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Changing it up: When expression grows stale

I’ve been listening to Future of Forestry a lot.

There’s something charming about carefully crafted music.

Perhaps it’s the eerie melodies, or the way they’re able to dominate space and rhythm. Maybe it’s the emotive themes, the joy behind the sadness, or their addiction to the Glockenspiel. But when one of their tracks is playing, my soul begins to resonate.

Unfortunately, much of the music that I’m expected to listen to as a worship leader is not this way.

Popular worship tunes will sometimes have catchy hooks, but “catchy” doesn’t move my soul anymore than “popular” does. Eric Owyoung and FOF keep the beautifully arranged music coming, even back in the Something Like Silas days—Hume anybody?—but when I turn on the rest of Christian radio, it feels as though many worship leader/song writers are being arranged by the music itself (or the “worship” industry). Some worship albums sound like something I listened to—and vaguely tolerated—in the early nineties. Truth be told, I don’t drive down Highway 101 pumping worship music. If I’m on a road trip, I’m probably listing to a lot of synth-pop, heavily-layered electronic music, rockabilly, crooners, experimental, etc., because that’s the music that deeply affects me.

A typical worship album doesn’t cause the endorphins to make a mad rush for my head, just as reading the Spark Notes version of The Brothers Karamazov will cause me to feel the spiritual drama of modernized Russia. I need artistic, authentic expression, not a Dove award nominee. But this is generally what happens when music starts sounding like a Xerox of everything that’s been done before, packaged with the same lyrics, rhyme schemes, pop hooks, and arrangements…yet adulated as “worship” because the lyrics fit a stencil of what can be sung along to by the majority of Christians. My burning question: When did worship move from being an expression of music to a style of music?

I am bit reluctant to accept mediocre music just because the lyrics say something true about God.

That being said, I have heard a few Christian bands begin to stretch the boundaries of music for something beautiful—FOF’s haunting acoustic ballad, “If You Find Her,” Elevation’s strangely handsome rendition of “All Creatures,” and the creative dance that Aaron Keyes engages his instruments with on the song “Dwell“—and that makes me excited.

But I’ve also come to grips that I’m finding more honest expression in secular arts by virtue of their musicality, while praying for more Christians, who like J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, will lead the artistic charge rather than follow it. Unfortunately, I do not have that gift, so I will find inspiration where it exists, and reclaim it for the glory of God.

Abraham Kuyper once said,

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’

Well, there’s my que.

Sometimes you gotta go out to the barn to find the right kitchen tool.

But who knows—maybe after an hour of scavenging the barn, you’ll realize that when you were last in the kitchen, you were defiantly using grandma’s cookie cutter for the perfect Crème brûlée of foie gras.

What does all of this have to do with missional millennials?

Well, I’ve shared about enjoying Jesus through the lens of music. But all Christians enjoy Jesus through a variety of ways, and therefore, we have a lot of opportunities to grow stale in what we sometimes call “spiritual disciplines.”

How do YOU keep it fresh?

Choosing a worship setlist

These are a few questions I ask myself when putting together a song list for Sunday morning.

  1. Trinitarian (is it about the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?)
  2. Congregational (can it be sung by many people, or only an individual?)
  3. Truthful (does it say right things about God?)
  4. Affectionate (Can people express themselves through the song? FYI, this may include my grief)
  5. Catchy (see #2)
  6. Narrative (does the entire setlist tell a story?)
  7. Unifying (does it work with the sermon?)
  8. Prophetic (is it for our local gathering?)
  9. Dynamic (is it boring, tedious, or mundane? In other words, will it MELT YOUR FACE OFF!)
  10. Rich (is the content befitting a King?)

(The ones in italics are variable)

Any thoughts on song choice for worship gatherings? I hear from worship leaders on this, but rarely from the congregation themselves (or preachers, for that matter).

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