Music Preference in Worship: Name It and Claim It

Recently I wrote a post on musical style and the response was astounding. In almost two years of blogging that post received the most hits. Why is that? Why is style such a hot topic in worship?

The answer is an often-reviled word: preference. 

The word “preference” is often spat out rather than spoken. In arguments “their” preferences are pitted against “my” preferences, “they” get preferential treatment, and so on and so forth.

Preference is getting a bad rap. The truth is, we all have preferences, and that is a God-given gift.

Think about it. If Adam had not had preferences, how would he have named all of the animals?

God: “Adam, go name the animals.”

Adam: “Nah. I want to lay out and catch some rays. You go name the animals. I don’t care.”

Really? Take a moment and name all of the animals you can remember. Listen to the incredible diversity of sounds coming from the different names. Listen to how each name describes the animal owning that name.

Then God created Eve and Adam immediately gave her a name, as he had done for every other creature on earth.

Adam cared, and he had preferences from the beginning. You and I also have preferences.

Here are some of mine:

  • I prefer to live to eat rather than eat to live.
  • I prefer to stay up late.
  • I prefer contemporary and modern art over representational art.
  • I prefer Betthoven and Prokofiev over Bach and Mozart.
  • I prefer steak that is medium to medium rare.
  • I prefer congregational songs with ranges from c-d1.
  • I prefer U2, Coldplay, and Norah Jones.
  • I prefer worship services brimming with art, media, music, and stories.

Does this mean I limit myself to these preferences? Absolutely not. I limit my eating, try to get to bed at a reasonable time, listen to many styles of music, eat meat as long as it isn’t crawling off my plate, and enjoy leading worship and visiting churches even when very little art is present in worship

What are your preferences?

Every human being has preferences, and the sooner we become comfortable with our preferences the sooner we can move on to more meaningful discussions.

Discussions such as:

  • Who has God called us to be as people and as a church?
  • What is my role in this church?
  • What is my role in the world?
  • How can I reach the next generation?
  • How can I love the older generations?
  • What can I set aside in deference to my younger or older brother or sister in Christ?

The evil one likes to take the very things God has given us for our good and turn them against us. Instead of letting the evil one get the best of us, let’s reclaim preference for the beautiful description of individuality God meant it to be. Let’s not use preference as a weapon.

List some of your preferences below. Keep the language factual and not argumentative.

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A Tension to Manage or a Problem to Solve?

Do you know that some tensions are never meant to disappear?

Here are a few of the tensions we experience in life:

  • Relational tension. Human beings are imperfect, and so tensions will arise within friendships and marriages.
  • Work tension. At work we may discover that our bosses have different expectations of us than we do, or we may have a conflict with a co-worker.
  • Cultural and Social tension. Christ-like living is contrary to many of society’s norms; choosing Christ often means choosing conflict with our society. Artists sometimes have to choose between creating art they can sell and art that says something meaningful.
  • Parental tension. As parents we are called to first lead, train and discipline our children; friendship is secondary, although very important. Choosing to parent well often means choosing to create tension with our children for their own good.
  • Theological tension. God is sovereign, but bad stuff happens to good people. God has chosen a good path for us, but human beings have free will. Many issues in theological discussions involve tension.

Some of these tensions can be resolved.

  • Relational tension. Christ calls us to take the initiative in making peace with those who have sinned against us. We need to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, and we need to confront those who have wronged us. In marriage spouses must constantly be checking to make certain they are speaking the same language and holding similar expectations of each other.
  • Work tension. If we have conflict with a co-worker we need to resolve it. If we discover that our expectations do not match those of our boss, we need to take action to bring our expectations into alignment.

Some of these tensions, however, cannot be resolved.

  • Marriage is the combination of two individual people with differing tastes and preferences. While hopefully a marrying couple has many of these in common, some differences will always exist. One may like beef and the other one chicken. One is a night owl and the other is a morning person.
  • As Christians we are called to engage culture and make an impact for Christ. Because culture has so many negative components, however, many Christians try to completely disengage from culture. I believe Christ’s call to be “in and not of” the world requires us to walk the difficult grey area of engaging culture while remaining firm in our beliefs and principles.
  • Parenting is tough. Being a friend and support to your children while disciplining and guiding them is a difficult tension to manage. As a father I want nothing more than to play with my kids and give them everything they want because I love them so much. Because I love them, however, I have to discipline them and train them.
  • God is a Spirit. Jesus revealed himself in the form of a man, but he was fully God as well as fully man. When we become Christians the Holy Spirit indwells us and gives us power to overcome the evil one. We are in a spiritual battle for the souls of people. The way to life is narrow and few find it. Those who truly receive Christ’s offer of salvation will spend eternity in heaven, and those who reject Christ will spend eternity in hell. Theology and the spiritual life is full of huge tensions, most of which are beyond our comprehension.

Deciding which issues are tensions to manage and which issues are problems we can solve is in itself a tension to manage.

Christ, however, enables us to experience his peace in every situation because his peace is based on him. Christ does not change. Christ was, is and will be forever the same. For that reason life with Christ is peace and joy, even in the midst of some of the hardest tensions life can throw at us.

Our goal, then, is not to resolve every tension, but to find peace and rest in Christ, who is the calm in the middle of every situation.

Are you trying to find peace by resolving unresolvable tensions, or are you finding peace in Christ, who does not change?

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?