Today we welcome the Class of 2023 to my alma mater and employer, Judson University. The excitement on campus last week–both that of the student leaders who returned early on and the new students who arrived on Friday–was infectious. In my role as Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, I get to take an active role in helping articulate and facilitate the culture into which my colleagues and I receive the students the Lord brings to us. It’s an exciting time of the year, and, I confess, I still get butterflies every mid-August. (I think when I cease having that nervous energy, I’ll know it’ll be time to hang up the pedagogical spikes.)
How about you, worship pastors, directors, and leaders? Do you feel a sense of holy excitement as you enter into a new ministry season? (I affirm that practitioners of contemporary worship would benefit from ordering their efforts more regularly according to the church calendar, but I recognize that the default setting for many of us is, in fact, the academic calendar–which, to be fair, does allow for some ebb and flow and captures, to a small extent, the essence of what our Catholic brothers and sisters refer to as Ordinary time.) Do you enter the fall with an enthusiastic holy expectation as you seek the Lord in your planning for corporate worship?
Having experienced over 25 years’ worth of starts to new ministry years during my time as a weekend warrior, I know occasionally you enter this time of year feeling the well has run dry, at which time a few Holy-Spirit-inspired fresh ideas often can jumpstart your creativity. So here are three ideas that might prove beneficial to you. The extent to which they are divinely inspired I’ll leave to your discernment, but I have seen each energize worshiping communities in the past, and I pray they might be of some use to you today.
1. Put your worship set at the end of the service every once in a while. Many of us in worship-leadership positions subscribe to the notion that an excellent definition of worship is simply this: God reveals, we respond. (See longtime worship educator Ron Man for a marvelous, succinct summary of the revelation-and-response dynamic.) In contemporary worship, so often we are invited to sing after what feels like woefully insufficient guidance in appreciating God’s revelation; many of our church services just launch right into congregational singing without so much as a call to worship or a word of Scriptural exhortation. Putting the bulk of the congregational-response-in-song time after the sermon and/or the sharing of the Eucharistic meal allows those gathered a full complement of revelation prior to the invitation to respond. (Thanks to worship leader Ryan Flanigan, curator of the Liturgical Folk network, for sharing this idea several years ago.)
2. Try a week of congregational singing without instruments on occasion. Some churches do this all the time, of course, and I’m not advocating that approach. But I used to go sans instrumental accompaniment about twice a year in the two most-recent churches I served, and the response was fabulous. You need to choose the music wisely, of course, and you need your A-list vocal team members on board that weekend. Hymns work well in this context, as you would guess, but certain contemporary songs serve the overarching goal better than you might initially expect. Anything by the Gettys and songs in A-B design are good places to start. (If you want to put a date on your calendar for planning or accountability’s sake, consider shooting for March 1, 2020, the next global A Cappella Sunday sponsored by the Center for Congregational Song.) One by-product of doing this on occasion is that those cwm writers who excel in writing interesting melodies and who aren’t slavishly locked into I-IV-vi-V harmonic structure quickly rise to the fore, hence serving as good models for any budding songwriters in your midst. Which leads nicely to point three. . . .
3. Begin conversations with interested members of your congregation re: starting a songwriting group. The goal here is not to try to emulate any of the well-known, church-based songwriting collectives (Vineyard in the not-too-distant-past; Hillsong, Bethel, and many others currently) in contemporary Christendom. If no one outside the walls of your sanctuary ever uses your church’s songs for worship, so be it. The goal is to begin to explore, in song, those aspects of the Christian faith that develop indigenously from the lives of your parishioners–to give musical voice to the work the Holy Spirit is doing in your particular fellowship. If songwriting isn’t your strongest gift, bone up on the basics via any number of videos or books on the subject. Work for at least six months before ever utilizing a song in a worship service–and then be sure to bring it back around often enough for it to become familiar. Do no more than one new song each quarter for a year or two until the congregation becomes accustomed to the efforts. Make sure the first several are co-written by several members of your team. Then sit back in gratitude at what Creator God is doing in your midst.
The Lord be with you this ministry season! May your Kingdom efforts bear fruit, as you rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance and sustenance.