Growing up in a small Baptist church helped me learn something at an early age : Our gatherings as the church tend toward formula. There are lots of reasons for it.
- It’s easier
- It’s comfortable
- It’s predictable
- It’s box-able
- It’s replicable
- It allows us to attempt to recapture meaningful moments of the past.
But – like in all relationships – our encounters with God are meant to be progressive, not repetitive. That’s why I think I was so excited about the movement of a fresh approach to worship that was coming out of people like Martin Smith and Matt Redman in England in the early 90s and things like the Passion Movement here in the US. It wasn’t simply a stylistic change. It was something fresh in the expectation of the movement of God.
But now, 15 years and thousands of songs later, there seems to be a new homogeny throughout our churches and our worship gatherings. Here are three things I think we should consider as we lead worship musically.
- Consider Dynamics
I have seen a tendency for us to lead songs that are all the same dynamically.
Come down for verse one
Hit it hard for the chorus
Keep it going hard up til the bridge
Drop out for the bridge
Build back into a loud bridge section
Come down for an ending chorus
Vamp low on the end (with some occasional builds)
As a result of this type of song formula, we take people dynamically up for 2 minutes, down for 1 minute, back up, back down. It’s a constant roller coaster for the duration of the set.
There’s nothing wrong with this song structure, but it might point to a greater issue. Perhaps we’re relying on musical dynamics to elicit an emotional response more than we are pleading for the Holy Spirit to engage individuals in the spiritual realm.
It might help to think through the set as a whole. Are there times of celebration with the Lord as well as times of rest? Are we allowing people to dwell on the joy of celebration and the peace of rest or are those moments fleeting?
Obviously, the solution to what seems to be our new habitual formula is NOT another formula, but let’s be aware of how songs really do effect us emotionally and how we can engage with God in different ways through a range of dynamics.
- When Should I Play?
One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes, we – as musicians – seem to be afraid to NOT play. This speaks to the dynamics issue again. Part of dynamics is loud and soft, but the other side of the coin is the number of instruments playing at the same time.
Of course in a loud moment, all the musicians would be playing loudly. In a quiet moment, perhaps it just a keyboard and a vocalist. The drummer – for instance – doesn’t need to keep time on the high hat or piddle around on the ride. Even when a band plays with a click, and the drummer is charged with keeping time, the drummer should have the freedom to allow the time of the song to shift on those quieter moments and then pick things back up as the band comes back in.
When thinking dynamically, ask yourself, “Would less be more right now?”
- The Musician For the Moment, Not the Moment For the Musician
Ultimately, our role as worship leaders is to help foster moments where individuals can connect with God. At times, I’ve thought of the music as a bed where people rendezvous with God. My goal as a musician and leader is to help create the best bed possible for that to happen.
Sometimes, I think we get into the mindset that the moments that we are on stage are for us – that they are present to allow us to do what we want or to impress the room with our vocal range or sweet guitar skills. There’s a time for high notes and guitar prowess, but it’s a matter of the chicken and the egg. It’s a continual balance of asking, “what is this moment calling for, and what will take us deeper?” Remain flexible. If what you did in rehearsal is not what will best serve the moment, don’t do it.
Of course, the crux of this is to understand what’s happening in the room. It’s easy to get in our own world while on stage. If we haven’t prepared well, chances are we’re thinking more about the music than the moment – trying to keep everything together. So… be prepared. If we have prepared well, it frees us to engage spiritually. And part of that spiritual engagement as a leader is to ask, “are the other people in the room engaging or not?” If not, it’s your responsibility to take a moment and as “why” and “what’s my role?” Sometimes those questions and answers can take place in a moment as the song moves on. Sometimes it might require you to stop for a moment and listen.
The most important thing is NOT a smooth set. The most important thing is our engagement with God. So if a bump in the plan will result in realignment and deeper engagement… ALWAYS hit the bump.
Music seems to be this strange thing that serves as a bridge between the natural and the supernatural. Because of that, our conversations about how to do what we do best involves both the earthly and the spiritual. So let’s fight the formulas that make us lazy in our leading by considering the practical. And let’s stay fresh in the Spirit by preparing spiritually during the week and listening well while we lead.