Uneven imitation

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There was a time, not too long ago, when teaching and learning music was done ‘repeat after me’ style. The director teaching the songs would either have the words printed out or the singers would repeat line for line the new words in hopes they could remember them enough to sing them through. Today, songs are learned before rehearsal at the push of a button (or screen). With the plethora of songs available in this modern era, how does a worship leader choose songs for their Sunday morning services?

Sometimes we choose based on principle. For churches that want to convey the message that they are multicultural and open to different worship styles, they may intentionally choose songs from the CCM genre and others from the gospel music genre. For churches that want to convey they are a bible believing church that is not influenced by the culture, songs may be chosen because they are heavy on scripture or doctrine. If the intention is to convey that the church is relevant and inviting, songs may be chosen based on their popularity and cross-over appeal.

Worship is for God, this we all know. But, even in our song selection our principles and preferences admittedly come into play. If we feel strongly enough about a principle or preference, it won’t take long before we are convinced that God spoke that preference from heaven into our spirit and it’s reflected in our song choices. 

Choosing songs based on principle is not a bad thing. However, we can be so focused on our principles that we don’t realize the impact that our song selection is having on our worship services. For whatever reason a worship leader may choose to sing a Kirk Franklin song–because this particular song is biblically based, has a strong message, has an emotional connection with the listener, fits with the church’s theme of uniting black and white believers… it may be the case that this team is not able to pull off a Kirk Franklin song with ‘evenness’.

Chris Tomlin has tons of beautiful music available for a church to grab hold of and plug into their Sunday morning service worship time. But, not every church is able to pull off a Chris Tomlin song with the same emotion that he put into the recording or performance of the song. Consider the beautiful sound of the Liberty Singers at Epcot Center. The vocal harmony surrounds a room and fills the ears of the listener with wonder and delight. The same is still true that not every group can pull of a song by the Liberty Singers.

Have you ever led worship on a Sunday morning and become aggravated that the congregation seemed to just be staring at you, but when you saw the same song performed by Hillsong on youtube in that dark room filled with people and purple lights, everyone in the room has their hands in the air and managed to sing along? 

Sometimes, the congregation can get a bad rap for not being spiritual enough or just wanting to be entertained, for being lazy, for not ‘owning’ their own worship experience. But, it’s hard to watch something awkward and pretend like it’s not. If you watched Chris Tomlin do a song where he looked awkward, sounded off, forgot the words and seemed like he was trying to be someone he’s not, you wouldn’t have chosen a Chris Tomlin song.

When a song is supposed to convey a certain message and emotion but when it’s delivered that message and emotion doesn’t come across, it is considered a waste of unevenness. In all reality, no one wants to choose a song that they can’t deliver in the way they heard it, but somehow many of us got stuck in the zone of “choosing the first song that we hear that goes along with our principles” that we don’t realize it’s a song that doesn’t go with our voices, instruments or emotional delivery.

Kirk Franklin gets to be Kirk Franklin. That’s why he is on Kirk Franklin tours, because people know what they are going to get when they pay for a Kirk Franklin ticket. Same with Chris Tomlin who doesn’t go around singing “Shackles” by Mary Mary to prove that he is accepting of black people who attend his concerts. He’s just being Chris Tomlin. Of course, there is Kierra Sheard who sang a song made popular by Chris Tomlin, but she wasn’t trying to imitate him. She was so “Kierra” when she sang that song that you would think she wrote the song herself.

Yet, Sunday after Sunday praise teams and choirs are caught in the trap of trying to be Kirk Franklin, Chris Tomlin, Kierra Sheard, Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture… that we convey our principles but miss an opportunity to bring the congregation along a worship journey with us because we are too busy trying to imitate artists to realize we sound nothing like them.

Imagine choosing a set list for Sunday and it’s a joy because it goes along with the principles of your church (multi-cultural, biblically based, modern, speaks of pain and suffering or joy and happiness in Jesus…) AND you can deliver the message with integrity because your vocals and your band are able to deliver it with evenness. Unknowingly, it’s the goal we are all after. We want to deliver the same emotion that pulled us into the song in the first place. With an endless amount of songs available to us, we can enjoy Israel Houghton on our Pandora playlist without subjecting our church to an awkward version of church karaoke knowing we can’t deliver the song in the same way.

The point is not to stop singing popular music. The point is to be honest about where you are as a team and what songs you can and cannot convey with evenness, even if you have to take your favorite artist out of rotation or figure out how to do the song in a way that matches who you are. I know what it’s like to be stuck with a set list where you know of four songs, you do one song very well, one sometimes well and the other two you are trying to push your way through while throwing in a few extra “Hallelujahs” along the way to mask the awkwardness and convict the congregation of noticing your awkwardness. 

All hope is not lost! Maybe you can sing Your Presence is Heaven to me because your vocals fit well into that style, but Friend of God (both by Israel Houghton) gets lost on your sound and you can’t translate the song well. Let’s do our congregations a favor and take the time to search for songs that we can deliver with evenness–where the emotion and message that was intended is what comes across when we sing it. Beautiful songs are just a click away, but songs that you can deliver may be three clicks away… or even a pen and pencil away, but that’s another topic for another day. Whatever God exalting message you can deliver with accuracy and skill in excellence, go for it. Let the rest play on the radio (or Pandora, Tune-in, Vimeo, youtube or in your head). I believe you will see a radical change in your congregation as they are free to focus on the Lord as you are free from the burden of the uneven imitation.