Songs of Common Prayer

My new record, Songs of Common Prayer, was written for my family, the Church; specifically Grace Story Church in Nashville, Tennessee. I really like those people. I love Andrew’s way-too-loud yawns. I love Nathaniel’s uncelebrated yet unwavering service. I love Morgan’s gluten-free breakfast casserole. I love that the nursing mothers shared their milk with an adopted child; quite literally helping to sustain and give her life.

The need to belong is one of our most basic and powerful needs. This belonging is what is offered to each of us in a relationship with God; I knew that when I started attending Grace Story. What I didn’t expect was to experience it so acutely with this diverse group of people.

The first single from the record is called Mystery of Faith. The song emphasizes the Book of Common Prayer’s ancient, liturgical words, “We have died together. We will rise together. We will live together.” It continues, “We are brothers and sisters through our Savior’s blood,” and confidently encapsulates the prayer, “We are the body of Christ.” What a sobering responsibility it is to represent Jesus to one another; and what a privilege. I consider it an honor for my music to be present in the front speakers of a minivan, helping to keep parents sane on a road trip; or to be playing as a child falls asleep; or to offer words of prayer where conversation has stalled.

I write a lot of songs for my congregation. My friend, Mike Crawford, calls it indigenous worship: art that is produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular environment. That seems about right. I like to think of them as “family songs”: tunes that become distinct in the unique part they play in our collective history. Some mark losses and invoke nostalgia; others move us forward and introduce new practices or prayers; still others encourage awareness and gratitude in the moment. I consider it a joyful burden to know, and be in tune with, my people. As I’m writing songs or organizing a Sunday service, I often ask God and myself: “What do we need?” and “Where does it hurt?” As we address these questions, we are guided to remember, hope and worship; with indigenous “family songs” scoring the soundtrack of our story.

 

I sent the text above to my friend Tommy the night before his child went in for an operation at the hospital. His reply affected me in a surprising way: I believed him. Finally I realized that we weren’t only a family in some metaphysical reality, but right here and right now. Maybe the practice of singing The Mystery of Faith every week at church had done it’s formational work.

I hope Songs of Common Prayer will inspire new family songs for you and yours; that the well-worn words will connect you to a rich family heritage; and that we will all find more places and more profound ways to belong. May the record be a reminder that what unites us is greater than what divides us; that every denominational difference is not an insurmountable division. May we sing together in harmony as we become more truly God’s one, holy, and catholic Church. After all, we are the body of Christ.

Greg LaFollette is a spiritual director and producer in Nashville, TN. He is the resident artist at a local church plant, Grace Story Church, and serves as their director of arts and liturgy. You can follow Greg at his website to hear his full-length album Songs of Common Prayer.

Lights, Camera, Worship: Ministries Turning to a Mix of Cinematic and HDR Technology Options as Production Values Increase

by Craig Harper

The singers are lit and miked, it’s a packed house and the cameras are rolling, when the pastor says, “let’s try that again.”  Pastor? While this might sound like something a director would say while recording a concert or live event, it’s increasingly becoming a more common scenario at many ministries.

Gone are the days when it was good enough to simply record a service with one fixed camera pointed at the pastor. Churches are now producing more live events and special services, and streaming services on the web to reach more people across the country and the world.

At the larger churches, audiences and A/V systems are on the scale of the biggest stadium concert tours, bringing with it a whole new set of production challenges and opportunities, for example, IMAG and multi-camera set-ups.

Churches need to deliver content to more platforms and in higher quality, and the increasing accessibility of more affordable and capable production technology is making it easier to do this than ever before.

When churches buy new technology they need to think about more than its ease of use and durability. They have to consider image quality and how it can help them achieve the right “look” they need.

The keyword for any ministry is options, and a company like Sony has the most comprehensive mix of technology options to fit any size room or application. Churches are implementing any, or a mix of, these options — from full-frame mirrorless alpha cameras or the compact RX0 for specialized POV shots to compact handheld 35mm camcorders like the FS7 or FS5 up to the F55 and new VENICE camera, the same cameras used to shoot big-budget movies and TV shows.

It could be a mix of models like F55s with an HDC series studio camera to combine a beautiful Super35 “film” look with 2/3–inch lenses, as well as fiber connectivity, seamless gen lock and many other features.

Many churches have been using the HDC-4000 series cameras. The reason churches like Lakewood have chosen the HDC-4000 series cameras is the ability to produce 4K HDR and HD SDR simultaneously, and they support both S-log3 and HLG workflows for HDR to provide a unique look.

One ministry, Lake Pointe Church uses Sony’s 4K cameras — from the FS7 and FS5 camcorders to the full-frame 7S and 7S II interchangeable lens cameras — in nearly every aspect of the ministry’s video production to capture services and events and handle the streaming, reaching 3,000 people online.

Chip Acker, Video Director at Lake Pointe Church, noted that since the organization is focused on video production and streaming, it’s important to have high-quality, easy-to-learn equipment that can be used and maintained by the church’s volunteer staff.

Acker continued, “Pairing the right gear with our wide range of production styles gives us the best options for our church. The variety of Sony products that we own allow us to put the right gear into action with any of our production requests and it also helps us save money over the long-term.”

These are just some examples of churches employing a mix of different cameras to spread their messages effectively and wider. And it’s not just limited to cameras.

Sony offers wireless microphone technology and high-res audio systems to keep the audio sounding as good as the video looks. Churches can also satisfy their entire workflow with Sony’s intelligent media services, which offer flexible and cost effective workflow solutions ranging from editing, storage and archive to cloud collaboration, asset management and distribution. In addition, beyond the sanctuary, it’s more common to see laser projectors or the latest “active learning” solutions in classrooms and collaborative worship spaces.

Churches needs will never stop growing. Sony’s family of options will keep pace, ready to meet, and exceed churches needs today, and tomorrow.

IS YOUR CHURCH TOO LOUD?

By Alex Macdougall

On a recent Sunday morning return visit to a nearby church, I noticed myself not participating nor engaging in worship. I was not even singing.  I found myself merely standing with the rest of the congregation, out of respect, and I determined that I would not again return to this particular church, as the volume level in this church had exceeded my tolerance on multiple occasions.  My story is not unique.  Apparently, many are leaving churches over the problem of “loudness”.

The issue here is not necessarily whether the drummer is in a cage.  There are many mature drummers who play with enough finesse and room adaptability that a cage is not always necessary.  In my recent experience, the drummer was in fact, in a cage.  However, the band was simply too loud.  Even a small choir acappella burst can sometimes stretch the limits of a listener’s ears.  So in my experience, the above elements were probably the doing of the sound mixer, as the amps were located offstage, and some of the instruments were inputted directly into the overall system.

To be fair, there is such a thing as being “too quiet”, or “not loud enough”.  Music definitely needs to be performed and heard at certain dynamics to have any impact or power.  A song sung too softly does not have any “punch” to it.  So there is a definite balance that must be struck by the worship leader and sound engineer.

The sound engineer and support team are often volunteer positions within a church.  Many times, the audio engineer is not fully trained vocationally, nor does he/she derive their income from doing it professionally.  Sadly, the sound support team are often the brunt of many complaints and criticisms.  It’s a dynamic that plagues many churches, both large and small.And it might not simply be “the volume” that is the cause of the problem.  EQ comes into play here, and so the hearing of the worship songs being used to inspire and encourage worship is sometimes impaired by the “man behind the curtain”, who, because of lack of training or profession, simply delivers a poor mix to the congregation, despite his or her best intentions.  We also know that the size of the congregation can affect the overall sound, as does the ceiling height, acoustics of the room, where a congregant might be sitting, where in the room the decibel (dB) reading might be taken, where the mixing board is, and multiple other variables that may all impact the level of sound.

In a recent informal polling of churches, some of them very well-known, I found the dB levels to run typically in the low to high 90s, with a weighted “A”.  For example, 92dB A or 96A dB.  Some churches use a weighted “C” reading, which allows for more bass frequencies into the measurement.  At one Dallas area church, the volume level on a Sunday morning is now ranked at a slow weighted 102C dB!  According to a Purdue University study, that number is comparable to pushing a power lawn mower, the use of a jackhammer, or a jet flyover at 1000 feet!

Veteran audio engineer Randy Adams, who mixes Sunday mornings for First Baptist Church of Dallas, states, “I try to keep the average around 85 dB A weighted, slow response. Peaks are occasionally in the low to mid 90s. The important thing is the eq curve. If it is too bright, that level will get complaints. I never use an SPL meter, though I did a few times when we first set up the room. My meter is the sound of people singing around me. As long as I can hear the congregation, everything is fine. I try to keep the level of the sermon in the 80s, so the music doesn’t sound so much louder than the preaching. Of course, what happens just before the pastor gets up to speak? The loudest moment of the entire service is usually the end of the anthem. So, I try to make sure his first few words are strong and powerful, then gradually ease back just a bit to a comfortable level where you can hear every word.”

Randy also added, “A and C weighted refers to the frequency response curve. A weighted “A” is closer to the curve of human hearing at a nominal listening level. Our ears are much more sensitive to high and mid frequencies, and A weighting takes that fact into account. C weighting is used sometimes when the operating level is going to be above 100 dB, or when low frequencies are dramatically out of balance in a particular environment.”

So what can these higher dB levels do beyond potential hearing loss over extended time?  The May 2016 Thom Schultz “Holy Soup” podcast, interviewed Dr. David Gauger.  Thom notes, ” A new scientific study from Dr. David Gauger, a music professor at Moody Bible Institute, found that such sound levels discourage congregational participation. ‘When you get above 90 decibels, it drops off dramatically,’ Gauger said. ‘They do not feel they can worship. They cannot hear their own voice. They do not feel supported.’”

What happens physiologically in this dynamic is that the congregation becomes spectators due to the volume coming from the stage.  In this scenario, the worship team is actually reduced to a performance troop, because of the physiological changes occurring within human bodies not wishing to sing along.  People cannot hear others, nor themselves, singing, so they refrain. Simply put, that’s how we are wired.

More important than any possible excuse or explanation for poor sound or extreme audio levels, are the questions that must be asked in order to find a solution to the problem.   These are questions for the worship leader, pastor, worship team members, and extended sound team.   “Am I leading and no one is following?  Is my church singing?  Does the audio volume of the worship songs encourage singing, or not?   Is the volume of our worship a hindrance to the worship time because of the physiological reasons outlined by David Gauger? Are people wearing earplugs so that they can attend church?  Are we gathering AND worshiping, or merely gathering?  Are people leaving my church over this issue?

The problem may be difficult to solve.  To be clear, there are many variables to be addressed.  And many opinions, including those from the congregation, may weigh in weekly on the matter.  Feelings may be hurt, and tempers may flare.  But ultimately as we ask ourselves the above questions, let us never forget our true purpose in leading worship: to create a refuge for those in the sanctuary, helping them to experience and honor our Lord.

 

 

The Beauty of Worship

group of smiling children

by Yancy

So many memories start flooding my mind instantly taking me back in time. From shopping centers to after-school ballet classes, the house we lived in, clothes I wore and so much more. Memories of rides around town in my Mom’s minivan singing along to the Hosanna! Praise cassettes I do believe were a daily occurrence in my childhood. Even now I can read a scripture, hear a Pastor preach a message or have a conversation with a friend and one of the choruses from the tapes in Mom’s minivan will play on the radio of my mind. The power of music is an amazing thing in how it sticks with you. All it takes is for something to trigger it and a song you haven’t been listening to or even thinking about instantly starts replaying. Even better, you can sing along to every word. It’s almost as if time stands still in the jukebox inside of you.

When we sing songs that are full of God’s word in our classrooms we are planting those truths deep down in kids hearts and spirits. When the day comes that they need to be reminded of those truths whether it’s next week, in five years or even twenty years from now the lyrics and melodies of those songs can and will come back to them. Truthfully this is what motivates me in leading worship for kids. I’m not leading them in worship just for today. I’m leading them to disciple them in what I hope will be a life of worship for all their years: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Worship isn’t about if you’re single or married, have plenty or are in need. It’s for the happy, broken, bullied, healthy and sick. It’s for the good days, bad days, and the really hard days. Whether you’re in a sanctuary or a minivan, alone or in a crowd.

I’m leading them now with the end in mind. When they are faced with a hard decision or a big life-altering moment I want them to lean in to one of the ways they can communicate to the Lord and that is worship. Imagine if we raised up a generation that learned to run and draw close to the Lord when life gets rough rather than run away from Him. Instead of blaming God for the behavior of His people, rest in His promises knowing He is always good, even when His people aren’t. Luke 6:45 says: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (NIV) This is why the songs we sing are so important. The message in them matters. Don’t limit your children’s worship to only fun, silly songs with a shallow message. Find songs, that are the right bite-size piece for that age group, that celebrate and magnify God’s greatness and His presence in our lives.

There was recently a cartoon movie about singing animals called “Sing”. (They had me at a singing pig! How incredible!) In the movie “Sing” they said, “Your song is your weapon.” Think about your family, church and the songs you sing. I challenge you with this question: what weapon are you sending forth by the songs you sing?I’ll be honest, I grew up in some am

azing churches with some great teaching. I had incredible parents who happened to be in the ministry but more importantly cultivated a love for Jesus in me the other days of the week besides Sunday. I am confident that one of the ways my heart was guided, always pointing to the Lord and His Word was through the music we sang.

Have you ever experienced a group of kids singing in worship? It is truly one of the sweetest things you’ll ever see and hear. Many times over I have been brought to tears watching a group of kids worship with such sincerity and passion. Truthfully most adults have a lot about worship they could learn from how kids worship. Mark 10:15 says: ‘Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (NIV) Children dive all in. You can see it on their faces and sense the tenderness of their heart. They worship without abandon, unrestricted, and unaware of what some might say. These kids are simply doing something that they were created to do. It’s not a task or a specific step in Christianity 101. It’s not even about the latest technology or CCLI top 10 chart. Children draw near to their Creator in worship. The one who numbered their days and counts every hair upon their head. We are all God’s children. Whether young or old, child or adult, we can all use worship as a way to draw close to our Heavenly Father. There is something beautiful about the relationship of a parent and child. I’ve never heard of a Christian parent who didn’t say becoming a parent opened their eyes to just how great God’s love for them is. And often how great the sacrifices their parents made on their behalf. The beauty of worship is being in our Father’s arms, expressing our love, adoration and thanks for every good and perfect thing. Just like a child extends their arm to their parent to be picked up. As we extend our hands in worship it’s a similar expression and result.

Think about how your church can lead kids to develop a love to worship. Kids are by far the easiest group to lead in worship. It’s in them to worship just like it’s in any child to love and be near their parent. The beauty of worship is that we can find our hiding place and our sense of belonging in His presence. Imagine the future if this generation we are leading learned this truth by experiencing it firsthand in our times of worship.

Fostering Beauty in Worship

By Warren Anderson

The Problem of Beauty

Discussions about beauty in worship can turn esoteric quickly. As Frank Burch Brown notes, in his Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully, anyone “contemplating the conjunction of beauty and worship is likely to confront, sooner or later, the awkward question of what sort of beauty to seek in worship, and whether a truly ‘spiritual worship’ can afford to make much of beauty that is visible, audible, sensory, palpable.” Contemporary American worshipers have “tended to be suspicious of richly sensuous or elaborate worship ceremonies of overtly beautiful or ornate buildings, which they have often judged to be ostentatious, wasteful, or superficial.”
As a result, many churches today, according to Mark Torgerson in An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today, “are eschewing any concern for beauty,” often due to a well-intended but ultimately short-sighted understanding of financial stewardship. “While it is certainly responsible to prioritize financial resources for public ministry, it is naïve to believe that the visible presence of a church does not express a particular understanding of God and communicate the priorities of a community. . . . Beauty enhances the world for all people, both those inside and those outside Christian communities.”

Indeed, we elevate the utilitarian over the aesthetic in worship at the risk of emotional and intellectual harm. The late Robert Webber, for many years a Worship Leader columnist, puts forth the following in his prophetic social commentary, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World: “Beauty, whether it is that of an individual, a place, a landscape, or an environment, has the power to communicate a sense of well-being. Beauty is the eyesight of insight.” (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.)

In an often ugly-beyond-measure world (I am writing this article a few weeks after the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.), Webber’s words carry profound meaning: “Beautiful space can speak of order, stability, and the absolute in a society of chaos and relativity, and bring quietness and peace to the inner person.” If Webber is correct—and I believe he is—then worship leaders ought to take Torgerson’s advice and “be particularly careful about cultivating the theological connection between God and beauty.” Much has already been written on this subject, and space does not allow for a thorough examination here, but let me offer three places where we might begin fostering beauty in worship.

Stars above ridgeCultivate Beauty Intentionally

If beauty is so important, why don’t more worship leaders make its pursuit a higher priority? Perhaps because gleaning an appreciation of beauty demands focused and intentional effort, Andy Crouch opines in, “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?”—an essay in, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (W. David O. Taylor, ed.). Exegeting the creation narrative in Genesis 2:9, Crouch recounts God’s making every tree “pleasant to the sight” in addition to a source of nourishment. “The trees of the garden are not just good for something. They are good simply in the beholding. They are beautiful.” Crouch further highlights the description of Eden’s headwaters in the next verses. Pishon, the first of the rivers, “winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold” (v. 11), and that gold is “good.”

“Why,” Crouch asks, “does the author indulge in this metallurgical excursion—with its digression within an excursion, ‘And the gold of that land is good’? . . . God has located the garden in a place where the natural explorations of its human cultivators will bring them into contact with substances that will invite the creation of beauty.” But that cultivation takes some effort, for these substances are hidden initially.

“They are not like the low-hanging fruit of the garden’s trees. They are latent—lying below the surface of the very good world. Only by exploration and excavation will they be discovered. Only by experimentation and craftsmanship will their possibilities be disclosed. God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored—where more goodness waits to be unearthed. The world is even better than it appears.”

When the world’s news at every turn suggests God is unresponsive, at best, or dead, at worst, our congregations need to be reminded the world is “better than it appears.” If David asked only one thing of God, to dwell in God’s house forever in order to “behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), we can certainly add cultivating an understanding of beauty to our weekly to-do list. (Need a place to start? Along with the works above, consider Jeremy Begbie’s Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, Rory Noland’s, The Worshiping Artist, and Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Volume IV of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship.)

Give Equal Time to Transcendence and Immanence

Christian theology is riddled with paradoxes. God is both completely just and wholly merciful. God is omniscient but remembers our sins no more when we repent. And God transcends our existence on earth while being immanent, always with us. In the words of the fairly new song, God is a “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy.” At the same time, God is, in the words of the fairly old song, “only a prayer away.” Hence, our worship ought to balance content that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.

Stars above forestGenerally speaking, however, “Christians have been particularly fond of remembering that the transcendent, holy God became immanent to us in Christ,” Torgerson states, claiming that this “focus on the immanence of God in Christ supported a twentieth-century emphasis on evangelism and service” in many churches. (One need not be a sophisticated sociologist, historian, or aesthete to affirm Torgerson’s notion. Whether we look at architecture, music, or a host of other considerations, most of us clearly worship in what Lester Ruth calls “personal-story” churches rather than “cosmic-story” churches.)

Let’s say Torgerson is correct that the motivation for the predominance of God’s immanence in our worship stems from a high view of evangelism. (This clearly was the case during the advent of the seeker-sensitivity movement and remains a component of the modus operandi of seeker-friendly churches today.) Webber argues that transcendence can serve the cause of soul-winning as easily as immanence. In what he calls “my favorite story of evangelism through beauty,” Webber tells the (true) story of Vladimir, prince of Kiev, who sends a contingent of his charges into the world to discover true religion. Searching high and low but coming up empty, they finally arrive at Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Wisdom. Upon their return, they report their findings to Vladimir.
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” Indeed, the beauty of the worship featured elements both transcendental, provoking other-worldly sentiments in the worshipers, and immanent, manifesting beyond doubt God’s presence in their midst.

In his quest to know God intimately, seeking God’s immanence such that his soul thirsts, David finds a transcendental experience with God: “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Psalm 63:2). Thus, this combination of God’s transcendence and immanence prompts David’s worship. Worship leaders endeavoring to achieve a similar balance might find similar responses from their congregants. (Need a place to start? Consider adapting a Taizé chorus for your worship. Cosmic-story lyrics and Renaissance-inspired harmonies promote an element of beauty rarely found in contemporary worship. Check out my article “Renewing Worship: The Positive Payoff of Messing with Convention” in the Worship Leader magazine archives July/August 2012 issue, for tips regarding making Taizé choruses work in a praise-band setting.)

Find “Beauty in the Common”

The final suggestion for promoting beauty in worship is at once simple and difficult. Anyone can do it; it’s that easy. Most of us don’t; it’s that countercultural. “We are often drawn and even conditioned to desire the dramatic and magnificent moments in life,” says Chicagoland pastor Ian Simkins, founder of the Beauty in the Common online community, “but that is to miss the power and presence of God in the common, ordinary spaces of our lives. . . . Beauty in the Common seeks to find those experiences, regardless of context, background, or story. Beginning from a place of commonality allows us to better see the beauty in one another and the ways God is moving in and through those around us.”

For the purposes of corporate worship, Simkins echoes the assertion that beauty promotes evangelism. “Life has a way of beating wonder out of us, but when the Psalmist invites us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ [Psalm 34:8], that involves more than just a weekly experience; it is, instead, a way of awakening awe deep within our hearts,” something which has the power to fill what Pascal called the “infinite abyss” in the soul of the unbeliever. For those who approach Christianity with suspicion, beauty can serve as a gracious bypass to cognitive resistance. “Rather than trying to convince,” Simkins concludes, “beauty seeks to invite.”

One such invitation could involve congregational testimonies. Ron Man, in his blog Worship Notes, recommends we make room for and utilize different types of stories in our worship sets: “someone sharing why a favorite song or hymn is meaningful to that person, followed by the congregation singing it, . . . work stories . . . how God motivates and uses [parishioners] in their workday jobs, [or testimonies of] elderly faith heroes talking about their long walks with the Lord.” Many churches already do this periodically, and with easy-access video technology, we have no shortage of options for promoting the beauty of our common experiences in corporate worship. (Need a place to start? Consider Simkins’ website: beautyinthecommon.com.)

Worth the Effort

“Beauty is most emphatically not the necessary and sufficient condition of aesthetic excellence,” offers Nicholas Wolterstorff in the classic Art in Action. Hence, the pursuit of beauty in our worship need not involve stained glass or pipe organs (though it can), nor does it mandate multiple-thousand-dollar lighting rigs or sophisticated sound systems (though it can). This is good news for the Church Universal, for all of us can pursue beauty on our own terms, as it relates to our particular circumstances, regardless of the sizes of our budgets or congregations.

Doing so is worth the effort. Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” May the Lord be with us as we endeavor to lead those we serve in fostering beauty in worship.

Sharing God’s Word with Young Hearts In Worship

Excited young boy

By Jason Houser

“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.”
Psalm 40:1-2

It is humbling to look back over my shoulder and see how God graciously led me to become a worship leader for children and families. I left my hometown in Idaho right out of high school and moved to Nashville to go to college. Music had always been an important part of my life, but it ultimately became an idol that led me away from the Lord. I was full of selfish ambition when I graduated from Belmont University and began working in the music business. As I achieved the success I dreamed about in my youth, it took a devastating toll on my marriage and young family.

The Lord brought me to a place where I had to surrender it all to Him. I cried out to God, brought my music to the altar and begged God to save my marriage and family. I experienced what David wrote in Psalm 40…”He turned to me and heard my cry.”

I asked God what He wanted me to pursue and He “put a new song in my mouth,” which was writing scripture songs for the Vacation Bible School (VBS) at our local church in Franklin, TN. These songs became the genesis for the Seeds Family Worship ministry. At the time, I was in the process of writing songs and producing an album on a new CCM artist named Matthew West. We were writing the song “More”, which became Matthew’s first #1 song at the same time I was writing the first group of Seeds songs, which included “Young (1 Timothy 4:12).”

My songwriting with Matthew West greatly influenced the writing of the scripture worship songs for our church. The result was high-energy worship that connected the hearts of kids to God’s Word. I remember that original VBS like it was yesterday when I recognized that the kids (and teachers) were all singing these scriptures by heart by the end of the week. The kids had God’s Word planted in their hearts…the “Seeds” of His Word.

I lead worship in different contexts within the church, but leading worship for kids is my favorite role as a worship leader without a doubt! Why? I love the joy, energy, and the openness that I see in them…and honestly, because it is so much fun! I know that the canvas of their hearts has plenty of white space on which we can paint God’s truth with vivid colors. I believe all of this fun and joy is an integral part of the spirit of true worship. Psalm 100:1-3 invites us into this joy:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Psalm 100:1-3

I love connecting the hearts of young people with this Psalm whenever I lead worship. I encourage them to use their voices to shout for joy to the Lord. I explain how these verses tell us to worship Him by singing joyful songs about how great and awesome He is. I teach them that we want to worship with confidence in our hearts that He is the One True God. Finally, I share that He made us to worship Him and we are His. We belong to him and He is worthy of our praise!

So, I want to share a few concepts with you about how we can effectively share God’s Word with young hearts in worship.

SHARE THE WORD

The Seeds Family Worship team loves to share God’s Word. Worship songs are such a powerful way to help kids learn and memorize the Bible. One of our favorite songs to lead in children’s worship is a song called “The Word Of God” (Hebrews 4:12). It is the scripture that tells us that God’s Word is “living and active” and that the Word speaks deeply to our hearts. We added a verse from Psalm 119 to the chorus of the song that says:

“I love Your Word, I love Your Word, oh God!”

As we sing the chorus of the song, we invite the kids to lift their hands in worship and praise God for speaking to us in His Word. It is beautiful to see young people worshiping God as we sing together.

Whether you are singing scripture songs or not, the Word is essential to your worship leading with young people. I usually begin a worship time connecting young people with scripture and a short explanation of who we are worshiping and why. My co-writer and worship leading partner in Seeds, Philip Morlan, shares an expression that he heard:

“Every worship leader should have a guitar in one hand and a Bible in the other.”

No offense to keyboard players, I am one myself…so adapt the saying to your creative gifting! But I love that picture for worship leaders of children.

Engage their young hearts with the Word of God. God’s Word is life-changing and speaks to young people every bit as much as it does to adults! And they may even have a greater capacity at times to get caught up in the wonder of His Word because their imagination is ready to follow wherever you will lead them.

SHARE THE WONDER

It is important to understand that kids have an amazing ability to wonder. Here are a couple of examples of how I engage kid’s wonder as we enter into worship:
I love to ask kids if they have ever been camping and seen thousands of stars in the sky after dark. I connect them with the awe of moments like that and unpack how they illustrate how incredible God is.

Sometimes I ask who has been to the ocean and can share the amazement of how God’s creation reveals how powerful and beautiful He is. Then I may expand the picture to share that God’s love for us is like the waves of the ocean that come onto the shore. God’s love never ends…it keeps coming wave after wave.

SHARE THE ENERGY

Just like with any communication, it is important that you express your energy in your worship leading and your teaching. We express energy in the way we speak and move. A worship leader for children needs to have an authentic excitement for the Lord and heart for serving kids. We give permission to the young people by setting the example. They are looking for us to show them how it is done. Let your excitement be heard in your words, felt in your songs, and expressed in your prayers with the kids. Let your light shine!

SHARE THE REAL

It is heartbreaking that so many of the kids to which you’ll minister are going through some incredibly difficult times. It is important to be aware of this and communicate God’s love and care as part of your worship leading. I will share age appropriate stories illustrating that all of us go through hard times and that God wants to help us through them. Create an opportunity in worship to pray for each other and bring their needs to the Lord.

SHARE THE LOVE

We are called first to love Jesus and walk in relationship with Him. Our relationship with the Lord should flow like a river into our worship leading, whether it is for children or adults. We can share God’s love with young hearts when we are truly connected to Him ourselves. It is of no less importance for worship leaders of children than it is for worship leaders in the main gatherings.

PRAYER BEFORE YOU SHARE

Our worship leaders in the Seeds ministry believe in the power of prayer! We have seen God do incredible things and we always encourage each other to make praying a priority. We know the battle that we all face with the busyness of ministry and organized chaos that can be a part of children’s ministry leadership. In spite of the challenges, we encourage you to go the secret place of prayer (Matthew 6) and seek God personally before you serve Him corporately. Create a culture of prayer with your worship teams.

WE ARE HIS INSTRUMENTS

I’d like to give you all a final word of encouragement. One of my favorite metaphors to share with worship leaders is the picture of us as God’s instruments. He is the ultimate “luthier” (builder of stringed instruments) and each one of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139). He made us and has given us our gifts, which we can’t take any credit for. We are His creative work and He has a purpose, or song, for us to sing as it says in Ephesians 2:10:

“We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

He has written a song for our lives so that we can resonate with His goodness and reflect His light. When we abide in Him and His Word abides in us, as it says in John 15:7-11, then we bear fruit as His instruments, bring glory to God and are filled with His joy.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Reba McEntire Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope

Reba McEntire Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope

Reba McEntire Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hopehttp://www.Reba.com
Rockin’ R Records – Big Machine Label Group

Reba McEntire with over 30 studio albums is as multidimensional as she is prolific. Having sold over 56 million albums worldwide, she is singer, songwriter, actress, and author. Approaching Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope a two-disc set project which contains ten gospel classics on disc one and ten new original songs on disc two was daunting at best and settling in and listening critically I was immediately set at ease with both the authenticity and flow of the classics. “Jesus Loves Me” and “How I love Jesus” elicited my own childhood memories of touring with my family and “Softly and Tenderly” featuring Kelly Clarkson and “How Great Thou Art” were both refreshing and tender with the right touch of passion and reverence that you know unequivocally you are traveling on a journey with an artist that is conveying a message with her heart and soul. The classics feel like more than someone going to the vault but Reba thoughtfully embracing songs that may have shaped her musical journey and destiny. The musicianship and production are first class and lead into the original songs on disc two. It is also important to note the medley “In the Garden/Wonderful Peace” with the Isaacs is a gorgeous saunter down gospel’s memory lane.

Initially, wanting to digest the two discs separately “Sing it Now” the opening tune on disc two and title track is a worship menagerie that is as revealing as it is majestic and features Reba the storyteller that raised her to secular prominence and is worth the price of admission.  “God and My Girlfriends” is another tune that makes you joyfully shake your head and step into the bliss of friendship and realize that worship is a day-to-day journey rooted in life experiences that may shape us profoundly. “Back to God” written by Dallas Davidson and Randy Houser is clearly the standout on this project and will appeal to her massive audience. However, “Hallelujah Amen” is a hook feast that lingers in your head long after the song is over. The rock guitar driven anthem “Angel on My Shoulder” will appeal to her country and western fan base and “From the Inside Out” is as poetic as it is poignant and the arrangement is riveting and allows the story to unfold leaving no emotional stone untouched and reeks of the humanity that we all must travail.

Sing it Now is made up of a combination of Reba’s favorite “classic” gospel songs that she has collected over the decades and originals that collectively tell the story of an artist that has something to say to us about worship and our walk with our Lord and Savior. Please give it a listen and find both “Wonder and Peace”. My hope and prayer are that “Sing it Now” is Grammy Bound and becomes Reba’s new signature song.

Sounds Like: Reba McEntire
Top Songs “There is a God” and “Angel on My Shoulder”
Most Singable: “Angels Singing” and “God and My Girlfriends”
Strongest Biblical Content: “Jesus Loves Me” and “Oh How I Love Jesus”
The Whole Package: “Hallelujah Amen” and ”Back to God”

A House United

a house united

The Blessing of Prayerful Praise

“Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
— Isaiah 56:7

 

My family loves to sing. I grew up on Long Island, New York with my parents, siblings, and maternal grandmother. When I was young my parents shared with me that I sang and hummed even as a baby. As a toddler, I honed my new found skills by learning numerous commercial jingles. So as you might imagine, my parents made me the resident entertainment. Each time someone visited our home, they placed me front and center to sing a favorite jingle. This love of singing, I was told, was passed down from my grandmother. “Granny” as we lovingly called her, lived with us until her death at 99 years of age. Every morning, after she read her Bible, Granny would sing a hymn or hum a tune for the rest of the day. So it wasn’t until I got older that I began to notice that the tunes she sang were not always vibrant, melodious hymns but many times raspy and deliberate prayers. In my mind, I can still hear the songs of my grandmother blessing our house with prayerful tunes of praise.

Prayer A Form of Praise

Prayer is a form of praise that develops from a deep understanding of God’s Word.

The Holman Bible Dictionary states that the modes of praise are many. However, it includes seven modes of praise to God. The seven practices for praise to God are as follows:

Offering a Sacrifice: In ancient times the priest would offer a lamb (Ex. 29:38). But today Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins (Jn. 1:29). We offer ourselves as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God which is our spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1).
Physical Movement: The Israelites were expressive in praise to God. They would stand, bow, prostrate themselves, dance, clap, kneel, and lift their hands (Nehemiah 8:5-6). David danced before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:14) and told us to clap our hands in praise (Ps.47:1). You can apply these praise movements based on the congregation that you serve. Not everyone has to respond in the same exact way for our praise movements to be acceptable. Any physical movement within these prescribed parameters is all God requires from us for proper praise.

Silence & Meditation: Since our world is filled with fast-paced hustle and bustle, we must build in times of silence in our worship and our world. The word Selah is most frequently used in the Book of Psalm and three times in Habakkuk. Selah is a musical notation that means to pause and think calmly on what has just been expressed.

Testimony: Our salvation stories should be used as a means to extol God’s goodness, express our faith, build community and promote compassion for others (Ps. 105:1-2).

Prayer: Prayer provides us with constant communication with God. David says, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense” (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8). Prayer is a conduit to the halls of heaven and a pathway into God’s presence.

A Holy Life: God continues to admonish us to be holy. Why? Because He is holy (Lev. 19:2; 1 Thes. 4:7). Praise allows us to reflect the character of our Creator. The apostle Peter states, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood a Holy Nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Music: Music is the sublime language God created to perpetuate His praise.

Music both vocal and instrumental pleases God. Music has God-ordained prophetic power. In 1 Chronicles 23:5, David says that the Levites should prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals.

In order for these forms of praise to penetrate our hearts, we need to study our Bibles. When we anchor our lives to God’s Word our songs become prayers and our prayers become our songs. Through a deep relationship with Jesus Christ, we make melodies with our lives that are acceptable sacrifices to God (Ps. 40:3). Author Ron Owens in his book Return to Worship; A God Centered Approach writes, “Fundamental to offering God acceptable worship is having a correct view of who He is. If our view of God is anything other than His Self-revelation through His Word, then the god we worship is one of our own making, one fashioned to suit what we want God to be.”1

Penetrating Praise

For our praise to be acceptable, the Word of God can’t just be in our lyrics. The Word of God must be reflected in our lives. When our praise pleases God, our songs penetrate beyond the worship service, into the soul. God nestled a hymnal that can be used as a handbook in His Holy Word. The Book of Psalm contains one of the greatest collections of songs, prayers, and poetry that spans one thousand years. Yet many of us don’t use the Bible as our primary guide for praise.

My husband does not like to follow instructions. If you really want to be honest, most men don’t. For the longest time, my husband refused to use his car navigation system. He had it, but he just wouldn’t use it. He was so bad that he would put on the navigation system and still drive his own way. That’s how some of us are with God’s Word. We have it but we just won’t use it. Some of us read God’s Word, but we just won’t follow the instructions. We rather go our own way.

Mark Futato, author of the Book Interpreting the Psalms tells us, “Many psalms were originally human words to God in prayer and praise. But once included in the canonical book, this text became God’s word to humans to teach us how to pray and praise.”2 Praise that penetrates is powered by prayer.
Edward Curtis, in his book Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship explains, “Laments outnumber every other kind of psalm in the Psalter; almost a third of the psalms belong to this category. Laments have their origin in situations of distress from which the psalmists cried out to God for help and deliverance. They reflect a wide assortment of troubles—political pressure, physical illness, loneliness, oppression, and a variety of spiritual needs. Interestingly, every lament includes an element of praise.” With so many difficult situations taking place in our world today we need to understand the power of laments that can unite us in a prayerful praise.

The Purpose of Prayerful Praise

Prayer helps praise through our pain.
Psalm 22:3 begins, “My God My God why have you forsaken me?” But by the time we get to third verse David exclaims, “But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel.”

Prayer gives us God’s perspective.
We see the people who need salvation through the Savior’s eyes. Without prayer, our songs lack proper perspective.

Prayer gives us God’s power.
We must unite our praise and prayer in order to have power. We need power in our praise to attract people to Jesus Christ.

We should sing our praise in a posture of prayer. Prayer and praise are both public and private; personal and congregational. For example, if you are an avid sports fan, you probably watch most of the games at home. You know all the players, all the stats, and every game won or lost. Then when you have the opportunity to go to the arena this is not your first time experiencing the excitement and the thrill of victory or defeat. You’ve been a fan of your team at home. So your public exuberance is just an expression of your private devotion.

We experience something very similar with prayer and praise. Your public expression of praise should be an overflow of your private experience in prayer and praise to God. You should come into the sanctuary already filled up with praise not needing to fill up. We should pray and study God’s Word as the core of our worship. No matter the circumstance, triumph or tragedy, we make intimacy with God through prayer the centerpiece of our praise. When we unite prayer with praise the house of God will be blessed.

The Blessings of Prayerful Praise

Prayer is the covenant that transforms your character
Prayer is the current that can be expressed in your chorus.
Prayer is the divine conversation
that will draw your community
(all people).

Praying God’s Word endows our songs with the power of salvation. Music powered by God’s Word unites in the Household of Prayer to create pleasing, purposeful, praise. God’s purpose is that our lives will become the lyrics Christ uses to seek and save the lost.

1 Ron Owens, Return to Worship: A God Centered Approach. p. 7-8.
2 Cheryl Wilson-Bridges, Deeper Praise: Music, Majesty or Mayhem. p. 47

I Like My Worship Like I Like My Coffee…

coffee beans

by John J. Thompson

I’m not sure how many times I’ve sat down to the task of choosing which worship songs to use at church the following Sunday. Leading worship has been a major part of my life since I was a teenager in the 1980s. I have faced this task hundreds of times. It’s probably my least favorite part of the gig. I’d rather sit through an hour of kick drum sound check than this. It’s on my to-do list today, again. Why do I dread this so? Time to fix a cup of coffee.

I suppose the simplest explanation of my angst is that I still feel like these choices really matter. Although I am painfully and wonderfully aware that worship is much more than singing songs, when it comes to our Sunday experience we have just a few moments in which we strive to help the members of our community transcend the stress of their morning, their fears of the coming week, or their well-fed complacency by singing together. The stakes are high.

My life’s work in the music business, and my years playing in a rock band, undoubtedly influence my choices at church. But how much professionalism is appropriate when it comes to Sunday morning? Am I approaching this as part of my job? I know something about entertaining a crowd. I know which songs are rising on the “worship charts.” Am I building a Sunday worship time the way I build a product for the market? Heaven forbid! No, there are some very specific questions I should be asking myself as I choose songs for Sunday. Which songs will best help aim the congregations’ hearts away from themselves and toward the source of peace we so desperately need? Lord, send me a text message with your preferred set-list, please!

Oh, my coffee is ready, and it is helping me think through this question in an interesting way.

The coffee in my office is pretty good. Actually, it’s excellent. It matters to me. I roast my own beans at home. I keep a Chem-Ex system, a burr grinder, and a temperature controlled water kettle in my office so that I can craft a pretty darn perfect cup when the desire arises. “Why bother?” one guest asked. “There’s a K-Cup brewer just 8 feet from your office door.”

Oh my. This guy doesn’t know me at all.

K-Cup coffee is better than my first cup of coffee by a mile. That’s not saying much, though. My first cup of coffee was from a vending machine at a rest stop outside of Springfield IL. It was horrendous. Even with half of the available space in my cup filled with “whitener” and sugar, I could barely choke the stuff down. It was cheap. It was convenient. It had caffeine. But it tasted like bitter, plastic, death. Fortunately, I gave coffee another try. Over the years I continued to learn better and better techniques for grinding, brewing, and even roasting the stuff. I’ve got it pretty dialed in now. Several guests who normally use cream and sugar in their coffee have told me that mine is the first they’ve enjoyed black. Small variables in the particle size of the grounds, the purity and the exact temperature of the water, and the amount of time the grounds spend in the water, all profoundly affect the final results. If I do it right I can coax out flavor notes of dark chocolate, apricots, cherries, and more. Roast it too long, though, and all you taste is char. Let it sit too long between roasting and brewing and the flavor simply escapes into the air. Grind it too fine and the solids are over-extracted, giving the coffee a bitter, astringent flavor. Grind it too coarsely and it will under-extract. All these variables, just for a cup of coffee. Is it worth it? I think so.

And yeah, it takes about 4 minutes for me to make coffee. The K-Cup machine is much faster. The problem, though, is that K-Cup coffee can’t be anywhere near as good as a pour-over. Every aspect of the K-Cup is about convenience. It’s also, ironically, the most expensive way to make coffee I have ever seen. The cups are an environmental problem, the cost is punitive, and the final cup is just not great. It might get the job done, and it’s not the worst coffee in the world, but it’s definitely not the best. It’s not designed to be.

And that gets me back to preparing for worship on Sunday. How might I be K-cupping this experience for the people I am honored to serve? How might the mechanisms of the experience – the equipment, the environment, even the lighting – be informing and influencing the final “product”? Am I looking for uniformity and predictability or authenticity and community? Am I dialing up convenience or pursuing art? Is this time going to be more like a carefully crafted cup shared with a friend, or a Grande something-or-another handed to a stranger through a window at a drive-through?

It took some time to learn how to roast my own coffee beans, but not too much. It took time to learn how to brew a great cup. But it wasn’t that hard. There is a value proposition at work here and, by and large, I find my coffee to be worth the extra hassle. That’s how I’m trying to approach church. How might I cultivate an experience that is good, true, and beautiful and not simply good enough?

Holy Spirit, reveal to us any ways in which we have allowed our worship of You to become commodified, commercialized, and automated. Help us to become mindful of the seductive power of convenience and to be driven to craft our communities with intention, servanthood, and excellence. You are worth it. Your people are worth it.

Let Worship Be Local Too: On the Influence of Industry on Sunday Morning

What are we asking Sunday worship to do for us? This is the root question behind the “worship wars” of recent decades, although that argument typically takes place a few inches above this root. Many American churches have asked at least two inappropriate questions to evaluate our worship ethos. The first is “what music makes us feel like we’ve worshiped?” The second is “what songs and sounds will grow our church?”

These questions have forced out better ones and reveal our real agendas for Sunday liturgies. We have asked our worship practices to bear loads they are not meant to bear, and they have succeeded. Regrettably, their success in producing feelings and attracting Millennials has also resulted in much deeper failures, such as the failures of Sunday worship to bind and to catechize. These new functions also allowed industry practices and industry pressures to crowd out the old functions, and we are worse for it.

Corporate singing can accomplish many tasks, and church leaders should take great caution when they assign a telos to Sunday music. Singing binds together generations of Christians through common song. Singing catechizes. Singing is also, as Marva Dawn has reminded us, a necessary-and-extravagant “waste of time[1].” Singing can also be conscripted to attract certain groups and/or repel others, or it can produce heightened feelings in our congregations. Singing can dwarf the preached Word of God and relegate it to the status of a lecture, or singing can prepare the ears to hear it. Whether through invitation or through neglect, there is an ever-expanding worship music industry that will exert pressure on our liturgies and, by extension, the theology and practice of our congregations.

A Global Standard

First, it is increasingly apparent that the relationship between local Sunday worship and the global worship industry is moving toward a servant relationship. For many reasons, such as a local church’s lack of resources and a desire to provide a worship ethos that attracts and retains Millennials, local churches have received what is offered to them. The largest players in the worship industry, such as Hillsong in its variant forms, have set a global standard for what worship should feel like, and American liturgies have agreed. Unlike their “praise and worship” predecessors in the 80s and 90s, internet distribution and worldwide worship tours have combined to deliver both a sound and an approach to worship that can be replicated anywhere. Of the churches who resist, most have already made the decision to ignore contemporary instrumentation or they simply lack the musicians to appropriately mimic the Hillsong sound. Broadly speaking, it’s easy to see why churches would want to follow the lead of these industry leaders. To be on the “cutting edge” of congregational singing is more accessible than ever before, and it promises to deliver the difficult 20-something demographic[2].

But there is a cost. It may not be a high monetary cost, since licensing the songs of other songwriters is relatively inexpensive[3]. It is costly to receive the content of your worship from songwriters on the other side of the world, mediated by radio popularity, and filtered through industry practices. As long as something is being sold or licensed, it will change and adapt to that industry. In our case, worship songs are subject to the same influences as the rest of the music industry, and the same consumer demands are applying the same pressures. We prefer our singers young, slim, and pretty. We prefer our bands to wear fashionable clothing onstage, even if that means hats and scarves indoors. We prefer the dynamic lighting, projected images, and special effects we have come to expect from other concerts. And to the degree that we mimic these trends as the new standard, aren’t our churches serving industry?

We also prefer songs we have already heard on the radio. The top-played songs from our Christian radio stations are frequently the top-reported songs from CCLI, the world’s largest licensing service for worship songs. It appears that this relationship between radio play and congregational singing is only strengthening. Worship leaders themselves commonly refer to the musical events in the liturgy as their “setlist.” More often than not, worship albums are accompanied by lyrics and chord charts for easy reproduction on Sunday mornings. If American worship services feel like a production, it is because they often are a reproduction of a profitable and repeatable industry process.

Marketed Music

Second, the worship industry tends to commodify worship. Wherever commerce occurs, the product is changed, and a significant number of agents have influenced the result of a worship album. The songwriters, whether in the forefront of their minds or not, are aware that certain songwriting choices are better economic decisions. Recording engineers and studio time are expensive ventures, especially for the large-scale operations of Hillsong or Bethel Music. Album designers package the recordings in such a way that we are compelled to purchase them, and then the marketing efforts begin. If a certain project holds a “personal devotion” flair instead of a “congregational worship” flair, it is better for radio play. On the other hand, albums that lend themselves to congregational singing will find less resistance in churches[4]. Licensing songs for use in local churches is not difficult, and this avenue can be enormously profitable for the most popular songwriters. Selling the chord charts and making tutorial videos available online can also provide a revenue stream for songwriters. We often think of the practice of writing and producing worship music as insulated from the brand-building pressures of the broader pop music industry, but it takes the same steps. Even if every person involved in every step of a worship album holds unselfish, God-centric intentions for the project, it will still be significantly influenced by economic incentives. For every decision along the way, the answer will generally trend toward whatever the end-user of the album will prefer.

That pesky reality of the end-user is the fundamental problem of the modern production of worship music. Because modern worship-crafting is so tethered to economic processes, it tends to define the relationships between product and consumer. For as much as songwriters want to declare that God is the audience of worship, the sheer amount of commercial activity between a song idea and a licensed song suggests that He is not the only one. All of this has profound effects on how we understand corporate worship. Even our expectations for worship, for example, have been shaped by the influx of live worship recordings. An implicit promise has been made by the seller: that a vibrant evening of corporate worship can be recreated later for an individual, perhaps in his minivan. These expectations also flow the other way, unfortunately, as our local Sunday worship is often judged against the worship atmosphere of a festival attended by hundreds or even thousands of Millennials.

Encouraged Towards Similarity

Third, the worship industry’s influence tends to flatten the local. At both levels of worship agency – the songwriter and the congregation, care for the local is threatened. The advent of internet distribution and accessible royalty structures can lure songwriters to think of writing for their global congregation (whatever this means) instead of a local one. Simultaneously, local congregations are also not likely to value songs written by their own, even if these songs can be far more contextualized to their particular church. In addition, the mere existence of “performance tracks” raises the question of whether local musicians are even necessary anymore. These are essentially karaoke songs that allow you to add or subtract any desired or undesired instruments or vocals from a worship recording. If your local congregation only has one “good” singer, then the performance track will supply the rest. Alternatively, if you have a band but lack multiple synthesizers, then the performance track will produce them for you. Either way, the goal is a near-reproduction of the original recording. If the local misses the mark, the industry will make up for it – for a price, of course. Pastors are routinely disciplined for plagiarizing illustrations, because they are expected to draw universal principles out of Biblical texts and then apply them to their specific congregations. Worship leaders, on the other hand, are encouraged to match the new universal worship ethos.

Further, it would alarm our grandparents that we often do not know the confessional tradition of our songwriters, but it does not seem to bother us. These and other factors have combined to produce a generation that struggles to locate worship within any particular confession or tradition. The preaching may be Lutheran or Reformed or Baptist, but the music is Hillsong[5].

Someone may make the following objection: “But most of the 19th and 20th centuries featured hymnals as the only source material for corporate singing. Certainly a hymnal is the ultimate example of neglecting the local and the particular!” Indeed, hymnbooks unified congregations across countries and attempted to bring Sunday worship under a standard. But there are two reasons that our current situation is different. The first reason is that the publishing process is dramatically different. Historically, hymnal publishers approached hymnwriters after their songs were already in use by local congregations. Royalties were typically paid according to how many hymnbooks were printed, regardless of how widely any particular song was used. The incentive to write hymns centered on the local, not the promise of future royalties. The second reason is that hymnbooks still retained a confessional or denominational standard. A Lutheran hymnal contained Lutheran theology, and regardless of the popularity of a song, it would not be published in a Lutheran hymnbook if its content was contrary to Lutheran theology. Today, I doubt that many worship leaders could tell you what denomination or tradition Hillsong is without looking it up. Not only does an industry sound override a local sound, but local confessional content is overridden by other theologies, and in some cases we are not even sure of the source.

Song Audits

A church’s canon of songs exerts pressure on the people, and we ought to audit these pressures regularly. The first round of audits, it seems, should center around the creedal content of the songs. The second round should center on the size of the local church’s songbook and the range of theological influences. Whatever songs a mother is led to sing on Sunday morning will be featured in her bedtime liturgies with her infants. If that doesn’t inspire reform in worship leaders, I don’t know what will. Only after these first two audits, in my opinion, are we able to ask what sort of music we will play. The question of drums, synthesizers, and electric guitars are questions near the end of the worship leader’s flowchart, though we often begin there by mistake. Too often we plan our musical sound and “vibe” before we have asked the bigger questions. Beginning with instrumentation, unfortunately, tends to dictate our theological intentions for music.

We ought to hold an appropriate level of caution for liturgical sources outside our own congregations and confessions. We should remember that worship leading is catechesis, and since the practice of identity-formation through formal catechism has fallen out of favor, singing together is the nearest thing to it.

Finally, the songs we learn on Sundays must be able to sustain the church through persecution also. What we learn on Sunday with dynamic lighting and synthesizers may be a non sequitur on our deathbeds or a gathering in a burned-down church due to persecution. Just as exiled Israelites continued to sing after they laid down their harps by the waters of Babylon, are we prepared to sing after we have laid down our drum sets and amps?

Ryan is the Program Director for The Oread Center, a Christian study center at the University of Kansas, and also a college pastor at Grace EPC, where he leads worship. He and his wife Kristi have three girls. 

[divider]

[1] Marva Dawn’s most popular treatment of the purpose of worship is called “A Royal Waste of Time.”

[2] Or at least it promises to slow the Millennial exodus away from Protestant pews

[3] And possibly needless under U.S. copyright law.

[4] It is hard work to market one song to both audiences, though it is easier than it used to be. Christian radio stations are the gatekeepers to industry, and they are notoriously difficult to enter unless you are already popular. It is not uncommon for station directors to have planned out most of their playlists months in advance.

[5] It is astonishing that the most prominent fruit of efforts toward ecumenicism has come from the worship industry.

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