What I Learned Listening to New Worship Music For An Entire Year Part 2: (no) clapping!, over-the-top bridges, worshipping in the round, less music please, tricked by slick production, Hillsong is meh, and none of us are missing out

This is part 2 of my reflections on listening to new worship music for an entire year.
You can read part 1 here.
You can read my Best New Worship Music list here.

Reflection #10: Un-Happy Clappies!
I know I am not the first to say something about this but aren't you just about sick unto death of hearing applause at the end of worship songs? I am so tired of it. Repulsed actually. People, either stop applauding at the end of the songs when you're at your huge worship conference or stop including it on the recording. In church, worship songs don't end with a huge round of applause unless the people are directing that applause to God in a kind of spontaneous outburst of praise. Believe me, this happens in Pentecostal churches and it is powerful and sincere, but this is NOT what is happening at these big worship conferences. They. Are. Applauding. The. Song. Itself. Please, please make this stop... (perhaps this is a subject for another blog post...).

Reflection #11: Superfluous bridges
Myself, I am a fan of huge, epic bridges in songs. When it works it works well. It ties the song together, man. However, it would seem the "huge, epic bridge" is becoming something of a necessity, as if there is no good worship song that couldn't be made more gooder by inserting a bridge that makes the song "go to 11". I think what I am saying is many of songs I have listened to that hover at a 6, 7, or 8 in terms of emotional intensity would be better served (and the emotions of a congregation would be better served) if they been allowed to stay at a 6, 7, 8, or just a little above that intensity rather than being pushed into the emotional stratosphere by an added bridge. My complaint is these huge types of bridges are now so prevalent that on one hand they are becoming exhausting and on the other hand they are becoming a worship music cliche. What I find really distracting are the songs that seem to want to be quiet and meditative (a 2, 3, or 4 in intensity) but who suddenly burst into stadium anthem mode during the bridge. I do not think this is a good practice for songwriters to engage in.

Mind you, this is a not an anti-bridge reflection, this is an anti bridge that significantly changes the mood of a vast majority of worship songs reflection. In my opinion it is the kind of musical technique that should be used in moderation.

Reflection #12: I wonder as I wander
After hearing a tsunami of new worship songs while also continually seeing worship pastors and churches post daily about new albums they are releasing, I wonder if there will ever be a time where we stop and think "Maybe we should release less songs. Maybe all of us are putting too many songs into the pool for anyone to even get to. Perhaps we have created a situation with a near inexhaustible selection of songs and in so doing have created an environment where song leaders are either all but paralyzed in their ability to select new songs or they are tempted to go on an endless cycle of new songs, one right after the other, and thus managing to completely overwhelm their congregation." 

I understand the argument for localized musical expressions in the Church, where a set of songs becomes the soundtrack to a particular congregation at a particular time. However, I also know that (because we have egos) basically all the worship leaders and songwriters who have released albums would love to have their songs blow up on a national or international level. Us sensitive artist types are eternally hopefully ("This might be my big break!")

Maybe it's my worship-PTSD talking. And I realize I am a complete hypocrite, as I have put out my own worship music (please, click here and listen to it! You'll get free sheet music if you download it! It's new, it's fresh, it's anointed!) and hope to one day release a full album of hymns and songs, but after my year long listening session I am left wondering if we are creating a unhealthy environment for ourselves as song leaders and for the Body of Christ. Ultimately, I know and believe that God is glorified by all these offerings to him, that every song is part of the new creation and God loves it, but at the moment what I am more concerned about is the here and now. People have natural limits for what they can take in and comprehend. My question: Have we reached Peak New Worship Music as a church culture yet?

Reflection #13: Worshipping in the round is a thing!
After watching numerous clips of professionally recorded and edited worship conferences, I started noticing a trend with the more trendy worship bands: get a medium sized room with high ceilings, set the worship band up in the center, and have the audience gather all around them. This is worship in the round. Is this some kind of "post-modern" thing, a way to subvert the isolating meta-narratives of Post-Enlightenment Christendom? Does Worship In The Round say "we are united in a circle together and not all facing toward the stage where the Worship Music Professionals are distributing their goods and services?" Sorry to sound cynical. Maybe this is simply an aesthetic choice, or an attempt to do something new and find a new look for a worship concert. I can attest that these kinds of worship concerts feel more intimate and the "audience" feels like they are actually contributing to the energy of the band, so if I'm being honest, I actually really like this new "trend" (if it is one). It looks great and creates an electric atmosphere, however....

...Here is where the recorded "worship concert" event really starts to mess with my head: these worship concerts are completely fabricated events. They have been meticulously planned out and executed, from the look of the stage and musicians to the arrangements of the songs. All this planning seems to be in place to create an environment where authentic, spontaneous worship can happen or to make it look like it is happening. In other words, it is incredibly planned out, in order to look like it all just happened in the freedom of the moment. It's kind of like messy hipster hair: it's the pre-planned, gel in my hair, "I just got out of bed" look. 

But then, something amazing happens during these concerts: they have glorious times of spontaneous, free worship. It actually is authentic. The songs go on and on and everyone is In The Moment and pouring their hearts out to God. And yet in the back of my mind I have this little trickle of a thought: are they so good at planning out their worship concerts that they have developed the skill of completely planned spontaneity!? Can their worship be both authentic and fabricated all at the same time!? My blood pressure is rising...so I think I'll move on.

Reflection #14: Don't let slick production and entrancing singers trick you
Here is something strange that happened during listening sessions: I listened to a song, immediately liked it a lot, and thought "I have to sing this on Sunday!", and I did, which was only a few days away. It was Jeremy Riddle's "Prepare The Way" and it fit perfectly with the themes of Advent, which is the season when I first heard it. Riddle's recorded version is killer. It had a powerful affect on me and lyrically speaking is near perfect, remaining incredibly faithful to the Isaiah text it draws on. So, I changed the song to a more appropriate key for congregational singing (you'll notice Riddle sings it very very high) and got ready for my band to sing it.

It was then that I realized how repetitive the song is. It has exactly 1 (1!) chord progression throughout both the verses and chorus, and the verses have 1 (1!) melodic phrase that is repeated over and over (the same could be said for the chorus as well). You see, Riddle is an amazingly talented performer and he and his production crew have done an amazing job at arranging and creating dynamic diversity in an overly simple song. I wasn't mad about it, but as I began to rehearse with my humble worship team, I realized I had been tricked. The sounds of the recording had seduced me into unconsciously thinking I was Riddle and could pull off the same arrangement. If you begin to sing and perform the bare bones version of "Prepare the Way" the worship leader has to fight against it becoming monotonous and boring. Using the limited instrumentation at my disposal I attempted to infuse my own dynamic builds and instrumental variations (albeit more humbly).
Siren Singing

I tell this little story because it is indicative of a lot of contemporary worship recordings. Production has gotten slicker, arrangements more complex, and, dare I say, the artists more talented, and thus (I would argue) what is given to us to listen to is not a realistic song for "normal" worship leaders or normal congregations to sing. So, listening to a lot of these songs requires a lot of discernment on the part of song leaders. They are a kind of Siren Song, and they will entice you into foolishness if you are not careful. My advice: listen to the song behind the recording. Listen to a bare bones version of the song if you like it, or learn the song yourself and test it to see if it works alone with voice and piano/guitar. If it doesn't hold up in a bare bones version, then it's probably not that good of a song to begin with. If you still happen to like a song and think it is strong enough for people to sing, then be willing to arrange it in such a way that the people actually can sing it.

Sometimes the singer alone is entrancing enough. For instance there is a certain melancholy, world-weary timbre to Sandra McCracken's voice that draws me to her music. And Audrey Assad's voice possesses a kind of purity and ethereal other-worldliness that makes listening to her transcendent. My ego wants me to believe my own voice can emanate these same virtuosic sounds and emotions, but doing so means I have bought into the illusion. I have given myself over to the beauty, grandeur, and power of the recording and the performer instead of focusing solely on how I am going to allow the song to sing in my congregation. This latter task is job #1 for me as my church's song leader and I am going to make a point not to forget that.

Reflection #15: I'll accept the punishment for my crimes, but on the whole I don't like Hillsong songs. 
I know they are HUGE, but I'm pretty much not drawn to any of Hillsongs' releases over the past decade or so (although I do like some of United's more synth-heavy releases, even if I wouldn't actually sing them in my church). There are a few exceptions, namely "Man of Sorrows." Granted, I have not listened to every song they have released since the "Mighty to Save" era, but I have tried to listen to all of their more prominent songs. They are not necessarily bad songs, mind you, so I am not actually criticizing them. Instead, all I mean to say is that Hillsongs for the most part sounds like all the other vanilla contemporary worship music I've been listening too (you know, the kinds with non-melodic melodies). (Yeah, I guess that does sound kind of insulting...)

In some circles, any lack of Hillsong songs could put a worship leader in great danger, like this Babylon Bee article points out. Well consider me guilty, though I suppose I've kept myself safe by doing "Man of Sorrows" frequently as well as doing "Oceans" once as a "special" or Offertory. Sometimes though, I hum "Shout to the Lord" to myself quietly just to make sure I'm keeping the Hillsong gods at bay.

Final Reflection (#16): None of us are missing out
Since all of eternity is what really matters, when it comes to the "worship song" what paradoxically matters is the moment. Part of me letting go of finding the "perfect" set of worship songs is coming to the realization that it is perfectly acceptable for congregations to have local expressions of worship. In other words, it is not necessary for a song that is sung in one church and moves that church to passionate worship, to be sung in every church. If a song does not move me, then perhaps it is meant for a certain set of people in a certain time. Therefore, even if I am not really able to join in on their song, so long as I am having my own worship moment with my community, there is nothing wrong with them having theirs. None of us are missing out. If God is being praised in our midst, if the Gospel story is being sung, and if our worship leads us into mission and serving each other, then our songs are doing the job they need to do. In other words, the "fear of missing out", the fear of irrelevancy as a worship pastor is no Rule of Life. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Related Articles:
The Golden Ages of Worship Music: Which One is Yours?
Worship Music's "Good Old Days": Featuring Vineyard Music, Delirious?, Revival Generation, and Darrell Evans.
Chasing the Ghosts of Worship Past—a worship leader's lament


J. Chase said...

It's uncanny how much we're on the same page. You say all the things I've been thinking for the last 10 years, using the same sort of wit that gets me in trouble when I confess my thoughts to fellow church-goers.

I recently listened to the new release from Jesus Culture... or somebody, can't recall, and was struck (actually, disappointed) by how they, too, had morphed in to the great, grand vanilla of lyrical mediocrity centered on how our lives have changed because of Jesus' death and rising. Don't get me wrong, that is THE pivotal event of history. But does every song on your contrived album need to be about it?! Why do the big worship music houses keep churning out these kinds of songs? I was once told that the way to get that one phenomenal photograph is to take thousands. Maybe that's what they're attempting. But honestly, they are only creating more static in an already overly saturated spectrum. All I can think is that somehow a root of all evil might be involved.

Again, it's as if you "read my mail" -- but you have a way of concise verbosity that sometimes escapes me. I don't know if any of the big names will ever read this, but I wish they would. We would all be better off for it.

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