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Selecting Our Worship Music

By: Rev. Larry D. Ellis

All the music used in our worship services is selected by someone. Sometimes the worship leader makes no advanced plan other than to let the congregation select their favorite hymns or praise songs. However, most of the time a great deal of planning goes into the selection, purchase, practice and performance of music used in our worship services. Wise selection of music involves careful consideration to both the text and the music to which the text is sung. Instrumental music also can play a significant role in our worship as well as long as its style is appropriate with where it is placed in the service.

Theological Content

Some ministers of music rely on denominational published suggestions of hymns and choral music that follow the lectionary for their church. Some select the music for the particular season of the church year - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter or Pentecost not necessarily following the lectionary. Some pastors preach topically or through extended portions of biblical texts. In all the above cases, once you know the theological message central to the worship experience, you can design services from this theme. If the focus of the service is on our being called to serve one another, don't sing about the Trinity. If the focus of the service is about God's love for us, don't sing about our love for each other. It is important to have the text of the hymns draw us to the same truth as the sermon and the rest of the service. It has been the author's experience that consistent thematic integration in the design of worship is a subtle but critical prerequisite to consistent excellent worship planning. An invaluable resource will be the topical indexes and scriptural allusions indexes found in some hymnals and hymnal companion books. Also, there is no substitute for one's own familiarity with a broad repertoire of Christian hymnody and choral music.

The hymn and choral texts must say something that can be understood by the worshipers. Unfamiliar words can be explained through program notes in the bulletin. Texts sung should be consistent with the theology or your church. Well known texts bring the security of the familiar but many also cause the singer to not pay attention to what is being sung. Sometimes, a new text challenges us with a fresh look at a truth about God. Be aware of the cultural implications of texts. The use of biblical feminine imagery when referring to God will go unnoticed in some churches, but raise significant issues in some and bring needed comfort in others. If you sing Psalms that encourage the clapping or raising of hands, do not be surprised if some of your congregation do just that. Inclusive language is very important to many people. The word "men" is considered quite exclusionary by some if the text is referring to both men and women. Be cautious to do in your services what a scriptural text calls you to do. A frequent mixed message is to have a spoken call to worship that says, "The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before him." This is then promptly followed by a majestic and loud festive organ introduction and the processional hymn of Holy, Holy, Holy.

Musical Style

Instrumental music as well as hymn tunes have an incredible power to invoke emotions and memories. The instrumental introduction to Bach's Magnificat in D absolutely commands driving excitement and praise. The tunes of "Amazing Grace" and "O Store Gud" (How Great Thou Art) can be expected to be instantly recognized by most American Christians and bring certain emotions to the surface when played in the instruments even before a single word is sung. If this is what you desire to have the people experience, use them. If not don't. The first few chords of a familiar Christmas carol will instantly move all our thoughts to Christmas. The tune of "Jesus Loves Me" draws us to the reality of God's love for our children. We need to be aware that these emotions will be in our congregation, when we use a particular piece of music. The mood of the music can be joyful and exciting. It can also be pensive in nature, causing us to be reflective before God, drawing us to prayer and confession. Of major importance will be the tempo and well as how loudly the music is played. The design of worship experiences should tell us what mood we want at a particular location in the service. Tempo and organ registration will not always be the same on a particular hymn. You must be sensitive to the emotional level present in the worship moment as well as the number of worshipers present. Certainly variations in styles of accompaniment can vary with different verses of a hymn.

Medium to long-range service planning is important. The use of instrumental ensembles, choral singing, sung or instrumental descants and organ free harmonization's all need to be prepared well in advance of the actual worship service. Both when and where these are used will be determined by what you believe should be experienced by the worshipers at a particular point in the service. Generally an opening processional hymn is upbeat and joyful, unless the theme or your particular service is different from that. Communion hymns can be quite and pensive and can also at times be loud and joyful. Certain homophonic hymns lend themselves very well to a cappella (singing without instrumental accompaniment). This will require either an up-front congregational hymn leader or a strong choir led by the conductor to make the hymn stay on pitch and tempo. When done well, it will be a magnificent moment of praise to God, standing in stark contrast majestic hymn-leading with the organ.

Some music is selected because analog prerecorded accompaniment or midi tracks are available and can be purchased for use in the service. Some churches would never use a recording, believing that only live music is to be used. For some churches a criteria is whether or not orchestral arrangements are available for the church orchestra or whether they can be arranged and learned by the time of the service..

Other art forms can be very effective in facilitating our worship. At times slide presentations, mime or other types of drama with music can be quite effective in communicating God's word. Using these forms of worship can bring into use the gifts of some who might not be gifted in music. Dramatic lighting can certainly impact one's worship experience as well can dim lights and a very few candles.

It is important to challenge your choir with great music. Unfortunately there is a great deal of mediocre Christian music. It can be uninteresting musically as well as have incorrect theology or even have a complete absence of theology. It is also very discouraging for music to be used that is well beyond the choir's present ability. Know the sight-reading ability of your choir and congregation. Have this in mind when you select new music to teach. You can still choose to teach difficult music, but know that it might require a considerably longer time for preparation. It is the author's practice to have various sections regularly read the music of sections other than their own for the specific benefit of enhancing everyone's sight-singing ability. Some church choral directors shun the use of a language such as Latin, French or German, choosing instead to sing only in English. However, some excellent texts simply do not translate well and fit the music in English. As an example Vivaldi's Gloria outstanding in Latin. By all means obtain a definative printed resource for the pronunciation of these languages for each chorister. Work hard to accurately pronounce the text, whether in English or a foreign language. If you do perform in non-vernacular languages, the author suggests that you include the original text along with a translation in the vernacular in the printed program. This will be a great aid in worship for those who are unfamiliar with the selection. Help your choir build a repertoire, returning at reasonable intervals to sing those outstanding pieces that they learn.

Practical Ministry Parameters

When it is time to print the bulletin or lay out the power point slides for worship, you should be finished with your planning phase of the worship service. The writer plans many services at at time. This permits a balance of the many pragmatic issues in worship. These issues include participation by many of those in the church that offer their musical gifts to the praise of God. It would include vocal and instrumental soloist and small group ensembles. It might include extended family members who are in the area for a short time or middle school or high school students within your church. It would include persons who are gifted, but whose availability cannot be had on a frequent basis as is needed in the choir or church orchestra. It might include local Christian musical performers or composers from other churches. It might include regular participation by your handbell choir or children's' choir.

Benefit From Others' Knowledge

This writer suggests that you maintain copies of orders of worship that you feel were particularly effective and exchange them with other pastors. Almost every church music minister has at least a mental list of favorite choral selections. Contact other music ministers and find out what they prefer. Compile your own list of outstanding choral music. Establish a personal acquaintance with one or two published composers who live in your area. They will usually be particularly aware of both classic as well as new pieces worth your consideration. They can bring a great deal of enthusiasm to your musicians when invited to share the podium with your minister of music for a special rehearsal time or worship service. A periodic inquiry with others in the field whose taste you approve will save you a great deal of independent research.

In order to help you become aware of newly released music, almost all publishers provide periodic cassette tapes and review copies of new choral releases. Most are provided on an annual subscription basis. There are several publications that regularly review new choral releases - The American Organist, The Diapason, Chorister Guild Letter (214-271-1521), Music Revelation (301-424-2956), and the Church Music Report (817-488-0104). Almost all publishers participate in choral reading sessions throughout the country several times a year. Many church and non-denominational in education conventions also have choral reading sessions. Participation in these events will introduce you to both the music and other musicians in your area.


A great music library is essential to a well-developed long-term music ministry. After being selected most printed music historically has been purchased by phone or mail. A new technology in music publishing is emerging. It is using the Internet not only to market but to actually distribute music instantaneously by downloading files with licensing for you to print your own copies as needed for your choir as long as you pay a modest fee. In some cases you can download print and even rehearse the music with your choir, before you are committed to purchase the music. Some cities are fortunate to have a local music store with an inventory of choral and organ music. Some of these stores offer a small discount to churches; others do not. A common approach is to order printed music from some of the discount choral music services. A discount of 15% for 30% off retail can be found there. Some of these discount services have staff persons who can make suggestions of particular pieces for needs that you have. Others offer a free service of drilling holes to permit use of a three-ring binder.

Some of the major national discount choral music companies are:

Creative Music, Austin TX, 800-926-2424

Kempke's Music Service, Sanford FL, 800-753-6753 choral@kempke.com

J&J Music Service, Alabama, 800-456-4966

Pine Lake, Georgia, 800-241-3667

Christian Supply, South Carolina, 800-845-7618

Accelerando Music Service, Odessa TX, 800-433-4267

Southern Baptist Music Service, Nashville TN, 800-368-7421

The Church Music Lending Library, 1301 South Fell Ave., Normal IL, 61761, 309-452-6710, is managed by Mr. Herschel W. Stuber. They will loan 30 copies per selection of a wide selection of choral music to your church for 60 days. The cost is the return postage plus an annual membership fee of $25.

Fellowship of American Baptist Musicians (FABM) 317-635-3552 offers a choral music lending library for an annual membership fee of $25

In addition to supplying choral and organ music, the following companies can typically rent or sell you copies of orchestral scores of major choral works:

Joseph Patelson's, New York, 800-733-1474

Volkwein Brothers, Pittsburg PA, 800-553-8742 (ext. 604)

Dale Music Company, Silver Spring MD, 800-779-6874

Our Mission

We must work hard to select and acquire music for our worship services that teaches the truth about the Lord and also ministers to the soul. It is this very nature of music, and its appeal to parts of our hears that a sermons can rarely touch that motivates us to work hard at our task. For many it will be music and not the sermon that changes their lives. After all that is not surprising if we understand the doctrine of spiritual gifts. When our worshipers are drawn into God's presence, they speak to Him and listen to Him, we rejoice. Our mission has been accomplished.

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