Uncool Music

The Best Church Music is UNCOOL: Finding the right mix of old & new

There arrives with raising a family that one day where your child discovers a profound truth. My teenage son in passing mentioned how he loved Frank Sinatra. “What!” Then I queried with barely contained excitement. “How did you find out about one of the greatest singers in history?” My son then, with a typical teenage eye roll, “Youtube, of course.” In a moment my world was shattered, my mind was blown, and expectations destroyed. You see, how does a 21st Century teen discover amongst the noise of the web such greatness? How does one filter clips of kittens, video game memes, and feats of stupidity to find the gem of Frank Sinatra’s music? As my pastor reminds us, faith is caught–not taught. More precisely, you cannot tell your son who the greatest singer in the history of the planet is, he must find his way there. Truth rises to the top. Even when it comes to the church music of yesteryear.

How much “new” church music can we truly handle?

In a world where church music is built on moments, catching anything is looked at as a disease rather than a blessing. Anything in worship music before 2012 is officially forgotten! The idea of singing “Oceans”–written in the ancient year of 2013–is frowned upon. Even Brian Houston declares that the song that made the Hillsong brand many millions will no longer be sung at his church.  An “older” song is like leprosy in the modern church. Those who would sing a song from 1999, let alone 2013, apparently left behind the younger generation. There is a pseudo-generation gap to be reckoned with, however.

If as stated in research is true, we no longer intentionally listen to new music after the age of 33. Thirty-three is a pretty young person, at least in my book. This means that anyone in your church older than that is going to have a harder time learning all the new stuff. They have sort of filled up their capacity to acquire the latest and greatest. Life is moving on. They are starting families and beginning to realize that the amazing creation of avocado toast depletes money needed for “adulting” on such things as diapers and mortgages. The extravagance of being a young adult that naturally includes new music fades.

Living in the “overlap” just might be the answer.

What that 2015 survey showed is that there is an overlap between the 13-year-old kids and the 64-year-old when it comes to music listening. This overlap is not huge. But, there is one that exists! Frank Sinatra was not one I would suspect. But, how many of us who are not in our 20s hear how very young adults and teens discover the genius of Johny Cash? His authenticity shines through decades of pop music glitter. What if we are missing the church music version of Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra? What if we are so focused on what we think the under-33 crowd wants–modern worship–rather than what is worth passing on to them?

Bridges are always harder to build than walls. Demographics in church planting, church growth, and in church expansion now rule ministry. Indeed, we need to know our community. But, have we lost our own family in the process? Has our addiction to a certain demographic clouded the richness that even Youtube cannot hide? I think we cringe at things we believe are not cool. What young adult is going to respect someone who has no story or legends to pass along? What I have read about the Cash legacy is of a man and his wife who raised up younger artists and supported them in Nashville. Maybe truly authentic artists are a model for church musicians. The point is this: Being in the overlap is more about being great at who you are rather than pretending.

Being “uncool” is actually super cool.

Once you look like all the hipsters, you have lost being cool. If everyone is wearing ironic t-shirts, you are following a pop-trend, not setting one. In church musicianship we loathe originality. Is not cool to write your own songs, or arrange old ones to fit your church worship team. You have to “sound like the CD” or lose your gig as a worship leader these days. This is actually a reality for many worship leaders. You have to be super cool and look and sound like the latest and most popular “worship artists” out there. If you are a guy, that means you cannot be a baritone singer. If you are a young woman, it means you have even less area to spread your wings.

Not too long ago I talked with a very talented worship pastor of a large, multi-campus church. The talent in his city and in his ranks might be envy-inducing if we let comparisons captivate us too much. What struck me was almost a sense of panic in this leader’s voice as he justified why each service and campus had to do all the same music, in the same keys, with the same form. Standardization was dictated from the top. He surely could let loose the leaders under him to organically grow and develop “cool” and authentic sounds in this very musical city. But, none of that mattered. The ironic t-shirt worn today might say, “I hate avocado toast.” Popularity shouldn’t be our goal, but it is in the context of modern worship. When are we going to stop chasing trends and begin creating culture that outlasts us?

Sing what will last, not what will satisfy.

Most of our church music is not going to last. Many loved hymns of the faith, as well as current songs we sing, will end up on the cutting room floor. Isaac Watts wrote this in 1719. 

Blest is the man whose bowels move. 

Blest is the man whose bowels move
And melt with pity to the poor;
Whose soul, by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow saints endure.

His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do;
He, in the time of general grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels, too.

Not all we do in the past in church music deserves to last. Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past” and was a young, firebrand who basically pulled the church out of singing the boring book of Psalter—Psalms that were sung in worship. He was criticized for his colorful and poetic use of language. But, we can see that not all we do stands the test of time.

What will last? That is at least a question we should apply as a starting point in our efforts to lead people in worship. Of course, if your church is overly gray-haired then perhaps its a sign that satisfaction reins over legacy. Why build a church community that only will slowly fade as we age? We must pass on. So, what music–like “Blest is the man whose bowels move”–needs editing or retirement? What worship forms need rethinking?

On the other hand, if we aim to satisfy the other end of the demographic spectrum, we lose as well. Nothing is being passed on. Everything is passing quickly, however. This breeds a sense of urgency that makes some of us panic at singing a song from 2013! Felt needs are overrated. People need continuity. Faith, if it is something caught, must then be something that lasts. Our forms do need innovation. But, tickling fancies of any one demographic fails.

You can’t please everybody, but you can get them taste anything.

Music is like the spices we cook with. Some walk into a stranger’s home smelling potently of garlic and feel like it’s their grandma’s house. The aroma is powerful. That same person enters a kitchen with curry pervading the room and is lost. Music is a physically experienced medium and like food must be acquired. It is wrong, in my opinion, to chalk up the visceral reaction of parishioners as simply immature preferences. Grace here allows us to move from telling our church that our worship music is about them pleasing them to the idea of feeding them.

Blended worship is the concept of mashing two or more “styles” into one service. This fails because it forgets the human quality of taste. Food is acquired, remember? What if we gave a “taste” of something new or if in a very modern church a “taste” of something old. Doing this requires context. It could be something as simple as telling a bit of a story. “We are going to sing this hymn as it was our founding pastor’s practice to sing it at the end of every prayer meeting 59 years ago when our church was new.” You should do this when introducing anything that is “new” or out of the ordinary. Respect the bodies of your church members. Jarring them too quickly into a different style will have obviously complicated results.

Invite your church to acquire the taste of their neighbors.

Business plans do not fit what we do in church at times. Yes, we all use spreadsheets for the data of not only our income and expenditures but of who attends. However, the human factor always is the foundation of any enterprise–especially one that is about faith, art, and leading our own church in prayer. Have we too much made leading ministry akin to being a CEO? Have we lost the shepherds touch and voice to our own congregations? Music is powerful. We are often stuck with the spreadsheets and forget to pray with and listen to the ones we serve with our music.

Invite your church to a sampling of worship styles. When the need to move forward motivates us, do we command or do we woo? A shepherd will call his sheep. We should do likewise as worship leaders. Calling our church people to try and graze on a new patch of grass makes sense. We cannot sing songs like “Blest is the man whose bowels move” as well as the song “Oceans.” When we replace or reintroduce the invitation is done as an act of love. “Hey church, we have recently had 5% increase in Hispanics move to our area. Let’s sing this verse in Spanish.”

Action steps.

Here are some thoughts to help you build a strategy that keeps both old and new in the right mix for your church.

  • Your people can only handle so much new music so what is your saturation level?
  • What is new is not always what the younger worshippers want.
  • Build bridges instead of walls with worship, so we can at least worship together a few times a year.
  • Ask what people need before giving them what they want. Popularity can be your downfall.
  • Music is experienced physically so respect the human process that change requires.

Let me know your thoughts and let’s dialog about what this “mix” should look like.

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

2 comments

  1. Just an fyi. They doc sing old songs and even hymns in hillsong. Maybe not as often as a traditional church do. But they do. 😊 i agree that it can be really hard to find the balance between the old and the new though. Thanks so much for the helpful blog.

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