Experiments in Worship Music: Simplify


Huge, soaring anthems fill the cavernous, modern cathedral. The house lights are low, but the theater style lighting illuminates the front of the room like a southern lightning storm in summer. The melodies and harmonies weave their way through a wall of sound created by ambient effects and expensive electronics.

Singers bounce around in the spotlight with perfect apparel and perfectly groomed faux-hawks and streaked bobs, while the band fills the dim space on the stage beneath the flashing barrage of media on the giant screens at the back.

“Holy, holy, holy,” the words scroll across the screens, while the gathered crowd looks on with a casual, half-engaged familiarity.

“If you build it they will come…”

“Bigger is better…”

“We need to be relevant…”

You’ve heard them all before. Our modern, stadium rock style worship gatherings have grown and grown and grown. Not that there’s anything wrong with using the latest style and technology as tools to reach people, especially if we’re seeing the fruit of God-centered change in people’s lives, but I’m beginning to grow weary of the bigger is better mentality in the realm of worship music.

And many leaders in the Church at large are growing weary of this rock-concert style approach to worship as well. It’s not that it’s bad, but sometimes we just need to check our motives.

Most modern worship leaders are familiar with the Matt Redman song Heart of Worship and the story behind it. For those of you who aren’t, here’s the nutshell version. The church was in a season of dryness. The leadership decided to focus on true worship. They got rid of the sound system and the worship band for a season and gathered for worship with only their God-given instruments, their hands and voices. The song was birthed out of a simple desire to remind the congregants of what true worship was. Obviously the song went international and has been a blessing to worshipers worldwide, but it’s neat to know that the goal of the song was to help people SIMPLIFY not to be a chart topper.

The gauntlet I’m throwing out today is for worship leaders, pastors, and those who have any sway and influence in the “setting” of worship that is created each week as we gather to worship in our churches to ponder the idea of simplifying (even if for short seasons).

In a recent interview with Josh White, I was blessed by his approach to leading worship in a fairly new church plant. They use simple, acoustic guitar driven music (folk/bluegrass) because it is the musical language of the culture where they serve there in East Portland. They’re also aware of the fact that the second you start adding electric guitars and synth pads and “rock” out arrangements the more you can possibly alienate people. Granted not everyone loves bluegrass, but the idea that simple, acoustic worship music can connect  with everyone from grandma to a sixteen-year-old, just makes plain sense.

Sure you might reach a specific people group with “pop” or “rock” worship, but you also run the risk of alienating a whole lot more people. This isn’t a slam on our modern worship, but a challenge to worship leadership to step outside of the latest stylistic trends and to ask themselves the question: Are there any ways that we can simplify from time to time, to connect with our people better.

The honest, and sometimes unpalatable, truth for us as worship leaders is that we’re not all called to be Tomlins or Brewsters or Baloches in our performances. Seek individuality. More so, seek the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit for YOUR culture right where you serve. God might be asking you to scale down for a season, or even once a quarter.

Simplify. One of my songwriting heroes is Ben Pasley. I had the honor of attending an intimate, songwriting intensive he put on back in November 03. I remember almost every part of that weekend vividly because it had such a profound effect on my songwriting. One of the things that stuck out for me was his encouragement and challenge to me to just be me. To be who God made me. To let that come out in my writing.

Another thing that he challenged me in was to write Scripture truths simply. Not necessarily watered down or unpoetic, but simple and graspable. One of the reasons his “Enter the Worship Circle” events are so successful is because the songs and the arrangements are so accessible. Another almost ridiculously obvious part of the success is the idea of a CIRCLE. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to set up “in the round” but creating an atmosphere where people feel like they are joining hands and forming a circle (remember your childhood games?) is key. He usually invites local college musicians to sit in with him. The night is a God-centered gathering of people who are able to come in and connect quickly.

I’m a big advocate for strong, tight, excellent performance. I think if we’re going to use our talents in music and tech to glorify God then we ought to be the best we can be. However, I also believe that if we’re not careful we can create a disconnect in our worship gatherings by being TOO performance oriented. We really need to seek God’s wisdom in creating that “circle” where people lock arms with us and we all WORSHIP TOGETHER! If that’s not happening we’re just entertaining, aren’t we?

What are some ways that you can simplify going into next year? Acoustic sets? Singable songs? Simpler arrangements? Change of focus?

Remember it’s not all about doing this to be trendy. The goal is to be available to use whatever musical vocabulary that connects with your people right where they are while at the same time facilitating true worship in your gatherings. If you’re going to err to one side, it’d definitely be better to err in the facilitating worship side.

Are you truly effective if all you do is make “cool” music but never affect any real life change?

I challenge you to experiment. Maybe you have a quarterly “simple” worship night on a special night. Maybe you have a few times a year where the “regular” service set is a scaled down set. Maybe you have a bonfire cookout and encourage all the “pickers and grinners” to come out and “sing-a-long” around the fire. Maybe you have your worship team take a break while you all sing acapella for a song or two during the worship service. Maybe they take a break for the entire set!

What are your thoughts and ideas?