Hey Worship Leader, What Do You Think You’re Doing?

Yes, I mean to literally ask, “what do you THINK you’re doing?” because I think it might actually be different than you’ve intended. What you’re accomplishing might be bigger than you ever expected. I want to lift your eyes to the Kingdom potential in every opportunity you’re given because leading worship is a high calling to a low position. There are at least three important things you’re doing when you step up to lead God’s children in worship.

You’re teaching theology – I hope this scares you a bit. I’ve been told by too many worship leaders, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just leading some songs.” That is a misunderstanding of the power of songs and an underestimation of your authority from the platform. In his book Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul writes, “No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian….The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.” In his book The Christ Centered Expositor, pastor Tony Merida reminds preachers that the songs we use in worship are “portable theology.” Your people will continue singing the truths of those songs throughout their week. The simple act of selecting which songs to use in a worship gathering teaches theology; having attended your church for a month, a year, or a decade, will your people have a balanced understanding of the character of God? Will they have rehearsed the gospel enough in the songs you’ve selected that they could explain its foundations to their friends? Choosing songs in a setlist based entirely on tempo and key signature is still a theological act. You might be accidentally teaching bad theology. Recognizing your role as a theologian means working with your pastor to carefully choose songs with lyrics that will help set the gospel ablaze in the hearts of your people. It means giving your people the tools to rehearse the gospel as they wander through their week.

You’re giving your congregation permission or an excuse – Every person who walks into your worship gathering is either looking for permission to bring God their worship or their looking for an excuse to check out and let you worship God for them. Are you offering them permission to set aside their inhibitions and declare the excellencies of a good God? Or are you blacking out the audience lights and turning your instruments up louder to give them an excuse not to participate. Recently at a sporting event I was cajoled by the guy next to me to chant along more enthusiastically with the cheers of the crowd. Can you imagine if God’s people did this in worship? But men say, “singing isn’t really my thing.” At least it’s not their thing in worship. Have you given them an excuse to check out or permission to sing out? Kenny Lamm, in a challenging blog post on his website, has made some guesses as to why people might not be singing in our worship services. Lamm posits, “Prior to the Reformation, worship was largely done for the people. The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin). The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple, attainable tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.” Are we returning to a time where worship is performed for us by the rock stars we’ve hired to sing melodies the average musician can’t sing at volumes just loud enough that you can’t tell whether or not people are participating? I hope not. Instead of giving your people an excuse to become spectators, why not give them permission to bring God what ever they have to offer. Are you setting songs in the key signature that is best for your voice or best for theirs? What your people can offer God probably won’t be as professional as what you might bring on their behalf, but doesn’t the One Most High God deserve the praise of EVERY tongue? Let engagement and congregational participation become your first goals and give your people permission to worship the God who deserves no less.

You’re going into war – This one might not be a surprise to you. I’ve felt like I was going into battle almost every week as a worship leader. I must confess, I’ve been an angry worship leader for years now. I thought my battle was with the people in front of me. I’ve struggled to pull and even shame them into singing louder, being more expressive, more free. Treating worship as a war was the correct posture, I just picked the wrong enemy. Last year, I finally turned my anger toward the enemy who has been working harder than I ever have to make sure my people walked into worship feeling defeated, deflated, and distracted. If you could see how hard the enemy is working to keep your people from feeling set free in worship it would change every aspect of your worship preparation. Now every moment I spend practicing and preparing is an act of war. Every moment I spend praying over the lyrics of the songs we will sing, the scriptures we will read aloud, and the visuals our people will see – each choice is an arrow pointed at a real and active enemy. I am not some American Idol worship leader chasing compliments from my fans. I am a fierce defender of the hearts that God has entrusted to my care. I am a shepherd and the songs I lead every week are the sling and stones I will use to defend the flock against a vicious enemy. I will stand with the great worship leader David and declare to the enemy, “You come against me with a dagger, spear, and sword, but I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies—you have defied Him. Today, the Lord will hand you over to me” (1 Samuel 17:45-46). Our songs are our weapons and every hallelujah is a battle cry.

Sometimes, a vast gulf can exist between what we THINK we’re doing and what we are actually accomplishing. Worship leader, when you stand in front of the church with a song on your lips this weekend, feel the tremors of expectation rattling the floor beneath your feet. Your job is so much bigger than just leading a few songs.

Harvey Relief

While I understand everyone’s desire to drive supplies into Houston, I can tell you from my experiences during Katrina that truck loads of random donations create a huge logistical mess. Sorting through your used goods to determine their usefulness and get them to the right place takes a whole infrastructure itself.

Your BEST WAY to help is by donating money to TRUSTED organizations that are already on the ground doing the work – they know exactly what supplies they need and simply need the resources to purchase them. I recommend HARVEY DISASTER RELIEF because 100% of donations go to relief efforts. The cooperative giving of churches cover the entire administrative and marketing costs of the organization and your donation can be COMPLETELY focussed on relief efforts.

I know it FEELS better to load up the car with supplies and start driving but giving to a trusted organization will actually accomplish exponentially more.

5 Questions…

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…to ask about that Worship Song You’re Writing

The number of new worship songs being released these days is staggering. As songwriters, we all long to write songs that are noticed, used, and enjoyed by a wider audience but how can you ever hope your song will stand out in such a crowded market? Here are 5 questions to ask about that new worship song you’re writing.

1. Is it true? Is it honest? Is the song a true expression of my personal experience? Does the line “God I always feel you when I’m hurting” express your true experience? If you don’t believe what you’re writing, no one else will either. Don’t try and sell us false platitudes and niceties. Give us something true and then invite us to sing along.

2. Is it biblical? There are too many worship songs that sound good but aren’t actually biblical. Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today is not that which is anti-God but that which is almost-God. If you think you’re quoting scripture, look up the reference and make sure you’re not putting words in God’s mouth. Get theological input from trusted pastors. You might MEAN something that is not being communicated clearly in your lyrics.

3. Is it singable? Congregational singing is tricky business. Can a room full of non-musicians sing this song you’re writing? You might sound great performing this in front of people but can your church sing along? The new hybrid of worship-artists often write songs that they sound great performing but your congregation will have difficulty singing. A TOTAL melodic range of an octave or less is a good starting point. Writing a captivating melody in an octave or less that is easily singable by a crowd is a challenge.

4. Is it fresh? Over these thousands of years of recorded history surely millions of songs have written to God or about God. If you could listen through those songs you would be forced to ask, “does my song say anything new or interesting.” You will not say something that no one has ever said before, but can you find us a new window into an timeless idea? Tired cliches and the same trite phrases are repeated in worship song after worship song. Find fresh ways for the church to experience the timeless truths of the gospel and we will gladly raise our hands and sing along with you.

5. Is it excellent? Surely an excellent God deserves excellent work from His children. We say “that’ll do” way too often as Christian craftsmen. Is it beautiful? Is it thoughtful? I have often heard well-meaning Christian songwriters tell the same “God gave me this song” story only to perform a cliche and poorly crafted song. If God has inspired you to write a song, then follow Paul’s advice in Colossians 3:16-17, 23 and do the difficult work of crafting that song to richly reflect God’s glory. Dig deeper. Re-write it one more time. Find a richer metaphor. Sing a more interesting interval. The One Most High God deserves no less.

James Tealy is the worship pastor in Redemption City Church (Franklin, TN) and teaches songwriting at Belmont University. He has penned chart topping singles for Kari Jobe, Josh Wilson, Unspoken, Lauren Daigle, and more than 80 others. This week Redemption City Church releases “HANDED DOWN: Songs of Redemption City.” You can find free resources for the album here:

bit.ly/sorc2

Top 10 of 2015

I’m a song guy. I don’t often sit and listen through full albums much less listen to the same albums more than once. However, in 2015, I consistently re-visited these 10 new albums. There were other albums I listened to a bunch in 2015 – albums I contributed to – but these are the top 10 albums I had nothing to do with. I have no stake in their success. I’m just a fan.

Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites this year that I might have missed?

Top 10 Albums of 2015

(in alphabetical order)

AABA

After a study of common song forms in one of my Commerical Songwriting 1 classes at Belmont University, I realized I had never written an AABA song and decided to give it a shot.

A prevalent song-form from the 30’s to the 60’s, AABA is rarely employed now that the extended pop form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) dominates the songwriting landscape. A strophic or stanza form was a great tool for storytelling because each verse can introduce “a new chapter” in the story. The AABA form added a “middle 8″ section: an 8 bar break from the story to give context, introduce a twist, ratchet up the tension, or add some emotional internal details to compliment the external details of the narrative verses.

The Beatles catalog is full of AABA songs. Other great examples include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by Carole King, “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “Over the Rainbow.”

For this exercise I’ve used Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” as a model, placing the hook in the first line of each A section. [SIDENOTE: Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” was recorded steps from where I wrote this song. Our songwriting classrooms share space with the Quonset Hut and Columbia Studio A.)

Goodbye, TX
(c)2015 Eleiht Songs / BMI

Born and raised in Goodbye, TX
Hundred miles from anywhere
One way street in both directions
For getting out once you get there
The oil in the ground was a shallow dream
The Quick-to-come were as quick to leave
Quick to leave

Met a girl in Goodbye, TX
I was stuck and so was she
We thought love just might distract us
Long enough to find some peace
We’d wave as the u-haul trucks passed by
In a weekly parade of red taillights
Red tail lights

My roots are anchored deep in this dry ground
But save a seat for me on the last truck out

Probably die in Goodbye, TX
Buried out behind the church
A dozen plastic yellow roses
At a gravestone next to hers
There’s no one left here to speak my name
From dust back to dust in a long slow fade
A long slow fade