Some Rules for Selecting Music

I'm often asked what I’d do differently if I could start Saddleback over. My answer is this: From the first day of the new church I’d put more energy and money into ensuring a first-class music ministry that matched our target. Music is an integral part of our lives. We eat with it, drive with it, shop with it, relax with it, and some even dance to it! The great American past time is not baseball – it is music and sharing our opinions about it!

In the first years of Saddleback, I made two mistakes in this area. One, I tried too hard to appeal to everyone’s taste (We’d cover Bach to Rock in a single service!) and two, I underestimated the power of music. Because we didn’t have many talented musicians, we minimized the use of music in our services.

A song can often touch people in ways a sermon can’t. Music can bypass intellectual barriers and take the message straight to the heart. It’s a potent tool for evangelism. In Psalm 40:3 (NCV) David says, “He put a NEW song in my mouth ... Many people will see this and worship him. Then they will trust the Lord.” Notice the clear connection between music and evangelism: “Then they will trust the Lord.”

Even Aristotle had some thoughts on this subject. He said, "Music has the power to shape character." Satan is clearly using music to do that today. The rock lyrics of the 1960s and 1970s shaped the values of most Americans who are now in the 40 to 60 age bracket. Today, MTV shapes the values of most people in their 20s. Music is the primary communicator of values to the younger generation. If we don't use contemporary music to spread godly values, Satan will have an unchallenged access to an entire generation. Music is a force that cannot be ignored.

Despite realizing I may be walking into an area full of land mines, I want to offer a few suggestions regarding music. Regardless of the style your church chooses, I believe there are a few rules you need to follow.

Preview all the music you use. Don't have surprises in your service. I learned this the hard way. Once a guest singer decided to sing a 20-minute song on nuclear disarmament!

If you don’t manage your music, your music will manage your service. Preview with an ear for both the lyrics and the tune. Ask, Is this song doctrinally sound? Is it understandable to the unchurched? Does it use terms or metaphors that unbelievers wouldn’t understand? How does the tune make me feel? Identify the purpose. Is this a song of edification, worship, fellowship, or evangelism?

Even when we invite popular Christian artists to sing at Saddleback we insist on previewing every song they intend to sing. The atmosphere we’re trying to maintain in our seeker service is far more important than any singer’s ego.

Speed up the tempo. Many worship services sound more like a funeral than a festival. The Bible says, “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” (Psalm 100:2) John Bisango, pastor emeritus of the 22,000-member First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, says, “Funeral dirge anthems and stiff-collared song leaders will kill a church faster than anything else in the world!”

Remember: Unbelievers usually prefer celebrative over contemplative music because they don’t yet have a relationship with Christ.

Update songs. Keep this in mind: There’s nothing sacred about a particular song. If the lyrics are good but the tune is old, put the words to a new tune. If the tune is great but the lyrics are archaic, update them with understandable words. Dress up some of those old friends in new clothes – if only for the sake of the unbelievers in the crowd. Otherwise, they’re likely to think the balm in Gilead is a song about terrorists!

Encourage members to write new songs. Psalm 96:1 says, "Sing to the Lord a NEW song.” Sadly, in most churches they are still singing the same old songs. Every congregation should be encouraged to compose worship songs. If you study church history, you'll discover that every genuine revival has always been accompanied by new music. New songs say, “God is doing something here and now, not just a hundred years ago!” Every generation needs new songs to express its faith. Rather than choosing songs for nostalgic reasons, choose them based on your target. And choose songs that sing to the Lord instead of songs that sing about the Lord.

Replace the organ with a MIDI band. When I took a music preference survey years ago, I couldn’t find one person who said, “I listen to organ music on the radio.” About the only place you can still hear a pipe organ is in churches. What does that say? We invite the unchurched to come and sit on 17th century chairs (which we call pews), sing 18th century songs (which we call hymns), and listen to a 19th century instrument (a pipe organ) and then we wonder why they think we’re out of date! With today’s MIDI technology, any church can have the same quality and sound of music you hear on professionally produced albums. All you need is a MIDI keyboard and some MIDI disks.

Don’t force unbelievers to sing. Use more performed music than congregational singing in your service for seekers. Visitors do not feel comfortable singing tunes they don’t know with words they don’t understand. It is also unrealistic to expect the unchurched to sings songs of praise and commitment to Jesus before they become believers. That’s getting the cart before the horse.

The bottom line to these rules is this: Make your music count. Music may be the most controversial element of a seeker service, but it’s also a critical element that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the incredible power of music and harness that power by setting aside our own personal preferences and using the music that will best reach the unchurched for Christ.

Until next week,


This article is adapted from Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church.

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Adapted from Rick Warren's Ministry ToolBox, a free weekly e-newsletter for pastors and church leaders, available at