Occasionally I get to do a workshop at an event or a conference. I’ll get asked to speak on “something about worship” to a group of worship leaders or team members and a few other curious stragglers. I’m not a big name or someone most folks would have any compulsion to look to for advice, but I love doing it when I get the chance. I try my best to prepare, usually over-so, but I’ve learned over the course of several of these things that I really like when people ask questions and give feedback. I may have an outline and a plan, but I find it best to respond to what the folks in the room really want to discuss and do my best to roll with that. I feel more confident and fired up when I feel I’m actually directly addressing the pertinent issues in the room. Plus it helps avoid that awkward moment when you get the sense 10 minutes into your talk that everyone is looking at you thinking, “Yeah, we knew that. Yawn.”
One of the questions I hear a lot (and again, a lot is a relative term here) has to do with integrated hymns or traditional music/songs into the worship culture at a given church.
“How do we get the worship leader to do more hymns?”
“How do we get people to give up the hymns and learn new songs?”
“How do we incorporate hymns into a modern set with a more contemporary feel?”
“Why do they always want to ruin my hymns with drums and guitars?”
I’m being a bit coy. People generally aren’t that curmudgeonly of late, in my experience. They do ask some version of those questions though, or at least hint at the underlying challenge quite often. My church’s worship philosophy outlines our commitment to “blended worship” and also “cultural relevance” in our worship expression. The practical outworking of this means we’re committed to incorporating both contemporary and traditional material but expressed in a language (read: music style) accessible by the current culture. That may or may not make any sense to you, but for context’s sake I thought I’d share it in order to explain that I live in this tension week-to-week (I use the word “tension” only to suggest it’s a commitment we manage rather than a problem to solve and not to imply that it’s a “tense” issue for us, praise God).
There are a bunch of ways to creatively incorporate hymnology into your contemporary tapestry, practically speaking. That’s for another post. Today I just wanted to share a couple of quick ideas to keep in mind from a theoretical standpoint that I’ve found helpful in laying the groundwork for the big blend.
1. It’s all about “why”.
If you know me, have heard me speak, or have read some of this blog, you may already know that this is a big theme for me. I’m a big “start with why” guy, as Simon Sinek might say. I believe a multitude of challenges shrink when the “why” part of the equation is well-defined and clear to all involved. If everyone knows and agrees with why we’re doing something, we can’t get caught up in battles that start with phrases like, “I don’t like”, or “I would like it better if we” (unless your answer to the “why” question is “to make everyone happy”, in which case I can recommend a good counsellor). Start by being clear on why you’re including hymns (or why you’re including contemporary material, for that matter) in your worship landscape. I’m not going to answer your “why” question for you here, but my advice is take the journey and figure that out. Once it’s clear to leadership, make sure it’s clearly articulated and understood by the masses. Consider one of my favourite quotes: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
This “why rule” applies on a micro level, too, in the sense that we need to be asking ourselves “why” on a song-to-song basis. One of our mantras around my church’s office is “God’s purpose, on purpose”. We try and make sure whatever we do is firstly a Godly pursuit and secondly done with conviction and with purpose. We don’t like default, we don’t like “just because”. I hold to this when it comes to putting sets together and choosing songs as well. Don’t get caught just “adding in a hymn” because you need to. Do the work and make the choices on purpose. Use your “why” to guide you.
2. Don’t Preach to the Choir
You’ve likely heard this phrase before, or maybe the, “Preaching to the converted,” version. Let me explain what I’m referring to in this context. I think sometimes we have a tendency to think about the group that our song choices will placate. I don’t mean that it’s even as sinister or spineless as that sounds. I just mean that sometimes when putting a set together we can approach our song choices with an unspoken and even well-meaning posture that says things like, “Oh, the old folks will love it when we get to this hymn in the set,” or even, “I’ll get the young adults back with this tune if I lose them during that old one”. It’s ok, wrestling with this stuff is part of trying to be a servant leader for a diverse group of imperfect humans, ourselves included.
I just want to make a suggestion that may help change this tension a bit. I’ll try and explain it as best I can.
Rather than thinking about how a particular genre or style of song will be welcomed by a certain group, try the opposite. Try approaching it from a posture that seeks to unlock the value of that given material for the group for whom it is not the default. Follow me? Ok, I’ll try again.
Example A: When I’m doing a contemporary tune, I try not to think, “This one’s for the young folks”. I try to think, “How can I unlock the riches of this song for the older generation who may have a harder time connecting to it?” See the difference? I’ll try and think about what are the best of the reasons they may prefer the older, familiar hymns; perhaps things like strong theology, references to scripture and so on. So maybe then I’ll try and couch a song like this:
“You know in the songbook of the early church, we call it Psalms, there are some great examples of corporate worship that jump off the page for me. Like Psalm 136. You can almost hear the leader shouting, ‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good’, and the body calling back, ‘His love endures forever!’ Almost gives you chills, doesn’t it? I think we should join with that cloud of witnesses and sing the words of that Psalm together this morning. If you don’t know the song, I know you can pick up on the refrain really quickly…’His love endures forever!’”
Then I’d roll into Tomlin’s “Forever”, as you likely have guessed. That’s just one example of the idea of trying to unlock a song for the non-target group rather than conceding it to status-quo.
With me? Ok, let’s try another.
Example B: Let’s say we’re doing “It is Well with My Soul”. Instead of thinking, “The seniors are gonna belt this one out,” I try to think, “How can I help the younger sector connect with this material and find a way to express their worship through it?” Maybe it’d look something like this:
“How many of you guys have ever had trouble getting to a place of worship when you’re in a really low spot in life? You show up to church and the band starts and you just think, ‘How am I supposed to sing and clap today?’ Those are the times you really resonate with a song like ‘Blessed Be Your Name’, right? There was a guy in the 1800s named Horatio. He had a wife and 5 kids, one of whom he lost to scarlet fever. After the Great Chicago Fire, he planned to take his family to Europe. A last-minute business emergency meant he had to stay home another day, so he sent his wife and 4 daughters ahead of him, planning to take another ship the next day. That night, their ship was struck by another boat and sank. Horatio received a telegram from his wife, now safely in Europe, with these haunting words: ‘Saved alone. What shall I do…’ Their 4 daughters had drowned in the shipwreck. Horatio boarded a ship to go to his wife. Halfway through the journey, the captain called him to the bridge and informed him they were now sailing over the spot his family’s ship had gone down. He returned to his cabin and wrote these words: ‘When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot Thou has taught me to say: ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’ Wow. The discipline side of worship comes when we don’t ‘feel’ like it. When the situation around us begs for anything but. The real deal in worship is not about pretending we’re not hurting, not worn down, not confused or heart broken. It’s found when we can say what Matt Redman did, and Job before him, ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord’; or what Horatio Spafford did, ‘It is well with my soul’. So wherever you come from today, I invite you to sing those words with us now.”
And cue “It is Well”, obviously.
Get what I’m saying? My experience has been that older generations tend to be more cognitive and younger ones more experiential. If you can make a cerebral connection to a song for the older sect, and connect a song to story for the younger, you’re likely to have a group with a better chance of meeting in the middle.
Hopefully this little idea has been helpful for you and I haven’t just been “preaching to the choir”, as it were.
What about you? Do you incorporate both traditional and contemporary material in your worship services? How do you approach it? What are the challenges? What have you found to be successful?
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