Reflection #44 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 44 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #44: Contemporary American worship can learn a thing or two from Taizé worship.

I teach a class at Judson University every two years called Worship Resources.  The course has two foci: 1) I endeavor to introduce students to the wealth of resources available to them these days, instruction which often comes courtesy of fabulous guest lecturers I’ve come to know over the past 30 years of doing worship ministry; 2) I take the students on a number of field trips to Christian worship experiences that are off the beaten track of the contemporary worship with which they’re very familiar by the time they set foot in my class.  Time and again, student evaluations list the field trips as the highlight of the class, and longtime Judson Worship Arts alums frequently wax nostalgic about them as well.

Taize picEspecially when the subject of Taizé worship  comes up.  We happen to visit a church (Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois) that has offered a monthly Taizé service for over 20 years, and the primary liturgist, David Anderson (no relation), has led all that time.  The sanctuary is beautifully ornate, the acoustics are fabulous, and there’s always a full congregation.  It makes for a really wonderful service.

Several years ago, writing in Worship Leader magazine, I argued that it was “time to take Taizé out of the quiet, candle-lit cathedrals and into the media-frenzied converted warehouses where many of us worship these days.”  Why?

  1. Taizé worship counteracts the self-focus about which many detractors of current worship practices groan.  The extent to which self-reference predominates in contemporary American worship is debatable (and I would argue is getting better), but wherever congregations focus more on me than Thee, Taizé choruses, with their frequent emphasis on rejection of self and embrace of God, put things in proper perspective.
  2. Taizé worship fosters communal worship.  . . . Taizé, with its simple and easily learned melodies, takes the emphasis off the presentation and puts it on the participation.
  3. Taizé worship is a great way to involve musicians who normally don’t get a chance to share their gifts in contemporary worship.  Do you have a first- or second-chair-in-the-high-school-orchestra violinist in your youth group?  Any stay-at-home moms who used to play flute in the marching band back in the day?  Excellent Taizé orchestrations for almost all of the songs are available through GIA Music. . . . Exploring some of the better Taizé choruses can help worship leaders expand their church’s musical palette.
  4. Taizé worship can translate into contemporary worship.  It’s a misconception that every Taizé tune is slow and sedate.  In three separate worship ministry settings (two churches and one Christian college), I have seen more upbeat Taizé fare (and a few slower pieces) work with a typical praise-band lineup of electric instruments and drums.  It takes a little bit of effort, but it can be done.

I concluded by suggesting two strategies for any who might take the plunge and introduce a Taizé chorus into their worship sets: 1) Do the songs in English, saving “singing them in their original languages for smaller, more intimate gatherings where there will likely be better buy-in for this kind of display of diversity”; and 2) avoid the typical vocal descants that waft over the congregation’s vocals in many Taizé worship songs.  Instead, turn the descants “into verses (sung either individually or corporately) and let the choruses function as they would in a typical A-B format.”

I’ll stop here to admit the chances that Taizé will start rivaling Bethel or Elevation for space on the CCLI Top 100 are slim to none.  The whole ethos of Taizé is so countercultural in re: to how so many of us understand worship these days that few will be the worship leaders who embark on such a risky experiment.  Given that reality, here are two things you might try that reflect the spirit of Taizé without embracing the songs themselves.

First, consider teaching new songs during your pre-service time.  Rather than introducing new songs by inviting the congregation to join along as soon as they feel comfortable–i.e., fostering and tolerating a lack of participation, at least initially–why not ditch the energetic walk-in music and the video countdown and have your band run through a new song to give the congregation a taste of what’s to come?  In every Taizé service I’ve attended, the worship leader has taught a song or two beforehand, and it makes for more satisfying singing when those songs are then sung a bit later.

Second, find songs that feature a greater variety of harmonic expression beyond cwm’s ubiquitous I-IV-V-vi patterns.  The Taizé songs I’ve done with the Judson University Choir this year (“In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” and “The Kingdom of God”) each feature six chords, used in interesting combinations.  I’ve also used “Laudate Dominum” in the past, with a full praise band locking into the deep 3/4 groove.

In the unlikely event that I get any takers on this score, I’d love to hear feedback on your efforts.  The Lord be with you, and try to catch a Taizé service sometime in 2020!  You won’t regret it!

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Reflection #43 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 43 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #43: I wonder how often highly programmed contemporary worship grossly fails to account for the spiritual emptiness of many of the congregants on any given Sunday morning.

While in this current state of limbo re: regular church attendance–while my wife and I have been on a three-plus-year hiatus from parking in the same space and sitting in the same pew/chair in the same church Sunday after Sunday; i.e., while not having to go to church to receive a paycheck–I have regularly been surprised how often I have come to corporate worship in a state of spiritual depletion.  Yesterday was one such occasion.

Twenty-nineteen was a rough year for a number of reasons.  There were numerous blessings, of course, as there always are, but I found myself too frequently walking by sight and not by faith, too regularly viewing my glass as 10% empty as opposed to 90% full.  It’s humbling to be in worship education and to think periodically, “I still believe all this, but I sure don’t feel it at the moment.”  I’ve done this long enough to be comfortable acting-as-if when I need to, and I think there is great merit, to be sure, in pressing on in the midst of doubt and questioning–exercising spiritual muscles, through pain, believing there will be benefits on the back end someday.  (There always are . . . eventually.)

Yesterday started out like so many days before.  We walked in (late) and made our way to the balcony, so our tardiness wouldn’t be too noticeable and to afford a sense of anonymity.  The worship leader, Tim Caffee, 832910_3956x3956_500a former student, had just finished (I found out later) leading one of the congregation’s favorite “Go, God” up-tempo numbers and, just as we walked in, felt led of the Holy Spirit to shift gears midstream into a (mostly) unscripted time of reflection.  With a simple acoustic guitar providing a I-IV vamp underneath, he began speaking Truth to the congregation.  Charismatics would have received them as prophetic words; Reformed believers would have called them exhortations.  Call them what you want; they were exactly what I needed yesterday morning–and they certainly felt inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Speaking occasionally in the third person and occasionally on behalf of the Almighty in the first person (while clearly making evident which was which), Tim welcomed those gathered into the fullness of the blessings of belonging to Christ . . . in a loving relationship.  One phrase he uttered, “Jesus gently wants to wash away your cynicism today,” felt as if it had been given just for me.

I fear for the vast majority of my 30 years in local-church worship leadership I routinely grossly underestimated the level of spiritual depletion in a percentage of the congregants on any given Sunday.  How often did I attempt to whip my stoic Scandinavian brothers and sisters into a frenzy in order to help them feel excited about Jesus?  How often did I use music to manipulate in order to achieve what I thought was what those under my leadership needed?  How often did I, frankly, treat congregational singing as a tool to numb people’s pain–like one might use drugs, alcohol, or cheap sex–quickly and momentarily satisfying a felt need without taking the opportunity to get at root problems?  Not wittingly, of course, but while encouraging worshipers to “celebrate Jesus,” “[run] out of that grave,” and/or “bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art'” (this isn’t just a contemporary worship issue), how often did I merely serve up a shot of spiritual cortisone when some kind of ministerial out-patient surgery would have been more appropriate?

I hear the concerns.  Megachurch worship leaders: “We can’t do that kind of thing because I have a fixed time for my set.”  Reformed worship leaders: “What if we enter into one of those unscripted moments and someone in the congregation attributes some indigestion-inspired ‘word of knowledge’ to the Holy Spirit and spends five minutes ‘blessing’ us with that revelation?”  Southern Baptist worship leaders: “There’s no room for planned spontaneity in Fanny Crosby or Bill Gaither.”  Yeah, I get it.

I also get that our job is to lead worship, not just play music.  So much of what I see in contemporary worship (and, believe me, I saw the same thing in the traditional worship of my youth) would suggest to an outsider that the worship leaders believe the congregation members have also been thinking about this set for the past three to six weeks.  Have also been praying over the song selection.  Have also been working on the transitional comments.  Have also been–out there in the “Sacred Grounds”/”Holy Joe”/”Cup of Life” atrium–spending the 15 minutes prior to the service preparing their hearts for worship.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Worship leaders, may you in 2020 see our Lord refresh you as you endeavor to speak relationship to your flock, to sense their level of spiritual depletion on any given Sunday, and to respond (even by calling a PCO-busting audible on occasion) with boldness as the Holy Spirit leads.

The Lord be with you!

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Blessings for 2020 from a Small, Traditional Church

Happy New Year!  Fall semester was very busy at Judson University, and so the posts on this blog have been few and far between for the past few months.  I hope to get back into the swing of things beginning this week.

My wife and I are still nomadic where church attendance is concerned these days (ending up where our daughter has served as a children’s ministry coordinator some Sundays and where our son plays in the praise band on others), so we occasionally visit churches where some of my students and recent alums serve in worship ministry.

Yesterday we attended one such church, a small, Southern Baptist congregation in a very multiculturally (and socioeconomically) diverse part of Elgin, Ill.  Back in the 80’s, the late senior pastor taught as an adjunct bible professor at Judson, and I took his class on the prophet Jeremiah. Later, his son came to Judson as a basketball player during the time I was on the hoops coaching staff; he later went on to marry one of my sister’s best college friends.  The current pastor was a campus leader when I ran the chapel ministry at Judson, and the last three worship leaders have been students of mine.  Lots of connections.

Reveling in all those ties was nice, but two things blessed me even more.  First, the quality of the congregational singing was fabulous.  This church pursues a mix of musical styles, so we sang “10,000 Reasons” at the front and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” at the end; in both 20200105_103923cases (and during the other songs in between), the congregation, about 100 in attendance, sounded like 500.  Part of that was due to the architecture in the church (high ceiling, lots of wood on the floor along with a bit of carpet), which fosters resonant corporate song, but part of it had to do with the songs themselves (pretty familiar across generational lines) and how they were presented (piano, acoustic guitar, violin, and cajon).  All three factors contributed to a rich congregational singing experience.  (Notice the Christmas trees still up on the twelfth day of Christmas, the day before Epiphany.  I love it when low-church fellowships embrace the liturgical calendar.)

Second, the sermon, excellently delivered, focused on expectations for 2020, with the end of Hebrews 4 and the beginning of Hebrews 5 as the Scriptural focus.  The pastor gave us three certainties for the new year: 1) We’re going to have needs (be they spiritual, physical, relational, financial); 2) we’re going to need help; and 3) we’re not alone.  While he emphasized that final point with the description of our great High Priest, the sun, which had been hiding behind clouds on an overcast morning, all of a sudden burst forth, flooding the sanctuary with light, as if to punctuate the truth of God’s presence in our lives at all time.  Emmanuel, God with us, indeed.

Blessings for a wonderful 2020!  The Lord be with you!


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Lessons for Congregational Singing from Advent Worship

It’s been a busy fall semester at Judson University.  I hope to begin writing weekly posts again soon.  Until then, yesterday’s worship reminded me, once more, of the more-often-than-not quality of congregational singing during Advent, prompting this re-post from last year.  I hope it resonates with you.

There are lessons to be learned about congregational singing from typical churches’ Advent worship.

I had not planned to write about this subject until yesterday, but the power of the congregational singing–the best I have heard in a long time–compelled me to reflection.  We visited a church we attend frequently, a large-but-not-huge megachurch in the northwest Chicago suburbs.  Though I generally prefer a more intimate setting for worship, the leaders here do an excellent job of maintaining aspects of church life more usually found in smaller congregations.  For example, they are employing an Advent wreath in worship this year (and did so last year, as well), they typically sing at least one hymn in their sets, they use the call-and-response “The Word of the Lord”/“Thanks be to God” after the public reading of Scripture, and they occasionally ask congregants to hit their knees for corporate prayer.  In other words, while they certainly are seeker-sensitive, they are not seeker-driven (and I would argue, and have in this article on churches’ quest for cultural relevance, that utilizing these vestiges of “traditional worship” in no way discourages most unbelievers and, in fact, often piques the curiosity of true seekers).

downloadThe above notwithstanding, I simply wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of the congregational singing yesterday morning.  The whole room resounded in song.  I could actually hear other voices with unusual clarity (for contemporary worship).  I even asked the production team members afterward if they were piping the congregation through the house mix (they weren’t).  If, as Aaron Niequist is fond of reminding worship leaders, the purpose of congregational singing is . . . wait for it . . . congregational singing, why don’t most congregations sound as robust as did those assembled yesterday morning?  Here are three congregational-singing lessons for the other 11 months of the year to be learned from my Advent-worship experience yesterday.

Lesson 1: Use familiar songs that have been sung for generations.  Yesterday we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” in the primary worship set.  Notice the adjective is familiar, not simplistic.  There’s nothing simplistic about the chromatic harmonies (full of notes outside the key signature) of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the chord pattern of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” with its use of a III chord and secondary dominants, structure hardly ever employed in contemporary worship music (cwm).  (Contemporary worship songwriters, take note: You can have wonderfully singable songs that break out of the I-IV-vi-V mold.)  What are the non-seasonal equivalents of the above?  Hymns, of course, but when’s the last time you sang a song from the dawn of cwm as know it–something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” or “Mighty Is Our God” or “Forever” or “Beautiful One”?  Or a popular song from the Jesus Movement like “Seek Ye First” or “Easter Song”?  There’s nothing wrong with singing the latest and greatest from Hillsong United, Bethel, or whatever song-producing community is hip right now, but if you want to facilitate congregational singing that will raise the roof, you have to go back to songs of shared experience (across the generations) with much greater frequency than currently occurs in contemporary American worship services.

Lesson 2: Strip back the accompaniment.  The service yesterday (see picture) featured the worship leader on guitar and lead vocals and a pianist (with a real piano–not just a keyboard encased in the shell of an upright for cool visual effect).  No driving drums.  No booming bass.  No shredding electric guitar.  No background vocals.  Just the unadorned sound of two acoustic instruments and one voice.  For ears accustomed to worship services featuring loud noise and frenetic musical activity with precious few lulls in between, such sonic minimalism was a welcome relief, to be sure, but the greater good was that without the extra barrage of sound, the congregation was compelled to fill in the gap, and fill it in they did!  Of course, you can’t lead contemporary worship these days with just a piano, guitar, and solo voice on a regular basis (can you?), but how about one week every other month?  Or be bold and schedule a service for a cappella singing, without accompaniment, and be prepared to be shocked by the sound of human voices as you’ve never heard in contemporary worship before.  (Use SATB vocals with your strongest singers.  I used to do this once or twice a year in the churches I served, and the results were always incredible.  Yes, it works for both cwm and hymns with a little bit of planning.)

Lesson 3: Remove other distractions.  Kill the fog machine for a week.  Keep the light cues bare bones.  Avoid ADHD video edits.  Keep the stage set simple.  The fewer distractions your congregation members have to avoid in order to focus on their primary task in corporate worship, the better they will sound.  It works during Advent.  Why not try it, at least occasionally, during other times of the year?

The Lord be with you as you facilitate the people’s song in worship!

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Reflection #42 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 42 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #42: Happily, there seems to be a spate of contemporary worship songs of late that tell “The Big Story,” the gospel message, in song.

My very first class at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies was team-taught by Wheaton College’s Dr. Andy Hill and Dr. Lester Ruth (right), who now is download (1)research professor at Duke Divinity School.  Lester asked us to pay attention in the next few worship services we attended to how long it took before what he called “The Big Story” was articulated in the service in some manner.  The Big Story is the four-chapter story of the gospel, beginning with Creation and moving through The Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or Consummation).  Recognizing how infrequently I had heard that message in worship of late–in the aftermath of seeker sensitivity and other church-growth strategies–I was determined to tell The Big Story much more regularly in worship.  I endeavored to do so when I served as a weekend-warrior worship leader, and I do so now in my role as the director of the Judson University Choir; we end each concert of worship we facilitate by singing through the four chapters of The Big Story.  

In contemporary worship music (cwm) circles, the Gettys have been doing this for a while, of course, and God bless them for their efforts as the most-popular proponents of contemporary hymnody.  But it’s been good to see so many other writers incorporating The Big Story’s essence.  To wit . . .

Were I to pick nits, I’d ask for Chapter 1, “Creation,” to be included a bit more regularly, and I’d put forth the notion that I-IV-vi-V/vi-IV-I-V power ballads are not the only musical style that can support “The Big Story,” but the fact that more and more cwm songwriters are moving beyond self-referential lyrics into more “cosmic-story” language (or, at least, combining the two) bodes very well for the future!  Here’s hoping it continues.

The Lord be with you, songwriters, as you bring to bear the full weight of The Big Story as often you can!

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Reflection #41 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 41 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #41: Now that I no longer receive a paycheck to go to church, I understand the desire to keep contemporary worship services to 75 minutes or fewer.

When I was a paid staff member at six different churches for most of my adult life, I never in a million years would have written the above statement without the dependent clause that begins the sentence.  I knew enough about church history to assert that many believers in bygone eras devoted great swaths of their entire Sundays to corporate worship.  The Sundays of my childhood and youth were spent in church most of the day–by the time you factored in Sunday School, morning worship, late-afternoon youth group, and evening worship.  And some worshiping communities still today make corporate worship the focal point of lengthy and sustained time spent together each weekend as the Body of Christ (many African-American churches, for example).

I confess that when I was the staff member primarily in charge of worship service orders, I bristled internally whenever lay leaders (usually elders or deacons) raised concerns about service length.  To my shame, I shamed them with unvoiced-but-deeply-felt holier-than-thou sentiments that equated the fervency of their faith walks with their willingness to support corporate worship that, on occasion, lasted for for an hour and a half or a bit longer.  Now that I am a “mere” parishioner, I find myself looking at my watch with much greater frequency when services stray beyond the 75 minutes that seem to represent the de facto time limit for contemporary worship in evangelical America.  I think more about how to get to the parking lot most efficiently, about where we might go out to lunch when the service concludes, about all kinds of other things that rarely crossed my mind when I was leading worship and wanting to emphasize one kernel of truth from the pastor’s sermon in my spoken introduction to the closing song.

In other words, now that I’m no longer praying about, laboring over, and rehearsing through worship services–when I’m, frankly, just showing up on Sunday morning in various stages of unpreparedness like the vast majority of lay congregants–I find (surprise) that my knee-jerk expectations for what transpires and (for the purposes of this post) how long it will all take have changed.  In theory, my doctoral studies in worship inform each worship experience I attend, and not insignificantly; in practice, now that I’m not leading worship for a living each weekend, the degree doesn’t factor in all the time–and, when it does, it sometimes is the lens through which I justify a critical spirit.

downloadI confess this here because I guess, especially as I started my grad-school worship studies, I wish somebody had taken me aside with greater regularity and reminded me that shepherds generally have much more success when they guide graciously, and not much when they push indignantly (or while smiling through gritted teeth).  Dr. Darrell Harris, founding chaplain of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, warned my classmates and me in the summer of 2003 that the education upon which we would soon embark would “ruin” us for ministry if we weren’t careful.  He was right, and I wish I had sought his counsel a lot more than I did re: how to deal with that.

Worship leaders, it’s so hard to put ourselves in the mindset of our church family members (who, if we’re brutally honest, usually do not–and can not–care about corporate worship as much as we do).  I would encourage you to try to do so much more often than I did when I was a worship leader.

Blessings for the starts of your ministry years this weekend.  The Lord be with you!


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Reflection #40 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 40 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #40: Contemporary worship leaders miss an opportunity to add meaning or flow to their worship sets when they ignore the option of modulating keys in the midst of certain songs.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post suggesting there were several things contemporary worship leaders could learn from the Gaithers.  Space did not allow for a longer list (and, to be truthful, this one didn’t come to me at the time of that post), but as I’ve reflected on the Gaithers’ ministry of late, and listened to a bit more of their late 70’s and early 80’s oeuvre, I’ve been reminded of a musical technique largely ignored in the contemporary worship music (cwm) I hear these days: the mid-song/near-the-end-of-song modulation–something Bill Gaither modeled to perfection in his arrangements for the Bill Gaither Trio.

Let’s acknowledge this right up front: You might not have the kind of musicians who are conversant enough with the Nashville Number System to handle changing keys gracefully.  You certainly need a certain caliber of musician to pull this off.  Moreover, adding a second key to a song in your set, even if you only play in that key for a third or a fourth of the time you play in the primary key, requires twice the work of prepping charts and rehearsing the band.  On certain Sundays, you might simply not have the personnel or time to make this happen.  But when you do, here are three reasons to consider adding the periodic mid- or end-song modulation to songs for congregational singing.

1. Modulating mid-song can give a lift to repetitive material the congregation has been singing for a while.  Unlike some of my generation, I am not a fierce advocate of avoiding repetition at all costs, and I don’t make jokes about “7-11” contemporary worship songs.  (As one of my grad school professors noted, folks who complain about repetition in cwm might have a tough time in heaven, having to listen to the four living downloadcreatures and their day-and-night/never-stopping rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”)  Still, some songs do run the risk of becoming a bit bland near the end, so why not help the cause by taking the energy up a notch with a modulation?  The classic example here is Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord”–which gets a lift from A to B at the 3:12 mark in this version.  Another familiar tune that often features a modulation is Chris Tomlin’s “Forever”–which modulates from G to A at the 3:54 clip in this rendition.

2. Modulating mid-song can lend emphasis to the building of a narrative.  Sometimes, especially in songs that are more strophic (i.e., verse-chorus) in composition, modulating for the final verse can give more weight to, well, weightier content.  An excellent example of this dynamic can be found in Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “The Power of the Cross”–which modulates to C from B-flat at the 4:05 mark in this arrangement, just as the lyric testifies most firmly to the cross’ power, with lines like “through Your suffering I am free!” and “Death is crushed to death; life is mine to live!”  Strong lyrics–especially if they serve as the culmination of a narrative that, even in the relatively short span of a congregational song, tells the essence of the gospel–often benefit from the kind of emphasis a modulation brings.

3. Modulating mid-song can aid flow by placing the end of one song in the same key as the beginning of the next.  Nothing is more jarring to even mildly musically sensitive ears than ending a song in one key and starting the next in another without so much as a hint of harmonic transition.  Modulating the last verse or chorus of a song–even if it hasn’t become too repetitive or doesn’t benefit from a narrative-emphasizing lift–in order to put it into the key of the next song in your setlist can help make for a more smoothly flowing set.

If you embrace this concept periodically, yes, it will create more work for you, and, yes, it will challenge the musicianship of some of your band members.  But with the ubiquity of online resources like CCLI’s SongSelect (one example of many) that can put charts in different keys with a click of a mouse, there’s every reason to employ the occasional mid-song modulation in your worship sets, particularly when doing so would accomplish one of the three worship-enhancing goals above.

The Lord be with you!

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