The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 149
Poor worship music during a Sunday morning service is difficult to overcome. While music and worship style are not the primary factor in determining if a guest returns or not, bad music is still likely to keep guests from coming back–and to keep your existing congregation from inviting friends and family.
So how can your church improve your worship music? How can a smaller church with a limited budget and small pool of “talent” improve the music so that guests return and your congregation is excited to invite their friends and family?
Before we get into the specifics of how to improve your worship music, let’s establish key ground rules. First, quality has little to do with style. I’ve partnered with churches across the spectrum of style, and I’ve found that a modern song executed poorly is equally (or more!) distracting than hymns. Indeed, I’ve found that churches that execute the traditional style of worship with excellence are far more likely to attract and retain guests than churches with a more “contemporary” style that is done poorly.
Secondly, defining “good music” is a bit subjective. There’s no accounting for taste, and what one person enjoys, another person might despise. For the purposes of objectivity, we’re categorizing “good music” as songs that are played in the right key, proper instrumentation, and with singers that are on-pitch.
Finally, many of these tips are rooted in my own experience in creating a worship ministry from scratch. In 2011, I was the second-chair leader in a brand new church plant. One of the hats I wore was the worship leader, and I was tasked with building a team. Therefore, I know what it’s like to feel the fear of not knowing if you can find the right people–to wonder if what you’re planning each week is quality. I’ve been in your shoes. Our church had a more modern style of worship, so many of the anecdotes in this article are drawn from that experience. But the axioms easily translate to your context, style, and situation.
So let’s dig into five key tips to improve your worship music.
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1. Get honest feedback on the current state of the music ministry
In order to solve the problem of poor worship music, you need to understand the situation you’re in. In my experience in consulting with churches, most pastors and congregations become tone deaf to how bad the music is. Maybe at one point they heard the pitchy vocalists or off-beat drums, but they’ve just gotten used to it. Perhaps you are aware that the music isn’t good, but you don’t have language to point out specifically what isn’t working.
Consider reaching out to a trusted friend or acquaintance to give you honest feedback. Most churches now have their services streaming online. You might be able to get feedback without even having someone come on-site (although there is often a difference in sound quality from the online service to in-person). One pastor I know even found random people on TaskRabbit who were willing to attend their service and fill out a survey with feedback. Of course, you could ask one of our Certified Guides at The Malphurs Group to conduct a Sunday Secret Shopper visit for a more in-depth and expert review.
Like going to the doctor, you cannot make a treatment plan without a proper diagnosis. Throwing solutions at an undefined problem is unlikely to make things better. Therefore, be sure you spend the time to get a proper handle on the current state of your music ministry.
2. Recruit outside musicians to serve on your team in the short term
In the church planting world, a new congregation has to build a “launch team”. A good launch team isn’t a group of random people who are interested in the church. Instead, they’re a group of individuals who commit to serve in a specific capacity for one year from the launch of the church. So, you’re not looking for 70 people to join a generic launch team. You’re looking for a bass player, a drummer, a keyboard player, two vocalists, four elementary volunteers, three nursery workers, etc. The total adds up to 60 or 70 or more people.
If your church has poor worship music, you may need to think of it like “planting” a new worship ministry. If the talent pool in your church is shallow, it’s likely that you’ll need to recruit people outside of your church to help you “plant” this new ministry. There are a few different places to find people who would be willing to join your team for a short term commitment (generally one year).
First, reach out to larger churches that share a similar vision as yours for worship ministry (their style and approach matches what you’re trying to build). They may have a deeper talent pool, and therefore have talented musicians who are only able to sing or play once a month. These folks might like an opportunity to help build a new ministry and get to play or sing more frequently. This is not sheep stealing if you are honest about your request with the church, and you’re clear that you’re only asking for a short term commitment. It’s more like sheep sharing. It’s a practice that Paul used throughout his ministry in the New Testament.
Secondly, if you are near a Christian college, there’s a good chance some talented musicians are mainly playing in their dorm rooms. College students are immature and often unreliable. But they are the kind of people who like to build new things, have ownership of new ministries, and are willing to take risks. If you’re willing to invest in the discipling and maturing of a college student, they are great for recruiting to your worship ministry. Just keep in mind that if they are not from your local area, they’ll be gone during school breaks–so you’ll need to have plans in place for when they’re gone.
3. Be willing to say “no” to vocalists and musicians that aren’t good
One of the biggest reasons why churches have bad worship music is because they aren’t willing to keep bad singers and musicians off of the team. One of the most frequent things I hear from churches is, “I can’t tell someone who has a willing heart that they can’t serve on the band”. Why not?
You don’t allow every person who wants to preach to speak on Sunday. You don’t allow people who cannot pass a background check (or who are unwilling to submit to one) to serve with kids. Just because someone is willing does not mean they’re ready or qualified.
So how do you say “no” to musicians who cannot sing or play well? First, you need to audition people before you say “yes” or “no”. If you’re not doing auditions, you’ll accidentally let bad singers on your team. Secondly, invite people who aren’t good enough yet to participate in weekly practices. Offer to coach and mentor them. If they’re willing to put in the effort, you should invest in them! They will likely improve to the point where they are ready for serving on a Sunday. In my experience, most people are not willing to put in the work. They’ll simply choose to serve somewhere else.
4. Your worship leader or pastor’s primary job is to develop good musicians, not be the solo performer
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a worship pastor, youth pastor, children’s pastor, or senior pastor. The pastor’s job is always primarily leadership development. Ephesians 4 tells us that the leadership gifts are given for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. If your worship director sees his or her job as being the best performer on the stage, you’re unlikely to achieve your full potential as a worship ministry.
Too many churches suffer from poor worship ministry because the leaders are unwilling to spend the time and energy in developing their team–both in their music skills and in their leadership ability. One of the things I’m most proud of in reflecting on my time in worship ministry is the number of leaders on my teams who are now serving in churches around the country in various higher-level roles. I’m not solely responsible for their growth, but I know that their time in my worship ministry helped make them better leaders and better musicians. I thank God for the opportunity to invest in them and to see them have an impact beyond my timeline.
A worship ministry that is failing is almost always led by a worship leader who is failing to invest in leadership development. Show me the leader who is relentlessly committed to making his or her team better, and I’ll show you a church that executes quality worship nearly every week. Development is a process, and it may take time to grow and improve your team. But if your worship leader will invest in the team consistently, the quality of your worship music will also improve week by week.
5. If you aren’t spending enough time in practice, the quality will never improve
This final tip is related to the previous point, but it’s more specific. Being committed to leadership development is critical. But having a rigid practice schedule in the week-to-week grind is perhaps the most influential factor in improving your worship music. I’m always shocked by the number of churches I work with that do not have band practice each week.
Many churches run through the music on Sunday before the service. I frequently walk into a church I’m working with and the band is still rehearsing just minutes before the service. Not only is this really off-putting, it’s also an indication that that band is not prepared. Rarely is this a sign that the worship music will be very good.
Your worship team should rehearse during the week for a couple of hours. Run through every song. Practice it like the recording (think of this like following the recipe). Only once you fully understand the recipe should you iterate on it. Likewise, don’t make up your own way of playing a song until you understand how it’s played on the recording.
Don’t move on to rehearsing a different song until you’ve gotten to the point where you feel comfortable enough to play the current song on Sunday morning. If the team cannot quite get the vocals or instrumental part down for a song, swap it out for a more familiar song. Shelf that song until you can get it right.
Sunday morning should mainly serve as a sound check. Start early enough that you can run through each song one time; but 30 minutes prior to the service, stop, no matter what. You should be prepared because you practiced earlier in the week.
In my experience, most teams are simply lazy. They don’t have a good rehearsal schedule or show up to church early enough on Sundays. They don’t hold themselves accountable to being prepared. Part of developing leaders is establishing good rhythms and holding the team accountable to them. For example, I would not allow musicians or vocalists to participate on Sundays if they missed practice (except in very rare circumstances). I always wanted to rehearse the way we would execute on Sunday.
Improving your worship music is important because it is a spiritual offering to God. The quality of our offering to Him matters.
But your worship music also matters because it makes a difference in determining whether or not a guest returns to your church. If that guest is an unbeliever, consider that their returning may be the difference between them responding to the Gospel or not. While these things are ultimately up to the Holy Spirit, I believe it is important that, as leaders, we make every effort to remove distractions and create an environment where people can hear and respond to the Good News about Jesus.
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Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).