Here’s my take on how to make O Worship the King work for corporate worship when leading with a guitar.  I play the song and then talk about how I’m doing it and why.  Chord chart here.

I think it’s a beautiful song, with Robert Grant’s great imagery from Psalm 104 and a beautiful, singable melody from Johann Michael Haydn (brother of the better known Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who taught Beethoven).  Do you use this song at your church?  Would you consider using it?  Why or why not?


In the interest of promoting songs that I believe are among the best for corporate worship, I am planning to post several videos over the coming months.  These are just demonstrations of how one person arranges and plays these songs for corporate worship.

Below is a video demonstration of Worship Christ the Risen King.  It’s an old tune (the same one for Angels From the Realms of Glory), with a relatively new text–written in 1986 by Jack Hayford.  It’s (c) 1986 Maranatha Music.  My chord chart can be downloaded here.


In the spirit of making old hymns available to the current world of guitar-wielding worship leaders, I recorded a video of Charles Wesley’s great old hymn And Can It Be That I Should Gain.  I personally think this is one of the best hymns ever written, and though the melody is challenging, I have found that by moving it down to E major, it is singable for most voices.  We’ve loved singing it in my congregation.  I hope you might enjoy it, too.

I’ve also got chords here if you would like them: And Can it Be (D,E).

interior view of the heart

For a few months, this blog has been making one sustained argument: that the most important thing music should do in church is get people to sing.  I am trying to paint a picture of corporate worship in which the people in the pews are co-creators of a beautiful sound together with the music leaders, not mere spectators to a musical event.  I have mostly written to worship leaders, admonishing them to lead in a way that promotes and esteems congregational singing.  Sometimes I’ve been tough on the worship leaders, making it seem like the responsibility for achieving this vision of church music is entirely on their shoulders.  But it’s not!  Yes, if the worship leaders have the wrong vision, it can be detrimental to the experience of corporate music-making.  But it is equally true that if the congregation lacks vision, they can do just as much to train wreck their own experience of corporate worship.

Today, therefore, I want to give the music leaders a break and talk to the rest of the congregation.  That means I am talking to you if you are a Christian and not a music leader.   And I want to say two things:  1) You have an important role in the music making at your church  2) If you are not participating in the music, the first place you should look to blame is your own heart, not the music leaders at your church.

1) Congregation: you are the most important instrument in the room.  Act like it.

Most of the time, when you go to a place where music is being played, the music is there to entertain you: concerts, musical theater, etc.  But at church, this is not the case.  The purpose of the music at church is to help you sing.  This, however, assumes that you actually want to sing.  If you show up at corporate worship in the same mindset that you do at the 9:30 club, that is to say, if you show up thinking “entertain me,” then you have the wrong vision.  If you are mentally/spiritually unprepared to make music and worship the living God, then no amount of musical coaxing from the musicians up front is going to compensate for that.  If you are determined to merely watch (or tune out) rather than participate, that’s your own funeral.

But wait,  it’s not just your own funeral!  It’s a blow to the whole church! You are the most important instrument in the building.  Your voice and the voices of everyone around you collectively make up the single most significant factor determining whether the music will be beautiful, encouraging, and God-honoring or lame and flat.  If you sing robustly and mean what you sing, then you are a) ascribing glory to God, and b) making an important, encouraging contribution to the Body of Christ, the other believers around you.  (Not to mention, you are declaring to any unbelievers around you that your God is worthy of worship.)

You know this to be true from your own experience: when you are surrounded by people singing the Gospel like they mean it, it encourages you, lifts your spirits, helps you believe the Good News, does it not?  Well, it’s your job be that for the people around  you.  Enable your brothers and sisters around you to be enveloped in the singing of Gospel truths by doing your part: Sing!

2) If you are not singing, the problem is probably your heart, not the music

Occasionally, I hear Christians quietly disparaging their church’s music–it’s too old and somber, or it’s too new and high-energy, or it’s just cheesy.  And believe me, I can sympathize.  It can be frustrating to have songs set too fast or too slow or any number of other extremes.  This sort of frustration, though, often obscures a more significant heart issue.

Consider for a moment what happens in your mind when the music at your church does not suit your tastes.  Do you quickly withhold your participation?   If you are like me, you say in your head, “That guitar is too loud.  How obnoxious…(3 seconds later)…that’s it, I’m done singing.”  And, if you are like me, it takes embarrassingly little to get you distracted, preoccupied, and soon abandoning any effort to praise God.  Before you know it, you are standing there silently in a sort of quiet protest against the aesthetic decisions of the music leaders.

The swiftness with which we abandon our effort at praising God is remarkable.  It is evidence of a hard heart and a misunderstanding about our role in the Body of Christ.  It’s as if we are saying, “God may love me with an everlasting love, but dang it, I’m not going to praise Him unless He does something about that loud guitar.”

Consider Peter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. – 1 Peter 2:9

You are “a people belonging to God.”  In other words, He purchased your life with the blood of His Son, and He did so in order that you “may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.”  Worshiping God is your (our) responsibility; singing loud praises to our Savior in concert with other Believers is a holy duty God has placed on your life.  It is not optional.  It is something you should be prepared to do at corporate worship every week, whether the music is to your taste or not.  You should do it because God is worthy of your praise.  He deserves it, whether the music is great or not.

And, I suspect, if you and many others in your local congregation begin to approach church music with this in mind, the music will “magically” improve.

Imagine a skeptic visits your church.  She is not sure what she thinks about God, Christianity, or organized religion in general, but she came because her friend  invited her.  She walks in late and the first thing she encounters is the music at your church.  As she absorbs the scene–the musicians up front leading, the congregation singing, the ethos of the room–she instantly begins forming impressions about your church and about God.  What does she see?  What does she hear?   Most importantly: what impressions about God does the music at your church communicate to this skeptic?

As a music leader, my initial gut instinct is to say, “I hope she thinks our music (and, by extension, the band making the music) is cool.”   And that makes some sense, doesn’t it?  It’s better if she thinks we’re cool than if she thinks we’re complete dorks, right?   Well…not necessarily.  I should be thinking, “I hope she realizes that the God we are worshiping is Good, Beautiful, Loving, and worthy of her worship.”

But how in the world is she going to get that impression?  Well, obviously it helps if the lyrics of the songs we sing say that God is worthy of our praise.  : )   But it is equally important how those words are sung and who she notices singing them.

Today, I want to argue that the best thing for a skeptic to observe about the music at your church is how loudly and whole-heartedly the  people in the pews are singing. Not how good your band is.  Why?  Because the way in which a congregation sings says something about the God to whom they are singing.  And, believe it or not, having a cool band upfront can actually distract from the message we really want skeptics to hear: that God is powerful, good, and worthy of praise.

Let me explain why I believe this.

1) A cool band says more about your budget than it does about God.

It is the 21st century, and the curtain is pulled back on music production.  Anyone who has watched TV in the last 20 years knows that money equals polish when it comes to musical productions.  We know about Britney Spears lip syncing with pre-recorded vocal tracks.  We survived the Backstreet Boys in the early 2000s.  We know that with enough money, you can hire the right people, buy the right equipment, and make a band look and sound really good.

When a skeptic walks into a church and sees a cool band up front playing cool music, nothing important is actually communicated about God.  A polished musical production communicates that the church cares about having great music, and that it has the money to pull it off.  But, anyone who is looking for reasons to dismiss Christianity and explain away your worship service will be quick to connect the dots: “Oh, this is just a well-funded production and all these people come here b/c it’s cool.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe churches should spend money on music and make the arts a priority in their budgets.  I am not knocking polished musical productions.  I just don’t want anyone to labor under the delusion that if your worship band makes cool music that you are therefore making God more glorious in the eyes of an outsider/onlooker/skeptic.

But what’s the alternative?   Should we have bad music?  No.  We should have…drum roll please…congregational singing!

2) Whole-hearted congregational singing sends a message about God.

If a skeptic walks in and the first thing she sees/hears is a room full of people singing loudly with visible joy and delight, a different message is communicated, a message about God.  The message is essentially this: “The God to whom we sing is worthy of our praise.”  (On the flip side, half-hearted singing by the congregation communicates that God is boring, a figment of our imaginations, or simply not worthy of praise).

This is yet another reason why churches should make robust, heartfelt corporate singing their highest musical priority: because it says something about God that no worship band, no matter how polished or cool, can communicate.

No matter how good the worship band sounds or how culturally relevant the music is, the band simply cannot send the same message that is conveyed by a whole bunch of ordinary people singing their hearts out.

3) In fact, “cool music,” if it detracts from congregational singing, can actually obscure the message about God.

1And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” I Cor. 2:1-5

If Paul had spoken with lots of wisdom and cleverness, onlookers might have gotten the impression that people were converting and worshiping Jesus just because Paul was a smooth operator.  Likewise, when all that a skeptic sees at your church is a cool band up front, it’s easy for her to explain the phenomenon away as money and charisma from the leaders.  But robust corporate singing, (especially at those moments when the music is not so great), declares that the God to whom we sing is good.  And it demonstrates His power to call the hearts of ordinary people into worship.

So let me close with this question: what sends a better evangelistic message to a visiting skeptic?   a) great musicians performing cool music, or b) a church full of ordinary folks singing their hearts out to God?

If the answer is as clear to you as it seems to me, then the next question should be obvious as well: What should be the primary purpose of music in corporate worship?

… To get the congregation singing their best.

Mr. Holland teaches Lou Russ how to keep a rhythm.

Mr. Holland teaches Lou Russ how to keep a rhythm.

In my last post, I argued that making music is a great experience that God intends for everyone, not just musicians.  And it’s the musicians’ job at church to lead music in such a way that it invites people into the experience of music making.  To underscore this point, I want borrow a sentiment from the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus.

If you haven’t seen it, Mr. Holland’s Opus is about a musician who dreams of grandeur but instead ends up teaching high school music his whole life.  In other words, he spends his career teaching non-musical people (the vast majority of which will not go on to be musicians) how to make and participate in music.  At the end of the movie, he realizes that his life has been meaningful and rich, despite never becoming a renowned composer, and the the credits role.  It’s a happy film.
I mention it because I think Mr. Holland’s life and work are not all that different from that of a worship leader.  You may have visions of one day being a renowned musician like…um…Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac.  But instead, someone hears that you can play guitar and enlists you in worship leading duties.  A few years later, you find yourself married with kids and working full time for a church doing music and youth ministry.
Whether you stay in this path for the entirety of your career or not, I want to suggest that your role, while you are a worship leader, is not all that different from Mr. Holland’s.  And it’s a noble role.  Your job is to teach normal, non-artsy, non-musical people how to make music together.  Your job is not to get them to watch you make music.   Teach them how to make music with you.
You may balk at this idea.  I often do.  Mr. Holland does.  There’s a central scene that captures this tension (and the thrust of the whole movie).  Mr. Holland is asked to teach a musically incompetent kid how to play drums, so that the boy can be academically eligible to play football.  Mr. Holland tries halfheartedly for a bit, then basically gives up, because it’s too frustrating.  In the scene below, Mr. Holland is confronted by his friend, the football coach, for his professed inability to teach a willing kid how to play drums.
I saw this movie in 1996, and that scene has stuck with me since.  “Then you’re a lousy teacher.”  It’s rare that someone, a friend especially, says something so direct and so challenging.  Maybe it seems harsh, but in the film, Mr. Holland actually takes it to heart and redoubles his efforts.  And, as you see while the Stevie Wonder song plays over the montage, Lou Russ learns how to drum.
So I say to you, O worship leader, (and to myself), if you can’t lead worship in such a way that it invites ordinary non-musical people into the making of music as praise to God, then you are a lousy worship leader.
Now, hear me, I wouldn’t say this if the crucial issue was one of talent.  If you’re a younger musician, learning to play guitar or piano or whatnot, and you think, “well, I’m just not talented enough to lead worship,” you’re probably wrong.  In the film, the issue wasn’t how much talent Mr. Holland had as a teacher or musician.  It was his priorities and commitment to teaching music to a non-musically-inclined student.  Likewise, if you’re a struggling musician or a beginner, I’m not talking to you.  You may need to grow as a musician, but you can still be a great worship leader who invites congregational participation without being a great musician.
But if you are a competent musician, perhaps even a darn good one, and you lead worship in such a way that it demonstrates your skills as a musician while failing to welcome, facilitate, and value the participation of your congregation as co-creators of the music, then I am talking to you.  You need to change.  If I was talking to you in person, I wouldn’t say it as harshly.  I’d suggest to you that there are ways in which you can adapt, priorities you should adjust.  I would be pastoral about it.  But since I’m writing a blog and sending it out into cyberspace, I want to state it strongly.
It’s just my opinion.  Take it for what it’s worth.  Or argue with me if you like.  Either way, thanks for reading.

painting of people singing

painting by Rodrico Brown age 13, public domain.

If you’ve read any of my recent posts, you know I’m making a perhaps overly exhaustive argument for the importance of corporate singing.  I believe with all my heart that God intended human beings to sing and make music together, and I have been outlining all the reasons why I think so.
Today, I want to apply this concept to worship leaders.  My basic thrust is this:  Worship leader, it is your job to take the gift of making music, which God intends for all His people, and make it accessible for all His people.  Your role is of tremendous significance, and if you misunderstand it, you will fail in it.  Your goal should be not only for the congregation to sing, but also for them to be able to hear themselves and recognize that they are an integral part of the beautiful sound they are hearing.   Allow me a few words to unpack what I mean.

Alienation vs Communion: glimmers of hope in music making

For all its beauties, human life is marked by a lot of isolation and alienation.  Most marriages end in divorce.  Nations go to war.  Even in healthy relationships, people often do things that push them away from each other.   Though we were designed to live in harmonious unity with God and each other–and we long to taste that unity–we often experience the opposite: alienation.
Occasionally, however, we find brief tastes of the communion for which we long.  As a musician, this can happen when playing music with others.  Sometimes when an ensemble of musicians are playing or singing together, we begin to feel as if we are one organism.  We can communicate without talking, the music blends so astonishingly, the rhythm, voicing, harmony, are all so locked-in together that we experience an amazing, humbling delight at simply beholding the sound we are making.  For a few too-brief moments, the many become as one.  When the song is done, we all look at each other astonished by what we have just heard (typically followed by long silence, sighs or ecstatic laughter).  And what runs briefly through our heads is something like, “Wow, that sounded amazing!  And I got to be a part of it!”
This is the opposite of the feeling of alienation that is common to human life.  It is one little way that the people of God can push back the dark with light.  But God did not intend this experience to be only for the musically gifted.  It is the worship leader’s job to make it available to everyone in the church.

Hide it under a bushel? No!

If you are a worship leader, then as a musician you likely know the experience I am talking about.  But for many in your congregation, music is something that they typically watch from the outside looking in.  And, frankly, they do not have many opportunities to participate in music making.  If they’re not musically gifted, the harsh, exacting, critical world will be quick to tell them they should not sing or make music.  They may go to concerts and watch music being made;  they may listen to their ipods while commuting.  But this is not the same as making music and hearing yourself as part of a larger sound that is beautiful. That joyous experience is inaccessible to them, unless they go to a church with a culture of robust corporate singing, where they are invited into the making of music on a weekly basis.
If you are a church music leader, your job is to share the experience of music-making so that others can participate in it as well.  It’s okay to let others watch you play.    But it’s so much better if you can actually invite the listeners into the song, so that they are co-creators with you of the music you enjoy together.  This is harder than mere performance.  It takes hard work and careful attention to detail; it requires listening as much as making sound.  More than anything, it requires focusing your attention on serving the congregation, lifting up their voices over and above your own.
The result is worth the effort.  The result is that “musically average” Christians are able, each Sunday, to be co-creators with you of beautiful music.  They have a voice; they play a vital role in the creation of the music, and they get to experience firsthand the joy of corporate music making that the world reserves for the “musically gifted.”  But if you turn yourself up too loud or you pick songs that are keyed too high for average voices, then you take from them that opportunity.  They may still tell you they enjoyed listening to the music.  But they won’t know what they are missing.