Selecting Music for Worship (Part 1): Know the Word

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Leading God’s people in song is a great joy. It is a rewarding responsibility to sing and play psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in praise to God. But like other aspects of worship—reading and preaching God’s Word, lifting up prayers in behalf of the congregation—with the joy comes labor. It takes time to plan and prepare music for worship. This is especially evident given the reality that the task of worship is ongoing. Week by week, music must be selected, ordered and rehearsed. There is always a service coming.

So what is the best way to plan music for worship? How can worship leaders, given the task each week to select music for the services, make the best use of their time and efforts? How can they avoid the ruts of simply resorting to favorites or choosing what’s trendy? How can they guard against weariness and wearing out over time?

There is no simple solution to finding the right songs for the right service, but there are some vital ways that worship leaders can prepare themselves to be ready for the task. Those who give direction to the music of the church must learn to be students, and not just students of the music itself—giving attention to tunes, lyrics and arrangements. In the next several posts, I will explore three areas of study that every worship leader should seek to master:

  1. Know the Word
  2. Know Theology
  3. Know Your Church

My first encouragement to those who lead music in the church is know the Word. This of course applies to all worship leaders—to those who read and preach God’s Word, to those who lift up prayers in behalf of the congregation, as well as to those who lead in singing God’s praise. We must immerse ourselves in Scripture. The first and best way to prepare for the task of selecting music for worship is to be regularly and diligently in God’s Word.

In John 4 Jesus taught on the essence of true worship:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him (John 4:23).

If we are to worship God rightly, we need to preach, sing and pray the truths of the Bible and we need the life-giving work of God’s Spirit quickening our spirits that we might understand, embrace and apply those truths to our lives. So as we plan for worship, our two greatest priorities should be to 1) saturate our services with the Word of God, and 2) pray earnestly for the power of God’s Spirit to illumine His truth that we might walk in its light.

Paul echoes this emphasis of spirit and truth when he teaches the church about music. In Ephesians 5 he exhorts the church to:

…be filled with the Spirit,  addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18–19).

In a parallel passage in Colossians 3 he says:

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 (Colossians 3:16).

It is essential that our music be rooted in the truth of God’s Word and in the work of His Spirit. As we preview the lyrics of songs, we should look for quotes, allusions and connections to God’s Word. If we are to sing in a way that lets the word of Christ dwell in us richly, we need to:

  1. Sing the words of Scripture (from Psalms and other passages)
  2. Sing words that are filled with the truth of Scripture
  3. Sing words that help us rightly understand Scripture
  4. Sing words that help us rightly respond to Scripture

Consider, for example, the hymn How Firm a Foundation. One of the reasons this hymn has endured the test of time is its faithfulness to Scripture. The opening verse speaks of the value of resting our faith in God’s “excellent Word.” The remaining verses then rehearse several promises from the Bible. Read through the lyrics and see how many passages come to mind.

How Firm a Foundation
(from John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787)

1.  How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

2.  In every condition—in sickness, in health,
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home, or abroad, on land, on the sea,
“As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.”

3. “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
For I am Thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

4. “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

5. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
May grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

6. “E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.”

7. “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

(Click here to see the lyrics of hymn with the passages of Scripture listed)

We want to select and sing music in the church that will let God’s Word dwell in us richly. We want songs that are biblically sound, song that will teach and edify, not amuse and entertain. We want to recognize and cast aside songs that are in error or are lacking in truth. We want to identify and keep songs that will help us interpret, verbalize and respond to truth, songs that will serve and undergird the preaching and teaching ministry of the church.

But in order to recognize such music, and find fitting places for that music in the life of the church, we need to know the Word of God. So commit yourself to being a student of God’s Word. Be in the Bible every day. Read it, study it, memorize it. Take notes as you read. Look for connections between the lyrics of your church’s songs and the verses of Scripture. Note where those connections are lacking. Highlight where those connections are strong. As a worship leader and musician, aim to be well-rehearsed, not just in the music you plan to sing, but in the Scriptures you intend to teach, proclaim and celebrate. Know the Word!

—Ken Puls

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