Familiarity is the Key to Selecting Songs for Worship

About a year ago, I had a conversation with a church member who, among other things, wanted to know how and why I chose the songs for worship here at our church.  I asked more specific questions such as: what are some of your favorite songs for congregational singing and why? Do you like newer songs and if so, why? What I usually get in response may be boiled down to one word: FAMILIARITY! In the course of the conversation, I learned that this man wants to be able to participate, but doesn’t always know every song we sing. Isn’t this true of all of us? I don’t think people are necessarily opposed to learning new songs, but what they really crave are songs that are familiar. I think this word should guide the worship planner/leader in choices that are made when selecting songs for the intergenerational church. Here are a few points to consider regarding choices in worship planning for congregational song:

  1. Familiar songs may be new or old. Familiar songs do NOT necessarily mean time-tested hymns. Familiar songs are songs that are sung enough that most in your congregation knows them well enough to participate. Further, familiar songs for one congregation may not necessarily be familiar in another context. Some songs have special meaning to a congregation that might not be on the radar of another congregation. Songs used for special occasions or at special times in the life of the church can have powerful meaning not found in any other congregation. Just remember your context and be sure to include worship music that has special meaning to the congregation often.
  2. New songs should stand the test of time. There have been many new songs that I’ve taught our congregation over the course of many years as worship leader here at the church. In my conversation with the man who asked me about my choices for worship music, I explained that the newer songs chosen for worship here at the church have been very intentional and told him to stick around, he’d know it well enough in time.
    I try very hard to pick songs with memorable text, melodies, and harmonic interest. I told him while there are some very popular songs in our evangelical world, many of them will not become part of what I call “time-tested hymnody.” I always aim to use songs that I believe will be sung by our children and grandchildren for years to come. One more note about this: I try to stay current in what new worship music is out there. Most of the time I wait some time to see if a song is going to “fall off the radar.” By the time we sing the song, it’s usually something that will last.
  3. Familiarity may be taught.  When I introduce new songs, I try make sure we sing it often enough for it to catch on. Many others have offered wonderful ideas for introducing new songs. Have someone sing the song as a solo, have one of your choirs or praise teams sing the song, have the children sing it first, etc. Once the song has been heard, try to sing it with the congregation. The tune should be easy enough to catch on by the end of the song. Continue to use the song judiciously in worship so it becomes familiar enough. If you’re pastor does sermon-series or if you have a revival or something where a new song can accentuate that series, try to introduce something then. I’ve found revivals are a wonderful time to introduce  new songs because if it’s used in all those services, the people will have many daily interactions with the songs. Some of our favorite songs here at Ivy Creek were “learned” during this intensive times of worship.
  4. Familiarity may be gauged by watching the congregation. Once of the things I do every week is look at our people as I’m leading. Are the people singing? While I expect time-tested hymnody to have greater participation, I’m watching to see what’s going on with different generations. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

    *Unless your people are die-hard listeners of Christian radio, they are not likely to know the newest songs. PERIOD. There is no age stratification here. This is why I’m not convinced that specific generations like specific types of music.

    *The songs in which more people participate are the ones that have been around longer. Okay, I get it; this is axiomatic, but I want to clarify. We sang “How Great is Our God” with the chorus of “How Great Thou Art” yesterday in worship. The former song is thirteen years old. I remember when I heard the song for the first time…I remembered thinking, “this one will be around for awhile.” As I watched, the majority of our people (young and old) sang along to both songs. We also sang an even newer song, “Lion and the Lamb” yesterday and I watched as not quite as many sang along. We’ve only sung this one for a few years, but it’s becoming more familiar.

POINT: BE CAREFUL TO “MARRY” VERY FAMILIAR SONGS WITH SONGS THAT ARE EMERGING IN FAMILIARITY! I recommend there be familiar song(s) to most people in your congregation every week. I hope no one in our congregation leaves without being about to participate if they wish to.

I don’t think worship leaders, especially in intergenerational contexts, should strive to insert some hymns and new worship songs into worship services and call it a day. While there is much to be considered in terms of the sermon, the theme (if you have one for the day), the key is to consider YOUR church context when selecting songs each week. Because there are SO many songs from which to choose for worship, be choosy worship leader! If you’re intergenerational in make-up as we are, stop trying to select songs based on your preconceived notions of what each generation prefers.

Bringing the Church Back Together-Part 3-Practical Application

In my last two blog posts (Bringing the Church Back Together- Part 2- First Steps and Bringing the Church Back Together- Part 1- Biblical Foundations) I discussed the biblical foundations of intergenerational worship and the importance of buy-in from the staff and the key leaders of your church. In this post I will speak specifically to the music/worship leader who will have to deal with the musical conundrum of bringing multiple music types together in a unified approach. It will be a challenge to some degree, but it can be done. I hope you’ll find these practical applications helpful. As always, I’m sure there are many more I could add to the list.

  1. Pray! Again, I cannot emphasize this enough. Music and style is often a passionate subject for many in the church. Often, it’s the non-musician who is the most hesitant to any change in the church. Be assured there will be push-back, but pray the the Holy Spirit would cause you to response in gentleness and love as you explain thoughtfully of the plan to integrate the services.
  2. Find a common “set-list.” Many churches with multiple services have at least some common tunes that are sung in each service. Begin by using these songs when the services come together whenever possible. Obviously there will be modifications to the instrumentation or “style” of the song depending on who is leading, but at least find some common ground.
  3. Aim to use players and singers from all teams together. This may be pretty difficult practically and relationally, but remind those how important each person is to the integration of the services. If you have redundancy on instruments, set up a schedule for all to play. If you’re going to integrate the choir into the new service (and if you have one, you should) they will need appropriate time to learn newer songs to help teach the congregation. If you used orchestra in one and only a praise band in another, you must find “charts” that allow all to play together. This process will stretch your players on both ends. Those used to “rocking it out” may feel stunted by the charts they now have to play. On the other hand, the less contemporary service might feel things are “louder” and too “rocky!” Be prepared to alter and make changes as you get started. Remember to keep your personal feelings in check. Listen carefully to the suggestions you hear. Some will be worth altering, while others will just be complaining. Be careful to make all feel valued and use grace as you respond to each comment.
  4. Introduce/Re-Introduce songs carefully and slowly. There are fantastic new songs and timeless hymns that probably have been ignored in the services when they were apart. Pick “new” songs to introduce that are lyrically sound, melodically and harmonically interesting, and memorable. When I’m confronted from time to time about new songs that “no one knows,” I simply say, “I understand we don’t know it well right now, but I believe this song is strong textually and will endure the test of time.” I’m careful to say this because I also know there will be something in just about EVERY service I plan that has something most people are familiar with. In short, FAMILIARITY is more important than labeling something traditional or contemporary. What people want, truly, is something familiar…find that common ground first and work from there.
  5. Remember your church is NOT like the one down the street. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not try to emulate everything you see working for the church that you perceive to be “doing it right!” You must contextualize carefully. Know your church–be careful to study her history, the demographics, the musical worship expressions over time, and the talent level of the musicians. Also, know your community. Things work differently in a county seat town in rural GA than they do in the white collar suburbs of Metro Atlanta. Study your people. Push them out of their comfort zones when appropriate, but don’t completely eradicate Southern gospel from a church that’s had that embedded in their history for 100s of years just because you don’t like it. The church I am serving is vastly different from most of the churches in our area. We know who we are and what we do well and we capitalize on that. It’s create a niche for us that has allowed us to be who God has called us to be without trying to emulate other churches in our area—who, by the way, do the things they do VASTLY better than we ever could.
  6. Give up your personal agenda and work as a team. You are not the star of the show, worship leader…God is. He likes it all. He LOVES to hear his children worship in spirit and truth. He is not stylistically pulled one way or the other. He just wants authentic praise, offered with all the excellence we have to offer. That said, remember that part of being an intergenerational family means we ALL serve…not just the uber-talented. We are a team; we work together for the goal. This concept will be harder for some than others. You control freaks out there will struggle given up control to others, but it’s necessary. Remember the goal of being intergenerational is that we try to value all and give them a role of importance. This means being very intentional about including “budding” singers and players. It might cost you some in the “excellence” you may be striving for, but if we only use our A-list players and singers, we will lose on on developing new ones. Someone one invested in us when we weren’t so great—we must do the same. Basically, create a culture that aims to nurture rather than simply “perform.”

 

 

Bringing the Church Back Together- Part 2- First Steps

In my last post, I discussed some of the biblical foundations that support intergenerational worship and why multiple services driven by musical style may be a detriment to the unity of the local church. If you missed that post, click here to read it: Bringing the Church Back Together- Part 1- Biblical Foundations.

In this post, I will begin the journey of how any local church, who has divided for musical reasons, may begin the process of coming back together into a unified worship plan. While I spoke with several worship leaders who have led local churches through a transition such as this in order to prepare to write this, I am especially indebted to the experiences of two men: Slater Murphy (MS Baptist Convention) and David Hasker (FBC Melbourne, FL). Thank you!

Because there is much to cover in this process, I’m only going to cover the first steps to getting the transition started. In my next post, I will get into more detail on the practical ways worship leaders (and all church leaders) should utilize to ensure a unified transition, especially as it relates to synthesizing multiple music/worship teams.

FIRST STEPS

PRAY. This is the most important thing to do. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, nothing will be accomplished. You, as the leader who is convinced intergenerational worship is the key to longevity of the local church, must be educated in what the biblical, philosophical, and practical implications are in order to inspire others to catch the vision. Your passion is necessary to cast the vision of what a healthy intergenerational church should be.

The common theme of all I spoke with about this transition is that it MUST BE SENIOR PASTOR LED. As the chief shepherd of the local church, if your senior pastor isn’t 100 percent on board, then the transition will ultimately fail. This doesn’t mean that a Senior Pastor cannot be confronted (IN LOVE) with the philosophical argument that multi-styled worship services are more divisive than unifying. Perhaps you, as worship pastor, should speak truth from the scripture in order to encourage your senior pastor to consider unifying worship services at your church. Continue to have candid, respectful conversations in order to “educate” of the merits of unified worship.

BE PATIENT. Convincing a senior pastor to make a paradigm shift is not easy. If the current pastor initiated multiple services years ago based on the Church Growth Model, your suggestion to return to a unified worship approach will likely mean the senior pastor has to admit they were wrong. Further, if the senior pastor only created multiple types of service to appease certain groups of people, those same people will likely share their disdain with you. It may take months or years even. Keep praying and keep educating.

Once the Senior Pastor is on board, the next step is to have conversations with the rest of the staff, key leadership, and deacon/elders. While it’s always best to have everyone totally on board with the idea of bringing the worship services back together, it might not happen easily. As with most decisions involving a wide range of personalities and experiences, there will always be late adopters. David Hasker says that a few on their staff did not agree initially on the return to a unified worship style, but in the end the decision was made by the majority and they supported it. Anticipate possible questions and do your homework before the meetings to make sure you are able to explain what the transition might look like.

After the key leadership, other key groups in the church must be “educated” in the next steps of what will happen. Some key groups  include: the music ministry team (especially since this involves them a GREAT deal), Bible study leaders, etc. Make sure communication is frequent and clear and all involve persons have a chance to voice concerns and have questions answered. It’s essential that the key leadership be unified before the church body itself is presented with the plan. Additionally, remember to always be respectful and kind when dealing with folks who are passionately against returning to a unified worship style. Love them and ask them to support you as you try to live out the vision God has given the church. Remind them that a unified worship style is NOT anti-evangelistic or anti-contemporary worship.

Once the decision to bring the unified plan to the congregation is made, allow multiple opportunities for the church to hear the vision and ask questions. The pastor and worship leader should share the biblical and philosophical merits of a unified worship approach. Once these meetings are finished, then your church should vote (or whatever process you use to implement change).

One more thing…

Any change comes at a cost. You may have to “cash in” quite a bit of “people collateral” in order to make this happen. For the worship leader just 6 months to a year into their tenure somewhere is going to have a much harder time convincing the pastor/congregation of this paradigm shift. Many will only believe you are there to stir things up without any regard for the actual people you serve. It takes time (no matter how talented you are) for people to trust you as a leader. Even if you have decades of experience, people simply need to know you not only have Kingdom work on your heart, but you understand and value them as people and the church culture and context of the local body.

In my next post, I’ll deal with the practical side of how the musical styles and teams can work together in a new context. You’ll need to have a detailed plan of how to integrate your teams before the vision is shared because people are going to want to know exactly how the change will affect the overall ministry of the local body. Let me be clear: You MUST find a way to integrate the instrumentalists, vocalists (choir, praise team), teach teams, actual venues-if different, from ALL worship services/styles into one. Remember, one of the key parts of what intergenerational worship is—-everyone must feel valued and important. More soon!