Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: Avoiding Token Songs

In most churches that have a formal liturgy and follow some sort of prayer book for their order of service, there are certain songs that get repeated more often than others. These are songs that are actually called for in the rubrics themselves. Every church eventually finds their own version of these songs that they prefer over others, and so they may very well end up singing these songs every week in the exact same spot.

These can quickly become “token songs”. We sing them because the liturgy dictates that we do, we could probably sing them in our sleep, we’re not really engaged with the words we’re singing, and we don’t even like them very much, but they check the liturgical box and keep the liturgy watch dogs off our back. (And they do exist.)

The Gloria
“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, Almighty God and Father, we worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for your glory”. It goes on. This is the text to the “Gloria”, of which there are hundreds of different settings in hymnals. It’s an amazing proclamation of praise and goes back hundreds of years.

Like I said earlier, most churches who sing a Gloria end up settling on one or two versions of it, and they sing the same version every single week for a very long time. For some churches it’s like the opening theme song.

In most prayer books that I’ve seen that dictate that a Gloria should be sung, I’ve also noticed an instruction sort of like this: “When appointed, the following hymn or some other song of praise is sung or said, all standing…” Notice the phrase “or some other song of praise”.

Did you know it said that? You don’t have to sing the Gloria. You can sing some other song. There’s usually more wiggle room in prayer books than people think. It’s wonderful when you realize that.

If you sing the Gloria in your church, try replacing it with a song of praise from time to time (or every week, or once a month), or even a block of songs. In most cases, you’ll have the support of the prayer book. This helps this portion of the service not get so formulaic and predictable.

The Doxology
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all creatures here below…” In most churches that follow a more formal liturgy, this song is sung every Sunday at some point in the service, and for people who have grown up hearing it every Sunday, it can be the most meaningful song in the entire service. That’s a good thing and that’s a bad thing.

You can always count on the congregation belting out the Doxology. It’s a great, ancient text the focuses our attention on the glory of God in three persons and calls us to praise Him along with all of heaven. It’s a wonderful, wonderful song in the Church’s repertoire.

But you can also count on a song losing its power when it’s sung every single week. This is why for the services at which I lead music, we sing it once, maybe twice, a month.

This can create a logistical problem, since in many churches the congregation sits for the offertory then stands for the Doxology while the offering is brought forward. If there’s no Doxology, then when is the congregation supposed to stand and let the offering come forward?

One answer: do a song for the offertory that’s congregational and have the people stand once the collection is done and join in singing part of the song in place of a Doxology. Tell the ushers that their cue to come forward is when you ask the congregation to stand.

Easy. Now you’re keeping the Doxology from becoming a token song and you’re freshening things up a bit.

An aside: keeping a service that sticks to a formal liturgy from feeling dead is all about little changes like this. You usually can’t make a huge change. But you can work around the edges and do things here-and-there that can make a huge difference when all added up.

The Sanctus
“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory…” I posted some alternatives for the Sanctus several months ago and encourage you to read this post for some ideas. Don’t let this high point in the liturgy become robotic.

Agnus Dei
This might be referred to as something else (like a “fraction anthem”) in your church, but this is a song that is sung towards the end of the communion liturgy, after the priest has broken the bread. The traditional liturgical text is something along the lines of “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

I have to be honest and say that in my experience, growing up liturgical churches, this is one of the greatest missed opportunities for preaching the gospel through music.

Right here, as people are preparing to come to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and wine, and after they’ve heard the retelling of the story of Jesus instituting this Sacrament, is the perfect moment to sing the Gospel. Instead, frankly, we too often sing a dirge-like, dreary, minor-key song.

I get it – and I absolutely see that there are places for those kinds of songs and for praying for God’s mercy – but I think we serve our congregations better when we draw their attention to how God has already shown us mercy in giving us his son to take our place on the cross and receive the punishment we deserved to secure us eternal peace with God.

So instead of singing a traditional Agnus Dei, I draw from these. They each take about 1 or 2 minutes, which is the traditional length of the song in this spot. I pick and choose some verses and chorus, which I’ll detail below:

1. Here is Love Vast as the Ocean
– Traditional hymn
– Verse 1: “Here is love vast as the ocean, loving-kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood.”
– Verse 2: “On the mount of crucifixion, fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide.”

2. Jesus Paid it All
– Traditional hymn.
– Verse 2: “For nothing good have I, whereby thy grace to claim. I’ll wash my garments white in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.”
– Chorus: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.”
– Verse 4: “Lord, now indeed I find, thy power and thine alone can change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.”

3. The Power of the Cross
– Stuart Townend and Keith Getty
– Verse 1: “Oh to see the dawn of the darkest day, Christ on the road to Calvary…”
– Chorus A: “This the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.”
– Verse 4: “Oh to see my name written in the wounds, for through your suffering, I am free…”
– Chorus B: “This the power of the cross: Son of God, slain for us. What a love! What a cost! We stand forgiven at the cross.”

4. Jesus Thank You
– Pat Szcebel
– Verse 1: “The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend… You the perfect Holy One crushed your son, who drank the bitter cup reserved for me.”
– Chorus: “Your blood has washed away my sin…, the Father’s wrath completely satisfied…, once your enemy, now seated at your table, Jesus, thank you.”

5. Grace Flows Down
– David Bell, Louie Giglio, Rod Pageant
– Verse 1: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Amazing love, now flowing down from hands and feet the were nailed to a tree. His grace flows down and covers me.”
– Chorus: “It covers me…”

Those are just five suggestions of alternatives to a traditional Agnus Dei. There are many more songs/hymns you can adapt for this purpose.

Go for it.

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