When I was given the IMPOSSIBLE task of naming the five most treasured worship songs, I said, “Sure!” without really thinking about how difficult that would be. I have a book on my desk at church entitled, Hymns that Endure. Wow. Boldly prophetic title! When I saw it in our church library, I immediately grabbed it up and looked at the copyright date: 1942! I felt like I had found a treasure; a window to the past to see which worship songs they were certain we would sing forever, and whether they were right!
Well, they were right…and wrong. But let’s be fair. How could they know? The church music / congregational music landscape has changed a lot since 1942. But it raises an important question for us as well. How do WE know? The music landscape is shifting today too. At a much more rapid pace than 73 years ago. How could I possibly say which are the most important congregational songs of the moment? The Bible instructs us to sing a new song, so we must. But it isn’t fair to compare these new songs to the old “standards” that we still sing. We still sing them because they have been tested for generations. We don’t sing them because they’re old. (There are plenty of old songs that we don’t sing anymore.) We sing them because they are true. They resonate across the ages with eternal truth that continues to draw us to worship in response to their revelation.
So, at significant risk of leaving out someone’s personal favorite, including my own, I will list five of the most well-loved and oft-used worship songs in corporate worship today. And I will also list the reasons I believe these songs have stood, or will stand, the test of time.
How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg, 1885) TRANSCENDENCE – I’ve been told by my missionary friends that this is the worship song sung most world-wide. No surprise, I guess. It transcends cultures because it is God-centered, not man-centered. It helps us worship our God who transcends cultures, epochs, and indeed creation. Songs have staying power when they raise our collective conscious from the shifting sands of this world’s ways to the eternal nature of Creator God.
Amazing Grace (John Newton, 1779; current tune, 1835) TESTIMONY – Ranked first on a list of the favorite hymns of all time in a survey by Today’s Christian magazine in 2001. The focus of this great hymn is clearly the all-sufficient grace of God, demonstrated in Christ. But what has secured this song’s place in history is the way it was written as a personal testimony. Newton’s conversion was emotional and transformational, and whenever we sing it, we find ourselves contemplating God’s grace through the lens of our own testimony.
It is Well With My Soul (Horatio Spafford, 1873; Phillip Bliss, 1876) TRAGEDY – Another powerful personal testimony song, this timeless tune gives flight to our faith. I’ve heard it said that we are either coming out of a storm, in the middle of one, or headed into one. It is the nature of our existence. In the hardships of this life, we need songs like this to remind us that God is an unchanging and sure foundation. And our unflinching trust in His sovereignty brings peace to our souls.
10,000 Reasons (Jonas Myrin & Matt Redman, 2010) THANKFULNESS – My pastor, when I was growing up, used to say that thankfulness is the least practiced spiritual discipline. Yet, we are commanded many times in scripture to be thankful, particularly related to our worship practice. Psalm 100 says we should enter His gates with thanksgiving. Colossians 3 says we should sing our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to one another with thanksgiving. I believe this song has captured the attention of the Church, at least in part, because it gives voice to our need to thank the Lord for all His goodness in any season of life. This is the newest song on my short list, but I suspect we will be singing this one for quite a while.
In Christ Alone (Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, 2001) TRUTH – Another relative newcomer to our Christian songbook, this tune has already proven itself stalwart. I believe the staying power of this song is two-fold. First, these Irish tunes are very “catchy” and singable. Though the vocal range of this melody is relatively challenging by today’s standards (an octave and a half), the melody is inviting nevertheless. But more importantly, this song preaches the entire gospel. The church has always loved singing the old, old story of Jesus and His love. The church should always sing the gospel, and therefore, the church’s songwriters have an obligation to continue to craft songs that help us do that. Our culture is desperate for answers to our deepest questions. That’s why I believe songs that are profoundly true will remain.
Kirk Kirkland is a pastor, worship leader and LifeWay Worship songwriter. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three children and serves the people of Judson Baptist Church as the Minister of Music & Worship and the Pastoral Counselor. For a sample of his music at lifewayworship.com, click here.