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?

Two Kinds of Worship?

One of the things I like about Christian theology and practice is that it is always evolving. Sure, certain absolutes remain constant, but lots of the periphery change and I believe the reason why the Christian faith has endured (and in fact flourished) over the centuries is because of its cultural adaptiveness.

So, when I write in this blog, I’m not trying to provide static answers and manifestos. I appreciate that my own thoughts will change and be challenged, as much as I seek to challenge and grow the mindsets of others.

If you’ve read my earlier posts on defining worship, you will see that I take a very broad view of what worship is. The definition I like the most is Harold Best’s, which says that worship is “continuous outpouring”, meaning that our whole life is our worship to God.

I thought that was pretty progressive, until I came across James MacDonald’s writings in the November 2012 issue of Worship Leader Magazine. In his article, “Unashamed Adoration”, MacDonald says this:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and are done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”, but technically they are not worship. I’m not seeking to parse meaning with undue rigour, but we need to be precise in our definitions if we want to accurately embrace the very purpose for our existence. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intentional, Vertical outpouring of adoration. While that does not have to be put to music, it does have to be direct in order to rise above the “worshipful” and actually attribute worth to God…. Worship is mind, emotions, and will engaged in whole-person ascription of worth.

Nothing brings glory down in church as quickly and as powerfully as when God’s people unashamedly adore God’s great Son, Jesus Christ.

I like the distinction McDonald makes between “worshipful acts” and “worship”, with “worship” being something requiring intensity, intentionality and vertical-focus.

Just the other night, I was trying to describe what we were going to do for Global Day of Worship and how some time during our “worship”, we should have a time of giving. I had to make inverted comma signs with my fingers when I said the word “worship” to delineate between musical praise and taking the monetary offering. And then the thought occurred to me that I might need to use “air ponies” (as Gloria in Modern Family puts it) every time I want to describe intentional praise as distinct from lifestyle-worship just in case anyone misunderstands me. At that point in time, I thought whether an excessively broad definition of worship might make the term meaningless and unusable.

So perhaps, much can be said for MacDonald’s position in taking us back to a more rigid (and what I had thought was a less progressive) definition of worship. What do you think?

Worship’s Dirtiest Word

In recent posts, I have been ruminating about worship auditions. Over the years, worship ministries have accepted auditions as a completely legitimate way to vet and induct new candidates into the ministry.

But whenever you talk about auditions, you also bring up another concept, which to mention in the context of worship is virtually taboo. It is one of worship’s dirtiest words. It may not be the dirtiest, but it certainly is up there. So, please promise me that, after you read this post, you will go into your prayer closet and ask for forgiveness for even entertaining the thought (actually, “entertain” is also a bad word, so pray for forgiveness twice!)

Used in any other context, the word causes absolutely no offence. In fact, it has a neutral to positive connotation. Used in the context of worship however, it is downright obscene.

That word is “performance”.

It is such a provocative word that, in fact, the July/August 2012 edition of Worship Leader magazine devotes itself to what the editor calls “an ancient controversy”.

The question is this: should performance be part of worship leading?

Ask me that question 10 years ago and I would have given you a very different answer to what I would give you today.

The church’s aversion to performance in worship leading can be traced to how those of us who have been in worship ministry for a long time were trained and brought up. We were told to “let no flesh glory in God’s presence”. Performance is therefore “fleshly” and therefore “not of the spirit”. And true worshippers must worship “in spirit and in truth”.

In an article published years ago entitled “Worship vs Performance” (I can’t find its source now), Kelly Carpenter (a Vineyard worship leader and composer of “Draw Me Close to You”) said this:

Worship is not performance. Performance is not worship. They are mutually exclusive. If we keep that straight, then we will be able to properly give God His due. Problems develop when we turn worship into a performance. When we bring the performance mindset and pattern into worship, it becomes polluted.

Over time, my mindset has changed. I no longer think that worship and performance are exclusive. I believe that for a worship leader to truly lead worship, they must actually bring an element of performance into their craft. This requires musical excellence, the ability to connect and engage the congregation, appropriate articulation of instructions and exhortations and being able to pray inspiring prayers.

To what end? If this is to bring attention to ourselves as worship ministers, then we’ve probably missed the point. But we equally miss the point if we don’t “perform” and by failing to “perform”, we fail to inspire the congregation to bring their best praise offering to God.

This is not to say that the ultimate audience of our worship isn’t God. Worship leaders should understand this point well. But, without derogating from that principle, worship leaders also need to (whether they like it or not) appreciate that there is a secondary audience – the congregation. This is of course not ideal but you just need to look at how we set up our worship in churches all around the world week-in and week-out to know that this is true. There is a stage; the stage is raised; the seating arrangements have the stage as a focal point; and the lights point towards the stage. What are we all looking at? I can tell you now that God is not on stage (at least not visibly).

The only visible people on stage are the worship musicians!

Until we get rid of this set-up, we can’t deny that performance will play an important part of our worship leading.

When I lead worship in cell group (where we usually gather in a circle), I use a different approach to worship leading to how I would lead in a Sunday service. For example, I gravitate towards simpler, more melodic songs. I use different language. I tend to speak as someone within the company of gathered worshippers, rather than someone in front of them. I am usually more laid-back and my tone is more relaxed.

When I lead worship in a Sunday service, I appreciate that not everyone in the church knows me like my cell group nor do I know them like I do my cell group. I need to be more exacting in my use of language; I need to craft my prayers more deliberately; I need to make sure that I use the 25 minutes with which I am entrusted to bring as many people in the congregation to a place of encounter with God.

I had a friend years ago who used to lead worship in cell group as he would on the platform. So he’d stand there (in front of all 8 of us), put on a faux American accent (because back then, all the good worship albums came from the USA) and give the most rousing performance he could muster. We were able to move past it all and worship anyway, and we’d tease him later and laugh about it. But he probably didn’t need to impress us so much in a cell group setting.

So why are we so averse to performance anyway?

Musicologist Monique Ingalls says this in her article “Reclaiming Performance in Worship” (Worship Leader, July/Aug 2012):

We often use the word ‘performance’ to describe what happens when someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with the way they really feel or the way they are in ‘real life’. We impute questionable motives to their actions: ‘performers’ in this sense act with an intention to deceive or manipulate, like an actor adopting a persona.

Next, Ingalls continues:

In the context of congregational worship, ‘performance’ is used to negatively describe what happens when the focus is placed on the musicians onstage (‘performers’) while the congregation (‘audience’) remains passive and uninvolved.

Recognising the cause of our aversion is part of the way towards our healing. When we actually analyse those two causes, we come to realise that (1) when worship leaders perform, they aren’t necessarily being fake or manipulative; and (2) our performance isn’t to negate the congregation’s involvement in worship, but rather to inspire and enhance that involvement. In fact, I believe that a worship leader must perform well if they are to faithfully steward their anointing.

And I’m glad to say that in recent years, the church has begun to embrace “performance” as a legitimate skill to be deployed by worship leaders. Very much in the same way that we would like our preachers to be interesting and engaging.

Paul Baloche, in his article “A Leading Worship Performance” (Worship Leader, Jul/Aug 2012) says that musically preparing is important because it will “greatly affect the participation of the congregation”. Baloche goes on to say:

We have to acknowledge that leading worship has aspects of performance. It’s naive or dishonest to pretend there is no element of performance when we walk out onto a platform or stage in front of others.

In an interview with Israel Houghton in the same issue of Worship Leader magazine, Houghton talks about a big Easter event that Lakewood Church had put on:

We poured great effort into how the songs wold be structured, how we were going to go about it, we planned this big drum feature thing. I asked our team, ‘What if we did that every week?’ Just put it all out there every single week? Some would see that as the wrong kind of performance, but I would see it as caring for the people that are coming to hear from God.”

Properly motivated, performance is a powerful thing. As Houghton might say, if we want to honour God and if we care about our congregations, then we’d better put some effort into our craft and our delivery. Not because we want to bring glory to ourselves. Not because we seek the adulation of others. But because, as worship leaders who pastor our congregation into God’s presence, we want to maximise participation both in breadth (in the numbers of people who worship) and in depth (in terms of the quality of their encounter with God).

Maybe the worship team should think of themselves as the “support act” (oops, ‘act’ is probably another dirty word!). When God’s presence comes (the main event), we will get out of the way and join back with rest of the congregation in giving our praise and adulation to the audience of One.

So what do you think? Is this the right balance to strike?

Worship Leader Magazine’s Top 20

I am an avid student of the history of the so-called “praise and worship” movement. I believe that if we are going to revolutionise the way we “do” church and worship, we have a lot to learn from the past so that at the very least, we don’t repeat its mistakes.

So when I first started this blog, one of the earlier posts which I wrote in January of this year was what I called The Epochal Songs of the Praise and Worship Movement, being a catalogue of songs which have either captured the heartbeat of the church in a particular season or songs which have propelled the church in a new prophetic direction.

Last week, my wonderful wife bought me an iPad for my birthday. One of the first things I did was to subscribe to the online version of Worship Leader magazine.

Years ago, my old church used to receive hard copies of Worship Leader magazine, and we used to circulate it amongst the various worship leaders in the ministry. Sometimes, the hard copy made its way to everyone; many times, it’d get lost in someone’s pile of papers and disappear into the abyss of their (my) study. But whenever the magazine would get to me, I would love reading the thoughts and insights of some of the leading voices of the worship movement. It was a gateway into the wider body of Christ (more correctly, the body of Christ in North America!) and how it was “doing” worship.

So I quickly devoured my May 2012 online back-copy in a couple of days.

Two things struck me. First, it dawned on me just how commercialised the worship leading industry (I mean, ministry) had become. Reading through the magazine (after such a long hiatus), I was confronted with the Job Board (“looking for the right fit for your worship ministry?”), ExaltNow worship software (“use PowerPoint in worship like never before! Now also for Mac”) and worshipplanning.com (“let worshipplanning.com shoulder the administrative stress of planning, communicating and coordinating with your ministry teams and volunteers”).

This commercialism, whilst it grates on my orthodox sentiments of keeping worship ministry holy and pure, also has an upside. It is probably one of the most significant factors that has increased the reach and influence of worship ministry around the world, not only in church circles, but also in secular cross-overs. So in that sense, we should celebrate the good that has come from that phenomenon.

Second, what Worship Leader magazine does is to keep worship ministers on the pulse of the new things God is doing. New personalities, new music, new technology, new theologies and thoughts on worship. It helps keep our ministries fresh. And for that, the publication should also be applauded.

Anyway, I digress.

What was really interesting was that I found out that in March, Worship Leader celebrated its 20th anniversary. And quite unbeknownst to me, it had also constructed its own list of top songs called the “Top 20 Worship Songs of the Past 20 Years”. I was immediately inspired to get back to finishing my series on the Epochal Songs (whilst I have already catalogued my list of 20, I haven’t yet finished explaining why I chose them, which I hope to do really soon), but I was curious to see how Worship Leader‘s list compared to mine.

So here is Worship Leader magazine’s top 20 worship songs of the past 20 years:

20. Days of Elijah (Robin Mark)

19. Heart of Worship (Matt Redman)*

18. Revelation Song (Jenny Lee Riddle)

17. He Knows My Name (Tommy Walker)

16. Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble (Delirious)*

15. Holy is the Lord (Chris Tomlin)

14. How He Loves (John Mark McMillan)*

13. O Praise Him (All This For A King) (David Crowder)

12. Breathe (Marie Barnett)*

11. Everlasting God

10. Friend of God (Israel Houghton/Michael Gungor)

09. Majesty (Delirious)

08. In Christ Alone (Stuart Townend/Keith Getty)

07. Open the Eyes of My Heart (Paul Baloche)

06. Blessed Be Your Name (Matt and Beth Redman)

05. Beautiful Things (Michael Gungor)

04. Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes)

03. Shout to the Lord (Darlene Zschech)*

02. How Great is Our God (Chris Tomlin)*

01. Mighty to Save (Reuben Morgan/Ben Fielding)

I have put asterisks where my list and Worship Leader‘s list intersect. Granted, their list is based on songs which the editors considered their favourites; my list is based on what I believe to have been significant songs in the worship landscape, not merely popular songs. Their list is presumably centred on the North American scene; mine is based on my experiences in the church in Australia. Their list covers the last 20 years; my list goes back the last 40 years.

But it’s been interesting to see the similarities. On reflection, there are certainly many important songs which I’m sure I’ve missed out. “Open the Eyes of My Heart” was one clear omission from my list.

So there you have it. What do you think of this list? What do you think of my list? What other songs should go down into the annals of praise and worship history as groundbreaking or a favourite?