Last week I talked about the four main reasons that we don't sing 'Praise & Worship' standards at the church I weekly lead in music.Today I'll share the five main pools from which we draw our songs.
So What Songs DO You Use? I have a somewhat unofficial ethos: NO CCLI. This is the way of reporting song usage to those who collect and distribute royalties to songwriters and publishers. Basically, you buy a license and tell them what songs you sing every week and they channel money to labels, publishers, and authors. This is where my DIY/Indie-Rock-Foreverz sensibilities come through most practically. The church I lead music at does not have a CCLI license. Because we don't sing CCLI songs I hope we never will. While I am happy that composers get paid when people use their work, I have seen too much of the 'Christian Music Industry' to think there's anything particularly 'Christian' about it. Major labels and publishing houses have created a muliti-million dollar industry that I hope we simply don't have to ever be part of. (See Michael Gungor's rant.)
Though we don't have everything figured out, I think we can create music more authentic, more local, and more effective with some blood, sweat, failure, and tears. Therefore, with only a handful of exceptions over the years, here are the five types of songs that we generally use.
1) Updated Hymns - Almost every week I try to include at least one of the classic Christian Hymns that we have updated musically. Public domain classics such as Come Thou Fount, How Great Thou Art, or Amazing Grace make regular appearances. Keeping the general melody in tact can help the long-time church goers as well as newbies connect to some theologically rich roots of the faith. There is a huge movement these days to reclaim these lost classics as I believe that people are getting tired of the mindless mishmash of throwing church-words together at random. [Note* Lyrics over 100 years old are considered 'public domain', musically its a little unclear, but these centuries old classics are safe.] We will discuss updating hymns in a future post.
2) Indigenous Songs - One of the most effective ways of creating a unique and authentic worship experience is through singing songs written in the community. Servant Church is blessed with tons of great musicians and songwriters, so this happens naturally for us. It might not for you. As a leader in your community you can pastor your people towards creativity rather than emulation. Songs such as All Things New and God of the Dead are a couple examples for Servant Church.
3) Songs of Our Friends - I would always suggest that your musicians have a musical life outside the Sunday church walls. I certainly do and I think it has made me much better at making music on Sundays. I would also suggest that you encourage your folks to make music with those who don't call themselves Christians. Through these relationships your people will influence and be influenced by the musical world around you, not to mention the relational value earned. Most interestingly is when you can go to one of these folks and say 'I love this song... can I use it at my church?' Or even more interestingly is when you can extend the invite 'would you be up for coming to play this number with us on Sunday?' Two such examples for us are Been in This War for Too Long and Revolution Choir.
4) Excavated Songs - It has been said that one of my good friends, Seth Woods, was a master 'song archeologist'. What does that mean? It means that he could find lyrics from ancient sources, whether it be monastic poems, creeds, or hymns who's music and melody has long been lost, and set them powerfully to music. One can unearth beautiful sentiments and thoughts from long ago, dust them off, clean them up, and give them new life on the tongues of your people. Come Down O Love Divine, Tellurius Ingens Conditar, Magnus Deus Potantaie, and In The Kings Garden are all excellent examples from Seth's catalog. Zion Founded on the Mountains and Let Thy Blood in Mercy Poured are examples from the Gentle Wolves. These songs work well for us because they combine ancient roots with the life and art of today's Christ-follower, thus creating something meaningfully old and uniquely new.
5) Famous People's Songs - Finally, perhaps the most fun is playing other people's songs. This is NOT playing a Kelly Clarkson song about a boy and changing the lyrics from 'baby' to 'Jesus'. Nor does this mean we become a cover band. The goal is not to play songs that people already know, but instead to curate a unique and powerful musical experience using buried gems that your people can make their own. When done well it can introduce everyone to some good music that gets them thinking about the topic on hand. Ambiguity, vagueness, and doubt are par for the course. There is often a fine line between effective use and missing the target all together. For us these are songs from unlikely sources who would have no concept of CCLI, CCM, or the Dove Awards. A couple good examples are Jesus Gonna Be Here by Tom Waits (pictured above), and There is A Kingdom by Nick Cave. The best part is that these songs songs can be sung together in worship rather than relegated simply to 'special music'. Let me tell you, there's nothing more intense and sweet than hearing 150 of your closest friends wail away together on a Mahalia Jackson scorcher.
Where do you get your songs from? How can you bring more creativity to the process rather than simply playing in a cover band?
Next time we'll look at what a normal week of worship looks like for us as far as song selection, especially focusing on 'Me and God' vs. 'Us and God' songs.
This is part of a series called Sunday Noise which is aimed at helping pastors, lay leaders, music directors, and worship leaders begin to think critically and creatively about the music in their worship gatherings.