A look back at the worship albums that made us who we are...

You can learn a lot about a worship leader by looking at the music that inspired him or her in their youth. I came of age during two seismic cultural shifts when it came to music. As far as secular music goes, I was witness to the sea change caused by the alternative music scene. I wasn’t quite old enough to recognize what a massive change the “Seattle sound” had truly done to rock n’ roll, but I was certainly aware that music was exploding into the lives of me and my friends.

But that’s not the only thing I was hearing. The other transformation in front of me involved worship music. We were transitioning as a church culture and it wasn’t easy for a lot of my elders, but I loved it. I don’t that I would have said I wanted be a worship leader back then, but I did love worship music. I had a cheap guitar and I knew three chords (don’t know that many more now, btw) and there was nothing more fun than playing along with these new “rocking” church songs.

That’s why I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the worship albums that shaped me. A review-in-retrospect, you might say.


I was already a fan of Paul Baloche when First Love came out. But you have to remember that we didn’t know when records would release - especially worship albums, which were such a new concept at the time. Even if FIRST LOVE hadn’t been great (which it was and still is) the mere discovery of a new Baloche CD was a big deal regardless. I’ve been listening through this record today and still have such a fondness for this collection of songs.

Before the proliferation of the internet, we didn’t know when new worship records were coming out. This was before worship music would take over contemporary Christian music. There were no magazine articles about worship music, not playlists online with hot new worship tracks and no blogs from big famous worship leaders. In fact, there weren’t blogs about anything, come to think of it.

I was traveling through Tyler, Texas, when I heard the title rack from the CD. They played it on the local Christian radio station in the middle of the day, and I was floored. I had never heard this song. What was this? It was a worship song…on the radio! Imagine my surprise when the DJ said, “and that’s the brand new song from Paul Baloche.”

The newsflash in my head had multiple levels.
Paul Baloche has a new record…
And they play it on the radio here…
And it’s also really good…

The record is “churchy” in all the best ways. On my re-listens, I noticed how simple the electric guitar parts were. Maybe this was intentional, maybe it was just the nature of the musicians - but to release a worship album in the midst of the worship debate that stayed away from big, blazing rock n’ roll guitar solos is such a perfect move. I was four songs in when I realized that the church of my youth could have done any one of those songs and never tripped any sort of worship war alarm with the hymns-only crowd.

It’s also organized like a worship set, and not just dynamically. By grabbing a few popular Delirious songs, the whole album played like a song service and not a concert. The middle of the record is so brilliantly stacked with ballads just big enough to transition out of the opening numbers but also simple enough to drop into the quieter moments of worship.

Beyond that, First Love was filled with fantastic songwriting. Maybe it’s because we took longer in between albums in those days, but all the original stuff on the project is arranged and written so beautifully. This is before “worship hits” was a thing on the radio or in churches, but one could easily see the songs were original in concept but singable. This record introduced the world to “Open The Eyes Of My Heart,” which is probably considered the hit song of this record, but it’s just one of numerous fantastic songs.

But what really shines years later is the diversity of the album. It’s packed with choices that would eventually would become benchmarks of worship music - V chords for acoustic guitar, tom parts for drums and auxiliary percussion, a tasteful solution to the percussion explosion we were experiencing in worship music. Paul found a way to implement these instruments without making them the entire focus of the album. He and his musicians didn’t invent these musical approaches, but this record was definitely an innovator. Would the church-at-large have picked up on all this if the record hadn’t had “Open The Eyes…”? Who knows.

But there’s a good lesson here for those of us who care about album making. We never know where a project will end up. We have no way of planning for a song to break through and reach a massive audience. So, why not make the album you want to make, full of diverse styles and arrangements? If some song gets thousands of people to hear your record, that’s fantastic. But even if that doesn’t happen, you’ve still made an album you can be proud of.

What about you? Do you remember this record? Or better yet, what's a worship album that influenced you?


Over on the podcast this week, we talked about the uniqueness of worship leading - particularly when it comes to managing logistics and still being emotionally and spiritually invested in the work of the ministry.

Now, I don't think we solved this challenge in the podcast, but I do think that honestly accepting the struggles of the job can go a long way to handling it. Knowing is half the battle, right?

Of course, everything in the job is spiritual, but I thought it might be helpful to breakdown the worship leader's job into lists based on our MACRO/MICRO discussion from the podcast. It's not an exhaustive list, by any means, but it was helpful even to me to think about where this stuff "fits."


Worship leaders don't know how to argue.

I don't know why, but there's something in us that makes tough conversations difficult. We're prone to get angry and stressed, which can often lead to drawing hard relational lines among the people who are "on our side" and those who aren't.

I believe in truth. I also believe that conversations with people we trust is one of the many ways God uses to teach us. But I'm going to be honest here. When I'm in a tough conversation with a fellow pastor, worship leader or Christ-follower, getting-to-the-truth or "winning" is secondary. When I'm in a hard talk, my primary goal is to grow closer to that other believer. I'm much more concerned with getting to know and love that person more. I love it when a conversation leads to truth, but sometimes they don't. But I do believe every conversation can make us better partners in ministry and friends.

But it's difficult. I want to get better at it, and I bet you do, too. I've found that one way to make these conversations easier is to adopt some practical dialogue tips. These aren't philosophical arguments. They're not logic techniques. They're just simple things you can say that aren't combative and will keep the conversation going. They may seem simple, but I'm surprised at how often I forget to use these in a tough spot.


Sooner or later, you're gonna' be in a talk when the other person is saying something you absolutely do not agree with. Left to your own devices, you might be prone to immediately begin planning your rebuttal or even interrupt with some sort of "I don't believe that" or "that's not what the Bible says."

Using "interesting" or "hmmm" will drastically lower the tension level in your body and will foster conversation. There's nothing wrong with disagreeing (see below) but you want to find a ways to keep the tension at a minimum. Interrupting and using combative phrases will also put your friend on his or her heels. Conversations just work better when folks aren't running defense.


There's no way to know what the other person is thinking and feeling in conversation. But it's safe to assume that catching them off guard might not benefit the dialogue. When you're ready to respond (or even disagree) it's helpful to give the person a heads up that you've got a rebuttal of some kind.

One of the best ways to do this is to just say it. Taking an extra three seconds to say, "I hear what you're saying, but I'm gonna' push back for a second" or "okay, but let me tell you where I'm coming from." That may not seem like much, but it's soooo much better than just a blatant here's-why-you're-wrong.


Even if a conversation doesn't end in agreement, an attitude of gratefulness makes a huge impact. Reminding your friend - and yourself - of God's goodness can be a powerful way to keep your dialogue enjoyable and Godly. I'm serious! Why not just tell the person, "Gosh, I'm so glad God's got you in my life. Talks like this are good for me."

This is also helpful if you're not handling things well. If you're mad or confused or worried by the conversation, why not stop and pray? I can't think of a better way to get a talk back on point!


I've been leading worship for a long time. I can usually justify my ministry and music choices. But there are a few preaching giants out there that I would NEVER want to work with. Every one of these men are inspiring and awesome. I'd just prefer to be inspired from far off.


Washer is a late addition to the list. I haven't known about him for very long, and probably wouldn't know him at all if not for some good friends who share his stuff. And you know, I think I could probably pick a pretty solid set for a Washer sermon...I feel like I "get" what he wants to do when he preaches. I just know that my overall wretchedness and laziness would be obvious to a guy like him.

Washer seems like a pretty gentle dude. WHEN HE'S NOT PREACHING. The trouble with leading before Washer gets up is that I know I'm gonna' get so convicted I end up getting saved again. That dude's overall awesomeness makes me feel like the worst. Christian ever. Not his fault, by the way. He's just up there being awesome.


Personally, John Piper is a bit of a hero. If i had to list the most pivotal, life changing sermons I've heard, John Piper is on that list. A lot. Meeting him and sharing the platform with would be ah honor! But here's the problem: Piper will smack you down.

I've seen him do it. Somebody sings or preaches before him and he gets up and destroys you. Brilliantly, I might add. I have no doubt that Piper would pound the pulpit and begin to correct something Todd did wrong and I'd be off to the side weeping in embarrassment but at the same time thinking, "HE'S SO RIGHT. HE'S SOOOOO RIGHT!"


This guy is a giant in ministry. His commitment to the teaching of the Bible is unparalleled in this day. His book, Charismatic Chaos, was a real help to me as a teenager who was struggling with wanting "more" in worship. I believe the book gave me some skills that I still use to this day in processing worship expression.

I've heard his sermons and read a book, but other than that I know hardly anything about John MacArthur. But I do know this - HE LOOKS TOUGH. Doesn't he look like a guy who'd call you into his office and just stare at your for four minutes before grabbing your neck one-handed and then pinning you against the wall? I honestly don't believe he'd actually do it. But I don't want to find out for sure.



For starters, Voddie looks like he could bench press my car. I'd have a hard time leading before a guy who could rip my arms off and then beat me with them. But the real problem is that Voddie is a genius. Now, that may not bother you, but here's the deal - I'm an idiot. I imagine Voddie Baucham would want to talk some before the service and But he'd drop some theological truth bombs on me and then I'd have to ask him to explain it to me in simpler terms.

Voddie also does church way different that most of us. His views on children and youth ministry are bold and he does not shy away from confrontation when people press him on topics like that. I, on the other hand, feel that confrontation is the worst thing that can ever be experienced in this life, which means I'd immediately agree with Voddie and probably quit my job if he told me to do it.



This may seem an odd choice. As far as heady, precise and robust theology goes, Jimmy Swaggart may not seem like a good fit with these other men. It's true that Jimmy's background and teaching style aren't anything like the other guys, but I can guarantee you that singing before this man gets up to preach would scare me just as bad. Why? Because this guy is a PLAYER.

Jimmy Swaggart is a phenomenal musician. He's a fantastic piano player and singer and seems to know every hymn that ever got written. And that's scary because he very often will turn to the band at his church and yell out a song for them to play. Or even worse - he'll call for a certain key but will use "piano speak," meaning he'll say Give me two flats, please and the band will respond immediately. Do you know what would happen if Jimmy Swaggart looked back at me and said, "Two flats"? I'd be standing there shrugging. Then I'd get fired. No thanks. I much prefer working with preachers who are way worse musicians than I am!

Who's with me? Or am I the only chicken around here?


Further thoughts on this week's episode of the podcast. Give it a listen for context.

Most worship songs we sing these days follow some form of pop songwriting ethic. Even the most "out there" worship songs can be linked to some similar sounding thing in popular music. But not all the pop stuff transfers equally. Not only do worship songs differ than pop songs in lots of ways - I find that pop songwriting techniques often work against congregational singing.

So, as much as we may enjoy the songcraft and twisty life of pop music, it helps to know the difference when we all start singing together. 

Pop songs prioritize cleverness. Worship songs prioritize credibility.

A good pop songs works best when it's a little bit smarter (or faster) than you are. That lyric or melodic bridge takes you by surprise and in doing so, wins your affection. Worship songs don't need to do that because when people are singing with you, they're not waiting for you to deliver. They participating in the thing which means the song needs to feel credible. It needs to feel like something they want (or need) to say to God.

Pop songs thrive with precise arrangement. Worship songs thrive with flexibility.

Pop songs benefit from skilled performance. That last chorus works so beautifully because the chord structure in the bridge was crafted to lift the final movement of the song to a new "fifth gear." Pop songs work when they end well. But worship songs don't necessarily do that. Worship songs very often work best when they can be adapted to the needs of the congregation. Maybe slower, maybe down a half step, maybe stripped to just a verse and chorus. Worship songs work best when they're malleable.

Pop songs need hooks. Worship songs need themes.

A solid musical hook will absolutely delight a crowd of people. But it won't necessarily make them come back to the song over and over. Short of nostalgia, most songs with good hooks that don't say anything end up being made of for the rest of their lives. Worship songs need themes - they need to talk about things that matter to people. The reason why Bob Dylan is so revered isn't because of his tasty musical hooks. It's because people resonate with the themes he sings about. Worship songs have to be about something.

Pop songs can say nothing or everything. Worship songs can't do either.

It really doesn't matter what your pop song is about. If it's crafted well, it'll probably get folks hyped. And this is why worship songwriting is harder than pop songwriting. Because a worship song about nothing isn't going to bless and challenge your people and a worship song about everything is going to confuse them. But finding that singular-yet-universal focus in a worship song is one of God's good gifts. And your people will love it!

Grow in your writing. Challenge yourself. Take all the classes, watch all the videos, go to all the seminars. But just remember that writing for your people is something unique that a lot of people don't know how to do. Trust God to teach you how!