The year was 2015. I just finished stringing up an old acoustic guitar I found in our church office with the hopes of learning to play so I could be on our church worship team. I had unknowingly ordered the wrong strings, but I put them on anyway. No sooner was the last string installed than I ran to my computer and looked up the chords and a tutorial on how to play “Lead Me to the Cross” by Hillsong. You see, I grew up in the “Passion era” which means that some of the most influential songs in my young Christian life couldn’t have been found in the ’56, ’75 or ’91 Baptist hymnals, but on the latest WOW hits CD. Although we did sing some of them at church, the hymns I came to know and love were the Chris Tomlin versions with those extra choruses and bridges. My dad tells me that when I was little we sang the old school versions but by the time I was developing core memories, “was blind but now I see” was always followed by a reminder that “My chains are gone.”
By the time I started leading worship in our youth group on a regular basis I was looking almost exclusively to Bethel, Hillsong, Elevation and those from a similar camps for the content of my set choices. Those were the songs which had the most resources available. The chords were learnable for a novice guitarist/pianist. The live recording videos featured young people that looked like me, clearly “experiencing” something. Hands raised. Tears streaming. The masses showing up and singing loudly. There was a contagious energy somehow radiating from my computer screen that was drawing me in.
I wanted to lead well and so I assumed I needed to emulate and help facilitate that setting / environment in which I saw the Lord pouring out blessings at these other churches. At the same time, there appeared to me to be chasm between what I was taught about God and what some of these churches appeared to be teaching through the messages in their songs. There was a sort of cognitive dissonance I couldn’t get around. It didn’t make sense to me why these influential churches had multimillion dollar A/V/L setups while our little church struggled to find the money for the newest ProPresenter update. Without realizing it, I was subtly persuaded that if we were more in touch with the Holy Spirit and demanded the miraculous emotional experiences others were witnessing, God would certainly bless our church too. If only we just sang more Hillsong and Elevation music, surely our weekly attendance would increase.
Thank God He Grew Me
It doesn’t take a PhD in ecclesiology to know that simply isn’t the case, but it was no less the posture I developed as a young worship leader. I equated church health with the jam-packed arenas and the trendy, Edison-bulb-filled earthy stages I saw in the music videos. As I grew older, I began discovering (or at least finally really hearing) and falling in love with the hymns that Tomlin et al hadn’t covered. Those of my own theological tradition. As I paid attention I began to be overwhelmed with the texts of songs like Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Abide With Me, Praise to the Lord The Almighty, Be Thou My Vision, of course A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, among others. Those songs began changing my perception of what church music was all about. I came to understand it was about the body singing with the focus being on God, NOT on the music. Then I discovered the Getty’s, Matt Papa and Matt Boswell. It felt like they had all the energy of those “big churches” but with the substance I came to love in the old hymns I was discovering.
As a musician I liked both styles. I actually like many styles of music. In church life, I liked the big trendy bands AND the not-so-trendy hymn writers. Even though I didn’t agree with everything that came out of the trendy churches, if the song was good and held truth, I sang it. It didn’t have to always be super deep, but it certainly had to be true. That was and still is my conviction… to some degree. But as I’ve grown, I’ve become more critical regarding where I get the songs to include in worship sets.
The Hard Truth
As tough as it is, this is a discussion in which every worship leader, music pastor, song leader, chief musician, or whatever you call yourself, must engage. Gone are the days of blissful ignorance and mushy musical ambiguity. It’s a lot harder for leaders to plead ignorance regarding the sources of their songs and ultimate implications of the songs we choose to lead during musical worship time. In many ways, a light has been thrown into the dark room of song set selection.
Weak or flat-out bad theology is on full display from within some of the groups we used to (and arguably might still) know and love. Within some of the churches themselves, we see patterns of abuse, coverup, corruption, moral failure and manipulation which can no longer to be ignored for the sake of, “but its good music.” Why did I think that church health was found in numbers? Because that’s the unspoken narrative some of these big churches presented to us through this strange “worship culture” which has been created. Let’s be honest, some of those “ministries” made a lot of money off of that philosophy. Inevitably I went from listening to just the music, to the general messages… to the podcasts… and then to some sermon series. Even some of the good songs still led to weak or simply unhealthy theology. This is precisely why I’ve reformed the way I choose songs for the worship sets I lead.
Leading Musical Worship Outside of the Local Church
This may not be the case for everyone, but I also know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve come to the point that I don’t think turning a blind eye to the sources of the songs we select is worth the risk of what it can promote. This discussion is hard. No one likes feeling limited or told what songs to choose. It puts everyone in an uncomfortable position… especially those who are leading in spaces like camps, revivals, conferences, chapels, etc. where the makeup of the gathered worshippers are not necessarily a part of the same local church congregation but are a mixture of different churches and maybe even denominations.
For quite some time, I have believed that the substance of the message in the song is the most important factor in building setlists. The second biggest factor in play has been song familiarity. The average local worship leader is afforded the privilege of shaping their local church body’s song book. However, to plan a worship set in a mixed group, with different traditions and varying song catalogs, it can be quite challenging. Decisions have to be made on what songs people might know and what they might not. One might work hard to balance a set only to find out that their guesses fell flat. It’s the worst feeling. In this process, I have often traded some of the best and richest songs for songs I thought people would know only to realize that so-called “familiar’ song wasn’t so familiar after all. It’s a tiring and unreachable standard.
When we default to only what’s familiar, we miss the opportunity to shape “worship set appetites.” I want to be clear here because the act of worship is not about OUR appetite at all. It’s about God, not us. In using the term appetite, I’m just speaking to the evidential problem of (1) attempting to lead worship when people don’t know the words of the songs you’ve chosen (old or new), (2) the expectations of the worshiper regarding the songs THEY want to sing (or not sing) and then (3) recognizing that we should help create “healthy” appetites for spiritually, and substantively-driven worship music. We ought to help shape such “appetites” by providing substantive and sustaining worship songs with which our people can fill their lives. Brett Perkins, a mentor of mine who has been leading in these settings far longer than I have said the following recently: “We shouldn’t be crippled by their lack of knowing new stuff IF it’s worth teaching them. Meaning – let’s make them aware of the songs they should be singing!… You can’t shape appetites with the same food. Shape their appetites with something different and nourishing! Leave them craving something new (to them. That which is rich and meaningful).”
A Closing Thought
I used to be afraid of singing the old songs. Then I became afraid of singing new songs. There was a part of me that thought people wouldn’t ‘show up’ if I didn’t sing what they were into… that I wouldn’t have churches call for me to lead their special events if I wasn’t playing the newest coolest stuff. The fact of the matter is a strange shift has taken place. In my recent experience, Student Pastors are growing weary of modern worship music… and even the ones who aren’t, have appeared to come to appreciate the level of intentionality, substance and prayer I’ve put into my sets this year during the summer long camp sessions I’m leading around the Mid-West.
I’ve already seen this bear fruit in tangible ways this summer during my time with FUGE Camps. One student in particular shared with me that they’d grown up in church but that they had never sung in worship until that very night during our last evening worship of the week. He said that he was so compelled by how we read scripture to begin every set and how much truth was in every song that he couldn’t help but sing. The very first worship service of the summer we sang the “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” (the arrangement by Citizens). The room, full of middle and high-schoolers, lit up with familiarity and excitement. Everyone in the building was singing. I appreciate those little victories, but ultimately, I want the people of God to sing the Word of God, to better know God, offering praise to God, to the glory of God, alone. That has become my personal goal and I believe it is to what all those who have the privilege to lead musical worship should aspire.
There are so many substantive and theologically rich worship songs that we will never run out of wonderful words to sing to our Lord. You don’t HAVE to sing any particular song. You GET to choose the songs your group will sing. Choose wisely and worshipfully. If I have to choose between a song rich with truth and a weak song that could lead to theological confusion, I’ll choose truth every time.
Quint Adkins is a Master’s Student at NOBTS. He is a graduate of the Loyola University of New Orleans where he received a Music Performance Degree in Jazz Studies. He is regularly leads musical worship events around the country including with Lifeway’s FugeCamps and other camps, retreats, and special events. You can find more information about him out HERE.