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Reformed Look at Top Worship Songs Offers Caution, Guidance

A time of worship during Synod 2023.
The vetting team emphasized the high value Reformed worship has for the participatory nature of corporate worship.
Steven Herppich

Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, worship consultant with the Christian Reformed Church’s Thrive ministry, led a team that published “CCLI Vetting Project: A Reformed Voice” in January. It was an analysis of the then-current Top 100 list of most sung/reported songs from Christian Copyright Licensing International. The Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song invited the CRC to contribute a Reformed perspective on the value of these most commonly sung songs in contemporary worship, prompted by earlier vetting projects from other theological lenses.

Ritsema-Roelofs said she considered the project worthwhile because of how often she and other worship ministry colleagues were asked, ‘What should we sing?’ or told, ‘I wish we had a tool’ to sort the theologically good from the theologically bad. “That was my main calculus for saying yes,” said Ritsema-Roelofs.

But, as she explains in the project’s introduction, the team didn’t take a “‘sing this/don’t sing this’ approach.” Instead, recognizing that “every song has strengths and opportunities” for use in worship, the list offers “things we think should be taken into consideration from a formative perspective. … Over time, what we sing and what we say in worship forms us.”

Cautions included:

  • biblical and theological concerns, such as “Incorporates a victory/deliverance theology” (“Battle Belongs”)
  • Individualistic vs. corporate concerns, including “Overly intimate and individualistic language” (“How He Loves Us”)
  • minimization of human reality and suffering, noting for example that “acknowledging suffering does not mean you have no faith” (“Evidence”)
  • notes on singability, including “Relies on driving percussion and robust band. Congregationally hard to sing” (“What I See”)

On the last criteria, the evaluators emphasize the high value that Reformed worship places on the participatory nature of corporate worship: “We strongly encourage a song diet primarily filled with songs that can be SUNG by your congregation.”

Even songs with the “no or minor reservations” green light received caution notes on singability, including “You are My King/Amazing Love” (“Congregationally difficult to sing”) and “Your Grace is Enough” (“Challenging vocal range; syncopated rhythm”).

Ritsema-Roelofs invited Paul Ryan, the worship pastor from Calvin University; Jeremy Perigo, professor of theology and worship arts at Dordt University; Ben Snoek and Erin Hollaar Pacheco, campus pastor and director of campus worship at Trinity Christian College, to be part of the team. “When talking about formational elements, our universities are a really good place to start,” she said. Adam Perez, an accomplished scholar of praise and worship history and theology; Laura DeJong, a CRC pastor; and Heather Kaemingk, a worship director, also were part of the team.

Meant as one tool among many for leaders planning worship services, the vetted list was published on the CRC’s Network and provided to the Center for Congregational Song, where Ritsema-Roelofs believes they intend to publish side by side evaluations from multiple theological perspectives.

Ritsema-Roelofs said in the months since the vetted list has been available she’s received some positive and critical reactions to it, but because she sees the project as call to be attentive to what congregations sing together in worship, “I count all responses as a win because it shows people are thinking about it and talking about it.”

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