By Elizabeth Spencer, Crosswalk.com
If you’re reading this piece (and you obviously are), it’s probably for one of two reasons: 1) to see if your favorite worship song is on this list, or 2) to see if your least favorite worship song is on this list.
Music (and maybe particularly worship music, due to its personal, participatory nature) is a very individualized preference. What I “like” or even love may well be a song you’d be fine never to hear (let alone sing) again... and vice versa.
But I’m reminded of the story of a pastor whose congregant commented to him after the Sunday service that he hadn’t liked the music that morning. The pastor replied, “Oh, what don’t you think the Lord liked about it?”
I’m going to put on my worship leader hat here and say that worship songs are not about what we like or don’t like. Worship music at its best should be an accurate reflection of who God is and an accessible tool for His worshipers to use to affirm that truth. Worship songs should also draw us closer to God and to the strength, conviction, comfort, and counsel He provides. A song that does not do these things may be a perfectly “likable” song. It may be fine to listen to on the radio or sing in the shower. But it might be best left to those venues and kept out of the sanctuary on Sunday morning.
From my worshiper’s and worship leader’s heart (and with full admission that these are my personal opinions), here are 10 worship songs I’d be fine not to see on the Powerpoint screen again.
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1. I Could Sing of Your Love Forever
(Words and music by Martin Smith)
When I hear this song, I can never stop myself from thinking, “And with this song, we very nearly DO sing about it forever.” But the repetitive chorus doesn’t bother me just because I find it boring. It bothers me because of a troubling characteristic of some worship songs: they’re light on truth and heavy on repetition.
Used wisely, repetition in worship music is a valuable and crucial asset. Members of a congregation simply do not worship fully when they don’t know what’s coming next. If they’re constantly trying to figure out how a song flows, they’re always going to hold something back—and that something is rightly the property of God. They’re going to clutch passion and and praise tightly to themselves. But when a song relies too heavily on repetition, it does so at the expense of truth about the One we are worshiping. Rather than sing seemingly forever about how we could sing about God’s love forever, I’d rather sing about specific aspects of God’s love. That list really could go on forever.
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2. Trading My Sorrows
(Words and music by Darrell Evans)
Church can be a hard place to be when you’re in pain—physical, emotional, or otherwise. And when we sing lyrics like, “I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my pain, I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord… I’m trading them all for the joy of the Lord,” we can get the idea that replacing sorrow or pain with joy is supposed to be a simple swap. When it isn’t, we can feel ashamed or alienated, neither of which is the objective of worship.
I also fear that this song (which I like in so many other ways) sends the message that sorrow and joy are mutually exclusive in the life of the believer—that you cannot have one if you have the other. Yet most of the Christian life is lived with one foot in sorrow and the other foot in joy. This is life on this earth, and our worship—including the songs we sing during it—should be faithful to that reality.
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3. How He Loves
(Words and music by John Mark McMillan)
The worship team I’m blessed to be part of at my church has a few keywords we toss around when we’re choosing songs, and “singability” is one of them. If a song is not singable for the average person on the average Sunday morning, it doesn’t matter how popular it is on the radio or how powerful it is when performed by professionals. Our job as a team is to make the congregation feel secure enough with what we’re all singing together that they can get past the mechanics—how does this song go? what are the lyrics? how fast is it? how do the words fit with the notes?—and get to the main thing: adoring, praising, and shouting the fame of The Great I AM.
“How He Loves” fails the singability test for me. The constantly syncopated rhythms are hard to feel. Vocally, the chorus makes a giant leap up an octave’s worth of notes, which means that at some point, the melody line is going to be in an uncomfortable range for someone... probably for several someones. That’s too many mechanics and too little of the main thing.
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4. Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)
(Words and music by Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio)
My teenage daughters and I have a running joke that there are certain songs we don’t like hearing on the radio because we can’t sing along with them. These are usually performed by a vocalist with a two-octave range (usually a male tenor) that no regular person possesses. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” is one such song. The melody line spans a full 12 notes, whereas most people standing in worship have a vocal comfort zone of about six.
Worshipers have an almost paralyzing fear of looking or sounding foolish. So if the song they’re being asked to sing makes them feel like that’s a possibility, they’re not going to sing it. This defeats the purpose of corporate worship, which is supposed to be a participatory experience, not a performance.
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(Words and music by Chris Tomlin)
Worship—in all its forms—is not about us. It is about God and reorienting ourselves toward Him. It is a sacred task and not to be taken lightly. The tools we employ to worship God should be as honed and useful as possible.
Enter, again, songs with excessive repetition and a melodic line that leaps out of the range of most normal people, as is the case with “Forever.” There are sharper tools in the worship kit than this.
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6. Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)
(Words and music by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm)
Awhile back, our worship team tried to work this song up to teach to the congregation, but we could never quite get it to fly. Now I think maybe God was keeping us from getting it ready because He saw what we’d missed: this is not an accessible song for the average worshiper.
A mature, lifelong believer may be able to understand truth about God cloaked in Oceans’ imagery and poetry (interspersed with lyric placeholders like “oh” and “yeah… another pet peeve), but those new to the faith and those still seeking faith are likely to be left behind. And this is a problem, because worship should bring us alongside each other.
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7. Good, Good Father
(Words and music by Anthony Brown and Pat Barrett)
This is another song where lyrics are repeated at the expense of communication of deeper truths about God. Repetition can be used effectively for emphasis, but here it feels used to excess. Rather than sing “it’s who you are” and “it’s who I am” over and over, I’d rather sing specifically about who God is and who I am in His love-driven sight.
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8. We Fall Down
(Words and music by Chris Tomlin)
As a worship team member, I want worship to draw in those who haven’t grown up in the church. I want our songs to increase their understanding of Abba. I don’t see that happening in this song.
Even if an unbeliever or new believer can get past the rather unsettling image of falling down, they’re likely to trip up afterwards on the repeated “we cry holy, holy, holy (holy, holy holy).” God is surely holy, but what does that mean to an inexperienced worshiper? There are other specific aspects of God’s holiness that we could be crying out about.
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9. Draw Me Close
(Words and music by Kelly Carpenter)
We sang this song in church last Sunday. I loved singing it. I felt the intensity and yearning of it. But this song disturbs me, because it makes a liar of me every time with these four words: “You’re all I want.” I feel like a fraud when I sing this phrase, because it simply isn’t true. God is not all I want. I know He should be, but He isn’t. There are so many other things I want, too.
I hope we keep using this song in worship at our church. But if we do, I’ll need to sing it as a plea for what I want God to make true rather than a declaration of what already is true.
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10. Mighty to Save
(Words and music by Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding)
Honestly, I’m cringing even to put this song on this list. It’s actually one of my favorites. I still remember the first time we sang it in worship at my home church. I loved it then, and I mostly love it still. But I can never quite get past a few lyrics that hold me back. Take, for instance, “Everyone needs a savior.” I don’t believe everyone needs a savior; I think everyone needs THE Savior. Lowercase-“s” saviors come pretty cheap, but the only Savior who can truly save came at great cost.
I’m also uncomfortable with the line, “So take me as you find me.” It feels too cavalier, too irreverent, as if we’re ordering God around. I’d be a more fervent fan of this song if these lyrics simply read, “You take me as you find me.” Which is true... thanks be to God that He does take us as He finds us, though He never leaves us there.
I am in no way suggesting that the 10 songs on this list be banned from our contemporary worship services. And for every one song I’ve listed here that I’d be fine not to sing again, there are countless more I hope to sing again and again, until the day when all Christ’s worshipers sing a new song—the song of the Lamb, the song of the redeemed.
“I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them, singing, ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13)
Elizabeth Spencer is a Midwest wife of 22 years and mom to two teenage daughters, one a high school freshman and the other a college freshman. She and her family attend a small country church where she is privileged to serve on worship team and to facilitate women’s Bible study. When she is not driving her high-school daughter to school or dance or volunteering as a marching band mom, she writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) at www.guiltychocoholicmama.blogspot.com.
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