9 Proven (But Largely Forgotten) Themes For Worship Songs

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

For great is the...
“Why do so many worship songs sound the same?”

You don’t have to be in the church long to hear that question. A lot of it has to do with sameness of musical style, but it also pertains to lyrical themes. If you’re a worship pastor who wants to give your congregation a well-balanced diet of gospel-centric songs, or a songwriter who keeps writing about the same aspects of God’s character and actions, here is one way to broaden your repertoire:

Follow a simple liturgical template, the kind used by churches for centuries. If the word liturgy scares you, then “gird up thy loins.” This post will give you simple definitions for nine basic parts of a standard Christian liturgy, with examples of ancient and modern worship songs that fit each category. Write at least one song based on each liturgical movement — that’s a whole album’s worth of songs, each with a different subject but yet cohesive and able to help us meditate on the heart of gospel:  God is holy. I am sinful. Jesus is my savior. Now I will go forth to proclaim it.

Let’s go:

Call to worship – Church services begin by focusing on God, remembering that He has revealed himself to us and called us to be his family.  We then respond by praising Him for His attributes and work in history.  “All Creatures Of Our God and King” is a classic Call to Worship hymn, and Matt Redman’s “Gifted Response” is a good contemporary Call to Worship song. Also check out “Come and Sing” by our church Sojourn, written by our friend Jeremy Quillo.

Confessions of sorrow and repentance – When God reveals his perfect, holy self to us, it makes us realize our own wretchedness.  We admit that nothing we could do would make us “good enough” for God.  Songs of confession and repentance give voice to our sinfulness and need for a savior. I’ve written before about the modern confession hymn I wrote with Brooks Ritter, “Lead Us Back.” Charlie Hall’s “Give Us Clean Hands” is a good contemporary repentance song.

This is also a time to include laments — confessions of our sorrow, lack of faith or confusion. Laments can focus on all the suffering in the world or the heartache in individual hearts. Here’s “How Long”, which our friend Rebecca Dennison adapted from Isaac Watts own adaptation of Psalm 13:

Celebration of assurance – Because of Christ’s victory over sin for us on the cross, and God’s promises empower us through his Holy Spirit, we find rest and assurance.  God is bigger than our sin, bigger than all the suffering in the world, and bigger than the powers of hell. You’ll find many praise & worship songs that celebrate the assurance we have in Christ. Ground yours with the truths of scripture, like “Begone Unbelief,” the John Newton hymn which Kevin Twit adapted and fitted with a new melody for Indelible Grace:

Since all that I meet will work for my good,
The bitter is sweet, The medicine food;
Though painful at present, will cease before long,
And then, O! how glorious, The conqueror’s song!

Passing of the peace – This is the time when churches encourage people to turn around, shake hands with those near by, and greet those whom you don’t know.  Songwriters, teach people why we do this.  At Sojourn we say “Christ has made peace between God and man, and has broken down all social barriers. We celebrate our unity as God’s children in this spirit of peace.” “Blessed Be The Tie That Binds” by John Fawcett is likely the most well-known hymn that illustrates the Passing of the Peace. See also the excellent Caedmon’s Call song “Fellowship So Deep,” written by Aaron Senseman and Kinley Lange.

Prayer for Illumination – This is the prayer preceding a sermon or scripture reading. We pray that God will illuminate our minds and hearts to receive and understand his truth. “Open Thou My Eyes” by Lancelot Andrewes is a classic hymn prayer for illumination. Our friend Jeremy Quillo wrote a wonderful example as well, called “We Are Listening.”

Communion – Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and victory over the grave is the center of our faith, the defining moment in history. We celebrate this in the symbol of the Lord’s Supper, as we look forward to Christ’s return. There are countless examples of communion hymns from years’ gone by (such as “When I Survey The Wond’rous Cross” by Isaac Watts). Although there aren’t as many songs about the cross in modern worship, you can still find plenty. Again, the crucifixion is central to our faith, so the church can never have too many “blood songs.” And they don’t always have to be slow, meditative hymns. Remember the “love feast” aspect of communion. This symbol can be a rocking celebration. Here’s Sovereign Grace’s “Across The Great Divide” written by Mark Altrogge:

Giving – The Bible emphasizes giving out of gratitude, not out of duty. The offering is a part of worship. It’s a way in which God lets us participate in Kingdom building, even though he owns everything.  Few worship songwriters touch on giving, so there’s plenty of room here. I’ve written about this before, sharing the song I wrote with Rebecca Elliott, “All I Have Is Yours.”

Dedication – Before leaving the worship space, we acknowledge that we go on the mission for Christ, carrying the “ministry of reconciliation” to our homes, jobs, neighborhoods and city around us. Matt Redman’s “Mission’s Flame” is a solid contemporary song of dedication, as is Peter Cutts’ and Erik Routley’s “All Who Love and Serve Our City,” and “O Church Arise” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. Here’s another good one, written by our friend Jamie Barnes: Sojourn’s “A City No Longer Forsaken.”

Benediction – The benediction is a “blessing for the road.” Stuart Townend’s “May the Peace of God” is a good modern hymn for the benediction. Chris Tomlin’s “God of this City” works well here, too, as does Derek Webb’s “Take To The World.” And here is Sojourn’s “All Good Gifts” written by our friend Michael Morgan:


Kevin Twit March 26, 2012 at 1:13 pm

But you missed one important theme Bobby! At a worship conference seminar (which will remain nameless) years ago one of the panelists was asked about topics for which we needed hymns. The response, “I think the theological issue of the next 20 years is the ethical treatment of non-human animals, and we need hymns for that.” So you could add this and make your list a perfect 10. Good thing we already have a hymn about space exploration or you would need to add an 11th theme.

ootaynee March 27, 2012 at 2:01 am

the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals as a worship song? uh no thanks.Lord helllllp me to treaaaat that skunnnnk in myyy yaaarrdd with graaaaaaaaaaaace and meeeerrccyy, and allllso the miiiiiice. Im ssoooorrrry theee sticky paaaaper I puuut ouuuuut ripped allllll the fuuurrr offf of theee ppooor little verrrrman…. 🙂

Bobby Gilles March 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

How could I have forgotten that event from the Nameless Seminar?

Here’s a quick example – a verse from a forgotten Long Meter hymn that I happen to have just discovered, on an archaeological dig this morning:

“Treat tenderly our four-pawed friends,
And those who slink and swim and fly;
Don’t chain them up or lock them down
Or Christ will get you, by and by.

Dan Korneychuk March 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Thank you for this GREAT word to today’s worship leaders! May I suggest an “alternative” 10th act of worship (with no malice toward the Nameless Seminar)…petition and intercession? We pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is where we acknowledge and submit to God’s reign every need in our personal lives, our corporate life, our community, our nation and the world…praying for healing, reconciliation, provision, justice and true peace. A friend of mine posted a link to your blog on Facebook. I’m glad he did. Good stuff!

Bobby Gilles March 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Thanks Dan!

I agree. Earlier this year I wrote another article on themes for worship songs here, based on the A.C.T.S. and Collect prayer models. Both of those models include petition and intercession. Check out the article here:


Dan Korneychuk March 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Thanks, again, Bobby. Just read the the “two models” article and it is such great direction, not just for song writers, but for all worship leaders. I have to tell you that I pray for the day that the term “set list” passes from the worship leader’s vocabulary. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the term, but it allows…maybe even encourages…worship leaders to think along the lines of key relationships, tempo changes, style connections more than “given this great privilege of leading God’s beloved children in His worship…how can I best facilitate a rich and authentic dialogue between God and His people?”

Bobby Gilles March 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm

You’re right, Dan. And I find myself going back and forth when describing what we do on Sunday in terms of “set list” (simply from a practical standpoint, because the term is so common) and “liturgy,” which is more accurate. I like “liturgy” because it literally means the “work of the people.” It’s the songs we sing, the prayers, communion, giving, scripture reading, sermon, greetings, blessing for the road — and it even goes beyond what the pastors plan for those things, to describing what all God’s people do together on Sundays, as they’re instructed and empowered by the Word and Spirit.

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