What’s Gone Wrong with the Worship Song?

I recently came across Andy Chamberlain’s article “Radio Killed the Worship Song” in this month’s Worship Leader magazine and I couldn’t agree more with him.

Chamberlain’s point is that today’s worship songs are no longer “congregational”, more particularly, that they aren’t being written with the average church congregation in mind:

Many of our best known worship songs simply aren’t congregationally singable in their original format, and sometimes if you change the format, the song just doesn’t work at all….

But it’s not simply a matter of changing key. Lots of big songs written in the last few years have a range as wide as a 15th, meaning that whatever key you place it in, parts are going to be too high or too low for too long, and then people just stop singing.

He goes on to add:

Another way to get big climactic lift is to jump up an octave in the final chorus, and many newer songs use this idea. Again it works brilliantly on CD and in huge gatherings but simply isn’t usable in avery sized churches.

In my post Confessions of a Dyed-in-the-Wool Worship Musician, I said that worship should be more like a jazz bar than a rock concert in a stadium. It needs to convey connection and intimacy. Growing up in church during the 90s, worship expression was beginning to develop its own form as the wave of the Jesus Movement receded. Spearheaded by the likes of Hosanna Music, Maranatha and Vineyard Publishing, there was a real emphasis on musically-excellent, well-crafted worship experiences with the church congregation in mind. Worship leaders were worship leaders, not worship artists.

The era of the worship artists meant a new emphasis on technical excellence and creativity. This is actually not a bad thing because it began to restore to the church a renewed call to capture the arts but also to speak a creative language that the unchurched could understand and connect with. But it also meant that worship delivery was starting to move beyond the grasp of the average church musician who tried to emulate what was on the CDs without the ability or resources to do so.

This gap has now widened.

Worship songs used to be a lot simpler, more economical in thought and focus, more repetitive and simpler to sing. I used to be able to sing almost any worship song that was published.  Recently, I was trying to find a comfortable key for Israel Houghton’s “Your Presence is Heaven” (which by the way, is a song I love to listen to) and realised that it was almost impossible to find that key which would still allow me to sing the high octave part.

So for all the good that worship artistry has brought us, including a greater emphasis on skill, excellence and creativity, perhaps the pendulum should start to swing back slightly. Let’s keep the good things, but let’s return to the roots of congregational worship. Let’s make the songs simpler to sing so that as much of the congregation as possible can take part. Let’s take worship away from the radio, the big conferences and the stadiums and make it accessible to churches both big and small.

Maybe radio hasn’t killed the worship song completely, but let’s do something before it does.

What do you think?