“You can tell everybody, this is your song.”

Inspiring words from the classic 1970’s Elton John ballad.

As a worship leader, I have always had an appetite for seeking hidden treasure: great worship songs that no one else seems to be singing.  I’ve also written a handful of songs over the years. And, as I have blended such unknown, or lesser-known, material into my worship repertoire, I’m often asked the question,

“Was that your song?”

The answer is usually no, since it’s far more common for me to use a lesser-known song that someone else has written, than one of my own.

I could write more music, but I’m comfortable with the fact that writing is not my primary talent. And there’s a lot of great stuff out there.

Nevertheless, in the field of worship ministry, there is ongoing discussion on the relative value of popular worship songs versus songs produced by local churches themselves.

Within this discussion you might hear,

“We write our own songs because we want our community to have a voice. We want our expression of worship to be authentic to us and the community in which we live.”

Or, on the other hand,

“We use popular worship songs to connect to the Church at large. This ensures that newcomers (Christians presumably) will find comfort and a ‘user friendly’ experience.”

Some might even criticize those who rely primarily on popular worship material as being less authentic, and caught up in a consumer-oriented worship. They go for the “buy local” approach to worship.

And those from a more mainstream approach may worry that ignoring popular worship material isolates you from the Church universal. Or it might drive off potential members who want to sing songs they know. They also may simply lack the talent pool to produce their own songs.

So, is it okay to always sing someone else’s songs, or would it be better to sing your songs?

Most of us recognize the value of both.

But I’d like to go a step further and suggest that there isn’t such a thing as someone else’s song. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.

Along those lines, I’d like to propose a few understandings from my experience as a worship leader.

The greater Church community is our community.

  1. The greater Church community is our community. Any work produced by the Body of Christ should be part of our corporate expression. Whether a particular song comes from your church, a church in your town, another state, or across the world, it is part of our community. Likewise songs coming from well-known leaders with record deals are our songs. Thomas Friedman wrote that the world is flat. Well, so is the worship world. We’re all in this together.
  2. You don’t have to do every song “just like the recording.” Let me restate that more emphatically: You don’t ever have to do any song just like the recording. Get it? How you are doing a song is more of an issue than where it came from. Wherever it came from, it’s here now. Make it yours.
  3. You won’t have ownership without relationship. Embrace the idea that these are your songs and that youshould contextualize everything you do in a way that is reflective of your local community. This means you first have to have a real community. That means people have to be connected. They have to be more than consumers. Band members have to be more than “hired guns.” Whether they are pros or amateurs is not the issue. Whether they are paid musicians or volunteers is not the issue. Are you truly connected relationally and artistically? That is the issue.

You don’t have to do every song “just like the recording.”
Songs become popular for a reason. The artistic and theological integrity of popular worship music has come a long way, especially in the last 5 years or so. This should be celebrated. There is great value in establishing and maintaining an ethos that says we’re part of something bigger.

But this doesn’t mean we have to resign our selves to becoming “McChurch.”

To the contrary, that only happens when we lack creativity in using these expressions in the context of our local community. And, frankly, when we let that happen, I think it’s largely because we are lazy.

We lack the willingness to build the type of relationships with our musicians that it takes to find the unique artistic voice of our specific communities. Obviously, you can’t find “your sound” if you’re always mimicking the sound of the band on the recording. But, you have to know each other and spend time together to move beyond that.

It’s easier to just download the pre-made charts and tell your musicians to listen to the mp3. But, it’s worth taking the time to make it your own and build a team that wants to do that with you.

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Make your own charts. Seriously. It’s a good discipline and a great first step toward shaking the habit of simply reproducing the style, arrangement, and form of the original recording.
  2. Experiment with options from the start. Sometimes we do a popular song in a new way to “freshen it up.” Why not do that from the start? The original is guitar driven, what if you tried it with the piano as the driving instrument? Is the original really in the best key for your congregation (notice I said your congregation, not necessarily for you)? A change in key changes the way the song interacts with various instruments. Does that spark any creative ideas? The original starts with the verse. What if you started with the chorus? Does it really need that guitar solo? Does it need to be a little shorter?
  3. Connect songs in creative ways. One of my favorite things is to take a part of a song and tag it onto a different one. The bridge of a song is often a perfect hinge for swinging to another song and back. For instance, if you came to the bridge of Chris Tomlin’s “Our God” but substituted the bridge of Matt Maher’s “As It Is In Heaven,” you make a powerful and smooth transition to that new song. You can come back to the bridge and chorus of “Our God” if you like, but maybe you don’t. Of course, you’ll have to be making your own charts to do this type of thing.

These are just a few examples to get you thinking. The possibilities are endless.

Do songs that people know, but in a way that identifies with your particular community.

Do songs that people know, but in a way that identifies with your particular community. It really is the best of both worlds. And we should settle for nothing less.

Also continue to write new songs in your community! Maybe that’s where they’ll stay, or maybe some will become the popular songs of tomorrow. If they do, we’ll make them our own.

Either way, if you’re willing to do the creative work, you can tell everybody…

This is your song.