Giving Everyone a Voice: How We Used a Song Survey for Teaching, Ownership, Renewal, and Unity

As the new chapel interns at Fuller Seminary gathered to begin planning worship at the beginning of the year, it became apparent that we had a problem. After we’d assembled our raw materials—piles of hymnals, sheaves of guitar fake sheets, and stacks of songbooks, there was little room left on the table for our pencils and notepads. The collection was just too cumbersome to work with.

We needed some way to winnow our choices thoughtfully. Unfortunately, the indexes in the back of most songbooks were stunningly unhelpful. While most hymnal indexes include Scripture references and theological themes, most songbook indexes were keyed to what I consider secondary considerations: recording artist, tempo (fast, medium, slow), musical key, and so on.

So we decided to compile, in one big, beautiful binder, our core repertoire—the songs we’ll look to first in our regular planning meetings. This binder would not be for wider distribution, but for our own use. But how would we begin?

Casting the Net

One way to start, we thought, would be to examine records from past years’ chapels and make a list of all the songs we actually sang from week to week. But we soon realized that on a campus as diverse as Fuller’s, there were surely traditions that had not been represented in chapel. There were gifts and voices from around the world we had not yet heard. We saw in this project an excellent opportunity to engage the whole campus community in the process of planning chapel, to increase their sense of ownership, and to give everyone a voice in choosing the songs they will sing in worship. (This is one way to engage in the “Previse” step of worship planning outlined in RW 74, pp. 41-43.)

We decided to begin by inviting every student, staff, and faculty member to fill out a survey asking for song suggestions. For each submission, in addition to title/author/composer information, we requested that respondents include an answer to at least one of the following questions to help us judge how best to make use of the song in worship:

  • What significance does this song have to you as a worshiper?
  • What biblically grounded worship theme does it express?
  • What worship action does it suggest (making promises, giving praise, offering sacrifice, confessing sin, and so on)?
  • What community characteristics does it help form? What Christian virtues does it promote?
  • What is the story behind your love of this song?

Of course we hope to get some wonderful responses to these questions. But our intention in including them in conjunction with identifying “favorite” songs is to deepen the community’s theological thoughtfulness about what we sing in worship.

Sorting the Catch

This experiment is still in process. We have begun to receive and compile responses. But once they are all assembled, we’ll still need to filter the submissions. We will want to be certain that our core repertoire is not merely reflective of “favorites” but is healthy for us in other ways: that it has theological depth and breadth and that it can nourish us in many different times and seasons.

The plan is for the chapel interns to plot the collected list on a series of grids, offering their own suggestions to fill in any empty or weak spots. For instance, I can already see from the songs we’ve received so far that when we run our whole collection through the “liturgical action” filter, we will find an abundance of songs of adoration and few of intercession. Likewise, when we run the collection through the “fruit of the Spirit” filter, we’ll find many about love, joy, and peace but not as many about patience and self-control. Other filters we plan to use are biblical genre, life of Jesus, psalmic modes, and attributes of God.

This same strategy, I imagine, could be adopted by many congregations eager to solicit input from the whole congregation, increase ownership in the community’s worship, and clear some room on the worship planning table!

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 79 © March 2006 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.