Good worship songs

I've had a number of conversations recently with people who lament the quality of songs that we use in worship. For some it is the words that get to them, for others it is the musical style and for others it is the limited range of material (how many new songs are laments or confession?)

Clearly there is a debate to be had about the criteria for 'good' songs. I reckon that for songs to be useful in the life of the church they need to be

  1. Written in the last 15-20 years
  2. Found in commonly available song books or downloadable from the web.
  3. Have a range and musical style that can be sung by most congregation and, ideally, be songs I might find myself humming one day.
  4. Declare or reflect on some aspect of our faith such as a scripture text, credal affirmation or liturgical element of worship

My top three of the songs we currently use in church are

  • What good is it (living for your glory)
  • Your name, stronger than I know
  • King of Kings, majesty

So what are your top three songs? And, if you were to encourage some new songs to be written, what would they be about?

Comments welcome…

19 thoughts on “Good worship songs

Add yours

  1. Don’t know your 1 and 2. King of kings, majesty is Ok except for the line that makes one sound like some kind of obsequious royal equerry, or alternatively like Lord Melchett from Blackadder series II: ‘I live to serve, your majesty’

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  2. I don’t want to be precious, but are hymns subsumed under songs? I’ll have a think about three that I’m particularly fond of, but I think they’re unlikely to make it into the top ten, for example, ‘Come see the Lord in his breathtaking splendour’ by Martin E Leckebusch to the tune of Brightest and Best, preferably sung in a worship-song style.

    When it comes to worship songs, my first concern is the absolute drivel that I’m encouraged to sing, and while I don’t want to be objectionable I find that there are occasions when I just can’t do it and stand there mute. And my second concern is that I would like to start a movement to recover singable worship. Some songs just weren’t written to be sung it seems.

    I think that you’ve touched upon a huge issue and often find myself wondering where the present trajectory will take us.

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  3. At Regent’s Park College chapel, we’re on a interesting journey of trying to ‘blend’ different styles together. its interesting in part because it works only to a point …

    i want to see some new songs for advent and lent.

    my top three that i enjoy singing at the moment:
    – ‘as we come into your presence (because of your love)’
    – ‘god of our yesterdays’
    – ‘so fearfully and wonderfully made’

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  4. Geoff is absolutely right when it comes to the singability of songs … too many are written to be performed by a band with the audience (did i mean to say congregation) joining in as and when they can.

    If you can’t sing it unaided in the shower then its time to pick another one. Helpful free download on teaching songs with nothing but your voice from Wild Goose worship group see http://www.wgrg.co.uk

    Many new songs seem to be written by those without much theological training. I’m not saying you need a MTh to pen a decent hymn but running it by someone who does, might help … especially if they are someone from a different tradition. Alot of contemporary songs on atonement might have benefitted from this. Oh and a passing aquaintance with inclusive language wouldn’t go amiss either.

    Songs that need written in my book would be ones
    that deal with periods of personal and social disorientation:
    things like Fred Pratt Green’s ‘When our Confidence is Shaken’, Anna Briggs and Ken Finlay’s ‘We Lay our Broken World’ and
    John Bell Graham Maule A Touching Place.’ All in Common Ground (St Andrew Press 1998)

    Others that need to be written might include some that have reflected more on the non-violence of God … particulary at Calvary
    (Baptist Peace Fellowship did this last year)

    And maybe just one or two that reflect a distinctive baptist identity … just so we can sing about who we think we are.

    Top song for me is still Enemy of Apathy … great tune and memorbale metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

    Although must be sung with the caveat of Kim Fabricuius in his new book …’ revelation contsrains us not to put faith at the mercy of metaphor-makers with idelaist ontologies that reduce being to function and threaten the divine identity.’ (p7)

    ps I’ve just started blogging too http://gatheringandscattering.blogspot.com/

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  5. Hmmmmm. This is difficult. I often feel that all the songs from the renewal tradition have something wrong with them — even the ones I like! This might, I suppose, have something to do with the impossible task of speaking about God. Still, I do wish our (renewal) song writers would give more thought to these matters.
    You wanted a top three, and it seems you want renewal songs currently in use. Is anybody else still using:

    The splendour of the King
    Faithful One so unchanging
    Who is there like you.

    There is plenty wrong with all of them but at this moment in time they get my vote.

    You don’t seem interested in hymns, but is it possible NOT to like:
    All are welcome
    By Gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
    Christ be our light (longing for light)

    There, three favourite hymns too; one for Advent!

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  6. Good to find your blog Neil.

    I believe we need a diet of both old and new material. ‘Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. The spiritual songs of ‘now’ are crucial for the life of any church, but some of the great hymns are excellent as major theological statements about God and even some of the better older songs, if brought back into use occasionally, can be very helpful in worship (and in some cases are superior songs, musically and theologically, to some of our current diet). Hymns & songs that have stood the test of time shouldn’t always be discarded in favour of the new.

    What would I like to see written? I’d love to see more songs that really deal with the ‘stuff’ of life – as you say, laments, songs of confession. Much of the confusion, stress, fear, uncertaintly and pain of modern life isn’t reflected in much of modern worship. The Psalms are full of the reality of life’s ups and downs and are also full of thankfulness to God. We need more modern ‘psalms’ which say that it is OK to come before God in brokenness rather than having to put on a happy face whenever we come into a church worship service.

    Some of what is written today is just too complex to be sung congregationally – too rhythmically challenging, lacking any sort of memorable tune and theologically ‘naff’. Some of this is an attempt to move away from the I, IV, V, I simplicity of much modern worship, but ends up failing to produce anything that is congregationally useful and becomes a performance piece for band and audience.

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  7. So how do those of us who only have one musician who can only play stuff form 100 years ago cope? Maybe we should give up singing! 😉

    my top songs – that’s hard if I have to exclude older songs/hymn but I currently like these two

    The splendour of the King
    All heaven declares ( with men changed to us)

    I would also vote for more lent/advent songs

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  8. Thank you all for your comments, please keep them coming.

    I have nothing against hymns (contemporary or traditional) though my repertoire is a bit limited. I focused on modern worship songs because this is the area I find most problematic. Most weeks I’m planning worship services and choosing songs, yet feel that our corporate worship could be a richer experience. A significant element of the challenge is choosing songs that enhance worship [notwithstanding the fact that worship isn’t primarily what we do to or for God] and that are faithful to the God we believe in.

    Like others I worry about the current trajectory but am optimistic enough to think we may be able to do something about it. And I reckon the first step on the journey is to identify songs that aid us in worship.

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  9. just spent the evening at a worship group practise – had a similar discussion with the group members afterwards. Being (shhhh) anglican – we have the added dimension of the physical parish as well as the spiritual membership – should we always have something recognisable to the person coming in for the first time? What is that something recognisable? I agree about the song being possible to sing congregationally – as a worship leader its not much fun leading something that drops like a lead balloon – let alone being in the congregation!! I would choose – In Christ Alone (read the words its all there!) All I Once Held Dear, Speak O Lord, All Heaven Declares… ooo the list goes on I have so many buzzing round my head having just lloked at a months music!(not including ******mas!)

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  10. let’s bring back ‘Wide, wide as the Ocean’. and does anyone remember;
    ‘Jesus you’re terrific,
    I really think you are,
    you took me from the dustbin
    now you treat me like a star’

    Yep, the old ones are the best (NOT!!!)

    Sandra

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  11. Interesting discussions…
    I do wonder if there can be a slight snobbery sometimes against what is “popular”. I’m not suggesting throwing out theological analysis of the content of songs, but I think we can be sometimes be quick to critise what is clearly seeming to benefit many people, and end up preferencing obscure left-field stuff.
    One plea I have that is touched on above is for churhes to be realistic about what works in their context, and to be authentic, rather than asking aunty Ethel on the piano to recreate the New Wine version of “Strength will rise” (which is a great song but not for congregational use!).

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  12. As an “Aunty Ethel” I would have to say AMEN to that! My worst fear is the person who comes and graciously explains that I have played it “wrong”, after a service, because it is not like at New Wine, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest, on the CD etc. The published dots on the page in Songs of Fellowship rarely reflect the “performance” version we are so blessed by in those settings – but that is all many church musicians have!
    Music in worship seems to be a very emotive issue, where personal tastes often cloud the real issue of worshipping a living God. Those who prepare worship and choose songs need our prayers as they walk this tightrope!

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  13. Hi,
    my top three would be:

    Still God by Godfrey Birtill (a lament. something we need to bring into our corporate worship)

    anything by Chris Tomlin, such as:
    Great are you Lord (Forever God is Faithful)

    O Jesus Son Of God (Light of the World you shine among us)
    This is a great song for advent. For me, Matt Redman has woven the metanarrative of the Bible into this song which I find a meaningful Christmas worship song. I thought I would post the words here in case any readers were looking for a non-carol for a carol service.

    Verse 1
    O Jesus son of God , so full of grace and truth
    The Father’s saving Word, so wonderful are you
    The Angels longed to see,and prophets searched to find
    The glory we have seen revealed

    You shone upon the earth, but who will under stand?
    You came unto Your own, but who will recog nise?
    Your birth was prophesied, for You were the Messiah who came and walked upon the Earth
    Your glory we have seen, the one and only King
    And now You’re living in our hearts

    Light of the world Light of the world
    Light of the world You shine upon us
    Light of the world Light of the world
    Light of the world You shine upon us

    In you all things were made and nothing without you
    In heaven and on earth all things are held in you
    And yet you became flesh, living as one of us
    Under the shadow of the cross
    Where, through the blood you shed, You have made peace again
    Peace for a world that God so loves

    Chorus:
    Light of the world Light of the world
    (etc)

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  14. I understand about needing music that is congregationally friendly, but these days I’m concerned we’ve gone too far.

    Have you ever studied how worship music in the Jewish Old Testament system operated? There were a lot of response-oriented components. Also, the concept of a choir or musical group speaking for the people was completely in harmony with their understanding and God’s system.

    I completely agree that it should never be about performance, except to the audience of One! I would be careful about criticizing motivations or judging, however, because if you had a time machine and went back, you would have passed such judgment on the Israelites and been completely wrong!

    Just a thought.

    Also check out Augustine’s definition of hymn, which illustrates how the meaning has changed dramatically over time. Using the verse about psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs only makes sense if you understand the context and meaning (it has nothing to do with Protestant hymns).

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  15. Hi Neil!
    Interested in reading your blogs on favourite hymns, especially at advent.

    I’m not a baptist but I go to church and sometimes as I sing at the front we sometimes have the same dilemma, whether to go for more traditional hymns, or modern ones.
    My favourites just for the record, not just for advent I may add.
    Be Still For The Presence of the Lord.
    Pure Light By Matt Redman.
    Lost In Wonder By Martyn Layzell.
    Finding your blogs interesting have to say like the openness of the style.
    God Bless Always.
    Love To Lori, Matthew, Sarah.
    Tracy Butler
    xx

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