As theologians and pastors, we have a responsibility to care about the content of songs that our churches use in worship. According to psychologist Jim Wilder, music has the power to impact parts of our brain that are usually non-verbal. Those parts control our emotions and give us the ability to express ourselves artistically, but they are also responsible for determining who we perceive ourselves to be and how we react to social stimuli in light of that identity.
It is my belief that the music that we use in church has far more potential for impacting the thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting of individuals and groups than do the sermons we preach or the teaching we offer. Music has a unique capacity for taking what we say we believe and making it real in our lives. In other words, it has the ability to change our hearts.
Churches have every right to decide that they want a particular style to dominate their worship services. Still, there is a lot of really good, thoughtful music that has been written in recent years. Churches would do well to incorporate some of this music in their regular rotation of hymns and songs. But where should a church with a more traditional approach to worship start if it wants to incorporate some newer music into its regular rotation?
Below, I discuss seven songs that I think ought to be in every church’s repertoire, regardless of its stylistic orientation. Many of these songs can be easily adapted to a more traditional worship setting, but that is not why I chose them. Rather, these songs appropriate good theology to accomplish important pastoral tasks. Like all good worship music, they touch the deepest parts of us with the gospel and provide for us a common framework for our life together as followers of Jesus.
The church has a long history of writing concise statements of its faith and of incorporating those statements into its worship. It is a practice that the modern church would do well to emulate. Worshippers benefit from being reminded of who they are, whose they are, and why they are gathering together.
Both Petra and Rich Mullins have recorded songs based on one of these historic statements of faith (The Apostles’ Creed), but the song recorded by Newsboys has at least two advantages over these earlier works. First, “We Believe” translates the historic confession of the church’s faith into a communal affirmation. It is certainly important for believers to internalize their faith; that is one of the great contributions of Western individualism to the church. But it is also important for believers to understand that this is what “we” believe. It is the foundation upon which we build our identity and the orientation point for our conduct in the world.
Second, “We Believe” helps the church contextualize its confession of faith in the Triune God. This confession is not offered in the context of social power and universal acclaim. It is offered in a time of great uncertainty on the part of many believers about their future and in the context of substantial hostility on the part of those who stand outside of the church. Even in this context, the church affirms that God still reigns and still offers love, hope, healing, and transformation to the world.
“In Christ Alone”
It would be a travesty not to include “In Christ Alone” in a list of this type. It is the quintessential hymn of our age. But it is more than just a catchy tune presented in a modern style. It is a deep and challenging call to remember where our salvation comes from. Whenever it is sung, it calls the church to orient its life around Jesus, and it calls individual believers to fully invest themselves—intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—in their devotion to Christ.
“At the Cross (Love Ran Red)”
Churches need to be called back to Jesus on a regular basis, but they also need to be called back to the cross. This is especially true in American churches, where a theology of glory has all but choked out a theology of suffering. Chris Tomlin’s song “At the Cross (Love Ran Red)” makes such a call explicit and beautiful.
“At the Cross” is important for the modern church for at least two reasons. First, it reminds us that what Christ did on the cross is the most explicit expression of God’s character that is to be found in the human story. Second, it calls forth from us a sacrificial approach to our walk with Christ. When we come to the cross and accept what Jesus graciously did for us there, we are relieved of our indebtedness to sin. But we also incur a debt—a debt that can only be satisfied when we surrender everything that we are and everything that we hold dear to Jesus.
“Spirit of the Living God”
Francesca Battistelli recently called the church to a new appreciation for God’s Spirit with her song “Holy Spirit.” Battistelli urges the church to include the Spirit in the adoration that it offers to God and to call upon the Spirit to make God present in our midst. Happily, some churches have begun to use her song as part of their regular rotation.
Now, Meredith Andrews has deepened and enriched Battistelli’s call for a more intentional focus on the Holy Spirit in worship with her song “Spirit of the Living God.” Of particular importance is Andrews’ assertion that the Spirit’s activity can have a profound impact on “what we see and what we seek.” By inviting the Holy Spirit to be a regular and authoritative part of our worship services, we are, in essence, inviting Him to change our perceptions and our desires. And a lot of churches in the Western world desperately need that kind of transformation.
“Shine on Us”
Congregations need songs that invite them into prayer. “Shine on Us” is a wonderful example. It was written more than two decades ago, but its soul is much older than that. “Shine on Us” invites our Lord to take an active role in our lives, providing us with the light, grace, and love that we can only find in him. And in so doing, it connects the people of God today with their forbearers in every age and in every place by expressing our common need to be saved.
“Lord Have Mercy”
As part of its life of prayer and worship, congregations need to confess their sin and their need for Christ’s forgiveness. Michael W. Smith’s song “Lord Have Mercy” can help them do that. Like “Shine on Us,” “Lord Have Mercy” is a new song with an old soul. It takes a prayer that has been part of the church’s worship for centuries and expounds upon it. In so doing, it reminds us all that church is not about stroking our ego. It is about proclaiming the good news that mercy is available to all who will confess their need for it and receive it in faith.
“Lord, I Need You”
Congregations do not just need songs of prayer and confession; they need songs of lament, too. We have precious few of these in the contemporary worship canon, but Matt Redman’s “Lord, I Need You” is a good one. It has sustained my wife and I through some of the darkest and most painful days of our lives. It can do the same for the hurting people in your congregation.