Westwinds puts a high priority on being indigenous. Sermons, initiatives, missional endeavors, children’s curriculum, graphic design, visual art, songs, etc. Being indigenous is one of our plumblines—something that is not right or wrong but very important to us in the way we approach ministry. Indigenous means, local, homegrown, native, etc. This approach to ministry is very truthful and honest to who we are. We often say, “We grow our own WE.” Indigenous worship is not just about feeling good about ourselves or stroking our ego (though there is a good deal of healthy pride in creating out of our experience). It is more about being truthful and current in communicating and celebrating what God is doing in US. NOW.
I’ve written a lot about indigenous worship music on this blog and I dedicated a good portion of my book, “Quirky Leadership” to it as well. Weekly I get questions, emails, and comments about original music in church. So, I thought I’d take the time to answer some of those questions here and frame the discussion a bit different.
Here are some questions I received in 2013:
Q: I’ve heard you encourage churches to write their own music. Why not just sing the songs that people hear on the radio?
A: I don’t know what radio station your people are listening to. I think you are referring to the songs someone might hear on Christian radio. In this case, there may be a song here and there that is well written and works well for your congregation. If so, go for it. We also hear songs from time to time on secular radio that work well as worship songs in our environment. I’d encourage you to give that a shot as well. A well-written song is a well-written song.
We are not entirely impressed with the music that is being played on Christian radio today. We are allergic to songs that sound formulaic, uniform, similar, and that aren’t really well written. So, it feels a bit cookie-cutter to us to pilfer songs that aren’t true to who we are. Just because it’s on the radio, it doesn’t make it good or good for us.
We encourage our writers to create music that is born out of our own story, from our own people, with words we believe and want to sing.
Q: How many original songs are too many to sing in church? Should we bring in other people’s songs as well? My pastor says it makes it easy for visiting believers and Christians looking for a new church to fit in.
A: I want to know who started the rumor that we need to sing other people’s songs in the first place. If you find him or her, I want a word with them.
Sure, it’s nice to go visit another church or go to a Christian concert and know the words. Sure, it’s nice to move into a new town and find a church that is singing the songs you used to sing back home. But, that is not the goal of worship music. If the goal is to sing what other Christians are singing somewhere else to make it easy for another Christian to transfer to your church that’s a crazy goal. If the goal is to sing the same songs to make it easy to visit another church that’s dumb.
Any time a new song is introduced from any source, there is a learning curve. Let the visitors and the seasoned Christians take a few weeks to learn your new songs. Pretty soon, they’ll be learning new songs right along with your own people.
Psalm 96:1-3 says, “Sing a new song to the Lord! Let the whole earth sing to the Lord! Sing to the Lord; praise his name. Each day proclaim the good news that he saves. Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.”
We don’t sing new songs because God gets bored. We sing new songs because there are always new reasons to praise him. The story is always changing. Our lives are finding new meaning in Him. Our circumstances change.
When we sing a new song, that song better ring true to our story. The best way we have found to adequately represent what God is doing in us and around us is to write our own music.
Q: My pastor says our songs aren’t as good as the ones he hears on the radio so he won’t let us write. What do we do?
Well, he may be right. But that just means you have to work harder at your craft. If it means enough to you, keep bringing your newer and better stuff to your pastor so he can see and hear the improvement. Pray he’ll give it a chance. Most people don’t write great songs from the start. It’s a craft and an art that takes time and dedication.
Talk to him about the wonderful benefits to your community of faith and your songwriters including the pastoral opportunities you have with them to shape their stories, disciple them, build camaraderie, create pride in your faith community, celebrate people honing their gifts and abilities and finding their place in the kingdom.
P.S. Your pastor’s sermons probably weren’t that great at first either. Maybe they still aren’t (please don’t tell him I said that).
Q: People have been singing other people’s songs for years. Why change it now?
A: Interesting. And only partly true.
We have always had a rich history of singing the words of scripture. Many of those melodies have been preserved and shared through the ages. Some have not.
Imagine a time before the Internet. Before Mp3’s. Before printed sheet music. Before email. Before easy and affordable travel. The cherished hymn writers had to start somewhere. They took pen (or quill) to paper and jotted down their thoughts like we still do. Then, they had to have an audience. Maybe they shared the song with their family. Maybe a friend or two. Eventually though, someone else had to sing it. The only reason Church B in Boston started singing Church A’s song from New York is because Church A started singing that song!
Once upon a time, your church would have sung Jewish and Byzantine monophonic chants (later and now known as Gregorian chant). Then, sometime during the 9th century, your harmony singers would have been thrilled as church music incorporated 2 or more melodic lines. In the 12th and 13th century your church may have learned a new song from a traveling minstrel or troubadour. But all those songs started somewhere. And we can trace many of these songs back to their origins. To small communities. Or, to large cathedrals intent on writing good music. The music took a long time to spread. And, it always had a point of origin.
Today, church music still has a point of origin. And sadly, in many cases, that point of origin is songwriters sitting in a room writing music for a music company that will then distribute that music in 5 minutes (hyperbole) for the public to consume.
I have dozens of friends that are in the industry and are maddened by this process. They all want to go back to a time when it was simple and true for them as musicians. When was that time? When they were writing songs for their own church. Out of their own experience.
Q: Our church is thinking about writing our own songs. How do we start?
A: For us, it was as simple as discerning who had songwriting skills and mining for those who wanted to learn the craft. Then, it just takes time. Patience. And most of all TRUST. New songwriters need to look at their songs like they would a college paper. Expect to do rewrites. Expect to have theology challenged. Expect to have conversations about trite phrases and cliché rhymes. Expect to be challenged to write better. Expect not everyone to like your song.
Write some songs. Ask a larger group of people what they think. Play the songs in other venues. Get feedback. Then, try it out with your congregation.
Q: Are there advantages to singing other people’s songs instead of our own?
A: As a rule? No. But, if you find a good song that is true to your shared story, go for it! Celebrate it. We don’t write our own songs just to buck the system. Although, sometimes the system is worth bucking. Don’t do ANY song “just because” it is available and/or easy.
Q: What if you have a great song that isn’t easy to sing?
A: Good question. Some of the songs we do are harder to sing than others. Some have easy choruses and harder verses. Some take a long time to learn and aren’t easy to pick up on. But, if we think it’s good, we do it. If we think it’s good but it’s way too difficult for people to sing along with, we may just do it as a feature song. Just something we share.
Ephesians 5:19 tells us to be filled with the Spirit “ . . . speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” Sometimes, the songs that come from the heart aren’t simple and we certainly don’t want them to be dumbed down.
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs give us a lot of freedom. God does not have a prescribed format for us. Different tempos, different themes, different stylings . . . God loves all these things. Sometimes songs are good to set the mood, celebrate, have fun, make a point, raise an issue. Some songs are about our journey. Some songs invite everyone to sing along. Some songs call out the name of God. Some songs are prayers. Some songs are responses. It’s all good with God.
We tend to steer clear of songs that say the same thing over and over. Or, songs that say the same thing a lot of other songs say. We don’t like songs that use the same easy rhyme schemes. We challenge ourselves to say things differently. Just like a good preacher does.
Harder songs may take longer to learn. That’s okay. If it’s too difficult, you’ll know soon enough. Then, retire it. We’ve tried out dozens of songs that didn’t work well for us—originals and covers.
But remember, good songs aren’t always easy. How many people do you know that sing along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody?” A TON. It’s fun to sing. But, it’s not easy. It took a lot of repetition for them to learn that song.
Sometimes worship songs should be easy. But not always.
DO YOU HAVE OTHER QUESTIONS? IF SO, JOIN THE CONVERSATION HERE.
MY CO-PASTOR AND FRIEND, DAVID DID A RECENT AUDIO POST ON SOME OTHER BENEFITS OF INDIGENOUS WORSHIP AND SONGWRITING ON HIS BLOG FOSSORES.COM HERE.