What's Wrong with Your Music?

I was talking to a worship leader about his music. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something wrong. It just didn’t sound right. Not contemporary enough or something.

Looking at his set list, I figured he was probably trying to do contemporary worship with golden oldies like “He Is Exalted” and “I Love You, Lord.” I was shocked to see he was doing current worship hits from Hillsong United and Lincoln Brewster.

“You’re doing all the current songs, what’s wrong?” I asked. He just couldn’t articulate the problem.

After I visited his rehearsal, I heard the problem:  40- and 50-year-olds trying to play music written by 20-year-olds with synth patches and guitar effects from the 80s. They were playing modern songs in an old-fashioned way, and it just didn’t sound right.

Over six years ago when I started WorshipIdeas.com, the main question churches had was “How do I start doing contemporary worship?” Most churches were in transition from traditional to contemporary.

In 2008, the vast majority of churches have made the transition. People who come to my worship conference classes reflect this. They no longer want to know HOW to transition from traditional to contemporary; they want to know how to DO contemporary.

For instance, at my worship leader friend’s rehearsal was a mid 40s guitarist who had the cheesiest 80s chorus and reverb on his guitar. He still thought that was cool, and it was—back in the 80s. It just doesn’t work on a modern worship tune.

As a keyboardist, I grumblingly admit that guitars are where it’s at in the current worship style (in a few years, things will probably shift back to keyboards—it’s all a big cycle). This is a big issue. Guitars are vitally important to your sound. I’m amazed at how much my HymnCharts arrangements change when my guitarist friend Adam Fisher lays down some guitar tracks.

So what do you do with an out of touch guitarist?

Option 1:  You keep the guy in your band and settle for music that doesn’t sound right. Nobody’s feelings get hurt. You probably won’t attract many people under 30 to the church, as they are so tuned into music, and you probably won’t get modern players in your band, either. In fact, the pastor of the aforementioned church was frustrated that most of the congregation was over 40.

Option 2:  You kick the guy out of the band and find a 25-year-old to take his place.

Maybe there’s a 3rd option where the ball is in the court of the mid 40s guitarist. Kindly explain that you would like him to play the guitar EXACTLY as he hears it on the recording. He may not even own the proper pedals; if budget allows, buy the proper pedals or borrow them. Once he has the pedals, he may not know how to use them; show him how, and if you don’t know, find someone who does. Partner with a local music store and have a modern guitar workshop for your praise band. Make every effort to equip those in your ministry. It wouldn’t hurt to find a 25-year-old modern guitarist anyway and have him share the stage with the 40-year-old.

It’s all about change, and we worship leaders, of all people, know how people luvvv to change, don’t we? If the 40s guitarist is willing to grow, learn, and change, he’ll continue to be a valued member of the praise band. If he stubbornly refuses, maybe it’s time to look for a new player.

Time to Change

I’m hearing stories like this from churches everywhere. I know of one mid-40s guitarist who refused to use a capo and tried to get the worship leader fired because of it. Over a…capo? He thought it was beneath him, yet modern guitarists know it’s not necessarily a shortcut but a way of getting different chord voicings from the instrument. He won’t change.

Welcome to the Worship Wars. Wars start whenever a person or group feels displaced. Twenty years ago, the traditionalists were at war with the contemporaries because they were starting to be displaced. Today, the 80s rock musicians are at war with the 20-somethings for the same reason.

Let’s get right down to it:  It’s a pride issue.

Pride is saying “This is the way I’ve (we’ve) always done it, I know what I’m doing, you don’t, and I refuse to change.” Earlier I suggested you might want to look for a new guitarist if yours has this attitude—not because he can’t play the music, but as all the worship leader devotionals I’ve read say, we supposedly don’t want people on our praise teams with pride issues. How much better instead to have an open heart and mind and be willing to try something new that might be a bit out of our comfort zones?

Last week, a reader e-mailed me to lovingly point out that, at 42 years old, I’m no “spring chicken” myself, so who am I to talk? Which leads me to my next point:  if I can change, anyone can change. I’ve reinvented myself more times than Madonna. Here’s a brief rundown of my various incarnations and styles of keyboard playing:

1. Old time congregational Gospel hymn playing (running octaves in the right hand). 1986. Coat and tie.

2. Steve Green (I can remember going to a Steve Green concert years ago and thinking, “This music is so…worldly!” For those who don’t know, Steve Green was in the era of Sandi Patti, and his music basically sounded like a typical orchestrated LifeWay choir anthem.) 1989. Coat and tie.

3. Don Moen and “God with Us.” Remember when that worship musical was all the rage? 1994. Worship leader vest.

4. Matt Redman and Passion. 1999. I started wearing jeans to church, but in a business-casual sort of way (shirt tucked in).

5. Hillsong United and everything else that’s guitar-driven. 2007. My shirt’s untucked, I don’t comb my hair, and I look younger than I did at #3.

You have to admit that’s quite an impressive leap from the keyboard glissandos of #1 to the distorted guitar riffs of #5. And your guitarist can’t find it within himself to use a delay pedal? Please.

My point is where do you think I’d be today if I were still playing like it was 1986? I’ve found that musical change is not painful but quite fun and challenging. I remember hearing Matt Redman for the first time in the late 90s, towards the end of the Don Moen/Integrity heyday. I thought, “Yuck – it’s all guitars, and those chord progressions are so weird.” I went to one of WorshipTogether’s first worship conferences in Nashville, heard Matt speak, bought a CD, and fell in love with it on the ride home. The same thing happened years before when I heard Steve Green—I bought his CD after the concert and started to like it. Learning about the artist and seeing him/her in concert can give you a window into a musical style and help change your taste. If your guitarists don’t want to play like Starfield, then maybe you should take them to a Starfield concert and buy them some CDs.

The music at my last church was predominately an 80s rock sound with some Paul Baloche thrown in. When I left the music director job to focus on my Web sites a few years ago, I morphed again: I spent a wonderful year at Seacoast Greenville and basically got a crash course in rock playing from Chris Sligh, Adam Fisher, and Chris Surratt. I play keyboards completely different now than I did three years ago and can fit into a modern rock band as well as playing more churchy stuff like I previously have.

I guess that’s one fear musicians have:  they don’t want to lose their musical identity. This doesn’t happen at all—you stay the same and can do whatever you did before, it’s just that you can now do so much more. You’re versatile.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of playing at a very contemporary, cutting-edge church. After rehearsal, the mid 20′s rock-starish worship leader came up to me and gushed over my keyboard playing. I took this as one of the greatest compliments of my life—a contemporary rocker complimenting a…dork like me! If I can change, anyone can change.

This goes for all musical walks of life. I was talking to a songwriter recently who hopes to have her songs recorded and published. The problem is they all sound like old-time Gospel songs. I told her if she seriously wants a publisher to look at her material, she needs to write like it’s 2008. “Do you ever listen to Christian radio?” I asked. She wrinkled her nose. I gave her an assignment:  start listening to the radio and buy Christian CDs. Don’t just listen but analyze the songs; what makes a modern tune sound differently from a Gospel song from the 60s?

At a recent worship conference, I noticed that a workshop on contemporary singing was jammed with hundreds of people. Evidently, another new worship war centers around displaced, operatic housewives who no longer are asked to sing solos or be on the praise team because their warbling won’t fit the modern worship songs.

The choice is yours. If you don’t want to change, the world won’t stop turning, but do you really want to be…

  • …a bitter guitarist who doesn’t get to play with the band as much because he can’t part with those dated effects?
  • …a vibrato vocalist who doesn’t get to sing as many solos because her voice doesn’t fit contemporary styles?
  • …a grouchy keyboardist who wonders why he’s only asked to play hymns at the nursing home and not play with the praise band?

Did I mention if I can change, anyone can change? It’s really fun, you ought to try it.

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Arranger/composer Don Chapman is the creative energy behind several websites devoted to contemporary worship: HymnCharts, WorshipFlow, and WorshipIdeas.com. He's the editor of the weekly WorshipIdeas newsletter that is read by over 50,000 worship leaders across the world.