How to Evaluate Worship Songs, Part 2

Thousands of songs are being written every week, and choosing which ones to introduce to your congregation is like the cliché: searching for a needle in a haystack.

Choosing the right songs usually focuses on the merits of the song itself, as we discussed in a previous post. The individual merits of a song, however, are not enough to deem a song appropriate for your congregation.

After evaluating songs for Quality we must also evaluate them for Fit. 

What does Fit mean?

Think of this analogy. When we hire a new employee we not only look for their professional qualifications and recommendations but also their fit with the existing staff. Does the potential employee complement the skills of the existing staff? Is he aligned with the mission of the organization? Does he add to or detract from staff chemistry?

We must evaluate songs in the same way.

Here are 5 things to consider when evaluating a song for Fit:

  1. Alignment. Does this song promote the current purposes of the church? Just as every staff member and volunteer must be moving in the same direction, every song must support the same mission.
  2. Chemistry. Does this song meet a specific need or address a particular weakness in the current repertoire? Types of needs could be tempo, theme, style, instrumentation, and so forth.
  3. Style. Is this song within the stylistic spectrum of the church? Every church has a stylistic fingerprint, and each song should reinforce the fingerprint.
  4. Difficulty. Is this song at an appropriate difficulty level for the worship team? Is the melody learnable for the congregation? Many great quality worship songs are just beyond the ability of a worship team to handle. Israel Houghton’s band will be able to do more difficult music than most bands, for instance.
  5. Stretch. Is this song intended to stretch the congregation or worship team in some way? While numbers 1-4 focus on a song’s fit within the current musical repertoire of a church, some songs should stretch those normal boundaries in appropriate and thoughtful ways. NOTE: “Stretch” songs should be few and far between.

What other criteria do you use when evaluating a song for Fit?

How Our Church Recruited Worship Volunteers, Part 5

A month has passed since the Arts in Worship recruitment campaign at our church and I want to share some of the lessons we have learned. Review is an often-skipped-but-very-necessary stage in wrapping up an event or campaign.

Here are the posts leading up to this one:

  1. The Plan
  2. Why Technical Arts?
  3. The Campaign
  4. The Follow-Up

Let’s begin with what went well.

  1. The visibility of arts in the church went way up. The excitement of those several weeks was tangible and planted seeds in people’s hearts about the role of arts in worship.
  2. More people stepped forward to share their artistic talents in worship leadership. We had good responses, particularly to Musical and Visual Arts.
  3. Artists engaged in meaningful spiritual connections. I enjoyed the spiritual and personal conversations that happened throughout those weeks, both with our arts leaders and with interested artists. The campaign drew people in from the fringes.
  4. We stretched boundaries. This campaign was the first of it’s kind at our church, and people loved it. The Live in the Lobby portion of the campaign was a new idea and well received.
  5. Artists of all ages got involved. Throughout the campaign we had teenagers as well as senior adults making meaningful contributions.
  6. We did well on follow-up. In almost all of the cases we followed up promptly with interested individuals to see their interest level and to answer questions.
  7. The First Step Weekend was a good idea. Although not all of the arts areas had good experiences on First Step Weekend, the idea and energy there was positive and worth revisiting.

Now for some of the things that did not go so well.

  1. Promotion was weak. Because we ran the campaign on short notice our promotion suffered. More advance time would have meant better element planning for the services to support the campaign. On the Musical Arts week we had special music and on the Dramatic Arts week we had a dramatic reading of Scripture, but these things were last minute and happened to work out. In addition, we had no real connection between the in-service promotion and the Live in the Lobby piece. They coexisted rather than working together.
  2. Response to Technical Arts was almost non-existent. We did not portray Technical Arts visibly, they had no presence in the Live in the Lobby portion of the campaign, and Technical Arts are largely invisible in church as it is.
  3. We had lots of no-shows for our follow-up meetings and auditions.
  4. Live in the Lobby did not work well for Dramatic Arts. Doing dramatic sketches in a noisy lobby does not work as well as doing live music. What did work for them was walking around in the lobby in character and engaging people in conversation.
  5. The lobby was not large enough for the Live in the Lobby presentations. While we cannot do much about this piece at this point, we realize that the arts presentations were a bit cramped.
  6. Our location was not central enough for Live in the Lobby.  Being off to the side minimized interaction.
  7. We had too few interactions with The Visual Arts and Dramatic Arts Live in the Lobby experiences. The buzz created by having live art in the lobby was wonderful, but  connections were primarily with other artists, family, and friends.

With those things in mind, here are some of our takeaways.

  1. Plan ahead. Advance planning, as usual, is critical to the success of a campaign like this.
  2. Clearly connect all of the elements of the campaign. Verbiage, visuals, and handouts should clearly connection the experiences in the auditorium during services with the experiences in the lobby between the services and any other pieces to the campaign.
  3. Have clear opportunities for interested people. Dramatic Arts follow-up responses would most likely have been much better if we could have told interested people that we have sketches and productions already planned for the next 6-12 months. Then follow-up meetings become a casting call rather than a get together of people who do not know each other.
  4. Personally recruit people for invisible ministries like the Technical Arts. Personal invitations and recommendations are critical for this challenging ministry.
  5. Do drama differently in the lobby. In the future, should we do this again, we will focus on actors in character interacting with people in the lobby rather than trying to present dramatic sketches in a noisy environment.
  6. Do something. While we have much to work on, the experience and responses were wonderful and demonstrated a big step forward for Arts at our church.
  7. Artists are here. We now realize we have more artists in the seats than we thought. We would not have known this if we had not asked.
  8. God is active. Throughout the spiritual conversations, auditions, and performances, God made his presence known.

We definitely have a lot to learn when it comes to recruiting and empowering artists to use their gifts in worship, but this campaign has given us some valuable insights.

What have you learned about recruiting artists?

How to Evaluate Worship Songs, Part 1

Evaluating new worship songs for congregational singing is a never ending job.  Every day more great songs and lots of mediocre ones are being written, and worship leaders have to sort through them all.

My process of looking for new congregational songs contains two simultaneous processes.  For me to present a song to our senior pastor for consideration it has to pass muster on a Quality Evaluation and a Fit Evaluation.

Quality Evaluation is examining the craft of a song from the lyrics to the harmonies.  Fit Evaluation is deciding whether or not a song is appropriate for our particular church, given our history, culture, background, and so forth.

For this post let’s take a look at the Quality Evaluation.  I will address the Fit Evaluation in a following post.

In a Quality Evaluation I look for five things:

  1. Great Lyrics. Theologically sound and emotionally gripping. Grammatically clear.  There is some give and take in quality between elements of a song, but certain things, such as the theology of the lyrics, must never be compromised.
  2. Great Melody. Natural phrasing, reasonable range, fits the text well.
  3. Great Harmony. The harmony does not need to be complex; it simply needs to take us somewhere. The harmony needs to be married well with the text, just like the melody.
  4. Great Rhythm. What is the overriding rhythm to this song? Does it stick in your head and your gut? Does it match the mood of the text?
  5. Great Hook. A memorable song has a great musical gesture, whether that gesture is in the introduction, the melody, or some instrumental interlude somewhere in the song.  Some songs can survive without a great hook if all the other elements are excellent.

Once a song passes muster on these five points you can then do a Fit Evaluation.  We will take a look at that process in a later post.

Browse through your songlist (if you are a worship leader) and see how the songs measure up in these five areas.  If you are comfortable with it, please share the results and your action plan with us.

How to Be an Engaging Worship Leader

Perhaps the most persistent topic in worship discussions among church leadership is the engagement of the congregation. We try to measure it, observe it, record it, and dissect it so that we can have worship services that are participatory experiences rather than observation events.

We often overlook the most critical piece in engagement: the worship leader.

You cannot have an engaged congregation without an engaging worship leader.

I have struggled through this discussion many times. I have been scrutinized, encouraged, probed, and challenged on this issue more times than I can recount.

I distinctly remember one week years ago when I was reviewing the traditional service I was leading at the time. I was encouraged to change the way I seated the congregation after a hymn.

That’s right. I was instructed on the statement, “You may be seated.”

At the time I was trying to be as unintrusive about direction as possible in hopes of creating a more worshipful environment. I found, though, that people needed absolutely clear direction, and non-verbal signs were not always clear enough for them.

The suggestion for me was to say the phrase, “You may be seated,” more firmly and clearly. Apparently I had a way of saying it quietly and trailing off. Now I am much more firm in my directions.

This may seem like nit-picking, and, in a way, it felt that way at the time. Over time, however, I have come to value that piece of advice and have used it to guide my leadership. As a result, people respond better to my leadership, which creates better engagement.

The point is that you and I as worship leaders are the biggest factor in congregational engagement. We can discuss the culture of the church, the ages of the people attending and their backgrounds, the lighting, and the projection for hours, but if you and I, the worship leaders, are not engaging, all of the other discussions are pointless.

What does an engaging worship leader look like? Here are 10 characteristics of an engaging worship leader.

  1. Humility. People want to engage with a humble leader. Why? Because a worship leader who is all about himself leaves no room for the congregation to participate; the worship service becomes all about him rather than about worshiping God.
  2. Winsomeness. Sugar draws more flies than vinegar, the old saying goes. The same is true for worship leaders. Be warm and have a sense of humor. You don’t need to be a comedian, and you don’t have to smile all of the time, but you need have a spirit of optimism. People are drawn to positive leaders.
  3. Passion. A guaranteed way to kill a worship service is to lead like the deadpan teacher in the classic movie, Ferris Bueler’s Day Off: “Bueler? . . . Bueler? . . . Bueler?” If the life of Christ is not visibly in you then the congregation will be unresponsive.
  4. Confidence. An engaging worship leader gives direction, prays, and sings with confidence. The congregation needs to feel like they are being led confidently. Insecurity kills engagement.
  5. Transparency. Be open about your struggles. In one worship service I talked briefly about how difficult my divorce was and how it brought me closer to Christ. Later I found out that my comments were a key turning point for someone in the service. The Holy Spirit used those words to encourage this person to return to a deeper relationship with Christ. Your brokenness is your most engaging tool. You need to have balance and discretion in how you share your struggles, but you need to share them.
  6. Authentic Faith. You need to be close with Christ. There is no formula for this relationship, and this relationship is not legalistic. I could give you a checklist: read your Bible, pray, meditate, memorize Scripture, listen to sermons, read books, and on and on. All of those things are phenomenal resources and I recommend them, but they do not create a relationship with Christ. They are tools. Make Christ your focus and your desire. Spend time with him. Ask him to bring you closer to him. Then use the tools I mentioned and any others you discover.
  7. Relevance. Acknowledge the reality we live in through your leadership. The message of “Jesus saves” must be linked with “We are broken” for people to believe you. Leaders who are only sunshine all the time will seem false, but leaders who are depressed about reality will be a downer. A balanced view of brokenness and a Savior who can redeem brokenness will draw people to Christ.
  8. Authentic Emotion. An engaging worship leader has appropriate emotions. If the song you are leading is celebrative, a smile and bright face are essential. If the song you are leading is a lament, however, a hopeful but more somber face is needed. Appropriate emotional expression will make a worship leader feel real to a congregation. I am not saying to manipulate the people through “performing” emotions. People will read right through that. The emotions on your face need to come from your life experiences.
  9. Truth. Do not be afraid to speak truth when you lead. People want to hear the truth spoken in a gracious way, so, as the Holy Spirit guides you, share truth with them. Of course, you will only have truth to share if you have an authentic and growing relationship with Christ. Otherwise your statements of truth will come across as moralistic platitudes.
  10. Skill. Few things will hinder a worship service like a leader who does not know their music, their role, and their instrument well. You need to be so good that people can see Christ through your singing, playing, or speaking, even when you are playing or singing a solo.

Worship engagement begins with the worship leader, and I have failed as much as anyone else. Fortunately, you will notice that nowhere here did I mention a need to have a certain “worship leader” gene; all of these things can be cultivated if Christ is truly calling you to lead worship.

What can you do to be a more engaging worship leader?

Holier Than Thou: Repetitive Songs Versus Wordy Hymns

Churches often fight over music styles. Which is best: experiential worship focused on personalized and often repetitive songs, or cognitively centered worship centered on content rich new and time-tested hymns? Who wins? Who is right and who is wrong?

I have dealt with this struggle first hand. From growing up in a Mennonite church that struggled to accept instruments in worship, to leading worship in multi-stylistic churches, the arguments remain generally the same.

Here are the common objections I have heard to simpler, shorter, more personal and experiential worship songs (Breathe; Everlasting God; Come, Now Is the Time to Worship; etc.):

  • They are light on theology and heavy on feelings.
  • They are repetitious (7-11 songs, meaning 7 words repeated 11 times).
  • They have not “stood the test of time.”
  • They are heavy on clichés and devoid of literary excellence.

Here are the common objections I hear to more cognitive and content rich hymns (Great Is Thy Faithfulness; Immortal, Invisible; Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; etc.):

  • They stay in the head and never reach the heart.
  • They are too “wordy.”
  • The language is outdated and inaccessible.
  • The style of music is outdated.

When talking about these subjects I find it helpful to step back and take in the larger view.

What kind of music is mentioned in the Bible, and does God give us any directions about what to sing? What songs have actually stood the test of time, and are the worship arguments of today mirrored anywhere in history?

God, the Bible, and Music

The Bible mentions all types of instruments and voices, short and long songs, theological and personal songs, songs for every mood and event in life, and repetitive and content rich songs.

The first music mentioned in the Bible is instrumental. Jubal was a maker of flutes and stringed instruments, Genesis says.

David and other leaders wrote the largest book in the Bible, the Psalms. This book has both the shortest (Psalm 117) and the longest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 119) and both are profound. The tone of the music ranges from wildly celebrative to subdued, depressed, and raging. Some of the language is lofty and theological, even prophetic. Other psalms are intensely personal prayers. Some psalms contain regular refrains every other line or so.

In the New Testament Paul encourages us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The word for “hymn” actually denotes music accompanied by stringed instruments. Psalms obviously came from the book of the Bible of the same name, and spiritual songs probably were Scripture songs.

Revelation is full of worship, but most of it is extremely repetitive. The elders and the flying beasts around the throne say one or two phrases over and over throughout eternity without stopping. The great multitude sings a song with a very short text.

Music and the Litmus Test of Time

The mass texts and A Mighty Fortress are great examples of ancient, time-tested music. These pieces of music are heavy in content and theology and have strong, crafted shapes and melodies.

The Hallelujah Chorus is a classic, yet it has very few words repeated many, many times. The theology is simple, ad the text is based on the worship scenes in Revelation.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Great Thou Art have been around less than two centuries, but they are staples of worship because of the beauty and transcendence of their language.

Many more hymns, however, have been lost to time. Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns; comparatively very few of them are in use today. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck set every Psalm to music in elegant, complex choral settings hundreds of years ago.

New music has always been suspect. Many renounced the revivalist music that came out in the late 1800s because it was too experiential and light on theology. Yet these hymns brought us many of the testimony hymns we know today, such as Higher Ground and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.

Making Sense of It All

Perhaps you know where I am heading with this conversation. My feelings on the matter can be summed up in this sentence:

Just as the wide diversity of the people whom God has called to be his own demonstrates the rich and varied love of the Savior, so the span of musical styles from pre-Classical to the newest pop song reveals his profound message.

God is no respecter of persons or styles. If a style bothers you, I challenge you to find something positive about that style. If God is able to use you and me, he can definitely use any style of music he chooses.

What style of music is most challenging for you, and why? What positive aspect can you discover in that style?

6 Ways to Involve Children in Leading Worship

We all love to see children in church; as worship ministry leaders, however, we often struggle to find ways to include them in the adult worship services. I know I do.

Jesus set children up as a model for believers when he said, “Don’t prevent [children] from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.”

Presently I am working with staff at my church to brainstorm ways of including children in worship. Here I am defining children as those in 8th grade or lower and, in particular, the youngest ones.

Involving children in worship can be challenging because:

  1. Every element in a service should be excellent, even if the people leading worship are only five years old.
  2. Children’s involvement in worship should be purposeful.
  3. Adults should be drawn to God through children, not just proud of their children’s performance.

A Positive Example

Here is an example from our church.  I am not sharing this to say we have it all figured out; rather, I want to share a moment that was very meaningful to all of us.  This idea was not mine; I am so grateful for other people and their creative ideas.

This past Sunday a 10 year old played a short piano arrangement of a hymn for the prelude to the Classic service. He played well and his parents taught him through the process that he only needs to think about playing for God rather than worrying about the 300+ people in the congregation. All of us were encouraged and inspired as we began worship.

This week people have continued to comment on how meaningful his playing was to them. Children can have a huge impact on worship.

The Why

Before deciding how to involve children in worship you must decide why you want to involve children in worship.

Here are some reasons for including children, although definitely not exhaustive:

  1. We are a family church, and we want our services to be multi-generational.
  2. God called us to be like little children in our faith.
  3. We want to train children how to worship and to lead worship.

The How

Once you have decided the “why,” you can set about deciding the “how.”

For example, if you decide you only want younger children to learn to worship rather than to lead worship, you might simply provide ways for children to participate in the services from the congregation rather than having them on stage leading worship. For me having children learn to worship is not enough; I want them to learn to lead worship.

Here are six ways  children can help lead worship:

  1. Play or sing during the prelude to the service. The environment is very positive and the pressure is minimal. NOTE: Audition the children so that the experience is positive for them and for the adults in the service.
  2. Lead motions to a song in the services and invite people in the service to join them. Motions and children can be a great tool in teaching adults to be free in worship. NOTE: A few well rehearsed children leading precise motions are often more effective than a large group of children doing decent motions.
  3. Sing a piece of music with the choir or worship band. NOTE: Plan well in advance for best results and minimal stress.
  4. Sing or play a special piece of music. NOTE: Plan even further in advance.
  5. Draw/paint/color images to fit the message for the day, then post them in the lobby and/or use them for the bulletin cover.  NOTE: Choose a topic that is easily illustrated: Daniel and the lions’ den, etc.
  6. Act in a drama sketch or production.  NOTE: Definitely audition them, but keep your expectations reasonable.  This is not Broadway!

These ideas are not original with me.  I would love to hear your ideas.

How do you involve children in worship?

How Our Church Recruited Worship Volunteers, Part 4

Your recruitment is only as good as your follow-up. You could recruit a million people, but if you do not have a follow-up plan you might as well have gone on a cruise. Follow-up turns a maybe into a somebody.

Recently I have been sharing how our church went about recruiting volunteers for the arts. I have written about The Plan, Why Technical Arts, and The Campaign. In this post I want to share our strategy for following up with interested people.

Here was my plan:

  1. We would call every interested person back within a week of the time they turned in the information request form.
  2. We would find out more about each person on the phone cal, their interests, and their experience.
  3. We would invite each person to First Step Weekend.

We had grand hopes, but our success was mixed.

We were able to follow-up with almost everyone within a week of receiving their information request form.

On First Step Weekend we scheduled time for people to audition musically and dramatically, share their art with our visual arts leader, and interview with our Director of Production (Technical Arts). Saturday morning from 9-12 was set apart for Musical, Visual, and Technical Arts, and the Dramatic Arts people scheduled an informal hang out and audition time Sunday evening.

Musically we had a few no-shows, but we also had two excellent auditions leading to very talented musicians joining the team in a month. Technically we only had one interested party.

Visual Arts had three artists come in to share their art with our leader, and they were three different generations. One watercolor artists was probably in her 70s, one painter was in his 40s or 50s, and the other painter was a teenager. Each of them had great stories to tell, and each had very different styles.

Sunday night the drama gathering was disappointing. Only two people showed up out of many interested people.

The weekend was definitely a mixed bag, but overall I feel very good about the campaign. In a week or so I plan to share one more installment cataloguing what we learned from this experience, but here are a few thoughts from the First Step Weekend experience.

  1. Even some success on the weekend means that the weekend idea is still good.
  2. Several of the no-shows shared viable excuses later and asked to re-schedule, which I am doing now.
  3. The lack of numbers in Technical Arts has to do with our overall effectiveness at recruiting for the Technical Arts. Very few people mentioned an interest in the first place.
  4. The lack of numbers at the drama gathering does not mean our efforts at recruiting people for drama was a failure. We had many interested people. Because of the campaign drama has a higher visibility in a church that has been largely ignorant of drama.

I will be digging into the successes and challenges of this campaign with my leaders soon, and I hope to have clearer answers to share with you then.

How would you evaluate a recruitment campaign?