Dear worship leader,
Do you feel there are a lot great modern worship songs that your church is not singing? Maybe you feel it would be spiritually healthy to introduce fresh hymns to your community. It would refresh the hearts of the saints. It would connect with younger families. Sure, there are lots of worship songs (new and old!) that are doctrinally questionable. But there are some that are doctrinally rich and musically refreshing. The question is, how do you lovingly, respectfully introduce new musical styles into traditional worship?
I’m clearly of the opinion that bringing new music into traditional worship settings is a healthy thing, and vice versa. I’d like to suggest 10 ways to go about doing it in a godly, helpful, edifying way.
Open It Up and Here’s All the….
I can’t say “rad” around my daughter without some scowling glare. And let’s be honest, the same sort of thing happens when older people hear modern music in church, or when young folks hear a Muzak-sounding arrangement of a hymn.
Every generation is sensitive as to what “belongs” in worship. They know intrinsically what sounds “authentic” to them. To that point, an older, jazz-loving gentleman spent a lot of ink telling me he never believed a drum set belonged in worship.
It’s true, our churches are filled with generations that speak a different language. Yes, it’s a musical language, but a language nonetheless. And to try and speak a different music language in church can have a strong visceral reaction. And just like learning to speak a new language takes time, so does learning a new way to worship.
So how can we bring fresh new arrangements and music styles into worship? How can we make our worship musically multilingual without it becoming weird, giving off that channel surfing vibe? How can we speak the musical language authentically?
Here are some ways that I’ve found helpful. (Albeit, these are not necessarily easy, which might be why they work.)
- Keep it Classy: Many of our modern worship anthems are guitar saturated. They have hooks that define the song. Here’s a challenge — take that Hillsong lead guitar line and give it to a classical instrument. Write it out for flute or violin. If possible, write a string quartet arrangement to back the song. Don’t know how? Start with songs that already have string accompaniment written. I recommend Sovereign Grace Music arrangements and songs.
- Organ Donor: Once, when Indescribable was really popular, I arranged the opening lines for organ to give it this huge epic sound, then the band came in (snippet below). The organ, if you have one, can be your best friend in modern worship. Many of us leading in worship today grew up on U2’s Joshua Tree. Don’t forget that the first sound you hear on our generation-defining album is that lush, evolving organ.
- Use the Choir: In many churches, the choir is their own congregation. Having them literally back you up on Sunday morning is a huge plus! One of my weaknesses has always been preparing music mid- to late in the week. It’s a weakness because it keeps everyone waiting. This is super annoying for the choir. But when I’m on my game, and I know there’s a song I want to introduce, I can get it to the choir weeks ahead of time.
- Reharmonize: One easy way to freshen and update the sound of worship is to reharmonize old hymns. If a verse of a particular hymn focuses on Jesus’ death, do it in a minor key.
- Piano: Training your pianist to play less is huge step toward a modern sound. Here’s a challenge: Listen to artists like Keith Getty and Fernando Ortega. Focus on their approach to the piano. How different is that approach from how the piano sounds in traditional worship? I have worked with a number of piano players over the years, and that is the one thing we always have to keep focussing on — to play less. (The other is tempo! 😂) Seriously, have the pianist only use their right hand for a change.
- Climatize the Congregation: A lot of the success in introducing a new style of music into worship is moving slowly. That doesn’t mean Revelation Song should sound like it belongs on The Lawrence Welk Show. It just means climatizing the congregation to the new sound. Churches are like the Titanic. You can’t turn them on a dime. It takes preparation. It takes teaching, instruction, and biblical justification. If you lose the people you love in pursuit of the music you like your worship has lost its soul. If you lose the people you love in pursuit of the music you like your worship has lost its soul. Click To Tweet
- The Pastor: If there’s going to be a change in worship in your church, it should be the pastor’s idea, or the session’s, or whatever leadership your church has — not yours. 😃 Seriously, you were hired to do a job. Do it, and do it well. Love your pastor and serve him wholeheartedly. Make it a joy for him to work with you. If you have an idea for worship, don’t surprise everyone Sunday morning (especially the pastor) with it. Talk it through with the pastor, who should then prepare your church with a fundamental missional rationale for it.
- Excellence: It’s amazing how much will be overlooked when it is done really well. If you’re going to introduce new music styles, do it well. Period. That doesn’t mean flashy. Keep it humble, but do it well. There’s nothing humble about doing worship music poorly. (cf. Psalm 33:3.)
- Song choice: Bottom line, pick the best of the best. Don’t introduce the songs just because they move you while you sit in your car. Here’s a challenge: Print the lyrics, just the lyrics. Meditate on them without the music. Test that spirit to be sure it wasn’t the music moving you, but its grace-saturated gospel truth moving you toward God. And while you’re at it, relook at those old hymns your church has been singing. Make sure that theology is good, too! Some songs stay in the mix because they conjure up sweet memories of days gone by. Don’t be afraid to jettison songs that don’t have Biblical justification for being in worship. Remember — we sing to teach one another truth (cf. Col 3:16; Eph 5:19)
- Pray: Some people are going to respond really negatively toward you. You are the lightening rod for this. Prepare yourself by praying through it. Remember that line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” Keep that conditional aspect of forgiveness ringing in your ears. This whole thing should be an act of love and obedience.
So there you have it. Ten steps to help you move toward a more modern and robust music ministry, that seeks to preserve the unity in the church while speaking the musical language of the culture without losing the precious unchanging truths of the gospel.
There are plenty more ways, I’m sure. What’s your experience?