I am, admittedly, behind the times. I haven’t gone full “grumpy grandpa” quite yet, but I don’t seem to latch on to trends as easily as some folks. Perhaps I could credit my upbringing—my brothers and I were never in the latest clothes, nor did we listen to the latest music. In fact, the town we grew up in didn’t even have a Top 40 radio station, so musically we were always a few steps behind the times. I even remember my older brother staying up late at night to record music from a radio station whose signal didn’t reach our town until after 10pm just so he could have at least a handful of contemporary songs.
When it came to church music, we were a little more in-tune. My parents had a subscription to Integrity Music, which entitled us to a new live worship album every month. We would often share these with friends from church. Our pastor had a similar service, and we would often talk about new songs to perhaps introduce to our congregation. This was often a slow process as, up until the time we joined the church in the late 80’s/early 90’s, our little church was on a steady diet of Baptist hymns. When my dad was asked to lead worship for the new “contemporary” service at church, he did a great job of being sensitive to that tradition while slowly introducing new worship music.
One of the questions that comes up most often when worship leaders gather, after “where do you find new music,” is “how often do you introduce new songs?” Answers vary—I’ve heard as often as every weekend to as seldom as 4-5 times a year. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a secret formula to introducing new music to your congregation. Every community is different, and every leader will have a different approach to teaching new songs.
However, I have found a correlation that I don’t think many worship leaders consider when they ask how often they should throw new tunes at their people, and it has to do with perceived engagement. Frequently, I hear worship leaders and volunteers bemoaning the fact that their congregations don’t seem to be singing with the gusto we hope they would. This leads me to wonder if the new songs we’re introducing to our communities are the right songs in the first place. It could be that people aren’t singing not because they’re not engaged in worship but because they’re not engaged with the music itself. This could be due to a number of issues—singability, key selection, the engagement of the leader, etc. A lot of those kinds of problems are easy fixes. Keys can be changed and leaders can be taught how to teach a song. I think the deeper question is this: are the songs we’re teaching our churches engaging the culture of our communities?
Answering this question isn’t as easy as trolling Spotify for the latest worship tunes or checking CCLI for their Top 25 most-sung worship songs. That’s a trap that’s easy to fall into when we’re looking to infuse some new music in our services. We want to find songs that are singable, relatable, biblical…but we almost always start by asking, “What is popular?” I think that’s really what we’re asking when we ask our friends “what songs are you singing at your church” or “where do you find new music.” We’re wanting to know what’s trending in the worship music world. Now, I’m not saying that simply doing what is popular is a bad thing—there’s a reason many of those songs are so widely known. They’re biblical, singable, relatable, and many of them connect with a broad variety of communities across the globe (driven, in no small part, by a lot of money and marketing—but, that’s a subject for another time).
But where we as worship leaders fall into the trap is when we begin to believe that every popular song is going to be a fit for our congregation. This is why it’s so important for us to have a finger on the pulse of both the worship culture of our church AND pay attention to the musical language that our communities connect with. If your white, suburban, middle-aged church stands and stares at you during LaCrae’s rap on Hillsong Young & Free’s “This Is Living,” you might not have quite the grip on your culture that you thought you did. Likewise, if you’re met with looks of bewilderment and confusion bordering on boredom during your 12-minute rendition of “Good Good Father,” perhaps its time to rethink your approach. The bottom line here is pay attention—their lack of engagement may be less about the condition of their heart and more about how much they trust you to lead them with compassion and sensitivity.
Another trap that chasing trends can lead us into is the trap of assumed common preference. In our age of social media where the echo chambers of confirmation bias are so pervasive, it’s easier now more than ever to believe that everyone likes what we like. I’ll refer back to our imaginary gathering of worship leaders, where the following interaction is likely to take place:
“Hey, have you heard that new album from Unified Sonflower Collective?”
“Oh, MAN! I can’t believe you haven’t heard that. It’s soooooo good!”
I’m not sure how many new worship songs come out every year. I tried to research it, and I think I broke the google machine. But it’s a lot. Between major label releases and independent artists, we’re probably talking in the hundreds of thousands? A lot. Out of this enormous cloud of music that is released every week, the odds of me having heard the exact same song and having the exact same reaction to it are miniscule. Now, consider the fact that part of our job description is to immerse ourselves in music, both new and old. We exist in a very niche musical bubble, and it is a bubble that our congregations only enter once a week for 20-25 minutes at a time (depending on how many songs you incorporate in your gathering). The odds that even a fraction of our community have heard the exact same brand new song from a band that only a relative handful of people have heard on Spotify or K-Love are infinitesimal.
While falling into these two traps is easy, finding our way out of them is not. It requires humility, attentiveness, and sensitivity. I means doing more than just standing on stage in front of our congregations and singing songs. It requires actual leadership, and a kind of leadership that people can trust. I believe we should absolutely introduce new songs to our communities, but we must exercise patience and restraint. Great leadership demands relationship, and its kind of hard to build a relationship of trust when we’re shoving new songs down people’s throats and then berating them behind closed doors for not learning them fast enough (yes, I’ve participated in those conversations, sadly).
Many times, I’ve thought that the answer was to present a survey to my congregation, asking what radio stations they listen to, who their top 3 or 5 or 10 artists are, their overall impression of the worship music on Sunday morning, what could be done to improve it, etc. That could provide, and has provided, useful information, especially if you’re a big-time data geek. But this can lead to two pitfalls: One, you’re going to get nearly as many opinions as there are people, which can lead to trying to please everyone all the time. This can turn you into a people-pleasing slave, chasing everyone’s personal preferences as opposed to a leader who is compassionately challenging your community to explore musical expressions that may fall outside their comfort zones.
The second pitfall has to do with how you, as the worship leader, build trust and relationship with your congregation. Handing out a survey is a poor substitute for shaking a hand and having a conversation over a cup of coffee. One will tell you what your congregation likes. The other will tell you what your community is like and will show that you actually care about more than just playing music on Sunday morning. This personal connection will do what searching a song database or a congregation-wide questionnaire never will—it will establish you as a part of the group, not just a floating head on stage. And once you’ve built that kind of trust, people will follow you no matter what songs you pick.
There’s a lot more to picking songs for your church than scanning the airwaves for what’s popular. How you select songs and how often you introduce new music is as much a reflection of your leadership as your time spent standing on stage leading those songs. It can show how much you care for your community as opposed to how in-touch you are with the current music catalog. So, do those new songs—just make sure you’re introducing them from a place of leadership and a desire to see your community engage in worship, not because you want to keep up with the times.