Relevance…If Worship Leaders Wrote the Dictionary

“Playing the the newest, most controversial, cutting edge song you can think of (usually 1987’s ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’), and convincing yourself that since you’re the worship leader and have spent all week (5 minutes) praying about the set, that that’s what will connect with people.’ And if what connects with people also just happens to be your favorite song that you’ve always wanted to play on stage…you can’t help that.


33 thoughts on “Relevance…If Worship Leaders Wrote the Dictionary

  1. “Dude Looks Like a Lady”

    [I don’t even like this song. It’s always my default answer to any request for a song suggestion because it’s completely inappropriate for pretty much every situation.]

  2. We played a pretty good version of “Gravity” from John Mayer. I had never heard the song till I was driving to church the morning that we played it… if I knew how to post it I would…

  3. There’s no question our own tastes will drive our song selections. I guess it’s easier for me because I wouldn’t dare do something that had any chance of being viewed as “secular.” I have thought about using a song like that as a “pre-service” / “walk-in” song.

    I know my congregation and my Pastor so the boundaries and requirements are pretty clear. Include a hymn once in a while, a gospel-style song once in a while, do some up tempo praise songs at the top and some deeper, slower worship songs at the end. The last song is a toss-up because it’s during the offering, so I’m not sure what to do — slow worshipful song is interrupted by passing the plate — so sometimes I’ll bring the tempo back up on that one.

    Most of our vocalists and our keyboard player lean heavily towards the slower, worshipful songs so I do get the occasional “look” when I bring in something faster, or even a comment from somebody (“not a fan”) — talk about an overused phrase !

    I tell them that I choose many songs that aren’t my “favorite” and that’s part of the deal — in other words shut up. Sorry, obviously I’m more diplomatic than that, but it’s not all about what I like or you like. 🙂

  4. Ok, Randy it seems like you definitely don’t think this way, but what is with people and describing songs as “slower and more worshipful” as if God is somehow uplifted more through slow songs than fast songs?

    I would love to have a t-shirt made that says

    “Electric guitar is worship too.”

    Obviously if you are reading this then you agree with me, and I most likely need to just shut up and worship, but I do wish I didn’t constantly get the clear impression from other people that somehow the way I worship isn’t “real” worship and that what God is really honored through is keyboard and vocal.

    //end rant

  5. Phillip–haha Killer answer. Actually, that’s pretty great because hopefully it’ll make the worship leader think, just for a second, about why he or she is doing whatever song they’re doing. 🙂

    Kenrick–haha Nice.


    Joel–ya. Unfortunately ‘relevant’ usually just means ‘whatever the worship leader thinks is cool’, rather than, ‘what the congregation will respond to.’ Although if you were talking about the Gear Page anthem, you’d be correct as well! hehe 🙂

    Sam–absolutely! 😉 hehe It’d be the worst thing ever to be actually done with the tone journey! Or any journey for that matter. 🙂

    Sal–I’ve heard that, actually. Eric sent me a recording of you tearing it up on that song. 🙂 You guys sounded good.

    Randy–ah, great points, my friend. And that is the true nature of this post, too. I tried to make it humourous, but the unfortunate fact is that most times we do think we are being ‘relevant’ by choosing songs from a formula, or from just what we enjoy or think is cool. Which may by accident end up being relevant to the congregation, but it’s a backwards approach. You hit the nail on the head when you said that worship leading and choosing songs is not about us and not about choosing our favorite songs. Awesome comment!

    Keith–haha I hear ya…at certain churches. It seems that each church kind of has their own idea about what worship is. I’ve been to some where it’s the slow, drawn out stuff. Others (like my home church) where it’s about the upbeat stuff. (We did an acoustic set one time, and I got a comment card saying we needed to do the faster worship songs again because it sounded like ‘we were in mourning.’ hehe) And still other churches we do nothing but the Hillsong slow build songs, and it isn’t worship unless it’s ‘epic’……meaning, starting low, and ending huge. And I must admit that I really enjoy all those types of worship…and then every once in a while I get caught up in one of those styles or any other style being ‘the right way’ to worship. And I think we need to take a step back sometimes, and if we’re really ‘leading worship’ for the congregation, look at what’s truly relevant to them…i.e., what’s causing them to respond and worship along with us, rather than just whatever we think is worshipful according to our own tastes.

    Sorry to say so much! Bottom line is, I agree with you! Worship is not just about the slow stuff, and nor is it about our preconceived notions of ‘worship styles’. Great comment! 🙂

  6. for those that do this on a regular basis, how often do you introduce new songs compared to playing older ones? Does anyone here ever try to do originals or something similar?

    yeah getting comments from people about their opinions can be disheartening, but I’d rather find out about it upfront then hear about it 3rd habd from someone else. Its so easy to criticize, I have found myself just chalking it up to people being negative or cynical, until I heard some recordings…

  7. I probably cross over the line when it comes to introducing new songs ( too many ). One per month I’d guess. I rotate leading with our Senior Pastor who almost never introduces a new one — possibly as a counterweight to me LOL.

    We have a vocalist who does a pretty good job of writing songs. She isn’t a musician so either our keyboard player or I put chords to her lyrics/melody. And I go out of my way to rotate them into our sets — gotta encourage somebody who works that hard.

    There is no doubt I’m my biggest critic. My team may weigh in on a song I’ve selected but I’ve never heard the congregation say anything negative at all — bless their hearts. Although they may all walk out into the fellowship area for cookies while I’m singing — just kidding.

    One elderly couple said something, with love, about how everyone sang vigorously when I did “an old standard.” Well I do rotate in one of their Gaither gospel-style songs on occasion, but we must point out that a college-age person might consider a song from 1995 to be an old standard. I try to do something for everyone, but never forget who will be driving this church a few years down the road when some of us “mature” folks are gone.

  8. We have a number of issues with finding new songs

    1. 60% of our worship set has to be up tempo, yet it’s getting harder and harder to find new faster songs that :
    (a) our congregation can sing to
    (b) don’t all sound the same – we’ve tapped the Hillsong United well enough times already

    2. Hard to find good, fast paced songs written for a female lead vocalist – a couple of our best singers are women, yet there’s not enough up tempo songs for them to lead. All too often (not when I’m choosing though) we end up up falling back on these same cheesy Hillsong songs from a decade ago. I had some success recently with convincing everyone that ‘Desert Song’ can go in the bracket with the fast songs.

    3. A few of our key worship leaders think Israel Houghton is cool. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the guy’s talent but his music just won’t work with our mostly white Australian crowd and is too technically difficult/precise for a lot of our musicians. We haven’t yet successfully introduced one of his songs and I wish they’d just let the idea die.

    I haven’t done the whole secular song thing yet, aside from the well worn technique of throwing U2 licks into just about every other song.

    anyway, my worship leading days may be numbered after singing yesterday “I don’t care if the world will know your name!” as part of Salvation is Here. How’s that for indifferent worship? 😛

  9. Kenrick–ah! Beautiful! Your comment was incredible. Yes…so many times I’ve blamed our completely ‘unspiritual’ congregation for the lack of worship, and then listened to the recording and gone, ‘Oh.’ hehehe

    As for songs people have written, wow…that’s like a topic all on its own. Suffice it to say that I personally do not do it in a worship setting, because from my humble experiences…both personally and in watching others…it is very, very difficult to do it in a humble way, and to do it with honest intentions. And then of course, if we’re really honest with ourselves, and everyone sings to How Great, but no one ever seems to sing to our song, no matter how many times we cram it down people’s throats, we have to ask ourselves why are we really playing our song anyway? 😉

    My apologies to everyone if that sounds harsh. hehe It’s mostly directed at myself, from some unfortunate things I’ve done in my younger days as a ‘worship leader.’ hehe This really deserves a whole post.

    Randy–wow, good stuff again. I will agree that if someone other than myself has written a song, I will give it a fair shot…just to be encouraging. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to have someone hand me a song that would work better for our congregation than anything already written. But, you’re right, we still need to be encouraging!

    I introduce new songs very slowly, and gage the congregation carefully. Sometimes I can tell after the first time we introduce it, that it’s a bomb. You know, there are some Sundays where just no one is in to it. Okay, fine. We’ll try to introduce the new song again. But if it’s a Sunday where everyone’s worshiping to every other song, just really into it, and then the new song brings this huge amount of just dead air, and then the next song people are worshiping again…I usually just throw that song away, even if it’s one I really dig.

    And I do hear the elderly couple’s point. We do need to be doing what our congregation can connect with and worship most to. But you’re right too, that we can’t just listen to a vocal majority. hehe Meaning, sometimes some songs sound like people are worshiping to them simply because there’s 4 really loud people who really like that song! hehehe

    Baggas–totally! It seems a lot of the up tempo stuff coming out these days is not congregationally-based. Nothing wrong with that, just hard to do it in church. At my church also, we have way more variety in our slow-medium tempo songs, and only a few upbeat ones that we seem to do over and over.

    As for female leads, I hear you there as well. There’s some killer female led songs, but most of them are very reflective. We’ve had some good success changing the keys to some male led up tempo songs, and have the ladies lead those. Usually a 4th or 5th down is their general range. So we’ll do ‘All We Need’, for instance, in C or D, and have them lead. It’s worked out fairly well.

    And I’m with you on just saying no to Israel Houghton. I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being, and obviously a ton of people are worshiping to his stuff, which is fantastic. But…and I’m trying to be nice here…uh, no. 😉 I think your reasons hit the nail squarely. And for me, I also try to stay away from that ‘church technical’ music. You know, the syncopated ones with pseudo-jazz chords that regular musicians wouldn’t find challenging at all, but yet in the church for some reason we musicians tend to think that a couple 7th chords means it’s so much more technical than the Hillsong stuff that we think we’re nailing, but we’re still clunking on. hehehe And I’m kind of half-joking, but probably more so because I’m scared for my life if any of your musicians read this post now, or anyone else who digs Israel Houghton. lol Maybe I just haven’t heard his full catalog or something. Or maybe I’m just a jerk who thinks his style is obviously the right one!! 😉 hehehe

  10. Hey great site man. This is my first comment and I just had to after reading this post.

    My church did a church service in a local park a few months ago and the worship leader was trying to think of a secular song that wouldn’t offend the old people but that might attract people walking by, and he landed on the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. It was awesome (and there was a sweet sax solo).

    Side note: they also did “Amazing Grace” to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun”, and it was pretty awesome too.

  11. Yeah I can see how maybe introducing an original song might present some ego-based problems, but hey who says you have to say “And Tommy on drums wrote this next one give it up ya’ll…” Actually you don’t have to say that and you shouldn’t.

    All tunes were originals someplace, if that makes sense. I think if you are at the point where you can’t find any tunes that fit your congregation, then thats like a perfect opportunity to create some of your own! I’ve written a bunch of songs, and its not that hard, and they’re not all good, but one thing I’ve learned is that the more you do it the easier it gets.

    The church I attend is still acapella, and we actually still have song books in the chairs (though power point is now king), and there is a REALLY cool index in the back that is a PHRASE index of songs, so each song is indexed by syllables in the phrase, which lets you easily mix/match songs. It looks like etc, and if you find another song that has the same index, you can auto sing those words over that melody.

    Would be nice if there was something like that, call it the Bono MixMasher 3000 – he always has a knack for mixing other songs into u2s live. Maybe that could be a way of making old/song new song mashups to please more people.

  12. hey… so, it’s christmas soon – and i’m under pressure to come up with some kind of ‘item’ song for the christmas eve service – kinda intimate, warm, there will be hay… i did U2’s Yahweh a few years back, and knocked out some van morrison last year… but for this year i’ve got nothing… and i’ve 10 days to come up with something… oh man

  13. Cameron–very cool, and stoked to have you joining in on the conversation! I think the instance you mentioned is a great opportunity for doing songs that unchurched people would recognize. Way cool! My only issue with secular songs (or Christian for that matter) is when they have no purpose within the worship set except for, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…’ In which case, I think we should be picking songs, secular or Christian, for a purpose a bit higher than what might be cool. At the same time, certain songs would be very cool. 😉 hehe

    But I really dig what you guys did. Seems like the right venue for that type of stuff! Cheers!

    Kenrick–I totally hear ya. The originals do have to start somewhere. It’s just that with thousands and thousands of worship songs that have been proven across the globe to connect with thousands and thousands of people, sometimes it feels just slightly presumptuous (at least to me personally! 🙂 ) when I feel like I have to write something because nothing else is connecting. Not saying that anything about anyone else…just my view regarding myself! 🙂 Now, if you’re looking to make a living doing music, and have an outreach for God with a band, then by all means, write some killer music! 🙂 Hope that makes sense. Definitely not gospel, just where I’m at.

    As for the MixMasher 3000, love the idea!! And not just because you mentioned Bono. 😉

    Joel from oz–love that you did Yahweh!! Very cool. 🙂 We’ve had some success this year with Taylor Swift’s version of ‘Silent Night.’ It’s different enough that the lyrics really pop in a powerful way, but yet the arrangement is still warm. Also, The Normal’s ‘Peace Child’ is just one of the most fantastic Christmas songs I’ve ever heard. Very warm, and the lyrics just cut. It’s hard to find these days, so if you want to hear it, let me know and I’ll email it to you. 🙂 Oh, and the Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Better Days’.

    We haven’t done this one, but U2’s cover and lyric change to Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ is beautiful and powerful. The very last line of the song seems like it would need some exposition though, so I’ve chosen not to do it this year. But with a fairly forward-thinking congregation, it may work. Not very hay-ish, though. hehe Maybe check out the first three I mentioned first. hehe

    Hope that helps! And advance apologies if you don’t like any of them! 😉

    • thx for ur ideas – God bless youtube for helping us listen to songs without having to guy albums (I wonder how that works for the artists?)

  14. Karl,

    A thought on originals in worship. One of the communities in which I have regularly worshiped over the last three years is led by a really gifted “senior pastor” and up until about 18 months ago by a really gifted worship leader. The worship leader wrote a number of songs that flowed from his experiences within the community, which (IMO) is what made them work really well in corporate worship. We and they still do some of them even though he has moved on. I realize that this doesn’t happen everywhere, but at least in this situation it resulted in some good worship music.

  15. Joel–no worries! 🙂 And yes…very interesting age we live in. I love that art is being handed back to the masses a bit, but I also worry about the well-being of the artists. We’ll have to see how this new-fangled ‘internet’ plays out. hehe 😉

    Craig–very cool. If it is working for the congregation, and for reals God is using the in-house songs to reach people more than perhaps He would the others, then I am all for it. 🙂 It’s just a personal conviction of mine probably borne out of long years watching it done poorly and with the wrong motives. And some of that from myself. 🙂 But I’m stoked to hear that it worked, and that God worked through it!

  16. Our church pastor is the one that picks out secular tunes to help emphasize his message. In the last three months, we’ve played:

    Pride (In the Name Of Love) by…….U2 (That’s right Karl!)

    Lost by Cold Play (The live version with all the drums)

    Dust In the Wind by Kansas (They actually cranked up the dry ice for that one.

    Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi (Which lead to the purchase of a Framptone Talk Box. HEE!HEE!

    My past experiences in churches and the use of secular music in that context tended to make me feel a little uncomfortable initially. But, the reactions from the congregation were so positive that it was obvious that our pastor was on the right track.

    I’m hoping for “Dream On” by Aerosmith one of these Sundays.

  17. Interesting. And rock on for U2! 🙂 I’m all for secular music in the church as long as it has a thought-out purpose. Same for Christian music, actually. Unfortunately, many times secular music is done just because it sounds really cool to say, ‘Ya, we did Muse this Sunday for church’, rather than because the lyrics really drove a point home.

    Cool that your pastor is thinking through these things though, and seems to have his finger on the pulse of the congregation! Very cool.

  18. well…i totally agree with you here…we dont devote enough time to prayer when it comes to the ministry God has given us..

    i wanted to recommend a veim things for reveiw.

    check out and look at the musicomlabs switcher and the rockbox boiling point overdrive…i am about to et the overdrive..used it some in the studio and loved it…think of it as a tim with more gain. anywho heres a shameless plug..our band living anthem just released a new single “how beautiful the cross” it’s on itunes and amazon..check it out and i woud love to hear your honest opinion. i love getting feed back from musicians. fickle as we are lol!

    thanks man,

    Cory Estes

    • Cory,

      I just received a Rockbox ‘Boiling Point’ overdrive that I’ve had on backorder for a few weeks. All I’ve got to say is, “Wow…”! That particular pedal will be inheriting a permanent home on my board.

      Loved the song — very nice (the chime accents in the verses were a nice touch)! The only ‘tiny nit’ is that it felt the verse should begin around 0:24 sec instead of around 0:35. The extra pass through the full-band intro/turn-around progession felt a little protracted, but that’s more a formulaic reaction due to what we traditionally expect to hear when a song begins with an acoustic/laid-back pass. As the full-band enters, we’re somewhat conditioned to only expect a similar length pass with the full-band. I listened to it twice, and found I was expecting verse to begin after the first full band pass. But… rules were meant to be broken (LOL!). Like I said, that’s a extremely minor production nit and not necessarily one you should change.

      I really loved the song’s message, the production approach, and your band’s musicianship. Excellent work –well done! 🙂

  19. Corey and Mike–ya, I’ve been waiting on the Boiling Point until it stops being Gear Page’s flavor of the month, and I can get one for cheaper. haha 🙂

    As for the song, sounds good! How long you guys been together?

  20. Karl,

    Are you open to some topics for future posts, I have been confronted with some questions in the following areas and would love to hear your thoughts and get the input of others.

    1. Style. It seems as though some in the worship leader community are so attached to a particular style of music (or sound) that they have identified as the “correct” style for worship music. For example, if you want to play in this setting then you must play in this particular style.

    Which leads into …

    2. Leadership. It seems as though leadership involves adapting your overall team style to the talents of your team members rather than forcing the team members into a preconceived template. (example, if BB King showed up and wanted to be a part of your team, I don’t believe that you would say “love to have you as long as you can play “Edge chords” loaded with .8th delay”)

    which leads to

    3. Team. Do you see a worship team as a team (or community) that becomes more than the sum of the members or do you see it as a rotating group of people who simply learn parts from a CD and show up to replicate the CD as exactly as possible?

    I hope that this is not stepping over a line or something (if it is then delete this and I will understand).

  21. As an addendum to #3 volunteers vs. paid musicians. With the caveat that the volunteers have some sort of minimum proficiency on their instruments/voices.

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