Why Ask this question?
This chart is a tool to help worship leaders and musicians sort through the thousands of songs that a church might sing. With the internet, countless songs become available every day for the church to sing. It can be hard in the midst of all of these options to know what is going to be most beneficial to your congregation. In centuries past there was a vetting process for songs when a hymnal or collection was published, but now that doesn’t really exist. Instead the sorting out is put into the hands of those leading their congregations. In some ways this is very good, because it allows more songs from lesser known artists to be made available, but it also means that there are fewer people with wisdom and experience helping us determine the worthiness of a song. This chart has been developed to help those worship pastors, song leaders, and musicians think critically about what might be useful for their congregation.
There is such a short amount of time that the church gathers to sing. If your church is like mine, we gather the whole congregation together for only one hour during the week. I’m not counting the other ministries in this category because during those times we gather in smaller groups. One hour is only 0.006% of the week! and only about half of that is taken up by congregational singing. That’s a very small window to accomplish a lot of goals. I want to train, teach, encourage, evangelize, admonish, and grow the people in that short window of four to five songs. So, out of the vast number of songs available, I want to be carefully selective to ensure that we can do all of those things. We are reminded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” We have the freedom to sing many songs, but it is important to ask what will be helpful to build up.
What is a Helpful Song?
A helpful song is going to be one that stands out as able to accomplish the goals of Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (ESV) A helpful song will be rich with the Word of God, work of Christ, wisdom, and will be able to teach and admonish the gathered body and lead them into thanksgiving. That’s a lot to ask of a song! So, many songs will not fall into this category.
There will be songs that aren’t helpful, but are useful. These songs will end up in the Use Carefully category. There’re not necessarily second-rate songs. They just don’t check all of the boxes that a more helpful song does. These can be very useful, and even help accomplish some of the goals of the chart, but not as well as another song. There are also songs that are unhelpful; these fail to do much in the way of what Colossians 3:16 instructs. Occasionally they might be able to work in a service, but remembering how very little time there is to sing together, it would be wise to favor something more helpful instead.
How the Chart Works
The “Is it Helpful? Chart” works by asking several yes or no questions of a song. Each answer will direct the song toward either end of the spectrum. At each question there is also an opportunity for a song to earn or lose points depending on how well it does or doesn’t answer the question. Poorer songs end up at the red end of the spectrum and better songs end up at the blue end. Each of the questions asked are designed to help you evaluate how well this song will help your congregation sing. This is only designed to help analyze songs for congregational singing and not any other form of music. That implies that a song that might not do well on the chart might be well suited to another kind of circumstance. Even with using the chart, there is a lot of room for subjectivity, but hopefully this tool will give a more objective outlook and allow you to think about the pros and cons of a song. When you have finished taking a song through the chart, hopefully you will have had a chance to think about what the song contains and what it might lack, what it does and doesn’t say, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. Below is a description of each question and each destination.
1. Is the song based in Scriptural truth?
It is vital that our songs are rich with the words of the Bible. When artists create songs, it is easy to use merely their own thoughts. This kind of writing can be very beneficial for personally processing through the experiences that God has placed in their life, but when we sing congregationally we strive to sing the words that God has given us to praise Him. This also keeps the threat of heresy or a lack of truth at a minimum. Remember, our goal in congregational singing is to engage people with the message of the Gospel, and we find it most powerfully stated through God’s own words.
2. Is it obvious that you are singing to or about God?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is something that we have to think about. Although songs may be written about and to God, the author might not have put in any direct reference to God. You may argue that the context of a worship service provides enough information to allow the congregation to assume the song is about God, but I desire songs that are stronger than assumptions. Satan uses ambiguity as a tool toward ignorance. If the song we are singing could just as easily be sung by a Muslim, Mormon, or Buddhist without pause, then I have great reservations about using it. If members of these religions are put off by the language of the Gospel used in our singing, then they have heard the truth. I want the congregation to leave the service knowing the truth and knowing it well, not filling in the blanks that we have left for them. Ambiguity is a sure-fire way to allow room for false teaching to creep in. A song not mentioning God does not condemn it to a life of silence, but it is something that we have to consider with great care before use.
3. Does it focus on Christ and the Gospel?
The Gospel and the knowledge of Jesus Christ that distinguishes Christianity from all other religious teachings, and because they are the things that have the power to transform our lives, we want to be sure that we are singing about them more than anything else. If a practicing Jew were to come to a service I would want him to see a difference in the way we worship God, because we are doing so in the knowledge of Jesus. In saying that, we are not blind to the Old Testament, but rather all the more enlightened, recognizing its pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. These are the things that are most helpful. There is, of course, room for other things, but songs about the Gospel and Jesus ought to be the largest portion of our Spiritual diet.
4. Does it have a heavenward focus?
It is important that the time of congregational singing be used to lift our heads out of our daily struggles and point us toward Jesus. Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1&2 ESV) The position of the Christian laying aside the things of the world and focusing on Jesus is one that we must exemplify and teach even in our singing. So, we want to choose songs that lift the believers eyes. Many songs are anthropocentric (man focused) instead of Christo-centric (Jesus centered); these are not necessarily wrong or sinful, but they do not help us accomplish our goal as well as something that is focused on Jesus. Just because something mentions man, doesn’t mean that it is not focused on Jesus and vice versa. Too often songs reference God only in how He relates to or works for us and not simply who He is and how He glorifies His own nature. It is good to strike a balance between these two ideas.
5. Is it rich with truth?
The more we know about God the deeper our affections to Him can become. We desire to clearly present who God is to the congregation, so we want to capitalize on any opportunity to do so. Scripture is filled with rich truth, and our minds should be as well. Some rich truths can be communicated simply, and some weaker thoughts can disguise themselves in lofty language, and there is plenty in between. So, read through the song carefully and determine whether or not the ideas being presented are sound and if they are truths that can be considered and thought through after people leave Sunday morning.
6. Is it accessible?
There are actually several steps to this question. (1) Read the lyrics and be sure that you understand them. (Sometimes we encounter songs that are talking about something that is hard to grasp, and a good author will help you understand it better, but some songs are actually just confusing.) Does the flow of thought make sense? Is it clear to you what the author is communicating? If there are words that you do not know, can you change them to something more familiar, or could you use this as a teaching moment with the congregation and explain it to them? (2) Listen to the music. Is is singable? If not, is it just outside the musical realm of your congregation, and with time and effort it could be learned? Or, is it too far outside of their skill? Can the song be altered (changing tempo, key, or some rhythms) to become more accessible? (3) Determine wether or not you can communicate the music effectively so that the congregation can sing along. Many times there is a song, that the artist performs well, and people sing along, but you might not be able to replicate that sound.
7. Does it teach obvious heresy?
That’s pretty straightforward. But to answer this question, we have to have a good handle on true doctrine and theology. The songs we are working with have to be clear as well. If you, a leader in the church, can’t figure out what a song is trying to say after spending time reading and studying it, I doubt it will be helpful to people only singing it once on Sunday morning. It might even leave them room to input their own ideas which may not be true or helpful either. We have to guard against that. As mentioned before, Satan uses ambiguity as a tool toward ignorance. We want to be faithful to present understandable and sound teaching. If a song answers no to both question one and two, it must be thrown out. It will be harmful.
8. Does it focus on another part of the Scriptural narrative?
While we mainly want to sing songs that focus on Jesus and the Gospel, some songs can be useful even if they focus on another aspect of the story that God is writing. If at all possible, direct the focus to how this song, though not about Christ, can remind us of Him or led up to His coming. Use these songs, but use them with understanding of the broad strokes of Scripture.
9. Is it worth the time?
Time is a precious commodity. Now, more than ever, our musicians are pressed for time and there never seems to be enough of it. Working on a song that won’t be the most helpful can be good, but it can often distract from something that will minister the truth far more effectively. We want to focus our energies on those songs. If you think that this one is worth the time, use it carefully. If you think it would eat up too much practice (more than it’s worth) set it aside for something better.
The Helpful Thumbs Up
This is the depository for songs that are rich with truth, are easily sung and remembered, point us toward Jesus and the Gospel, and are based in Scripture. These songs should make up the bulk of your repertoire. I suggest that at least 80% of your music would be in this category. Having a large selection of these songs in mind will make your set choices easier and provide your congregation with solid teaching on a weekly basis.
The Use Carefully Scales
This depository is pictured by scales, because you will need to weigh out whether or how these songs should be used. These ones aren’t the bulk of your diet, but they can be used alongside ones from the first category effectively. As you use these songs, have a good reason for it. Don’t just toss them about, but use wisdom. After taking them through the chart, you will have thought through what they do well and what they miss out on. This will help you understand where and how to use them. I suggest these songs make up 18% of your diet.
The Unhelpful Back-Burner
The back-burner is where you place things that you aren’t immediately attending to. Just like that, the Unhelpful Back-Burner is the place where songs that aren’t harmful, but also aren’t helpful can sit and wait. Maybe the occasion will present itself in which the time and effort to sing it is worth it. These songs can be used well every-so-often, but a consistent diet of them will be harmful in the long-run. These should make up no more than 2% of your repertoire.
The Harmful Waste Basket
Songs that land here will do harm to your congregation. They will either teach false doctrine or easily allow for Satan to teach lies. These songs, like the title of this category implies, should be thrown out and make up 0% of your repertoire.