Evan Wickham’s Make Us One is among the most expansive and cinematic modern worship albums since Gungor’s Ghosts Upon the Earth. His explorational and original artistry combines co-writes with Matt Maher, Pete Kipley, Chad Bohi, Tyler Chester, Aaron Keyes, Bryan Brown, and Michael Gungor himself, yielding a refreshingly listenable worship encounter. The songs are each uniquely beautiful, and for the most part each word is easily heard, not lost in the production mix. The lyrical content is poetically, emotionally, and theologically rich. And all members of the Trinity, even the oft neglected Holy Spirit, are included in its rhapsodizing. Like God’s creation, there is endless variation; expect the unexpected in this lovely mix of worship, personal listening, and special music. The album borrows from some of Hillsong’s recent retro synthy atmospherics, and there are sprinkles and sweeps of guitar, strings, piano, and a cornucopia of sounds to fly and float and jump into—ear candy, vocal clouds, starry twinkles, and melodic climbs. The dreamy yet rhythmically anchored title track—“Make Us One”—begins this journey of love and discovery. Next, tribal drums, moody guitar, evocative vocals and layers of sound cry for God to “Come for Us,” addressing both Jesus and the Holy Spirit directly. The bouncy pop of “Intimacy” has a sugary Loveboat theme song vibe that is strangely compelling. Love and adoration are a thread throughout every song. The emotional and spiritual lift on the exquisitely penned “The Day That He Returns” infuses ascendant hope in the face of grief. “Risen” is a new Easter Song with a retro 60’s pop feel. The most unforgettable and dramatic song has to be “Human Soul.” It’s anguished strings, Broadway meets Michael Card/Mozart meld of Jesus in the garden fused with the listener’s close-up witness has to be not only the center point of this album, but one of the most amazingly visceral experiences facilitated by a worship song in the past year. “No One Like You” and “Shepherd of My Soul” continue with congregationally-hued love songs to our God. And whether encouraging people in their marriages in the reflective/transparent “Don’t Give Up” or supplying songs for almost every sacrament or service need from weddings to funerals, Wickham gifts us with the joy of being surprised. The collection fittingly ends with the perfect benediction to an album or service: “Yours Is the Kingdom”—the kind of send-out and off that reminds us of God’s love for us, presence with us, and his mission through us.
More: Let’s hear it for the handheld drum, for imagination and the courage to play and sing a new song, for lyrics that make use of language and metaphor and literary devices that not only uphold Scripture, but expand our experience of it. Gratitude for music that reveals, startles, washes, lifts, transforms, and mostly for artists that dare to take a left turn when most are going right.
Less: Some of the instrumentation/arrangement occasionally saps energy from the words and melody, by stealing too much focus.
This time of year is an interesting phase for the worship leader. We’ve just made it through the trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving is within sight and Wal-Mart’s garden center is littered with holiday lawn decorations.
It’s an exciting time. We’re thinking about all the festivities, fun and family time that the winter holiday season brings.
But, there is another side of it for me, and I know, other worship leaders. There’s a twinge of “Bah Humbug” that courses through my veins. The Grinch-side of me creeps in and I start dreading the annual tale of “How the Christmas Stole Worship.”
I consider myself a true worship leader. I’m not satisfied with just playing great songs with excellence. I have a passionate vision to see my church encounter the living God every week. That drive fuels me to challenge and teach my congregation every week, all year long.
That drive and vision runs into December like a freight train, only to be met with an often frustrating and inconvenient challenge called CHRISTMAS.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas! I love busting out the Mariah Carey Christmas album and laughing at Christmas Vacation and Ralphie in his quest of the Red Ryder BB Gun (very spiritual, I know). I love everything about it that everyone else does…everything except…Christmas church services.
I’m probably pretty alone in this in my church. For everyone else, it’s not so much of a challenge and I’m sure it’s very enjoyable. If I was not the worship leader, I would be totally content and probably enjoy the Christmas focus, as we should.
My challenge is simply keeping the “worship” focus in front of my church during this season. There’s a lot of worshipful Christmas songs that we all sing every year, but I have definitely seen a drop in the worshipful spirit of my church. The spirit of Christmas, as great as it is, should never replace the Spirit of God.
This is definitely a challenge, but not an impossible task. It’s a worthy challenge and God can do some great things in our midst. We just have to be willing to rise up. Sure, we can dwell on the crowd’s responsibility to worship, but we, as worship leaders, have a responsibility to prayerfully reach a balance. Christmas doesn’t have to steal worship. It can be a time of worship as well.
So, how do we help our church focus on the presence of God more than the presents under the tree?
1. TALK TO YOUR PASTOR This is so important. If you do not clarify your pastor’s Christmas expectations, December will not be so holly and jolly. I have never regretted submitting to my pastor’s vision, even if it differed from mine. Make sure that you know what is expected. Feel free to challenge sacred cows, but DO NOT attempt something, unless you have your leader’s approval. Every year, I intentionally have a conversation with my pastor to find out what kind of direction we’ll be taking in December. Some years we’ve done a Christmas series throughout the month. In that case, I know the Christmas songs will be rolling out a little early and I need to seek and pray for direction on how we can reach a balance with worship. If there’s not a Christmas series, then I know there’s not going to be as much of an urgency to dust off the holiday hymnal. In my years of ministry, I’ve done my share of challenging at Christmas time, but I have always made sure that we are in agreement with the immediate direction. Unity is a priority when you’re ministering TOGETHER and you will unite under the vision that God has given your pastor. When you unite, God loves it (Psalm 100:3) and His presence will be faithful during Christmas.
2. SHARE THE ORIGIN There’s a correlation between singing familiar old hymns and singing traditional Christmas hymns. They both carry a sentimental power that touches people in positive and negative ways. Some people struggle with worshiping with hymns that they sang in the past that may remind them of a church that was dead or legalistic. I have found that when I share the origins of those songs and heart of the songwriters, it helps people look at it with new vision. The same can be accomplished with the traditional sentiment that comes along with Christmas hymns. The challenge with the familiar is we can forget what we are singing. If we’re not careful, we can sing “Joy to the world the Lord has come” in the same way we sing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. Sharing the origin of a hymn, Christmas or not, can direct hearts back to the heart of the song. When we think about the words we are singing, we are more likely to go deeper. In this case, we are more likely to worship.
3. USE WORSHIPFUL CHRISTMAS SONGS This is really simple, but you cannot expect God to come down in your midst, while lifting up “Jingle Bells”. As much as I dread preparing for this time of year, I always look forward to worshiping God with the song “O Holy Night”. It’s one of the most worshipful songs we can sing. As worship leaders, we should pray over the set list every week. We should seek God’s leading as we pick songs. Christmas should be no different. Examine your heart and examine lyrics as you choose songs. Make sure they are God-glorifying and inspiring for worshipers.
4. USE CHRISTMASFUL WORSHIP SONGS This is a great way to reach a balance of Christmas and worship during December. A classic example of this is “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes. It starts off with the Christmas story – “Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness”. “Let Us Adore” by Hillsong and “Jesus Messiah” by Chris Tomlin are also good. These are effective and familiar, especially if you help people see the correlation with Christmas. If you have any other song suggestions, please comment below. I’m always looking for these in December.
5. FIND NEW VERSIONS OF OLD CLASSICS Sometimes a new take on an old Christmas song can bring a fresh experience. Every year I’m looking for new versions more than I’m looking for new songs. Establishing a new Christmas song is much more difficult than bringing a new version of an old Christmas classic. It works well, because the people don’t have to learn a new melody. They may have to learn a new time signature or a new feel, but because the melody remains, they can engage quickly. Last year, I introduced Lincoln Brewster’s “Joy to the World” which was fun and new, but still accessible for everyone there. You can really have fun with this. You can also keep things familiar, while bringing something fresh.
6. LOOK FOR MEDLEYS Something that I am trying for the first time this year is using a medley with a Christmas hymn and a worship song. I’m using an idea off of Paul Baloche’s new Christmas Worship album. He took his song “Shout for Joy” and put it with “Joy to the World” and it works great together. What’s great about this is I will be introducing the regular version of “Shout for Joy” at the beginning of December, which will be a song I use throughout the year and then using the medley right around Christmas time. It will be new, but still familiar. Again, if you have any other medley ideas, let me know!
What are some other tips you have experienced that help balance Christmas and worship?
Gary (@garydurbin) is the worship arts director at Orchard Church in Denver, Colorado. He is also a blogger and a songwriter with a passion to serve the church. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children and have been married since 1999. Visit his blog here.
Some of you may not have the advantage (and accompanying challenges) of leading with a full worship band each week. You may find yourself, more often than not, a one-man or one-woman worship band, or a member of a 2-3 person band. This can present numerous challenges. It can also yield fruitful blessings for you and your congregation.
As a small band, you will need to acknowledge your limitations and realize your reach in order to be most effective in leading. Maybe your band consists of you singing and playing a lead instrument. Or maybe it consists of you singing while being accompanied by a non-singing lead instrumentalist. Maybe you sing while playing a lead instrument and have another lead musician supporting you.
Whatever your small band may look like, there will be certain arrangements of songs that will simply not be possible for you to achieve. THIS IS OKAY. You’re not going to sound like Hillsong or Passion Live. But someday when you have a large team, you’ll probably end up scheduling special “stripped-down” sets from time to time, because you will remember how effective these sets can be. Large worship teams are good, and small worship teams are good. Appreciate what God has given you.
With limited sounds and support in your team, you have the opportunity to simplify arrangements. Consider the strengths of your band members and emphasize and utilize them well. At the same time, consider the weaknesses of your band members and strive to improve in those areas before putting them to the test in your service times.
As an example, if your keyboardist is highly skilled in playing traditional arrangements of hymns but less skilled in playing more improvisational arrangements of contemporary worship songs, then make good use of her stronger skill and consider incorporating more traditional hymn arrangements into your worship sets.
At the same time, you could encourage your keyboardist to listen to a variety of contemporary styles of music to help her learn to play along with contemporary arrangements of worship songs. You could also conduct special team sessions for listening and discussing new sounds and arrangements for everyone to be working on long-term. When the team is ready, introduce those arrangements in your worship gathering.
Here are some more tips for filling out your sound while serving your congregation well with a smaller band.
1. Serve the congregation by encouraging them to actively participate in creating music with the band. Challenge them to “sing out” (since they will be able to hear themselves better, given the smaller sound you’re generating). Encourage the congregation to “be our percussion” by clapping on upbeat songs.
2. Non-Musician Vocalists can play hand percussion instruments while singing.
3. Follow more traditional arrangements for hymns, with only the keyboardist accompanying the congregation.
4. Encourage the keyboardist to emphasize bass notes to help fill out the sound, and to add beautiful and interesting lead parts during musical interludes.
5. Be creative and improvise. For instance, if you don’t have a drummer, your acoustic guitar player could play a driving kick bass drum (while strumming the guitar) during upbeat songs. This will embolden your congregation to clap on every beat and sing confidently together.
Don’t be discouraged by the small size of your worship band. Remember that the whole congregation is your worship team, and that they may feel more invited to participate when the team of “professionals” is small. Work to make the most of your limited resources and the great opportunity to lead and serve your congregation with excellence.
Kristen Gilles is a deacon in the worship ministry of Louisville’s Sojourn Community Church, and is featured in Sojourn Music’s The Water And The Blood: The Hymns Of Isaac Watts, Volume 2. Kristen blogs about worship with her husband, Sojourn’s Bobby Gilles, at mysonginthenight.com.
As the son and grandson of two Bivocational Ministers of Music, I was pretty certain that serving the local church through music was going to be in my future. Despite the “family tradition”, I was also certain that God gave me gifts for His purposes and so as I searched for the right college offering a degree in music education, I knew I also wanted to receive academic training in church music as well. Throughout college I was the MusEd major who sat in all the church music classes with those obviously pursuing full-time ministry. I often wondered if God was calling me into full-time vocational ministry, but the opportunities He continued to provide were in the school system. While there, I discovered that most of my colleagues in the state were also called to use their gifts not only in the schools, but in the church as well. Though a school teacher, I was able to pursue a masters in Worship Studies and I discovered that regardless of ‘full-time’/'part-time’ status, many struggles were the same. However for the many tireless bivocational ministers out there, I found the following essentials to be extremely helpful in my ministry.
1. Stay Organized With all your other responsibilities, you do not have time to not be organized. Plan your teams in advance as far as possible! (Three or four months will serve you well!) Not only will your team appreciate you for this, but it will eliminate one-third of your weekly struggles with who is playing, who is running the technical elements, who is filling in for you when you’re gone, etc.
2. Communication with Pastor This will of course serve anyone in ministry well, but for the Bivocational minister, it’s a must! If you are in regular communication with your pastor, then the weeks when your “real job” is too demanding, you can still minister well together during your congregational meetings. If face-to-face doesn’t work this week, try Skype or at the least an e-mail, text, or Facebook message just communicating that you are praying for the service and your plans up to that point.
3. Communication with Team Stay consistent. If there’s anything I have learned about human behavior in the teaching world, it’s that secretly, people like routines. Find a way to regularly communicate to your team so that they know when and where they can find up-to-date information for the upcoming week. If you send an e-mail every week on Tuesdays with reminders about the week, then a faithful team will train themselves to check their e-mail on Tuesdays looking for your communication. And if you’ve stayed organized with a master list of who is serving weeks in advance, when you are given a massive project at work on Tuesday and forget to send your e-mail, your team will have that master calendar to defer to until you can drop a note reminding them to check the master calendar.
4. Communication with Church Most churches who hire Biovcational ministers understand the demands on the individual. But most church also need to be gently reminded from time to time. During your worship time, share a short testimony of how God has been at work in your life while at work. Not only is it that gentle reminder that church isn’t your only place to serve, but it also reminds your congregation that you are living life right there beside them in the business or education world.
5. Set Boundaries This can be a hard one for anyone, but especially those in Bivocational ministry. In all reality, there is no such thing as ‘part-time ministry’. If you are called to serve in the church in a pastoral capacity, it is full-time regardless of your clocked hours in the church building. It can often be easy to allow yourself to always be working either on your Monday-Friday job or your church responsibilities. For yours and your family’s sake, set hours for yourself when you work on church work. Plan your services at the same time each week, stop working at the same point in the evenings each night so that you can devote certain hours to your family and your mental well-being. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Depending on your job, you probably have seasons of the year that are harder than others. Don’t be afraid to foresee that crazy week coming next month and allow others an opportunity to lead or help you in some way. If you have a major project due the last week of April every year, find a guest worship leader to come in that week every year. Or it may be the perfect time to allow that high-schooler who’s been called into ministry to lead that week. We are working for The Lord and we want to offer all of ourselves, but we also want to serve Him well. After all, no matter what job we’re working on, we should be working for The Lord.
Jordan Cox is the Worship Pastor at Fruitland Community Church in Jackson, MO and the Director of Choirs at Cape Central High School in Cape Girardeau, MO. Cox holds degrees in Music Education from Missouri Baptist University (BME) and Worship Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (MAR).