One of the aspects of my life I’ve never written much about here is that I am an occasional song leader at church. I’ve actually done this for quite a few years now, which may be why I now say “song leader” as opposed to “praise and worship leader.” The words “praise” and “worship” go so much farther than just singing songs to me. I view them as reflections of a Christian’s everyday life. To reduce them to simply describing one aspect of a religious gathering (Isn’t the whole service “praise and worship”?) seems to cheapen them. I sing songs, and, occasionally, people sing along with me.
One of the most difficult aspects of choosing music to lead a congregation in singing during a church service is introducing new songs while still performing material everyone is familiar with. Obviously, if you’re singing a bunch of songs no one has ever heard before, you’re going to have a very dull song service. Conversely, if you stick to nothing but the familiar tried-and-true songs everyone knows, you run the risk of things becoming stale and lifeless.
If I had to choose a side of the line I fall on most it would probably be that I pick out too many songs people in general are not familiar with. I admit there are times when I cop the attitude of “Well, I learned the song. Looks like you could learn it, too.” There are certain instances, though, where a songwriter’s or artist’s most powerful songs (in my opinion, at least) are not the ones which are released to radio for airplay. Unless the majority of your audience has an artist’s entire project, however, they’re not going to know anything but the songs which have been widely heard by everyone.
So the temptation is always there to simply perform “the hits.” That could mean either choosing primarily hymns which have stood the test of time or sticking mainly to the Christian Top 40 of the day. Either way, there is a great likelihood your audience will know the songs better, will sing them louder, and will generally participate in the song service to a higher degree than if they had to learn something new.
If Sunday morning song services are supposed to be different from concerts put on outside of the church, however, how can we simply stick to “the hits”? I once heard someone giving a seminar of “praise and worship” refer to this as “avoiding becoming a human jukebox.” Hymns might stand in a different category than popular contemporary radio hits, but everyone still has their favorite hymns. Pick up a Baptist Hymnal and you will find a large number of songs you’ve probably never heard before. With all this in mind, how does a song leader lead a congregation into worship before God with songs and avoid becoming some type of entertainment spectacle?
I have had a couple of revelations concerning some of this. The first is that churches and the people in them are free to write their own songs. Chris Tomlin, Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, Matt Redman … those people all went to different churches. I realize not every song a local church writes will necessarily be good, but I often wonder why more of them don’t try to produce their own music for their services. Sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for the next Passion CD to come out so I can get some new songs. What’s to stop me from trying to come up with a song of my own?
I’m also reluctantly learning that repetition can, indeed, by the key to learning. If I introduce a new song and then don’t do that new song again for a month or so, odds are people are going to have already forgotten by the time it comes around again. I hate hammering people with the same song every week, so I probably wouldn’t go so far as to perform a song in successive weeks, but it should probably be done more often than just once a month. Plus, if people seem to really hate it, you can ditch it pretty quickly.
I certainly don’t have all the answers here, and I don’t even want to pretend I do. There is a powerful element in music that I simply don’t understand, but I can’t deny it’s there. Music can make us laugh, cry, and, yes, even worship God on a deeper level. It can also be used in less noble ways. It can feed our egos, cause us to exalt charismatic personalities over the Creator, lead us down the path of emotionalism which can actually detract from worshiping God. As a song leader, it can help us perform an act of ministry … or it can cause us to become insufferable hipsters, constantly hocking what’s “cool.”
I, for one, don’t want to become simply a promoter of what’s hip and trendy. I want to sing the songs God wants to be sung, whether that means drawing heavily from the CCM catalog or working up something completely original on my own. What I definitely do not want to become is some kind of halftime show on the way to the presentation of the real Gospel message. Our calling as song leaders is too great for that.