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I was singing at the top of my range during the worship time. By the end of the third song, my throat was rebelling, but dropping an octave made the lower notes too low. So I mumbled my way through the rest of the worship like many of the people around me. Did I mention that I can sing second tenor? The worship leader was good and his singing was outstanding. If this had been a concert, he would have blown everyone away with his talent. As a worship leader, he was pretty clueless.

Music has been part of Christian worship forever. Pliny, a Roman official in Asia Minor reported to Emperor Trajan in AD 111 that the Christians he observed “were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god . . .” Records of vigorous church planting across American history note the ‘loud’ singing that took place in these new congregations. Singing as part of worship has been a window to see how much people loved Jesus.

In building a weekly gathering that matters, singing as worship cannot be ignored. But like all systemic issues, there is not one right way to do it. Sure, there are churches that prefer to worship a certain way and are ready to battle for the high ground. I was laughing today when one of my friends posted a picture on Facebook of a sign in front of a church in Kentucky that read, “Still Singing the Old Hymns” with his tagline, “Nothing brings in lost souls like a sign proclaiming to the masses just where you stand on eternal issues.” And there are intellectual debates over whether churches should follow the normative or regulative principle of worship (don’t draw me into that one!). But if you want worship at your gathering to matter, there are two issues about which you need to continually ask yourself.

1) Is our worship together drawing us into awareness of God’s presence and allowing us to respond in love, adoration, confession or surrender to Him? Since singing is central to answering this worship question, then part of the answer will be found before one note is sung. Reflect on this question—does your worship time reflect the heart music of the worshippers?

This is a tough question, because we often answer this with our own preferences. We like certain music and so should they. And perhaps they do. Or do not, but never mention it. The responsibility of the leaders is not just to assume, but to observe. Listen when people sing praise to God. Which songs draw them out—draw them into God’s presence? When do they mumble along or stand mute?

Often the issue is not the style of music, but the songs themselves. Worship music writers today, like in all generations before, gush out new song choices like a fire hose on steroids. A number of these songs are ‘Wow!’ choices. But are they the right ones for your congregation? Here are five standards you can use to think through new worship music. Is the song:

  • Spiritual—does it evoke a spiritual response in believers? Worship music should meet the Ephesians 5:19 standard of guiding believers to sing and make melody in their hearts to the Lord.
  • Serious—does this song have theological depth or is it Christian lite, which is fun to sing but has a short shelf life. One of my guiding rules for worship was that we never sing anything that diminished the people’s understanding of God’s reign over them.
  • Emotive (sorry, not ‘S’ word available!)—do the words connected to the emotions of the singers in a transforming way? (If you ever wonder why this is important, think about the ongoing love affair people both inside and outside the church have with Amazing Grace.)
  • Simple—is this song easily learned and remembered or does it take work for the congregation to learn and perform it? This standard is pretty critical since songs that live in the public worship life of the congregation also live in the private worship of each believer. If people are not singing the song during corporate worship, the song should be dropped.
  • Singable—is this song in the range and ability of the majority of the congregation. Most people sing in the middle range. I have been in way too many gatherings where the leader needed to bring it down a couple of musical steps for the sake of the attenders, but didn’t.

2) Do you have a worship leader or a musician in charge of the gathering’s worship time? There is a huge difference between a person called to help the congregation realize they are in the presence of the Lord together and someone who is an outstanding musical talent. Sometimes the leader can be both, but the difference between the two is that the worship leader notices whether people are worshipping or not. Notices whether the worship songs are opening their hearts to God, maybe in hunger or with weeping, or with joy. Or whether people are mumbling or engaged. Who knows how to get out of the center stage so God is in focus.

Listen, when half of the time your congregation gathers weekly is given over to engaged worship, you want them to worship. So do not fail to engage with the worship leader about what needs to be addressed for it to matter. When pastoring, I had some amazing worship leaders. Several of my worship leaders I had to personally take time to train in spite of the fact that they were outstanding musicians. I understood that talent alone would not give the congregation the best leadership for worship. It takes thought and understanding and humility to lead worship without being the center of attention. It takes an increasing depth of the leader’s personal walk with God. Being outstanding at playing an instrument or singing well is a bonus, but it is not central as the awareness of God and His presence.

I have been writing about music as worship. I have not forgotten that testimony, Scripture reading, prayer and other expressions are also elements that lead people to worship God wholeheartedly. Whether spontaneous or carefully planned, using a variety of approaches can and does help people draw near to God. But if you work hard at getting the singing right, even the most tone deaf worshipper will sense God’s presence and be glad.