February 16, 2017

People Know What They Like, and Like What They Know

This is the Golden Rule of radio. People like listening to songs that they know because of the feelings and emotions that came with hearing the song the first time all come rushing back. Most every couple can point to ‘their song’, maybe the first one they ever danced to or the one playing when she walked down the aisle. We have songs that are special to our churches too; the one sung when the last pastor retired, when you celebrated the Jubilee Anniversary of the building you meet in and sang ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’. I think every worship leader or planner would benefit from asking: what is this congregation’s ‘song’?

I don’t think ‘having a song’ is a new thing. In fact, in our Bibles we have many songs attributed to people: one whole book called the Song of Solomon, the Song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), the song of Deborah (Judges 5), Mary’s Song (Luke 1), David’s song (2 Sam 22), God even gives Moses a song to teach Israel and graciously gives Moses the naming rights (Deut 31). God desires for us to sing because music is something that is as natural to us as breathing. We desire to sing because if we didn’t it would burst out of us. A favourite song is born out of a time of need, marking a specific memory or occasion, and sometimes they are born out of a narrative of a church circling around one principal idea or theme for years. If you really dig down and talk to enough people, you will discover that most every congregation has a ‘song’.  

A Unifying Experience

Last summer, I spent some time in my own church context asking people from varying ages and durations at our church to speak to what their favourite worship song is. The results of these conversations led to a whole summer of ‘requests’ which our worship planners carefully folded into the worship services over a few months. There was great feedback about the thoughtful inclusion of people’s favourite songs. Teens appreciated the church learning newer songs that spoke to them as they heard them on the local Christian radio station and those who had been in our church for 30+ years appreciated that the teens were learning some of their favourite hymns. It was such a unifying experience. For the exercise, I had to make sure that I was trying to cast as large a net as possible so I didn’t resort just to paper ballots nor to an internet form circulated over Facebook, but to both. We ended up with over 40 songs from over 100 responses. I could now break out how many were hymns or would qualify as traditional and what era of music spoke loudly to our demographic. I learned that songs popularized in the 90’s and 2000’s made up about 25% of the ballots, about 40% were hymns, and songs on the CCLI top 20 list comprised about 15%. A lot of worship planners struggle to define what the ‘balance’ of blended worship looks like. I don’t like the term ‘blended’ because it is different for every church, as I discovered through this exercise. A balance of traditional and contemporary worship is aided by learning about your congregation’s ‘song’.

The favourite song of my church is ‘When Peace Like a River’ or ‘It is Well with My Soul’, with no less than 8 individual responses — almost 8% of the total vote. I’m not sure if it is the famous story of why Horatio Spafford wrote the song, words of a father grieving the loss of his children, or whether there is something in the melody or music itself. It made me wonder about the many funerals at our church in the last decade and often this song is one chosen to sing at the time of the church’s mourning the loss. As a community of faith, we had been experiencing a comfort and connection we have had with those who have passed and a reminder for those who remain that though ‘trials may come, let this rest assurance control: that Christ has regarded my helpless estate and hath shed His own blood for my soul.’

Our favourite songs unite us, sometimes just for three minutes and sometimes for a lifetime around lyrics, a melody, or the memories of them coming together at a meaningful time and place. How often have we found ourselves at the bedside of a saintly Christian, life long-lived, ready to sing a new song in the choirs of heaven, and all they want to do is hear their favourite song or Scripture verse one more time?

Singing a New Song

The last song we will all sing together could be called the ‘Revelation Song’. No, not the Jennie Lee Riddle version, the one found in Revelation chapter 5:

And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
       and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
       and with your blood you purchased for God
       persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
       and they will reign on the earth.”

It is the worthiness of God that makes up our favourite songs. The lamb who was slain, who purchased all of mankind for God and who has made us a kingdom of priests set to serve and praise Him forever. These are the qualities of the one ‘worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise . . . to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ (vv12-13).

Sing your song, whatever it may be, to glorify the God who is worthy of our praise, and more worthy still: He is worthy of our attention to what themes and songs speak to our local church. Part of planning for worship is helping God’s people speak. In our church, the voices are never louder or more unified than when we sing ‘it is well, it is well, with my soul!’.

Josh Friend and his wife, Tiffany, have four children. He is the lead pastor of Evergreen Community CRC in Fort McMurray, Alberta. He has been involved in worship leading, seminars, musical production and recording, and various media including The Bridge, 91.1 FM, a local radio station in Fort McMurray.