By Ross Parsley
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, we are observing a desire in people to connect with God. As they search for answers in the midst of uncertainty, we realize that our times of worship are opportunities for solace where people can pour out their hearts to God, hear his voice, and experience his peace and comfort. In light of this, it becomes even more important for us as worship leaders to build our services and ministries on a solid foundation so that we don't end up offering people an empty, emotional experience that soothes their souls, but does not bring genuine healing and transformation to their hearts and minds.
Thousands of worship leaders around the country were busy planning and re-planning their worship services the week after this national tragedy. All of us who lead worship in local churches were concerned that the songs we had already chosen to sing might not be appropriate for the Sunday after September 11th. But what was interesting to me and to other worship leaders that I have talked to is that the selection of songs to choose from became a lot smaller. The subject matter became more sensitive. Every song meant something different now than it did on Sunday, September 9th.
Sports of all kinds were canceled the weekend after the tragedy and we've heard the talking heads, for weeks now, declaring that sports (among other things) are now in a more proper perspective within our American psyche and culture. I suggest to you that this is an opportunity for worship in our churches to go through a similar process. The songs we choose, the themes we gravitate towards, and how they shape our churches' view of God, all come under more scrutiny in the face of such a catastrophe.
I'll be the first to tell you that I'm all for joy in the house of prayer (Isa. 56:7). Any one who knows me will tell you that I am in favor of coming into his presence with singing and making a joyful noise unto the Lord. I like a good groove as much as the next guy. But the fact is, I found myself struggling with some of the songs we'd been singing because they weren't deep enough, they weren't meaningful enough, and they weren't theologically valuable enough to paint a picture of who God is and how imminent and transcendent He is in this world. It made me stop and evaluate the tools (songs) we've been using. Here is what I observed:
- The gravitation toward hymns to bring perspective and comfort
- The need for descriptions of God - His love, power, beauty, and authority
- The desire to connect with something ancient and rooted in history
- An inclination toward something familiar
Leonard Sweet and Robert Webber have done a wonderful job of articulating the nuances of our culture and it's current trends toward a convergence of the old and new. Nowhere was it more visible than in our churches during the last few weeks.
Now, I'm not interested in arguing that we should all sing the old favorites every Sunday and never sing anything new or creative. I was just reminded once again that the choosing of a song is an extremely important element in defining our worship and it is directly related to how people see, know, and experience God every Sunday.
So, what are your criteria for choosing your songs? Have you ever thought about it? Have you standardized it? Are you intentionally teaching and training your people about who God is and how he interacts with us as his people through your songs?
Let's give it a try. But let's be practical about it-let's consider the essentials that you would need to choose your songs. I think there are at least five elements for churches when selecting worship material.
The cover of a recent Newsweek had this headline: "Music Goes Global." It is now possible for a song to be sung on the other side of the globe within moments of being downloaded. Music is the language of our culture and a passport to every other culture. And so it remains that songs are the great teachers of our society-not necessarily the sermons we preach. Luther, the Wesley's, and other hymn writers, understood the singing of theology would allow people to learn the attributes and character of God. As technologically advanced as our culture is, it seems that some things have not changed. However, many of our songs written within the last few years have focused on us instead of Him. It's created what I call "felt need" worship-Jesus is here to meet my needs and that is why I worship. It is a true enough concept, but if that's all there is, we've just reduced God to a Coke machine. We need to make sure that our songs are Scriptural in content and directed towards who He is and not just our current cultural whims.
Each church develops a style that is all it's own. This is a good thing as long as the church is healthy and growing. If it is not, then style is one of the elements that can be changed to improve ministry to people. Of course it is essential that there be an authenticity to our churches' style so that people can connect genuinely with the Body of believers and with God. Trying to be someone you're not is a recipe for performance and programming rather than worship. The lines do become blurred here but the point is the style of our worship is partly determined by our songs. If you're in Colorado, your style will be different than a church in New York City; the church in New York will be different than the church in Seattle; and that one will be different from the church in Iowa. The bottom line is, be who you are and choose the tools (songs) that fit your style so that you are able to build.
There is no reason to put your team or your church through songs that are too difficult to play and sing. If the skill level of your team is not high enough to do certain songs, then find ways to make the song simpler or choose other songs. For lower skill players, close the parameters. With higher skilled players you have more freedom. The good news is you can worship regardless of your skill level if you'll choose songs that fit. In addition, there is no shortage of good material with the worship industry functioning at an all time high-there seems to be something for everyone. This is not to say that your team should never stretch or improve, but you should apply the principle of the parable of the talents here. Be faithful with what you have and do a good job with it, and then God will reward you with more.
4. Pastoral Preference
The Senior Pastor is the Worship Leader! At the very least he is the lead worshipper and that means that people not only look to him for the church's vision for worship, they look at him during the service to see what his vision is for worship. As a worship leader, I work to serve him and I submit to his spiritual authority over the church. I don't have my own vision for worship apart from his. We work together to form it and articulate it to the church. I know what my pastor's (Pastor Ted Haggard) preferences are when it comes to songs-and it isn't always what I like, but he's a good leader so he doesn't micro-manage me in my area of ministry. But he does communicate in a healthy way his likes and dislikes which helps me determine what my themes and song selections should be. His influence brings protection and direction and that gives me confidence to lead well.
This is when a song "works" in your congregation. You sing it the first time and people latch on to it. The problem is that you as the leader may have to sing songs that connect your people with God, but you may not necessarily like them. That's happened to me countless times. Or I will hear a song on a CD and not think much of it. Then I'll hear it live and I think to myself, "Why didn't I use that song?" Some songs make it the first try and some take a few turns but we all know when "it" happens. Use the songs that take people there, even when it goes against your own personal preference. Our job as worship leaders is to serve our congregations by using the tools that help them worship. These tools will help you build a firm foundation for your church and your worship ministry.
e Ross Parsley serves as Worship Pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado and functions as the Senior Associate and primary worship leader. He is responsible for all weekend worship services and oversees all music ministries within the church.