Sing A New Song (But Not Too Many… And Not Too Many Of Yours)

1The Bible is clear: We should be singing new songs to the Lord (Psalm 96:1 as one example of many).

What is less clear: How often should we sing new songs at our churches? I took a stab at answering this question with some practical suggestions over three years ago.

What is even less clear: How often should we sing our (or someone in our church’s) original songs? In Monday’s post I said “in extreme moderation“. Some people understood what I meant by that. Others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we should never sing original songs”. And some others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we shouldn’t sing anything other than the Psalms”. It looks like my statement could use some clearing up.

Yes, the Bible is clear that we should sing new songs to the Lord. It’s less clear about how often we should sing original songs on a Sunday morning. So where can we look for guidance?

1 Corinthians 14 is one of the foremost places in scripture where we are given instructions about principles that should guide our worship gatherings. Paul deals with some tricky issues like tongues and prophecy, and in so doing, he lays out some guidelines that can help govern us as we think about using original songs.

1. Make sure the church is being built up (1 Cor  14:3-4, 12, 26)
2. Make sure what’s going on is clear to the people in the room (1 Cor 14:7-11, 33)
3. Engage both the spirit and the mind (1 Cor 14:15)
4. Try to engage outsiders (1 Cor 14:16)

So, when choosing songs for any worship gathering, some of the questions going through a worship leader’s head should be:

1. Will these songs build up my church? (i.e. build them up into Jesus)
2. Will these songs be clear/singable/accessible? 
3. Will these songs engage the minds and spirits of the people in the room?
4. Will outsiders find it too difficult to try to sing along with us?

These questions get us thinking pastorally about song selection. They guide us towards choosing songs that will serve our congregation. And they help us be objective about using our original songs. We can’t run away from these questions. We can’t run away from our responsibility to serve the people of God.

These questions point us towards balance and moderation.

Balance
– Using songs that have lasted for centuries (for a reason) and are known by Christians from all backgrounds and traditions, and even some non-Christians who may have heard them on random occasions
– Using songs from different sources, to ensure that we don’t only express things the same way, with the same wording, with the same kind of melodies and rhythms, but with a broadness and depth that using only one or two sources doesn’t get at.
– Using familiar songs that will build confidence and gain trust
– Using new songs that my church needs to learn so they can be built up even more

Moderation
– Using too many original songs might make it hard for outsiders (from other churches, visitors, non-Christians) to sing along until they’ve been around for a while
– Using too many original songs might make Sunday mornings hard work for the average singer who finds lesser-known songs to require more energy to learn
– It’s harder to think objectively about whether a song is (1) the right fit, (2) melodically and lyrically excellent, and (3) singable, when you’re the one who wrote it.
– If your church is a part of the broader Body of Christ, one principle way you can demonstrate that is by singing songs written by its different members.

To be clear:
1. The Bible clearly encourages the singing and writing of new songs (and so we should).
2. Paul’s encouragement to the New Testament church was to sing all sorts of different songs (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19) (and  so we should).
3. Paul advocates pursuing the Holy Spirit in our gatherings (and so we should).
4. Paul encourages the leaders of the gatherings to hold the building up of the body as the standard which governs what goes on during a gathering (and so we should).
5. Paul wants as many people engaged in what’s going on as possible (and so we should).

Therefore,

– Sing, sing, sing.
– Sing old songs, sing new songs, sing original songs.
– Sing songs that people can sing along to.
– Point to Jesus 

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
(Psalm 96:1-2 ESV)

30 thoughts on “Sing A New Song (But Not Too Many… And Not Too Many Of Yours)

    • Jeff January 16, 2016 / 10:45 am

      Charles Wesley wrote 6,000+ hymns. Do you think he only introduced a few of them during the Methodist revival and left the rest to be discovered after he died. I appreciate your intent, but it all feels very contrived and anecdotal.

      • Emma January 17, 2016 / 12:40 pm

        Interesting point, although remember ‘hymn’ writing often involved writing words that fitted a tune – many hymns were written with many crossovers between tunes, (although occasionally some really good hymns were/are also adjusted to different tunes e.g. lords my shepherd).
        Consequently tunes were more often familiar and therefore easy to sing, so the words were the focus, and writing new words set to a well known tune wasn’t hard to sing.
        So I would say it’s different?

      • Anthony Pero January 18, 2016 / 7:42 am

        This is a good point, and I can see how one could get there without taking this post in its proper context. Several of the posts that precede this and follow it deal with the topic of “worship celebritism” and how to avoid being a worship celebrity in church.

        Wesley’s context is far different from today’s modern worship leader. Multimedia projection, YouTube, record contracts, songwriter contracts, easy access to both new and old songs for both worship leaders and congregations. Wesley had none of these things. Not only did he not have wide access to music that helped support a new theology he in part made popular, his congregations didn’t have access to it either. Radio didn’t exist, records didn’t exist.

        Most importantly, the temptation of worship being a path to fame didn’t exist.

        Now, that’s not say that I agree wholeheartedly with the OP. But these are the contextual matters that today’s worship leader needs to consider that Charles Wesley did not while making the decision whether or not to lead the song they just wrote Thursday night on Sunday Morning.

  1. AM May 22, 2014 / 4:02 pm

    So, on a practical note, how often should a worship leader introduce a new song to the congregation? (e.g. About once a month, only a handful in a year, etc.) How do you balance stability/familiarity with variety? One challenge in our church is that the members of the worship team (it is small) do not rotate frequently. Because we have rehearsal and warm-up, we are singing every song on average 3 or 4 times more than the congregation. This can make songs feel stale more quickly for the worship team. Is that something to take into consideration?

    • Jamie Brown May 22, 2014 / 11:20 pm

      Hi Anna,

      The article I link to in this post (from three years ago) gives my practical suggestions for how often to introduce new songs. I hope it’s helpful! As for songs feeling stale for you and the worship team, usually songs will start to feel stale for you/the team LONG before they feel stale to the congregation.

      Jamie

  2. Paul Patterson May 22, 2014 / 10:08 pm

    In my experience (almost 20 years now), we (the musicians/singers/worship leaders) will get “sick” of a song, LONG before a congregation does. I used to work in radio, and it was said that, about the same time we (those who are involved) are getting tired of hearing a song, the listener is just starting to make it their own. Again, in my opinion, you should also consider the frequency that the listener/congregant will hear the song. Is it only in your church? Is it on the radio, currently? Is it on the top “worship songs of 20__” list, so it is heard everywhere, at every venue? (yes.. we all have those songs going through our minds right now).

    Here’s what I have done in my past: New Song Sunday- second sunday of every month- do the new worship song as a “special” in the AM service (the church was an AM/PM service church). Get the congregation to join in on the chorus, or encourage them to join, as they feel led. Do it again in the evening, as part of the worship time, also talking about the fact that they “heard it this morning etc”. Do it again the next Sunday Morning, in the set.. then do it the following Sunday PM, in the set.. then rotate it just like any other song. I found that to work very well, for my congregation- which was multi-generational. One month we did a new modern one, the next month, we did a more traditional sounding one.

    Some church congregations live in the fast lane- new songs every service. Others are left with a new song every 2 or 3 months. You need to know your congregation, but also lead them as a pastor. If a song is truly something they need- teach it. The will make it their own.

    Anyway.. that’s my thoughts on it. Thanks for the article!

  3. tripleefarms May 23, 2014 / 8:58 am

    What we’ve done in the past is to introduce a new song as a special. Then a month later as a choir song. Then teach it to the congregation a week later. This way you have the choir assisting you when teaching it to the congregation.

  4. Samuel Carr May 23, 2014 / 10:31 am

    Mr. Brown,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I appreciate the grace with which you present your concerns, and your heart for helping the Church worship Jesus in Spirit and Truth.

    I was struck by your reference to exclusive psalmoday, since I come from a church with that heritage (not a majority position, so it is always a bit exciting to see someone has heard of us)! I was wondering if you have ever read the book “Singing the Songs of Jesus” by Michael Lefebvre. It is not about exclusive psalmody, but rather using God’s words to praise Him. Many of your points reminded me of Lefebvre’s book, and I think you would find it quite edifying and inspiring.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. We were set here to glorify God, and it makes sense that the Devil is out to pollute our worship wherever he can. You challenged me to think about my own worship, examine my heart, and fix my eyes on Christ. Keep standing for the truth!

    In Christ,
    SDC

    • Jamie Brown May 23, 2014 / 10:48 pm

      Hi Samuel,

      I haven’t read that book. Your recommendation makes it sound appealing! I appreciate your encouragement. God bless you!

      Jamie

  5. Corey Fleig May 23, 2014 / 7:13 pm

    Thanks for these comments! Its over due. I had the blessing of leading worship in music for 30 years, and I’ve always noticed that when a group doesn’t know your particular original song, it really doesn’t matter how theological it is. Its fine to record and offer it on a CD, but in worship time corporately, if it’s not familiar, people will not sing. I highly recommend that worship leaders take a morning off, and just sit in the worship room and observe your people. Watch them, learn from them, and who they are. Watch how they respond to various songs and techniques. The idea is not to be a sociologist, its to know your people, just like a pastor knows his flock. Do you really care about what *they* want to sing? Or is this about you?
    One other thing, slightly off topic – worship is not limited to music, is it!

  6. Anthony Pero May 26, 2014 / 3:05 pm

    How many new songs is practical obviously depends on how often your congregation meets. Some churches meet as a body three times a week, others just once (with this becoming more predominant.) With the shift towards on service a week amongst Evangelicals, it would make sense that we should be introducing LESS new songs today than we did 15 years ago… how many of us are introducing MORE new songs today than we did 15 years ago?

    Regarding originals… I always felt awkward leading my own songs, so even though I write a lot, I didn’t lead them a whole lot. I don’t assume that should apply to everyone, but I knew I would have difficulty separating myself from the song, and not making it, at least in part, about me. So I avoided it a lot.

    However, as I stated on a previous post, I really think the church is making a mistake investing so whole-heartedly in the secular music industry as the main place to go for new worship songs. We should be encouraging a more local flavor of worship, especially those in larger congregations with more resources. Those of us who write should be actively organizing worship songwriting within the congregation, teaching about things like biblical literacy in lyric writing, singability, etc… then we should be using those songs in worship. I’ve always wanted to get to a place where my congregation was singing 1/3 original, local, expressions of worship.

    As far as people visiting from other congregations not knowing the songs… I really don’t view that as a problem. I sing in a lot of other churches… they don’t even share the same hymns, more than 50% of the time, sometimes even within the same denomination there are songs that don’t overlap. That’s just gonna happen. And its a GOOD thing, not a bad thing. I can’t imagine the church universal being so homogenized does anything but weaken us as a body.

  7. nathanallebach May 27, 2014 / 10:10 am

    I see the value and bible-influenced input that is written in this blog, and it should definitely be taken into account for the new Evangelical movement’s critiques – but as I read through it twice, I can’t help but find this to be a dying issue that only old-school church goers deal with. Corporate worship is of utmost importance. We all know this. But none of these critiques are at the heart of the problem… the church is in a major transition right now coming out of the most boring, non-creative, and failing century of music ever, considering all the incredibly diverse secular music that has arisen in the 20th century.

    The problem isn’t getting new Christians/church members involved in a worship service singalong with overplayed classics or dreadful Christian pop music, it’s about people’s hearts WANTING to worship God. If you’re coming into a Sunday morning service with the mindset “I’m only going to sing/meet God/etc., if it’s songs I know or like,” then you’ll never meet God, you’ll just fulfill the aesthetic need in your heart or be utterly disappointed.

    Heck, I hate almost all mainstream worship music and don’t know any of the words, but when that corporate time comes, I’m gonna do my best to put my agenda side and worship. I don’t need to sing along perfectly to do that and neither should an entire congregation of multiple demographics/backgrounds.

    Again, this blog definitely speaks honesty and good critique for the new movements to consider, but doesn’t hit the core problem in worship, just a matter of personal preferences that older/more traditional generations tend to have over newer ones. You’re never going to appease what 100-10,000 people want every Sunday, and what the majority wants should be taken into consideration, but lets try and remember the heart of worship and the fact the people losing that is far deeper a problem than losing a few preferences.

  8. CJ May 27, 2014 / 12:28 pm

    > “Using songs that have lasted for centuries (for a reason) and are known by Christians from all backgrounds and traditions, and even some non-Christians who may have heard them on random occasions”
    I now attend a Christian Church, but grew up in the Episcopal Church. On our Wednesday evening ladies’ Bible study, we typically begin with a song, but our leader decided to return to the “traditional” hymns, rather than the contemporary Christian music we sing at our later service (most of us who attend the Wednesday study, also attend the later Sunday service). I quickly discovered that not all “traditional” hymns are known to everyone. I listened, because I knew none of the songs they sang. THAT was VERY frustrating, because right off the bat, I felt excluded. So I do not agree with your statement that I quoted.

  9. David Lee King May 27, 2014 / 5:22 pm

    Slight disagreement here, too. To your congregation, EVERY new song is … a new song. Not just your original songs. Sad fact for us musicians – your congregation doesn’t know who wrote the songs you sing, might have never heard them, etc.

    Only the band will know that new song was written by you.

    Otherwise, your 4 questions are great for introducing new songs (yours or someone else’s).

    Just make sure to lump your songs in with Tomlin’s and Redman’s, don’t introduce too many new songs at once, then pick the songs that work best for your church.

  10. pastorandrewg May 28, 2014 / 10:47 pm

    Yeah but what about the flip side…

    There’s nothing like an original song for the moment, written for a particular community, inspired by the teaching of that pulpit and made for the heartbeat of its people… that stuff can lift the roof of a church…

  11. G K June 24, 2014 / 7:41 pm

    When introducing a new song, we have found it helpful to simply play it ( no vocals)for a few weeks during preservice music prelude. That way, even though the song may be “new” the tune is somewhat familiar.

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