The worship wars have been a battle fought for decades now. The two sides: pro-hymn and pro-modern stand on two sides of a peaceful fence. But in order to stand on one side or the other, we have to be aware of what each side stands for. We have to understand what defines a ‘modern’ song, and what defines a ‘hymn’.
Definition: Hymn. Worship
The Webster definition of hymn is as follows:
a) : a song of praise to God
b) : a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service
The Concise Encyclopedia gives a brief history of the use of the term:
“Song used in Christian worship, usually sung by the congregation and written in stanzas with rhyme and metre. The term comes from the Greek hymnos (“song of praise”), but songs in honour of God or the gods exist in all civilizations. Christian hymnody grew out of the singing of psalms in the Temple of Jerusalem. The earliest known Christian hymn dates from c. AD 200. Hymns were prominent in the Byzantine liturgy from early times, and in the Western church they were sung by congregations until the Middle Ages, when choirs took over hymn singing. Congregational singing was reestablished during the Reformation Martin Luther and his followers were great hymn writers, while the Calvinists preferred setting psalms to music. The compositions of Isaac Watts and John Wesley were notable in English hymnody. The Counter-Reformation led to the composition of many Roman Catholic hymns, and the Roman Catholic church restored congregational singing of hymns after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.”
There are also some detailed ideas in Christian Today’s article ‘Pop goes the Worship‘ (March 2011).
Yes, and there are objective criteria for what makes some music better than other music. Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands. Some musicologists argue that hymnody is actually a subcategory of folk music—distinguished from classical music because classical music is performance music, beyond the capacity of the average person to produce. But folk music, by name, suggests music produced by the people. It’s the way a people join their heritage, and it’s participatory in its very nature. Therefore, I don’t think hymns should strive to compete with Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem or the solos in Handel’s Messiah, because a congregation wouldn’t be able to sing them. [pullquote]A hymn shouldn’t be beyond the capacities of a good, intelligent church to sing[/pullquote]….
Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly. When I was a young child and we’d take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn’t read music. Hymns aren’t too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff… They (modern songs) are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as “easy,” what they mean is “familiar-sounding.”
With all this in mind, we can define important traits that we can agree all hymns should have:
- Hymns are first and foremost a song of worship and/or praise to God.
- Hymns are created to be sung corporately in worship together.
There are some some traits that are common in hymns, but are not in any type of formal definition. These are from a collection of readings and discussions about hymns:
- Hymns are usually steeped in history, are sacred, or have some other spiritual significance.
- Hymns are deeply theological and based on solid foundations of the Christian faith.
- Hymns are written to teach God’s people biblical truths through repetition, musical memory, and other such faith building devices.
- Hymns often (but not always) have a simplistic approach making them accessible to people regardless of musical ability or talent.
When we look at the first definitions, we can see that if we were to substitute ‘hymn’ for ‘worship’, then what we call ‘worship’ in it’s musical form fits seamlessly in its place. In modern day language however, we have somewhat exchanged this terminology of ‘hymn‘ for the word ‘worship‘. We know worship is so much more than songs and music, but we often accept this common knowledge and use the term ‘worship’ with this in mind. We call the music we play in church and sing together as a congregation as ‘worship’. If we were to define the term worship in relation to music, it would be relatively similar to that for which exists for the term ‘hymn’.
I am eternally passionate about worship and it’s musical form. I am passionate about deep poetical, creative, and meaningful music and lyrics that engage the heart, mind, and soul of my fellow believers. I am passionate about leading people to meet with God through song, praise, anthem, music, and sound. I am continually renewed by worshipping God. I have burned out over many other things in my life, but the fire for worship through music continues to burn strong and will never lessen – purely because for me, it is my passion.
Because of this however, there are some that say that hymns are much more than just songs we sing in church. They are more than just the ‘style’ that hymns fall into. They have some other traits; of which I have listed above. T. David Gordon says that ‘Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands.’ (Pop Goes the Worship, March 2011). Aesthetic demands, as Gordon puts it, is what I refer to as ‘style’.[pullquote]Sanctity (or sacred) seems to be an important factor as to what people will consider a hymn or not. But what makes a song sacred? Is sanctity a man-made attribute or a God-given aspect?[/pullquote] Simply, through a few different readings, describing something as sacred is to say that it is holy, or hallowed. We find these words related to the ground in a couple of places in the Bible. Moses and the burning bush: Exodus 3:5, and Stephen telling the story of Moses: Acts 7:33. Here, it is the Lord God that has declared the ground as Holy. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul says that we are sanctified in the name of the Lord when we became followers of Christ – once again, a status given by God. When we think of a person who is holy, or saintly, we might use the phrase that they are ‘blessed by God’.
All of these factors leads me to think that for something to be considered sacred, it is not something that we as humans can impart, but must be bestowed on by God.
Definition: Modern. Worship
The Webster definition of modern is:
a) : of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past: ‘contemporary’.
b) : of, relating to, or characteristic of a period extending from a relevant remote past to the present time
Modern worship therefore is a subjective title given to songs that are of the present time to the immediate past. How long this time is would be relative to each person’s perceptions. When we use the term ‘modern’ worship, we might include songs from the mid 1990’s to the present day. Some may include songs from earlier such as those written in the 1980’s, or even the 1970’s.
Unlike the biblical definition of the term ‘hymn’, the term modern is actually more centred around a particular time, or ‘style’. When we look at songs that we would consider ‘not modern’, we would probably consider the classic hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ (1779), ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ (1912), or ‘How Great Thou Art’ (1885) in that category. It is not that these are not great songs, but that they are not modern.
Likewise however, it doesn’t mean that modern songs cannot be ‘hymns’. Take modern songs such as ‘I Stand in Awe of You’ (1987), or ‘How Great is Our God’ (2004), both of which I personally would consider to be hymn in terms of the definition above.
But why is modernity important in church today?
The Hymn Style
What I dislike is the ‘hymn’ as a style of music. Often when we use the term ‘hymn’ (or at least when I use it) I am talking about those grandiose, organ filled, old-english songs. Songs such as ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’, and ‘It is Well with My Soul’ – great songs. But still hymns. I even extend this to modern day hymns, such as those written by Townsend and Getty like ‘In Christ Alone’, and ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the aim for Christian musicians was to create religious masterpieces that had been previously owned by painters and sculptors of years gone by. They had their instrument of choice – the pipe organ – which could make enough sound for an entire orchestra with the use of only one person. The words, rhythm, rhyme, and melody were all designed to be theologically correct, easy to remember, and find a commonality with reality that allowed people to connect with them and connect with God through them. With the organ, both melody and chord structure merged together and a popular upbeat 3-quarter time was set as the precedent for praise and worship in the church.
Why We Need to Make Hymns for Today
Three centuries ago this same time, around 1611, the Bible was translated into English, called the King James version. You may have heard of it. It was the closest translation to the actual Biblical languages that existed, and is still one of the most accurate even today. All English versions of the bible since all herald back to the King James version. It is Adam for English translations, and there is always a link to it in some description when we read.
Why do I mention the King James bible?
Well – quite simply – I see the musical style of ‘hymns’ as the musical version of the KJV bible. It’s out dated. Time has moved on. Language (both English and musical) has developed. It’s changed. All modern songs owe something to hymns, in the same way each English translation of the bible owes something to the KJV.
We can hang on to ye olde times as much as we want, but the world has changed. The church needs to recognise this and stop living in the 19th Century, and begin living in today. Just like we have new versions of the bible today – New Living Translation, New International Version, even the The Message – these are all updated into today’s language – a language that people of today can understand and make sense of for themselves.
Likewise, I believe the songs of praise that we sing to God also need to be updated – written in today’s language – both in speech and in music. They need to be relevant to us.
Now this doesn’t stop everyone having their preference. People choose their preference of bible translation – some still prefer the KJV. Some people look at The Message in disgust. Most people accept that the NIV is down the middle of the road – as a benchmark for all that is acceptable scripture in general church use today. Regardless of this, there is little judgement as to what version of the bible the preacher is using, as long as what they are saying is biblically true.
Yet for some reason there seems to be incredible judgement around the use of (or lack of) hymns in our church services. (I make this observation based on my own experiences, not from any church situation in particular)
But if hymns are like the King James Bible, and modern classics like ‘Here I am to Worship’, ‘How Great is Our God’, and ‘Shout to the Lord’ are the NIV – then why do we continue to insist that we ‘read from the King James’ (metaphorically speaking)? I can’t actually remember the last time I read the King James, let alone go to the King James version of the bible for a better understanding of a scripture. So why would I go to a hymn for a better understanding of worship where I have plenty of modern day songs that I can understand – both musically and the language used? There is no doubt that modern day worship songs are built on the ground that were first paved by hymns – just as the NIV has been build on the foundations laid by the King James Version. That doesn’t mean we have to keep referring to the King James bible in order to understand the NIV. Not at all. So why would we keep referring to hymns to understand worship?
In the article mentioned; “Pop goes the Worship“, T. David Gordon says ‘In every generation, gifted people would write some good hymns, and subsequent generations would enjoy them. Nothing new there. What’s new is the notion that you have to have new music in a worship service. That’s unprecedented.’
He goes on to state that the commercial nature of today’s society – the ‘newer is better’ mentality – has taken it’s hold in church as well. He says that playing hymns using a modern aesthetic is better than dividing a church. ‘But better yet to be entirely unconcerned about whether a hymn sounds contemporary. No other generation was so concerned, and there is no good reason for ours to be so.’. His book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns’ raises all these questions, to ‘…ask why, for the first time in Christian history, do we feel so cut off from previous hymnody? I think the media ecology answer is largely correct, because we are surrounded by music that has these kinds of musical qualities, and therefore we expect all music to have those qualities. But why should we allow the producers of commercial music to make those choices for the church?’.
Worshipping God has little to do with our preference, and more to do with bringing ourselves humbly before our God in complete worship.To a certain extent I wholly agree with Gordon here. When we choose which worship song we sing based on our own personal preference, it suddenly becomes about what we want, and not what God wants. [pullquote align=”right”]Worshipping God has little to do with our preference, and more to do with bringing ourselves humbly before our God in complete worship.[/pullquote] If it comes from our heart with the help of the Holy Spirit it shouldn’t matter what the song being played is, because we are wholly and solely focussed on God.
Yet I consistently find myself struggling with singing hymns and getting myself to worship. Maybe this might be the infiltration of the ‘commercial’ as Gordon puts it. Maybe it’s Satan getting a foothold within God’s Church – an unwanted distraction to get us away from worshipping God and thinking about ourselves and our personal preference, just because it doesn’t sound like the music we like and have grown accustomed to. And knowing this, maybe I need to revisit my own heart when I come to worship.
One thing I have come to associate very closely with the word “worship”, is the word “humble”. Worship without humility is nothing. If you are allowing your own preferences to come between you and God in worship, then you are allowing self to be more important than worshipping God. Humility is therefore more than just important in worship. It is paramount.
So remember. Put aside your personal preference, and worship God with all your heart, soul and mind. If you are able to do that then the song, the style, the hymn, nor the words can stop you from basking in God’s mercy and grace. And to God be the Glory. Now, as it always has been, and forever will be.
Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.
At the very core of modern day worship is this call from Paul’s letter to Ephesus; “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves”. It encouraged corporate worship in three forms, mentioned specifically here in the New Living Translation, as with others. It is also in his letter to Colossus in chapter 3 verse 16: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Both times, these three different songs of worship are mentioned.
But how literally do we take this? If we don’t sing a hymn as we know it today, are we following this call? And when was the last time you actually sung any Psalm, rather than read them?
To understand it fully, we have to look through this whole verse, in the context of it’s day, and in today’s context, and apply it to how modern day worship is created and described now.
[spoiler title=”Psalms” style=”2″ open=”1″]
Psalms is a book in the bible. It is a book written by several authors, but many of them by David (of David and Goliath fame). They are stanzas, verses, poems, rhythmical; they are songs. They often are verses of praise; lifting God to the forefront of our minds and giving him all the credit. They hail Him as king over all, and they encourage everyone to join in and do the same. They also deal with the troubles of life, woe is me, and why me God?; but always end up praising God in the end. They were most likely to be accompanied by harp or lyre, or other instruments of the day.
These songs are what we would call Praise songs today. One of the problems that occurred with translating these from Hebrew is that whilst we kept the understanding, a lot of the rhyme, rhythm, or feeling, was lost. Some have been able to write new music for these new English words. Songs like Your Love Oh Lord, Create in me a Clean Heart, As the Deer, and countless more.
Does this mean that we have to sing the Psalms as they were written? In Hebrew? Or English – word for word verbatim? Does it mean we need to sing them with harp and lyre?
Or does it mean we need to praise God through song; with the emphasis on thanking and giving glory all to God – even when things may seem dim? Does it mean we need to thank him, to compliment and to adore Him through song? When we praise God, do we clap our hands, give applause, cheer, celebrate, and recognise God for all of His goodness and His grandeur? If so, is this not the intention of the Psalmists? Is this not what they were in fact trying to achieve when they wrote their songs down – albeit in a different language, and certainly in a different style than we are used to today?
[spoiler title=”Hymns” style=”2″ open=”0″]
Hymns are commonly mistaken. There are two definitions of hymns in today’s culture. It is important to define between these. If we look at the dictionary definition of the word hymn, we find that it is a noun: a song or ode in praise or honor of God, a deity, a nation, etc.
However, we often associate the word ‘hymn’ with the style of music. You know the type: organ, choirs, thee’s and thou’s. Very traditional. Very litergical. Very correct. Very old. The likes of ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, and ‘It is Well with my Soul’ all come to mind. These were all written out, often in books that looked rather like bibles and included a variety of hymns for all senses of occasion and theme. This was before the time of OHP’s and digital projectors. This style of song has developed over a couple of centuries. They were written for the common church instruments of the time, namely organ or piano. They are filled heavily with bold chords that follow the syllables, and inspire grandeur and distinction from the depths of one’s stomach.
However, this is not what Paul meant when he used the word ‘hymn’ in his letter. He didn’t mean a certain style of music, based on bold organ chords and ye olde words – lease of all because when the letter was written, this style that we associate with hymns couldn’t have been conceived given a certain lack of pipes and keyboards. Furthermore, the term that Paul uses ‘hymnois’ is used only twice in the Bible – in Ephesians, and in Colossians!
No. What Paul meant is the generic definition of hymn being ‘a song or ode in praise or honour of God’. He meant ‘hymn’ to mean a song sung in church to honour God. Not organ music of the 17th and 18th Centuries.
These ‘hymns’ were often well known songs of the early church; songs that people knew well and possibly didn’t need words as they were learned by heart over time. (see Strong’s Greek)
If we look at the prelude to the Colossians verse, Paul mentions the aspects of teaching and wisdom through these songs. There is no doubt that lyrically, many of the songs from this style have been carefully and poetically constructed, using the common English tongue at the time, making them accessible for the wider public. They are deeply entrenched in theology and are built around the fact that music finds its way into people’s every day lives, and if there are biblical truths being taught through the songs, then this is beneficial to strengthening people’s walk with God. This is where the definition of ‘hymn’ might come into it’s own; where God’s promises and lessons are taught to his people through songs that become part of their memory and every day lives. Almost like when a song gets stuck in your head; except hymns get stuck in your heart as well.
[spoiler title=”Spiritual Songs” style=”2″ open=”0″]
So what are spiritual songs? Obviously this is not a specific term as with Psalms or Hymns – and therefore doesn’t have a specific definition. It essentially encompasses all other songs that are about the spiritual aspect of the Christian life. It’s like Paul is saying ‘et cetera’ at the end of his phrase. Paul is saying that when you come together as the body of Christ, sing songs of praise to God. Spiritual songs essentially allows for other types of song to be included, so as not to limit the thoughts or perceptions that the church has about psalms, hymns, chants, verses, poems, or any other declaration of praise to God above.[/spoiler]
Why would Paul use three different terms which all serve the same point? Why would he use three terms if what he meant was for us to sing songs? When we delve into the Greek translation of the word, we find that the three words are all very similar in direct translation. Visiting Biblehub, we find that the greek translation for the word that Paul uses are:
- ‘pslamois‘ – ‘a psalm, song of praise, the Hebrew book of Psalms’.
- ‘hymnois‘ or ‘humnos’ – ‘a hymn, sacred song, song of praise to God’.
- ‘pneumatikais‘ – ‘spiritual; relating to the realm of spirit’.
Even in Greek, Paul has used three similar, common terms for the same thing: songs of praise directed to God. So why use all three? Well one reason is probably to cement his point in the readers mind. Just as I have used a thesaurus for the word ‘praise’ so that I don’t over-use the word, it is entirely possible that Paul too was enfatically making his point by repeating synonyms and encompassing a range of possibilities that corporate worship through song should or could entail.
All In All: Beginning and End
There is only one way to sum up this verse. Some will claim the need for great debate and scrutiny over every word in modern day songs. They will claim a lack of theology within the lyrics of such songs, and a shallowness of meaning that is somewhat pointless. Some will claim that drums are of the devil and should not be played in church. All sorts of personal preferences can be thrown left right and centre. We can spend so much time squabbling over little words in the middle of a verse, that we forget the bigger picture and the clearest message this verse has to give. When we remove all these ‘human’ requirements of worship, what we are left with is the beginning and the end of Paul’s verse. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit…, and make music to the Lord in your hearts.”
That is the call to worship. When all is boiled down we are left with the raw essence of what worship is: Being filled with the Holy spirit, making music to the Lord in your hearts.” Some will dispute and say worship is not just about music or songs, and I agree. But it doesn’t say make music. It says make music in your hearts. This may or may not even sound like songs as we know it. It may not be a sound at all. But as a metaphor, ‘making music in your heart’ creates a beautiful picture of what worship is; where it should come from, and where it should be directed.
So, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and make music to the Lord in your hearts.
For a while now I have been in conflict with the use of hymns in church today. Is there a place for them? Why do we still sing them? Are they still relevant?
As a church, we are constantly reflecting on whether we are “catering” for all generations. But we still need to be “providing” for specific audiences, or targeting them.
I have been to churches where hymns have been made mandatory. It was a requirement. But the intention behind that was as a token to the older generation in the church who “didn’t have any songs” of their own to sing. This is what I call “providing” for the older generation.
I have heard both sides of the hymns argument. I know them back and front. Part of me agrees that there is a place for them in a service. And then I attend a service where the majority of the songs are hymns and I think why do we have to keep going back to these archaic tunes?
Because of this, I don’t want to get into that debate. What I want to do is come from it at a different angle. I have prepared 5 reasons why we need to provide new worship music for the youth and young people in today’s church.
#1: The Future of the Church
I appreciate the amount of time and effort people put into building a church as much as the next person. Countless hours and manpower goes into making services, ministries, and outreaches happen. There is a sense that we owe something to our older generation for that which they have given. Whilst this is the case, believe it or not, the future of the church is actually in the youth of today. Tomorrow, they will be the leaders. Tomorrow, they will be the body of the church. Tomorrow, they will be building the church further.
But I can tell you now, that there are things that keep youth in a church, and things that don’t. Relationships keep them. Friends keep them. Respect keeps them. Having them feel like they are a part of something bigger keeps them. Ownership keeps them. Music keeps them. However, from experience; music also turns them away. Hymns don’t fit anywhere within their iTunes collection. You wouldn’t see young folk with their car windows down with the soulful tunes of yesteryears organ blaring from their speakers. It would be a rare occasion that young people would ever go out to listen to hymns. The local mall even resorted to the musical strategy of playing “Classical” music (of similar era to Hymns) in an attempt to “move along” the young people that loitered outside. The reality is that music will draw people in or move them away. Do we want the future of the church to be “moved along” by using songs from yesterday? Or do we wan tto draw them in and envigorate their faith with music that they find acceptable and useful to worship with?
#2: Where Music Comes From
This next reason could get a bit confusing – so bear with me.
Elvis was 19 when he began recording. When the Rolling Stones hit the stage, Mick Jagger was 19. John Lennon, 20; Paul McCartney, 18; Ringo Starr, 20; George Harrison, 17 when they rose to fame. Neil Diamond was in his 20’s when he began his music career.
All of these now have incredible songs which will last for ages. Some of these will last beyond generations. Some people, like myself, who weren’t even born in these decades will still find their music preferable to today’s popular tunes. And there in-lies the point.
Music is preference. It is an opinion of what is good and what is bad. But the main reason behind this is actually relevance.
But music is created by the peers of each generation. Take one Justin Bieber, One Direction, Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus. All have their followers and fans of today’s generation. Neil Diamond and Cliff Richard still have their own followings, and still have great songs. We need to make the music relevant for the people. Imagine if Neil tried to release a new album using today’s ‘pop music’ model. Tears to well up (of laughter or pain – I’m not sure!). His songs are no doubt great and still have their place in music history, and everyone sings along to ‘Sweet Caroline’; but if all we had was Neil Diamond hits, we would only be drawing in a particular type of person. As a church, we therefore need to diversify the music. But so much emphasis is placed on making sure we meet the needs of the older generation with ‘classical’ or ‘Neil Diamonds’ that we are losing the ‘Beliebers’ and Swift fans.
#3: Give the Youth their Song
“Oh! I remember this song!” “We used to sing this all the time when I was younger!”. These joyous statements are very common among musicians I have worked with when bringing songs of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Songs like ‘Because He Lives’, ‘I Stand in Awe’, and ‘Create in me a Clean Heart’. This is because these are the songs that defined their growing up. They stir up the childhood emotions that they hold onto firmly as the grounding of their faith. They possible learned to play their musical instruments using these songs. It seems ironic that these musicians would also be people who prefer hymns over modern contemporary songs, but I don’t hear that same excitement from singing hymns. Why? Well, because the hits that they grew up with are the ‘Sweet Caroline’ songs for them.
So what for today’s generation? What do we want them to get excited by? What are we providing for them to cherish and remember? Songs from two generations ago? Songs from the middle ages? Or songs that they like; that their peers made; that they connect with? When they are older, do we want them to have that same “I remember this song” moment, or will it be more like “Oh I remember this song that my Mum and Dad sung”. Do we want them to remember how they “used to sing this all the time when I was younger”, or remember how they “used to sing this song because they used to sing it all the time in the 1980’s”?
A wise man called Lloyd Rankin once said (and I remember if because it is so true) that he chose to let the youth in his church have their song. He “chose to be the more mature man”, and let go of his favourite songs in order for the youth to have their songs. At the end of the day, he said, he can always go home and play the songs he wants to hear after the church service. He had the maturity in faith and mentality to put his preferences aside. Maturity that today’s generation can only learn in time.
#4: Coming to God as a Child
Have you seen a child when a tune comes on? They bob, bounce, flap their arms, bend their knees. In due course, many will hum or sing with the melody, others shot out the lyrics when they know them. God wants this. He wants a child-like faith where we come with no adult preconceptions or trying to understand everything. He wants this from us. And worship is what we give to God. It is our offering. God wants us to come as a child.
Now, just as the older generation had their songs that they still love, so too this generation has their songs that they will love. We sing both. But which is more important? An old song that makes the old feel young, but makes the young switch off from God, or a new song that makes the old feel old, but the young switch on like a child? Both are important, but which is more important?
According to Lloyd Rankin, maturity is going to be easier for the older generation, and humility is also a great form of worship.
#5: Sing to the Lord a New Song
My final reason is said several times through the Psalms – the book of songs, largely written by David. “Sing to the Lord a new song”. It is a continuous striving of looking for these new songs that creativity in worship exists. Not once does it say “Sing to God an old song that you like and sing it again and again.”. Developing Worship presenter Sam Middlebrook puts it elegantly where he says “I hope that the best worship song has yet to be written”. It’s a good way of looking at it. We need to keep striving for the perfect worship song, because that is what God deserves. We want to be able to express to God all that He deserves, and we do not have the adequate words to do so. Singing a new song will hope to create this. We sing it because it refreshes our worship. We are not some stuck record that is rolling round the same old songs time and time again. If we don’t sing the new songs because we are too busy reminiscing, remembering, revisiting the nostalgia surrounding hymns and old songs, we will never sing the new song intended for God that comes from deep within us.
So that’s it. Five reasons why we need to cater our music towards the youth of today. In conclusion, don’t be deluded into thinking I am saying “Get Rid of Hymns”. I am not. They have their place. But just as Neil Diamond has his place on today’s radio stations, they should be limited, in order to allow today’s music to make their mark and influence for tomorrow. What I am saying is we should be catering for all generations, but providing for todays generation.
This post is a reflection of many of the observations I’ve had over the past few months. It is a post about judgements, reading people, and leading worship.
Each time I get up to worship lead I’m trying to get a gauge for where Gods people are at. Are they busting to stand up and get cranking, or are they reluctant to get vertical out of their pew.
During the space we create for a chance to bask in Gods presence, are they surrendering their hearts with open arms, or are they staring glumly at the floor and can’t wait to sit down again.
You see, we make judgements by what we see. We see certain gestures, postures, facial hints, and we try and reason what they mean.
Staring blankly into nothingness = boredom
Arms raised and jumping = on fire for god
Sitting down = given up
Is that really what happening though?
Is someone with their eyes closed asleep? Or are they deep in prayer and being ministered to through Gods Holy Spirit.
Is someone with their arms raised connecting with God and surrendering their life? Or are they desperate to hear from God and think that raising hands might help?
You see, we make a call. And usually, a critical one. We are of course our own worst critic.
But what happens when you actually find out what’s going on?
Let me tell you of two stories.
One involves a man in our church. We were in the middle of a worship set, we created flow and there was no doubt of Gods presence in the room. But I looked out and saw this man. He had his hands in his pockets, and a stern look that was staring blankly at the ground 5 meters in front of him graced his face.
My initial reaction was that this guy isn’t feeling this. He’s missed the point and really isn’t enjoying these songs. Maybe I should wind this up soon.
Well, at the end of the service he came up to the team and explained that was the best worship experience he’s had. He had tingles running up and down his spine the whole time. The look on his face was merely concentration on all that was going on and listening to what God had for him that morning.
Another instance was at a worship workshop recently. Whilst everything went really well, one of the attendees was relatively reserved. He kept in the background and didn’t go out of his way to get involved. This is fine, and didn’t worry me, but I wondered if he really got anything out of it.
Then I got an email from him.
It outlined how he sees worship leading as a big responsibility and his hesitancy to get involved. He stated that he got a lot out of it and he respects the energy and knowledge I bring to worship leading.
Sometimes we judge things by what we see. We make a call on people’s feelings by their posture or their face.
I encourage all worship leaders out there to read your congregation, but also re:read them.
When you read your congregation you will naturally be critical. They’re bored. They’re not singing. They’d rather we stop.
More times than not, none of those are ever the truth.
That’s why you need to re:read them. Why else could they be sitting down? Because God has put a weight on their knees, and is reforming their heavy heart. Staring blankly with boredom? Or staring blankly seeing Gods vision for their lives?
If you have any more stories about your experiences of mis-reading congregations, please contact me and I can compile some additional evidence to my post here.
The following is a reflection of a conversation between my brother and I. Both of us are passionate about music, and about worship, and we regularly struggle with the tendency of our church to reluctantly sing modern contemporary worship songs, and regularly resort to hymns of younger times (of which we both find hard to actually worship to). Through the course of the conversation, we came to realise that we need to break the mindset of ‘modern’ and hymn, and instead, see it as ‘worship’.
Worked it Out
I’ve worked out something. The hymn today was interesting. The congregation were singing their heart out in the hymn. The problem we have to fight is that they are as passionate about hymns as we are about modern songs. If only we could meet face to face and see it ALL as worship. Then everyone would be as passionate about everything.
Is it about worship or the type of song? Do people worship to hymns, or just enjoy the hymn because its familiar and you can belt it out in unison? It’s almost like cars. People love old cars. People love new cars. They do the same job for those people but who love new cars often don’t like old cars.
People are passionate about singing hymns. We can only assume that it’s to God, just as I sing modern songs to God and enjoy it. But worship is about God, not necessarily about our preference; hence we should just be passionate about worship and be united as a whole. Hymns are their preference; Yes it shouldn’t matter, but obviously it does.
But we have to do the same? We have to accept hymns as worship too. Stabbing truth.
Maybe the great divide between perceptions of worship needs to be us that stands up first as the young generation and make the first step between uniting that passion. Often you see change when you change first. People will admire, respect, and will more likely listen, if we make the first step to joining the two trains of thought.
This is hard to do though. Especially when hymns are so hard to worship to… (Personally)
But, if an old car rolled into your workshop, you’d still work on it even though you don’t like old cars – and prefer to work on new cars. So what if a hymn rolls into church, should we not sing it to God, because maybe God will appreciate its message, regardless of our preference for it?
Question: why is it so hard?
Maybe it’s hard because its of a tradition or style which we did not grow up with.
Maybe it’s hard because our eyes have been opened to greater things.
And maybe it’s hard because those that grew up with them hold onto them with such aura that they cannot open their eyes to greater things.
And maybe it’s hard because Satan will use our human preference to sabotage our spiritual worship.
Hymns can be hard because of the language. Most of them just don’t make sense to the modern person and so they might not sing them because they don’t mean it. Some of the hymns are ok because we can understand them. Whilst we might not like the music side of them, at least we can understand it.
So lyrics have meaning, but it doesn’t mean we have to physically act them out. Our heart can do that when its in the right place. Regardless of the lyrics our heart can sing them even if we don’t ‘understand’ them; understand as in “I’m not doing this now so I can’t sing them whole heartedly”?
One of the challenges we set ourselves is to not see church as “us” and “them”; where “us” is anyone who thinks like us and has the same musical preference to us – and “them” is anyone who doesn’t think like us and has a different musical preference of hymns.
Worship is not about what we want. Worship is not about our preference. Worship is not about what we used to sing. Worship is not about what we are going to sing next. Worship is not about what we could sing or what we should sing. Worship is not about hymns. Worship is not about songs.
Worship is about God. Worship is about what God wants. Worship is a choice we make. Worship is a choice we make to glorify God with our thanks and praise. Worship is a choice we make to lift Him up to the forefront of our lives.
Worship is all about God in our lives.
Worship is not about us in God’s life.
Worship therefore is above and beyond the type of song we sing. Songs are just the easiest medium to use in order to join corporately with others in Worship. And when we are joined, there is no greater thing that two or three gathered believers all worshipping God together.
Worship is above and beyond hymns. Hymns fall in insignificance when compared to worship.
Worship is above and beyond modern songs. Modern songs fail to compare to true worship.
Our thoughts should not be “Oh when are we going to sing a good ol’ hymn. I can’t worship with these new songs. Plus the drums are too loud”.
Our thoughts should not be “Oh why do we have to sing this ancient old hymn? I can’t worship with these old songs. Plus I hate organs”.
Our thoughts should be “Oh my. How awesome is God! How glorious is His name. I will praise Him forever, regardless of the song we sing”.
Our thoughts should be “Oh my. How marvelous that I can join in one accord with fellow believers and sing to our God. And that God himself adores our worship”.
When I worship, I try to open up a conversation between me and God. I praise Him for all He is, and all He has done in my life. I glorify Him with my song and my heart. And then I reflect and meditate on Him, and listen to what He has for me. Often this can be incredibly fulfilling, and uplifting, and convicting, as he speaks deep into my heart and fills it with His love.
When leading worship, I endeavour to do the same thing. To be a worship leader, first and foremost, I need to be worshipping. But secondly, I need to lead both the musicians, but also (and more importantly) the congregation, so that they can enter this conversation with God for themselves.
Like any conversation, it needs to be balanced. We can have our say, through the words in the songs that we sing. But we also need to be aware that God is waiting for His chance to speak into our lives. It’s only when we have space in the worship song to just be, without worry of the song or the words, that we can focus and hear what He has to say.
Too often, we rush through a song; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus twice, end. And that is our worship. Finished. Get in, get out, as quick as you like. But we miss the conversation. We miss out on what the divine creator wants to input into our lives. And who would want to miss that?
So to allow this conversation to take place, as a worship leader, I need to think about the space I am creating. Is it delicate enough that the still, small, voice can penetrate into our lives? Is it void of distractions that can wisp us away from hearing what God has to say to us? Is it long enough for us to focus away from ourselves and listen to Him?
For me, this realisation of space in worship came about because of this song. In it, some say the space is too vast, that it becomes boring or tedious. But take a moment and reflect. If God had something to say to you, wouldn’t you want that space? Wouldn’t you need that space?
The song is This is Our God by Hillsong. Have a listen. Think about how they create the space throughout the song, and allow for the worshippers to connect with their God, before once again lifting up their praise to Him.
This is Our God
It’s interesting, in a purely human term, thinking about the dynamics in this song. With this song, everyone knows that the “Freely You gave” bridge is coming. Everyone loves it. Too often I’ve seen worship leaders rush into it, and it loses its flare. It loses its impact, because we haven’t invested in creating that space. Whether God speaks to us or not, the anticipation of being able to sing that bridge to the one we love is what makes it work. When we rush through to it, it loses everything we are expecting.
It’s a bit like Watching the World Cup final. If you just watched the last 10 minutes, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling, as dramatic, as tense, or as painful, compared to enduring and watching the entire match.
So take your time. Create the space. Enjoy the space. Don’t stand there looking at the musicians wondering what they’re doing when they head into a musical interlude. Turn your focus from singing songs to worshipping God. Expect to hear from Him. Close your eyes as the instrumental occurs. Ask God to speak to you. And as the music fades into the background, and His words fill your heart, and soul, and mind, you can begin to fully experience what this thing called worship is, and what I strive for every single time I come to worship; both with the Church, and individually.
As a musician in a worship team for nearly 10 years now, I have learned how to play worship songs. I have learned how to create space. I’ve learned how to play by ear. I’ve learned how to play a chorus with power and strength, and then with softness and tenderness, all in the same song. I have learned how to lead others into a space of worship.
But I have also learned how to be critical; to think what needs to improve; to look for missing elements; to think about whether the tempo is too quick, or too slow; to think about whether the guitar is in tune or not; to think about whether the sound has got the mix right as to how I think it should sound; to think whether this is too loud, or not loud enough.
I have learned how to be critical, but I haven’t learned how to turn that off.
You see, being critical when you have a run through practice helps to improve the sound, improve the flow, improve the music we are using to bring our worship to God.
But as soon as the service starts and we are charged with helping God’s people worship Him, the critique needs to stop. For in that moment, the music is as it is meant to be, and our worship should transcend all else.
The trouble I have found in not being able to stop, is not when I am on stage worshipping and leading others in worship, but it is when I am being lead in worship. My mind is busy critiquing all of the things I have mentioned above. I’m busy telling myself how I’d do it differently, even, better.
But what I’m not doing is worshiping God, for all he is, for all he has done, and all that he has done.
You see, Satan uses critique for evil. He slides it in behind the scenes. He makes you think you’re doing what you’ve always done. But he brings it in to distract us, to frustrate us, to block us, from worshipping our one and true God almighty.
So maybe we need to ask ourselves; Am I going to stand and sing the worship songs, frustrated that it’s not to my liking, or am I going to stand and worship God for all of His glory, all of His grace, and all of His love that He so freely gives us.
Lord, help me remember that you made everything just how you like it. This earth has been around much longer than I, and will continue to be long after I’m gone. And You have been there since before that, and will be there after it. You are so much bigger than my small problems and the issues that I face. And because of this I will stand, and I will worship you. May my soul benefit, may my mind now wander, and may it be with all of my heart.
There’s been many a battle cry, leading people forward in confidence and braving the fight and struggle that lies ahead.
I find that the same needs to be applied when you lead people in worship.
But what is vocally leading?
Simply put, it’s where you say out loud the next part of the song that you’re wanting to head, usually in the form of saying the first line of that part.
When you vocally lead people to where you want to go, it serves two purposes. The main purpose is to give a signal to your musicians as to where you are taking the song, hopefully in tune with the Holy Spirit as to what God wants in the worship directed to Him. The second reason is often overlooked, but by leading the worship team vocally, you also end up leading the congregation as well. Two birds, one stone saying ensues…
Often the worship team sets up a myriad of hand signals designed to direct the team to different parts of the song. These are very useful, especially where space between parts is limited, or if there is a sense of quiet reflection and it might be difficult to vocally lead the next part of the song sensitively. But it needs to be coupled with strong vocal leading.
As a guitarist, I don’t have hand signals, but foot signals. My foot signals won’t actually lead the team to different parts of the song, but instead instructs whether I’m wanting to bring up the dynamics of the song, or bring it down to quiet and possibly bring a close to the song. Leading to the different parts have to either be vocally lead, or I have to launch into the next part and do the first line or so as a solo, which sometimes works just fine.
So, how do I vocally lead?
As you arrive at the end of a chorus, or verse or chorus, and some direction is needed, stop singing (whilst allowing the congregation and backing vocals to carry the song) and simply say the line of the next part you are feeling the Holy Spirit is leading you. As an alternative to simply saying it, build it into a tune, so that you are almost singing the direction you wish to head. It really is that simple. Remember, you don’t have to sing everything. You can stop and lead everyone, including the congregation, into the next part of the song.
Why is it important?
As mentioned, it leads your fellow musicians, as well as the congregation. But it also allows you to move away from what I call ‘prescribed worship’, where the order of the parts of the song is already decided on and practiced. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself to any adjustment or freedom, to be lead by the Spirit, to repeat a verse, or sing another chorus or even head to a new song altogether. It is important to be able to be free enough to allow for this, to adapt with how the congregation is engaged, and to feel God’s presence, and by vocally leading during these times, the music team and congregation can follow you with confidence as they worship.
Dowsed in His Spirit, I felt a steel rod go down the centre of my being, grounding me. I saw the picture of a carving knife slicing down my spiritual body, cutting away the fat and stripping me down to just the bare-bone essentials.
The words of Matt Redman’s song rang out from the temple.
“When the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come…”
Over the years of service to the church in worship, I had built up fat around my heart. I had begun to add on the pounds of critique, boils of bitterness, kilo’s of cynicism, and plenty of frustration. I had begun to judge songs; whether they were being played right, the order of how I thought they should go, and the frustration with the direction they were going at that time. I had got stuck in my ways. I had put too much emphasis of what I wanted in the music, the sound, the song.
This morning God was busy carving off all of that. Hunks of unhealthy fat were dropping off. Stripped back to the bare bones of what worship is. The core of my heart exposed, I found what the true heart of worship is.
“I’m coming back to the heart of worship, its all about You, Jesus…”
It’s not about me or what I want, or how I would like the song to be played. It’s not even about the songs or how theyre sung. It’s not about if I get the lead riff right or if someones harmony missed the beat. It’s about being worshippers within yourself, within your heart, and how you bring that and give it to God.
And with that, the rod that impaled my very core felt secure, strong, and comforting. It was something I could hang on to. Something that centered me and kept me firm as the troubles that plagued my worship were cut away.
The journey is not yet complete. I continue to struggle inside, and like a dolphin breathing, I have to purposefully remember to let the worship be pure without any of that fat clinging on.
A new prayer on my heart will hopefully remind me. May we not be musicians and singers. Instead, may we be worshippers.
Earlier I wrote a post looking at how to play guitar in a small worship team. But what if there are many other musicians to fit in with, usually as a part of a larger church. For this scenario we will assume that there is a keyboardist, a pianist, a drummer, bass player, and maybe two guitarists, an acoustic and an electric, and a violinist to throw in for good measure. We will look at what to do for both guitars in a larger worship team. From experience, playing in larger teams is a lot more difficult, as it requires a lot more listening to make sure that you are fitting in, rather than competing over the same space.
What is your role?
What is theirs?
These questions well answer and give you a few ideas on things you can try next time you play.
Acoustic Guitar: What is my role?
In a large team, you may find yourself preferring to play acoustic sound, depending on the style and feel of the service you are playing in. Its unlikely you’ll want to play a thrash distortion on an electric guitar if the majority of your congregation are of an older generation.
If you are playing acoustic guitar, then your main role in the team is to compliment the rhythm set by the drums and the bass guitar. A tip to help keep things tight is to aim for your down strum to link in with the snare. Its important that you stay in time.
Once again, use of a capo dramatically improves your ability to play without having turn to barre chords, which are difficult to play on an acoustic. I always aim to change the “key” into G or C through use of the capo.
In turn, you may find playing arpeggios fitting for quieter times at the beginning or ends of a song. At times however, this may have been picked up by the pianist, so make sure you’re listening to where everyone else is.
Electric Guitar: What is my role?
If you are more of the electric guitar persuasion, I have a few tips. I’ve been playing the Electric guitar in morning service at our church for 3 or 4 years now.
Firstly, there are 2 effects pedals you need. One is a decent overdrive or distortion. This helps brings your guitar out to the front of the mix a bit more. I prefer overdrive as it gives you the crunch you need when you play a bit harder, but mellows out when you’re a bit softer with it.
The other effect you will want is a delay pedal. When used effectively, this can add a great amount of depth to the sound, whilst also able to bring an ethereal feeling to the sound. I use a Boss DD-7, as it allows me to tap in the tempo of the sound and matches the delay perfectly.
Your role as an electric guitarist is to add an extra layer to the sound. You don’t want to be competing with anyone. But at the same time, remember; its not all about you. As a general rule, you share the same sound space as the vocalists. So if there are vocals, the presence of the electric guitar should minimise. This could just be playing three note arpeggios in the chord, with a simple delay to fill. When there is a break in the vocals, that is when the lead switches to you. Don’t over do it. Keep to a simple riff and repeat it.
Some songs don’t require you to play lead guitar. If it is a bit more up beat, then your role is to support the rhythm section, without walking all over the acoustic guitars. Muted power chords with a bit of overdrive are a good way to add some support to the rhythm without dominating. When it gets to a chorus, nice open strums on the 1st beat of each bar adds in extra sound. Because there are a lot of instruments, the rule of thumb is to keep it simple!
What Are Their Roles?
As with any team, the drums provide the foundation and the bass guitar will lock in with them as well. The acoustic guitar, as mentioned will also slide into this role as well.
The keyboard should provide the main fill sound that fleshes out the sound. The piano should also work into this position, often providing instrumental support to melodies or introduction riffs for specific songs.
The violin will also be in the same space as the electric guitar, and so you will need to link in with them so that you don’t compete, but work together in that space.
Things to Try
- As mentioned, try using a capo, up to anywhere in the range of 7th fret. Any higher and it begins to get difficult to fit your fingers in ( – but not impossible!).
- Try using a reverb pedal or effect on the channel on the sound desk. It will fill out your sound and give your guitar much more presence.
- Begin a song using simple arpeggios, individually picking notes of a chord in a regular pattern.
- Learn your scales. Begin with the pentatonic box shape. This will allow you to play any song, in any key, without having to use the music at all.
- In the box shape, find two string chords. Around the B and G, and G and D strings in the scale, there’s a cluster of double note chords that are really easy to fall back to in any song, to fade the electric guitar back into the majority of the sound.
- Find a couple of riffs that you can use and repeat in certain songs. The congregation appreciate some familiarity as much as they appreciate something that’s a little different each time.
- Learn some inversions, in E, A, and D shapes throughout the fretboard. I’m still learning these, but can see how they can improve one’s guitar playing.
I hope this gives you some ideas as to where you fit as a guitarist in a large worship team, and maybe give you some things to try next time you’re on stage.
So you’re in a small worship team. There may be a keyboardist, a drummer and of course, you on guitar.
What is your role?
What is theirs?
These questions well answer and give you a few ideas on things you can try next time you play.
What is Your Role?
In a small team, you’ll no doubt want to play acoustic guitar. You’ll find that this fits with the mix a lot nicer. Your role is to play the rhythm and to do this you’ll need to lock in with the drummer. Try finding different strum patterns to master and stick with them in the song. Don’t play complicated fills or try and solo. It’s best in a small team to fill that mid range and rhythm with nice big, simple strums on open chords.
For keys that are a little more difficult to play open, such as F and B, use a capo and aim to transpose so you are playing in C or G which are easier. For instance, playing in G with capo at 4 will mean you are playing in B, and can add a nice feel and sound to your guitar.
What Are Their Roles?
In this instance, the drums provide the foundation and you will need to follow them. A basic guide is to make sure at least that your down-strum is at the same time as the drummer hits the snare drum. You’ll be surprised at how this tightens up the end sound.
The keyboard should provide the main fill sound that fleshes out the sound, and provide the additional pieces such as intro riffs or melodies.
Things to Try
- As mentioned, try using a capo, up to anywhere in the range of 7th fret. Any higher and it begins to get difficult to fit your fingers in ( – but not impossible!).
- Try using a reverb pedal or effect on the channel on the sound desk. It will fill out your sound and give your guitar much more presence.
- Begin a song using simple arpeggios, individually picking notes of a chord in a regular pattern.
I hope this gives you some ideas as to where you fit as a guitarist in a small worship team, and maybe give you some things to try next time youre on stage.