So one of the things I wanted to do on this blog is discuss worship. I love worship because it brings out some of the best in the human experience– art, creativity, music, technique, emotion, rhetoric– and employs it to worship God.
And as someone who regularly leads worship in numerous different context, I wanted to use some online real estate to catalog and discuss my experiences, how I’ve seen God work, how I’ve grown as a musician and a leader and some of the issues that inevitably come up.
This past Sunday I led worship at my home church for the opening Sunday for our new series “Revolutionary Love”… it was the first Sunday with our pastor back (from a one month sabbatical) and some measure excitement with lots of folks returning for school. We had a pretty full house.
I lead worship at my church just about once a month. And compared to when I used to lead in high school every single week non stop for two years, this is a refreshing arrangement because I invest heavily in each time I lead and feel like I grow enormously since I focus so much on that particular Sunday.
Here’s the set we did:
Holy, Holy, Holy (Hymn)
I think one of the main challenges of a worship leader, and one faced me this week, is song selection. Not only does the worship leader have to pick good worship songs, they have to be appropriate with the topic of that particular Sunday. Being at a church that strives for multiethnic worship, its always on my mind to draw from many different traditions (this Sunday we had 5 Gospel, 1 Contemporary Christian and 1 traditional hymn… we didn’t have any songs in a non-English language which I wanted).
Also the worship leader has to “sell” each worship song. It may sound like a crude term to use… like a salesman selling knives or something… I don’t mean that, but I think the worship leader has to allow the congregation to “own” the song both individually and corporately, so that they are offering it up the Lord with conviction and feeling. The most basic aspects of selling a song has to do with the worship leader liking the song and being able to execute it skillfully. A congregation or individual will have a hard time worshiping to even the most beautiful song if they can’t follow the tune or it sounds horrible (there are exceptions with the Holy Spirit, but obviously, they are the exception). So in most cases, provided that the song is performed decently, people will naturally be able to own the song.
But this isn’t always the case. It especially isn’t the case in multiethnic worship because even if a song is executed well, an individual in the congregation may not be able to own a particular worship song if its it is outside of her comfort zone or familiar worship culture. For example, it may be really hard for someone who grew up in a church that sang only hymns to own the Fred Hammond version of “This is the Day. In fact, that’s what I had a lot of this Sunday, when I opened with that rocking tour-de-fource. Right off the top, even tho I thot the band and choir were doing well, half the congregation was totally with me and the other the other half was just standing their mouth agape.. some not even clapping. And we definitely lost people when we went into the extended guitar solo into a call and response section….
Now I think one fault of mine was in starting off the set with such a raucous tune, but still, the main question remains…. how do you sell a worship song to a congregation where for many it is in a music or worship genre totally foreign? I think I probably executed the song to the best of my ability, but I think there’s more that can be done.
“In the Sanctuary” is another upbeat Gospel number that is a lot more congregational friendly than “This is the Day”.. it has a simple, singable melody and a really easy beat and very repetitive. I think for a Gospel song, it can sell relatively easily to non-Gospel folks. The challenge for me was how to lead it well. You have the choir singing the melody with gusto and intensity. That’s not a problem… but what can I bring vocally to the song as the WL? I ask myself W.W.K.C.D? What would Kurt Carr do?
There are a lot of times when KC just stays out of the way and lets the choir shine and would just interject in between melodies with “uh” and “yeah”… but other times he doubles the melody, other times he feeds the next lyric and other times he would just ad lib a counter melody. Its an art form that I’m just getting introduced to, but when done well it totally can inject a divine exuberance into a worship song…
(Here’s a great example from Marvin Sapp… he gives a clinic on doing this stuff)
After two upbeat Gospel songs, it was time for some good old fashioned Christian rock, courtesy of our boy Chris Tomlin. “Your Grace is Enough” is a classic driving anthemic rock worship… powerful beat, intense
lyrics and chorus that you could sing in your sleep. Immediately after starting that song there was new life in the congregation. There’s something about the quarter note-eighth note rock rhythm that’s so darned singable. Sometimes Gospel can be tricky because of all its syncopation and emphasis on the offbeats. I think for our mostly white and Asian congregation there was this corporate sense of hominess when we hit that song… I noticed hands go up, eyes getting shut and a different climate of worship arise. Interesting, huh?
One of my favorite arrangements for songs like “Your Grace is Enough” that have a pre-chorus is to at the end sing the pre-chorus three times with a gradual crescendo into the final chorus. I do that way too much, but I love it and it always works. I do it on “Blessed be your name,” “All who are thirsty”… and it has a way of really bringing the song to an appropriate climax. Maybe I should copyright some kind of term for it… maybe something like three-peat coda or something like that… haha… im a loser.
Anyways, all that to say that is just another reminder that in worship you can never underestimate the value of those mid-tempo power rock anthems. They are money in the bank!
We ended the set with the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This song was written in like the 1820s or something.. and I think there’s a reason why this song is still widely sung 200 years later. I mean seriously, how many people in two hundred years are gonna be singing “Marvelous Light” by Charlie Hall… I’d be surprised if any. There are some songs that endure and some songs that God uses just for a season or a generation. Holy x3 is one of them…. its stinking beautiful has rich, theological deep words and a melody that’s so incredibly simple, catchy and singable.
For the hymn, I was thinking, after three upbeat songs, to do something totally different and sing the whole thing a cappella. That would have been mad pretty, but I reconsidered because I thought it might put undue pressure on the choir, and even having the keys in the background would still garner a similar effect, but also be more inviting for congregational singing. We had Tia sing a solo in verse 1, she was amazing. She has this pure, strong soprano voice that is angelic.
And we ended with the the fourth verse a cappella… which is a device that cannot be employed too often in my mind… there is something beautiful about being a congregation and hearing them all sing… its really a great communal experience. Maybe hearing voices brings a new sense of solidary with the people of God.
But just doing that together was a really sweet experience.
I sang a solo on “Speak to My Heart” which was probably unimpressive vocally, but I hope that the lyrics of the song convicted people. They are just so powerful… and the song is beautiful… if it wasn’t for the profound christian lyrics, you’d think it was baby-makin music.
Speak to my Heart Lord
Give me your Holy Word
If I can hear from you,then I’ll know what to do
I won’t go alone, I’ll never go on my own
Just let your Spirit guide and let your word abide
Speak to my Heart
I think as we were vamping the chorus, the choir was singing the melody, i was trying to lead out, singing counter melodies, feeding lyrics, etc… it made me realize how I have to keep pushing my range and having command of my singing voice to lead a song like this well. The song was in F and Donnie definitely hangs around the high F-C range and sometimes even higher… but I realized that if I can only hang on high F and barely make A in full voice, I either have to work on my falsetto or expand my range. I think there’s something rather boring about just singing the root as opposed to being able to experiment with the third or fifth and some accidentals or chromatics in between.
Pastor preached a great sermon on the prodigal son and God’s love for us and how, contrary to popular understanding, it wasn’t just the younger brother who was lost, but BOTH the younger and older were lost, but for different reasons. He talked about how Christians can be lost if they focus on just rules and regulation (religion) as opposed to a relationship with God, we are just like the older brother who was just slaving away for his father instead of realizing how much he was loved as his son.
As the sermon was winding up, I was prayerfully thinking how to be transition into worship and into communion. Pastor Peter took care of the elements, but then left it at that… invited people to take communion. I made the decision to share something I was thinking about in light of the song we were going to sing, “I almost let go.” I shared how when I’ve sang this song in the past, I usually thought about singing this song from the perspective of the younger brother, imagining a sinful, debaucherous kid who God kept… not a judgmental arrogant religious older brother who God also kept. God kept me.. maybe not from drugs but from my own venomous legalism and judgmental attitudes. He loves me and gave me grace in spite of that… and I hoped that maybe if there were other older brother types in the congregation, this song would take on new meaning for them.
I hope that helped… i was also just debating on going into the song without saying a word because sometimes I like the words to speak for themselves. But I decided to go for it and try to pastor people into the song. I’m glad i did, because I think many people owned the song… and that made me happy.
So with that, I’ll close this first worship log with the lyrics of that great song by Kurt Carr:
I almost let go.
I felt like I just couldn’t take life anymore.
My problems had me bound
Depression weighed me down.
But God held me close, so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me, so I wouldn’t let go.
I almost gave up.
I was right at the edge of a breakthrough but couldn’t see it
The devil really had me;
but Jesus came and grabbed me,
And He held me close,
So I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go.
So I’m here today because God kept me.
I’m alive today, only because of His grace.
Oh, He Kept me, God Kept me,
He kept me, So I wouldn’t let go.