There's a recurring debate amongst worship leaders, lead pastors, band members, church leadership, and congregations at large - should we sing (a) familiar worship songs that our people know or (b) new songs? I think any seasoned worship leader will know that the answer is yes. Both. Yet in many places, a debate still persists and this is evidence that many churches haven't yet achieved a balance that helps their attendees connect meaningfully with God in worship.
In my own local church, I don't think we've accomplished this goal yet. But I think we're doing better at it now than we have at any other point in the ten years I've been serving here. I've sought God's wisdom in a variety of ways and I've received counsel from others I trust. We've made huge strides in this area at my church and I believe that the people I'm privileged to lead are finding our worship experiences more meaningful than ever before.
So here are some of the things I've learned ...
- You've got to know your cultural context. We have a saying at my church - "your culture will eat your strategy for lunch." Truer words may have never been spoken. I know that my church is positioned in a third-ring, upper middle class, suburban neighborhood and our attendance reflects that. The nearest college/universities are approximately 30 minutes away - too far for young adult students to travel for a weekend service. Our biggest demographic includes families in their 30s/40s with young children. And attendance is not consistent - if someone here says they "attend regularly," they may be telling you that they attend a couple of times each month. In our worship style, we are about as mainstream as they come. For a long time, I think that frustrated me and I wanted to be exponentially more progressive than I needed to be. Don't misunderstand - we're a very modern and probably more progressive than 90% of churches in America. I've just always been wired to push the envelope and I think a lot of other worship leaders are the same way. That being said, gaining a better understanding of my cultural context has helped me to understand ways that I can balance the familiar with the new.
- You don't have to be as cool as you perceive the mega-churches of the world to be (and to whom you're comparing yourself/your church). For a long time (before starting to work at one of them), one of the country's mega-churches was in my backyard. They were (still are) a growing church of 16,000+ people with multiple campuses and for years I compared our churches, thinking that if we could just do what THEY were doing, then we'd achieve "greatness." It was a liberating day when I realized that I could learn from them without actually needing to become them. They had a style that worked and so did we. We may not have had 16,000 people who attend our church, but we had a lot. And God was doing an amazing work in our midst too. Comparisons to other churches can be unhealthy. While we should always be learning as much as we can to make our ministry better, comparisons for "coolness" sake violate many principles that Christ taught us.
- There will always be more great music in the world than you have the time or ability to use in your worship services. As worship leaders, we've got to understand this before we can ever achieve the necessary balance of familiar and new for which we're striving. In reality, our worship services probably only have room for the best of the best music - the stuff that will hit the ball out of the park for our attendees based on our cultural context, themes, etc. And there are creative ways to use the rest of the music that we wish we could have fit within the confines of our worship service. We often use those songs in our pre and post service playlists which also plays throughout the halls of our church and outside as people are arriving on campus. It takes forethought and intentionality to figure out how to use that "second tier" stuff, but if you're willing to invest the time, you'll find fulfillment in knowing that your worship experience extends even beyond the start and stop time of your actual service.
So how do we balance the use of familiar music with new?
- Develop a system for choosing new music. My personal practice is this: I follow several churches who post their worship sets online. Because there is SO MUCH music in the world, when I see a common song begin to pop up across two or more of those churches, it "pings my radar" and I begin to consider whether or not we could use it at my church. I also have the Christian music radio charts bookmarked and check it each week. If other churches have been playing a song AND it's on the charts, then that's even better. It's generally the sign of a really good new tune. Beyond that, I'm obviously listening to music constantly and because I feel as though I have a good idea of what my church will like (and not like), there are always times when we're choosing simply because we know it'll work for us. If, however, it doesn't, we don't keep it in the mix. As I mentioned earlier, there's just too much "home run" music and if a song doesn't work well, we're not going to force it. I should also mention that we use original worship music in our services often. This is because we've also learned that our church appreciates and values it. In my cultural context, our people find a healthy sense of pride in knowing that their worship leaders write music that will help them to connect with God and it works well.
- Give your church time to learn new music. If your church is anything like ours, you'll need to use a new worship song several weeks in a row before people begin to really connect with it. There are always exceptions - those amazing times when you do a song for the first time and it feels as though you've known it for years - but they're pretty rare. As a general rule, we use a new song for three weeks in a row, then take one week off, then use it for at least one more week. For clarification, the purpose of this entire post has been about the use of WORSHIP music, not FEATURED music. We generally use a featured song each week after our message. It's themed for the week and most often intended to be used only once (and not for people to sing along).
- Don't introduce too much new music. I've learned that what works for our church is 11-15 new worship songs per year. That doesn't seem like much when you think about the length of an entire year, but it underscores the importance of choosing new music well. Your repertoire can stay current if you're intentional and purposeful about it.
- Embrace the familiar. We've been singing some songs for a long time and if I were to be completely honest, I'm tired of them. Understand, however, that by the time you've chosen a new song, practiced it on your own, rehearsed it with your band, and done your weekend sound check with it, you've already done it 15 times before your church has heard it even once. You will always grow tired of music before your congregations will. So you'll have to make a concerted effort to remain committed to the music your church loves. And don't be afraid to freshen "old" music up - there's no rule that says you have to use the same sequence (v-ch-v-ch-br-ch-ch) every single time. And there are tons of musical tricks available for you to "renew" a song. Do it.