HELPING THE BAND TO FAIL

Worship leaders, we've got to be more careful about picking songs.

Why do we keep choosing the biggest, most overdubbed, glossily produced epic anthems and then expect our volunteer bands to perform pitch perfect covers of them? We're setting our bands up to fail!

Because when that song that sounds so good on YouTube falls flat in the service, we're so quick to try and figure out which instrument messed it up. Even if they played it perfectly, it just CANNOT sound as good as the mp3. (Because the mp3 is played by professional musicians in a vacuum and edited to perfection.)

There are a few things we can do to pick better songs for our bands:

LISTEN FOR HOOKS

Some songs need that keyboard pad to work. Some of them need the guitar riff. Heck, some of them need a 2nd guitar riff, too! As you listen to new songs, try to find those band elements that make that song unique - what instruments are making that song so cool? Then ask yourself if your instrumentalists can pull that off. Because if they can't, you're going to be scratching your hand wondering why the song isn't working.

Once you've identified those hooks, figure out if your players can do that on your own or if you need to help them pick out those specific parts.

GO WITH WHAT WORKS

Don't have a very good drummer? Then don't pick songs with complicated tom-patterns. Don't have electric guitar? Stop choosing rock songs. Look for songs that will let your players succeed on stage. Or better yet, adapt the arrangements so that your people will play them with precision.

We want to strive for excellence and hard songs are a great way to do that; just try to spread out the challenging songs. If you plan enough in advance, you can even give your team extra time to learn harder material.

SPREAD OUT YOUR RISKS

If song 1 is a beatdown, don't immediately plan something nuts for song 2. Identify those moments in the set with your band and talk them out. A setlist rife with musical risks is just too much tension to spread among a group of people.

You know what happens when there's only one or two risks in the set? Your players leave euphoric. You know what happens when you've got dozens of those hard moments? Your players leave exhausted.

KNOW YOUR JOB

Your job is not to make people like songs. Nowhere in your job description does it require you to play a song so much and so perfectly that people love it. Your job is to lead people into the worship of God. That's it. The songs you like may not be the best fit for your players and your people. If that's so, pick different songs.

O BLESSED TREE - SONG STORY

Last week, I kicked off our Songs For Singing 2015 collection by releasing a new worship tune called O Blessed Tree. If you didn't see that post, I'll recap it: at Bethel, I'm trying to write and record worship songs and then give them away for free. (See...simple!)
You can still download the mp3 and/or chord chart at our MP3s & CHARTS page. If you'd like to actually pay for your music (crazy idea!) you can go www.toddwright.bandcamp.com and click on the Songs For Singing 2015 album.

Response to the song has been encouraging and I appreciate those of you who sent texts or help me share the link of Facebook. I thought it might be fun to chat with my co-writer, Lee Black, about how this song happened. He and I have loved the song ever since it was finished, so it's fun to reminisce about it some!

Lee and his wife, Melissa, live in the Nashville area with their four children. Lee is a career songwriter who's written CCM, worship, country and Southern Gospel cuts for artists all over the country.

I asked Lee how much he remembered of our co-write on this tune last year. One thing I remembered was that Lee had a good portion of the lyric already, but was singing it to the melody of Twila Paris' hymn, Lamb Of God.

LEE: "I remember starting it before we wrote that day. That is actually a way I like to write - to an existing melody. Whether its a dummy melody or the melody of a song I already know. If I know what I'm writing about and have verse/chorus ideas mapped out, a melody tells me how many syllables per line I have to communicate the idea. When you started working on the melody, we realized the last line needed to be a bit shorter to fit."

I probably should have asked at the time, but Lee had the title already when we started. He said, "Can we write a song called 'O Blessed Tree'? Because I'm such a nut for hymns, I thought it was fantastic. I am constantly amazed at the creativity of the old hymn writers - their imagery is so bold. Lee actually got the idea from liturgy.

LEE: "I had been reading through some liturgy for Stations of the Cross and stumbled on a hymn I can't even remember now! But the concept was that God, the giver of life, subjecting himself to the sting of death. That was rolling around in my head and I actually saw the phrase, "o blessed tree" somewhere in all of that reading."

Lee and I have written quite a few songs together, and most of them take a long time. We write predominately hymns, so we really are careful about the text of what we're writing. This song, however went really fast. I think we finished in one session. But that's the exception and I think writers should lighten up when it comes to finishing songs quick.

LEE: "I've never placed a time limit on how long it might take. If it takes one session or multiples or even years, I want the best song. I've actually had song cut (recorded on albums by other artists) and realized years later I should have taken more time on a lyric or melody or rhyme. I'm finally comfortable with saying 'I'm a slow writer.' There are Olympic champions in the 100 meters AND the marathon."

Lee and I are both worship leaders, but one of the fun things about co-writing is that Lee has been doing more leading in what most people would consider a "high church" or "liturgical" format. I've loved seeing him combine his wit and cleverness as pro writer with a commitment to sung doctrine.

LEE: I've always loved hymns. Even when the seeker model was all the rage in the 90's and all the cool kids weren't using them, there was still that part of me going, "But there's GREAT stuff here that we shouldn't throw out!" I do love modern worship, but there's just something about the rich language and accessible melodies of hymns that does something for both my head and my heart. I'm drawn to symbolism and that's made me want to write modern hymns that would work in liturgical settings.

Every Black/Wright co-write seems to start with a lot of goofing off. As worship leaders, we're probably guilty of ranting a little bit about church woes when we get together.

LEE: "I enjoy not having to be 'cool' when planning worship. Liturgy and weekly scripture readings determine how my set list should go. When it comes to new songs, I generally wait until the good stuff rises to the top. Rather than trying to use everything, I wait for the good ones. It seems like modern worship songs can so easily become "word salad" - recycled old phrase with some delay on it. I keep going back to songs that engage the head and heart with equal power."

I am the eternal optimist in our partnership, so I ended our chat by asking what Lee how he would spend his royalties WHEN (not if) he and I wrote a #1 song together. Lee answered with his trademark seriousness...

LEE: "If it's a Southern Gospel cut, a night out at Whataburger. A #1 CCM cut would probably buy me a used car. CCLI hit song, probably a European car. Number one country song? Down payment on a house overlooking Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama. And if we wrote a #1 pop song, I'd buy that house in Alabama."

You can follow Lee on twitter at @leeblacksongs or like his fan page on Facebook.

FREE SONG DOWNLOAD - O BLESSED TREE

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I've been waiting for months to say this...FREE SONG GIVEAWAY!

This is the second year we've released worship singles for free - in the hope that churches and worship leaders would use these songs in their local, corporate worship gatherings. As a banner or label, I've decided to call each of these collections, "Songs For Singing" (since that's kinda' my thing.) This new songs is the first release of Songs For Singing 2015.

Bethelsongs is proud to release O Blessed Tree, a new hymn for worship co-written by Lee Black and Todd Wright. The song seeks to celebrate the work of the cross but also aims to remember that same cross as a calling to obedience and praise. The song is part of a three-song "Easter collection" that Lee and I wrote. (To The God Who Saves - Palm Sunday, O Blessed Tree - Good Friday and Death Will Never Win Again - Easter Sunday.) You can download for it absolutely free right here (mp3 / chart ) or over at the Bandcamp page

I also want to send a huge thank you to Michael Child for doing such a fantastic job producing this track. He perfectly nailed the energy and sentiment and brought a ton of creativity to the song. We were blessed to get to work with him.

I used the song this year in both our Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services and I look forward to it becoming a frequent song in our catalog. If you'd like to support Songs For Singing as a collection, you are more than welcome to make a pay-what-you-want donation for the download. (But that's not required!)

Thank you for listening and I hope you all enjoy the song!

5 TERRIBLE WAYS TO SUGGEST CHANGE

Change is a big part of ministry. Churches have seasons and it's important for ministries to adjust and adapt and change as the congregation grows. As a worship leader, you see a lot of these changes first hand. In fact, your position in front of people each week often gives you a unique perspective on how the church is doing. Plus, you're a creative person, which means you probably like coming up with new ideas.

But church is a big organism. Full of people from all different walks of life. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) you can't just show up and start changing stuff on your own. Most of the time, you've gotta' talk it over with your co-workers and staff members.

I wish I could say I'm good at this, but I'm not. My worship leader career is filled with great ideas that were poorly communicated. I take full responsibility and I'm hoping you can learn from my terrible choices! Take it from me, here are five ways you should never suggest change.

NEVER START WITH NEVER

If time-travel ever becomes a reality, this is the one I'm taking back to young worship leader Todd Wright. Starting a conversation about change by saying, "We never do this right" or "Why have we never done it this way?" is always a bad idea.

The things is, you might be right. There's probably lots of stuff your church has never done. But when it comes to leading people or being part of a team, starting ideas with never immediately puts people on the defensive. And unless you've been at the church since it started and you're familiar with every single ministry, you might end up looking dumb if someone pipes up that the church HAS, in fact, done the thing you're ranting about.

TIP: If you're wanting to suggest something new, it's much smarter and more effective to use phrases like "it might be cool if we..." or "I wonder what would happen if..." Starting with never almost never works.

NEVER SAY EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT

Showing up with a CD in hand or a YouTube link is okay when you're brainstorming ideas, but we have to be careful that we don't come across suggesting mimicry. Long-lasting, sustainable change is always jeopardized when all we're doing is trying to imitate someone else's success. 

You might get people on board initially by copying someone else's model, but eventually the uniqueness of your church will run counter to that big idea you took from some other church in some other location.

TIP: When doing research on an idea, you're looking for "best practices" - looking for what other folks are doing philosophically, not specifically. You're looking for principles to implement, not moves to imitate.


NEVER ONLY HATE IT (HONESTY WORKS BEST)

We've all been there. Something in ministry drives us crazy and we want to fix it, but don't know how. We've thought about it and thought about it and tried to figure out a solution, but we just can't figure it out. That's common. It happens all the time. The trouble comes when worship leaders aren't honest about that.

When you show up to a meeting or some sort of vision-planning session and you don't have a solution, it can seem as if you've just shown up to hate something. The reality is that you don't "just" hate something...you just don't have an answer. Be mindful of how your frustration or desire for change comes across. It's much more productive to be honest when suggesting change. Don't be afraid to admit you don't have a solution. It's a great opportunity to ask others to help you find one.

TIP: If you find yourself in this position, appreciate the silliness of it. Tell your team, "Okay, I hate something and I don't know how to fix it so that makes me officially the worst guy in the room." Make a joke. Put it out there that you want to find a better way.
 

NEVER MAKE IT PERSONAL

Don't ever make changes based on your preference. Your job is to serve your people. When you feel God leading you to make some changes, make sure that you're thinking of your congregants as you work through it. Yes, God will use you as a leader, but if you're not thinking about the impact on your people, you'll fail every single time.

The beautiful thing about being in leadership is that God will help you to find changes that you can support AND that put your people first. If we'll surrender our pride and our preference, God will always be faithful.

TIP: When you pitch an idea, don't talk about why you like it. Don't tell people how it'll make you feel. In fact, try to make yourself use "I" only when talking about the community you serve. ('I think this would really give our people a practical way to apply scripture,' etc.)


NEVER GUARANTEE RESULTS

Maybe there are some churches that have the same group of people every Sunday and the congregation hasn't changed in years. Maybe. But most of us lead churches that change week-to-week. Based on your community, you may see congregations come and go on a yearly basis. That's why we don't guarantee results. Because we don't know what's going to happen. 

Goals are good. When we plan, we have to have markers so we can assess how an idea has worked. In any planning meeting, you're going to eventually have to come up with some concrete numbers and results. That's exactly how it should go. The problem happens when you start promising your bosses that your idea will work.

TIP: When talking about results, use honest language - "I'd love to see 80 people attend the class" or "when I've tried this before, we added 6 new people to the team." That's a way to set goals without making promises you have no way of controlling.

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.