SHOULD WE USE THIS SONG IN WORSHIP?
What happens when a worship leader chooses a song that the pastor has a question about? Do you simply not use that song anymore? Do you use it anyway and push buttons because you love it? Do you make it a big deal, or a little deal, if it is used or not?
Sometimes a worship leader will choose a song that the pastor may find troubling in some way. Perhaps only a line or phrase is problematic. How do you approach it?
A Word about How Pastors & Worship Leaders/Musicians Respond to Songs
In my experience, worship leaders and musicians tend to respond strongly to the feel and power of a song, especially if its radio/internet famous and is put “out there” by a major label. Songs may already be used from that group, and we love those. Why would this new song be any different? Everyone loves it!
In some cases, this enables them to overlook what seem to be minor lyrical bumps in the song, or even major ones, because the general use of the song in the wider church (and its awesomeness) gives it, in their minds, credibility. Besides, we love the song.
Pastors and teachers, on the other hand, also respond to the feel and power of a song – but with a more keen eye for discipleship or theological ideas that may carry what they feel might be an unhelpful discipleship perspective to serve up to the community time and time again.
Songs carry theology and views on discipleship; church history proves it out, talks about it, and everyone who studies church history knows it. Worship songs are not benign or unbiased.
We Can All Connect with Many Songs, but We May Not All Connect with Every Song
Yes, we still can all agree on singing thousands of songs from church history as part of our steady diet in worship. Our worship history is so rich as the Body of Christ, from East to West, North to South, Across Denominations, and from the Early Church to Today.
And while a church today may be able to use every song from a particularly well known group (that the worship music industry makes sure we all hear), not every church, movement, or denomination carries the same theological flavor. I.e. With over 30K denominations in the world today, not every song is a perfect match – even if it feels like an awesome song.
Everyone agreeing on everything, even if our emotions are involved, is not the goal. Discernment for our community, and give and take based on roles, is what makes this work.
What Do You Do?
I have a few thoughts that come from my story as both a worship leader and a pastor that I hope can be helpful as you walk through, with love and deference, any bumps like this.
Disclaimer: I would note that I am, by nature, an artist; for that reason, I have a naturally high tolerance for poetic license in worship songs and in most creative work. I also have a high tolerance for people thinking differently than I do on a variety of topics, and have peace allowing some of those things a broad degree of creative (and even philosophical) expression. I also love all the expressions of worship discipleship across the historic Body of Christ – so, again, my tolerances are high.
Having said that, I’m also quite sensitive to, and have spent many years studying, the Church and its approach to discipleship in the way of Jesus (the early Church is a particular interest). So, I care about why we do the things we do, and know that the songs we sing matter over time.
I will say this first; the following thoughts are best applied if the song has not already been used. The band rehearsing it, executing it, and seeing the congregation respond to it only confuses the matter.
No big deal, but it helps if a process takes place before a few people fall in love with a particular song.
Here are some thoughts that may prove helpful.
1. The pastor is ultimately responsible, and gets to make the call.
I’ll just say that. Not everything needs a big discussion. There is freedom for everyone in that. I’ve submitted my favorite songs to many pastors over the years, and they didn’t think I should use them all. Sweet. No problem. Don’t make it a big deal.
Just afford the pastoral leader that space to feel good, or not good, about a lyric (or even a style). Let them trust their instinct. Discipleship of the community is the primary work of the pastor, and hopefully their training, reading, reflection, and experience is built around that sense of call and responsibility.
Worship music, especially the lyrics, is discipleship. We sing what we believe, and what we sing ends up taking root in the approach of our community to life and faith.
For that reason, the pastor gets the final call.
2. The worship leader has a sensitivity that should be heard.
Even if the worship leader has a depth of practical and theological reflection when approaching choosing songs for a worship set, the worship leader should recognize that the pastor is ultimately the lead voice in the selection of songs.
However, a good pastor will hear the worship leader out – perhaps there is another way to think about the lyric that makes it make sense in the wider scope of taking our place as the community of Christ in the world.
I’ve made my case for a few songs that helped the pastor see through the song to the idea it represents; I’m less literal in my singing of songs, so I tend to mine a lyric for all its potential meanings.
3. There are tens of thousands of worship songs out there – just because a song feels amazing does not mean it is for your congregation.
It’s a weird worship world out there today, honestly. I’ve spoken to many worship leaders who essentially say, “Hey, if it moves me, I use it. If people love it, that means it’s good.” That’s a very un-pastoral way to see the role of the worship leader and a diminished view of a songs impact on the spiritual life habits of the average Christian.
It’s not surprising. I’m often tempted to believe that if a song, a presentation, or an author is very persuasive, or a movie is excellent, that must mean that what they’ve said is “true.” But a great vibe and a powerful chorus do not make a song solid throughout for worship leadership.
For example, some pastoral leaders don’t want any songs sung that aren’t positive or that have a theology of suffering in them (see John Mark MacMillan’s King of My Heart, where the bridge says “When the night is holding on to me, God is holding on….” That song carries a theology of suffering. Well done, John Mark. Well done. I needed to sing those words this past year.)
4. Leaders should keep growing in biblical wisdom and the theology of your movement, so you have an internal radar for what songs are a win and what songs are a pass.
Hear me; some things are actually preference. Let’s just own that. All good. I still hold to #1 above. But some things are actual bumps. No harm, no foul. They just are.
I swim in the Vineyard theological waters in my approach to worship, with a heavy lean toward other historic expressions of the liturgical church.
I would agree, and find resonance with, many movements that value the active work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and the truths of the Scriptures that call us to walk in our authority as believers.
However, there is some theology out there that I wouldn’t want to purvey as a worship leader, or embrace as the pastor overseeing discipleship in our church. In some cases, most of the song might be killer, but a line in it feels off.
Again, this is not artist songwriting we’re talking about, which I love – its worship music, so it’s discipleship for the community.
Some Examples of My Own Preferences
An example of what I might have trouble singing or leading would be some lyrics that emerge from a more Word of Faith, Pentecostal, or positive-confession movement that relativizes a theology of suffering, or makes it sound like we and our positive confession is the source of spiritual power being “released.”
I love the music, the energy, the passion, and the love of the miraculous – but there are bumps in the way I see the everyday life of the disciple and what I would like people to walk away singing.
Some lyrics poetically navigate a line or two, and affirm that we are have great spiritual authority. I’m in. I’m super-good to bend hard toward claiming who we are in Christ. There is a theology of the Ascension of Jesus that powers a miracle-expectant church.
However, some lyrics make it sound and feel like I’m exerting the power and authority. The feeling is the thing. I don’t always need to nit pick the lyrical line; sometimes its just the tone that it carries and it feels “off.”
I also avoid using songs that portray human beings as worms of the dust, expressing how grateful we are that God loves us even though we really, really suck. It’s the fruit of an historically-rooted neo-Calvinistic theological approach that I personally find diminishing to the glorious nature of the human person (“I have a Gospel that begins in Genesis” is my way of saying it).
Some things “sound right” because they’re in the water, and the idea is normalized in the broader Church. But for me, it doesn’t work. I don’t think anyone’s bad; I just offer that an idea may be unhelpful.
I won’t lead those kinds of songs with lines that tweak me, even if I adore the song and it’s ministered to me. It’s about discipleship, and I won’t let my preferences become prejudices.
Imagine the Early Church Singing It
One thing I do is to try to imagine the Apostle Paul, or any woman or man in the early Church, singing that kind of lyric.
In the first case, while the early Church exerted authority, that exertion came with a continually re-affirmed deference as to where that power and authority comes from. In the latter case, I can’t imagine Mary, Jesus’ mother, singing about how depraved human beings are and how we should just be really grateful that God tolerates us.
There are other examples across my journey, but that’s one. I don’t think anyone’s bad for singing it; I just wouldn’t lead it or sing it. I always try to see if poetic license can be used to smooth something out, but if I can’t (and I have a wide view of poetic license), I just move on.
5. Don’t sweat it – move on.
Honestly, it’s not worth having hard feelings over. Let the pastor make the call. Move on. Trust Jesus. Use other equally powerful songs. Listen a lot to the song you love at home. Don’t make it a thing.
I had a worship leader want to use a song that I didn’t feel good about when I was pastoring. They prayed that the Lord would open my eyes to how wonderful the song was. Funny part was, He did. I said I was wrong later, but by that time we had moved on as a community and agreed we didn’t need to do it. Joy. Community, with deference, wins.
Those are just a few thoughts to help you move forward, together, as you seek to sing songs that impact, and support, your congregation becoming more and more like Jesus.
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