If Chris Tomlin grew up in Detroit instead of Texas… reflections on Gospel worship

I have my personal differences with Chris Tomlin (maybe I’ll recount my run-in later in my blog…) but as a worship leader and a song writer, I think he’s done the Church an incredible service by writing a whole host of thoughtful, Biblical and singable worship songs with a beautiful melodies and relatively high levels of production.

But I a came across this video on YouTube of a TBN worship special hosted by a Gospel all-star cast of Donnie McClurkin. Fred Hammond, Kim Burrell and Kirk Franklin on keys (!). Its a wonderful medley of “I Surrender All,” a classic hymn of the church, followed by Tomlin’s, “How Great is Our God” which is perhaps one of his most famous songs.

Here’s Chris Tomlin’s original version of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud0kaWLHEd4

I don’t know about you, but I am really thankful for Gospel music because I think the worship leaders from the Gospel tradition demonstrate a unique way of ministering to people through music, song and their voice. Not that I have any problem with the contemporary Christian method for worship leading (which consists of the worship leader singing the melody in a very clear fashion, and occassionally speaking instructions for the congregation to sing along). In fact, the contemporary Christian method is the way that I grew up most engaging through worship. And I don’t want to take anything away from Chris Tomlin’s ministry.

Yet, I cannot help but be blessed by this group as they take a two wonderful songs of worship and really bring people into the throne room of God’s grace.

Here are some things that stuck out in my mind:

1.) TEMPO

They aren’t in a hurry. You see Donnie waving his hands signaling to Kirk on the keys, “take it easy, take it easy.” And once they lock in to the tempo, that’s it. I imagine a triumphant procession up the mountain of grace– steady, deliberate but firm. I’m amazed at how locked in each singer is to the tempo the rythmn… and for me that’s when music comes alive. When you feel the beat to the depth of your toes. And to me, that makes the lyrics sing. “All to thee, my blessed Savior. I surrender all.” Each syllable is locked in and speaks a story. (Another great example of this deliberate style is the song “Bow Down”… Marvin Winans gives an amazing rendition here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_3bgbcrNHg)

Watch the singers’ bodies, esp. their hands, and you see that they are one unit locked in. Sometimes they wave their hands, sometimes their hands go in circles. But there is one tempo, one sound. Even as the depart with their separate spontaneous melodies. How often do you hear songs that slow, yet that locked in in contemporary Christian worship music?

Then consider their rendition of “How Great”… the melody is about a tempo to Tomlin’s recording. Yet, there is a completely different feel. I think there are two main reasons for this… while there’s a similar tempo. The Gospel feel Kirk Franklin brings out totally adds a different shade to the tempo. Chris Tomlin’s version: rock ballad intensity. Kirk Franklin: syncopated pop. Take a listen to the moment Fred Hammond comes in with the melody. “How Great….” Kirk takes breaks and then adds a syncopated two sixteenth note riff right after Fred first sings “How Great…” (in musical terms that comes at the “and” and the “ah” of beat two). That little syncopated riff to me makes all the difference in the feel. That little 16th note riff makes your head bob. And for the rest of the way Kirk offers a rhythmic piano line that has movement, but isn’t altogether fancy. Even harmonically, he doesn’t deviate much from the original chords until the tag ending. Yet there’s a “pop” to the song that you don’t get in Tomlin’s version. I’m not saying ones better, but different. Rock ballad in one, Syncopated POP in the other.

2.) Shared Leadership

One of the distinct differences I’ve noticed between Gospe worship and contemporary Christian worship leading styles is the role and number when it comes to worship leader(s). Notice that in this clip there are six different worship leaders. Most CCM (contemporary Christian music) worship venues offer one MAYBE two worship leaders. Now as one who has mostly led in the CCM style, there is HUGE value for a congregation in having a singluar worship leader, it helps the congregation focus on one person and it gives them one person to follow rather than having to figure out which voice to listen to for the melody.

But I think there are some distinct blessings to having multiple worship leaders even in one song (as this clip represents). Now, I’m gonna say that its a rule that gospel worship features multiple leaders, I’ve been in situations where that isn’t the case at all. However, the deeper issue (and the deeper blessing) for why multiple leaders is more common in Gospel arenas has to do wth the role of the worship leader. As you can see in the clip, the role of the worship leader isn’t just to sing the melody and have people follow up along, but lead people in worship using one’s unique God-given voice and personality. Each leader brings something different to the table and as they take these wonderful, timeless Chorusus and repeat it they bring something new each time. Its in the long blues/jazz tradition of theme and variation… and for me its an amazing dynamic experience of worship that brings the songs alive and ministers to our souls in a powerful way. ANother great example of this is using the very common song, “Great is Your Mercy” led again by Donnie McClurkin. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODmHMKfD_iY.

3.) Song Form – Repetition

Which brings me to my last observation. SONG FORM. Now don’t get me wrong. I LOVE CCM music. I grew up as a worship leader on a steady diet of Matt Redman, Delirious, Brian Doerkson, Ruben Morgan and assorted Passion folks. And CCM offers a wonderful structure for song writers: Verse/Chorus/Verse2/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus. And if you’ve ever seen me lead worship… I’m indebted to past CCM worship leaders for giving me a helpful structure to lead people in worship songs. Yet, there’s something so simple and brilliant about what this clip shows. No verse, no bridge, no special. Both of these songs have verses that are nowhere in sight. There’s a simplicity yet utter intensity about using these two choruses as well as the special. You don’t need a power point. You probably didn’t even need to know the song… its very inviting.

And I think the power of theme and variation that I described above really brings simple chorus to life. And let’s be honest, isn’t it enough for us to sometimes just sing “I surrender all” or “How Great is Our God”… maybe we don’t need endless words and babbling sometimes, but just to really own and embrace these simple lines. I walked by a church today and they had a sign that read, “Its easier to preach 10 sermons than live 1 semon.” True dat. Likewise, its easier to sing 10 praise songs, 10 verses, 10 bridges than to honeslty truly sing “I surrender all.” And as a worship leader and more importantly a WORSHIPER, I don’t mind parking on that line over and over again to let it marinate in my spirit, to let my mind mull over what those words truly entail.

Anyways, when it comes to music and esp. worship music. I’m always thankful for different styles in the same way I’m thankful that there’s so many different types of food out there. Having experienced what I’ve experienced, I’d be sad to worship solely to Gospel or CCM in the same way I’d be SAAAAD to eat only Thai food and never Indian food or Mexican food.

And just like I love taking people to my favorite restaurants, hope you enjoyed the clip as much as i did.

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One thought on “If Chris Tomlin grew up in Detroit instead of Texas… reflections on Gospel worship

  1. Great post. I need to invest in some more gospel music, particularly Donnie and Fred. Keep cranking good music!! Oh p.s. If you’ve never heard of Eddie James… you’re missing some of the most amazing worship I’ve ever seen/felt/experienced. He’s all over youtube, and his site has some great songs you can listen to.

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