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Archive for November 2009

What makes a worship song ‘good’?

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Though I am definitely not the first to attempt to answer this question, I am one of the few (at least as far as google is concerned). The truth is, every one of us church-attenders has had the experience of hearing a new song in church and hating it. Come on people, you know it’s true. You’re thinking of that awful song right now!

Without question simple preference comes into it sometimes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I want to do, is analyze the various elements of a ‘good’ worship song. I’m looking to establish some empirical, observable, rational, objective rules and guidelines for determining what constitutes a ‘good’ worship song. This of course may be impossible. But I’m gonna’ try anyway.

Before we even get into it, let’s talk about why we even have to talk about this at all. We need to talk about it because there are some really awful worship songs out there! I mean bad!! And many of them we sing in church on a near weekly basis. Part of the difficulty has come due to a shift in the focus of congregational music in general over the past 30 or so years. Congregational music has gone from being primarily instructional to being primarily personal. That is, it is no longer the intent of most congregational worship songs to teach some Biblical principle, but rather to move us, to inspire the feelings of praise, adoration, love, etc. I actually think this is a good thing, though often poorly executed. After all, the Psalms are intensely personal! However, this shift has given way to a lax attitude toward the theological necessity of worship music. I find that many of the ‘bad’ worship songs out there fall into one of two categories – either they have poor theology or they have no theology. A song I like to pick on is the following – you’ve probably heard it in your church.

Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel I’m moving to the rhythm of your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place

So what’s my issue with this song? First of all, and forgive me for being crude, but this song sounds like foreplay. Use of words like ‘extravagant,’ ‘intimate,’  ‘moving to the rhythm,’ ‘fragrance,’ ‘intoxicating,’ and ‘secret place’ (basically, every word in the verse), lends itself to this unfortunate association. I actually have a hunch that it was written with this very thing in mind. What’s worse, originally the line, ‘Your friendship, it is intimate,’ was ‘Your friendship, mm-mm intimate.’ I’m not even kidding. Groaning was written into the song. When Casting Crowns remade the song, they changed the ‘lyrics’ to what it is now.

Frankly, I’m not sure whether this song has bad theology or no theology. It’s hard to determine. I certainly am unable to figure out what truth is being alluded to, other than possibly that the writer finds Jesus sexy (forgive me, Lord). I get that it is an expression of love to Jesus, but honestly, I never saw anywhere in the Bible where a person expressed their worship to God or Jesus in this way. What’s worse, I don’t know anyone who talks this way today, whether to God or anyone else?! The ONLY – and I mean ONLY – time I can ever see this kind of language being used, is in the bedroom – and even then it’s creepy.

The more I think about it, I think this song is more non-theological than un-theological. It really doesn’t have a message. It doesn’t really say anything. It’s like telling a story with no point. It’s just plain annoying. I remember once in high school, I had slept over at a friend’s house, and we had, of course, stayed up till around 2 or 3am. At somewhere around 6:30 that morning, my friend’s little sister barged into the room, woke us both up and said to my friend, “Hey Rob, do you remember that time that Erin (an ex-girlfriend) came over and we had pizza and she cut it up into little pieces for me and I ate it?” The near unconscious response came from across the room, “Yeah, I remember.” She says, “Oh.” And promptly closes the door and walks away……Yeah, I get the same feeling from this song. I frankly don’t even know what the heck the song is trying to say. It’s a lot of flowery language with little to no content. It’s like eating cotton candy. This brings me to my first point:

1) A GOOD WORSHIP SONG HAS GOOD THEOLOGY

Having ‘good’ theology implies that it must actually have some theological content. There’s a whole host of worship songs out there that are actually about worshiping God. Maybe you missed the subtlety there. These songs are not about God or His greatness, they are actually about the activity of worship. Such as “Come, now is the time to worship; come, now is the time to give your heart; come, just as you are to worship; come, just as you are before your God.” To be fair, there is a line in that song which is a near quote of “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” But this song isn’t about the reality of Jesus’ Lordship over all creation, it’s about worshiping. I’m glad there is some theology in this song, but the theology is more of a side-note than the focus. The overal message of the song is, “Hey, let’s worship!” These ‘response,’ songs emphasize the activity of worship, without ever really giving us a reason to worship.

Theology is essential to inspire worship. Even if the theological principle is something simple like, “God is good.” If a song effectively communicates to me the goodness of God, if I become convinced again of the goodness of God while I sing, I will naturally fall into a state of worship based on the truth I am singing about in the song. If the theology is bad, then I may come to believe something that is untrue about God. And if the theology is non-existent, then I might not be moved to true worship at all.

2) A GOOD WORSHIP SONG HAS A CLEAR MESSAGE

When I’m singing a song in church, I want to know exactly what I’m singing about from start to finish. This would seem obvious, but many songs fail to meet this simple criterion. As much as I love Hillsong, this is their great weakness. Their songs have good theology, but they are usually a long string of statements about God that have little affiliation with each other. Take the song, “All Things Are Possible”:

Almighty God, my Redeemer; My hiding place, my safe refuge
No other name like Jesus; no power can stand against You
My feet are planted on this Rock; And I will not be shaken
My hope it comes from You alone; My Lord and my Salvation

Though each line says something good about God, each line is a brand new thought, and does not follow the line before it. Though perhaps there is something beneficial about worshiping God through these various truths, you also necessarily get to the end of this song not really knowing what you just sang about. The chorus of this song simply repeats, “All things are possible.” That’s a great message! But again, it is a thought independent from the rest of the song. Though I like this song, and though what it does say is worth saying, it doesn’t really have a clear message.

3) A GOOD WORSHIP SONG HAS MUSIC THAT MATCHES THE MESSAGE

I remember a song I used to sing back in my Methodist days: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It was a two-chord song: E minor, and A minor, and had a haunting, sad melody. Something tells me that a song about unity and love should probably be upbeat. Another great example is “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” The bridge says, “O I feel like dancing,” and then later says, “…like we’re dancing now.” I have never seen anyone dance to this song, and I don’t actually think it would be possible due to the slow tempo. The message of the song has to make sense with the music.

4) A GOOD WORSHIP SONG IS EASY TO SING

If you are an aspiring worship leader, and you’ve written a song that sounds like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” you might want to consider a new profession. I refer back to Hillsong, who have an unfortunate tendency of simply putting too many words in their songs. It is very hard to memorize most Hillsong songs, and so it is near impossible to just close your eyes and sing along. Chris Tomlin also has a wonderful habit: writing songs several keys higher than most anyone can sing (except maybe Whitney Houston). If a song is being written for congregational worship, people should be able to sing it.

5) A GOOD WORSHIP SONG IS FUN TO SING

I know. This one isn’t very spiritual. But let’s just be real. We’ve all had experiences where we were hanging out with friends, and some song comes on the radio, and we all spontaneously begin to sing along at the top of our lungs. Why? Because it was fun to sing! Songs like, ‘Hey Jude,’ by the Beatles or ‘How Could I Live?’ by LeeAnn Rimes, Santana’s ‘Smooth,’ or pretty much anything by the Beach Boys, are songs we’ve all sung at the top of our lungs, even if only in the shower or in the car (though I officially deny ever singing along to ‘How Do I Live?’). There are some good church songs like this, (many of them kid’s songs). But there are some worship songs out there that are just fun to sing. One of the reasons Amazing Grace is so famous, is because it’s got a great, singable melody. I looked up “top worship songs,” and the list I got turned up these results: 1) How Great is Our God; 2) Mighty to Save; 3) Blessed be Your Name; 4) Here I Am to Worship; 5) Everlasting God. I’m betting you know all of these and can sing them by heart. Ignoring everything else, these songs are fun to sing. They’ve got great melodies. A good worship song should stick with you

On a positive note, I recently learned a new song by Fee called Beautiful the Blood. It’s not the best song I’ve ever heard, but it is what I would consider a good worship song. The message is clear. Jesus blood heals, forgives and sets free. It uses a very clear and consistent poetic device in the verses, i.e. contrasting the simultaneous horror and beauty of the crucifixion. And last, it makes a declaration, consistent with scripture, based on the reality of the cross: “Victorious are we now!” I believe this song does everything a good worship song should.

Any other examples of great worship songs out there? Bad ones?


Hillsong, who have long been viewed as the trail-blazers of cutting-edge worship, have an unfortunate tendency to simply put too manywords in their songs. Most people wouldn’t be able to close their eyes and sing along if they wanted to.
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Written by jeffrossman

November 11, 2009 at 8:29 pm