THE COVER BAND CONUNDRUM

As a worship leader, I am consistently baffled how many "top" worship songs are actually quite difficult to sing and play.

I'm not talking about the CCLI Top 25 List, as those songs tend to be more tried-and-true favorites (and most of them "old" by most listener standards). When I refer to "top" or "hit" songs in this post, I'm speaking for generally about the group of songs that seem to be current staples of the Sunday setlists all over the country.

Why do worship leaders choose songs that are hard for groups to sing? Better yet, why do congregations respond so well to a lot of these songs, even though they're difficult for a large group of people to sing? It would seem that a crowd of people gathered for corporate singing would prefer things that are simpler/easier to sing.

Of course, every church is different and has its own cultural context. This may account for a portion of the hard-to-sing hits out there, but I think the majority of these difficult ditties are kept alive by the Cover Band Conundrum.

Could it be that congregants like these songs in church because they enjoy these songs in their own personal listening? It makes sense - live music is a powerful thing and it's fun to hear some of the songs you enjoy in your car or during your workout. It makes me worry that we've turned our corporate time of singing into a weekly jukebox where hearing songs we like has become the main priority of our planning.

I want people to enjoy the music we do at my church. But I also want it to help them - to train them up in the Gospel, to give them the freedom to express their thankfulness to God. And that often doesn't happen if a song is too hard for people to sing.

If we're basing the success or failure of worship on how many hands are in the air or how loud people applaud, we using a wrong measurement. Ever been to see U2? Lots of hands in the air, lots of people singing along, very few people worshipping God during...

By all means, try songs that are connecting with folks all over, but don't be so quick to keep them in the rotation. You're not fronting a cover band. You're pastoring people to worship God. 

WHY YOU SHOULD STOP READING BLOGS ON WORSHIP

Maybe the worst way to title a post on your own blog, huh?

A few years ago, I decided I need to change how I write about worship. I don't know it was noticeable to the 12 people who actually read this stuff, but for me, it was a big deal.

If you had time, you could probably scroll back through my posts and see the change, but that would make for a lot of reading. Since you may not have that kind of time, I'll cut to the chase. When it comes to worship...

I'm trying to write from where I live.

Every post or vlog or worship-related tweet is (hopefully) written from the perspective of this-is-how-we-do-it instead of this-is-how-you-should-do-it. Since every church context is unique and what works for my church might be a terrible idea for your church, I've tried to change the tone of what we share. The site is called "Bethelsongs" because it's about what we do in my ministry here at my church. My hope is that the stuff we do would be an encouragement and possibly bless lots of worship ministries, but I've got to write this stuff from experience.

How many times have you been emailed the "why men don't sing in church" article? What about the "why millennials leave"? Or how about the "10 worship songs we need to stop singing"? Anybody else getting tired of that?

Worship blogs have become increasingly exhausting over the years because they've stopped being testimonial. We keep reading posts about corporate worship written by professors and professional bloggers who don't plan or lead worship. Where are all the posts from guys and gals who actually lead worship week-in and week-out?

There's a place for the more large-scale, esoteric approach to cultural analysis in worship, but it sure seems one-sided. Why are we not hearing from actual worship leaders? If you're a worship leader, find a way to share what you're doing - what works and what doesn't. Not only is it a great way to journal your experiences, but it's a great way to encourage others like you!

HOW TO THINK ABOUT SONGWRITING

I know songwriting isn't for everybody, but lots of worship leaders ARE songwriters. As much as I wish, there are no hard-and-fast rules for what makes a good worship song. In fact, it seems as if the songs that don't follow rules typically have a longer life in the local church.

But there are some philosophies that guide us as we write songs for corporate worship. We would be wise to remember these encouragements and constantly check our songwriting against them.

TRY FOR SONGS THAT LAST

There are songs for a season - four minute tunes that somehow intersect with culture and faith at just the right moment and become a huge hit for a few months or years. There are other songs that stand the test of time. None of us know exactly how either of those things happen, but having the right goal is a big step in the right direction. This means we try to stay away from fads or what seems clever at the time. Surprises "twists" in the song or cliche phrases may seem smart at the time, but those tricks don't have a long shelf-life. Aim for truth and clarity and poetry and your song will immediately come out stronger for it.

REMEMBER THAT THE SONG ISN'T YOU

I wish this wasn't the case, but it's a sad truth. Many times people like our songs because they like us. It's awesome to be liked by the people you're leading, but try to write songs that will have just as much power and beauty if sung by someone else. When we write songs on our own persona/fan-base, we tend to take shortcuts - we don't work on the rhyme scheme hard enough or go for something original because we know our people are gonna' love the song anyway because they know our "heart." You wrote the song, but the song isn't you. And it'll bless even more people if work hard at it!

WRITE IN THE GAPS

One of the most common mistakes we make is writing something that's already written. Either we get so inspired by a piece of music we try to emulate it OR our favorite song sneaks its way into what we're writing. It's true that there's nothing new under the sun, but when thinking about songwriting, think about what you can write that's fresh and original. Worship songs sing about timeless, unchangeable truths we can hold on to in perilous times. They should sound awesome! As you're writing, challenge yourself to go that extra mile. Write that third verse, don't settle for that bridge, try a new chord. You may not keep any of that, but it will certainly push you past your creative boundaries!

SONG GIVEWAWAY

I've talked over at I Like Blogging about the type of record I wanna' make and I'm excited to finally be pursuing that goal. My hope is to release three original worship tunes this summer for absolutely free!

All of the songs are in different phases of the process, which obviously has a bearing on which ones Bethel will release first, but I think all three are solid tunes for congregational worship and I can't wait for y'all to hear them.

REFUGE, SAFE FROM HARM

If you would have told me ten years ago that hymns would become my favorite type of song to write, I would have said you were crazy. But it's true. I've had this song since last fall and I love it. I haven't led it live, so I have no idea how it translates congregationally, but there are two aspects to the song that I'm super proud of. First, I set out to write a Trinitarian song. (There aren't that many of those out there, gang...) I wouldn't say the song is about the Trinity per se, but I did work very hard that each verse focused on God's "welcome" to us from each person of the Trinity. The second thing I dig is the vocabulary. I always try to come at lyrics poetically, but this I took some bigger word-risks on this one.

SHIELD

I've been leading this one at our church a lot and it seems to be working very well. So far, all we've had for the band is the live board recording from the first time we did it! This recording is a little different because I'm having a out-of-state producer friend build the tune for me. I specifically asked this guy because I knew he could add some creativity to this tune. (I told him to make it "cool." Because I'm old enough to know I'm not cool anymore!) This one has the most congregational connection, so I'd love to release it first. We'll see.

Shield is one of those songs I believed in for a long time. As soon as I finished it, I thought, "my people will like this song," but you never know. I was worried it would be too simple and folks would find it boring, but God's used it in our worship time. Simple is better, I guess!

O BLESSED TREE

This is one of my favorite writes from last year. Lee Black and I co-wrote this and I've loved it since day 1. I've led it at a few Easter themed services and it's been so much fun to lead. Even though it's a Good Friday song, I'll go ahead and release it this summer and then do another push for it during Lent 2016. I'm using a new producer on this one and we're just getting started. I'm excited to see how this one comes out.

I don't feel this way too often, but I think this song is strong enough to have a life with the church at large. This is due to Lee Black's amazing lyrical content - I think the song says things so beautifully that people won't be able to keep from singing it! (Man, I'll feel dumb if this song is a flop.)

My goal is to release six songs a year. We won't hit that this year, but three before year-end will be a good start. I've got to do more on the fundraising side to make sure I can afford six releases a year, but I'm willing to put in the work. I'm convinced that this is God's call for me: write 'em, lead 'em, give 'em away.

GOOD AND BAD BECAUSE(S)

The job of picking the songs and scriptures and other media usually falls to the worship leader, right? I'm sure big giant mega-churches may do it different, but for the most part, you're the guy or gal who picks what gets done on the platform.

That's why it's good to check your motives every now and then. Do you have good reasons for adding a song or service element? Run through this list and let it challenge you to bring only the best intentions to your service planning.

BAD BECAUSE(S)

1. Because the church look/sound/be perceived as cool if we do this.
2. Because this will impress the pastor.
3. Because this is my favorite song/scripture/video/etc.
4. Because this is a popular thing churches are doing.
5. Because I sound good on it.
6. Because I created it.
7. Because people have been mad at me lately and this will earn brownie points.

GOOD BECAUSE(S)

1. Because this will teach the congregation sound theology.
2. Because this will comfort the congregation is a time of suffering.
3. Because this will give the congregation a means to celebrate.
4. Because this will convict the congregation (call to repentance.)
5. Because this will motivate the congregation to mission.
6. Because this will enable the congregation to publicly and passionately praise God.
7. Because this will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to the congregation.

The point is hard to miss...ministry is service. When we plan and lead worship, we are serving the congregation. We lay our preferences and pride aside and work hard for the good of our people. Let's be honest about bad becauses and ask God to help us put our people first! What other becauses would you add?