The Songs Of Our City: Why “Great Are You Lord” Is In My Set

A few Sundays ago I was preparing to lead worship. After praying for the best song choices, and considering the message theme for that morning, I chose the song, Great Are You Lord by All Sons And Daughters as the third song in my set. Why? It is what I call a “Song Of Our City” – at least I believe it is in Franklin, TN USA.

Image courtesy of allsonsanddaughters.com

The 3/3 Guideline And Your Stream Of The Church

Before I describe what I believe a Song Of Our City is, let me provide some of my own perspective when it comes to song selection for sets I lead. After 20+ years of leading worship, I’ve become fairly methodical about the larger work of song selection in a few ways. I generally have followed what I call the “3/3 Guideline.” Over the course of one year, my sets will (generally) be made up of:

  • 1/3 contemporary worship songs,
  • 1/3 traditional songs of the faith (hymns/other expressions), and
  • 1/3 indigenous (original) songs born for/in the community.

According to what community I’m serving in, I’ll shift those fractions a bit, usually either weighting heavier on contemporary songs known and loved by the congregation, or on indigenous songs in a called, songwriting community.

For the contemporary worship category, and the indigenous category, I rely heavily on the “hymnody” of my particular tradition, Vineyard Worship, as every worship leader knows that songs carry values, ethos, and theology into the hearts of our community. I believe we have a mandate to further themes vital to our unique stream when we lead worship, no matter our tradition.

In the Vineyard, our theology surrounding Jesus’ central message, the presence of the Kingdom of God, is integral to the lyrics of our songs. Values such as intimacy with God, integrity in leadership, accessibility in style, cultural connection, kingdom expectation, caring for the poor, the healing of the whole person, inviting the Spirit, and our missional call to do the “words and works” of Jesus in the world – also season our songwriting. While many worship songs carry elements of this theological approach and values set, we are focused specifically on furthering that theology in all our discipleship pathways.

Gathered worship with music is just one of those pathways for us, so the songs we choose are important to us. Songs like Come, Now Is The Time To Worship, Breathe, Sweetly BrokenHungry, Faithful One, In The Secret (I Want To Know You)All Who Are Thirsty, Draw Me CloseWonderful, Face To Face, Fiery Love, Pour It Out, My Soul Longs, and many others flow from the heart of our tradition, as well as a few thousand others.

In other words, it is important that we care for the song diet of our local church with intention, rather than just picking songs that “I love.”

Now, seasoning the first category above, 1/3 contemporary worship songs, is this subset I keep ever before me – the Songs Of Our City.

The Songs Of Your City, The Songs Of My City

The Songs Of Our City, or the Songs Of Your City, are the songs that have taken on life and momentum in our particular cities and towns. These are songs that, on any given Sunday, your congregation may have worshipped with somewhere recently, or neighborhood newcomers may have connected with through various means. The song may reach deep, and people aren’t exactly sure why. In some towns and cities, these may be new or old songs particular to your area. In some towns and cities, they may simply be what the CCM radio station, YouTube, or a worship conference has fed the worship leaders in your area. They can come from anywhere, but it usually takes a mechanism to get them to us.

Because I believe in the sovereignty of God, songs that start in our churches, spark at events, wander in through history, or even are delivered through the industry, can be Songs Of Our City. They are songs born or lifted up in a time, in a place, and in a people – for a time, for a place, and for a people. There is, as I like to say, a special “heat” on them for corporate worship.

My Experience With A Song Of Our City

I remember, many years ago, opening a City Service in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Hundreds of people had gathered from about 20 denominations for this joint worship event. I was the worship leader, this was my city, and I struggled with how to open the set. We had a fascinating blend of churches in our city, within a unique community temperament, and the three largest were the Baptist church, the Pentecostal church, and the Vineyard. Though I was leaning toward starting with a familiar hymn (hymns are a first language of worship for me), instead I chose the song Shout To The Lord by Darlene Zschech. The place rose with anticipation as the first notes were played, signaling the melody, and it was clear something was about to happen.

Everyone stood to their feet spontaneously – Catholics, Anglican, Presbyterians, Vineyard folks, Baptists and those from many other streams. Hands rose from more than the charismatics, I’m sure of it. People sang at the top of their lungs, and I even saw some folks visibly weeping in adoration in the gathering. I can honestly say that, as I scanned the room, I could see no one disengaged. From there, the time of worship was rich, beautiful, and sweet. That song helped to create a deeply unifying moment for the Body of Christ in our city, and the year that followed saw a remarkable comradery flowing between our churches.

Truth be told, I never preferred the song. But that is the sacrifice of the worship leader; it comes with the turf. I used it, as a Song Of Our City, and it helped to unlock a season of unity among the churches in our city at that time. Whenever we gathered, it was often part of our worship experience.

Songs Of Your City Can Be Written In Your City, Or Somewhere Else

Now, that song was born in the Hillsong community in Australia. And it was a song the wider church was, of course, singing at the time. However, it seemed to have taken on a special life in our small city in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. I knew the other worship leaders, and they were using it regularly with great affinity in their communities. In a sense, that song was “lifted up.” I understand the frailty of the systems that get those songs into peoples’ heads and heart, but there is something to be said for God acting in/through the industries that do it.

In other cases, however, the song may not be a widely used song, but is rather a song written for a city’s worship that has caught on through various means.

The other day friend Elias Dummer of The City Harmonic told me about the unifying work that is happening in Hamilton, Ontario. Churches of different traditions are working together for the good of a city in need. Songs born from a rich season of reunion and renewal in Hamilton – like their song, Manifesto – have taken on life to serve many. My worship leader/songwriter friend Sean Carter, in the Dallas Fort Worth area, has told me that songs are often shared between communities, giving strength to their shared voice as the Body of Christ in their area. My friends in the Southern US will often use songs from the roots history of the church as anthems in their communities. For them, there are Songs Of Their Culture, Songs Of Their Region and Songs Of Their State/Province. I don’t want to take this too far, but I might also say that some songs have life in a country (but now we’re into the details of the worship music industry and its reach).

In my Vineyard world we often say great songs are written “from the Church, for the Church.” Today, many songwriters are working hard to write for the “entire church,” as if their mantle could rise and exist beyond serving a local community, or a demographic in their community. I suggest to them that they write for a community, whether a song is ever used or not, and work to serve what God is doing in that community.

Why Great Are You Lord Is A Song Of Our City

In my city of Franklin/Nashville, TN, the epicenter of the CCM/Worship music industry, I could justify using almost any worship song out there today and call it a Song Of Our City. However, I’m always having to perceive what songs, written by songwriters in our area, are taking on life and serving a broader base of the church in our town/city/region in worship. Usually my intuition has much to do with my decision, but anecdotal information from other churches often finds us if we’re looking and listening.

Great Are You Lord by All Sons And Daughters is one of those Songs Of Our City, in my view. When I use it, our community comes alive. When guests visit, some of them will have heard it before. It was born here, and it will have a life here for some time to come. Here is the video of it:

In Franklin/Nashville, it’s a song I perceive is moving the church forward, and it may also be in your world. Leslie Jordan and David Leonard of All Sons And Daughters are a part of our city, our community. In other words, they are from here, for here, and taking here with them wherever they go. They are part of our worship leadership family in the Franklin/Nashville area, and this song captures something our city of churches (broadly speaking) wants to sing.

For that reason, the song will find its way into my sets. It is a Song Of Our City.

Not all songs I love stand that test of being a Song Of Our City, so I always have to have a good reason for integrating songs that I simply “love” based on my 3/3 Guideline above, my Vineyard immediate family, and our local church dynamic.

In this case, Great Are You Lord fits, and our congregation has taken ahold of it. It is truly a Song Of Our City.

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Question: What are the Songs Of Your City? Are there particular songs either indigenous to your community/town/city, or used significantly by your city’s churches, that seem to have significance for integrating into your set?

Resource: The 3/3 Guideline is part of the Essentials In Worship Video Course, in the “Essentials In Worship Leading” study.