Talk About It

When was the last time you had a conversation with your worship planning group about the theology of worship? Each Christian denomination is built around cohesive ideas about the nature and name of God. There are significant differences in rituals, worship language, and the shape of worship from church to church. There are also the personal theological ideas and beliefs which each one of us bring.
When we plan worship on autopilot, we can sometimes neglect the smaller details which highlight the unique differences between our denomination and the religious practices of Christian neighbors up the road. Yet, it is these differences, sometimes subtle, which help define a Christian culture. Deep dialogue about the history, practice and meaning of the various movements of worship is a simple way to revive worship.  It will turn everyone’s attention to the significance and potential power of everything from a unison prayer to the order of songs within the service. Take some time, and talk about it.

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Six Things You Can Change Right Now to Improve Your Worship Music.

I know some of you are here: you lead a small membership church, with a long history, a traditional outlook and an aging population of members. You are doing great ministry and reaching out into your communities. You see visitors regularly and have a really fantastic community to share with them. Unfortunately, your music program is suffering.

Maybe the organist plays in a style that went out in 1954. Maybe the number of singers in your choir have shrunk and they are starting to struggle with music which they used to really deliver with zest. Maybe your worship committee is obsessed with making sure the old favorites get plenty of play time, even though you know your congregants are hungering to hear something new. Maybe you have a praise team that is limping along because the charismatic guitarist and lead singer signed a contract with EMI and left for bigger and brighter things. Maybe your church split about 25 years ago because of worship change and now no one has the heart to even “go there.”

Where do you start to make the change?

1. Don’t avoid the problem. Name it. Claim it. Own it. Refuse to make excuses for it.

  • Musicians care about the music. They want to make good music. They deserve to know if they are not making good music. It is a high compliment, actually, to suggest to the musicians that their ministry is so important it is a determining factor in whether or not people stay (and let’s be honest, most musicians already believe this anyway) so don’t be afraid to hold them accountable. Invite your musicians to critically analyze their own performance and ministry.

2. Don’t start from a solution!

  • It is easy to think not only that we know what will fix the problem, but also that people expect us as leaders to have a solution handy. Instead, invite the participants to hear the same problem you hear and engage them in problem-solving. People buy into their own solutions.

3. Start conversations about worship.

  • Guide conversations away from criticism of musical style or criticism of particular groups or people. Focus on worship-what it is about, who it is for, how it works.
  • Conversations include all people involved in decisions and execution of worship. Do not have conversations “behind the backs” of musicians or music leaders. Create open dialogue and listen. This is crucial. Being open and honest about goals and concerns leaves room for people to offer their own solutions and for them to voice their own goals and concerns.
  • Have multiple conversations in multiple settings from multiple points of view. Have a conversation with only the choir. Have one with only the pianist and worship director. Have one with only the altar guild or worship committee. Have one with with only the band members. Have one with only the computer, sound and video operators. Have one with only the children’s music directors. These conversations will expand the pool of problem solvers and diffuse tension about change.
  • Again, all conversations are open-meaning: the fact that such conversations are happening is widely communicated and known. All conversations are in dialogue with one another, even though some conversations will be with specific groups or people.

4. Separate music ministry from worship leadership

  • Music has significant soul and body benefits for people. There are reasons to have bands, choirs and small groups for music-making in a church that do not have to involve weekly worship leadership. If you were to take a therapy approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is ability appropriate and which builds community? If you were to take a discipleship approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is theologically and liturgically appropriate for your community? If there are other goals besides worship leadership for the music ministry of the church, there can be other markers for success for the people involved in music groups at the church than whether or not worship attendance increases.
  • People involved in the music program of your church have needs that should not be ignored. However, when those needs drive the choice of music and music expression for worship, quality, vitality, relevance and impact can all suffer. Think about expanding the ways people can participate in music throughout the life of the church, so that worship leadership is not the sole contribution of the music ministry.

5. Get your leaders the education they need.  

  • So many worship leaders are volunteers with a talent. I once accompanied a choir whose director did not know the difference between a time signature and a tempo. She was a leader with a warm heart, passion, love for Christ and a great ear for music, but she was never going to be able to grow that choir without some more music education.
  • If the band or choir do not sound good, it may not be because of a lack of overall talent. It may simply be because their leader does not actually know how to help them. For instance, if you have an aging choir, there are some fairly standard techniques for working with those voices which the director, fresh out of college, may never have learned.* Don’t be afraid to send your leaders, paid or volunteer, to professional training events, workshops, seminars or to specialized classes and schools.

6. Tread lightly, but firmly.

  • Agents and managers make big money for a reason: we musicians have brittle egos. Creative expression is vulnerability. The art we offer is a part of ourselves. We are quite protective of it. If ever love needs to be your token, it is when you are talking music with musicians. Be generous in affirming the real competencies and acknowledging the true gifts which your musicians and leadership are lending. Make sure they can hear you are not attacking them personally when you raise concerns about music. 
  • Make sure to check your own biases at the door. It is OK if you honestly do not like the way an organ sounds or if you inwardly cringe to the lyrics of As the Deer. It is quite destructive, however, when leaders allow those personal preferences to drive worship change. Assessing the quality and appropriateness of music used for ministry is something you have to be able to separate from personal preference. Doing so will help you be able to firmly and honestly communicate why a change must be made.

*For a great article on that subject: An Interview with Anton Armstrong

Planting Seeds

The last few weeks in worship, we have sung People, Look East.  This is a hymn that I have sung for years, but this was the first time I understood what the phrase “crowning of the year” means.  I have always had a picture of a sparkly tiara in the dark hair of Ms. New Year in my mind.  


Suddenly, as though a switch had been flipped, I realized that babies’ heads “crown” at some point in the birthing process.  It is the symbolic moment when a baby settles into a more out than in status.  The emergence of the baby is imminent when the head has crowned.  Finally “seeing” the birth metaphor in that line, seemed to illuminate the entire rest of the hymn.  It lit up and came alive in a way it never has before.
Hymns can do some amazing things that other kinds of music often don’t.  They have layered meanings, and difficult metaphors.  They speak, like the Psalms, poetically.  One of the complaints I hear is that hymns use “outdated, archaic” language.  They use big, jawbreaking words which regular people do not understand.  They are set to slow, boring music.  Yet, even a difficult hymn to sing, like People, Look East, yields treasures of meaning and understanding for years, when a great praise chorus like Great Is the Lord, simply does not, and though a song like Bless the Broken Road yields immediate emotional content that no setting of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God can convey, the ideas born from the Martin Luther text will shape us throughout a lifetime.
To borrow from People, Look East, hymns plant seeds in us, the way that Scripture plants seeds in us.  They take time, soil, light, water, nourishment, and often work to grow into the roots, stalks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of faith. 
As you plan worship music, program music, and music for children’s ministries, I would like to challenge you to think not just about what music is immediately accessible, but also to include some music which is a step or two beyond where we are now.  Faith and worship are lifelong practices, and we have many opportunities to plant seeds along the way, whose blossoms won’t appear for years.

From Joy to Sorrow

These past  few weeks, there was another murder spree. In fact, there was more than one. Another random selection of young people took up weapons and decided to destroy the lives of other people.  Next Sunday, many Christian churches celebrate the third Sunday of Advent which liturgically includes lighting the “Joy” candle in an Advent wreath.

That is a difficult paradox to resolve, and it is this kind of sudden eruption of the world into the lives of people that makes collaborative and team approaches to worship planning so important. When the worship we express is not responsive to events such as mass shootings, public bombings, and the unrepentant slaying of black men and women for wearing their American skin, it becomes irrelevant.

We may not like the fact that we have to compete with club sports, Target’s marketing budget or last night’s midnight finish of the playoff game to fill our pews on Sunday mornings, but that does not give us the excuse to stop trying to craft the best worship possible every single week.  Especially in times like these, times when the human experience seems particularly difficult to comprehend or bear.

The human experience is the worship experience.  The work of Sunday morning is a work of meaning-making.  A team of people who have spent weeks in dialogue  preparing for this Sunday of Joy only to wake up Friday to a world in Sorrow, won’t have to wonder whether or not to change the slides, the songs, the prayers or the sermon.  They will only have to figure out who first to call.  They will be able to get together and continue the dialogue for how a service pointed toward Joy can more deeply engage with a community in grief.  

Too often, pastors sit alone in their offices on Saturday, bleeding over a sermon or prayer that arises from the newspaper, with no mechanism in place to work with the musicians, the liturgists, the ushers, the sound engineers, the video crew, or the drama team to shift, change or alter the planned worship.

Too often, the music leader feels duty-bound to the letter and text of the cantata, and doesn’t give herself permission to revise the readings or alter the order of the songs.

Too often, music groups have not spent enough rehearsal time together to be able, without notice, to play a different song set or present a different anthem.

Too often, the children’s sermon has been a slot of storybook or Bible song, and there is no time to find something age appropriate that can help children and parents in conversation and response to sudden tragedy.

It is at these times, these times when a faithful response is especially important, that our lack of preparation shows.  It is at these times that the clockwork, fill the slot worship production mentality bears its fruit.

We show up and follow our lines, incapable of improvising on the black and white themes of the bulletin  We say the printed prayers from the book of worship and sing the songs set before us, not because they mean something, but because that is what we have been taught to do.

We watch the short video clip from “Christmas Vacation,” presented with no shift in context or aim, and at the end of the morning, our people leave, unprepared for the week ahead, their questions, griefs, anxieties and fears unanswered by the Gospel; and the best we leaders can hope for is that worship may have provided an hour’s escape from the morning news.