I’ve had a couple of people mention to me Jamie Brown’s recent set of blog posts reflecting on his time at the National Worship Leaders Conference (DC). In particular they were questioning his thoughts on introducing new songs in church. This is a topic I’ve wrestled with a lot in the various churches I’ve worked for so I thought I’d share my gathered wisdom.
1. A New Song is his Name…but don’t wear it out.
When the Psalms (in particular) speak of ‘singing a new song’ they are specifically foreshadowing the incarnation event. The early chapters of the gospel of Luke show us in spectacular form that Christ is the cause, inspiration, and embodiment of the ‘new song’ of salvation. Our ‘new songs’ are simply reflections of that One eternal never-ending, never- sick-of ‘new song.’ In that vein i. Try and write your new songs reflecting on the new songs of Luke (both deeply rooted in OT but also future looking). ii. So maybe don’t quote Psalm 96 quite so much as your biblical justification to introduce and write new songs ad nauseum. Or at least remind people that the exciting thing isn’t your new song, but the reality that Jesus is singing our names before the Father!
2. The Inverse Relationships of Your Church’s New Song Diet.
The general rule that I have sussed out is that there are a number of inverse relationships that guide the introduction of new songs in a congregation. They are (and can be sketched on an x/y axis).
- i. If have you have a highly stable and consistent Sunday morning congregation than you should be able to introduce more new songs than if you have a highly inconsistent and transitory population on Sundays.
- ii. If you have a congregation that is homogenous in age (and under 35 years of age?) than it should be easier to introduce new music more frequently than if you have an intergenerational congregation where a lot more factors are involved in introducing new songs.
- iii. It is easier to introduce new songs if they are either songs that carry a wider ‘public’ exposure (radio, etc) or are songs that are a specific offering of your contextual, local church body.
- iv. New songs will have a greater chance of succeeding in your church if they either a) fill a particular need where there is a current lack of songs in your repertoire (Say songs for communion, or songs about the Holy Spirit, or lament) or sound and feel like the current core of your repertoire.
3. New Songs have historically had a place outside of corporate worship for learning and practice.
While songwriters and the CWM industry continues to generate new songs at a blistering pace the church hasn’t kept pace in their practices to teach them. One of the big problems I’ve seen is that many of the songs enter into our lives FIRST in the midst of our personal lives (the car, the iphone, the computer) which is a different experience than learning a song for the FIRST time corporately! This has not been historically the case. Calvin taught his new genevan gigs to school children who would then pass them along to their families for church. Sunday Schools were a huge place for learning new songs in the 19th century. Singing Schools and itinerant music teachers used to be one of the main ways that churches learned new song and basic theory. There are a lot of ways that a community can be creative here. Encourage small groups to sing more, provide CD’s or digital media in advance for members to listen too (although not totally ideal). Commit to have 1 or 2 events in your church every year reserved for teaching and learning new music.
4. New Songs should help your Congregation sing the whole counsel of God more fully.
New songs should have a pastoral intentionality where they seek to expand your congregations ability to sing the heights and depths of the Gospel. Spend some time and look at your song repertoire from the past couple of years and do a theological, affective, pastoral audit. Do you need more laments, more songs of praise, more psalms? Do we have songs that celebrate God’s past, present, AND future?! Does our congregation sing to the Father, Son AND Holy Spirit? Are you singing songs that reflect both the insider AND the stranger?
5. A Worship Conference is not the ideal place to evaluate new songs for your congregation.
I understand, and largely agree, with the comments Jamie Brown made recently about the attending the NWLC in DC. A worship conference is SO unlike every aspect of your pastoral work in corporate worship that if you are thinking anything else but “wow, this music is really loud but I hope heaven is something like this” than we need to talk! A conference has a lot of cross purposes (promoting, advertising, experiential demands, disconnection from a local body) that it can be a very confusing situation in which to evaluate a songs suitability for singing in Your congregation.
6. Have a plan for how you introduce new songs.
Don’t just let new songs happen to you, but intentionally seek and pursue a strategy for how you will incorporate them into the worshipping life of your church. Where are the soft places in your worship service to introduce new songs? For me its been weekly communion – where the congregation can hear it and sing along but corporately singing isn’t the main focus of the time. Maybe for you it’s in a prelude time?
- However you do it when you introduce a song make sure you can sing it for at least 3-4 Sundays in a row. Unless they are hearing this song every day in their car or at their computer it will take a while to embody it.
- Reflect on the differences between introducing a new song that you will potentially sing all year round with a new song that you might only sing for a short liturgical season or sermon series.
- Remind yourself that your congregation takes both longer to learn a song and longer to get sick of it than for you!!
7. New songs can be powerful markers of new seasons, or new movements of the Spirit in your church.
Whether it’s changing up songs for a liturgical season or writing/finding songs because of a gospel breakthrough in your church the songs we sing help mark significant movements. They are ebenezers to mark the work of God in your congregations. They do this through helping to create, sustain, or change the ‘feel’ of our churches worship. This is a pastoral stewardship issue for worship leaders and music directors. When we move from the fall into advent, or lent into Easter there should be a palpable change in how the music feels. from inner reflection to outer joy, from corporate introspection to sending in mission. From minor to major, from banjos’ to brass!
8. Every new song has a different level of difficulty for both the band and the congregation.
This is incredibly contextual but it’s good to at least reflect on what it means to strike a balance in the difficulty level of new songs your introducing. Maybe make a mental note on a scale from 1-10. It’s going to be exhausting (and maybe disheartening) to the congregation if you are introducing a lot of difficult songs…and this difficulty can be on a range for the musicians vs. the congregation. Make sure you balance new songs between easy and more difficult ones. This principle also carries over into whether your congregation is a hymnal or a projection church. If you have a church that is adept at reading music than you can probably introduce more songs, more frequently than if the church relies on only hearing it during church to learn it.
9. What to do when your band is sick of a song right about the time it’s hitting the sweet spot for your congregation.
This is a classic one. Your congregation is JUST starting to get some of those tricky bits in the verses of “10,000 Reasons” but you can tell they love singing it. Your drummer then decides that he’s going to start doing super random fills cuz he’s bored with the song, the keyboard player is now playing alternate harmonizations, and the bass player has decided that he’s going to consistently forget to sit out vs 3. argg. These are actually brilliant moments to remind your musicians that they have a pastoral role to fill in providing a consistent and nurturing musical backdrop for CONGREGATIONAL singing.
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