Responding To The Increasingly Short Shelf-Life Of Worship Songs

1Things are not as simple for worship leaders/church music directors as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a more complicated thing.

There are now more songs to choose from than ever, at an increasingly rapid speed, coming from big publishers, independent artists, local churches, Christian radio, social media feeds, conferences, carrier pigeons, and their distant relatives, hipsters. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on introducing a new song to our congregation that was written in 2012, a newer new song comes along that’s even newer, making the new song we thought was new feel pretty old. Confused? You should be.

Studio albums. Live albums. EPs. Singles. Free downloads. Deluxe versions. Acoustic versions. Recorded on a beach versions. Recorded on top of a mountain versions. A lot of it is really good stuff! A lot of it is not-so-good stuff… And when you add it all together, it’s just a lot of new stuff to sort through, even if you had nothing else to do all week long than listen to all the new stuff. And even then you’d be out-of-touch if you took a few weeks off.

In the ancient past, known as the “1990s”, when a “new” song really caught on, like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” or “Shout to the Lord”, that new song (for better or worse…) stuck around in a church’s repertoire for a substantial period of time, even until present-day. Nowadays, in the era of worship song abundance (again, not a bad thing, just a more complicated thing), when a new song catches on, it might disappear several months later when new crop of new songs come on the scene.

What’s the result? Two things are happening: First, worship leaders are overwhelmed and inundated, possibly discouraged that they can’t keep up, and either resisting or succumbing to the pressure and marketing that screams at them to stay relevant. Second, congregations are being asked to learn more new songs than they can handle, aren’t given the opportunity to sing these new songs for years and years, are being fed songs that might not be particularly nourishing.

(Big caveat: not every new song should have “lasting power”. Some new songs will last for centuries to come. Some will (and should) be retired after a season. This is OK. We know that the New Testament church sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). We have many of those still today (i.e. the Psalms). But others have fallen away. So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. So we should be OK with singing songs that won’t necessarily be sung hundreds of years from now. We just have to be careful to keep our repertoire in a healthy balance. Caveat over.)

Because of the increasingly short shelf-life of modern worship music, worship leaders should make sure we:

Stay mindful of what’s out there
Don’t bury yourself in a cave of stuff-you-like-that-you’ve-used-before. Be willing to listen to new music, and incorporate what will work in your context.

Don’t stress out about keeping up with it all
It’s simply impossible, unless you have tons of time, to keep up with all the new stuff that’s out there.

Be OK with being a late adopter
It’s amazing how waiting a few years will allow the very best of the new stuff to rise to the top of the pile.

Have high standards
Biblical faithfulness, theological correctness, gospel centeredness, musical richness, and congregational accessibility are the five big boxes you should be able to check. If a new song is really popular but doesn’t check all five of those boxes, then maybe you shouldn’t use it.

Distinguish between usefulnesses
Of all the thousands of new songs that will be written this year, maybe just five of those should find their way on to your congregation’s lips. The other songs might be all be wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re useful for incorporation into your church’s repertoire.

Choose songs for the congregation you have
Certain songs will work well in big churches with big bands but flop in smaller churches with smaller bands. And likewise, certain songs will work well in your local context that no one else has ever heard of before! You have to be willing to put blinders on when choosing songs for your congregation, and choose what serves them the best.

Build a solid repertoire – not a cool playlist
A congregation will sing with confidence when they know the songs. A congregation will sing with timidity when they don’t. A solid repertoire cultivates congregational confidence. An ever-changing (but cool!) playlist cultivates insecurity. Focus primarily on helping people exalt Jesus in song, and let the copyright dates take a back seat.

Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have more resources to draw from than ever to help our congregations worship God in song. May we think wisely, pastorally, and discerningly as we adjust to the shortening shelf-life of what’s being produced, and remain faithful to proclaim the never-changing, always-relevant Good News.

29 thoughts on “Responding To The Increasingly Short Shelf-Life Of Worship Songs

  1. Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 23, 2015 / 3:20 pm

    I’ve been around since the Jesus People Movement of the ’70’s and with tongue in cheek I would say that if they were any good to begin with they’d last a lifetime!

    Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better.

    You’ve got to remember today’s Worship Music is an “Profitable Industry” whereas when it started it was a Ministry. Big difference.

    Copyrighting today, IMHO, is to preserve revenue… Copyrighting then was to protect the integrity of the lyrics…

    Lastly, Ministry includes as many as possible in worship of Jesus. When the trickiness or tempo of the lyrics leave a subset of your congregation panting for breath or too concentrated on following the lyrics it ceases to be ministry and becomes a concert.

  2. Jonathon Isaac March 23, 2015 / 10:09 pm

    Thanks Jamie, for the post. I’m still fairly new at this leading in a small rural church. It can be a real challenge for sure to wade through the options out there, but occasionally something really rises up and speaks to you. A particular challenge I have is finding faster songs that have good words/message, can be played with a guitar and piano, and will hopefully speak to multiple generations. Any suggestions from folks would be greatly appreciated.

    • Jamie Brown March 23, 2015 / 10:25 pm

      Hi Jonathon. Worship leaders in small rural churches are my heroes. You guys have a tough job, and it sounds like you’re doing it well. Some good/accessible fast songs I’ve found that can work with just guitar and piano are “This is Amazing Grace” (in E or F), “Come People of the Risen King”, Paul Baloche’s arrangement of “How Great Thou Art”, and “Your Grace Is Enough”. I’m sure I’m blanking on others. Other commenters who have suggestions, please chime in!

      • Jonathon Isaac March 24, 2015 / 3:27 pm

        Thanks Jamie, the only song you suggested that we currently do is “Your Grace Is Enough”. I think that “Come People of the Risen King” will be put on the short list of songs to introduce.

        Again, thanks for your words here and in other posts. Unknowingly to you probably, you have become one of the people who is mentoring me in this adventure of leading worship.

      • paschott March 24, 2015 / 3:32 pm

        Sovereign Grace Music has quite a few songs that are somewhat faster, mostly singable, and have lyrics worth singing. They have different arrangements of them. I think Gateway did a version of the Doxology that’s not too bad – there are more lyrics than just the typical doxology that are worth seeking out. Ideally – try to avoid drowning out those deep lyrics with excessive repetitions of the chorus. Did that with a slightly adapted hymn recently – by the time we finished singing the single line chorus many times, I had mostly forgotten the original verses. 😦

        I think Jamie has the right idea with some of the comments in the article, though. Don’t jump on the newest/latest – there’s nothing wrong with being slightly behind the times to sing songs that are worth the time to learn and have a lasting impact.

    • Jen Frey March 27, 2015 / 12:01 pm

      Hi Jonathan. I also lead in a small rural church (though with just piano and no guitar). We like Lou Fellingham’s “To Him Who Is Able.” The measures between the repeat of the chorus can be a little dull without drums, but with the right dynamics it can be pulled off.

      • Jonathon Isaac April 6, 2015 / 12:00 pm

        Paschott and Jen, thanks for chiming in. My Pastor enjoys Sovereign Grace and so we do some from them, but they have a pretty vast library, that admittedly I have not explored very thoroughly. Jen, I like that Lou Fellingham song. I’ll have to take a look at what she has out there as well. Thanks again for all of your help.

  3. David Preston March 24, 2015 / 4:24 am

    Hi

    As usual your posts are hitting “where it hurts”!!

    Can I add one other heading to your list. Choose songs that are anointed by the Holy Spirit.

    This calls for discernment and such songs may not have complex or rich music – indeed those who remember the first days of the movement pastored by John Wimber will recall how some of the most moving music was very simple and could be lead by a single guitarist playing just 3 chords.

    I have failed to get my own church to adopt the ideas below, but present them for discussion:

    As you rightly say congregations cannot cope. We bash out complex rhythms and unstructured lyrical patterns so that the average non-“musician” cannot keep up and is reduced to being an observer (read Audience). Only the musicians who can play by ear or follow complex music can play in the band – so everyone else who has a heart for leading worship is excluded.

    My answer to multi-generational worship was to ask musicians and congregational members from each generation to recall those songs and hymns that they had seen used in congregational worship and had resulted in a visible movement of the Holy Spirit. The intention was to come up with one list of hymns and one list of worship songs that we “would not like to leave behind” and to bind these up in a music book that every band member and home group worship leader would keep.

    Yes this does sound like an old hymn book – but the intention was too print this with a cheap binding in house and revise and replace it every 5 years. Every musician joining the church would then learn the music in the chosen “singable” key and the congregation feel comfortable and able to join in.

    To this I would add a floating file of songs written in the last 5 years. Some could be prophetic songs written by current church members, others from leading songwriters might be sung only once or in rare cases migrate to the permanent music book. It is vital that worship leaders do not allow the most recent songs to dominate our worship. If the music is bad, the lyrics worse or there is little Biblical content we should be ruthless in discarding them.

    • Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 24, 2015 / 7:58 am

      A loose leaf binder can work as well. We used a thin binder for the current service and a file cabinet for the church repertoire. We’d pull music and set the order into the binders in time for the last service before formal practice.

  4. flyingstudio March 24, 2015 / 6:35 am

    Issue definitely gets magnified when more than one worship leader involved in your church. I would suggest a 3 or 6 monthly face to face meeting to decide and agree on which short list of new songs to introduce in the next season, and agree on how the songs are to be played. Worth the effort, and also allows you to then let senior pastor know in advance what songs to expect in next few months, always a good plan. Sometimes they will have a good suggestion as to when would be a good time to introduce one of them to go with something they have planned.

    • Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 24, 2015 / 8:00 am

      Agreed! However, there can be a need for more than one to take the lead at various times. There are songs I simply can’t lead. But, another can. However, there can be only one primary leader to set the direction of the Worship Ministry.

  5. Eric March 24, 2015 / 9:39 am

    Thanks for the post. A good resource that helps in planning, repetition, and keeping a manageable library is “The Song Cycle” by Jon Nicol. Definitely worth checking out.

  6. mama4liberty March 24, 2015 / 10:32 am

    The conundrums of music in worship are solved if we understand what
    Colossians 3:16 says:
    “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

    Evidently in the original language (Greek), psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were all the God-inspired psalms (just different portions). (And, note the context of Col. 3:16–it starts with “Let the word of Christ…” That leaves no room for men to just come up with “stuff” they want to sing – we’re talking about the seriousness of corporate worship here.
    The angst is gone of what’s right and wrong to sing.

    And, if you take it one step further, the church did not adopt musical instruments until the 1300’s A.D.! It is always man’s tendency to want to add or take away from what God has ordained, and this is one aspect of it. The performance-based worship leaders, sadly, add an element of competition and self-promotion, which has no place in the worship of God! If you’ve ever been in a church that takes singing the psalms accappella seriously, it is a wondrous joy–a taste of Heaven! If you’d like to look at some resources, a good website is crownandcovenant.org.

    Warmly,
    Rachael

  7. Reg Wald March 24, 2015 / 11:28 am

    “So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. ”

    Friend, you are just making up facts. You have no way of knowing what the Apostles said or thought about specific spiritual songs that we have no record of.

    • Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 24, 2015 / 12:43 pm

      I am not sure that Jamie said that… However, the scripture does talk about them singing Psalms and Hymn and spiritual songs. So obviously the Psalms were useful as recent as the Apostles times. Oh, wait, we sang Psalms and other scriptures in the ’70s. So, yes I would say some music stands the test of time better than others. Especially some of the new stuff.

    • Jamie Brown March 24, 2015 / 12:43 pm

      Hi Reg.

      I’m making the point that not EVERY song the New Testament church (including the apostles) has been preserved. Thus, some of the songs they sang (and possibly even Jesus himself sang) were simply sung for a season and then not sung anymore.

      Harold Best expounds on this in his excellent book “Music Through the Eyes of Faith” when he says:

      “Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem. The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation. So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.”
      The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19

      • Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 24, 2015 / 12:52 pm

        While there was a dark period in which no musical instruments were heard in the church, or, at least we may not have a record of them being used. Trumpets and Cymbals, at least, were a part of David’s Worship. Many of the Psalms were written to be accompanied by instruments.

        2Ch 5:12 Also the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, of Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets:)
        2Ch 5:13 It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the LORD;

        Were psalteries and harps stringed instrument and precursors for the modern guitar?

        I do not think we have added to what The Lord has ordained as much as we have recovered a lot of what was lost during a period of false propriety.

  8. Bret March 24, 2015 / 1:21 pm

    Thanks for this…lots of spot-on information here which is great to keep in mind for the screening of new congregational music.

    One more component I’ll throw out for discussion (which may just have been beyond the scope of this particular post) is that it’s helpful when the music isn’t being chosen in a vacuum. Week by week, our church seeks to have the components of our service reinforce and harmonize with one another…the goal is to have the congregation already thinking about the themes of the sermon well before we actually get to it.

    This means both regular coordination between the preaching pastor and the music leader as well as (more directly related to the post) having a varied enough repertoire so that you can bring out the broad variety of themes that Scripture does – joy, lament, God’s character, the hope found in Christ, the work of the Spirit, life together in the church body, mission… The list goes on and on, and when seeking out new songs and working out weekly services, I find it good to remember that breadth and consider what may be under-emphasized in our songbook.

  9. Patrick Watts March 24, 2015 / 1:37 pm

    I would add one more item to your list:

    Teach. Every song is new once. There was a first time you heard some of your favorite worship songs, whether it was in Vacation Bible School, Youth Camp, a college prayer group, or wherever, and you had to learn it.

    With a worship song, there are two things you have to learn:
    1. Right notes, right words, right rhythms. This was the mantra of my college choir director. Before we could make music, we had to have those things in place. There are lots of ways you can help your congregation get there… even in a passive way. Use the song outside of congregational worship – play it as pre-service. Use it as a special feature. Weave it into a sermon. Set the stage for the congregation prior to having them use it.

    2. Why is this song important? When you introduce the song to your congregation, give them a reason to sing it. Explain where they’re going to go in the message of the song. Help them love the song because of what it allows them to express… not just because it’s new or cool.

    You can sing new songs all the time if you incorporate these practical things into your worship planning.

    • Jonathon Isaac March 24, 2015 / 10:13 pm

      Thanks Patrick, I really appreciate the wisdom of your second point. I’ll need to be more diligent in that.

  10. Drew Scott (@DrewSmusic) March 24, 2015 / 3:33 pm

    Jamie, I really appreciate your posts. I am perched to introduce a song that I think is good but I know isn’t great simply because I feel the pressure to enhance our song list with something new. I think I’ll step back from it for a few weeks or months.

  11. JocelynP March 24, 2015 / 9:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Le blogue de Jocelyn P. and commented:
    Un excellent texte pour les directeurs musicaux à propos des multiples choix de cantiques disponibles aujourd’hui.

  12. Henken Swensen March 25, 2015 / 7:49 am

    I would say the problem lies with misinterpretation of “new song” in scripture. But then again I’m a radio engineer so what do I know?

    • Michael Druckenmiller Sr. March 25, 2015 / 12:05 pm

      I D.J.’d on Guam and held a 2nd Class w/ Ship Radar. So, I can say this, I think, There is a *lot* of music that deserves air play. But, not everything you can listen to and enjoy on the radio is appropriate for Congregational Praise and Worship. So, just because it’s a great song and highly popular on the ‘charts’ and gets tons of air play doesn’t mean a Congregation can sing it much less enter into worship.

      I do agree that ‘New Song’ is a phrase that can be ‘misinterpreted’. 🙂

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