Choosing Music for Your Church
In the last post on this topic, I explored six ways to find new music for your church. After finding new music, though, the next task on a music director’s list is to choose the best music.
Choosing music seems like an elementary topic for a post, but any music director who has choosen music with constraints like a budget, the performance abilities of the choir, or the demands of a heavy performance schedule (sometimes all three) knows that choosing the best song is not as important as choosing the right song.
Since there are so many to choose from, this is not as easy as looking for those that stylistically “fit” your choir. This often require that you examine to perfectly good options but can only choose one. How do you decide?
This is not a fool-proof procedure, but here are a few steps that I’ve found helpful in the selection process.
1. Create and maintain a music schedule.
The great artist Michalangelo is supposed to have said,
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
This quote is about vision; knowing what it is you want and then “chipping” away until you see it.
It’s so much easier to choose the right music when you have a vision for the future. The choice is no longer subjectively “what song do YOU think is best?” Rather, the choice is not determined by the need of your master vision. It’s easy to choose between an anthem about grace and one about the resurrection when you know that you’re planning a service around the theme of grace. The resurrection song might be great, but it’s not the right fit.
A word of caution to pastors: it is nearly impossible for a music director to plan thematically if you do not also give them a “vision” for the preaching ministry. This may not be narrowed down to every sermon and every topic, but it can certainly be guided by a general theme or series. Following the themes of the traditional Christian calendar is another way to prepare your worship services.
2. Use the music you already have.
One mistake we often make is feeling the need to also purchase something new when in reality there may be many great and perfectly fitting songs filed away in your music library. There simply aren’t as great many songs as there are average songs in every choral club box you receive. So use what you have.
Rotate songs throughout the year. Repeat new songs more frequently if you’re trying to teach them to the congregation. People rarely get tired of great music, even if it is done on several occasions. Careful planning is key.
3. Know and be aware of the abilities and limits or the singers in your ministry.
You can often quickly choose between two great songs by simply understanding the performing forces at your disposal. If you’re tenor section is limited in their range, don’t choose the songs that require much of the tenors. If the brass section of your orchestra has a trumpet and a tuba, don’t choose the orchestration with a full fanfare for the brass in the middle. We could go on…
This does not mean that you should only choose music within the abilities of your choir. In reality, you should always be doing music just above their abilities and helping them to grow. At the same time, if none of their music is “easy” to them, they can quickly become discouraged. Once again, balance is key.
4. Carefully review the content of the song.
Nearly every great songwriter from the long history of Christian hymnody was first a competent theologian (read an overview here). It is unfortunate that many songwriters today know more about stirring emotions and using buzz phrases than they do about their doctrinal beliefs. This is certainly not intended as a broadbrush statement. MANY new songwriters give outstanding attention to theology. It just cannot be assumed that all of them do.
There are several questions you could ask about the content of a song before choosing it.
- Is it doctrinally accurate?
The text is the one aspect of the song we can most objectively evaluate. If music has the communicative power we believe it does, then we must be very careful that we are communicating biblically accurate truth.
- Is it the best way to express that truth?
This is a bit more subjective, but also an important question. Does the text communicate a simple truth or is it a simplistic text? Is the love expressed to God reverant or romantic? Is the repetition intentional and meaningful, or merely repetitive? Is it really the best way for my congregation to express their praise or declare the truth of God.
- Is the music truly supportive of the meaning and mood of the text?
We often select music purely based on our stylistic preferences. Stylization of hymns and songs is certainly a fresh way to present a song that has become routine in our worship. Sometimes, however, stylization gets in the way of the truth. We “like” a song because of its stylistic elements, sometimes to the neglect of the text. Does the emotional content and message of the music support the truth being expressed?
- How will this song fit into the culture of my church?
Every church has a culture. Sometimes a song isn’t well received by the congregations because it is too far removed from the culture of that church. If our ultimate goal is to equip the believers to sing praise to God, we should not ignore those things that will distract or inhibit their praise.
If a song is intended for congregational use, ask these questions:
- What is the purpose of this song for my congregation? What truth does it teach? What religious affection does it build?
- Is the melody memorable and singable by the general congregation?
- Is the song expressive of general truth relatable to most believers in the congregation?
- Is this song stylistically appropriate for the church culture in which I serve?
5. Avoid the frenzy of choosing music.
When we don’t have a schedule or a plan, we often choose music on a whim or allow the frenzy to distract us from finding the best music. We simply have the pressure of an upcoming performance or conference and we’ll settle for a decent song rather than choosing the right song. The only way to avoid the frenzy is to get organized, plan your music program out in advance, and spend adequate time reviewing music long before you need to begin learning the music.
Create a plan, make full use of the music you already own, know the musical abilities of your church, carefully review the theological and musical content of each song, and avoid the frenzy that leads to choosing average songs instead of great songs. No system perfectly fits every music director, but these are some important steps for each of us to keep in mind as we choose music for the church.