In this post, I’m thinking through some aspects of planning and preparation for Sunday. Of course, coming from me, this will primarily be thinking about musical aspects of Sunday.
What Does Music Do?
To set the basis for the importance of preparation, we need to know the function of what we’re preparing. Congregational singing does many things; it engage’s peoples minds and emotions, their intellects and their hearts, in worshiping, remembering, repenting, praising, lamenting, communing, encouraging, etc. One that we may not often think about, but should think about a lot, is that songs teach. We remember what we listen to; we remember even more so what we sing! What we sing influences what we think and the way we think about things.
What Else Does These Things?
What other aspects of Sunday mornings do this? Praise, repent, lament, commune, encourage, teach. Well, some of them are obvious: repenting, encouraging, and teaching all should happen during the sermon, too… especially the encouraging and teaching parts. Let me ask a pointed question; what would you think of a preacher that picked his topic, wrote it out, and thought about it for 15 minutes on Saturday? We would think … he’s totally slacking off. He’s not doing his job. He’s not very concerned, he doesn’t think what he’s doing is that important. I think we’d be right.
Preparation Is Important
Preparation is important, especially when we are teaching. James comments, in his epistle (chapter 3), that “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.“ Among other reasons to prepare are these:
- Teaching accurately, avoiding false teaching
- Teaching clearly, avoiding confusion or misunderstanding
- Teaching effectively, avoiding it being a waste of people’s time
Since we don’t typically write all the songs we sing on a given Sunday, we are going to be singing other people’s lyrics. That means we need to make sure they are correct. Before one recommends a book, you typically read it first, because you don’t want to have the person you recommended it to come to you and ask, “uh, do you really believe this? This isn’t right!”
Before we recommend a song to a congregation by leading it (this would be like leading a Bible Study through a book), we need to make sure we have read through the song carefully. If there are areas of concern, if there are confusing statements, if there are words we don’t know, if there are errors (!)… we need to catch those before we sing them publically and corporately. We would not think highly of a preacher who uses a quote from Theologian X in his sermon, and after reading it in his sermon, realizes it was actually wrong. He lacked preparation and was not careful.
Also, since we are continually growing in our own understanding, we need to constantly re-assess our songs. Perhaps we become sensitive to something that doesn’t quite sit right; perhaps we realize fresh what a song is saying that we simply didn’t see before (and it would be helpful to mention this to the congregation before singing it, by the way ). Perhaps we decide there’s a better song on the topic and we should do that one more than this other one…. etc.
Some songs are not clear. This could be bad writing, old writing, faulty writing, writing from other cultures, odd words, odd translations, music mismatching the lyrics, etc. Some songs aren’t clear because of the context they are in; if you sing one song right after another, it may actually add confusion. We need to be aware of this and make sure it makes sense; preferably, make sure it makes sense to someone other than myself. We tend to skim over things because we already know what we’re trying to say. Well, hopefully 😉
We think in certain ways. Specifically, we think progressively. This is partially a cultural thing, and other cultures may think in different patterns … but it seems that Americans (/westerners) do think rather progressively. Even in our essay writing classes, we’re taught to write progressively and sum it up at the end.
Often, when we pick songs, we will realize that Song X is a good song. We’ll read through it. We’ll say, that was good! And then we’ll put it next to another song in our service order and never read through both songs together. Are we repeating ourselves? Are we progressing from a looking back to our pre-salvation helplessness and sinfulness to our salvation and ending with our future resurrection … and then does the next song go back to that pre-salvation helplessness again? That is perhaps not the most effective way to sing. It will feel like we already made that point and we are re-hashing it, or beating a dead horse, so to speak.
Of course, there may be times where that is applicable, and it depends on what you’re doing inbetween songs, etc. The point is, though, that we need to plan our songs such that they go well together; if they don’t but we still want to sing them, we’ll need to somehow guide the congregation’s thoughts so that the songs make sense together.
Here is an example of something we did recently. I wanted to sing All I Have Is Christ because if it’s emphasis on Christ being the only hope of our salvation; however, since it doesn’t speak of the resurrection, I wanted to follow it with You Have Been Raised, which talks about how we know that Christ’s sacrifice was indeed efficacious (He was raised from the dead, that’s how we know that His sacrifice on our behalf was actually accepted and was sufficient). Sounds good, right? However, verse 3 of All I Have Is Christ goes in a different direction; verse 2 ends with “now all I know is grace!” … but then verse 3 goes in the direction of living for Christ: “now, Lord, I would be Yours alone…”
Because going off into that direction and then having to go “back” to the “Christ’s sufficiency” topic seemed like it would be unnecessarily confusing, we simply didn’t do verse 3, and there was a relatively brief verbal communication between the songs to help transition from the “all I have is Christ!” thought to “how do I know Christ’s sacrifice was enough?” thought.
So, How Important Is Preparation?
Very! I’m coming to the conclusion that, given the amount of times we sing songs, given the amount of time that we give to singing songs, and given the amount of songs out there, it would be silly to think that we could “over prepare.” Should we allow for things to change during the service? Sure. But that doesn’t mean we don’t prepare. For myself, as I gradually come to these conclusions, these are some things I’ve thought about that I am committing to do in the future as I pick songs for my church’s congregation:
- Carefully read all song lyrics in the order they will be sung. Check to make sure they make sense progressively; if they don’t, figure out what I need to do to make them make sense (change verses, change songs, make some verbal communication).
- Read all song lyrics in the order they will be sung to my wife, together with any “mental aids” that I put in (e.g., reading or talking inbetween songs) and make sure it makes sense to her.
- Any verbal communication before, during, between, or after songs that I give needs to be clear, concise, and point to Christ. I need to avoid cliche phrases, avoid confusing thoughts, avoid taking Scripture out of context, avoid glossing over parts of Scripture verses that are difficult to understand or aren’t applicable (perhaps just paraphrase and not read it directly), etc. Basically, make sure I carefully think through what I am going to say.
- Work towards being able to have what I want to say so planted that I don’t need to read it, but I can talk about it on the fly; that is, make it seem like I know what I want to say and can say it, rather than not being sure and having to read it. Reading is okay, of course; but the point is that I need to come across as though I actually believe what I am saying and that I am saying it, not just that I’m saying something that someone else said and I don’t really care much.
There are other things I could add, but those seem to be most aligned with the subject(s) of this post…