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?
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,