If You Can’t Think of Songs for Sunday, Stop Thinking About Songs for Sunday

1There are times when choosing songs for corporate worship on Sundays is easy. Themes, keys, grooves, transitions, dynamics, blend of new versus old, etc., all seem to come together in beautiful stream of inspiration, as if the very gates of heaven have been opened and you are guided by God himself which songs to sing.

Then there are times when choosing songs is not so easy. You stare at your song list in a haze of depression, with every option feeling worn-out, too new, too fast, too slow, not right, done too recently, a bad fit, or uninspiring, and you pray that Jesus would either come back between now and Sunday morning, or zap with you a lighting bolt of creativity. That lightning bolt never comes.

And the computer screen stares at you, menacingly, waiting for you to think of a brilliant list of songs.

So what do you do when you can’t think of songs for Sunday?

Stop thinking about songs for Sunday.

You’re not likely to make any huge progress when you’re in that murky haze of song-selection burn-out. Move on to another task, go mow the lawn, play with your kids, sing some worship songs under your breath (or louder) while you wash the dishes, and clear your head as much as you can. Get the song-selection part of your brain completely turned off. You might be surprised how, once you’ve stopped thinking of what songs to sing on Sunday, God finally tells you what songs to sing on Sunday.

Song-selection brain freeze can be brought on by many different factors. Fatigue is the number one factor; when you’ve been picking songs for services for weeks and months with no break. Spiritual dryness is the second factor, when you haven’t been worshipping God in the intimacy of your home or car. And finally, mental ruts keep you going back to the same sources, same routines, and the same favorites. You can’t break through all of these things by thinking really hard and having an “aha!” moment.

So in the short term, when you can’t think of what songs to sing, stop thinking of what songs to sing. Clear your mind, and you’ll find that when you reach for the tupperware bowl in your pantry, you all of the sudden get an idea for your opening song.

But in the long-term, if you’re experiencing this murkiness on a regular basis, you need a vacation. You need at least two Sundays off in a row. You’ll find that you come back refreshed with clearer vision and clarity about things like what songs to sing. Give yourself a break!

Songs That Echo the Gospel of Grace

1I’m finishing up a seminary class on Paul’s epistles, and came across this really helpful quote from a commentary on Colossians by R.C. Lucas. When he comes to the passage familiar to many worship leaders, from Colossians 3:16, (“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God”), he explains:

What is at issue here is the content of the young church’s hymns. The history of Christian awakening shows that whenever the word of Christ is recovered, it is received with great joy, a joy that can fully express itself only with songs of praise. What the apostle is concerned to see is that these songs are consistent with the word of Christ, or as we are bound to say nowadays, scriptural. A fair test of this is to be found by whether or not they echo a heartfelt spirit of thankfulness: genuine Christian praise is not primarily a vehicle for the expression of spiritual aspirations and experiences, so much as a celebration of God’s mighty acts in Christ… A gospel of grace must be echoed by songs of gratitude for grace.

Our job as worship leaders is not only to serve as guards of the content of the songs our churches sing; but as cultivators of the spirit with which they’re sung. It’s not enough for the content to be solid, although that’s important. We must help our congregations experience and express thankfulness and gratitude for grace. I heard Louie Giglio say in a sermon from his church that “extravagant grace leads to extravagant worship”. Paul would agree!

Songs I Picked for Ash Wednesday

1This Wednesday begins the season of Lent – the season of the Church year when we prepare for Easter. I thought it might be helpful for me to share the songs I picked for our evening Ash Wednesday service.

I intentionally chose songs that put the focus not on me and what I’m doing and how I’m discipling myself (which is too often the tragic focus of Lent) but on the finished work of Jesus on the cross, and his power to rescue and save from sin (which can lead to a Jesus-centered focus during Lent).

Opening:
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Practically, for a mid-week service, when many people are coming directly from long days at home or at the office, I want to start off the service with something they can immediately sing and connect with. Some churches start their Ash Wednesday with obscure dirge-like hymns, and I think it’s a big turn-off to people. Theologically, this song talks about my need for God’s help (“tune my heart to sing thy grace”), God’s pursuit of me in Christ (“Jesus sought me, when a stranger…”), Jesus’ death (“…interposed his precious blood), and how he sanctifies me (“let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee”). We recorded this hymn, with Bob Kauflin’s adapted lyrics, on my church’s recent CD.

Songs of praise:
You Alone Can Rescue
“Who, O Lord, could save themselves, their own soul could heal?” The answer is no one! No one can save themselves. So don’t try to save yourself during Lent. This Matt Redman/Jonas Myrin song helpfully points people to Jesus as the rescuer.

Here is Love (Grace Takes My Sin)
Kate Simmonds’ great version of this hymn with the chorus: “Grace takes my sin, calls me friend, pays my debt completely…” I posted a free download of this song (off of my church’s CD) a few months ago.

After these songs, we have scripture readings, a sermon, an explanation of Lent, and then a chance to come forward for the imposition of ashes as a reminder of our mortality.

Songs during the imposition of ashes:
Come You Sinners
The song I wrote and posted about here.

Before the Throne of God Above
This song continually points upward. A great song to sing anytime, any service, for any reason, but especially when people might be tempted to look elsewhere.

Be Unto Your Name
“We are a moment, You are forever, Lord of the ages, God before time. We are a vapor, You are eternal, Love everlasting, reigning on high…”

Then we have a time of prayer, confession, and absolution (a high church word for assurance of pardon), passing of the peace, an offertory song by our choir, and then communion.

Communion:
Rock of Ages Cleft for Me
A good reminder that the “cure” for or sin isn’t in our trying harder, but in the “…blood, from Thy crimson side that flowed”, and “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling”.

All to Us
I love the chorus of this song: “Let the glory of Your name be the passion of the Church. Let the righteousness of God be a holy flame that burns. Let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives. We believe You’re all to us.” We’re singing this on Ash Wednesday because, again, it lifts our eyes upward to God’s glory, his righteousness, and his saving love – not on our fasting from chocolate or TV for 40 days.

Closing:
Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah
This is a great old hymn for occasions like this. It’s a confession of our weakness of need, but the focus on God’s sufficiency to save, feed, guide, and sustain us.

If you’re choosing songs/leading worship for Ash Wednesday, or for a church that observes Lent, do all that you can to keep people’s eyes on God’s great grace, Jesus’ finished work, and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence.

For my thoughts on other songs for Ash Wednesday from last year, click here.

The Useless Sound of an Indistinct Bugle

1My almost 2-year-old, Emma, is starting to talk. It’s super cute and fun, and we are loving it. The only problem is that no one else can understand what in the world she’s actually saying.

For example: “goke” can mean “milk” or “broken”. Or “shah” means “straw”. Or “gang gang” means “candy cane”.

She’s talking alright. But it’s indistinct. What she’s saying isn’t clear enough for most people to understand.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spends some time giving them instructions on corporate worship. Apparently some of them are getting together and having a wonderful time using the gifts of the Spirit, but no one else who walks into the room has any idea what’s going on.

He says to them, in one of his more wonderfully pointed moments:

…if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The specific thing he’s talking about is the use of the gift of tongues, but the principle applies much more broadly. The principle is this: when you get together as Christians, make sure what’s going on is as clear as possible.

Imagine the uselessness of an indistinct bugle. You hear it off in the distance and you think it’s calling you to battle. But the person next to you disagrees completely. He says it’s announcing the arrival of royalty. Someone behind you speaks up and says you both have it wrong. It’s the sound of a musician playing a ballad for his lover.

Total confusion.

So imagine the uselessness of indistinct message in our songs. You hear it and you think it’s talking about Jesus’ second coming. Your friend hears it and says it’s about the trials we face. You get an email from someone thanking you for that very same song that she says is talking about her loved one who’s in heaven.

Huh?

It’s comforting that God knows our hearts completely, regardless of whether we use the right words. We don’t have to articulate ourselves to him perfectly for him to get the picture.

But if the Apostle Paul were to walk into your service this Sunday and sing the songs you pick, would he say you were “uttering speech that was not intelligible” or that you were “speaking into the air”? That wouldn’t be a good thing.

As worship leaders we should aim for clarity and distinction in our proclamation of the good news of the Gospel so that everyone who comes in, and who has ears to hear, can hear. And understand what in the world you’re actually saying.

Leading Worship In the Shadow of Tragedy

1Yesterday’s mass shooting an at elementary school in Connecticut is the kind of tragedy that makes everyone – Christians, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics – take a step back and wonder how and why something so awful could happen. The fact that everyone who will be walking into your Sunday morning services has been asking those questions should give worship leaders and pastors reason to think very carefully about what they’re going to sing and what they’re going to say.

First, worship leaders, don’t attempt to be the consoler-in-chief tomorrow. You might be the first person “up”, but that role falls to your pastor. It’s appropriate for you to say something like “This morning as we stand to sing, most of us are singing with heavy hearts after what we’ve witnessed this past week. So as we stand, let’s declare what we know to be true: that God is faithful, God is good, God is sovereign, and God sent his son to rescue a very dark world”. That’s all, roughly, that you need to say. Let your pastor do the rest. And let your songs preach.

Secondly, it’s not too late to change your song selections for the morning. Here are the songs we’re singing at my church tomorrow in case this is helpful.

1. Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman)
– Opening song
– Helps us articulate praise to God in the midst of joy and sorrow
– “Blessed be Your name… when I’m found in the desert place… on the road marked with suffering… though there’s pain in the offering…”
– “You give and take away…”
– We will keep the arrangement of this from getting too rocky

2. It is Well with My Soul (traditional)
– Song after the welcome, where our pastor will have people be seated and will address the tragedy and lead in prayer
– The 4 traditional verses assure us that when we experience peace, or sorrow, or trials, because “Christ has regarded (our) helpless estate, and shed his own blood”, we can say “it is well”. Verse 4 reminds us that one day Jesus will return.

3. How Long? (We Have Sung Our Songs of Victory) (Stuart Townend)
– Offering
– The verses contain cries to God like “Lord we know your heart is broken by the evil that you see…” and “…but the land is still in darkness and we’ve fled from what is right. We have failed the silent children who will never see the light”.
– The chorusses echo so many places in the Psalms and say “how long… before the weeping turns to songs of joy?”
– The last verse gives hope: “But I know a day is coming when the deaf will hear his voice, when the blind will see their Savior, and the lame will leap for joy. When the widow finds a husband who will always love his bride, and the orphan finds a Father who will never leave her side.”
– The version on iTunes that you should buy is the one off of the “Pour Over Me” album
– We’re singing this during the offering, and not expecting people to sing along.

4. There is a Higher Throne (Keith and Kristyn Getty)
– Communion song
– A song about the hope of heaven, where Jesus will “…wipe each tear-stained eye, as thirst and hunger die…”

5. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus (traditional)
– Communion song
– “Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee…”
– We will take the chorus from the old Vineyard song “All Who Are Thirsty” with the simple lyrics “come, Lord Jesus, come”, and use it as a chorus on this hymn.

6. Everlasting God (Strength Will Rise) (Brenton Brown)
– Closing communion song
– A song of faith: “Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer… You are the everlasting God… You do not faint, You won’t grow weary.”

As Bob Kauflin tweeted this morning (12/15/12), we should be regularly singing songs that help us lament the brokenness and darkness and fallenness of this world. But particularly after tragedies like this, when everyone has been shaken by seeing evil on display, pastors and worship leaders have to be willing to change their game plan and help people not only grieve, but grieve with hope in a good and faithful God, who sent his Son to suffer and die in our place, who knew grief and loss, and who was raised to life, ascended to heaven, and will run day return to “make all the sad things come untrue”.