Do they contain the language of repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and mission? If not in every song, do the sets of songs we sing help our students to absorb, explore, and memorize these themes? We should aim to sing songs that balance devotion to the Lord with songs that express our weaknesses and need for him.

Do the songs reference Scripture?
Are the songs you sing helpful for memorizing the actual Word of God? Taking advantage of how we’re created should lead us to sing songs that are taken and lifted directly from Scripture. As a bonus, choosing songs with lyrics that are directly or indirectly referencing specific Scripture passages also allows for great transitions for worship leaders and great devotional material for the band or praise team. I’ve also seen some churches post the actual scripture references on the worship lyric slides to help inform the congregation that these lyrics are coming directly from God’s Word.

Are the songs sung often enough to stick?
Are the songs you sing always on the cutting edge? Singing too many new songs can create a worship environment that is more like a concert, where the band is performing for the congregation. Though many worship leaders’ opinions vary on how often new songs should be sung, it seems like one new song every two months is good for the young church in balancing fresh songs with older standards.

Do the youth sing the same songs as the adults?
Worship experiences can bridge generations together when they know and sing the same songs. We should strive to include in our worship sets the same songs that the adults sing. Whether hymns or contemporary music, we should seek to incorporate songs that reflect the church as a whole so that transition from youth group to adult worship is familiar and inviting.

Are the songs worth singing 20 years from now?
Whether or not a song will survive the test of time is impossible to pin down right now. But if we know that the content of a song will outlast our students’ time with us, then it’s a song worth singing and declaring together. Though many of our churches no longer have a time of catechism, our songs can accomplish some of the work catechizing for us. Do they reach that kind of standard for doctrine and theology?

Are the songs balanced in their emotional expression?
Far too many evangelical worship songs are too happy for their own good. When our worship sets are imbalanced emotionally, we can burden our students with the expectation that their primary spiritual emotion should be happiness. We should temper this with songs of lament and songs of brokenness. Incorporating a wider range of emotions will communicate to our students that it’s okay not to come into our worship meetings ready and willing to sing happy songs. Even as leaders, there are certain Sunday meetings when we don’t “feel” like worshipping. Songs that express this can be incredibly powerful for those who are weary and burdened.

In the book of Psalms, God himself ordains worship that is emotionally complex, incredibly gospel-centered, and sung by the community of faith for faith and maturity. We should be taking cues from the Psalms in creating our worship sets and encouraging our worship leaders (whether students or staff) to think deeply about the songs we sing. The alternative is apparently a tropical fruit salad with a side of the love of God.

If you’re looking for some good worship songs that fit the above criteria, I’ve created a Spotify playlist to inspire you.

Spotify Embedded Player: (only works in the Google Chrome Browser)
<iframe src=”https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/e3pj6uvhbkwn2j83fknct5bmh/playlist/70Ihj7lSfaGU0zz4fCuovB” width=”300″ height=”380″ frameborder=”0″ allowtransparency=”true” allow=”encrypted-media”></iframe>
If the above embedded Spotify player doesn’t work for you, use this link to open up the playlist through the Spotify app on your computer or smartphone.

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