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Seven Tips for Choosing Contemporary Worship Songs

Does your worshiping community sing contemporary worship songs from the CCLI Top 100 list? If so, maybe you wonder how these songs are forming worshipers’ views of God and the life God calls us to. Worship leaders and contemporary worship experts offer seven tips for evaluating your song choices and filling in gaps.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “song diet” to describe how to make sure your congregation is singing a balance of songs that nourish spiritual growth. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW)  in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been talking about this concept for more than twenty years, ever since CICW Executive Director John D. Witvliet briefly explained song diets in Reformed Worship in 2001.

More and more Christian worship traditions around the world depend on songs licensed by CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.) for all or part of their worship music. That’s why it’s so important to consider how the most popular CCLI songs are shaping your congregation’s views on who God is and how God calls us to live.

Here are seven tips for choosing contemporary worship music and filling the gaps with songs that address what the most popular songs miss. Your congregation’s song diet may need more Trinitarian and expansive language for God; biblical themes like lament, justice, and creation care; a congregational perspective rather than solely an individual one; and voices from diverse cultures, genders, and perspectives.

Use existing resources

Each June and December, CCLI releases its Top 100 songs according to reported usage. Vetting a hundred songs twice a year would be impossible for most denominations, let alone most churches. Fortunately, “although some new songs quickly cycle on and off the CCLI Top 100, we’re not dealing with 100 new songs per list,” says Nelson Cowan, manager of the United Methodist Church CCLI Top 100 + Beyond Project. “For our 2024 list, we had only thirty-three Top 100 songs to evaluate because sixty-seven were on lists of songs we’d already vetted.” Cowan is director of the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also a worship leader, liturgical theologian, and an ordained UMC pastor.

Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, who led a song-vetting project for Reformed traditions, says, “We were surprised as a team to see what is still sung even years after a song makes the Top 100 list.” She is a worship specialist with Thrive, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Excellent existing resources can help you think about popular songs’ strengths and opportunities and about how to use them in worship:

Create a diverse vetting team

With each successive CCLI Top 100 vetting list, the United Methodist Church (UMC) team has increased its diversity. “We have gradually ‘de-academitized’ the team,” Cowan explains. “Members still need some theological education, but we now include seasoned and new practitioners and worship leaders from small to large churches and different cultures. As our teams met monthly online, we had wonderful conversations that helped many of us change our minds. There was a lot of give and take in a holy way. Diversity produces a better list than a lone ranger with a spreadsheet can.”

Ritsema-Roelofs says, “I wanted intergenerational diversity represented, so our list included chaplains and chapel directors from three major Reformed universities in the U.S., along with a scholar, church pastor, and two worship directors.”

If your denomination isn’t represented in existing CCLI vetting resources, or if yours is a nondenominational church, consider partnering with a local university or ecumenical group of pastors or churches in your geographic area to vet songs.

Recognize and appreciate different spiritualities

“We tend to talk about faith formation in too much of a binary, like this song forms us, that song malforms us. Instead, contemporary worship (CW) offers us the opportunity to recognize and reflect on different spiritualities,” says Adam A. Perez, who teaches worship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and has been writing about CW music for more than a decade. He served on the Reformed vetting team.

“What makes Reformed worship Reformed?” Perez asks. “Reformed theology talks about God’s sovereignty with epistemic humility. It expresses humility in awareness of God’s otherness. It doesn’t make presumptions about God’s power or forget that God is God’s own agent.

“CW spirituality goes hard on ‘we can make God present in our worship’ rather than picturing worship as something that God invites us to enter,” Perez explains. “Where a CW spirituality may confidently proclaim, ‘God led me here,’ a Reformed spirituality may say, ‘God, we’re so grateful that you gave us this opportunity.’ In recognizing different spiritualities in songs, we’re not saying that one is good and the other is bad. Nor are we saying, ‘This is the right and only way for our congregation to sing.’ We can still be faithful even when we’re more questioning or less confident about how God is at work.”

Perez appreciates how CW music offers “opportunities for the ‘frozen chosen’ to add new dimensions to praise by activating our full body and emotional response to God.” He describes the collective Maverick City Music as “heavily on the side of victory and God’s power” and appreciates how it “taps into Black joy, which is a new thing in the CCLI repertoire.”

Looking at how denominational vetting teams have interpreted songs may help you identify the dominant spiritualities in your worshiping community. “King of My Heart” quietly yet confidently declares, “You’re never gonna let me down ’cause you are good.” The Reformed vetting team appreciates how this Bethel Music song by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan declares trust in God’s goodness, yet it “hints at prosperity gospel” and doesn’t convey that God’s presence with us doesn’t mean God will always give us our way.

Spark conversations about key questions

To develop rubrics for vetting CCLI Top 100 songs, invite conversations about what categories to use and values to emphasize. It may help to look at how other teams have approached this work.

“Some denominations [or nondenominational churches] have struggled to figure out what is theologically essential or distinctive in their contexts,” Cowan says. In discussing guidelines for the UMC 2020 CCLI Top 100 + Beyond project, he and Diana Sanchez-Bushong describe five key Wesleyan themes, the first of which is love: “Calvinist theologies tend to focus on God’s sovereignty (and justice as a subsidiary) as the primary attribute of God. Pentecostal theologies tend to focus on God's power. Wesleyan theology centers on love as the nature of God, love that expands into grace for all humanity. Awe arises in beholding signs of love encountering and saving us.”

Meanwhile, Clayton Faulkner, who led the ALCM project, wrote that its vetting team looked for songs with Lutheran theological emphases on the Trinity, grace, law and gospel, sacramentality, and liturgical time. Faulkner is a Lutheran pastor and editor of CrossAccent: Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.

Besides theology, the Lutheran, UMC, and Reformed projects also included language, singability, and type of musical performance in their criteria. All valued congregational singing over solo performance. Each team reported that talking together often helped them rethink or learn to appreciate certain songs.

“When our Reformed team vetted the CCLI Top 100, we paired off, each pair taking 20 songs, says Laura de Jong, pastor of preaching and worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario. “I was paired with Paul Ryan, the worship pastor at Calvin University. There were songs I probably would have marked as yellow for theological reasons, and then Paul would say, ‘I know it doesn’t fall exactly within our theological parameters, but you should hear the students sing this song. It’s a heart song for them.’

“That’s why we need to be both discerning and humble,” de Jong continues. “A song with a quirk we dislike may be pastorally meaningful to many in our worship community. I’d love for worship committees or pastor/worship director teams to spend time with our Reformed list [or other vetted lists]. Together they can reflect on whether it affirms and contradicts some of the choices they’ve made and why, how they might similarly evaluate worship songs, and to think through how they might frame songs in worship if they aren’t already doing so.”

Consider current cultural contexts

Song meanings can affect people differently depending on how and where they are used. This is especially crucial during polarized times.

After a peacemaking pilgrimage to Northern Ireland, Laura de Jong blogged for Reformed Journal about how fellow travelers wrestled with questions such as “How does or could worship contribute both positively and negatively to the cause of peacemaking?” In considering “how to use psalms with explicitly Zionist language in them,” she asks, “how do we pray for the peace of Jerusalem in Psalm 122—a perfectly good and right thing to pray for—without exclusively praying for peace for the people of Israel and neglecting the Palestinians?”

Many popular CW songs proclaim that God is on our side and God is for us. “These songs are right in a certain way, Perez says, “but we need to balance that with recognizing that God’s will is often veiled, and we’re not always on God’s side.”

Songs such as “Raise a Hallelujah,” “Battle Belongs,” and “We Praise You” use warfare language that can be weaponized in ways contrary to the gospel. The ALCM team says that “Battle Belongs” doesn’t “leave room for a God who makes wars to cease (Psalm 46:9)” and that, when singing about spiritual warfare, it is “too easy to slip into making our neighbors into enemies.”

Chris Tomlin’s beloved “How Great Is Our God” has become “the theme song for Christian nationalists,” Religion News Service reporter Bob Smietana writes. We should be wary about similarly conflating God’s will with certain political parties or outcomes. When singing about “our God,” who are we including in “our”?

Be pastorally sensitive

“We highly encourage people to know whether their congregations have trauma victims in the pews,” Ritsema-Roelofs says. “Be wise and pastoral. If we are going to be churches that hold safe space for the vulnerable among us, we need greater awareness in our worship planning and preaching. There are triggering words in songs that will not only exclude people from participating, but potentially make them feel emotionally and spiritually unsafe.”

When considering “No Longer Slaves,” Ritsema-Roelofs’s team noted that its “affirmation of identity and belonging links with Psalms and Exodus [and] might be meaningful for adult baptisms.” Yet they warned: “‘Slave’ language, while biblical, can be pastorally insensitive—not only racially, but culturally.”

The Reformed list says this about “House of the Lord”: “Be pastorally sensitive to those who come into worship in places of despair. We rightly include songs of praise and gratitude, but this particular song leaves little room for those who keenly feel the absence of joy.” Meanwhile, the ALCM list cautions that the “We were the beggars, now we’re royalty” language in the song’s bridge wrongly implies that being poor is contradictory to God’s plan. It also contradicts Martin Luther’s dying words: “We are beggars.”

The UMC 2024 list describes “I Speak Jesus” as “about the power of the name of Jesus. We appreciate that this song tries to tackle important subjects such as addiction, fear, anxiety, and depression. However, if not framed carefully, it is easy for this song to suggest that speaking Jesus’ name might be a ‘quick fix’ for some of these clinical conditions. For some congregations and circumstances, it may be wise to skip verse 3, which contains this loaded language.”

Look beyond the CCLI Top 100 songs

Many churches and worship leaders focus on the current CCLI Top 100 songs, but Cowan says that digging deeper into the CCLI catalog yields much more variety. CCLI SongSelect has more than 100,000 songs.

“CCLI Top 100 songs are often written by white males bankrolled by major music producers,” Cowan says. “This doesn’t reflect UMC diversity in the US or globally. We asked our vetting team to research songs written by women or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) musicians, from diverse theological perspectives, by people outside the US, (by people not) represented by major labels or that were so new that they hadn’t made it to the CCLI Top lists.”

One group Cowan recommends exploring is The Porter’s Gate. “They’re very folksy,” he says. “Their ‘Declaring Glory (The Earth Sings Its Refrain)’ is written from creation’s perspective.”

He also recommends Maverick City Music, “a collective featuring many Black musicians that does highly produced songs with a live album sound, not studio produced. Many of their better-known songs are collaborations with Elevation Worship, but you can also find acoustic arrangements. We’ve recommended ‘Promises,’ ‘I Thank God,’ and ‘Rest on Us.’”

“In the UMC,” Cowan adds, “we are looking for good songs about God’s justice, God’s plans for the new creation, and how we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in embodying both the warning and promise that the kingdom of God is near. We are the number two reporting body to CCLI, but I don’t know of any UMC artist in the CCLI Top 100.”

Besides digging deeper into CCLI SongSelect, talk with your team about themes the catalog doesn’t cover. For example, the CCLI theme list has no category for confession or lament.

Adam A. Perez suggests a number of songwriters to explore: The Porter’s Gate; Wendell Kimbrough and Paul Zach “for folk/American styles”; Rachel Wilhelm’s “Speak to Us” and other songs on her Songs of Lament album; The Many music collective, whose songs are “more diverse theologically”; and Common Hymnal, “predominantly Black but also diverse.” He wonders whether “as American popular music is increasingly influenced by Latino artists we’ll finally get beyond this Black/white binary.”

The ACLM team asks congregations to consider songs deeper in the CCLI catalog, such as “Ancient Words” (CCLI # 2986399), “Christ in Me Arise” (CCLI # 5917286), “The River Is Here” (CCLI # 1475231), and “Grace Is Not Earned” (CCLI # 5971167).


Explore CCLI Top songs vetted by Reformed churches and the United Methodist Church (2015/2017, 2021, and 2024). Access the Lutheran list by joining Association of Lutheran Church Musicians or ordering the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of CrossAccent.

Adam A. Perez and Luke Litz wrote about a Reformed perspective on contemporary praise and worship music for Reformed Journal. Perez and other scholars share contemporary worship findings on Read Adam Perez’s 2022 Religions article “It’s Your Breath in Our Lungs,” which talks about singing warfare themes in contemporary worship. Perez helps oversee a Lilly Endowment Inc. grant about nurturing children through intergenerational worship, including music.

Browse song lists focused on climate change and creation care, diverse Anabaptist communities, Indigenous church worship, justice, refugees and immigrants, women songwriters, and worship for workers.

Learn the licensing differences between CCLI, Church Copyright Solutions, and OneLicense. Freely download the UMC Vetting Tool for its brief essays on sourcing songs, inclusive language and copyright issues, global songs, cultural competence in adapting songs, and more. Consider WorshipFuel’s ten traits of top CCLI songs. Read advice for evaluating songs on Renewing Worship.