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Choices Choices

By Capt. Callum McKenna

I’m the kind of person who used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure. I’ll spend hours scanning Netflix for something to watch and then end up turning the TV off and going to bed without watching anything. At a restaurant, I’ll narrow my menu choice down to a selection of 12 dishes to choose from and then will go with my usual. I’m not sure what it is, but when faced with a myriad of choices, I never quite know what to do for the best. 


The same can be true when it comes to picking songs for use in worship: there are thousands of songs available at our disposal, but how we do know which are the right ones to pick? The twin danger is that, when faced with such a vast choice, we end up selecting the same old songs or we end up choosing songs which fail to connect with our congregations. The tips in this article, some theological, some musical, might help us to make decisions when it comes to planning and preparing for gathered worship.


1 What’s the big idea?


The starting point for selecting songs in worship should come from a recognition that the musical elements of a meeting form one part of the bigger whole which takes place when we worship. In a Salvationist context, the sermon and response are the climax of the meeting, but the sermon doesn’t begin when the preacher gets up, but rather when people walk through the door. The overall direction of a meeting can be strengthened by worship leaders and preacher taking time to explore the big idea or theme of the meeting together, so that the song choices help to build momentum towards the sermon. Many hymnbooks, including The Songbook of The Salvation Army contain Scripture indexes which link passages of the Bible to songs: looking up the particular text for the meeting can be a great spark of inspiration. 


2 How am I building variety into the meeting?


In my experience, worship leaders can sometimes feel stuck between the “there were too many new songs this morning” and the “that was too traditional this morning” camps, as they try to strike a balance. Congregations can have strong opinions on the songs that are used in gathered worship. Rather than get caught into the trap of Contemporary verses Traditional, a healthier way to approach this challenge is to consider the overall “diet” of worship in a meeting. We looked at this in detail in a previous edition of SAWM, but in short, try to pick songs which cut across some of the following genre of worship songs:

•    Declarative praise – songs which state and name who God is 

(for example: A Thousand Hallelujahs, Praise Is Rising, Holy! Holy! Holy!) 


•    Personal worship – songs which help us to express our devotion to God 

(for example: This Is My Desire, Goodness of God, I Love You, Lord) 


•    Lament – songs which express frustration or regret         

(for example: When the Music Fades (Heart of Worship), A Thousand Times I’ve Failed) 


•    Testimony – songs which express corporately what God has done in our lives 

(for example: Boundless Love, When I Was Lost You Came and Rescued Me, This Is             Amazing Grace) 


3 Who is actually in my congregation?


A common mistake that worship leaders can make is leading worship for the congregation they wished they had, rather than the one which is in front of them. You might like to have a Bethel congregation – complete with a plethora of electronic pad sounds and spontaneous singing – but if that’s not within the frame of reference of the congregation that you actually have, what you prepare and lead is unlikely to make a connection. Worship leaders should take time to get to know their congregations. In our last corps appointment, we used to plan the meetings with different members of the congregation in mind. We’d think of hymns that Hilary, from an Anglican Church background would be familiar with. We’d think of including contemporary songs that Matt and Collette, a young married couple, would find engaging. We’d be sure to include an SA classic for Marilyn and Carol – two of the saints of the corps. This means that whilst not everything will connect with everyone, everyone would be able to connect with something.

4 Where am I leading people to? 


Reading how the temple in the Old Testament is physically structured gives us a fascinating glimpse into the way that worship was intended to be structured and can be a useful pattern for worship leaders to consider when selecting songs. The outer courts of the temple saw the people sing psalms and hymns which were overwhelming declarations of the nature of God for the whole world. The inner courts were reserved only for God’s people: they’re where sacrifices were made. Then, the centre of the temple, known as the holy of holies was where God himself dwelt. If we translate this to our contemporary worship sets, it means that we might begin with the declarative and the corporate but move to the expressive and the individual. An example might be starting with the classic hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty the King of Creation – declaring God’s sovereignty over the world, moving to Lord, Reign in Me – acknowledging God’s sovereignty over our lives, and then singing When I Look Into Your Holiness – offering our response of worship to God. All of this is to do with having an awareness of where you want people to be lead during the meeting – rather than just singing a few songs. 



5 Why are we worshipping in the first place? 


Above all things, when it comes to selecting songs, always start with the “why” questions. Why do you want to use a particular song? Why would it be a good fit for your congregation? 

And…why are we worshipping in the first place? The Westminster Catechism reminds us that the chief end of humanity – the primary reason for our existence - is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what all our worship – with and without music - should do: bring glory to God and ultimately, that’s the first choice we need to make. 

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