Leading Centered-Set Worship Music/David Linhart (Cambridge, MA)
I’m sure God digs traditional hymns with words like “Thou” and “Ebenezer” that get churched folk going. Even still, I’m sure he digs a worshipful experience that helps unchurched folk let their guards down before him. Here are a few things that I believe honor God and pull in everyday people at the same time. It’s not a formula, just a starting point.
#1) People relate to authenticity over righteousness. It’s ironic when someone who loves Jesus and also Led Zeppelin decides to become the Christian Led Zeppelin. Meanwhile, the original isn’t trying to be the secular Led Zeppelin, they are just being themselves. They live out who they actually are through their music. People get into them for their authenticity more than their binge drinking and partying, and the authenticity is exactly what can make the latter attractive to someone who isn’t into those things in the first place.
That’s why it can be awkward when musicians clean themselves up for church and try to do the right thing by playing traditional worship, but then reserve the night clubs and listening rooms for letting their hair down and making the music that is most sincerely who they are. That disconnect can make for unconvincing worship leading. Even God might say “Wait a sec—show me your best, bring all of your passion and talent, live out your love for me through the music.”
#2) People relate to personality over polish. A slick hi-fi performance can’t summon the emotions of a sincere lo-fi performance. Secularly speaking, the singer/songwriter genre is one of those rare circles where no one is chasing you into your shell. People actually want to know the real you, and if people can see connections between their lives and yours, you just might win them over. To apply this idea to writing worship songs that invite others in we must ask—is the goal making relevant music or being a relevant person?
Gospel blues pioneer Mississippi Fred McDowell became relevant by living through the challenges that everyday people live through. When he was chased down by blues historians bringing rural Southern music to the larger public in the 1960s, he was working hard as a farmer, playing neighborhood social gatherings and church services. He knew struggle and humility and the sustaining power of faith. Perhaps he had read Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians (4:11-12 NLT)—“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not Christians will respect the way you live…”
#3) People relate to hope over answers. Asking questions and having doubts can mean that a person is engaging and processing. With our lyrics, are we cutting off the process with answers or empowering the process with hope? God loves when we step out of the way of his plans to mature new followers through the work of the Holy Spirit. Helping folks respond to the light in their life with a soft nudge toward the center—Jesus—is no small contribution on our part, but let’s not overestimate our agency. God’s got to be at work for our work to mean anything.
Any significant cultural shift is always accompanied by a soundtrack that captures the contour of that shift. When we think of what the 70s or 80s were about, do those decades gel in our minds without the associated popular music? So what will the soundtrack of centered-set faith be?