The sold out arena is physical evidence that worship music is a big, big business. Praise & worship is the only music that touches the vast majority of Christians (other forms of Christian music exist in sub-genres: Sanctus Real in CCM, Underoath in the hardcore scene, Mars Ill in backpacker hip hop circles, etc). And it’s something that most Christians think very little about; even though music will fill roughly half the time we spend inside the church walls.
There’s a lot of amazing songs coming out of the worship movement right now, and a lot of incredible work being done by worship leaders at local churches. But since my job (Christian radio in Chicago) takes me into literally every kind of church you can dream up, I’ve also seen where Christians make poor decisions regarding worship music. Here’s a few humble suggestions on improving.
Drop your church’s “official” worship leader.
When my boss told me that I’d be broadcasting live from the sold-out Tomlin show, I replied, “I guess it will be like being at a bigger version of my church.” My own church, which is a typical suburban Chicago church full of mostly career types and young families, will use up to four Chris Tomlin songs in one service. I know of churches in Chicago that will only use Hillsong United songs for worship, and others that lean almost completely on the Desperation Band’s catalog.
The problem with this is twofold. First, it creates a monotonous sound for worship. Churches that do mostly Tomlin songs have mid-tempo-ballad worship environment, and Hillsong-worship churches give the impression that God must be a lot like famed Springsteen producer Phil Spector, since they only approach Him with walls of guitar sounds and nearly-screamed vocals.
Second, it gives the congregation one songwriters (or groups) perspective on God. One of the cool things about the myriad of worship music being created right now is that the songs are coming from many different perspectives. Most of Tomlin’s songs are inspired by the Psalms, where as Matt Redman tends to write based on seeing God work in the world (“Blessed Be Your Name” came out of watching the 9/11 footage on TV and seeing heroes rise up to help).
Go Retro and Re-introduce “Special Music”
I grew up in a church of less than 100 people, in a town of less than 50 people in (very) rural west-central Illinois. The church only had one paid staff member (the pastor), so the music was provided by alternating volunteer pianists, and one or two people who got up and lead songs from an old hymnal. And there was (and still is) a call each Sunday for “special music.”
When churches switched from hymns to modern worship songs in the early 90’s, the “special music” part of the service went with it.
Due to the indie explosion, there are more songs than ever being recorded than at any time in history. And there’s a lot of music that has something to say, but can’t be communally sung (and not all of them fall squarely into the “Christian” category). A great example for this Lent season can be found on Jon Foreman’s Spring EP. “I watched heaven dying today/We consumed heaven’s son/I drew first blood/I drew first blood.” While lyrics paint a gripping picture of the crucifixion and the song points the congregation towards scripture, this isn’t a song can be sung by a large group of people, with it’s falsetto vocals and staggar-beat rhythms. There should be a place in church for songs like this.
Reject Bad Songs
Well known Christian leader Chuck Colson once interrupted worship at his church after the congregation had just finished singing “Draw Me Close.” “Shall we sing that again,” the worship leader asked rhetorically. “NO!” Colson screamed in protest at the mindless lyrical fodder.
“Draw me close to you/never let me go.” If Lady GaGa, Moby, or Akon remixed this, most people would never guess that the popular club hit was actually a worship song. If the lyrics of a song can be equally applied to the crush of a 17-year-old girl as they can to Jesus, then we should seriously question it being used to point a group of believers’ collective hearts to God. In some genres of music, a great melody is enough to create a good song. Worship should say something, and that message must be in line with what the Bible says is true about God.
In my three seasons as a judge on Inspiration Sensation, basically another Christian American Idol show, I was introduced to a whole new musical world. The show was filmed in Chicago, the birthplace of Black Gospel. Through the show, I had the privilege of meeting some of Gospel’s leaders, and learn more about the rich heritage and expansive song catalog of the genre. The show was filmed before a live audience, and I saw how many different groups of people were moved by black Gospel songs.
Too often, diverse churches only sing traditional “white contemporary church music,” as if we’re operating under the assumption that it’s better to have the songs sound vaguely like Nickelback ballads rather than trying out new songs that might be “risky.”
Also, we tend to rob songs of their regional nuances within the church walls. Despite the evil giant known as Clear Channel Radio, and other globalizing factors, live music still sounds different in each region of the country. One great example of worship music with a regional flare is the brilliant Mike Farris, a New Orleans native who retools traditional worship songs soaked in the soul influences of his home town, and backed by a Delta Blues band, horns and all.
Discover New Music
Studies show that once a group of people have sung a song eight times, it begins to become habit rather than active worship that points them towards the Creator. That means there is a constant need for new worship songs. Here’s a few underappreciated artists who are creating great vertically-focused songs.
Michael Gungor Band This husband-and-wife duo write songs out what God is going at their church in Denver, Co. Check out the hilarious “White Man,” with lyrics that stating that God is not a white Republican.
Sarah Kelly An old and very dear pal of mine, Sarah wrote her first worship songs in the middle of a horrifically abusive relationship. The experience granted her the ability to write songs that openly communicate pain, while maintaining a focus on Christ.
Phil Wickham There’s heavy doses of Euro-pop in this San Diego native’s offering to God. And in a genre dominated by traditional keyboards and acoustic guitars, that’s a very good thing. For an introduction, download his free live album Singalong, and be introduced to his stunning vocals.
The Glorious Unseen Yes, the rock-with—programmed-beats is oh so trendy at this particular moment when everyone is in love with the 80’s again. But the beauty in this band is that the songs are written from such a unique angle. “We expect the best/and nothing less from you/but will we embrace the suffering too,” sings frontman Ben Crist.
Seth “tower” Hurd can be heard weeknights in Chicago on 89.7 Shine.FM and in mid-Michigan on 101.7 FUSE FM. The TV show mentioned in this column was huge in Puerto Rico, so he got to feel like (a much less cool) Justin Timberlake when he was there on vacation.