“What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up?” asks a parishioner in 1890 after hearing the hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” one Sunday morning. “When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday’s was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting” (Dan Kimball’s 2012 book, Adventures in Churchland, page 122).
Why It’s Important To Have New Worship Songs
It’s not easy for most churches to attempt new songs. Whether it’s 1890 or 2017, people have not changed all that much. Even so, there are some good reasons to question whether doing a new song is appropriate. And, asking questions is important, too. When should you retire a song? In a 2016 Relevant Magazine story, Pastor Brian Houston mentioned that at Hillsong Church they would never sing “Oceans” again. Oceans is one of the most popular worship songs of all time. Pastor Houston cautioned that any pilgrims traveling to Australia to hear “Shout to the Lord” sung in their would be greatly disappointed. They don’t sing that amazing song any longer, either. Whether it is 1990-something or early 2010s, it seems that visible ministries like Hillsong move on rather quickly. They, in fact, will sing whatever song their new album has for that year. The amount of repetition makes it clear that what is new in their case is not new for long!
There is also another side to this. Just a month or so ago, a megachurch in Orange County, California decided to bring back the 1990s, covering songs like “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble.” That church did this to make a statement that we indeed need to remember where we came from. The shared experiences of worship from earlier years deeply touches many. Many churches, for this reason, hold on to a hymnal and certain hymns that have been sung for hundreds of years. These songs were once new, however.
What does it mean to sing a new song? There are times when as a worship leader the worship team and band audibly groans at the news of having to repeat a church favorite. This can be a good thing. I have often said that when the worship team is bored of a song, the congregation is finally getting it. But, certainly, there is also another side. Our prayers should be relevant, so we require ourselves as good leaders to balance these two. There is the familiar, and then there is the new. And, is spontaneity really all that bad? Isn’t there a place for prayers and music that is fresh at the moment?
One thing is clear, new experiences–even worship songs–do not easily agree with our natural bent to the familiar. But, we are not simply about sentimental feelings or scratching that itch in the brain that endears itself to a known pattern. Otherwise, we might never sing new music. In fact, new things create new connections in our brains. And, new experiences mark new moments in our emotions. We should not make it a goal to relive that last night at summer camp many years ago. Those of us who grew up in the church remember that event when everyone piled to the front as they rededicate their lives to God. The past is not enough, but it is indeed important. What is the song or prayer we need to sing today? And, how do we balance that with remembering where we came from? These two ideas live in tension. And, most of us will favor either the new or the familiar.
Here are some thoughts on reasons why singing new songs for worship is important in the local church.
Why Do We Need To Sing New Worship Songs At Church?
Live in the moment you have. Change in culture is rapid, requiring a new language.
As generations come of age, they bring with them new experiences and expressions. All the generations that come before are not immune from this. Let me give an obvious example. Facebook, once a college-age phenomenon, now has a billion using it, including your grandmother. Another comparison might be made at how TV changed our culture. Before TV, you had to go to a theater or have a film projector to see moving pictures. Today, we watch kittens play on our phones while waiting in line at the grocery store. All generations are affected. TVs pervaded the old and the young. Music styles also change with time. The language itself evolves as well. If we are not indigenous to our culture in our expression of worship, we construct an impossible barrier to scale for the uninitiated and may lose the next generation. As words change their meaning, we have new Bible translations. The meaning is what matters. Our music can change, but the content of our prayers doesn’t have to.
Sing a new song. Creating new things is a vital part of being human.
Our design is in the image of a creator. We cannot get away from who we are by only valuing things created long before we were born. The most beautiful hymn that stood the test of time was once a new song. Isaac Watts was challenged by his father to write new songs after hearing him complain about the dour practice of singing only from the Psalter—a book of psalms to music. He added language that used metaphors. While the Reformation had some movements already singing new hymns a hundred years earlier, it was a needed innovation in the place and time that Watts lived in. We are meant to create. The boring pattern of worship was invigorated by young Watts. Ironically, his songs are “old” songs many try to get away from hundreds of years after he innovated. Shouldn’t we follow Watt’s example as much as we sing his songs?
Tear down the walls. New people require a shared experience to belong.
Imagine if everyone in your church sang the same songs for 150 years. There is a lot of history to acquire when new people attend your church. The songs are only one barrier. There exist the walls of unwritten rules as to where to sit, how to greet people, and to learn acronyms as if in the military. If you sing a new song, everyone–including the first-time guest–engages in a shared moment. If we want our children to sing with their children, we should begin to write music they sing and sing music they write. And, we should shun the idea of being a Christian ghetto with our special lingo. The message of our prayers should be as inclusive as Jesus is.
People are fickle. Boredom is a sign that leaders need to earn attention.
We cannot expect people to simply come to church anymore–let alone fully engage with us–without earning their attention. This means we do have assessed how well a song is sung by the church and map the desired results from our musical time of worship. One case in point is that singing is not taught like it was many years ago in public schools. The local church is the most prolific place in America that practices, performs and plays live music! What this means is that people of the past were taught to read notes, so a hymn book helped them. People today need to hear a repetitive hook to catch on. Earning the right to lead the singing means adjusting expectations from how things used to work to how people are, today. They likely are bored because we don’t know how they listen.
Now, it is also appropriate to discuss the negatives about new music being added and sung in your church.
Why Should We Be Careful About Singing New Worship Songs?
Chasing fads for quick buzz detract from the mission
The church down the road uses a haze machine, concert lighting, and a stage. They have an amazing sub-woofer and use it. Everyone is dressed the same and bounces with a unique hop unlike anything is seen on TV or real life. The compulsion to copy them due to the large crowds they draw entices us. There is no judgment that what they do is wrong. I loved being in production and lived in the warehouse church for years. With an ugly box-like building, using lighting and dimming the room made sense! But, if you have a beautifully lit room with a stained-glass window, it can be an asset as well. We do not all have to look the same, copying the methods of another without the philosophy of the other we easily fail. In other words, don’t copy a “fad” unless it really represents your values and theology.
Good marketing savvy is not spiritual leadership.
Speaking of crowds, some of us are good at drawing them. This is not a bad thing! But, marketing is not necessarily the goal of worship. Are we there to pray or to define our branding? Spiritual ends need spiritual means. This is not to say we use tools such as marketing. It means the tool must be a tool, not revered as something it is not. The vehicle of our promotional capabilities only can enhance the delivery of a message. The content of the message must be there, first. And yes, it is also true that just because you have good theology and practice of worship does not excuse you from getting the word out. An invitation is part of worship. But, marketing or other tools are there to help, not to lead. Good branding comes from who you really are, not from spin. Should not our music be chosen then based on the spiritual content, first? Then, we are free to evaluate what resonates or not.
Serving one generation means loving all generations.
Church planting is almost a science today. Having been part of a couple of those and in churches that had campuses, my viewpoint sees a myopic problem. Demographics drive the planting of churches. If there is a community underserved, there is where one should be planted. But, often a new church focuses on the new generation and as it matures as a church often doesn’t mature in its view of becoming multigenerational. You can start out narrow. But, if you love one group, you should be open to inviting all. A church meant for young adults doesn’t mean its influence is that narrow. Every young adult around them touches the lives of siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, and managers. We would be blind not to see that even with a narrow “target” the bubble is an illusion. For youth groups, it is great to give kids their space. But, how do we bridge generations if we add music too quickly?
Don’t copy that famous church you love.
This cheats the unique group of people gathered in your unique physical space each week. It surely is inspiring to see all the amazing things accomplished by these churches that are in the press or who put on conferences. However, behind the scenes exists a reality that might surprise you. I remember a friend of mine who while serving in one such giga-church that has international acclaim and hosts conferences say this: “I wish my church practiced what we taught at our conference.” I am not saying this is the norm, but if something looks too good to be true, trust the gut. It likely is. While many conferences intend to inspire, often disappoint creeps in when a staff team implemented pieces of what they say in their church. Why is this the case? It is because you cannot truly duplicate an organic work of God like a formula. You cannot expect the same results with a church of a different size or theology or demographic. Principles surely are gleaned by seeing the best practices of highly effective and successful churches. These do mean their plan should be yours.
Comparison kills and motivates from the wrong direction.
Envy can motive pretty well. However, it cannot be sustained and appeals to our lower nature rather than the bet of who were are. “Healthy churches grow” is an axiom in church health circles. But, that phrase is not a universal, biblical fact. The realities of a plant closing or migration due to gentrification greatly deplete the numbers in some churches. These are not indications of church health or spiritual devotion. I remember one pastor being very offended when the fact was pointed out to him that his church grew at a lesser rate than the booming town grew. So if the town grew by 10% and your church grew by 5%, it might be an indicator of an unhealthy church even though growth was recorded. The reality of localized events and challenges means that we cannot completely rely on a comparison and broad strokes to gauge how we are doing. So, adding new songs from that church that is booming due to the huge growth in their city may not really make sense with the comparison logic. In this case, we have turned the songs into a marketing tool rather than a vehicle for our prayers.
Well, discussing this further would not be as helpful as delving into some new songs for your church. Now that we have checked our motives and values, the next step is to add new songs for worship. The following is a hopefully a helpful process to filter the choice of music for your worship time at church.
How to Choose New Worship Songs
Choose the lyrics first.
Why? We look to the content of the prayer to be sure it makes sense and is biblical, meaningful, and approachable. One test is to read the lyrics out loud from the perspective of a un-initiated attender. In other words, would anyone off the street be able to understand what is being said at a first read? There may be phrases we are familiar with in the church–even in the newest songs–that will not have the same context we give them. And, some modern music uses words that at times go beyond normal uses of the word. I think of a word like “ravage” or “relent” being in a couple of newer songs. At first read, these are violent or negative words. In context, they creatively make sense. But, they may alienate people who know them in normal usage. And, if the theology of the song does not match up to yours, don’t sing it.
Limit the range of singing.
Some of our recording artists sing in ranges that are far higher than average people easily sing. Lower the key to be singable where middle-C or D is the highest not sung. If you choose a song that has more than an octave range, you may lose at least half the church. Why? Women have a different range than men do. As a professional singer, what is in my range at times may not be the best singable range. There is a tension as a worship leader to balance here, too. You want to be able to sing in your best voice. But, you also want to be able to have the congregation sing along! Picking tunes that do both is often an issue of range. Another benefit of a smaller range is that both male and female worship leaders can do the same songs in differing keys if the range is about an octave. This makes your new song more usable and versatile.
Judge the music to the people’s culture.
Taste is a very subjective. I heard one pastor explain it this way. Think of spices that differ from one ethnic home to another one. In one, curry pervades the kitchen. In the other, garlic and basil aromas fill the room. Some of us will love the smell of both kitchens. Others of us will have strong reactions of love for one and aversion to the other. If I grow up with curry, that spice will make sense to me. However, in a church, we have people from many backgrounds at times. Music style then is like the spices. It is an acquired taste. We are best to choose music that is palatable to the largest percentage people in the room. Also, we add songs that stretch in a direction to help acclimate folks to the next thing. This strategy allows change to cross less into the shock-of-cold-water-thrown-on-the-face place. Going from hymns to modern might mean adding one song that is modern, but finding tunes that are in the right direction that is familiar enough in sound to not freak people out. What are the actual tastes of my musical community?
Choose good music that is “playable.”
This is important because there can be songs that pass the first three issues but are not well-written musically. In our bent to find more upbeat tunes, we choose based on a beat that works while the song itself is musically lacking in other areas. Lean towards choosing the best music you can find. Beauty is something that can be gazed at and memorable. Good music that is beautiful allows it to last longer in our set lists. What is good music? You might have to go back to the spice metaphor to get a grasp that it is indeed at times subjective. Songs that can capture you and your people and that have good music construction is a basic place to start. And, if your band cannot play the song, then that is a reason to forgo a song. Good music means good execution as well as being written with excellence.
Reduce your setlist.
Finally, the pace of how many new songs is a constant discussion of many worship leaders. The larger the list, the harder it is to acquire new songs. Like the Hillsong story at the beginning of this article, they had to remove older songs to make way for an entire group of new songs for worship each year. Having a smaller list, allows their church to learn them. With people attending say twice a month, doing a new song only once a month means the odds are that many will not learn it within a few months time. If I sing 30-40 songs in that time, even known songs are not as familiar as I may think. So, remove some from your list–even if for a season–to make space for new music. If you keep 20 songs in say six months, your church may acquire the taste and love for new music more than you expected. The smaller the setlist, the more chance your church has to learn and sing the songs with familiarity. You then balance that tension between the familiar and the new. That is a big win!
Seven New Worship Songs!
Here are seven brand new songs for worship from 2017 that I think you should take a listen to. There are more from these publishers, as well as independent writers from churches just like yours. Keep digging!
“Love Has A Name” by Jesus Culture
This has the vibe of an 80s techno pop-anthem, with a very singable refrain. I love the pre-chorus lyric. It’s the strongest–even though the “break the chains” metaphor is not so new. “We will fix our eyes on the one who overcame. We will stand in awe of the one who breaks the chains.” A song about victory is a great theme in any worship set. The pre-chorus calls us to why we are singing together in the first place. The only issue with this is the song may not translate well if stripped down. Theme: victory, name of Jesus
“Your Love Defends Me” by Matt Maher
Maher sings “You are the well I’m drawing from…” to start a song about the internal struggle that we don’t have to field on our own. It is the fight for our very soul in the midst of hard times. This is super singable and can work in both a band as well just solo worship leader context. The prayer of this song is a comfort to remind us in our gathering that God is there on our side! Theme: comfort
“Death Was Arrested” by North Point InsideOut
This is a special song about the new life in Christ and how conquering death is a central promise of our faith. Everything comes to us from the empty tomb. “When death was arrested, and my life began” hails how this promise came to us and how we can be transformed because Jesus conquered death! The six-eight time signature makes this approachable in a variety of settings from piano/guitar with a singer to a full band. Theme: resurrection, new life
“You Redeem” by Aaron Shust
I like how Shust defines a very important word in our vocabulary of faith. Often, songs are a good way to reinforce what a word like “redeem” means to us personally and what action our community of faith engages in. The Book of Acts soars with “miracles will happen” in a call for us to believe that God can reclaim in the issue of race as revival comes to us. This is very relevant in our society today. Theme: call to action, redemption
“Mountains Must Move” by Finding Favor
This is another one of those “anthem” songs with that U2 style of yonder years, but I still love it. It can easily translate to various settings and imagery is a strength. We need these anthems to pull us together around who we are worshiping! Jesus. The song is about our expression of worship and how the name of Jesus has the power to save. Why should we not whisper, shout or sing the name of Jesus? Theme: name of Jesus, victory
“Path of Sorrow” by All Sons & Daughters
“I know, I know you remain the same, even in my wandering,” calls us to trust God in our suffering and our sin–to remember the promise that God is with us in pain. This group offers us a nice contrast to other modern worship groups as their music reaches back and is well informed of hymns and fits in a broader style of churches while being fresh. Theme: lament, God’s unchanging nature, comfort.
“Rescuer” (Good News) by Rend Collective
The Rend Collective drives us to a celebration, a theme that I feel we don’t often get to enough in modern worship. “Come and be shameless, come and be fearless, come to the foot of Calvary…” This echoes the writer of Hebrews about how we can approach with boldness. The tone of “Rescuer” surely is needed in our houses of worship. Theme: celebration, forgiveness
A Final Challenge
I dare you to try some new music in your church in the next weeks! Most of us as worship leaders go through a rut now and again. Maybe one of these songs or ones you write or find elsewhere will fit. Let us know what is working in new songs for worship in the comments.