“Learn these tunes before you learn any others,” John Wesley wrote in his Directions for Singing. “Afterwards, learn as many as you please.”

The specified “tunes” were those included in the 1761 publication of the early Methodist hymnal, Selected Hymns. Wesley’s seven directions for singing have long been included in the opening pages of the United Methodist Hymnal. They include exhortations like “Sing lustily and with good courage,” “Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can,” and “Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”

Wesley wrote his Directions for Singing for a different time, for a church usually selecting congregational music from a confined set of songs in printed hymnbooks. But this centuries-old guide helps establish a theological framework for a new project designed to help worship leaders evaluate a growing catalog of contemporary worship music.

The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Discipleship Ministries recently released CCLI Top 100+ Beyond, the latest iteration of a project begun in 2015, aiming to help leaders curate worship songs. CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International, which provides copyright licenses to use music from a vast library of artists; it ranks its most popular songs twice a year in the CCLI Top 100.

The UMC project offers a recommended song list, with a description of each song’s lyrics, theological underpinnings, musical difficulty, and a list of recording artists and alternate arrangements.

The list includes seven titles by Hillsong Worship and Hillsong United, seven by Bethel Music, and five by Elevation Worship; the top-ranking CCLI song at the time was Pat Barrett’s “Build My Life,” and the team said it appreciated “that this song petitions Jesus to lead us ‘in Your love to those around’ us, which ties in to Wesleyan notions of cooperation with God in Christ Jesus.”

Another resource developed by the UMC suggests issues worship pastors should consider, such as finding music from underrepresented regions, engaging global worship traditions with cultural competence, and shifting to more inclusive language without violating copyright law.

CCLI Top 100+ Beyond project is not prescriptive but a set of guidelines to help disciple congregations and leaders in a theology of worship consistent with Wesleyan thought. In the Methodist tradition, “singing in worship should not exist for its own sake,” writes Matthew Sigler, “Congregational music for Methodists is understood to be catechetical.”

But singing tenets of the faith is about both understanding and feeling. The Rev. Nelson Cowan, who manages the CCLI vetting project, says, “This isn’t just doctrine we’re reciting through song; it’s doctrine we are learning and inhabiting and feeling and processing through song.”

Every congregation has a hymnal

The UMC’s CCLI vetting project does in a more uniform, explicit way the work worship pastors and music directors are already doing across denominations.

“Every congregation has a hymnal,” says Jake Ferrell, worship director at Valley Church, an Evangelical Free congregation in West Des Moines, Iowa, “whether they realize it or not.”

As the worship music industry has grown, churches have had to evaluate the flood of contemporary worship music popularized on Christian radio, through Christian conferences, and now streaming online. The triumph of contemporary worship music in the worship wars of the 1990s brought an ever-widening music selection; the church “hymnal” became more fluid.

Article continues below

Worship pastors say that evaluating and selecting new music is a central part of their job. They essentially revise the hymnal for their congregations every time they update Planning Center or whichever church management software they use.

“It’s a trusted position,” says Elizabeth Jackson, worship pastor at Antioch Community Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, noting the authority and influence that comes with having the final say over which songs are sung by the congregation.

Worship leaders pay attention to “singability”—whether a new song has too many words, big vocal leaps, or an irregular rhythm. Personal taste also plays a factor. “You hate to say it,” says Ferrell, “but a lot of it is just preference.” Ideally, pastors’ tastes are shaped by musical training and the needs of their congregations in addition to the contents of their personal Spotify playlists.

The expansive worship music industry makes it easy to find new music but nearly impossible to avoid the influence of a few prominent artists and producers. Most worship pastors try to choose music thoughtfully, but they may not be aware of how much influence the industry has over those choices.

Adam Perez, a worship scholar at Duke Divinity School, finds that, in general, worship pastors are “conscious of the theology.” But he points out, “Big brands [i.e. Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture] have more power over congregational song choices than denominational identity.”

In pulling from the CCLI Top 100, the UMC recognizes that most artists and churches in the ranking are “charismatic, Pentecostal, Calvinist, or neo-Calvinist” and therefore “have not fully shared and sometimes have taken positions opposite to our core commitments.”

Worship pastors in evangelical and nondenominational churches likewise look out for theological red flags as they select new songs, but as the selection process is almost completely internal, each church is left to articulate its own theology of worship or trust that the producers of the music they encounter share their core values and beliefs.

A generous theology of worship

Despite the unofficial affiliation between the network of producers and artists creating the music that lands on the CCLI Top 100, there is indeed a common theology of worship undergirding much of our popular worship music. Perez suggests that the underlying (often unspoken) belief is that “through praise music we experience God’s presence.” The foremost purpose of musical worship is to facilitate a felt encounter with God.

The Methodist emphasis on the balance of singing with feeling and understanding fights against a theology of worship that too often prioritizes congregants’ emotional response. Cowan suggests that emotionally resonant but lyrically minimal songs not be excluded from services but supplemented by Scripture readings or by a pairing with traditional hymns that have related, richer textual content: “We recommend a principle of addition, not subtraction.”

Elevation Worship’s “Do It Again” is described as a song that “resoundingly articulates the faithfulness of God,” though “perhaps overly personal,” and is best paired with other music or art that encourages a more corporate mindset.

The narrative accompanying Kerri Meyer’s “Another World” notes that although there is no “explicit Christian language in this song, the flexibility of the song presents an opportunity to teach about the inbreaking reign of God.”

Article continues below

This inclusive, generous strategy allows for music that is poetic, personal, or lyrically minimal. It pushes against the exclusive use of such music, but it does not belittle or condemn it. This approach also discourages the exclusive use of obscure hymns to sing as much doctrine as possible. It welcomes the meditative and devotional as well as the intellectually engaging.

Worship pastors from across denominations may find that the Methodist resource helps them define and articulate the theology of worship that they want to practice and impart. It’s a reflective guide—there’s no list of rejected songs, nor any diatribes about the loss of the traditional hymnals or the dangers of contemporary music.

The first time I was put in charge of music selection for a worship team, I was a junior in high school. As a high school student, being allowed to help choose music for weekly worship felt like having real authority. And it was real authority. Even in my immaturity and selfish enthusiasm, I believed that music had an important role in spiritual formation, even if that idea was primarily formed by emotional experiences at conferences or concerts.

Music selection and worship leadership is teaching. To treat it with less weight than that is to miss the opportunity to use a powerful medium to teach, learn, and deepen faith. Through the music we sing together, we teach ourselves over and over what we as a congregation affirm about God’s identity, our identities, and our relationship with God personally and corporately.

Unlike the sermon preached each week during a service, the words we sing in congregational worship are words we all proclaim in agreement, in unison. It is a serious task to choose words that we all can sing in agreement, together.

A resource like the UMC’s CCLI Top 100+ Beyond can help those looking for a way to evaluate their own worship practices to ask, “Are we striving to sing together with both feeling and understanding? In both spirit and in truth?”

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and researches music in Christian communities.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]