Everyone has a favorite song. It is the one we cannot resist singing when we hear it. It is a favorite because there is some emotional association with its initial, or later, hearing. It may remind us of a family member from our past or present. It may bring up those feelings of young love. It may be related to a patriotic celebration. The reasons are endless, but the feeling is real: it is our favorite.
Congregational song is no different. We have our favorites. The songs we sing together in worship evoke those same feelings in each of us. As a person who selects music on a weekly basis for use in worship, I get many comments like: “That reminded me of my grandmother washing dishes and singing.” “That was the song that was being sung when I (or some family member) had a life changing spiritual moment.” “I remember singing that song at camp.” The point is, we all have a favorite, and our reasons are varied for why they are a favorite.
Recently, the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, of which I am a member, conducted a March Madness type contest for finding favorite songs. The purpose, in addition to the novelty of the event, was to identify some of the favorite songs of people who actually spend their lives selecting and performing congregational song in the local church. The group is very diverse denominationally, culturally, spiritually, and educationally, which affects the results. It is interesting however, to see the commonality of choices among such a group. Below are 4 lists, each representing a specific style of congregational song. The lists contain those songs considered the best in each category.
STROPHIC DIVISION (songs that have numbered stanzas with no refrains/choruses)
REFRAIN DIVISION (songs that have stanzas followed by a repetitive refrain/chorus)
When Peace, Like a River/It Is Well
My Hope is Built/On Christ the Solid Rock
CHANT AND CYCLIC DIVISION (songs based on ancient sources and/or with repetitive lines throughout)
CCLI DIVISION (Songs from the Christian Copyright License website based on frequency of use. I am not sure what there are only 5, except that this list changes almost weekly based on reporting from individual churches. We report the songs we use in 8:45 worship, so our data is included.)
1. 10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord)
5. Every Praise
Now for one final list. This is from 1990 and was compiled by the BBC radio 2 program, Good Morning Sunday. The context was much different and the list is almost 30 years old, so comparing this with the Hymn Society list would not be accurate, but seeing what songs were considered favorites then is interesting.
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
How Great Thou Art
The Old Rugged Cross
The Day Thou Gavest
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Love Divine All Loves Excelling
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Love That Will Not Let Me Go
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Abide with Me
A few final notes. The description of each category in parenthesis is an over-simplified explanation of categories that are difficult to define because of overlapping characteristics among the selections. These lists are based on a relatively small number of participants whose personal bias (favorite selections) is certainly part of the process. If we did a similar survey within our church, the results would be dramatically different. The point is, we all have a favorite, and that is great. Just remember that other people have favorites as well, and their list will probably include songs your list does not.
One final word. If you ask me what my favorite is, you will get the answer a group of undergrad students received when we asked our music history professor what piece he would take to listen to on a deserted island for the rest of his life. “I could never limit my selection to one. You must let me choose my favorite 100, or may 200.” The closest I will get to making a choice will be the list of songs I leave to be sung at my memorial service. If you are around, attend and you will hear some of my favorites. But bring a lunch, we will be singing for a while.