Choosing what we sing in Church: Choosing New Songs (Part 9 of 9)

By David Shead

Choosing New Songs

In this last article in the series, let me turn our attention to the important job of choosing new songs.

Five things to consider:

1. How often do you introduce a new song?

We need to be learning new songs regularly. This helps to keep our singing fresh and a genuine stimulation to worship, while enabling us to retire tired songs without putting stress on our repertoire.

However, we shouldn’t overdo it! It takes time to learn a new song well, and congregations can get weary of feeling like they’re having to learn something new every week. My rule of thumb is to learn about 5 (minimum) to 9 (maximum) new songs a year. This means one new song every 6 weeks to 2 months. It takes around 5-6 weeks to learn a new song well, hence the 9 song maximum (on the principle that you don’t start a new song until the last one has been properly learned).

A good pattern would be to learn 2 new songs in first term, 1 song in second term, 2 songs in third term, and 1 more in fourth term (for a total of 6 new songs).

2. Locating new songs

Where will you find your new songs?

Many of us don’t have time to research all the new Christian songs that come out every year, so a simple shortcut is to make use of the work that others have already put in. My most valuable regular resource is the CMS Summer School booklet, which lists all the songs they sang for the week. There are normally about 50 songs in that list, many of which we will already know, but I can count on at least 3 or 4 suitable new ones every year. The same would go for any other big Christian conventions.

After that, you could, over time, discover who in your congregation regularly listens to current Christian music, and ask them for recommendations. If they tell you about songs they like listening to, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be songs the congregation will enjoy singing.

But two notes of caution: First, remember your singing “diet”. There’s no point selecting all the songs that your congregation already enjoys if they are all basically variations on the same song. It’s worth sometimes going to places outside the cultural circle of your congregation members to find songs on different themes or with different emotional moods. Ask the song choosers at another congregation (or another church!) what their latest finds are, and share yours with them.

Second, don’t be afraid to go back into what someone at our church recently called “the Christian back catalogue”. Some old hymns will never “speak” to the younger generations, mainly (in my observation) because the rhythms are far too “square,” lacking flexibility and variety. But this is certainly not true of all old hymns. “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed” (or “I heard the voice of Jesus say” – whichever words you prefer) and “All creatures of our God and King” are just two examples of old hymns that have recently made a comeback. One big advantage of old hymns is that they often cover Biblical themes that modern writers aren’t as interested in.

3. Testing new songs

Once you’ve found some potential new songs, and before you bring them to the congregation, you need to test them out.

The first test is an internal one. You need to be very honest with yourself at this point and ask if this is a song that is genuinely going to benefit your congregation, or if it’s just a song that you happen to like. Often, the two will coincide, but not always. Especially if, for example, you’re 50 years old and the demographic centre of your congregation is 35 (or 25, or 15!), it’s very easy to make false assumptions about what songs are going to connect. With our young adults’ evening congregation I always run a new possibility past several people in the core demographic. I never trust just my own musical judgment.

Again, we’re not just about learning what will be popular, and there may be the odd occasion when you pull out something from their cultural left field, but this will be the exception, not the norm.

The next test will be a church leadership one. Please do run your new song choices past your congregational pastor before committing to learning them. He has spiritual oversight over everything that happens in church, of which singing is a hugely significant part, and so he has both the right and the duty to know and to ultimately direct what is happening there week by week. He will, of course, be delighted at the work and commitment you’re putting in to this ministry, and, the more you’re on the same page with him in terms of the direction and vision for the congregation, the greater the chance that this will end up being just a rubber stamp formality. But whatever the case, he needs to know and you need to ask him.

The final test is the “singability” test. Be aware that just because a song sounds great on youtube doesn’t mean it will work in your congregation. Performance standards on commercially-released Christian music today match any secular work. That means that your church musicians are almost certainly not going to be able to reproduce the sound that you fell in love with. And even if they could, singing in corporate worship is not ultimately about the professionally produced and performed musical sound. It is about the congregation’s unison voice.

Music that you listen to through your earbuds and music that you sing in church are completely different beasts. Our modern Australian society, ever since the invention of the Walkman in the 1970s, has been losing touch with one of the most basic and widespread of all human cultural activities: community singing. Just about the only kind of music we know about today is the music we consume on our devices 24/7 – highly produced and professionalised. But that is not what corporate worship is about. Beware of the temptation to think that “good music” equals “good corporate worship”. Sadly too often it doesn’t!

So perhaps the easiest “singability” test is to ask if this is a song you would want to sing with the band taken away. You will be surprised to notice how often, if you took the band away, what you would be left with is actually musically very dull. It sounded good because the guitarist was awesome, or because the singers created interesting harmonies and counter-melodies. But sung with one, unison, unaccompanied congregational voice, you’d be falling asleep long before the end.

This doesn’t just apply to modern music. For those old enough to know it (“We rest on thee”), I think “Finlandia” is one of the most stirring classical orchestral pieces ever written. However, it’s dull as dishwater in a congregation accompanied by Enid on the electric piano. (Sorry Enid! We really do treasure your faithful ministry! But that tune is making an impossible demand on you.)

This is not to say that such songs have no place in corporate worship. Some songs are brilliant to use as items (if you have the musicians to carry it off), or even to get your church performance licence up to date so you can play a recording or a youtube clip at an appropriate time. But just because it’s on the Christian radio “Top 10” doesn’t mean we should sing it together in church. In fact, it’s fairly likely that we shouldn’t!

4. The learning process

So you have your new songs chosen and tested. How does the learning process affect you as a song chooser?

The most obvious effect is that the “8 week rule” doesn’t apply during the learning period. My normal practice is, the first time we’re introduced to a new song, to choose one fewer songs for that week (e.g., 3 instead of 4). The idea is that we will do the new song twice that first week: the first time to work through it bit by bit to learn it as accurately as possible,  the second time (perhaps at the end of the service) to sing it through “properly”. I will then make sure the song gets on the list for the following week (once only), and then we will sing it again 2 to 3 weeks after that. That means that within a space of 4 to 5 weeks we will have sung it 4 times. After that, it might come up again one month later, and by that time it will have been bedded in enough to join the normal 8 week cycle.

As an aside, I personally don’t think the approach of “we’ll sing it through and you join in when you start to feel comfortable” is sufficient. The reasons are complex, but for now I would just note that, in my experience, that almost invariably leads to a longer and less accurate learning process. Does accuracy matter? If this is a song your congregation members are likely to encounter elsewhere (e.g., at a large Christian conference), then they should learn to sing it the same way as everyone else, surely!

5. Reviewing the repertoire

If your repertoire is already big enough, then every time you learn a new song, you ought to consider if there is an old song this will replace. Have a few friends over. Give it a little farewell party. And move on!

You may discover five years down the track that you want to resurrect it (“an old favourite from back in the day!”), or you may discover that no one’s even noticed you’re not singing it anymore. Either way, it’s just one of the intangibles and unpredictables that makes the ministry of choosing songs so challenging and fascinating.

For more in this Series:

What is corporate worship? (Part 1 of 9)

Why Sing? (Part 2 of 9)

What is the ‘shape’ of the corporate worship gathering? (Part 3 of 9)

What makes for good and effective singing? (Part 4 of 9)

Five principles for choosing songs (Part 5 of 9)

Choosing Songs – planning (Part 6 of 9)

Choosing Songs – preparation (Part 7 of 9)

Choosing Songs – order (Part 8 of 9)

Choosing New Songs (this one)

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