How Inclusive Is Today’s Worship Music?

How Inclusive Is Today’s Worship Music?
Andy Chamberlain 

Worship Leader’s current issue is focused on worship that includes, so one question I’d like to pose is how inclusive are the songs we choose and the music we make? 

In an age where much of our congregational worship music is designed for large gatherings or even designed to attract large gatherings does it really best serve the vast majority of Christian worshipers who aren’t in large churches with good quality musicians? Is it the best tool to help them sing together and properly join in? Is it the best way to serve them or are they really a lower priority than the band, worship leader’s vocal range and the overall ‘performance’? So does it really best serve them? How inclusive are we really? 

For instance, I was recently working through congregational song keys for recording our latest set of backing tracks for our Worship Backing Band project and part of the difficulty is that so many of the big popular songs have a range as wide as a 13th ! This can work in very large anthemic gatherings but for the major of us in smallish churches the very range of the song doesn’t encourage inclusiveness. The big emotional lift works as a great music tool on record but for a mixed gathering if your folks can’t hit the range they simply stop singing and its harder to engage.

Sometimes too we assume that the types of songs we like work for our congregation simply because we like them and they make sense to us! A few years back, when I was involved in the Soul Survivor movement in the UK for me part of the appreciation of the way worship was led was that the style, genre and poetry of the songs just naturally made ‘sense’ to me. The imagery made sense, the plain talk to God in song made sense, the guitar driven britpoppy melodies all seemed pretty natural. All of which made the songs very easy to pick up. Yet I had some friends get involved who had come from a Black Majority church and their main comment to me was “You know, we really love it here but it’s just the songs. They are really hard to pick up!” I had no idea. And I think that was because they were just used to a different cultural musical experience with different grooves, song structures, melodic pentameters, intervals and cadences. 

Also by being inclusive who are we actually trying to include and why? There’s been much talk about making our music ‘missional’ and ‘relevant’ (i.e. ‘hip’?) in order to attract people towards church but are we forgetting the point of why we make music in worship at all? Are we trying to make our music credible to the outside world or help facilitate sung prayers for people who are actively seeking God to express their love, desire, thanks, joy, grief, and hopes and doubts directly to God? Terry Virgo, a well known UK church leader recently tweeted “The term missional worship is a bit like kissing your wife to impress someone else”. 

Hear me, I’m not saying ignore the outside world at large, far from it. But sometimes missional worship can work so hard to be inclusive to non Christians who may or may not be actually sitting in the congregation that it excludes the very people sung worship is meant for. Those faithful people who are very much part of our church communities and who are actively seeking to focus on God.

Of course we can’t please all the people all the time, and I’m not suggesting we do, but inclusiveness often starts with a deeper understanding of what your congregation really loves and struggles with in your times of sung worship. To ask those more probing questions can seem daunting but ultimately if we are to encourage inclusiveness we need to know how people in our church communities would actually like to be included.

Andy Chamberlain is a Director of Musicademy and the presenter of the Musicademy Worship Guitar DVDs – students enjoy observing his varying hairstyles as the DVDs progress. Andy was trained at the Academy of Contemporary Music, has played at festivals such as Soul Survivor, New Wine, Spring Harvest and Spirit West Coast (US) and has worked with many worship leaders including Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Martyn Layzell, Vicky Beeching, Viola and Lloyd Wade. 

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    4 comments on “How Inclusive Is Today’s Worship Music?

    1. I can’t agree with you more! As worship leaders, we shouldn’t actively invite people to church, then passively alienate them. The vocal “range” issue is huge! The current range on many songs is so large that befriending the tenors neglects the baritones, and befriending the sopranos neglects the altos. And smaller congregations might not have someone to sing a harmony that guides all to join in. Chris Tomlin writes “Jesus Messiah” with a five note range, and congregations cleave to it. No surprise there…

    2. Thanks for the great article on being inclusive. The Holy Spirit is the key to worship. We should be more concerned about God’s presence being evident in our worship services than anything else. We can get along without a lot of things as worship leaders, but one thing we dare not try and get along without, is the leading and annointing of God and His Spirit. If we think worship is just performing the latest popular songs we hear on the Christian radio station, we should claim John 4:22 “Ye worship, ye know not what.” as our life verse. Stay current, but don’t limit God in the process. He may want you to be the next big thing.

    3. Hey Andy, thanks for the great thoughts here. Couldn’t agree more with the idea of key selection and range of a song. I preach participation as the number one priority to our worship leaders all the time. Why bother inviting people to sing with us if they physically can’t? That’s like saying “come on over to my house for dinner” and then locking the front door. Accessible melodies/ranges and lyrics that teach good theology will always be a win/win. They invite the Christ follower to express their love for God with minimal distraction and allow the person who is far from God to go home humming a song and a Truth that they haven’t even grasped yet. Kinda like a good bowl of oatmeal. Fills you up (as you pour out) and sticks with you.

    4. Andy, great topic. As a worship leader, I’ve been very concerned and aware of this very issue. I can sing where Chris Tomlin can sing, but most of the time it’s more important to change the key so it’s a singable range for all. Your point with this article is asking the question, “we sometimes think it’s cool to perform to attract (what we think) are the unchurched”. I know. But as has been said by you and by the other comments, the Holy Spirit must reign, no matter what music we present.

      When I was beginning a church plant several years ago, I asked my daughter (so wise beyond her age) what type of music or particular songs do 20-30 somethings expect to hear at church these days? Her answer: the music doesn’t matter near as much as whether or not your presentation is aligned with how the Holy Spirit would have us worship. Wow.

      Andy, thanks for these insights. It’s really quite clear that the key of the song when bands and artists record is to put the best light on their personal voice range. If that key is good to help facilitate a congregation’s worship, then that’s the correct key for the song.

      The entire point is that we as worship leaders and bands are there to be prompters so the congregation can worship. YES, we need to perform music excellently. But God is first and the worship leaders are a distant second!

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