What is a “Worship Song” Anyway?
In order to define what makes a great “worship song” we have to figure out what a “worship song” actually is. Is it a song by a “worship artist?” Is it a song that you sing during “worship?” What kind of “worship?” What is it?
The broad definition that I would give a worship song as this: A song that, when sung, causes one to think about something to the extent of moving one’s heart to worship it. The problem is that we, as worship leaders in Christian, evangelical churches need to narrow the definition. After all if the broad definition applies, then “I Love Rock and Roll (or I love Rocky Road, in Weird Al’s case)” would be a worship song about rock and roll music (or ice cream, in Weird Al’s case). You could easily turn many, many “secular” songs into worship songs.
We need to narrow the definition. A Christian worship song could be defined as this: A song that, when sung, causes one to think about God (The Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to the extent of moving one’s heart to worship Him. Now, what makes one of those great?
Biblical Pictures of Worship
In looking at what makes a great worship song we need to look at the history of the “worship song.” Worship songs (as defined above) have been happening for a long time. Moses led the Israelites in one after escaping the grasp of the Egyptian forces. David, Asaph and many others penned multiple worship songs in the Psalms. What made these songs great? Moses praised God by reminding the people that He was the one who delivered them from the Egyptians:
The Horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea…Pharoah’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea.” Exodus 15:2, 4
Moses also included in His song many things about who God is:
The Lord is my strength and my song (15:1)…a warrior (v3)…right hand is majestic in power (v6)…who is like You among the gods (v11)…in Your loving kindness You have led the people whom You have redeemed (v13)…shall reign forever and ever (v18).
The psalmists do very similar things – constantly reminding through the lyrics of who God is and what He has done, but then taking it a step further and emotionally responding to those things. If they tell of God’s mercy and love, they rejoice. If they tell of God’s justice and wrath, they tremble. But even after trembling at God’s wrath, they rejoice at His mercy yet again.
What Makes the Song Great?
Looking at what made the worship songs of the past great, I see two common themes: A remembrance and reminder of what God has done and who He is, and a personal emotional response. These songs that we see in Scripture are indeed great, as every time I read them I am moved to worship.
A great worship song communicates truth about who God is and what He is done and allows time for an emotional response to those things. A great worship song speaks clearly about what it is that is intended to be worshiped and offers universal words used to worship. It is narrow enough to speak of who we are worshiping, but broad enough to let every person of every walk of life worship through it.
One thing that is much harder to see in the examples of Scripture is what a great melody can do for a worship song. I am guessing the songs that Moses and David and others wrote in Scripture had melodies that the people of the time could remember. A well-written melody that fits the mood of the lyrics will enhance any song, but a well-written melody in a worship song helps people be able to put truth to music and remember the truth a little bit easier.
Another instance of why the Scriptural examples are so great is the fact that they were almost always born out of a personal experience that caused the writer to worship God and write about it. Moses was led to sing out of the fact that His God had showed His power by saving him and his people. David was often led to write out of painful experiences (hiding from his own son (Psalm 3), often fleeing from enemies, wrestling with his sin (Psalm 51). A good worship song is born out of a personal worship experience as well as, in Moses’ case, a congregational (if you will) worship experience.
This is What Makes a Great Worship Song:
What makes a great worship song is its ability to cause one to think about God to the extent of moving one’s heart to worship Him, it’s born out of personal or congregational experience, it emotionally responds to who God is and it has an easily singable melody.