We asked one of our writers, Mark Bradford, to reflect on how his expectations of worship songs have changed during the transition from worship leader to lead pastor.
A couple months ago, I became the vicar of St Cuthbert’s Church in Fulwood Preston, and have served as a worship leader, to a greater or lesser extent, in each of the six different churches that I have been a part of. Over time, my view of worship songs has definitely changed. I guess, looking back to when I first began to lead worship, I didn’t really think so much about what songs to choose. It was more the case of singing one ‘hit’ after another, according to what was popular at the time. I would say that I now think far more about content and context than I used to.
In terms of content, I still love a catchy melody, and the overall ‘feel’ of the song remains important to me, in how it resonates, or not. However, I also think about the lyrical content now in ways that I probably didn’t when I first began to lead worship.
It’s often said that a distinctive of the Methodist movement was that they sang their theology - thus, one of the primary ways in which people were theologically formed and shaped as Christians was through their hymn-singing. I think the same is true today, especially where music is a particularly prominent feature of a church’s worship, and so the lyrical content of our songs becomes all the more important. What does our repertoire of songs teach about God, the church and the world? Which themes are present? Which are missing?
Furthermore, a good balance between ‘truth’ and ‘response’ in our songs is vital, and I suspect the balance in modern songs is too often skewed toward ‘response’. The danger here is that we end up responding to our own expressivism, rather than renewed truth about God, leading us into an increasingly self-referential spiral. I think it’s important, therefore, to sing songs that are teaching us truth about God, the church and the world, and causing us to respond to that truth in thanksgiving, praise and worship.
But theologically-attuned songs always need to be poetically-crafted. Songs full of prose-theology, rather than poetic-theology, can be turgid and difficult to digest. Back again to the Methodists, and the hymns of Charles Wesley as a wonderful example of theology expressed in poetry.
So, in ways that I wasn’t when I first started leading worship I think about theologically rich songs, balancing truth and response, which are expressed in good poetry.
The brief thoughts expressed so far concern general content; and yet every expression of worship takes place in a particular context. There are at least four contexts which affect how I think about worship songs now.
1. Congregational size
The context of congregational size is important in thinking about song selection, vis a vis the ‘singability’ of the songs that we sing.
Often, the ‘big’ worship albums that are produced, and the songs that they include, are set in different worshipping contexts. What carries in a congregation of thousands is not always possible in a church that’s a little smaller than that. Equally, what’s possible in a congregational dynamic will be different to a small group - trying to sing Did you feel the mountains tremble in my youth group small group was not one of my better worship leading moments!
Perhaps the main thing to think about here is the vocal range of the songs being sung. A few contemporary songs today have vocal ranges that are just not attainable by a congregation. Equally, a smaller, and lower, vocal range will be needed when singing in a small group.
So, congregational size affects the musical choice of worship songs; the next few contextual considerations affect the lyrical side of songs.
2. The liturgical, or worshipping, journey
Liturgy isn’t a dirty word (although for many years I thought it was); it merely sets out the main ‘landmarks’ on the journey that is our congregational worship. As worshippers, we are gathered from the disparate places in which we live and work; drawn to worship the true and living God; called to confess our sins and to receive his generous forgiveness; focused on God’s word; united in the common belief that holds us together; led to pray for a broken world; invited to receive his body and his blood; and sent out into the same world from which we came - blessed that we might be a blessing.
Different songs will be helpful at different points along this journey. I’m thinking of Paul Baloche’s Our God Saves as a gathering song; Hillsongs' This I Believe as a creedal song; and Matt Redman’s Benediction as a song of blessing and dismissal. Looking at the different elements of the worshipping journey and seeing what songs we do, and don’t have, as resources for them is always a useful exercise.
3. The church year
Churches at the ‘higher’ end of the spectrum tend to observe this more than others, though I have increasingly found it to be a rich gift as someone more at the ‘lower’ end. Just as the spring, summer, autumn and winter each offer us something distinctive in terms of their mood, colour and texture, so the seasons of the church year each offer us a unique angle on worship and discipleship. Worship songs for the different seasons can help bring out these uniquely seasonal flavours.
There is, therefore, an important difference between an Advent and a Christmas song - some get more het up about this than others, but I think the different is important! and we might also examine our repertoires for songs that fit well with the seasons of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, as well as on Trinity Sunday. Where are there gaps, and why might this be? What theological themes and aspects of discipleship are we missing out on?
4. The ‘life of faith’
If our lives were to be set upon a graph, they wouldn’t make for a very straight line, but, more likely, a set of peaks and troughs, ups and downs. The question here is whether our songs reflect these ups and downs of life? Not that God is changing but that, importantly, how we approach him does change according to where in life we find ourselves.
For evidence, and support, of this we need look no further than that ultimate worship songbook that we find in the Psalms. I have found Walter Brueggeman’s exploration of the Psalms in terms of psalms of orientation (‘life is good’), disorientation (‘things have taken a turn for the worse’), and new orientation (‘God has come through’), very helpful - both for myself and as a leader.
There is a need here to ensure that we have songs which express our worship to God for the whole of life - in all of its ups and downs. I like Ian Stackhouse’s phrase ‘undiscovered octaves’ to capture that sense that we might be missing out on the fullness of worship ‘at the extremes’ - both in terms of deep lament and exuberant joy. The danger is that our worship sits somewhere, rather plainly, in the middle. Again, do we have the songs necessary to hit the heights as well as to plumb the depths?
When I look back on how my younger self used to think about worship songs, I can sometimes be quite dismissive; however, I’ve come to the view that this isn’t really the right way to process things! I was seeking to offer God what I had at that time, which is really all I’m still seeking to do now. It’s natural, and a sign of growth and maturity, I feel, that my understanding of what worshipping God with heart, mind, soul and strength should change over time. In particular, learning to reflect more deeply on what we choose to sing is a vital indicator of that growth and maturity.
I do feel that as leaders it is a very important exercise to examine the songs that we sing and to reflect on the theological content that might be missing, as well as the contexts that might not presently be served. Sometimes it will be useful to look beyond our own tradition and style of worship and to draw from other ‘stables’ that are present within the world (we all have our favourites which we can struggle to look beyond). However, at other times, having identified a gap, why not embrace the challenge of writing something that will fill it ourselves?