Why We Limit The Number Of Songs We Sing
In the Hollis family, we have a basic rule we follow when making a purchase: buy nice, not twice. We would rather pay more for a high quality product than buy something cheap and be unhappy with it. Before even going to the store, we think through a basic list of questions/criteria to be sure we buy nice, not twice:
Will this product accomplish the goal? (Determine what we want the product to accomplish, and then determine if it will sufficiently do so.)
Will this product accomplish the goal the best? (We compare products against each other, looking for the one that is the best, the one that’s the most durable, the one built from the best materials, the one that will accomplish the goal better than all the others.)
Will this product actually do all it says it can do? (We determine how confident we can be in the product’s ability to do what we want it to do. We look at other people’s reviews online, we talk with friends who have purchased similar items, and we consider the history of the brand.)
Here’s a practical example of applying this rule to buying a dishwasher:
My goal is to find a dishwasher that we can afford, will wash dishes efficiently and entirely for several years, and will look good in our kitchen.
With this goal in mind, I research different brands, and compare different dishwashers, asking questions like: “Is it made of plastic parts that break easily? Which one claims to last the most cycles before wearing down? If it decreases in efficiency, will I be able to repair it and get it back to as good as new?”
Then, I comb through reviews of my top choices, I ask my friends if they’re happy with their dishwashers, and I research the companies producing them. If a company’s latest dishwasher model seems awesome, but they (hypothetically) also just so happen to make phones that catch on fire and washing machines that explode, I may want to go in a different direction.
Having worked through these questions, I’ll almost certainly spend more money than if I just bought the cheapest dishwasher I could find. But, I’ll have more confidence that the dishwasher I buy will actually accomplish the goal better and longer than a cheaper model; I’ll buy nice, not twice.
What on earth does this have to do with limiting the number of songs we sing in the context of our corporate gathering at The Parkway Church? Great question! Though it may seem unrelated, the way we think through what songs we sing is very similar.
The Goal of Corporate Worship
Before beginning to even think about choosing songs to sing in our worship services, we must first determine what we are trying to accomplish when we sing in our worship services. This may seem obvious, but it is often an overlooked step in the process. We have a tendency to assume that everyone is singing in worship services for the same reason; in reality, this is rarely true.
Some sing because they want to feel close to God, and singing to and about Him helps accomplish this. Some sing because the songs remind them of times in their lives where the Lord’s faithfulness was abundantly clear. Some sing because God has commanded us to in His Word. Some sing because they love how singing unifies a congregation. Some sing because the lyrics remind them of the hope they have in Christ in the midst of suffering. Some sing because they are overjoyed and filled with gratitude for God’s grace to them.
You probably sing for a combination of these reasons—and maybe more that I’ve not mentioned. The point is, when a goal or reason for singing is left unsaid, it is difficult for a congregation to be unified in their pursuit of it.
At The Parkway Church, we sing to glorify God and be transformed into the image of Christ; our singing is an intentional exercise of spiritual formation (Romans 12:1-2). Spiritual formation is simply the Spirit of God forming those in Christ into the image or likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In the same way that Communion reminds the believer of his or her seat at Christ’s table in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:28–30), purchased by Christ’s body that was broken and Christ’s blood that was poured out, and thereby forms the partakers into people who forgive, who seek to sit at the table of God rather than the table of wealthy and powerful men, who worship and depend on God for His mercy, and who long for Christ’s return; singing forms the partaker into the image of Christ by reminding him or her of who God is and what He has done (1 Corinthians 11:23–34).
Therefore, we want to sing songs that will accurately teach our people about who God is and what He has done. We want to sing songs that our people will remember and carry with them once the service has concluded. We want to sing songs that invite our people to sing (are not too high for the men or the women to sing, and are easy to learn and follow). We want to sing songs that help our people worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). And we want to sing songs that are tools in the hands of the Spirit to conform us into the image of Jesus.
If a song does not fit this goal, we have no use for it in our services.
The Best Songs For The Job
Moving on to the second step of our process, we must consider: Which songs will accomplish our goal the best? Which songs accurately portray the nature and character of God? AND possess rich, theological clarity? AND have memorable, easy to follow, and beautiful melodies? AND are easy for our people to sing? AND are worth singing over and over again? AND encourage the weary heart? AND recalibrate our desires and aim them toward the Kingdom of God? AND set our hopes on Christ? AND worship our God as He ought to be worshipped, as Father, Son, and Spirit?
Does the song have a great melody and a catchy hook? That’s awesome! But the lyrics are theologically unclear or confusing? That’s not awesome. Why would we sing it? It’s like a dishwasher that washes your silverware really well, but somehow makes the dishes even dirtier. We want every song to accomplish the goal completely.
Are there songs that meet all of these criteria? Yes indeed! It may take some effort to find them. You may have to look past the usual reliable worship song sources, but they’re out there! Trust me, the work is worth it. The return will be worth your investment.
Trusting That They’re The Best Songs For The Job
Once I’ve found some really awesome songs, I talk with other worship ministers about what they’re singing. Did they think a song would work really well in the context of the corporate gathering, but people just couldn’t sing along? I also study and learn the history of the song: Who wrote it? What are his or her beliefs? Why did he or she write it? How long has this song proven to be a useful tool in the spiritual formation of God’s people?
There are times when I find a song that I think is a slam-dunk. I’m just sure that it will work well in our gathering. But then I talk to a friend, and he says, “Oh yeah, we sang that a few times, but it was way too high for our women to sing.” In that case, I may consider singing something else or modifying the key.
This is how we determine what songs should be utilized in our services. If people are only going to sing 4-5 songs with us each week, we want to intentionally shepherd our congregation in the best way possible, using the best songs we can find.
Why We Limit The Number Of Songs We Sing
When your entire list of songs is full of really rich, useful, and well-written songs, new songs don’t have to be introduced as often as you may think. And if the congregation actually knows what the goal of singing in the corporate gathering is, songs don’t have to be phased out every time a new worship album is released.
The goal is not to sing the newest songs. It is to sing the best songs for the job. You can easily go buy a new cheap dishwasher when yours doesn’t seem to be as good as it once was. Or, you can buy a really good one that will last a little longer. With a really good list of songs, we afford the opportunity to spend more time singing the same really useful songs, without having to compensate by introducing more less-useful songs.
We’d rather use a few great songs, than use several not-so-great songs. Buy nice, not twice.
Do we repeat songs often? Yes. Do our people sing along? Yes. Do our people get the opportunity to know our songs by heart? Yes. Do our people learn rich theological truths as they sing? Yes. Do we sacrifice creativity by limiting our list of songs? By no means. We encourage useful creativity. Do we discourage songwriting? By no means. We encourage better songwriting.
If people visit The Parkway Church’s gathering for four Sundays in a row, they will walk away knowing at least four songs very well—songs that remind them of who God is and what He has done. Songs used by the Spirit to form us into the image of Christ. This is our prayer every time we gather: that we would be formed.
And we believe that when you do the hard work of finding the best songs to accomplish this goal, the return will be worth the investment.