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What Makes a Good Congregational Worship Song?

One of my students (Hello Tina!) just sent me a version of How Great Thou Art by Ascend the Hill to share what she was playing for this week.  I believe both of us had a similar question about this version.  Is this a good song for the the congregation to sing?  Please don’t hear me saying anything against the band Ascend the Hill or any worship leader who would play this song for a worship service!  It just makes me wonder what criteria this worship leader has for the songs chosen for his/her church.  Perhaps this version of How Great Thou Art is perfect for this congregation, or maybe it’s just a cool version that might be fun to play.

So, what makes a good worship song?  Is it a matter of taste?  How do you or your church decide what your congregation should be singing on a given Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on how I chose songs when leading:

First, I think we would all agree that the song must agree with our church’s theology.  Not much more needs to be said here.

Second, Is it singable?  I always believed that one key job as worship leader is to invite and lead all voices to sing and praise together.  Can I arrange it in a key that allows my congregation to sing comfortably (It was always painful when I messed this one up:-).  Further, is the melody line something that most of my congregation could “catch”?  Was there a good identifiable rhythm to the lyrics?

Third, can I and my musicians represent the song well?  It’s difficult to hear a team of musicians, who have no feel for a black gospel song, to force a John P. Kee song on themselves and the congregation.  Everyone feels uncomfortable, even the babies!  Just because you heard an awesome arrangement of “Down at the Cross, does not mean you need to attempt to do it!  I say this as someone who has done this before, and greatly regret it!  I’m all for taking risks, but I would encourage all worship leaders, in churches large and small, to calculate those risks.

Another note on arrangements:  If you really like a song and believe it would serve your congregation well, perhaps you can work out an arrangement that fits your team of musicians.  Create arrangements based on the sound and talent levels of your team!  You just might surprise yourself!

Fourth, respect the congregation.  Does this song fit your culture?  Am I leading my 75% senior congregation in songs I think are awesome, or am I trying to help them worship?  In other words, am I leading with songs in their “language”?   First, respect and serve the congregation with your music choices.  If you do this I believe you will earn their respect, and later, the freedom to lead them into new musical frontiers:-)

Have a great Sunday!



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What One Habit…?

…if developed would make the greatest positive change in your life?  Being on time?  Being organized?  Maintaining a regular practice routine?  Devotional time?  Scheduled time with your wife and/or kids?

So many times I would feel the need to change a bunch of habits at one time then, get frustrated with myself for failing at my efforts.  Then, I would simply quit.  But, then I heard someone (I wish I could remember who!) talking about finding one habit you could change and focusing on that for 30 days.  When one habit is changed for the better, there’s ripple effect that will over into other areas of your life.

For me, I decided to focus on being more organized.  What I began to realize was that there was less frustration within the family because dad had a better idea of his schedule.  Further, I was more prepared to leave the house on time, my wife and I had a monthly date night planned, which will lead to growth in our relationship.  You see how this one thing will lead to positive change in other areas?  No habit ever affects one area of your life.  If I’m constantly late, my job will be threatened, my anxiety level elevated and family tensions will be raised as well.  The same goes for other negative habits.

So, think about a habit you can begin working on changing.  Make a commitment to change, and be patient with yourself.  I’m not there yet, but the thinking about the goal keeps me motivated to continue my pursuit!  Go get’em!

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Further Thoughts on Churches Hiring Musicians

It would be hypocritical of me to say that churches shouldn’t hire outside worship musicians, because I’ve been one of those “hired” musicians for the past 3 years.  However, I think it good for a worship leader to create a team out of the musicians who are already part of the fellowship.  

Opportunities for Creativity and Mentorship

There’s no doubt it can be quite challenging to work only with the musicians you have from within your congregation. I remember times when I had only a few musicians who had no background in the music genres I wanted to play.  Frustrating?  Yes, but it also became a great opportunity to create new arrangements of songs that fit our congregation’s personality and culture, as well as a chance to mentor some young musicians.

Stop “Hiring” and Start Blessing

On the other end, I experienced the blessing of being paid as a worship musician at a number of churches in my area.  Most of this work came to at a time when I did not have a regular staff position and needed the income.  I was, and will continue to be so thankful for the generosity of those churches and the worship leaders who called me to play with their team!  Although I received a check for playing bass and a 1099 from each of those churches, I was also extremely blessed to have been a part of those worship teams.  So, instead of worship leaders being concerned with hiring an outside musician, what if your church sought to bless those musicians by giving them a generous check for helping lead your worship service?


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Should Churches Hire Outside Musicians?

A few years ago, I was being interviewed for a worship leader position.  I was asked to share my opinion regarding churches hiring outside musicians to play for worship.  I told them that I’m all for it, when I’m the one being hired to play:-).  But, it really is a question that churches and worship leaders need to deal with.  So, I’d really like to hear from others on this.

Have you ever been “hired” to play for another church’s worship service?  Does your church pay outside musicians to play for worship or holiday services?  Is this something churches should be doing?  Why or why not?

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Have You Ever Made Your Own Cover Vid?

No?  You should.  It’s a great way to test your playing when under a little pressure from camera and to be your own critic.  Recording yourself either audio or video will always help you to identify your weak areas and to assess your musicianship.  By the way, I’m not suggesting you need to post your cover video, unless you want to.  Chances are you might never record it if your worried about everything looking right and having a good quality camera and lighting for YouTube.  Eliminate that burden and just record yourself for you.

I prescribed this a few times for one of my Skype students and have found it to be very helpful for me as her teacher, but also believe it’s been helpful for her.  Visually, you get to see your technique, how your fingers are working on the neck and if you look like you’re struggling or at ease with the song.

So, learn a song and then, turn on the camera and record yourself a cover vid.  Who knows, you might discover that you really like being in front of the camera!


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One of the Most Fun (and productive) Ways to Practice

A Lesson from The Music Lesson

I highly recommend the audio version of Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson.  The book is a dramatization of Victor’s story of how he went from being a bass player and grew to become a musician.  Although Christians might have a difficult time with some of the spirituality of the book, I would encourage everyone to give it a listen, or a read. Among the many gems of musical insight found in the book, one of the first things that hit me was the importance of practicing with others, jamming.  Victor’s mentor, Michael, tells Victor that he has the opportunity to jam with the greatest musicians in history, anytime he wants to.  How?  By playing along with all of the recordings he had sitting in his room.  This is even easier for us to do now then when Victor wrote the book some 10 years ago!

Let Your Heroes Motivate You

Let’s face it, practicing is difficult and requires self-discipline and a little extra motivation.  That motivation will come much easier if we get to play along with some of our favorite musical artists.  So, maybe you’re not playing your scales or practicing your fingering.   You are, however, doing something.  Playing along with recordings is crucial to developing our musical style and talent.  Don’t neglect it!  If you don’t do anything else today, jam with one of your heroes.

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Want to Practice More? Keep Your Bass Out of the Case

It’s time to practice.  I’ve got a few minutes to work on some licks, scales or new songs, but I’ve got to take my bass out of the case, and the room’s a mess, and my amp is put away.  There’s just not enough time to make it worth it.

Ever have that happen?  Here’s one simple suggestion, keep your bass available at all times.  Have your amp out as well.  In fact, have the bass plugged in to the amp so you can pick it up any time you feel like playing something.  Almost every day I have run down to my studio to play something I’ve been thinking about, or to try a new technique, or song idea.  I do this because I know my bass is sitting there, or hanging on the wall, ready to be played at a moment’s notice.

I know you might not have a dedicated area for your instrument, but perhaps you might try to think of a creative way to display it or have it out on a nice looking stand, ready and waiting for you to pay it some attention:-).

Play something inspirational today!


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One Thing You Can Do Right Now to Practice More Effectively

The Art of Slowing Down

When ever I would practice a lick or scale, my goal was SPEED!  Therefore, I figured it would better to learn the lick, scale or song at the speed it’s actually played.  However, the more I read and the, most importantly the more I practice, I’ve realized the importance of doing one thing, Slowing Down!

Do this one thing for one week.

Find a lick that you’d like to master, perfect, play quickly and spend 7 days practicing that lick repetitively and slowly.  Take 5-10 minutes a day to do this and see how you perform the lick at the end of the week.

For a great blog on practicing see this post in The Bulletproof Musician

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What if the Adulterous Woman Had a Relapse??

Do you believe that the adulterous woman, so lovingly forgiven by Jesus, never had another moment of sexual sin? What if she did it again??  Would Jesus have showed her the same loving, caring, and  welcoming grace that He showed her the first time (John 8)?  Would you have forgiven her again?

The Adulterous Woman in Today’s Christian Culture

What if she was a member of your church?  What if she was, in today’s terms, co-dependent or a struggling sex addict?What if she lived in today’s world and went on to blog about her struggles, or maybe go on to write some of the most powerful songs about the darkness of sin and the beautiful, endless supply of God’s grace and Christ’s love?  What if some of her songs made it to popular Christian radio stations?  How do you think we, the evangelical Christian community, would respond?  Outcry?  Rage, that someone so sinful would be affiliated with the Christian music community?   Would you think her music should be played on a different radio station, or none at all?

Now, let’s change it up a little.  What if this woman had the same struggles, same occasional sinful failures, but was able to keep it all hidden from the public?  Her songs were good, but less candid.  No one knew about her continued pain and struggle with sin but her pastor and closest friends?  Her music continued to be successful and be used in church services and performances around the world.

What do you think Jesus would do with that?

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3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Sunday

How should a worship musician prepare for Sunday?  Here are a few questions to ask yourself that I hope will help with your personal Sunday prep.

1. How can I serve my worship leader and band members?

As worship musicians, we need to remember the importance of humility and servanthood.  Knowing all the music and parts is only part of our calling.  Is there something extra you can do for someone, bring coffee, donuts, or something else that will bring a smile to some faces.  Perhaps you can arrive extra early to help other members set up their gear or help organize the music.  Playing your bass in a humble supportive way is also a great way to serve.  In other words, don’t play to show-off the latest lick, unless it really serves the song well.

2. Do I know all songs and have played through each of them by myself?

Knowing the songs is probably the best way to serve the team and congregation!  However, sometimes we don’t take the extra time to reinforce our knowledge and familiarity of the song list.  Take time to, at least, go over each song, use metronome or recording (if your team uses the same arrangement).  Highlight repeats, codas and other confusing chart issues (I’ve spent much time searching for codas while the band played on:-).

3. What obstacles will get in the way of me being and playing my best?

If you’re always late, then think through what you need to do to avoid it and TAKE ACTION!  If you tend to think you’ll figure the song out during rehearsal, because it’s really not too difficult, then learn it NOW.  We all have bad habits and patterns that we can predict will cause us (and the worship team) trouble.  Be honest with yourself, acknowledge those habits and patterns; be proactive against them.  Think about how you’ll feel if you have some victories over them!  I’m speaking from too many experiences with my own embarrassing mistakes and bad habits.  This is something I often overlook, but am learning to think through more proactively.

Play to inspire this weekend!