What a Worship Song Says is More Important Than How it Sounds

I’ve studied songwriting for most of my life both as a music lover and academically.  Specifically, I have studied worship music, its modern history rooted in the Jesus Movement of the late 60’s and its legacy inherited from revival songs and hymns of centuries past.  

When I was learning to teach worship songwriting, I had a great mentor who emphasized teaching steady principles over stylistic patterns noting that styles will come and go, but principles are the enduring truths that apply to all trends.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the longevity of a worship song rests in how it appeals to the church in three ways:

  1. How it says something fresh
  2. How it sings something new
  3. How it sounds like something current

“How it says” is concerned with lyric, “how it sings” is concerned with melody, “how it sounds” is concerned with style.  Now there are hundreds, if not thousands of forgotten hymns whose lyrics cast long shadows on the melody it was paired to.  The magic of enduring songs rests equally both in its lyric (“how it says”) and the melody (“how it sings”) on which it is carried.  

The third component, “how it sounds” or style of a song is the thing we often become most consumed with as worship musicians – but it arguably matters the least.  

We live in a culture where we place far more emphasis in style over substance and function over form. We’ll spend hours with our instrument working to get our “sounds” perfectly tweaked and sounding “current”.  We often fail to give the same attention to how we say what we say from the platform or digging deep into the theological truths of a lyric. 

Why do the scales seem unbalanced?

We live in the modern age where the technological revolution has equipped the most novice musician to produce music that is comparable to what you hear on the radio.  The development of electronic music and musical effects have opened up a world of musical design previous generations only dreamed of.

What often attracts our ears to a song is how a song sounds.  Artists in the music industry often find themselves on an endless pursuit of evolution, keeping their sound “current” so it can maintain its commercial appeal. If you’ve hung out with musicians for any period of time, you will quickly discover they are sound designers.  They geek out over pedals, effects, gear and tones.  They have a passion to manipulate sounds as an expression of their art. 

But at the core of sound design is style.  Styles will always change based on the person they derive from, current trends and the broader commercial demands of a generation.  Style is fleeting and reflective of wavering cultures.  

Lyric and melody behave differently.

Lyric is centered on words, which for the most part, are rooted in absolutes.  Although there are cultural shifts in etymology, words convey universal meaning to the minds they reach.  Words cross cultures and generations too. Most importantly, words are the vehicle in which truth is delivered into the heart and mind.  Melody serves lyric and in worship music, melody ought to be crafted in ways that provide entry points for the most untrained voice to engage.

So why does this matter?

With dozens of new worship songs being released each week, worship leaders need to develop filters on what songs are appropriate for congregational worship.  Having a meaningful experience with a song privately doesn’t mean the song is necessarily appropriate for corporate worship.  Equally, songs that appeal to you based on how they stylistically sound aren’t necessarily appropriate either.

What is the objective of the songs you use for worship?

If your objective is only centered on being “current” and style-based, than you can get away with few filters and choose songs that are memorable but say little.  But the law of the harvest says you will reap what you sow.  Worship songs teach people what to think about God.  A diet rooted in stylistic trends at the cost of substantive lyrics will produce shallow thinking and ultimately shallow disciples.

It’s not wrong to have stylistic preferences or to be concerned with them but there’s wisdom in ensuring our stylistic concerns don’t outpace our concerns with the substance of our songs.

Content drives the train in worship planning because truth, not style, is where the power of God resides.  Biblically-based lyrical truth is absolute and objective whereas stylistic preference is subjective.  Enduring songs based in truth transcend style.  That’s why a hymn like “Amazing Grace” has been recorded a thousand different ways.  God put wind in the sails of that lyric and melody to accomplish His purposes across generations without regard to the (many) different styles it’s been performed in.

In some ways, the “worship wars” of the past were futile as many were rooted in trying to appease people, not God, based on style.  It’s a leadership failure to think you will be able to appease all people through your methodology.  A church’s personality will no doubt have a preferred approach to how it sails the waters of worship but without substance, it will have no anchor.

Our chief concern as worship leaders ought to be serving the existing personality of a church, honoring its style above our preferences and ensuring equal attention and examination is given to the substance of the liturgy we’re using to lead and serve others. We must remember, God doesn’t reside in music, much less musical style. He resides in the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3) and is looking for worshippers whose praise comes from their spirit and is rooted in substantive truth (John 4:24).

Ultimately, what a song says is more important than how it sounds.  That’s not to diminish a particular style that appeals to you but to recognize that there’s not a style we can sing or play that will usher in the manifest presence of the Lord better than another.  

What style will reveal though is our maturity as worshippers.  For some of us, our worship engagement is based solely on instrumentation and presentation. 

Are we willing to worship God when His truth is presented apart from our stylistic preferences?


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