Things are not as simple for worship leaders/church music directors as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a more complicated thing.
There are now more songs to choose from than ever, at an increasingly rapid speed, coming from big publishers, independent artists, local churches, Christian radio, social media feeds, conferences, carrier pigeons, and their distant relatives, hipsters. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on introducing a new song to our congregation that was written in 2012, a newer new song comes along that’s even newer, making the new song we thought was new feel pretty old. Confused? You should be.
Studio albums. Live albums. EPs. Singles. Free downloads. Deluxe versions. Acoustic versions. Recorded on a beach versions. Recorded on top of a mountain versions. A lot of it is really good stuff! A lot of it is not-so-good stuff… And when you add it all together, it’s just a lot of new stuff to sort through, even if you had nothing else to do all week long than listen to all the new stuff. And even then you’d be out-of-touch if you took a few weeks off.
In the ancient past, known as the “1990s”, when a “new” song really caught on, like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” or “Shout to the Lord”, that new song (for better or worse…) stuck around in a church’s repertoire for a substantial period of time, even until present-day. Nowadays, in the era of worship song abundance (again, not a bad thing, just a more complicated thing), when a new song catches on, it might disappear several months later when new crop of new songs come on the scene.
What’s the result? Two things are happening: First, worship leaders are overwhelmed and inundated, possibly discouraged that they can’t keep up, and either resisting or succumbing to the pressure and marketing that screams at them to stay relevant. Second, congregations are being asked to learn more new songs than they can handle, aren’t given the opportunity to sing these new songs for years and years, are being fed songs that might not be particularly nourishing.
(Big caveat: not every new song should have “lasting power”. Some new songs will last for centuries to come. Some will (and should) be retired after a season. This is OK. We know that the New Testament church sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). We have many of those still today (i.e. the Psalms). But others have fallen away. So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. So we should be OK with singing songs that won’t necessarily be sung hundreds of years from now. We just have to be careful to keep our repertoire in a healthy balance. Caveat over.)
Because of the increasingly short shelf-life of modern worship music, worship leaders should make sure we:
Stay mindful of what’s out there
Don’t bury yourself in a cave of stuff-you-like-that-you’ve-used-before. Be willing to listen to new music, and incorporate what will work in your context.
Don’t stress out about keeping up with it all
It’s simply impossible, unless you have tons of time, to keep up with all the new stuff that’s out there.
Be OK with being a late adopter
It’s amazing how waiting a few years will allow the very best of the new stuff to rise to the top of the pile.
Have high standards
Biblical faithfulness, theological correctness, gospel centeredness, musical richness, and congregational accessibility are the five big boxes you should be able to check. If a new song is really popular but doesn’t check all five of those boxes, then maybe you shouldn’t use it.
Distinguish between usefulnesses
Of all the thousands of new songs that will be written this year, maybe just five of those should find their way on to your congregation’s lips. The other songs might be all be wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re useful for incorporation into your church’s repertoire.
Choose songs for the congregation you have
Certain songs will work well in big churches with big bands but flop in smaller churches with smaller bands. And likewise, certain songs will work well in your local context that no one else has ever heard of before! You have to be willing to put blinders on when choosing songs for your congregation, and choose what serves them the best.
Build a solid repertoire – not a cool playlist
A congregation will sing with confidence when they know the songs. A congregation will sing with timidity when they don’t. A solid repertoire cultivates congregational confidence. An ever-changing (but cool!) playlist cultivates insecurity. Focus primarily on helping people exalt Jesus in song, and let the copyright dates take a back seat.
Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have more resources to draw from than ever to help our congregations worship God in song. May we think wisely, pastorally, and discerningly as we adjust to the shortening shelf-life of what’s being produced, and remain faithful to proclaim the never-changing, always-relevant Good News.