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Corporate Worship : who are we serving? (ThinkJump Journal #43 Kim Gentes)

First Encounter

We walked into the building, through the shopping mall doors into the large auditorium. No one opened the door, no one greeted us. We were exactly 9 minutes late. The room was perfectly lit, subdued overheads keeping the stage highlighted, while the crowd didn't escape into complete darkness. I scanned the room. We found some free chairs, but not enough for our family. Two of our kids sat scattered around the room while myself, my wife and my oldest son sat together. I focused on the stage.

A conversation was going on between a man and a woman on stage. He was trying to direct an interview, extracting information from her about work she and others were doing to help destitute, hurting and impoverished people in south east Asia and other remote parts of the world. He was a gifted communicator, she wasn't. The conversation ended, and the speaker asked us all to stand. The music hummed in the background. He asked us all to join in. He sat down. The song started.

This was church.  From the skill of the speaker, I knew already I would like his message. From the skill of the musicians, one could tell that the music that would follow would be top notch. My son had already primed me about the church. He had been going to their youth group on Wednesday nights. They had been very effective in encouraging the teenagers, and two of my sons had found a joy and authenticity that rang true with them. Primed with that knowledge, already ascertaining that the pastor was a very good communicator and seeing the musicians were top notch- I was ready to jump right into worship and join with these brothers and sisters in exalting God as a community. I was stoked!

The worship leader leaned tepidly into the microphone and the words softly appeared across the wall, behind the band. The first note was like the brazen ring of a morning alarm- startling, crisp, precise. Wait, no, he didn't get it wrong. He kept singing. I looked around. No one was singing. I reached for the note. I have sung for many years, including studio recordings and leading worship myself. Not too bad. I looked around again, about 5 or 6 people around our area where mouthing the words. I could hear one other person singing.

It's OK, I thought, the song is almost over. Give the worship leader a break, I said to myself. Maybe he's a professional performer who's just started leading worship. He hasn't worked out all the nuances of corporate worship leading. The next song will be good.

The band transitioned without any hint of a seam, perfectly changing time and mix into a bit higher energy. Nothing too shocking, very well done. The next song started. Then came the note. What is this guy doing, I thought?  A few more people were singing now, but only those who could follow in a lower octave. Listen for the harmony, I thought. That would be better. No chance. The harmony was not just perfect, it was also higher. There was nothing for anyone without musical training to grab hold of. My wife and son stood gazing forward, jealous that I could at least participate.

By the third song, I was praying for a sense of sanity to come over the place. I prayed in vain. The song went so high, I was straining to not cross over into falsetto as I followed along. The worship leader twisted his neck and squeezed his face to strain out the high notes and lead his team off into a blissful time of musical precision. Wonderful. Except for the four or five hundred other people in the room.

The pastor stood and ended the music. It was break time. Meet your neighbor, that sort of thing. I was grumpy by this point. They'll have to come to me to say "hi", I thought. I'm staying right here. No one said "hi". Serves me right, I suppose.

The pastor was very good. Heart-filled themes, excellent presentation, engaging crowd interaction- all well done, well thought and appropriately nuanced for the young crowd.  As the service was closing, the band returned. They played two more songs, this time in regular human singable keys. I joined the community and worshiped God with them.

Serving the Song

I have worked in the Christian and worship music "industry" for over 12 years. There is a phrase that you hear among A&R people, label people, and artists. The phrase is "Serve the song".  It means that whatever you do, in writing, recording, producing, and performing a song, you submit your predilections to the goal that you do whatever makes the song better. You acquiesce your preferences, your talents, and resources for the sake of the "perfect" song. You serve the song. The goal is quite noble- you make the perfect song, so that everyone will engage, enjoy and express themselves with the same passion that the creators did who fashioned it. The ultimate in serving the song means that it becomes a fusion of lyric and music that everyone can relate to, enjoy and make their own.

The concept of serving the song seems like it would be well-placed amongst worship music. That we make great songs, out of heavenly inspiration, for the use of people to give glory to God. Certainly making those songs great can only bring more glory to God. Right?

Well, maybe.

Serving the People

What happened in my encounter with this new church was an example of the worship leader and his talented band doing their best to serve the song. And they did so in performance perfect fashion. The arrangements, the instrumentation, the dynamics, even the vocals, all provided the energy and beauty to make the songs the best they could be. The problem is- the best performance of the songs does not equal the best key for the gathered congregation. The musicians served the song by making it sonically perfect, but in almost every respect of congregational engagement failed to serve the people.

Serving the One

Of course, the noble person will point out that the music was not for me. Nor was the music for the congregation, either. No, the music was for God. And at that point, I must concede, that I certainly can't fault these fine musicians from wanting to serve God with their best offering. But I think we can see the weakness in that line of reasoning. One of the chief points of the Protestant Reformation was about giving the ministry back to the people. It was about removing the requirement that "professional clergy" be our "representatives" before God. We go to Him directly. As individuals and as a community.

The clergy, best used, were fellow worshipers, encouraging, pastoring, and leading us forward with wisdom and faith.

We serve God, not by leaving our brothers and sisters behind and playing the most brilliant music possible. No! We serve God by playing the most brilliant music that the gathered community can engage and join with us as we make our offering together.

David said it well in Psalm 133, when he said "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity ...For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore."

It is doubtful that David meant unity of pitch or singability of key in this scripture. But it is equally assured that he did mean participation and togetherness of community. How can we join together in a unified offering to God if we cannot all participate?

Serve Well Together

Worship leaders, I won't bore you with countless rules for range and note selection. You already know them.  I ask you this as a brother in Christ, a fellow worship leader, fellow pastor, songwriter, and recording artist-  serve God, by serving the people the very best songs (selection, arrangement and key) so that with one voice we might all join in and glorify Him together. Save your studio arrangements and vocal artistry for the airplay cuts. Prepare an offering for God amongst all the people, and we will worship Him together.

Serving with you,
Kim Gentes


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Reader Comments (22)

You nailed it. One of the constant battles I find myself engaged in is teaching this concept to our younger worship leaders, and hey, it's not all their fault. Practically everything they listen to these days is geared toward "serving the song" as you put it.
For the most part, I am able to take the well-written newer songs and arrange them for our worship team and choir, so that they are accessible to the congregation. Occasionally, the arrangement falls short, energy is lost, and we just let that song die an easy death. Usually, though, if the song has staying power, it doesn't suffer from a key lowering and a different voicing for the lead.
Let's keep the congregation connected!

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRusty Douthitt

Pet peeve!!!!! We have congregations made up of people who didn't or don't sing at school, don't sing recreationally, sing with pop radio in whatever range they can match, who are constantly bombarded with "professional" singers, and who think they can't compete. Children's public school programs are full ot teachers who can't play keys, and who use tracks, not always in kid-friendly keys. I hear lots of kids screech, growl and never learn to match pitch. My own worship team is range-challenged, and I am always changing keys to fit the needs, which are also those of the congregation. My youngest son said a very profound thing when he was six or so. I was using him as a guinea pig for a class project, 20 songs for kids, and asked him why he liked a particular song. He said it "felt good to sing". I thought he meant that he liked what it said, and he corrected me by pointing at his throat. It "felt" good to sing, meaning it didn't hurt. Our songs shouldn't hurt. Church is often the only place that our people sing, they are not trained or warmed up. We just hit them with something loud, fast and high, and expect them to jump right in. They immediately fail, drop out and become spectators watching the "concert". This does not have to happen!!!!!! I lead from the keyboard between the team and the congregation. I had better hear both equally well. I also teach my congregation why they should sing, and that their singing is not a competition with professionals. It is corporate worship, and without the "corporate", it isn't worship, it's a show. We already have enough problem with the "worshiping in my heart" thing. We have to help them get the worship out of their mouths. Incredible when it happens.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Kelso

Also, Kim, the comment about listening for the harmony--most of the congregation never learned to read music. Much of our criticism comes from those few who do, especially if you're "on the wall" (being old enough to do that before churches had screens :-). Most people can't or are not taught to harmonize by ear. Even my readers on the worship team couldn' do it by ear. They can now!!!! I'm so proud. The harmony is not going to happen for the most part. The only exception to that might be in a church that is traditionally sings a cappella. Those are few and fewer now than they were 20 years ago. Used to love getting the Mennonites in my community choir. They could SING! You could snap your fingers and get a quartet. Wonderful! I'm working with my youth to both play and sing, on and off the page, or we won't have vocalists or instrumentalists in a few years. Churches also need to look to the future.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Kelso

After being displaced in a church split, we spent most of '05 visiting churches in the Nashville, TN, area. Having spent much of my life in the world of contemporary Christian and pop music, I am open to all kinds of music. But I found the music in the most churches we visited employing contemporary worship music, however well done it usually was (this is Music City, you know!) very unwelcoming to me as a worshiper.

To begin with the P.A. volume level was so high I could neither hear my own voice nor the sound of the voices near me. So any corporate, community sense of blending voices was impossible. Once again, my ears are quite fond of concert level sound. But this inability to hear one another and blend together rendered us Sunday after Sunday in what I could only describe as "gang-karaoke" experiments. It was everyone for her or himself. This called to mind John Wesley's Directions for SInging on which I commented in an article I wrote for

Another deterrent to corporate engagement was the actual songs themselves. It was obvious from their range, exotic intervals and syncopation they had worked their way into the worship repertoire via artists' recordings prepared for radio and for performance. They were just not designed for communal participation. Sunday by Sunday I became more and more incredulous that no one seemed to notice that the emperor was wearing no clothes. It also saddened, but did not surprise, me that folk seemed to dial in and out of the singing in a most haphazard and casual way. Watches were looked at, texts were sent, notes were scribbled and passed. There seemed to be very little real focus in play.

This same scenario was repeated again and again in churches of many types. This disease seems almost ubiquitous. It is so prevalent I cannot imagine how this can be addressed in an effective way.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdarrell a. harris

That's why I always sing low enough for people to follow me.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterP Diddy Wickham

Hi Kim - agree with you all the way. I get so fed up of leading songs in a key that even I find a challenge as worship leader. However, when I have suggested another key I quite often get kick back from the keyboard player who can only play in the key it the music is printed in, or others in the band saying "but this is how it's always done" .... ! ! ! So it's not always the fault of the worship team leader. It sounds like a very cold experience - I think I prefer our little congregation in Kent where at least you can't attend without being properly welcomed. I hope the worship blesses too ... C

November 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterColin Miller (UK)

Very well said. One thing however that needs to be addressed is the sound level. I've been in churches where the musicians and song leaders were extrememely competent, but the sound was so loud as to be painful enough to necessitate earplugs. Even though I am a seasoned vocalist and knew most of the worship songs, I couldn't hear myself or the persons next to me so I simply backed off as the others had and made a half-hearted attempt to participate over the seeming assault on my nervous system.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Weber

Being Praise/Worship leader and keyboard player for decades- singing easy choruses in easily accessible ranges for everyone, I have usually found that I'm more of an entertainment to congregations than that of a leader in intimate worship of the LORD. I'd open my eyes to find people with crossed arms appearing to be counting the squares in the ceiling tiles, or knots in the paneling! Yet, there were a FEW who were totally into the worship/praise experience. We use our own chorus books and don't have Powerpoint on the wall nor do we have anyone to run an overhead projector (although someone donated two of them to us, but no one ever printed off the pages and nobodys ever learned how to turn the machine on). We're pretty 'old fashioned' and we like it that way. Still yet, most people won't open their mouths to let a sound come out, and certainly not with single-mindedness in worshipping the KING OF KINGS. Perhaps, I've thought, my voice has left me because my leading has been abused and misused and overused because of lack of participation by the pew-sitters.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina

Love this article - you are so right.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Thank you so much for bringing this observation up in a godly and gentle way. In my not-so-eloquent way I have tried to get the message across that there is a difference between worship and performance. Both can be God honoring and both have their arenas.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Bennett

Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine. It's as if someone decided that Christian worship has to be led by high tenors. Didn't God create any baritones? Why is there so much emphasis that the song has to sound like the DVD? And why doesn't anyone realize that if the melody is even too high at certain points for the lead vocalist, it is not helping the congregation to have the leader dropping an octave, or swapping with the backup singer for a phrase or two -- it becomes impossible to grasp who has the melody line, or even where the melody is.

Yes, we often impress guests with our fine music, but we used to astound them with a communal experience of worship.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn J

Hi Kim,

Great post. I agree with nearly all of what you said, and I think you're right-on in addressing this issue. At the same time, I think some of those replying are also right... but I would propose that the rules may change depending on what your community expects/needs, and what your target audience is. I think we need to be careful not to make across-the-board rules that then become boxes for large-scale contemporary-style worship.

Forgive the over-generalizations... as they aren't always accurate, but...

If I'm leading a contemporary worship service for folks who are 35-55, I'm going to make sure the keys are singable and the volume is nicely loud, but not "too loud". I'm going to use my acoustic more than my electric guitar... I'm going to remember that adult-contemporary radio stations play one "harder" rock song for every 5 or 6 chilled Phil Collins or Hall & Oats songs.

If I'm leading for the 15-35 age group, on the other hand, I tend to sing in a higher tenor range (usually the original recording key for the songs), and the volume is loud enough so that most folks in the congregation aren't "hurting" but they can't hear the people next to them very well either. Often this volume is considered "too loud" for a 45 year old person and they might consider wearing ear plugs (which I generally make available).

The simple fact is that ears tend to distort at a lower volume as we age. Most young folks I've chatted with, including myself (age 31), can "worship their faces off" at a David Crowder concert where the volume is high, and the high keys force you to nearly yell. The reason is that the high key also adds significant energy and forces the worshiper to make singing a full-body activity. Some people love this... and find the more subdued version passionless. To some people, this is community and this is passion.

If my community is expecting EPIC rock worship, then it is just as much a "worship killer" to do a bunch of slow acoustic songs at low volume. Similarly, if the community is expecting acoustic-rock Paul Baloche songs, and I give them Rock N Roll Worship Circus, then I'm also failing.

All of that to say, rather than making hard-and-fast rules of engagement, I suggest we take the attitude of knowing our community... both where it is AND where it wants to go... and then designing space and experience to match.

blessings to all of you...

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZach Oaster

I agree, with one little thing though: the leader must sing in a key that is confortable for him or her... I've had comments from men who thought I did not sing in a good key; but the problem is, I'm an alto, they are tenors. We can't possibly sing in the same keys. I can't reach their notes. So sometimes, people also have to understand that the leader has a certain range that can't be changed to fit everybody's preference. This said, I always make sure that what I sing is simple for the congregation to follow, certainly not too high because I can't sing that high myself, but it might be too low for other people. When somebody else is leading who has a range that doesn't fit mine, I have to understand that God uses different instruments and there is beauty in that diversity as well !

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMillie

Just an observation from a different perspective. Before I came back to serve the Lord I spent many (way too many) years playing in secular bands. From bars to dance clubs, casinos to resorts, corporate gigs to weddings, I saw people of all ages, dance and sing to the songs played in the original key they were written and performed in by the recording artist. They didn't care (usually because of alcohol) how they looked or sounded, they were going to have "fun" no matter what the people around them thought or did. While I understand our congregations did not come to "party" did they only come to do what's comfortable to them? If we only do lower "guy" keys what are the women to do? Many have rightly pointed out that the congregation is not filled with trained singers. I can tell you some of them were singing Whitney Houston songs at the top of their lungs at one point in their life. I bring this up not to disagree with the article but to ask what are we not teaching our congregations about worship that leads them to sing in a bar, sing at karaoke, sing at a concert, show passion for a sports team but just stand there in the presence of God like they are bored or it's unimportant for them to participate. I heard a preacher recently say that our time of Praise and Worship is the only part of the service where we give something to God. The rest of the time we are receiving from Him. He just wants to hear our voice, the one He gave us. I don't criticize my 3 year old if he misses a note, I Love to hear him sing!

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

Excellent post. I'm not sure that all worship leaders know the "rules" for good key selection though. I made a similar post on this topic after having a similar experience at a church. I went ahead and made suggestions/guidelines as to the note range for corporate worship. I called it, "What Worship Leaders Can Learn from American Idol."

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Curry

I just thank the Lord He didn't give me absolute pitch!!! I can live very well with transposing a song to whatever fits me and the congregation better. Of course there are some songs that just don't have the same Oumph in certain keys... But usually you can find something that works. I often have throat problems, and I still have to sing; I've been known to transpose a song to a different key nearly every week to be comfortable with it depending on my vocal range that day...! It drives some musicians nuts, but the people in the congregation don't even notice.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAbigail

Thanks to all for the tremendous insights. I am a fledgling worship leader in an Episcopal church. Contemporary worship was introduced to us through ALPHA and we do many old and new Vineyard songs. I have only been doing this for about 8 years now and i am still frightened and nervous every time! We are not "regulars "as we have an organist playing OLD hymns (Talk about hard for lay folk to sing!) Struggle as I may i always have the same questions: am I good enough, does my guitar sound ok, am i flat. lots of me, me, me. I need to constantly pray that Jesus helps me to take my eyes off all but Him. That being said it is my honor, privilege, and responsibility to lead others into his presence through worship as well.Its a tough balance but I know of no other feeling that matches a couple hundred brothers and sisters singing along worshiping God.
Blessings to all

January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLou

Beautifully said, Lou. We are all in various stages of just such humble recognition of our inadequacies. I pray for fruitful and encouraging times, each encounter you have with leading and feeling such pressures. God bless


January 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterKim Gentes

Wow, there's so much to be said on all this. I'm encouraged to find that there IS DISCUSSION happening. Thanks for bringing it up, Kim.

One thing I've noticed is that some songs have such a wide melodic range that in order to make the high notes of the tune singable for a congregation, the lowest notes are off the scale on the other direction - people out there croaking out low B's and C's. Great songs, too "Shout To The Lord" does this; Smith's "Majesty", Blue Tree's "God Of This City". Eh, what are we to do?

Someone pointed out that hymns very often get into that true Soprano, hi Tenor range, with melodies going well above the customary limit of C or D above middle C. And they've been going gangbusters for centuries! I once led "Happy Day" in its original key of C. Sure, it was a gas and felt good in my voice. But I knew the congregation were limited trying to hit that high E. Doing it in A from now on. I guess I'm rambling. Moral of the story? Just mainly, I guess, be aware. Be thoughtful. Don't be the rock star at the church Kim mentioned.

And Lou at the Episcopal church, God bless you man! One little tidbit I've come to ponder that might take some pressure off of us all. Really, can ANY human being "usher us into the presence of God"? Does any fallen flesh, any redeemed sinner, any woman or man like any of us know how to make that transaction into the heavenly? I think the answer is a resounding "NO". Truly, only the Holy Spirit can do that. That is, in fact, His "Job #1".

About the best any one of us can do is to prayerfully, with great humility, work to offer ourselves as the human, earlthy vessels to facilitate His work. We do the prayerful planning, the footwork, the rehearsing, the scheduling, etc. We walk onto the platform - right then we have a choice. The best choice is to lead the people in this way - be the first to offer our selves, our gifts, indeed, our worship plan, everything upon that very altar of worship before His Majesty, and then disappear and let the Holy Spirit take it from there.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Page

I am speaking as one from the congregation when the Worship leader begins to perform where I can not participate I then begin to settle in a "tude". I been in the Church culture for now 30 years and the best worship I had is where the worship leader leads us to worship. If i can't sing the note I just drop to what I can or raise up to. What I really find very sad is where worship leaders have all songs where the congregation have no clue of how to sing or have to constantly keep eyes on the words to sing. Well if I can't close my eyes while I am singing then to "me" I am just singing along not worshiping. I agree to the comment made "make sure you know your congregation" . One advantage I might have is that I listen to a Contemporary Christian music station all the time grew up in the Church culture with Hymns and Choruses so I am well versed. I love to worship whether it is on Sunday or driving down the road or walking. I have learned over the years if the person only "worships on Sunday" the worship leader has a harder problem no matter what they try. The music is going to be a never ending issue. I love banjo knee stomping music to where you want to get up and dance, I yet to see that in any congregation I have been in. If the music leads to me to give my all to God in song and voice then let it be loud or funeral slow. It all depends on my "tude" where I will go.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelvin Pierce

I think this post is very well written. I find in this aspect of 'contemporary worship' a great irony. This form of worship evolved to be more engaging than the old 3 hymns and a couple of sung responses. Yet with the high performance standards set by a commercialized music industry ( yeah its Christian but it is done for profit as well as for the Lord) the congregation is relegated to spectators once again. the more things change......

I serve mainline churches that are pretty scared of CCM and change in general. I love this style of music and worship, but I must agree with the OP and other comments that it lacks the same musical connected-ness that
is the hallmark of hymn based worship done old school when most of the folks know the music and words. Truth is churches were once the best (and sometimes only) music schools around. Wouldn't it be wonderful to merge the 'new songs' with the 'old school' practice of shaping folks musically so that they could praise God as one voice?

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarie branigan

Thanks Kim for reposting this. You are highlighting a critical issue that is increasingly impacting the church globally and will probably only increase as cultural influences continues to impact the church. I’ve been invited to present a paper on this topic next August at the Christian Congregational Music Conference in Oxford, UK. My premise comes from 40 years of helping the supposedly tone-deaf learn how to sing, and at the same time leading worship in local congregations.

The paper focuses on the growing trend of non-singing congregations, and therefore a need to develop and teach a strong biblical theology of what I call the personal singing voice, in worship. I am collecting qualitative data as a part of my research for the paper and have a brief survey for church congregations concerning this issue. I would like to invite any church’s participation in this survey. I’m particularly interested in getting surveys from congregations of churches who are effectively reaching unchurched adults. If you would like to be included in this research, you can contact me through my business’s website: or use my name, Ruth at front of the URL to email. I would also appreciate any accounts of your own experiences in encountering this growing issue.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuth King Goddard

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