Seven Resources for Finding Excellent Songs1
I recently had the privilege to join a panel discussion with Bob Kauflin, Keith Getty, and Matt Boswell on the subject, “What Then Shall We Sing?” at Together for the Gospel 2016. We discussed how churches can fulfill Colossians 3:16: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
As part of the conversation, Bob asked us to suggest resources for finding excellent songs that capture the richness and Word-centeredness in view in Colossians 3:16. I quickly rattled off way too many! Here are the resources I recommend, in case you couldn’t write them down or you couldn’t join us for the panel.
1. Isaac Watts’ Psalm Versifications
The granddaddy of English hymnody produced a stunning corpus of Psalm versifications and hymns. For churches interested in learning how to sing the psalms or looking for rich old hymn texts, Watts is a gold mine. Much of his material is available free here, and I’ve heard that Matt Boswell is planning to publish a new edition of Watts’ work soon.
2. A Split-Page Psalter, such as Sing Psalms
We ignore the Psalms—the hymnbook of Jesus and the disciples—to our peril. Why not recapture the emotional breadth, raw honesty, and theological depth of the Psalms by singing them in poetic English translation? Sing Psalms could get you started in finding some versified Psalms that might work well for your congregation. The folks at Banner of Truth have published this Psalter, arranged by the Free Church of Scotland. If you’re new to the idea of mixing and matching texts-by-meter with tunes, there’s a delightful education in store for you here. It’s really two books in one: tunes on top, texts on the bottom, so you can pick the tune that works best for your church and match it up with a particular Psalm.
Those of us in majority white churches in America have much to learn from our black brothers and sisters. In particular, African-American hymnody can help to remedy the relative lack of songs in evangelicalism today on themes such as heaven, suffering, and perseverance. One hymn from this collection that my congregation has come to love, which deals with all those topics, is the thunderous “Where Shall I Be?” by Charles P. Jones. Hear a wonderful rendition here.
This site is a feast of song ideas and resources. Particularly useful are the page scans from old hymnals that allow you to compare versions and find rich hymn texts relegated to the scrap bin of history. Consider taking a couple of old hymns you find and setting them to well-known (but perhaps under-used) tunes with which your congregation might be somewhat familiar.
5. Gather God’s People by Brian Croft and Jason Adkins
This is the best short resource I’ve found on how to plan for and lead worship through song in a local church. Croft and Adkins provide a biblical, theological, and practical framework for how to choose the best songs. This is the kind of book you could get for everyone on your music team, have them read it, and get together for a discussion session. Pastors and song leaders could study it together and identify a few practical changes to make to their planning process.
6. “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl Trueman
Treat yourself to this provocative (and super brief!) chapter, from Trueman’s book The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism. Trueman argues that the whole range of human emotion displayed in the Psalms, from lament and questioning to triumphant joy, should appear in our corporate worship. (Here are some of his reflections on the chapter from several years after it was written.)
I’ve met lots of folks who agree with Trueman’s thesis but don’t know how to begin including songs of lament in their meetings. So, to get the brainstorming started, here is my go-to list of minor-key hymns. Which ones would you add?
• Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended (Tune: HERZLIEBSTER JESU)
• A Sov’reign Protector I Have (Tune: TREWEN)
• Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (Tune: O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN) (Capitol Hill Baptist Church congregational recording)
• Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy (Tune: RESTORATION – can also be sung with more words but without the refrain to BRYN CALFARIA) (CHBC congregational recording)
• Jesus, Lover of My Soul (Tune: ABERYSTWYTH)
• The Law of God Is Good and Wise (Tune: ERHALT UNS, HERR)
• Look, Ye Saints, the Sight Is Glorious (Tune: BRYN CALFARIA) (CHBC congregational recording)
• O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Tune: VENI EMMANUEL)
• O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (Tune: PASSION CHORALE)
• O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus (Tune: EBENEZER)
• See the Destined Day Arise (CHBC congregational recording)
• What Wondrous Love Is This (Tune: WONDROUS LOVE)
7. Your Church’s Membership Directory
I know this one is cheating a bit, because you won’t find any songs in your membership directory. But, if your church has a database or booklet that keeps track of current members, what you will find there are the names of the saints – the ones who show up each Sunday to sing. After all, we don’t plan corporate singing in a vacuum. We plan it for real congregations full of frail people who are leaning on Christ during life’s joys and trials. What songs best serve the 75-year-old widows in your congregation? Are there particular hymns that the younger and older folks in your church sing especially well together? Should you avoid some songs because they are lyrically or musically too complex for large portions of your church? These are the sorts of questions we have the privilege of answering. I’d suggest that we can answer them best when we prayerfully prepare worship through song with three books open—our Bible, our songbook/hymnal/music database, and our membership directory.