Selecting Songs For Contemporary Christian Worship
I’ve led contemporary Christian worship, both as a regular leader at the largest church in New England and as a guest with my worship band at numerous other houses of worship in both the United States and Canada, and, over these several years of experience, I’ve learned a great deal about how to discern and assess the potential value of a worship song.
In this article, I’m not going to suggest a list of specific worship songs or choruses that I believe are most suitable for congregations, since every church has its own style, preferences and needs when it comes to musical worship. I’m also not going to discuss how a worship leader should order a worship set list to make it most logical and fluid, since every church has its own order of service, and many churches alter their order of service or structure from week to week. Every church also allots a different amount of time for the musical portion of worship during its services, and so I’m not going to attempt to cover how a worship leader should arrange a song (e.g., repetition of choruses, tagging vocal lines, etc.), nor how many songs he or she should select for each set. What may work for one service for a given congregation may not work for the next service, and what may work well for one house of worship, may not work for the next. Every worship leader also has his or her own style, tastes and strengths.
Instead, I want to offer some practical guidelines and ‘rules of thumb’ when it comes to selecting songs for a worship set list.
One of the first mistakes that many worship leaders make is that they fail to think like a singer. For those leaders who are highly skilled musicians - that is, they also play other musical instruments apart from their voices - there is often the tendency to hear a new worship song and decide to introduce it to their congregations simply because something about the music appeals to them on a compositional level. A lead guitarist might get excited about inventing a solo for a particular song, or about using a certain pedal effect for it. A drummer or a bassist might appreciate an interesting or challenging rhythm and desire to play the song because of it. A keyboardist might find that the song would highlight his or her instrument in a unique way and select it because his or her particular skills would be utilized in an exciting way.
Certainly, musical arrangement is important, as is excellence in musicianship, but Sunday morning worship is not the time to be showcasing one‘s musical genius or extraordinary talents - that is, demonstrating everything that a musician can do skill wise on his or her instrument with the hope of impressing others or entertaining oneself.
As a side note: A song needn’t be overly complicated and musically challenging in order for it to be a great one, either. The most popular and longstanding worship choruses and songs are typically written with simple chord progressions, usually consisting of only four or five basic chords in a predictable progression. To professional musicians, this kind of writing may make a song seem unchallenging and thus uninteresting. Yet, the beauty of worship often lies in its simplicity. A simple, easily memorized chord progression allows the musicians to get their eyes off the written music (e.g., sheet music or chord charts) and worship more freely. A truly talented musician can make a simple song sound amazing and worshipful without becoming a distraction (e.g., creating and playing a part that detracts from the overall feel, style or purpose of the particular song).
A worship leader needs to understand that, with the exception of the worshippers up on the stage playing or singing with the worship band, all others in the congregation are assigned the role of singers by default. Those in the congregation who must be singers during the service must also be able to use their instruments (i.e., voices), or else frustration will likely ensue. The average person in the congregation both expects and needs the worship songs to be singable - from melody to key signature to tempo to arrangement - so that he or she can participate fully and without distraction. Because of this fact, the serious musician needs to set aside his or her sometimes self-centered and self-gratifying desire to play songs that are musically interesting but lack catchy melodies or are in difficult keys for singing and thus can‘t be sung easily or enjoyed by others who are not playing musical instruments other than their voices.
For a serious singer, it shouldn’t be difficult to put oneself into the congregation’s shoes and to embrace the idea of thinking like a singer. After all, the voice is the singer’s main instrument, and singers, like all musicians, enjoy being able to play their instruments well.
When I’m considering a song to add to my worship band’s and church’s repertoire, I consider first and foremost how easily it will be sung by the average, untrained singer in the congregation. I primarily examine the melody, and determine whether or not it is catchy and simple enough for a worshipper to be able to sing it immediately (i.e., the first time that they hear it), and to be able to retain it after the service, and whether or not it has the potential to be enjoyable to sing. If the melody line (i.e., tune) is limited in any way, I generally reject the song, regardless of any other merits that it might possess (e.g., a good message, a fast tempo that might help to fill the gap for upbeat songs in the worship band‘s regular repertoire, interesting or challenging lines of music, etc.). I have written more about the melody of the song in a section below.
I also consider the range that the song covers. A song can always be transposed if the original key is either too high or too low for the average voice in the group, (which I will discuss more in a little while), but if the range of notes spans more than an octave-and-a-half, for example, it might be overly difficult for many untrained singers. Of course, higher sections of the song can be sung an octave lower and lower sections can be sung an octave higher by the individuals in the pews, or they can sing harmony parts, but it isn’t usually preferred.
Thinking like a singer, rather than a musician, will also help a worship leader focus on sing-ability rather than play-ability. It is a common practice for worship leaders who play instruments while leading to place most of the songs to be grouped together in the set in the same key in order to facilitate smoothness of transitions between songs. While, on a musical level, this may make a great deal of sense, it doesn’t always work on a vocal level. Not all songs, when played in the same key, will also have melody lines that fall in the same tessitura (where the majority of the melody will actually be sung). In other words, one song played in the key of E, for example, will work well for the average vocal range, but another song played in the key of E may end up being too high or too low for the average singer. Finding an intermediate key - one in which two or more songs can be played in the same key and still be sung reasonably comfortably is one solution to this dilemma. Another solution is simply to use brief moments of prayer, Scripture reading, or words of praise as transitional tools between songs whose keys don‘t match. Of course, there are many other creative ways to keep songs in good keys for singing and also have smooth transitions between them (e.g., upward modulation of the key signature during the last repetition of the chorus in order to match the favoured or ideal key of the succeeding song) that I can’t begin to list here.
While it is artistically enjoyable to hear a soloist perform all sorts of vocal gymnastics, such complications of the melody line can pose a distraction in a worship setting, especially when the song is new to the congregation.
First, the majority of the people in a congregation are not vocally trained. While most may be able to sing on key and follow along with the average song, not everyone will have the same degree of vocal skill as the worship leader. When the worship leader is choosing songs for worship, it is often best to remember to make decisions based on the average capabilities of untrained singers. This means that songs should not span more than about an octave-and-a-half in range, the melody lines should not require a lot of mellismatic singing, notes should not be sustained for more than a measure or two (depending on when the last breath was likely or logically taken, as well as the tempo of the song and the actual note being held), the tempo of the songs should allow for regular breaths to be taken in and for all the words to be sung (articulated) easily, and the phrasing of the song should be simple, predictable, singable and sensible (e.g., the end of one line of lyric shouldn‘t be found at the beginning of the next, etc.) by people who may not have adequate breath support and vocal stamina, or who may not be able to articulate rapidly.
Secondly, when a new song is being introduced to a congregation, it is best for the leader to avoid straying considerably from the lead melody for the first time or two until the other worshippers have learned the song well enough to sing it on their own. Harmonies, embellishments, and other such licenses often taken by the lead vocalists of bands can confuse people who are trying to engrain into their working memories a new song. Although some artistry is inspiring and adds to the overall artistic feel of a song, (as with the contributions made by any other musical instrument), it is still wise to avoid demonstrating one’s penchant for ‘showing off’ one’s vocal flexibility while leading worship even after a song has been sung a few times during services.
Another consideration is the potential self-consciousness of worshippers when it comes to their singing voices. Many people do not feel confident with their singing voices, and they may find the musical portion of the worship service to be an uncomfortably long and intimidating time. If the melody is confusing or tricky in any way or at any part, there is a greater chance that worshippers who are unfamiliar with the song will go off key at parts, and that may be nerve racking and embarrassing for them. Choosing songs with simple, catchy tunes can help the ‘singing challenged’ to feel less daunted and less worried about being able to keep up with everyone else.
Also, if possible, consider having the sound crew properly trained to mix the sound levels from the band. The worship leader’s voice should be prominent in the mix so that the congregation members can easily follow along and know where he or she is going with the song. Other instruments that help promote on-tune singing, such as keyboards and acoustic guitars, should be easily heard, as well.
Finally, sound levels in the worship space should be high enough that others will not fear that everyone around them will be able to hear their bad singing and thus be afraid to open their mouths to sing, (but not so loud to be a painful, unpleasant and frustrating distraction). Investing in a decibel metre can help the sound team to set appropriate and consistent sound levels in the worship space. Even though every music listener has his or her own preferences for certain instruments and tolerances for certain volume levels, and some people have better ears for mixing sound than others, there should be a sound level and mix that is fairly standard and consistent for everyone running the sound board from week to week. This mix should be established, explained and monitored, if possible, by the worship leader so that everyone running sound is on the same page and so that the congregation members can expect consistency.
Making the environment more conducive to unhindered and uninhibited expressiveness will make everyone’s worship experience more enriching.
Another common oversight that worship leaders make when it comes to selecting worship songs is focusing solely on a song’s lyric or message and ignoring the melody. It shouldn’t be assumed that just because a particular song’s words are powerful and meaningful, that alone will make the song inspiring and an automatic favourite amongst worshippers. (The opposite situation may also me true, but less common. There are songs that have wonderful melodies and great music but lyrics that are so cheesy, ‘fluffy’ or devoid of depth and theological soundness that they are not worth introducing, either, in my opinion.) Certainly, the lyric is a significant element of a worship song, and it's important that the words be doctrinally sound, meaningful, inspiring and well-written (e.g., creative, original, poetic, logical, grammatical, etc.). However, effective melody is no less important and cannot be ignored or sacrificed.
Even if worshippers have their hearts in the right place - that is, they are focused on worshipping God and not on being entertained or served - it isn’t always easy to sit through a song that lacks quality in important areas of composition such as melody. I have sat in several services where the worship leaders have attempted to introduce songs that were not easy to sing, or not enjoyable to sing, because they had personally found the lyrical content of the songs to be uplifting or compatible with the overall theme of the service or message that morning. I also know of some worship leaders who will go to extremes to find a song - any song - that will match the theme of the message, choosing songs that are obscure or very poorly written or that do not fit with the church‘s particular style or direction of worship. Songs like this should be reserved for a special number during which the congregation can simply listen and reflect but not feel obliged to try to sing along.
This is where melody becomes particularly important. When people are singing, they want to be able to follow a tune that is easy to catch on to, and they want to be able to remember a significant portion of it the following week. They want to be able to follow along and participate in the singing element of worship, but they won‘t be able to do so if they can‘t follow along to a song or catch onto the melody relatively quickly. The melody needn’t be extremely predictable; just good, memorable and easy to sing for the average person.
Perhaps because my voice is lyric and lighter in weight, I tend to naturally gravitate toward songs that have very catchy melodies and use different areas of range that are likely to appeal to the masses. (In secular terms, they would be labeled highly ‘commercial’ in value.) These songs are not only easy to remember and sing, but they also put the singer through some variations in pitch that make the voice sound more dynamic and worshipful, and that cause emotions to stir. Worshippers shouldn’t consider singing through unmemorable verses a chore that they must complete before finally getting to the wonderfully melodic chorus, for instance. (I know a worship and arts pastor who actually rewrites the melody for parts of songs - he changes the original melody composed by the songwriter - that he doesn’t like if he feels as though other parts of the song have decent melodies. For many reasons, I don‘t recommend this tactic.)
As a rule of thumb, if I turn off a worship CD or walk out of a service unable to at least hum parts of a song that I have just heard for the first time, the song has very little potential. I am generally exceptionally good at recalling and learning melody lines. If, after having heard and sung a particular song a few times, I still can’t remember and sing the tune of the song outside of the service, the song really oughtn’t be introduced to a congregation, since no one else is likely to remember (or appreciate) it, either.
Worship leaders also need to be aware of the fact that they may be able to sing a certain type of melody well, whereas others may not find these same melodies as suitable for their voices. I’ve observed that some male worship leaders who have more ‘rock singer-like’ qualities to their voices have a tendency to choose songs that will sound fine when they are singing them, but not so great when the average voice type is attempting it. Baritones can often sound good singing less variable melodies that other voice types would sound very boring and almost monotone while singing. Again, a catchy melody brings out the best in all worshippers’ voices.
Although it may seem absolutely impossible for a worship leader to accommodate every voice type and range in the congregation when choosing the key signature for a song, this is actually not the case. Knowing just a little about ‘average’ singing voices will enable a worship leader to find a key that is likely to be reasonable for most everyone in the congregation.
First, the majority of female singers are mezzo-sopranos, (not sopranos and altos), and the majority of male singers are baritones (not tenors and basses); neither high nor low voiced. Selecting a key that is compatible with these ‘middle’ voice types will instantly make the song singable for nearly everyone in the larger group.
Furthermore, the vast majority or worshippers are not vocally trained, and have limited ranges. It is quite common for untrained singers to be limited to the range of pitches that lies below their second passaggio, making any key that places a song’s highest pitches above this pivotal registration point (i.e., in the head register) unsingable to them, (unless they sing an octave lower). My general rule is to place songs in keys that will make the highest sung notes somewhere between B and D (or a few notes below), as these notes are a little lower than both the female and male upper passaggi (with an octave difference between the two genders) for the most common voice types (mezzo-sopranos and baritones). An additional benefit of using the second passaggio as a guide for high notes is that head voice can be avoided. Not only is the head register challenging for many untrained singers to access, but head voice tones, with their modified vowels and acoustics, are generally not as well suited to contemporary styles of worship.
As a singer, I prefer to place songs in keys that will allow me to make the song sound strong, and worshipful, and that will enable me to sing with passion and confidence. I like to play my instrument skillfully, and singing in a good key for my range and voice type is helpful for me in accomplishing what I hope to while leading other believers in musical worship. (In this case, I am blessed to be a mezzo-soprano, because I can be assured that if a song is in a good key and range for me, it is also going to be in a good key and range for the majority of the congregation.) While worship leading isn’t the same as performing, so that a leader’s voice should not become the focus and a leader should not think only of how a certain key signature affects his or her voice, it’s my opinion that a congregation will be more inspired when a worship leader’s voice is well suited to the style of the song and when that voice sounds great (e.g., not struggling to sing notes that are out of his or her range). It isn’t hard for worshippers to become distracted by unpleasant sounds emanating from a worship leader’s mouth. While, in an ideal world, these kinds of distractions wouldn’t happen, congregations are comprised of imperfect humans.
Chances are that if a worship leader has the range and voice type of an average person (e.g., he or she is not a high tenor, low bass or high soprano or low contralto), he or she will be able to place a song in a key that is suitable for his or her own voice and be confident that most people in the congregation will find it to be an okay key for them, as well. For those leaders with voice types that are higher or lower than average, considering the vocal registration facts explained two paragraphs above will be helpful in determining what key will place the song in a range that will be good for the majority of the congregation. While lowering or raising a key may not make that key as good for the worship leader’s voice, meaning that some of the vocal dynamics may be lost while leading, I feel that it is more important to accommodate the other worshippers in the congregation who don‘t have the same level of vocal skills than to highlight the worship leader's voice. Because most worship leaders have vocal skills that are better than average, it is likely that a skilled singer can still manage to use his or her voice well despite singing in a key that isn't ideally suited to his or her voice type.
For those in the congregation who are of higher or lower vocal Fachs (i.e., sopranos, contraltos, tenors, basses) who absolutely can‘t sing in those average keys, singing harmonies is always an alternative option. One might be surprised at how many untrained singers are able to harmonize.
There was a time in contemporary Christian worship music when choruses were not just popular, they were the norm. (This was back in the days when Hosanna Integrity published most of the newest worship music.) They were short, memorable, singable and easy. In fact, after hearing a song for the first time, a worshipper could likely remember the song well enough to be able to hum or sing it on the way home in the car and then throughout the week. Many of the songs that I remembered instantly were ‘short and sweet‘, and packed full of powerful meaning and poetic, touching, Scripturally sound words. They typically had a short verse-like section followed by a chorus-like refrain that could be repeated numerous times in matter of minutes.
Today, perhaps in an effort to make our contemporary worship songs more closely resemble the types of songs that are heard on the (secular) radio and to seem more relevant, or perhaps because this kind of format genuinely appeals to some people, most worship songs are composed with complicated structures. Many of the songs written in recent years contain multiple versus, pre-choruses, choruses that may have different words at different points in the song, bridges, “outros” and more. While this kind of structure may be acceptable for something that is played on the radio or on a CD recording, it isn’t very easy for worshippers to cement such complicated and lengthy songs into their working repertoires. Additionally, lines of lyric that aren’t well connected (e.g., incomplete sentences, fragmented thoughts or imagery, etc.) or that don’t flow thematically or logically (e.g., a certain line contains a thought, image or theme that is completely disconnected from that of the previous line, etc.) make it difficult for worshippers to memorize the words of the song because a certain flow is lacking in the lyrical composition. Even after having sung the song several times, most people still must continue to read the words on the Power Point projection screen.
While I can appreciate that not everyone has the same capacity to commit a song to memory, I believe that songwriters should consider early and easy memorization to be a desirable goal to achieve when composing. When a worshipper must follow along on a screen, he or she is somewhat limited in how freely he or she can worship. For example, if an individual might ordinarily be inclined to close his or her eyes while singing but can‘t do so during a whole worship set because he or she has found it impossible to memorize the songs, he or she must be forced to alter his or her worship style or practice. These songs also won’t be sung between Sundays because their lyrics, melodies and structures won’t be recalled well enough. If a worship leader really desires to introduce a particular song that contains several verses, for instance, it might be helpful to limit those verses to just one and maybe allow the chorus to be the focal point of the song. Simplifying worship benefits everyone at the service in countless ways.
Many of the most recognizable and prolific contemporary worship songwriters (e.g., Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Joel Houston, etc.) are also regular worship leaders or pastors on Sunday mornings. For these individuals, it is probably both convenient and practical for them to test out their latest compositions on their congregations in order to gauge a new song’s potential to be picked up and appreciated by the rest of the worship community around the world. Every artist needs an opportunity to market test his or her ‘product’ or art. However, there are times and ways to do so that are more appropriate than others.
While many worship leaders aspire to write, not everyone is gifted and can compose a truly memorable worship song that will end up being included on the next WOW Worship compilation CD and be sung by thousands of worshippers worldwide. I remember visiting one church on a couple occasions where the worship leader used his position to showcase or workshop his songwriting passions. More than half of the songs sung each week had been penned by the leader himself, and I think that this bold move was a terrible and egocentric mistake on his part, and on the part of the other church leaders who allowed the worship leader to commandeer the musical worship choices. The leader failed to notice that most of the congregation wasn’t singing along and was choosing, instead, to occupy itself with other activities, such as reading the bulletin. (As an outsider, I might have otherwise assumed that I didn’t know any of the songs because I hadn’t had the opportunity to be introduced to them and to sing them week after week until they had become familiar to me. In this case, though, it seemed as though visitors weren’t the only ones who were at a disadvantage.) He was in his own world, completely oblivious to the fact that his congregation was visibly and undeniably having difficulties connecting with the lyrics and melodies of his original songs. The lead pastor seemed equally out of tune with his congregation, lacking in perception, and perhaps overly trusting of the worship leader's decision making skills or unwilling to become more involved or to cross certain job description lines.
There is nothing wrong with having the passion to write, and occasionally and when appropriate (e.g., the leader is a truly gifted songwriter, the song is consistent with the theme of the service, etc.), using Sunday morning worship services as a venue for introducing a new original work, per se. However, the songwriting worship leader needs to be careful not to allow the dream of having his or her songs regularly sung by worshippers to interfere with his or her ability to lead or to inspire others to worship. To me, there is something askew in a leader’s thinking when he or she is unwilling to use other people‘s worship songs on Sunday mornings, as though he or she is driven by the fear of having his or her songs compete for popularity with other, already popular worship songs. This practice deprives other worshippers of the opportunity to hear and enjoy many of the truly wonderful worship songs out there.
Additionally, an aspiring worship songwriter’s style of writing and composing may not fit with the direction of the individual church’s worship and arts ministry. Even though this direction may be partly or entirely determined and defined by the worship leader him- or herself, an individual’s songwriting style may not be compatible with the styles of other, more popular or well-known songs that may also be sung on Sunday mornings. When this is the case, the songwriter should consider recording his or her songs, instead, and sharing them with other believers who may have a genuine appreciation for the style of his or her original songs.
A songwriter needs to have an accurate self-assessment of his or her songwriting skills before making the decision to introduce original worship songs to the congregation. This is tough for many people to develop, as they may become blinded by their passion for composing original works and feel genuinely inspired by their own compositions, desiring to share them with others whom they believe will also be inspired by them. Arrangement is not the same thing as composition, however, and even though a good musician or worship director can make an already good song (e.g., a song that has already been published and is already popular) shine, he or she may not be as gifted at coming up with and putting together all the elements that make an original song good; that is, at composing a worthwhile piece of music from scratch.
The music pastor whom I mentioned above (who almost exclusively used his own songs for worship services) might have benefited from first work shopping his songs with a small group or singing them for someone who would have been very critical, honest and objective - someone who is knowledgeable about music, who has a good ear for it and who is not afraid of hurting the aspiring songwriter's feelings - since none of his songs were catchy, easy to sing, lyrically strong or memorable. Perhaps the blank stares and lack of singing along week after week should have served as an indication of how ineffective his songs were at inspiring others to worship. However, this particular worship leader should have had the loving support and honesty of others around him, and should never have been placed in the position of presenting sub-standard works of music to a reluctant and helpless audience week after week without any accountability. In other words, he shouldn't have been afforded complete autonomy.
In many churches, there is a team of pastoral leaders who discuss and plan the services together, and in many cases, song selection may be a group decision, at least in part. Having a good relationship with the other church leaders and having a humble attitude that makes one willing to accept criticism and constructive feedback can help prevent the introduction of songs that would be unsuitable or sub-standard.
In cases where a worship leader enjoys songwriting and is inspired to sing an original worship song that lacks proven or tested potential (i.e., singablility for almost everyone and quality in all elements of composition), the leader can instead choose to share this original song as a ‘special’ number during a time or reflection.