Why You Shouldn’t Sing Most Worship Songs

Why You Shouldn’t Sing Most Worship Songs

“We have more songs at our disposal than at any other point in worship history. That means we need to say ‘no’ to most of them.” –  Scott Connell[1]

Ours is an era of ubiquity in Christian worship music. CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) boasts of having “more than 300,000 songs of worship.” Given the fact that many evangelical churches sing somewhere between 3 and 8 songs each Lord’s Day, between 156 and 416 a year if they don’t repeat any – how are the they to choose which songs to sing? How are they to choose which artists to sing from? Should they sing what the church has always sung? Should they sing what is popular on Christian radio? I have already written briefly on criteria for selecting songs for corporate worship. In this short article I would like to justify being selective in what songs we sing from certain artists. In other words, I want to justify not singing the majority of what any given Christian artist produces, indeed the majority of all worship songs. I shall attempt to show why I think this by using two lines of argumentation, one Biblical the other historical.

First, the Biblical line. While the Psalter did not play an identical role in Israel’s worship that the hymnbook does in New Covenant worship,[2] it is still instructive for us to examine some of its features. The one that I want to draw special attention to now is its selectivity. The book of Psalms is composed of only 150 songs, despite the fact that there are many other songs included in other places in Scripture (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 33, Judges 5, 1 Samuel 2, Habakkuk 3, etc.). They did not exclude these songs out of ignorance nor because they were already in the Bible, or they would not have included David’s song in 2 Samuel 22 almost identically as Psalm 18. Not only did they exclude these other songs in Scripture, but also the vast majority of the songs Solomon wrote! Take a look at 1 Kings 4:29-32,

29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.

Even if every psalm contained in the book of Psalms was written by Solomon (which is not the case), he would only have around a 15% batting average. As it is, only two of the canonical psalms contain the superscription “of Solomon” (Psalm 72 and 127). If those two are granted as being written by Solomon (and it is not certain that that is what the superscription means) and a handful of others as well he would drop down to a 0.7% batting average. That’s not exactly what we would expect from a king who is said to have “wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore.”

Second, the historical line. Throughout church history the best and most prolific of our hymn writers have not succeeded in having anywhere near even 15% percent of their songs included in later hymnals. Take Isaac Watts, Thomas Kelly, and Charles Wesley for example.[3] Watts wrote over 800 hymns and a whopping 36 of those are included in the Red Trinity Hymnal; that’s a 4.5% batting average. Thomas Kelly wrote 765, but only 5 are include in the Red Trinity Hymnal; that’s a 0.9% batting average. Charles Wesley wrote at least 6500 hymns, and yet only 67 of them are included in the Methodist Hymnal, the official hymnal of the denomination he and his brother founded! That means he had only a 1% batting average in the denomination that he started (it is even less in other hymnals, Wesley had only 19 in the Red Trinity Hymnal).

This shockingly low batting average among Christian songwriters was not because these men were poor hymn writers – they are among the very best in the whole of Christian history! Yet how do they compare to many of our contemporary Christian artists? CCLI comes up with 481 hits when searched for “Chris Tomlin.” Yet former CCLI CEO Howard Rachinski estimated in 2013 that 128 of Tomlin’s songs were being sung worldwide. That’s at least a 26% batting average, but probably closer to 35% or 40% – given that all 481 of his songs were not written five years ago. What is the reason for this? Is Tomlin simply a much better lyricist than Watts, Kelly, and Wesley (let alone, Luther, Gerhart, Cowper, and Newton)? Any objective comparison of their lyrics will not find that to be the case.

A beginning to the answer lies in one of the driving forces of modern western culture: contemporaneity. The mantra of our culture is “newer is better!” Advertisers exert great amounts of energy to get us to adopt this mindset, for they can market anything to us by simply marketing it as new. C. S. Lewis argued that this change in mindset has come about because we have adopted a “new archetypal image.” He said,

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated… Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence  and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [men from past times] if they could visit ours.[4]

I have written about this fascination with novelty elsewhere. What I am suggesting relevant to the topic at hand is that the shift from singing a few of the best songs from any given Christian artist to singing a high percentage of whatever artist is popular now has not come about because contemporary song writers are much more poetically and musically adept than their forbears, but because we have adopted a “new archetypal image” that newer is better. Whether your agree with that mantra or not, it certainly should be examined thoughtfully and critically before being adopted as the controlling mindset for selecting worship songs.

[1] Connell, Scott. “10 Things I Did Not Do that Improved My Congregation’s Singing.” The Gospel Coalition. March 16, 2017. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/10-things-i-did-not-do-that-improved-my-congregations-singing/ (accessed November 5, 2017).

[2] Drake, Joshua F., and Paul Munson. Congregational Singing. 2001. Appendix, “The Book of Psalms Was Not Israel’s Hymnbook”: http://www.congsing.org/the_book_of_psalms_was_not.html

[3] All statistics are taken from Hymnary.org.

[4] Lewis, C. S. “De Descriptione Temporum.” 1954. https://ia601404.us.archive.org/9/items/DeDescriptioneTemporum/DeDescriptioneTemporumByC.S.Lewis.pdf (accessed July 6, 2016), p. 6.


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