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’? How inclusive are we really?
Who are we writing for?
For instance, not to long ago I was working through congregational song keys for recording a 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 majority of us in smallish churches the very range of the song doesn’t encourage participation. Reiterating what I’ve said before, 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 it’s harder to engage.
Who are we planning for?
Sometimes we assume that the types of songs we like also work for our congregation simply because we like them and they make sense to us! A few years back, 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 Brit-poppy 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 (BMC) 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 used to a different cultural musical experience with different grooves, song structures, melodic pentameters, intervals and cadences.
The focus of our worship
When we make the effort to be 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.” Far from it. But sometimes missional worship can work so hard to reach 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 what should be foundational in planning worship—starting with a deeper understanding of what your congregation really loves and struggles with in your times of sung worship—is now innovation. To be fresh, in the moment, innovative, we need to ask those more probing questions. That can seem daunting, but ultimately if we are to encourage participation, 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.