If you aren’t connected to my FB page, you may be missing out on the news that at 11.26am yesterday my latest CD was delivered to my home. It has some familiar song titles on it, but you have just not heard them like this! They are EPIC and you neeeed a copy. Drop me an email at email@example.com or message me for more info on how to get your copies. It’s not on iTunes yet so you need physical product. I look forward to hearing from you even as you look forward to the best music you’ve heard in ages.
I have been on a most interesting musical journey this past week.
I am currently in the studio recording with some great musicians. For at least the last few years I have been wanting to do an album of some of the best, most sung songs that I have written for worship and it seems that now is the right time. Some of these songs are knocking on 20 years old so they are familiar friends to me. What has been fascinating through the studio journey is that these familiar tunes have become encompassed by whole new music arrangements and moods which have taken them to a new place. They sing the same but feel so fresh.
Incidentally, the process has been enabled by several insertions of good, hot tea which seems to work wonders for musicians’ fingers and brains. Could this indicate we do church the wrong way around? Maybe tea, coffee and biscuits should come first – food for thought.
I then found myself pondering a little deeper and my thoughts went down these lines: so many of our church sung worship services have become stale and predictable and, dare I say it, boring. Could it be then that the issue with our musical worship is two fold:
1 We just don’t rehearse enough.
Many churches are happy to go with the idea the the musicians turn up when they will and all muck in together to create a joyful cacophony and alas this usually means the music being delivered to the standard of the lowest common denominator. I like the idea that musicians arrive sufficiently early to run through all of the songs before a service. But this should be a bare minimum, checking links between songs and making sure everyone knows what they are doing. To expand repertoire and style a team of musicians need to gather away from the pressures of church service during the week and spend quality time learning the songs so that they become embedded in our musicianship and vocalisation including that we have learned to play and sing them without charts or lyrics.
2 When we rehearse we just don’t do it well enough.
Often the way it works is this: in rehearsal we get a chord chart and aim to go from start to finish. If we can do that then the song is done and dusted, ready for public consumption. No wonder then that they all end up sounding the same. We are going to have to learn to dig deeper. That will mean a change of approach to the point where we all come having prepared the songs having already learned to play and sing them ourselves. The point of our rehearsal now is not to learn the song but to learn how WE are going to play the song, ie we are going to work on arrangements. This will require an investment in time before rehearsal preparing our own charts and if necessary learning new chords or practising difficult transitions. Could I suggest it means investing time into listening to and learning songs from a variety of styles so that this can be brought to bear in any new arrangement.
So, back to my time in the studio: working with some top class musicians I have been challenged musically as the songs have veered off on unexpected and delightful pathways and as a result have had to relearn songs that I wrote. I could no longer play them the way I always had. Chord choices and voicings had to change to accommodate a new approach, along with strumming patterns which now needed to vibe in a different way. Whilst the tune stayed the same greater attention to the detail of phrasing and pitching of notes had to happen since this was a recording – once captured it will be that way for all time so it’s got to be right and it’s got to be good. The shaping of the vocal tone too came under scrutiny with choices on the part of voice to use and how hard to sing in order to get the he right tone. This is all valuable grist for the mill of singing the songs live. I can’t just rock up and sing any more, I have to think about how I am singing. The chords are not the same so the old embedded ideas have to be overwritten and you know what that means? I have to rehearse, yes, even my own songs!!
So let me leave those thoughts with you along with the encouragement to examine carefully your own patterns of rehearsal along with your musical delivery when you play. Let’s have a conversation then about the costs of rehearsal pinned against its benefits.
One of the main criticisms of contemporary worship music is that it is all performance. As a musician and a singer who is also a worship leader I am well aware that when I stand in front of people to lead them in sung worship I have to be first and foremost a worshipper myself. But I am also acutely aware that if I sing and/or play then I am by definition a performer and there is a distraction in poor quality music and off key singing presented to a congregation: I need to give of my very best. So it is not one or the other: it has to be both. A great performance can help or indeed hinder congregational worship.
So the question then must be at what point does worship cross the line and stray into just performance? Or viewed form the other side of that coin, at what point does performance rise to become worship?
I would like to suggest that there are two foundations to build on here.
The spiritual foundation has to be time spent before the Lord in your own devotion. A life lived out of love for Jesus, a life lived through the love of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus and true to his Word. I am always conscious of what Jesus said that it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks. The treasures of God’s word need to be placed securely in your heart so that you can speak and sing from the depths of your spirit the song of agreement with The Holy Spirit. It wouldn’t then be surprising that as you do, unrehearsed, prophetic words would arise as a song out of your spirit because you are attuned to the Lord.
The line gets crossed here when you forget why and for whom you are doing this. Your performance should be addressed to the audience of one. You are not looking for applause for what you do but are looking to stir applause for the one and only, how could worship be anything else; It’s all about Him. But that should not mean that you dumb down what you play and sing to fit the lowest common denominator. You know your own capabilities and to offer something which is less than your best is not offering true worship for you. Of course in a team context this has to be balanced so that you do offer that which fits into an harmonious whole. You can’t go off doing Jimmi Hendrix guitar riffs or Mariah Carey vocal lines unless they are going to be supported by like minded musicians AND blend into something which is worshipful.
The second foundation has to be musical. You have been called as a worship leader to give a Royal Command performance before the King of kings and the entourage of heaven. A Royal performance – you? Yes! That being the case, you will be ready to give your very, very best. This musical readiness can only spring from one place: rehearsal, both personally and as a team. I put it this way, I need to be so in command of my own musical performance that I don’t need to think about it any more and as a result I can focus on the important part which is to offer worship to the King of kings. My guitar part? Nailed it! My keyboard sounds and styles? Sorted and ready. I got this! My vocal lines AND my lyrics? In my heart, my head and ready to let loose! And likewise with the team – we know our parts and how they interact, the vocalists have the tune sorted and harmonies where possible. Rehearsal gives a chance to work out arrangements and to be able to play the song(s) reliably reproducibly.
The line gets crossed here when you spend insufficient time in rehearsal. This leads to the state where you are effectively rehearsing the song as you play it in front of God’s people. Your focus for that service is then on the music, on following the chart, on reading the words and so on, because you have not rehearsed it enough that you can remember the cadences or the lyrics. You end up hiding behind the music stand, eyes locked on the music. And since it’s only church you excuse yourself and accept less than your best. You crossed the line. Teach yourself to be a better time manager so that at the very least you have put time and effort in to learning and rehearsing the song(s) in your own time before trying to present it in God’s time.
On top of these foundations sits the worship leader. Their role has to be to blend the values of excellence of music with passionate worship, focussed on the King and to lead the congregation into the place where they can express their priestly worship before the God of Heaven. The bee that has always stuck in my bonnet is that the musicians and singers want to hide behind me as the worship leader. What I have learned however, is that sung worship is far more effective when the whole team recognises their responsibility as worship leader, that everyone is intent on bringing excellence to the most high God. Team leadership inspires a congregation to rise in their office of priest to minister before the Lord in worship, after all we believe in the priesthood of all believers. It doesn’t all have to fall back on the sole worship leader alone.
Things to try:
If you can, why not grab a video recording of yourself and your worship team and ask some questions of what you see:
1. Is it obvious that I am a worshipper? If not, what does my body language say about what I am doing?
2. Does what I do help draw others into worship?
3. Does the music/singing sound comfortable to listen to or is it full of obvious musical errors? Where are those errors and what should I do about them?
4. Does it look like or feel like the congregation are worshipping? (this is subtly different to q2)
Now, based on what you see and hear you should be able to work out what needs to be focussed on in your devotions, in your rehearsals and in your leadership development. Let me know how that goes.
Whenever I have taught on the topic of worship, things inevitably turn to reshaping our thoughts towards it being a whole life activity. It’s an easy thought to shape and to have, but it is much harder to interpret into concrete activity.
A part of this has been that we have needed to do the reshaping because the modern church has become preoccupied with worship as being something we sing.
Ah, such songs, such anthems, such beauty, such lyricism, the stuff of transcendence that lifts us higher and gives us aspirations and strength to see them through. But when the service ends and the music finishes we walk out and feel strangely left on our own. So we struggle to fill that with noise and sound, music from our iPods and other devices which seems to fill every waking moment and which cuts us off from life in a larger community. No one talks to you – they’re all to busy filling the void.
But is that music actually helping us to be who we are?
I guess for many the answer is a qualified yes.
It is always good to fill our minds with good things, and our hearts with compassion and grace, after all, out of the heart, the mouth speaks, and speak we must especially those words of Grace which have been missing for so long in a world that has been trained to hear what we stand against! We stand FOR grace and with grace and in grace.
Yet our worship is more than our song.
Maybe it would help if we thought of the rhythms of our lives as being a beat, and the activities we have to do as the chords and harmonies, and the things we say, seasoned with grace, as the melody of our worship.
Which brings us to our title. When people watch you do they see the annoying barrier of your usually white headphones and wonder what you are listening to, or do they see the song of your life and want to join in?
Could this be the kind of worship we need to be engaging in?