A question that has arisen over the years is this: How “creative” should we seek to be in our gathered Sunday worship?
As one who has looked more into the regulative vs normative principles, I’d say I fall somewhere in the middle – I think we’re given freedom in the ways we follow the prescribed elements of service. So, I’m not against musical instruments, but I’m not comfortable with ‘anything (not forbidden) goes’.
Looking then, just at the music we use in our gatherings – where is the place for creativity?
We are sub-creators… beings made in the likeness of a creative God, so we should expect that part of the way we reflect his image is in our creativity.
Should we write and use scripturally sound new songs?
Yes! (Psalm 33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149; Isa. 42:10; Rev 5:9, 14:10)
Should we use songs based solely on our subjective experiences?
No! Our songs should be saturated with the truth of the Word. Col. 3:16 tells us that our songs teach one another truth.
Should our songs reflect the cultures we inhabit?
To say we should only ever emulate European hymnody or Jewish Psalmistry would be embarrassingly ethnocentric in a faith that is offered to, and will one day see, worshippers from ‘every tribe tongue and nation.’ – and in multicultural and intercultural contexts, we should bear this in mind when choosing our repertoires. And both Eph. 5 and Col. 3 indicate that we use a variety of song forms (psalms, hymns, spiritual songs)
These hopefully should be easy to agree upon… but what about in the week-to-week?
Is there freedom to sing songs to a different tune? (Early hymnals would strongly suggest so). Indeed, upon moving to the UK, we learned that several beloved hymns and Christmas carols are set to other tunes, and our preferences must bow to the standard tunes used in the culture. I say must, because we are serving the gathered Church… not ‘doing’ songs we like.
Is it ok to update language? I should think that in any public domain song, updating language to more current vernacular would be more helpful than using archaic words simply to preserve heritage. However – sometimes the archaic language is well worth explaining rather than jettisoning.
“Here I raise mine Ebeneezer” comes to mind…..but using the possessive adjective “Your” instead of “Thy” is no less holy or spiritual.
Should we simply emulate the recordings we hear? If so, which recording, and by whom?
With the advent of Christian radio’s ‘worship music’ explosion, it’s not uncommon to find several versions of the same song recorded by several artists. Just do a search in your favourite streaming service for “God of Wonders,” or “Mighty to Save”, or “Shout to the Lord” and you’ll see what I mean.
I honestly think singing the same song, the same way – every. single. time. is a disservice to a congregation. Our songs are expressions of truth and emotion. I wouldn’t dream of giving my wife the exact same anniversary card every year. The mercies we receive from the Father are “new every morning.” (Lam 3:23)
Or consider a live performance you’ve seen by a band you really enjoy – the musician(s) vary the song so it doesn’t just sound like they’ve popped in a CD.
How does this practically get implemented?
This requires time, prayer, and forethought:
Thinking through the tempo, the dynamic, and the format of the song.
➢ A few weeks ago, our Scripture call to worship was one of great joy – and the song chosen to begin service was “Man of Sorrows.” To simply carry on directly from exultation to gloom would have been quite jarring indeed. So I decided during soundcheck to adapt and have the musicians start the song at the chorus,
“Oh that rugged cross – my salvation
Where your love poured out over me
Now my soul cries out, “Hallelujah!
Praise and honour unto Thee!”
After service I had a few people approach me and say that the simple change of beginning the song from the chorus helped reframe the song for them in a way that made our time feel fresh.
➢ At other times I have combined songs into a medley, or simply added on the chorus of a song that emphasises the content of the first, or reinforces the message just preached.
At one church this past Advent we looked at John 1 – how in Christ “was life, and that life was the light of men (humankind)”. The message also included reference to Malachi 4:2
“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings…”
We had scheduled “Here I Am to Worship (Light of the World)” to follow the message. We decided to use that song, and then tag on the verse from Hark! The Herald Angels Sing with these words:
“Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Well beyond wanting to have a “cool creative moment” the goal was to help our congregation further join the dots and give voice to the truth they had just heard.
➢ Years ago, I led the Matt Redman song “For the Cross” tenderly during communion at 80 bpm rather than a rollicking 112 bpm… try it. It’s a whole different experience.
Sometimes changing tempo helps us either reflect deeper or celebrate more.
Sometimes changing the dynamics is helpful. Maybe the recording always softens at a lyrical section on heaven or the resurrection to communicate wonder. Try changing the dynamic to a celebrative, hope-filled declaration.
The aim is to highlight the lyric and help the Church to worship
– not distract or draw attention to ourselves or our creativity.
Consistency is most helpful – but we also need to listen to the Spirit as He directs – not just charge ahead with our plans… or sometimes even how we practised. Again this calls for the ability to non-verbally communicate well with your fellow musicians and not simply hit ‘play’ on a track.
Artistry and creativity reflect the image of God who is both supreme artist and Creator.
Using click tracks and backing/multi-tracks can be helpful – but not if they shackle us to being simply karaoke rather than heartfelt worship. Should song “X” only ever be at a bpm of 144, with a rigid predefined format based on the structure of the track rather than listening to the whisper of the Spirit?
If your goal is auto-pilot ‘song singing’, then well done.
But if, as leaders of musical worship, our goal is to serve people by assisting them in heartfelt worship, we must be intentional and not just sail along on cruise control. I once heard a band lead a worship song live where they tried to recreate the live recording they had heard – even down to the spontaneous vocal ad-libs from the recording. It was awkward in part because the driving feel of the music and the soaring power vocals were not where we as a church were at that moment.
So music leader – reflect the image of God in your ministry. Pray through your songs each week – which to choose and how to lead them. And talk to whomever is preaching to gain a better understanding of the message so you can serve the congregation well.
A few more examples of bringing variety and creativity…
“All I Have its Christ” from Jordan Kaufiln/Sovereign Grace. Sovereign Grace has the following versions and arrangements:
If you know the basic melody to this song, any one of these arrangements could be used in church and should not impede your ability to worship simply because it’s not exactly like the recording you prefer.
the same goes for “Resurrecting” by Elevation