Climbing the Heights: How to Make Worship Songs Ascend!
It was many years ago, but the memory is still vivid in my mind. After hiking for hours, I reached the top of a mountain’s summit with my family on a warm July afternoon. My mother looked at me with a smile and said, “Here we are! 10,000 feet!” From the top of that trail in the Sierra Nevada Range, we could see hundreds of miles to the east across the California border into Nevada. Several mountain lakes sparkled below us like emerald pools glimmering in a palace that had been built in the wilderness.
It was a treasure to share that moment with my mother. She passed away three years ago. The memory of ascending those mountains during those summers in my boyhood feels sacred to my heart.
Those precious times, however, give me only a small glimpse of what Jesus must have felt when He made the annual pilgrimages to the heights of Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts. In the years before His ministry, He would have traveled with his parents, siblings, and relatives—almost like a family hiking trip—as they made a slow ascent to Jerusalem’s 2,474 feet of elevation. Along the way, they would have jubilantly sung Psalms 120 through Psalm 134, which the Bible calls the Songs of Ascent.
The Songs of Ascent have a distinct sense of progress and approach—an exhilarating desire to draw near to the Most High. Because of this, these psalms provide a wonderful source of inspiration when you’re choosing worship songs for your church service. Here are a few practical examples:
Plan Your Key Changes
As you survey your list of worship songs, pay special attention to the keys. A fun way to create a sense of ascension in the church service is to progressively change to a higher key. This would not necessarily happen every single song. I’ve found that one key change—about three songs in—has a very pleasing effect on the service. Going to higher key could be, for example, changing from G (one sharp) to D (two sharps). You can make the change twice at most: for example, play the first two songs in F (one flat), play two more songs in G, and then play the last song in D or even A (three sharps).
Go from “I” Songs to “Us” Songs
The first two psalms of the Songs of Ascent are in the first person voice as if an individual were offering a prayer to God. They have a just-me-and-God feel to them. However, from the third psalm on (with the exception of Psalm 130 and 131), the words become increasingly community focused with plenty of “we” and “us” phrases. When a pilgrim would travel closer to the festival at Jerusalem, he or she would feel an increasingly greater sense of community with their family and their nation. In a similar spirit, try structuring your worship songs so that they begin with an individual focus, and then transition into a broader awareness of the Bride of Christ and our joy of gathering to praise our King.
End with Celebration instead of Contemplation
A pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a feast was probably low-key at first as families set out from their respective homes. However, I strongly suspect—based on the Ascent Psalms—that as they drew nearer to Jerusalem, their excitement grew. In fact, when the temple became visible and glimmered on the horizon, the joy must have been uncontainable. In most worship services, we start with a few fast songs, and then end with a couple slow ones. Try reversing this. Start with a few slow contemplative songs, and then as you ascend in worship as a Body, transition into faster songs, and then end with the most jubilant, rocking song you have.
All of this is meant to provide a fun alternative to the usual way of doing things. Besides these three tips, you can also include the Ascent Psalms themselves (Psalm 130 has been made into a worship song, for example, as well as Psalm 121). You can also have short readings in between worship songs to make it more of a liturgy.
Regardless of how you do it, using Scripture to inspire the structure of your worship services is always a good thing. It will take preparation, of course—and maybe a brief explanation of the concept to your congregation before you begin—but as Dan Macaulay said (quoting Darlene Zscheck) in his interview with Rockin’ God’s House, “the more we prepare, the more we have to offer our congregation on Sunday.”