Thinking in Thirds

1There are few responsibilities that a worship leader should take more seriously than choosing songs for his or her congregation to sing. In the words of the theologian Gordon Fee, “show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology”. With centuries of older songs, and an ever-increasing library of new songs from which we can choose, how is a worship leader supposed to prioritize what to put on their congregations’ lips?

I have found it helpful to think in thirds. Visualize each of these thirds as a slice of one whole pie. The size of each slice will change depending on your own context, culture, and even particular service and/or venue. But a healthy repertoire, with the goal of shaping your congregation’s sung theology in a balanced way, will typically draw from these three thirds.

The ancient
Every church should have a list of at least (!) 20-30 ancient hymns that their church can sing. Why? Because we don’t want to fall into what C.S. Lewis describes as “chronological snobbery”, a trap which ensnares far too many worship leaders, causing us to think that newer is better, and older is worse. We have centuries of well-written and robustly-scriptural hymns that we would be fools to ignore. Do them as written, do them with a rock band, do them with new choruses, or do them with organ and timpani. But do them.

The proven
It’s been about 50 years since the worship renewal movement hit, thus spawning hundreds of thousands of new songs. It’s been long enough now for us to know which ones are worth keeping and which ones are not. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be “stuck” in the 80s or 90s, but it would be an equally bad idea to pretend they didn’t happen either. Sure, most of them have lost their new-car smell by now, and might make the chronologically-snobbish among us tempted to turn up our noses, but some of them deserve an occasional place in our repertoires, if for no other reason than to simply honor those people in our congregations for whom those songs are actually quite helpful.

The modern
So we have the ancient hymns, the proven and tested songs of previous decades, and the new songs being written by the Church today. By focusing first on the biblical faithfulness of the lyrics, second on the congregational accessibility of the music, and third on the particular and pastoral usefulness in your own context, you can filter out a substantial amount of new music. Then, you add to your church’s repertoire new and fresh songs that help your congregation (in the words of John Piper) “see and savor Jesus Christ”. Some of these songs will last for decades, and join the slice of the pie I call “the proven”. Who knows, maybe in 100 years they’ll be classified as “the ancient” by your grandkids. Or maybe they’ll fall away in a few years’ time. And that’s OK.

The goal for all worship leaders should be to maintain a repertoire of songs that serves the congregation whom God has called them to serve. In my setting at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia, that means I keep these three slices pretty even with one another (with the second slice, “the recent”, being the smallest, and the two other slices “the ancient” and “the modern” being bigger).

None of our respective “pies” will look exactly the same.

But, as worship leaders, if we’re thinking discerningly, and choosing songs wisely, then hopefully the songs that we’re choosing will help our congregations have a sung theology that has sufficient enough roots that it’s also able to branch out.

19 thoughts on “Thinking in Thirds”

  1. Where would sacred spirituals fit into this? They’re newer than ancient maybe, but older than the worship renewal movement that’s 50 years old. They were their own worship renewal movement that came around twice. The first was during slavery mostly among slaves in North America. The second time was after the Azusa Street Revival as recording started to really get distributed. They flourished mostly in what had been called black churches, but lots and lots of them made their way (in possibly a weaker way) into Southern Gospel. It seems like a bit of a blind spot to most whites like myself.

  2. Hey Jamie!

    Is there any way we can get a peek at your pie slices? It would be awesome to have a post that shows us which songs fit where for you.


    1. Hi Ciarán. “Ancient” would be anything in a hymnal (with a possible exception for the renewal songs of the 1970s-90s that are in newer hymnals – but I’d still call “recent” – since they’re not quite “ancient” yet).

      As for the Psalms, since those are Scripture, I would not classify them the same way I classify songs. Scripture is in a class (or a pie?) all by itself. In non-denominational or low-church settings, where the main/only scripture that’s read is the preaching text, then a worship leader would be very wise to include other scripture (including the Psalms) in spoken and sung form in the context of corporate worship. In more formal settings, or in certain denominations which follow the yearly lectionary, those Psalms will be featured very regularly, if not weekly.

      1. “In non-denominational or low-church settings, where the main/only scripture that’s read is the preaching text, then a worship leader would be very wise to include other scripture (including the Psalms) in spoken and sung form in the context of corporate worship”

        Very wise!
        Some artists are very good at morphing Psalms into stylistically-modern songs. One of my favorites is “My Soul Finds Rest In God Alone (Psalm 62)” by Aaron Keyes.

  3. I like this article! I wouldn’t want to mess up your “thirds,” but I do think a category is needed for the “personal” or something – referring to songs written by your own church congregation that have a very specific and personal use (for a series or season of your church). This is not currently in our “pie” – but one day, maybe!

    1. Hi Robert! Yes, I’d probably put original songs in the “modern” slice, but depending on how prolific your church’s musicians are, it might need to be its own slice altogether. Now I want some pie.

  4. The second of two articles I read today that I consider a “must read” for all in worship leadership.

  5. Thanks! Great article on the balance between different time periods.

    Would it be more useful to think in terms of other song attributes besides when a song was written? Things like theological depth, level of emotional expression, etc. I know you do think about those things, but when striving for balance in our worship sets, by running after the wrong goal (equality among three time periods), we end up having a playlist that is unbalanced in other ways.

    For example, if most of your brand-new songs are repetitive and ambiguous, with little teaching value (as new songs sometimes are), then what does it matter that the dates of composition are arranged in thirds? Or, if you have to pad a category with less-than-ideal songs (like if you had to fill out the “recent past” section with campy culturally disconnected southern gospel choruses), then are you any better off?

    Since different periods emphasize different things, giving equal voice to each period might give too strong a voice to some lyrical themes (like how good I feel when the Spirit “moves through the room”) and too weak a voice to others (like penal substitutionary atonement). I’d much rather take an imbalance of time periods if it meant a balanced lyrical diet presented to the congregation.

    1. excellent thoughts astrapto! I think if we really dug into it, we would find some older songs that were personal, expressive,and simple theologically, and new songs that were the opposite – and vice versa. Also, it is important to consider that not every church relies on songs on CCLI – that many are writing their own songs that may not mean a whole lot to us – but do to them.

      Balance. That is the key. May worship leaders not be lazy to just grab the “good ole’ hymns” of the past because that is what we know or the “new edgy hymns” of the present because that is what lands in our in-box or YouTube channel. May we not be so narrow-minded that we only look to styles, cultures, and keys that we like or are comfortable with. Sometimes singing a “new song to the Lord” can be an old one with a different feel or a new one scaled back.

  6. As other commenters noted, the three periods you picked are not exhaustive, with respect to either time period or culture of origin. The pie you present is one where the past sixty years of (mostly) white Christianity reigns, with the previous 1900 years of church history lumped into its own box uniformly. Then there’s the Psalms and non-white music, but let’s not get too crazy here after all.

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