Just a few weeks ago my friend & fellow worship pastor, Chris Vacher, published a thought-provoking blog: “Thoughts on New Songs, Popular Songs, & Undiscovered Songs“, which has also been edited & republished over at TWC. In it he states that we should generally consider using the more popular worship songs because “…the reason that songs become popular and are sung around the world is that there are very talented songwriters who understand the craft of songwriting and have put together these various elements in a way that allows people of every musical skill level to sing as an expression of their worship to Jesus.” Though I have nothing against talented songwriters, I don’t necessarily agree with the first half of the blog.
A little background: according to long-term friends, I have 3 passions – “Shannon’s 3 Gs“: 1.) God; 2.) Girl (which now translates into “my wife”); & Guitar (or rather, WORSHIP music). For the past 18 years I have been blessed – in one expression or another – to be walking out those passions through leading worship, teaching, training, & discipleship. My heart burns for the body of Christ – especially the next generation – Youth & Young Adults – to see God for who He is, & to respond to that revelation with all they have & all they are! And that passion has a deep effect on how I think we should pick new songs for our congregations.
It all goes back to my trouble with pop radio, or any form of creativity driven solely by demand/popularity: what is popular primarily becomes popular because it is easy to digest. It demands little of us. It rarely challenges us. It is self-affirming – a simple pleasure. Like devouring a diet of candies, when we really should have fresh vegetables, Top 40 radio – Christian or Secular – basically appeals to our base senses – rarely little more. Continuing the food analogy, it’s okay to occasionally have a treat, but a diet of sweets will eventually make you sick, or worse.
As a worship pastor I am not first an entertainer. Though I want to be at least un-distracting from a musical stand-point – I should aspire to have SOME “appeal” – my JOB as a worship pastor is not primarily to entertain. It is not my job to be a Top 40 DJ, dishing out the average Christian’s favorite songs from CCM radio, or for that matter the CCLI Top 100, or even the most popular songs the other local churches near us are playing. That’s not my job.
As a pastor (which any worship leader worth his/her salt is), I have one primary commitment: to disciple those in my care. I use my gifts to take people from where they are in relation to Jesus, & push them toward environments, encounters, situations which will challenge, grow, & mature them towards a deeper love of God & greater Christ-like-ness. That means there are times when I may NOT sing a popular worship song because to our congregation it’d be little more than entertainment.
And there are times when there may be a song that I may have to take some time to introduce: we may have to add it to our pre-service rotation for a few weeks, then do it as special music, then re-introduce it as walk-in music a couple weeks later, then introduce is again in the middle of our set two weeks after that, then sing it a couple weeks in a row until it becomes part of our church’s sung theology – not because it’s immediately known, or immediately everyone’s favorite song, but because it may push our people beyond where they are, or help settle into their heart a truth that – as a church – they need to assimilate, & are struggling to do so.
Back in ’05 I was given a copy of Club Vineyard 56, & encountered the then largely unknown Jeremy Riddle for the first time – I was blown over by the depth & power of “Sweetly Broken“, so I immediately shared it with my whole team. The song impacted all of us, so we introduced it the following week – 2 years before it would receive any radio play. It became an anthem of our church, & from there, our extended worship community, locally. Local radio quickly added it when it was released not because they thought it was “Becky” (a 35 year old, soccer Mom – supposedly “the average CCM radio listener” – don’t ask…), but because the song was already broadly known in our community. That same year – already a John Mark McMillan fan because of his debut, “Hope Anthology vol. 1“, I picked up his 2nd CD: the first time I heard “How He Loves” I was driving, & had to pull off of the road because I was weeping uncontrollably. It challenged me to greater intimacy with God, & the lyrics – though unconventional – actually CHANGED me – they confronted the hardness of my heart – as I sang the song. I knew where our people were, & it was time – so after a few conversations with other local worship pastors, we introduced the song as a special. The whole team was in tears – the room was noticeably shaken by the experience… it would be 4 more years before that song would hit radio, & at that a watered down version that lacked the same depth, & intensity of the original. During a season of praying for revival, I was introduced to then indie-artist Daniel Bashta‘s songs, & was interested in the new material he was expected to release shortly – the day “Like a Lion” was first dropped, I taught it to my band: the bridge/prayer was exactly what we needed to be singing during that time. We first sang “Like a Lion” corporately in late 2009 – THREE years before the song would receive any radio play. We were also a very early adopter of Misty Edwards’ “You won’t Relent” (yes, before Jesus Culture popularized it). More recently, “Made Alive” by Citizens & Saints, & “Look & See” by Village Church have quite literally become our theme songs – both songs we never would’ve sung without digging a little.
Just think: those songs were written for what God was doing RIGHT THEN – if we had waited till they were “hits” I would’ve stolen those experiences from my people – the special moments that those songs were a gateway to, gone. And there are other songs – some of which have never been on radio or ever been sung at a great number of other churches – some originals & some covers – but which – for us & our people – were special to who WE were, & what God was doing in US at that time. Those songs were doors for our people to step through – steps in our spiritual growth as a body, & became an important part of our local identity as a church.
And this is where I STRONGLY AGREE with Chris: I believe not only the local church, but in the local worship songwriters in those churches. I appreciate his encouragement to WRITE. I appreciate it when HE WRITES (yes, I’ve led Chris’ songs in my congregation before). You are plugged in to your congregations – connected – in a way that is harder for a nationally known touring artist to be (though I do admire those artists who make their home church a priority – it shows in their songwriting). You know your people – you know where they are, & what they’re going for – no one else is better equipped to disciple them through corporate singing.
Dig for a song that will specifically speak to YOUR people, instead of simply combing the CCLI Top 100, or even worse, the CCM Top 40. If you can’t find a song, write your own – take a particularly impactful message from your pastor, & weave those words into a sung theology that will drive that message from the head to the heart, & beyond. I’m not suggesting we avoid songs just because their popular, by no means – but also let’s not give special treatment to a song just because it’s a worship “hit”, either.
Though you may find a few powerful songs there, don’t settle for being a “Pop band” at a “Top 40 Church” – there is more available, & I’ve found that a great deal of it is VERY GOOD. So don’t settle, or take the easy way out – take your time to dig through the new, undiscovered gems that God has been so good to seed His church with. Even if they never become an international hit, they may have been written just for you & your congregation, & what God is doing here & now in your church.
So, what lesser-known, or locally grown songs have been blessing your people of late? Please include links – I want to hear them!