One of my favorite hobbies is discovering lesser-known Christian artists and listening to their entire output on repeat. I’ve come across some wonderful artists who have established careers and impressive catalogs of songs…so why aren’t we using their work in worship?
Aside from overt issues of heresy and immorality, perhaps my biggest concern when it comes to the Bethel/Hillsong debate is that using their music despite controversies evidences a lack of patience—both on the part of worship leaders and participants.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have at least a few concerns about Bethel and Hillsong. Having to change theologically troublesome words gives us pause. Financially contributing to shifty organizations doesn’t make us feel great. We may not have a strong view against Bethel and Hillsong, but few of us seem to be adamantly for them without qualifiers.
So if we are not totally for Bethel and Hillsong, what leads us to program their music so frequently?
You see, songs by megachurches are popular on Christian radio stations and Spotify playlists. They are familiar, whether we like it or not, and this renders them the easiest choice for congregational singing. If the majority of people know the songs already, more people will sing confidently in worship. This is not necessarily a bad principle; we want everyone to sing, so planning music that everyone knows is worthwhile.
However, we do not just come to church to hear what we know. Instead, we gather to hear what we know and to learn about what we don’t. We come to be reminded and to be instructed.
That said, programming music that congregants already know is a good thing, but should it be the only thing?
A huge part of worship leadership is not just playing the songs people want to hear but the songs they need to hear. I try to do this by planning one or two familiar hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” etc.) each week, alongside one or more hymns that tie directly into the sermon or scripture readings—regardless of whether these are the most well-known.
Now, here is an important distinction. Liturgical traditions tend to view singing as kerygmatic, a form of proclamation and instruction. Contemporary churches tend to use music (whether they consciously view it this way or not) reflectively. It is meant to engender an emotional response to the sermon, which carries the bulk of the service’s theological weight.
However, regardless of these distinctions, we need to consider whether our musical worship is rooted in and practicing patience or not. Are we programming Bethel’s music because it is familiar and helps people sing? Or are we programming it because it’s the most readily available option? Are we using Hillsong’s pieces because they reinforce the message of the week? Or we are using them because they’re accessible and can be played without having to “bear with” people as they learn a less-familiar but more relevant song?
If any of these questions gave you pause, here are a few things to consider:
- Include at least one song per service that is less popular but more theological. Use it often enough to work it into your congregation members’ minds and voices.
- Spend time listening to less famous Christian artists. You’ll likely find some gems who are not only “above reproach” morally but also write deeply scriptural and beautiful songs. My current favorite is Wendell Kimbrough.
- Try writing original songs. Songwriting used to be an expected part of worship leading in ye olden days, so why are we so quick to use popular songs instead of stewarding those only we can write?
- Host a songwriting session. If you don’t feel equipped to do this on your own, invite your band members to join you for a co-write. Even if your final product is not used in worship, this will be a fruitful time of sharing ideas, refining your craft, and flexing your creative muscle!
- Return to the hymns. Reawaken Hymns offers wonderful resources for implementing theologically rich hymns in contemporary worship. The hymns tend to follow a theological progression from start to finish, so don’t be afraid to sing all their verse!
- Sing the Psalms. Psalm-singing has sadly vanished from the contemporary evangelical church, but “scripture’s songbook” remains powerful and worth singing. Invest time into finding singable arrangements of the Psalms and teaching them to your congregation.
- Be okay with discomfort. If you want to avoid awkward silences, off-key practicing, and the stilted singing of new songs…well, carry on with Bethel and Hillsong. But if you want to cultivate patience—”bearing with” one another toward fruitfulness—be okay with the discomfort of introducing and learning new songs. (Congregants, this goes for you too! Be willing to learn something new, even if it isn’t immediately accessible.)
Have you tried any of these in your services? Will you? Let me know by filing out the contact form.
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