Worship is a subject very close to my heart. I’ve been drumming in adult worship services since I was fourteen, and received my BA in Music. I only mention this to describe my close affiliation with worship music and the church, and the passion I feel for God to be honored when we worship Him.
How has worship music changed?
During my life, I preferred a sort of “Golden Age” of worship back in the early and mid 90’s. During those days, worship music was inspired by a powerful move of God and the outgrowth was a host of great music written with authenticity and passion by Christians, produced by Christians, and genuinely released to serve God. In my estimation, the pressure was not placed on artists to release “that next big hit.” Not so anymore. People don’t realize that Christian music, which encompasses Contemporary Christian Music, Gospel, and solo artists, is the top selling music genre ever (then country, then rock, then rap)! It is a multi-million dollar industry. Secular businessmen go where the money is and now many studios are run with profit in mind. When that happens, authenticity is lost. Artists are now forced to create while they may feel uninspired to meet a demand.
How have worship services changed?
Also during this time mega-churches were popping up everywhere. You think part of it it had something to do with good worship music? You bet! The purpose of a Sunday morning worship service is for the entire congregation to come together and worship God collectively. Even medium-sized churches were attracting more people and moving to two, three, and even four services. Remember when worship used to last from forty-five minutes to one hour? Not anymore. Now you need to move people in and out of the worship center to have time to cram in all of the services. The time for worship suffered the brunt of it. Many churches now have only fifteen to twenty minutes of music! That means in as little as fifteen minutes the worship team is supposed to lead people into God's presence and accomplish the type of worship connection with God that is often hurried and frantic rather than personal, intense or reflective.
With these factors in mind, I’d like to make some suggestions to worship leaders everywhere. I’ve been to a lot of churches and have sat in the drummer's seat watching the congregation's response. These are some common denominators I have observed, and some suggestions I would make.
1. Try to identify what songs work for your church. If you play a song and everyone stands there looking glazed over like a herd of cattle, don’t use that one again. If the opening note strikes and immediately the hands fly up…. USE IT NEXT WEEK!!!!!!!!! Remember, it’s not about what you or the band likes to play. It’s about what serves your congregation best.
2. STOP TALKING! We as the worship team often only have fifteen to twenty minutes to lead people into worship. Talking can take away from that time. Expressing authentic worship works better than talking about it. I think worship leaders feel compelled to talk, so what they say can be awkward or detract from the mood they are trying to set. Also, quit trying to give exhaustive explanations of what worship is. Spend more time explaining it by example-model worship for your people. Believe it or not, even non-Christians understand genuine praise and worship when they see it. If they don’t, they’ll ask their friend, and what a great opportunity that is! One Sunday morning the worship leader at the church where I was playing told stories and talked at length between songs. When I received the service CD back, I timed the yakking. It literally lasted fifteen minutes. We played only three songs that lasted around eleven minutes. Plus, the worship leader told an awkward story that had nothing to do with anything! The church already hired a guy to talk… the pastor. And we’re going to listen to him for about 30-45 minutes. So choose your words carefully. Just worship!
3. Utilize keys that people can sing in! It’s simple, yet everyone feels like they have to sing in the key in which Chris Tomlin wrote. He’s a pro vocalist, not the average Joe. He, along with other gifted artists, wrote these songs in the keys in which their vocals sound best. It’s hard to participate in worship when the notes are so high you have to pop a vocal chord to reach them! Bring it down a notch to where most people can participate.
4. Stop using entirely different songs every Sunday! It’s hard to for a congregations to worship when they don’t know the music. It’s as simple as that! People need something familiar to really participate in worship. When you use different songs every week, no one is engaged. It’s okay to repeat a song/songs two Sundays in a row. People actually like that! Also, introduce new songs to the set list slowly or if not use songs that everyone has heard on the radio. One Sunday the band was preparing for worship and something came up that required us to scrap the entire set of songs just before the service started. Instead, we did all familiar Chris Tomlin songs. I had never seen the congregation so alive with praise. The leader and band even commented when we went back stage. But the next week, it was back to songs no one knew and the congregation became observers rather than participants.
5. Quit playing songs that are musically challenging or tricky! I’m talking about singing and playing so many songs with odd phrasing or mixed meter. It throws people off. We’re not trying to trick them; we’re trying to lead them. If there are songs you’d like to add to your rotation or set list that you familiarize the congregation to, fine. But when you throw in some complicated congregational songs, be ready for confusion both in the pews and sometimes on the stage too!
6. Use songs with good theology! I'm surprised at the number of songs these days that do not have a strong Biblical foundation. One worship song that shall remain nameless has the phrase "you give and take away" referring to God. The phrase refers to the first two chapters of Job, where Job lost his family, his wealth and his health. But if you study the passage more closely, Job one and two reveal that God gave and Satan took away. This is a very subtle example. Be careful with skewed passages such as this. Not all traditional hymns had great theology, but the level of Biblical content was a significant goal of the writers. Many pastors wrote hymn lyrics. Music is a powerful tool and will imprint people's minds and hearts faster than anything! As Paul said, "Set your minds on things above!" Let the songs in your head lead you to God's throne!
7. Another comment regarding the lyrics of songs selected. Avoid using so many "self" centered songs! "I do this, We do that." What about God? What about His attributes? Songs of heaven, of Christ's miracles and healing, His death and resurrection, His victory over sin? "Oh, how He loves me" is a very important concept, but lyrical substance should be included to deepen the experience of the worshipper.
8. Quit playing songs you wrote unless they are disgustingly good! If you’re honest with yourself as worship pastors, you know what I mean. if you do try some of your original worship music, be very sensitive to how the congregation responds. If they are non-responsive, don’t use it again (Also learn from it. It will help you to figure out what works in writing and what doesn’t).
I think that about covers it. Try out these suggestions. See if your worship doesn't become more meaningful and powerful!