When I presented a mindmap for this blog to our worship team and asked them which topics they were most interested in, four of the five who responded requested something under the “Growth” header. Three of those four picked this topic specifically. I know that five people is a relatively small sample size, but an overwhelming majority in any sample size is enough to get me to write a post that people seem to want.
Of course, it is also possible that they only picked it because they wanted to see what I would do with a bubble labeled “The Times,” so I keep that as a possibility in the back of my mind, as well. I simply choose to believe that they picked this topic out of desire instead of sheer curiosity.
Curiosity, though, is a great way to broach this subject. What is it about ‘changing with the times’ that piques our interest? It’s a phrase that is uttered by the young berating the old. It is uttered among the old, berating themselves. Heck, it’s even uttered among the middle-aged, proud of themselves for migrating to a new social media platform. Why is this phrase so prevalent in our culture?
I think we are slightly obsessed with ‘changing with the times’ because we have a desire to be relevant (see footnote 1). Relevance is not strict adherence to ‘out with the old, in with the new’ policies. Relevance is the best of the old, the best of the new, and the best of the middle-aged. Relevance inspires us and celebrates the freshness of new art and reverence of old art and places value on both new and old work by how applicable it is to life today. Relevance, by definition, changes with the times, and we are called to change with it.
The trick, of course, is changing well.
The alternatives to changing well are as horrible as they sound: not changing at all, or changing badly.
Not changing at all leads to stagnation. Example: for a while, I helped out at a church where the worship team hardly ever drew newcomers through the door because the congregation was comprised primarily of one group of people who really dug that specific genre or groove that the team liked to play in (I’m looking at you, 80’s fat-beat cover bands). So unless newcomers to that place happen to be avid fans of reggae / black gospel / 80’s rock ballads / dubstep / chamber choirs, limiting yourself to one style or one group of musical role models limits your outreach opportunity.
Worse yet than that, though, are the brave but absurd few who hear the ‘next big thing’ that ‘all the kids are into, you know,’ and try to dominate that space in the worship industry. In business and in music, very little goes worse than endorsing and replicating something you’re unfamiliar with. As the internet popularly says, it “flies exactly the way a brick doesn’t.”
I was at a worship conference in 2001 (still in high school, mind you), and a prominent worship leader was there. Everybody was stoked: he had become popular in the late 80’s with a worship song that everybody knew, and the excitement in the room was palpable. He was rumored to be working on a new project, and he had the attention and expectations of the entire conference. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the newest and biggest thing happening in the entire music industry nationwide was techno (you see where this is going). Of course, he remixed a few of his top hit songs and led worship solo with a laptop and some outboard equipment. He literally mixed pre-recorded tracks and DJ-turntabled live for 35 minutes. If memory serves, he didn’t even sing much. Most of the vocals were all tracked, as well.
It. Was. Terrible. I’d never seen so many people sit down during a performance in my life, and I’ve played a punk rock gig at a nursing homes. It was an almost-desperate attempt to stay relevant in a changing musical landscape, otherwise referred to as ‘change for the sake of change,’ which to my knowledge has never turned out favorably. Change is necessary for growth, but techno praise is a change that the church at large simply could not accept.
Because the trick, of course, is changing well.
The Art of Borrowing Influences
I’m part of a modified ‘mastermind’ group for artists. Usually, mastermind groups are business owners and thought leaders trading ideas and support, particularly for business ventures. They’ll offer to review each other’s new books before they publish, share experiences behind similar product launches, etc. to learn from each other’s mistakes and successes, as well as pitch new ideas to gather feedback before something flies or flops.
In our group, we forgo most business conversation (our ‘meeting minutes’ consist of who’s bringing the coffee next time and who else is bringing finger foods) and instead of business ideas, we bring fresh art pieces to trade feedback and constructive criticism. We have four visual artists, three crafters, two songwriters, two poets, and one lone-star animator (who primarily gets “oohs” and “aahs” instead of criticism because we are all amazed at the mechanics of the work).
I personally participate as a songwriter, and some months I’ll get about a week away from the meeting when I realize that I haven’t created anything in weeks. No lyrics, no melodies, no lightning-strike of inspiration and ingenuity… nothing’s come to me all month long. In those times, I’ll usually work on covering a song that utilizes a skill I haven’t mastered yet, or utilizes a skill that I’ve developed that gets used in a different way. For example, (pardon all the links ahead: I really want to see an artist like this get saved. I absolutely love his work. I just want to see these skills used vertically) I am not always good at singing and playing ‘lead’ at the same time, but I saw an incredible acoustic artist who played beautiful rhythm and melody parts simultaneously on one guitar and I decided that this was a skill worth developing. So I watched videos of the original artist playing the song that captivated me and learned how to play the song, myself.
Inevitably, a new song within the next few months will have an element of the skill I spent my time developing, and the group recognizes the time spent on song covers as valuable skill-honing that allows greater variety in future works.
To that end, one of our poets does a lot of work with a poetry website that features ‘challenges’ regularly: to write in the style of a particular poet, or to write nothing but sonnets on a particular topic, or to use only one punctuation mark in the entire poem (a la e.e. cummings). He finds the structure of continuously writing outside of your own style incredibly valuable.
Similarly, one of our visual artists (who may or may not exactly be my wife) insists that she cannot paint original work without looking at something to reference (not true at all)(baby you’re amazing)(#biased #dontcare). She says that she does her best work when she’s looking at something else to shape her lines or blend her colors. However, over the last year, everyone who sees her artwork agrees that she’s created more intuitive and ingenuitive pieces with unique hues, lines, and perspectives than she did when she first joined the group. I know I’m been getting off track here, but she did this incredible thing with a bird seeing another bird from above, you know, a literal ‘bird’s eye view’ that was just, holy sparrows, I mean, how does a person even think of how a bird might see a bird…
There’s something wonderful, beautiful, and powerful about the art of copying art and how the process grows us as artists. Emulation is the key, I think, and choosing the people and ministries we allow to influence us is paramount to our ability to be relevant to our people.
The Art of Fighting the Power
In that vein of thought, I have a bone to pick with you if your idea of relevance in worship consists of spamming your congregation with your team’s versions of the top tracks on Christian radio today. There are two major problems with relying on Christian radio to bring you selections for congregational worship: first, they are not the right kind of songs, which I will explain later, and second, they are some/oftentimes harmful. I have to make this clear: you are being marketed to. The vast majority of the songs that are put in front of you on those stations are songs designed and engineered to make you happy and pander to your sensibilities. I know this. I’ve worked with two writers at one of the nation’s largest Christian songwriting firms. They know that the Lord loves a cheerful giver and gosh darn it they are desperate to keep you cheerful and tuning in.
I apologize if I seem harsh, but I approach Christian radio the same way I approach literature and Disney Movies: critically (see footnote 2). Most of what you hear on Christian radio is about how God is great and my life is great and everything around us in all of creation is just great because duh, God is so great. And I don’t know if you’ve looked at the lives of pretty much anyone around you lately, or even the life of, like, Jesus, or eleven of the twelve disciples, or Paul, or really just about anybody in the Bible, or in West Virginia, or the majority of Planet Earth, but health, wealth, and all things prosperity are not exactly 100% of what my Bible says about the reality of living your life in Christ. Check your translation. No? Hmm. Strange. Almost… almost like that’s done on purpose… like there’s a lesson there…
I am simply set against anything facetiously positive, or anything that implies outright flippancy. So many ‘popular’ Christian songs over the last decade promote a righteous indifference, a manner of laughing it off because “He’s watching over me,” or He’s “on my side,” or “nothing can stand against” me… and that’s not what my Bible says. At least, not in the sense that I don’t have to do anything besides have enough faith. Not in the sense that everything’s going to just be A-OK perfectomundo now. Never, ever trust anything that makes me or my family want to say “lol wutever God’s got it haha Satan u r teh suck U LOSE lol!!!” Stop it. Stop letting your guard down. Stop listening to anything that encourages the combination of your spiritual journey and your ministry with a “hakuna matata” mindset (again, see footnote 2).
Please stick with me, because this is important, and this is what I mean when I say that what is served to you on Christian radio is the wrong kind of song: there are two types of worship songs, horizontal and vertical, and while both technically have a place in your worship journey and service, one of them is meat while the other is milk, per se.
Horizontal worship edifies the body of Christ, the church, the believers. Horizontal songs highlight how good He is, or what He’s done. Horizontal songs tell stories. A timeless example is “Amazing Grace.” Beautiful words, powerful meanings, a wonderful celebration all around, but it’s still the story of what God has done in my life, not a prayer or supplication lifted straight up to Him. Horizontal worship is third-person.
Vertical songs, on the other hand, reach straight up to the ears of God and tell Him how we feel, what we need, or how much we love (or want to love) Him more than ever. Vertical songs invite Him to dance with us, to sing with us, to laugh with us, to cry with us, or re-affirm His promises to us. Vertical songs are conversational. Their trademark is the use of the word “You” with a capital Y. Vertical worship is first-and-second-person.
Guess which types of songs get an 80/20 split on the radio? And guess which types of songs I fight for to maintain at least an 80/20 split in my church’s worship services? That’s all I’m going to say. It is not the primary focus of your job to talk about how awesome He is.
The Art of Growing With the Times
It is your job to find songs that say what your congregation needs to say. It is your job to find songs that our God, our King, our Love longs to hear us say to Him. Your song repertoire determines the relevance of your ministry to those with ears to hear.
Likewise, it is your job to let go of songs that no longer line up with the goals of your ministry and the heart of your people at this time. Sure, keep a chord chart or two handy in a file just in case a special circumstance arises where that is just the perfect song for what needs to happen in that service, but by the time you have access to five-hundred-plus songs at the touch of your fingertips, you have to admit that you may be reaching so far out to have the right songs that you’re really reaching right over the more-obvious fits, and we also have to admit that something like that is entirely possible. I sometimes get so wrapped up in looking for new music from obscure sources that I forget that we already have a song that we know and don’t have to work for so hard.
Conversely, though, I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I too often think “oh, this song will be fine for this service” or “the message of this song is close enough,” and it’s maybe, maybe a week later that I’ll hear a song on Spotify or (shudder) the radio that I know I’ve heard at least ten times before, and I can already pick out the chords just from hearing it so often, and it would have been perfect to pair with that message if I’d just opened my ears and given the decision more than a grand sum total of ten seconds worth of thought, and that’s one of two major reasons I needed to sit down and write this post:
We’re too comfortable staying the same, and
We’re too scared of failing at something new, so we stay the same.
I, by no means, am perfect in my worship leading and team development strategies. I do, however, remain playful and curious. I incorporate kazoos on a semi-regular basis. I brought my grandmother’s accordion and selected a volunteer from the congregation to play a harmonic third and fourth back-and-forth for a song that only has two chords for the whole thing. I re-wrote a secular song into a worship tune, had a violinist play mandolin (they’re tuned the same, who knew?!), and had the entire youth group (at summer camp, with wooden floors in a giant hall, great acoustics) stomp, pat, and clap the big drum part. That one was a monumental disaster…
But that’s okay because we experiment, we tinker, we find what works and run with it, just sprinting down the trail until we run out of breath, then we stop and collect ourselves and try something else. Something good for your people can run for months, for years, even, and sometimes it will fall flat on its face from the start, and that’s okay. The key is to never stop guessing, never stop improving, never stop stretching the limits of how funky the music can get, or how crazy the accompanying instrumentation can look, or how loudly you can get them to sing with you when you pull an awesome little bait-and-switch, building up a repeating bridge and cutting the music halfway through a line so the congregation is half-screaming “deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior…” Never stop. Never, ever stop.
Because when you stop, you allow complacency, and a complacent ministry has no place in the Kingdom of God. There, I said it. Remember that time when Jesus said “well, I’ve got a few disciples now… eh, we’re good, I’ll just wait to be crucified and pay for the sins of mankind.” No? Check your translation. Still no? Dang, I couldn’t remember where that happened either. Just wanted to be sure.
Or, wait, wasn’t there that time that Jesus said “READ LUKE, CRIMINEY, I’VE HEALED ENOUGH PEOPLE TO PROVE THAT I CAN DO IT NOW, SO WE’RE DONE WITH ALL THE HEALINGS,” like, in Revelations or something, right? No? Go check it. Now, nope, I don’t believe you looked. Go look again.
So why on earth do we get complacent? Why do we build a skill set and a repertoire and a team of capable musicians and settle everybody in for the tamest roller coaster in the park? We could get everyone on board the Thunderbolt but we queue up for the Teacups and wonder why people leave the fair.
Growth is necessary. Growth that is relevant to the needs of your people is doubly necessary. And because there is nothing new under the sun, I’ll leave you with a timely thought from a Nobel-Prize-winning poet, who is truly the voice of a generation, and whose words echo the necessity of growth in your worship ministry:
Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’,
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’…
– Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
Be blessed, be bright, be well, and do good work.
(1) In fact, I had originally planned an entire separate post on relevance in worship ministry, and the longer I dwell on these subjects, the more they merge. I think every aspect of the art of worship is connected; I’m simply finding more and more connections as the words spill out of me, and the idea of relevance really permeates most of the topics that I intend to cover. So if you were looking at the mindmap and looking forward to another post about worship relevance, I’m sorry. Things change. I’ll try to make it up to you by making this post as mentally savory as possible, like bacon when you were expecting just biscuits, or a full massage when you were expecting just a neck rub. Just enjoy it.
(2) Disney princesses set up our nation’s little girls with unrealistic expectations and dangerous moral lessons: throw away everything you’ve ever known and run away from your family if a guy is cute enough and he’ll magically love you and marry you and you’ll live happily ever after (Ariel). Fancy clothes and a flashy smile mean he’s definitely not a hood rat and is totally worth ditching the fam and exploring a whole new worth with (Jasmine). This topic has been covered extensively online. My point is that Disney is cute and fun to sing along with but you can’t take it seriously, and that’s exactly how I approach Jesus FM, Incorporated.
Also, entirely unrelated, here is a song called “Jesus On the Radio” from one of the best bands in existence. Have some happy ears for two minutes. There’s a banjo. Go. Listen. Love. Cry a little. It’s going to be okay.