Thinking in Thirds

If we’re thinking discerningly, and choosing songs wisely, then hopefully the songs that we’re choosing will help our congregations have a sung theology that has sufficient enough roots that it’s also able to branch out.

So we have the ancient hymns, the proven and tested songs of previous decades, and the new songs being written by the Church today. By focusing first on the biblical faithfulness of the lyrics, second on the congregational accessibility of the music, and third on the particular and pastoral usefulness in your own context, you can filter out a substantial amount of new music. Then, you add to your church’s repertoire new and fresh songs that help your congregation

 

There are few responsibilities that a worship leader should take more seriously than choosing songs for his or her congregation to sing. In the words of the theologian Gordon Fee, “show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology”. With centuries of older songs, and an ever-increasing library of new songs from which we can choose, how is a worship leader supposed to prioritize what to put on their congregations’ lips?

I have found it helpful to think in thirds. Visualize each of these thirds as a slice of one whole pie. The size of each slice will change depending on your own context, culture, and even particular service and/or venue. But a healthy repertoire, with the goal of shaping your congregation’s sung theology in a balanced way, will typically draw from these three thirds.

The ancient
Every church should have a list of at least (!) 20-30 ancient hymns that their church can sing. Why? Because we don’t want to fall into what C.S. Lewis describes as “chronological snobbery”, a trap which ensnares far too many worship leaders, causing us to think that newer is better, and older is worse. We have centuries of well-written and robustly-scriptural hymns that we would be fools to ignore. Do them as written, do them with a rock band, do them with new choruses, or do them with organ and timpani. But do them.

The proven
It’s been about 50 years since the worship renewal movement hit, thus spawning hundreds of thousands of new songs. It’s been long enough now for us to know which ones are worth keeping and which ones are not. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be “stuck” in the 80s or 90s, but it would be an equally bad idea to pretend they didn’t happen either.

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