I love new music, especially when it comes from tried and true artists. So you can imagine my excitement for the latest Hillsong United project that came out this week. Months of anticipation for brand-new songs from some of the most prolific worship songwriters of our time. But my excitement quickly faded into disappointment. I discovered my shiny new toy was rather dull.
Before you United-enthusiasts grab your pitchforks and want to burn me at the stake, hear me out. Yes, musically, Empires is creative, expressive, and fresh. I believe they have produced the album they set out to create, one that is experimental and progressive. My gripe isn’t with the musicianship though. It’s with how inaccessible I found it to be as I listened for potential songs to use with my congregation. In 20 years of leading worship, I’ve discovered a key to choosing songs for worship is knowing your audience. I believe this criterion is important if you want to engage your people in worship, especially in smaller churches. The larger the crowd, the less you have to consider your audience because you’ve already established a rapport with them and, therefore, have the freedom to explore the boundaries.
I have bumped into this issue more and more with recent albums from staple worship songwriters such as United, Passion, and even Jesus Culture. The small-to-medium sized church worship leader, like myself, has enjoyed many years of inspired songs from these artists, songs that have connected with our people. But now, as they increasingly explore creative freedom, we must realize their songs may not connect. We must pay attention to the various elements that do connect, such as style, tempo, words, and structure. It’s not about catering to personal tastes, but it is planning for engagement. Which is what we desire, right? We want to see those we lead connect with God in worship week in and week out. So we must begin to explore other avenues for new music, or we will continuously fumble with the awkwardness of the latest “hit” song not translating to the local church.
I remember when Chris Tomlin’s song “God’s Great Dance Floor” came out. My eldest son and I were on a trip to Atlanta and decided to visit Passion City Church on a day. You can imagine how elated we were to discover it was the release party for his album! We rocked along to the new tunes as we enjoyed singing along with a few thousand other people. It was incredible. And then Tomlin broke out Dance Floor. The smile across my face felt as a big as the room as I sang along in celebration of God’s love for us. Afterward, my son and I debriefed in the car about the service and how great a song Dance Floor was. I couldn’t wait to teach it to my church!
When the day came to introduce it, I tempered my excitement over the song. I’ve learned over the years how long it can take for new songs to catch on. But I was completely unprepared for the awkwardness the song was received with. Week after week, the song was met with deer-in-headlight stares across the room. I tried my hardest to make the song connect as I taught on it, encouraged participation, and even tried to shame the group to join in. (Not one of my finer moments.) Still nothing. We eventually decided to retire the song and move on.
I learned a valuable lesson through the experience. Some songs don’t translate from packed out auditoriums and concert halls to small church sanctuaries. Whether it’s style or message, the connection just doesn’t develop. And that’s perfectly ok. For us to bring new songs to our congregations, we need to stop solely depending on the tried and true and start exploring other resources. Here are three helpful places I have discovered:
- Write songs. Nothing connects to your church like a homegrown song. Your people will immediately take pride in knowing it came from what God is doing in your church. And you are uniquely positioned to know the heartbeat of the people you lead. You don’t have to write an award-winning song. Just tell the story of what God is doing.
- Discover new resources. Spotify has some great playlists and tools to help you explore what’s out there in worship music. And a fantastic new service called www.WorshipSongs.me provides user-driven content. Basically, it’s a crowd-sourced platform that allows other leaders to share what’s connecting with their congregations.
- Don’t do it alone. Connect with other worship leaders both locally and through social media. Ask what songs they use connect. I discovered Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters through a buddy who leads at another church. It was an instant hit with my church!
I’m not trying to discourage you from checking out the latest Hillsong United album. You may discover some songs you want to introduce at your church. Great! My purpose here is to encourage you to expand your horizon with a few other avenues I have found to be useful. Regardless of where you find new songs, you know the people you lead better than almost anyone. Seek after the Lord in each and every set you plan and He will connect you to the songs those you lead need the most.
Kevin Bradford is father to four amazing kids, writer, pastor and coffee snob. He is currently writing his first book on how to overcome the past and become a new creation. You can connect with Kevin on Twitter @kevinpbradford or follow his blog at thebradfordblog.me.