Choosing the Right Worship Songs

Why do we sing in church?

Is it because it’s fun? Because it’s tradition? Because it feels good? 

It may be all of these things for some of us, but this is not why we do it. We sing in church because the New Testament commands us to.


“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

- Ephesians 5:18-21

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” 

- Colossians 3:16

From these two brief passages we learn at least five key truths about God’s intentions for our musical worship:

  1. Every member is commanded to sing out loud, not just a select few. 
  2. We are to be taught and admonished through our congregational singing.
  3. We are to sing various types of songs.
  4. Our singing is to be motivated by gratitude to God for who he is and what he’s done.
  5. Our singing in this way is an expression of being filled with the Holy Spirit. 

With these five truths in mind, the worship leader can choose songs with intentionality, aiming to help the congregation obey Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Below are 5 guidelines that will help in that process. 

Singability Over Personal Taste

According to the two passages above, our musical worship is to be congregational. In other words, we could have the best worship team providing the best music on the planet, but if the members of the church are not singing to one another, we fail to offer the musical worship God desires.  

This means that one of the primary questions we should ask when selecting songs is: is it easy to sing? If it is not, it may be a great song for personal worship. But it is not the best choice for congregational worship. This can be difficult for those of us who love good songwriting, as we will have to say “no” to some of our favorite songs and “yes” to songs that may not be as artistically interesting. Yet these are worthy sacrifices, because they empower the entire congregation to obey God’s commands to sing to one another.

Both Revelation & Response

Colossians 3:16 also show us that we should teach one another through our singing. This means we should very carefully consider the lyrics of the songs we sing, as the truths we rehearse through actively singing a song are far easier to remember than those truths we receive through passively hearing a sermon. Our time of musical worship can instruct the congregation through 1) songs of revelation and 2) songs of response. Songs of revelation are those songs that teach biblical truths about who God is and what God has done, songs of response are those that teach us how to respond biblically to who God is and what God has done. In general, the broader evangelical community tends to primarily choose songs of response and the reformed community tends to choose songs of revelation. Yet the Psalms are rich with both, and our church services should be as well.  

Both Familiar & Fresh

In order to faithfully obey Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 your church needs both songs that familiar and songs that are fresh. Familiar songs are necessary to ensure the congregation (and not just the worship team) can sing the song aloud as God commands. The more often a song is repeated the more easily the congregation can sing it loudly and joyfully.  Fresh songs are also necessary in order to ensure the congregation wants to sing the song aloud as God commands. As we all know, there eventually comes a point when familiar songs become tired songs and the congregation no longer finds joy in singing them (speaking for myself, I may no longer want God to “open the eyes of my heart” if it means I have to sing Paul Baloche’s song again). To minimize this, it is important to regularly introduce new songs into the repertoire (the same Baloche recommends adding 2 new songs per month). Of course, once a fresh song is introduced the goal is to turn it into a familiar song (Baloche again recommends singing a new song 3 times within the first four-week period it is introduced to help move it from fresh to familiar). 

Both Traditional Hymns & Modern Choruses

Both passages not only command us to sing as a congregation, but also to sing different types of songs as a congregation. In our culture the two general categories of congregational worship songs are 1) traditional hymns and 2) modern choruses. Both have advantages and disadvantages. For example, hymns have the advantage of covering a greater diversity of themes and connecting the congregation to the Universal Church in other places and times, while having the disadvantage of being verbose and using dated language that is difficult for some to understand. Worship choruses have the advantage of connecting with the musical and cultural expressions of many in the church, while having the disadvantage of being at times lyrically simplistic or overly “poppy” for some in the congregation. This is why we should include both in our worship sets, though how many we choose to use of each will depend heavily on the makeup of our congregation.

In keeping with the theme of singing diverse types of songs, we should also aim to include both mid- to up-tempo and mid- to down-tempo songs in our sets, as well as songs sung in the first-person singular (“I”) and songs sung in the first-person plural (“we”). The Book of Psalms models both by including both songs of celebration and of lament, and songs written both from the perspective of an individual and the perspective of the community. 

Storytelling Over Personal Taste    

If we are responsible for creating a worship set of six songs, the easiest thing to do is simply to pick the six songs we most enjoy singing. But doing so does not help us obey Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Instead, we should choose our songs with a focus on teaching one another about our God and how we ought to respond to him (Colossians 3:16). There are multiple strategies we can employ as we pursue this goal.

First, we can spend the week reading and reflecting on the biblical text our pastor will be preaching from. In prayer, we can then ask the Holy Spirit to help us select songs that will emphasize the themes of the passage and our proper response to them. For instance, if the theme of the sermon is suffering, it would be wise to choose songs that give us perspective on how to respond to Christian suffering (a famous example would be “Blessed Be Your Name”, though one of my personal favorites is “When the Tears Fall”). 

Second, we can arrange the songs of revelation/response and songs of down-tempo/up-tempo in a way that reinforces the story God is telling through the preached Word. For example, I have found it helpful to open the service (before the sermon) with songs of revelation that affirm things about God’s character that will be covered in the sermon and close the service (after the sermon) with songs of response that model how we should respond to what God said through the preaching. Similarly, I have generally used down-tempo songs to lead into the sermon (as they calm our hearts and help us focus on what God is about to say) and out of the sermon (as they provide us space to meditate on what God just said), while using up-tempo songs at the conclusion of the service that we might leave the gathering celebrating the grace and forgiveness we received from God that day. 

Of course it is not necessary that you follow my application of Colossians 5 and Ephesians 3, but it is essential that you reflect on these passages and determine how God would have you apply them and obey them in the context of your corporate musical worship. 

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Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook













How to Grow a Church

Some Christians prefer a large church, some prefer a small church, but all Christians prefer a growing church. The question is: how do we grow a church? Specifically, how can you help grow your church?

Our timelines are filled with conferences, books and coaches that will answer the question for four easy payments of $19.99. Some will tell you the key is to design your church for young families, others will tell you the answer is crafting everything you do with hip singles in mind. Some groups claim the key to church growth is in preaching for the Christians in the audience and others say the proper aim is the non-Christian.  On the same day you can be told that only faithfully preaching the gospel will grow your church (without respect to felt needs) and that preaching to the felt needs of your community (above any particular theological emphasis) is the essential ingredient. 

In other words, the experts don't agree on how you can grow your church. 

But it doesn't matter. 

Because the fact is, God has already answered the question for us in Ephesians 4:11-13. 

"And he [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ..."

According to this passage, the key to church growth is that both church leaders and church members play the position God put them in. If we do this, we are assured spiritual growth, which is the cause of healthy and lasting numerical growth. 

Church leaders: you are called to play the position God placed you in by equipping the members of the church to do the works of ministry both inside and outside the church. Let's be honest and acknowledge this is very different from what American church culture teaches us to expect from our leaders. We want our leaders to play the role of friend, psychologist, dynamic preacher, business manager, advice-dispenser, and marketing director while being always available and, in the midst of fulfilling all these responsibilities, somehow endlessly taking the initiative to pursue us. 

American church culture has trained us to expect everything from our leaders except the one thing that God expects from our leaders: that they train us to do the ministry. Unfortunately, the more time leaders spend on trying to meet member expectations, the less time leaders have to fulfill God's expectations. Likewise, members must know that if a pastor chooses to play the position God has drafted him to play, he will no longer be able to play the position the average member demands. Much like a Major League pitcher suffers at the plate precisely because he invests his every waking moment at excelling as a pitcher, a pastor can either excel at the role God calls him to or at that which the members expect of him. It is impossible to do both. Just as a baseball team can only grow to its potential when its pitchers are willing to sacrifice their hitting ability to focus on what the team most needs from them, the church grows to its full potential when its leaders choose to sacrifice their ability to meet the demands of American church culture, in order to do what will best serve the church: play the role God gave them to play.

Likewise, the members of the church have been appointed by God to play their position as well. Members: you are called by God to do the works of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). This is very different from how we think about ministry. We call the pastors our "ministers."  And when we have issues requiring attention, counsel, prayer, mediation, bible knowledge, etc., we call on the pastor to take care of them. But God says that's not the pastor's position to play. The pastor is to equip for ministry, the church members are to do the ministry. In this regard, the pastor is similar to a personal trainer. He does not do the work for you, he gives you the tools and encouragement to do the work yourself. Just as you won't grow stronger if your personal trainer lifts the weights for you, the church won't grow stronger as long as the leaders lift the weight of ministry for the members. Yet you ought not hear this as a burden, but as a blessing. God put you in this position precisely because you can play it (by his grace and power) and produce the growth you desire to see. 

You have never seen a 300 pound center trying to run a wide receiver's routes, nor a 180 pound quarterback trying to block a 300 pound tackle. This is because the players on a football team (in my humble opinion, God's least favorite sport) know the position they have been put in the game to play. They also know their team can only win when each player plays the position they were drafted to play. Unfortunately, in the church, we are in the habit of doing exactly what football players refuse to do. We reverse positions and have pastors doing the work of ministry and members equipping them by providing money, requests and unsolicited advice. 

If we want our churches to grow, this has to stop. Both leaders and members alike must reject the traditional roles our American church culture has assigned and embrace the positions God has called them to play. Though this is difficult, the good news is that we are promised that "when each part is working properly" Jesus -- not us -- will "make the body grow." But don't take my word for it:

"[Jesus] from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:16, ESV).

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Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook




3 Reasons You Should Never Forgive Yourself

“You have to learn to forgive yourself!” 

This is the advice most often given to those who are troubled by guilt, shame or self-hate. Those who give this advice mean well; they want their loved one to be free from these feelings and to live a more free and joyful life. However, as well meaning as it is, it is terrible and potentially deadly advice. 

I hope you’ll allow me to explain. 

The following are three reasons why you should never forgive yourself or counsel someone else to do the same. 

1. It makes you the victim

In any event requiring forgiveness there are two parties: the offended and the offender. The only one of those two parties who has the right to either give or deny forgiveness is the victim. When we tell someone “forgive yourself” we make the offended person a victim all over again by robbing them of their rights and giving those rights to the very person who hurt them. We would not (I hope) encourage a rapist to go about his life free from guilt and shame because he has decided to forgive himself. Instead, we would require him to face his victim and seek the forgiveness he desires from the one who has the power to actually give it. The same should be true of every offense, from the most despicable to the most understandable.  

Such counsel doesn’t only harm the offended, it also harms the offender. It keeps them from pursuing and perhaps receiving forgiveness from the person they hurt and, consequently, keeps them from experiencing the humility of pursuing it and the life-transforming joy of receiving forgiveness. 

For the good of both the offended and the offender we should not tell people, “Forgive yourself.” We should tell them the truth. The truth is that you are forgiven when the person you sinned against grants you that forgiveness, not when you grant it to yourself.

2. It makes you the judge

Another problem with telling people they just need to forgive themselves is that by doing so we exalt them to the position of judge. A position they do not, in reality, hold. The Bible tells us, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12, ESV). God and God alone stands above both the victimizer and the victim; he holds the final word on what is and is not ultimately forgiven because he is the ultimate victim of each and every sin (Psalm 51:4). As the one Lawgiver and Judge, when God says a sin is forgiven, it is forgiven, whether you forgive yourself or not; when he says a sin remains unforgiven it remains unforgiven, whether you forgive yourself or nor not. Asking a human being to forgive themselves is like asking a dog to dress themselves: it does not possess the capacity to do what you are asking. 

Thus, telling someone to “forgive themselves” is not helpful, but harmful. It encourages them to commit idolatry by putting themselves in the place of God, which only adds to the guilt they carry. It also denies them the opportunity of actually receiving the assurance of the forgiveness they so desperately need by pointing them away from the only one who can actually give it. 

3. It’s a misdiagnosis 

The third and final reason you should never forgive yourself or counsel someone else to do the same is because it’s a treatment based on a misdiagnosis. If someone is plagued by guilt, shame or self-hatred their problem is not that they have refused to forgive themselves. Their problem is that they have refused to receive the free forgiveness God offers them. In Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7, ESV). It does not say we “can have” or that we will “one day have” but, rather, that we presently have the forgiveness we need. 

When we counsel someone to forgive themselves we are asking them to cure themselves with a placebo, which is the equivalent of condemning them to perpetual sickness. The true cure to our shame, guilt and self-hatred is not found in forgiving ourselves but in trusting in God’s declaration that we have already been forgiven in Jesus Christ and that he remembers our sin no more (Jeremiah 31:4). 

When we say, “learn to forgive yourself” we not only hurt the victim and the victimizer, we also deny God the glory he earned by doing everything necessary to bring forgiveness to unforgivable people guilty of unforgivable offenses. We lead people to believe that their healing is found in their own willingness to forgive instead of in the willingness of God to forgive them at the immeasurable cost of his own Son. 


I don’t want you to live in shame, guilt or self-hate. That’s why I beg you to stop trying to forgive yourself. Instead, look to the True Judge and True Victim, and receive the forgiveness he has already purchased for you. Life and freedom are found in choosing to believe him who speaks the truth, instead of believing your inner-voice of condemnation and its lies.


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook



A Letter to White Evangelicals

A Letter to White Evangelicals

The post below was written in November 2014, immediately following the announcement that no police officers would be charged with Michael Brown's murder. With the recent killings of Anton Sterling and Philando Castile I thought it might be appropriate to repost it here with a couple slight changes. 

Thankfully, the overall response within the white evangelical community (of which I am a member) has been different from that of 2014. There have been many more voices of empathy speaking loudly and publicly. However, within the white evangelical community we still hear many of the same things we heard in 2014:

We have to wait for all the facts.
He should not have been resisting.
People who obey the law don't have to fear the police.
It had nothing to do with race.
You need to respect law enforcement.
Why aren't we talking about black-on-black crime?
You're dividing our country by making this about race.

Because things like this are still being said, both publicly and privately, I wanted to remind us of the conversation we had two years ago. 

What Disneyland Taught Me About Suffering

What Disneyland Taught Me About Suffering

For the last four months, one of my children has been crying themselves to sleep every night for hours at a time. Almost a year ago, our family left everything we know and love to move to Mexico City in order to learn and do ministry. Despite the joy and blessings we are experiencing here, my suffering child desperately misses their home city of Portland, Oregon and, every night, asks "When can we go home?" As we share prayer requests each night, the request they share time and again is that God will send us back to Portland. My child is suffering and simply wants to know "When will it end?" As a father, I long to be able to give them a date when everything will get better. I ache to be able to provide them with the specific time when they will no longer suffer nightly in their tears as they drift to sleep. 

But of course I can't.

Growing Your Faith

Growing Your Faith

As a pastor, one of the questions I have been asked more than any other is, "How do I grow my faith?" This makes sense, since we know it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6). The level of our faith often makes the difference between obedience and disobedience, contentment and discontentment, confidence and fear. Thus, it is wise and normal that we would want to find out how to grow our faith. The challenge, of course, is that the Bible describes faith as a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8, 2 Peter 1:1, Philippians 1:29). So how can we make ourselves grow in something we have no control over?

A Common Obstacle to Discipleship

A Common Obstacle to Discipleship

The Christian life is a life of discipleship. 

That life of discipleship has its share of obstacles.

In my years of ministry I have had the privilege of discipling a very diverse group of people — men and women of various races and ethnicities, ages and generations, financial, political, social, and religious backgrounds. Yet, for all the diversity of the people I have had the privilege to disciple, there has been one massive challenge to discipleship that has affected each group, without prejudice: daddy issues

Do the Right Thing: Biblical Help for Decision-Making, Part Two

Do the Right Thing: Biblical Help for Decision-Making, Part Two

As followers of Christ, we want to live in a way that pleases our King. We want to do the right thing. The problem is, the "right thing" isn't always so easy to discern. In fact, in all my years of Christian ministry, this has been the practical question I have seen people wrestle with more than any other: How do I know what the right thing is? While I acknowledge this can be a difficult question to answer, I have also found two pieces of guidance in Scripture that have freed me from the stress and fear of choosing the wrong thing. In fact, they have made decision-making in the moment easier than I could have ever imagined. In part one of this series, I explained that, when faced with a decision, our first response should be “How can I best reflect the image of God in this situation?” In many cases, asking this simple question will be enough to know what to do. In other cases, though, the “right thing” is less explicit and appears much more relative. What do we do in those moments? That’s where the second piece of guidance comes in...

Do the Right Thing: Biblical Help for Decision-Making, Part One

Do the Right Thing: Biblical Help for Decision-Making, Part One

As followers of Christ, we want to live in a way that pleases our King. We want to do the right thing. The problem is, the "right thing" isn't always so easy to discern. In fact, in all my years of Christian ministry, this has been the practical question I have seen people wrestle with more than any other: How do I know what the right thing is? While I acknowledge this can be a difficult question to answer, I have also found two pieces of guidance in Scripture that have freed me from the stress and fear of choosing the wrong thing. In fact, they have made decision-making in the moment easier than I could have ever imagined. The first piece of guidance is based on our role as image-bearers...

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Four

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Four

In my experience, many believers who consciously know they are Arminians have chosen this theological system because they are uncomfortable with some of the positions of Calvinism. For instance, they do not desire to believe in a God who creates people knowing they are destined for hell, nor a God whom chooses to save some and not others. They look at certain Bible verses such as 1 Timothy 2:14 (God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, NIV) and conclude that Arminianism deals with biblical data like this better than Calvinism. 

The problem is, it really doesn’t. The uncomfortable beliefs one might be trying to avoid by escaping Calvinism remain after embracing Arminianism. While Arminianism is a different theological system, it does not provide a neat-and-tidy solution to the most common objections I hear to Calvinism. Here’s why…. 

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Three

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Three
Calvinism is a threat to missions and evangelism. If God has pre-destined certain people to salvation, and is going to assure that they are saved no matter what, what’s the use of preaching the gospel to non-Christians? The elect will be saved no matter what, right? It seems that your Calvinism completely robs you of any reason or motivation to evangelize. 

These comments arise from a sincere desire to see the lost found. Those outside of Calvinism genuinely cannot reconcile the powerful words of the Great Commission with their understanding of how Calvinists think about salvation. Yet, this inability to reconcile the two is due far less to any contradiction between the two than it is to a misunderstanding of how those inside of Calvinism think about evangelism. There are at least four reasons that Calvinism does not have this supposed negative affect on evangelism.

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Two

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Two

In part one of this series, I explained that I do not like the label Calvinist because both insiders and outsiders have misconceptions about what Calvinists actually believe. In this series, I hope to clarify some of those misconceptions. My goal is not to convince people to be Calvinists, but to make sure all of us know what we are choosing to accept or reject before we choose to accept or reject it.

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part One

Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part One

I confess that I hate — and I mean really, really hate — the label Calvinist, not because I have any shame over believing in the oft-controversial doctrines of grace. Rather, there are so many misunderstandings about what Calvinism actually is — both from those who are critical of Calvinism, and from those of us who say we believe it. My intent in this blog post is not to try to convince anyone to adopt a Calvinistic theology. Instead, my goal is to make sure we all understand what it is we are choosing to accept or reject, before we choose to accept or reject it. For this reason, in this blog, I simply want to clarify some of the misunderstandings that people have had about me, and what I believe, when they identify me as a Calvinist

The Holy Spirit & Biblical Inspiration

The Holy Spirit & Biblical Inspiration

It has often been said that churches tend to choose between being Word churches or Spirit churches. What is meant by this saying is that those churches that most emphasize the Word seem to underemphasize the Holy Spirit, while those churches that most emphasize the Holy Spirit seem to underemphasize the Word. While this is a broad blanket statement that is obviously not universally true, most would agree that it rings true in light of common experience. Yet, as common as it is for a church to separate the Word and the Spirit in this manner, it is both strange and unnecessary.

What to do When You're not Being Fed

What to do When You're not Being Fed

“I'm not being fed.”

If you've been a part of a church for any length of time you have likely either uttered these words or heard these words spoken. Those who find themselves saying these words can feel like their faith journey is in a state of crisis. They are not sure what to do. Up to this point, they have loved their church and have experienced learning, growth and excitement every week. But now they feel like something is lacking. They are no longer experiencing those things like they once did. They’re not quite sure why this is so, or even how to explain it, so the common response is: 

“I’m not being fed.” 

We Sing After the Sermon

We Sing After the Sermon

At the church I planted in Portland, OR, we generally sing two songs before the sermon and at least three songs after the sermon. For many people, this is odd, as they are accustomed to singing every song before the sermon. This has often prompted visitors to ask me, "Why?" In this blog I do my best to answer the question with five reasons why we save the bulk of our worship songs for after the preaching of God's Word, and why you might consider doing the same.

Three Reasons We Should Refuse to be Colorblind

Three Reasons We Should Refuse to be Colorblind

Alejandro Iñárritu is one of my favorite living film directors, and his film Birdman is one of my favorite films of all time. On Sunday, he deservedly won the Oscar for Best Director for the second year in a row. During his acceptance speech, he said something that was well-intentioned, but dangerous. He said he longs for the day "the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair." 

He was responding to the racial tensions surrounding the Oscars as well as the racial tensions covered in his film, The Revenant. Like many, Iñarritu seems to believe that the way to end the racial tensions in our society is to end our racial distinctions, to be colorblind.

Yet this is neither the solution to our tension, nor is it virtuous. 

The Church of the Walking Dead

The Church of the Walking Dead

The new season of The Walking Dead premiered this past Sunday. If you’re not familiar with The Walking Dead then you are not familiar with the show responsible for “the most watched non-sports telecast” in cable television history. The show, which is about a group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, is most famous for helping revive zombie popularity. But I am unconvinced that zombies are the secret to its success. After all, we’ve had countless zombie films, books, and other media in recent years, and none have approached the popularity of The Walking Dead.

So what sets The Walking Dead apart?

What is responsible for its broad demographic and international appeal? 

What I Learned on Sabbatical: Lesson 4

What I Learned on Sabbatical: Lesson 4

Reaching the point of burnout in the ways and for the reasons described in my prior posts did not happen behind closed doors. It happened as I lived with, and in, my church community. As such, they had the distinct privilege of seeing my sin firsthand and feeling its impact on them directly. If Emmaus Church was not aware of it before, that spring they learned their pastor is a terrible sinner.

Though this conclusion should not have been shocking, there is a sense in which it was for all involved. While we know the theological truth that we are all sinners, there is a false and unspoken expectation amongst pastors and congregants alike that pastors are sinners in a different way than the rest of the congregation.

But they’re not.