This blog is by guest blogger Joel Payne and was originally posted on the ResoundWorship Blog in 2018.
It’s well accepted these days that fashion magazines have played their part in promoting an unrealistic, even unhealthy, body image. But what about the worship music industry – could it be that we are doing much the same?
If your only exposure to church is through videos on YouTube or Christian TV, or at one of the big events, you could easily imagine that what you see is what all church music groups look like. A pop concert-style setup with big PA systems, immersive synths, driving electric guitars and a team of backlit singers strewn across the front of the stage, separated only by a cellist in full flow. Not to mention the drummer in a clear plastic box.
That’s what most of our churches look like, right?
Of course, some do, and many are fantastic. Production values in live music-making in church have rocketed in the last two decades, and some of the musicianship is staggering. It’s a pretty exciting thing to be part of on a Sunday. But we know that’s not the typical scene.
So when we at Resound Worship set out to record our most recent album, Songs for Sundays, we asked ourselves this: if we know that most churches don’t look like the ones described above, why are the vast majority of worship albums recorded as if they do? Why do we write and present songs in a way that doesn’t seem to be intended for most churches?
Now, we should admit, we’ve been doing it too, for much of the last decade. But we began to think there might be a problem. If the high-profile songs and recordings are written and arranged with the ‘big-church’ setup in mind, what does that mean for the smaller, normal churches? At best, the average church worship group struggles a bit to mimic the arrangement. At worst, they just murder it. Is the machine of new songs and new albums helping them to offer their best in worship?
if we know that most churches don’t look like the ones described above, why are the vast majority of worship albums recorded as if they do?
It’s easy to become vexed by assumptions without any real data to back them up. We had an idea what the normal church might look like, based on anecdote and experience, but why not ask? So we did. (For the nitty-gritty of the survey, see the bottom of the page)
THE SURVEY RESULTS
WHICH INSTRUMENTS ARE REGULARLY USED IN YOUR SUNDAY WORSHIP?
By far the most common instrument was the piano/keyboard. In a world of contemporary worship that has been dominated by acoustic-guitar-playing worship leaders for the last three or four decades, the piano comes out on top. Only two-thirds of the churches reported that they regularly had an acoustic guitar player. Almost all had some kind of piano.
Fewer than half the churches regularly use drums and bass guitar. The bedrock of the pop/rock sound and mainstay of every worship album and conference line-up only turns up two-fifths of the time.
Electric guitar and synth are rare. Multiple layers of guitars and synths form one of the fundamental sounds of modern worship recordings, bringing the songs to life, creating atmosphere and dynamics. Most churches simply don’t have them.
The third most common instrument behind piano and acoustic guitar? Flute. My suspicion is that every church in the western world has at least two flute players, and those who didn’t report them did so because they don’t know what to do with them. I can’t be sure, it’s just a hunch. But I can say with confidence that they are incredibly common in church music on Sundays. So, if they represent a key component of the ‘sound’ of the church, where are they on the worship CDs?
WHICH VOICES ARE REGULARLY USED IN YOUR SUNDAY WORSHIP?
The picture is slowly changing, but if we ask the recordings who leads the singing we still have to assume it’s a man. Ask the churches, however, and there’s nothing in it. It’s just as likely to be a female voice leading on a Sunday as a male one. Should the songs, then, be pitched for men or women? More to the point, shouldn’t they be pitched for everyone?
The harmony backing vocal – beautiful, rich and expressive, so wonderfully augmenting the lead line – is absent in three quarters of churches. It’s more common to have a unison singing group. Even more so, in plenty of churches it appears that the congregation is the chief vocal chorus. Perhaps no bad thing at all?
WHY THIS MATTERS
That’s the data. If you’re still wondering why all this matters, here are four suggestions.
IT SKEWS OUR UNDERSTANDING OF NORMAL
If every worship album we listen to has a similar sound, a similar musical line-up, then that is accepted as normal, more-or-less what worship should sound like in church. Churches which can’t achieve those levels of musicianship or work with that musical palette then imagine that they are sub-standard and worship only with a lingering ‘if only’. Aspirations are good things to drive us on, but why assume that the prevalent recorded sound is the best one? If we ask what the worshiping church of Jesus Christ sounds like, the truest answer would be to say it sounds like the smaller churches. Piano, guitar, flute and a unison singing group*. There are far more of them. That is normal. If God loves the worship of his churches, he must really love that sound.
WE DEVALUE OUR OFFERING
When we understand worship as, among other things, an offering – giving back to God what he has already given to us – it’s clear that we can only offer to God what we actually have. It should be the best we have, but we can’t offer what we don’t have. We mustn’t look at some other church, or listen to their album, and wish we could offer what they have. If nothing else, that mixes up the whole New Testament message about the richest gifts being made out of poverty, as one poor widow will tell us.
Our best offering is the best we have. When our mind is set on mimicking the sound of another church or band, we sometimes don’t even notice the riches we have among us – the players, the instruments, the skills – because we don’t think they belong in the offering. If that is the case, we’re probably not offering our best at all.
IT CAN BRING DISHONOR ON THE BODY
Those instrumental skills we don’t use on Sunday because they don’t fit our subconscious mould, or work easily with the particular stream of worship songs we subscribe to – why are they there? Is it an accident? Or could we imagine that Christ distributes gifts to his church deliberately, ‘exactly as he determines’ (1 Cor 12:11)? Paul’s image of the church as a body reminds us that, unlike the way we view our human bodies, there are no shameful parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31). There are no bits we need to keep hidden. They’re all honored. When we elevate certain instruments above others in worship we imply dishonor on the ‘lower’ instruments. To use a modern expression, we’re body shaming. The musical palette we use on our recordings directly influences, even dictates, which instruments and voices we value above others.
WE LOSE OUR ABILITY TO HEAR
Not so long ago, we got many of our new songs from the annual-conference songbooks. Many more than those who attended would buy the book and sit at the piano working their way through it. They would read the words, sing the tunes, and see which seemed good for their church. They’d try them in a rehearsal or on a Sunday and, with no other reference, get half the tunes wrong and play some of them too fast or too slow, but it didn’t really matter because context was key: if it works the way we do it, here, it works.
But, today, we get our songs from Spotify, CDs and YouTube. Accessibility, immersion and repeated listening means our judgement of what will be a good song for church is no longer based on what seems to work in our context but what sounds great on a recording. We try a new song in church and press on – because it’s such a great song that we love – even though it’s really not working with our music group. Instead of hearing our own sound, we’re hearing someone else’s, and just hoping everyone else is hearing that too.
If, instead, our ears were trained on our music group and congregations, singing and playing songs that best used our combination of skills, we might just begin to create something beautiful. But without good examples, and immersed in another sound, it’s can be very hard to imagine.
HOW DID WE RESPOND TO OUR SURVEY RESULTS?
We had already decided that we wanted our new album to be an incredibly useful collection of songs, written to enable and express the signpost moments of the worship journey. Songs that could be genuinely useful in many churches every Sunday. But we became convinced we should also write, arrange and record the songs according to our new understanding of church music groups.
We took the eight most common instruments to form the palette. Piano would be front and centre, with the acoustic guitar close behind. We’d include some electric guitar, but used sparingly and simply. Drums and bass would be solid but shouldn’t form the characteristic sound of the songs. For the flute and violin we would have significant, signature melodies, without which the songs would feel incomplete. The church organ would replace the synth, adding depth.
We committed to have at least as many female lead vocals as male ones, even for songs written by men. And we decided to go without harmony backing vocals. This was tough. They add so much to the sound. But we were too far down this road by now to make compromises. Instead, we gathered a vocal group to sing the tune, men and women in unison, and used them to add dynamics and expression where needed.
We were determined the album should sound great, with songs you would want to sing. And when you turn up on church on Sunday and try them with your musicians, they should still sound great, the sounds of the album being easily reproduced. Additional instruments or interpretations would be possible. But if you were the kind of normal church our survey described, you’d have songs that really worked.
Did we pull it off? We ought to let you listen for yourself and make up your own mind.
Could others do the same thing, but better? Absolutely, yes.
Will they? I really hope so. Wouldn’t it be great if they did? Many voices in the worship recording industry encouraging normal churches everywhere by intentionally and creatively modelling an achievable sound for Sunday worship. An endorsement and honoring of a real body image that leads to a beautiful and confident worshiping church. That’s worth hoping for.
At the time we had about 20,000 subscribers to our website, from all kinds of churches. We picked the 1000 most active and sent them a questionnaire. We asked them various things about their churches, including the musical line-up, geographical location, congregation size, denomination, levels of participation and for some general feedback about our work.. We received nearly 300 replies. I remember enough from my high school statistics course to know this is a reasonably solid sample where we can draw at least some conclusions from the results.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these are our subscribers who like or use our music. We’re not Bethel or Hillsong, nor are we Hymns Ancient and Modern. We write contemporary worship songs in a fairly ‘mainstream’ style, with a bit of a niche in content-driven lyrics. People often come to us when they want a song about something specific. But we’re definitely band-driven, pop-style – a bit Radio 2, as I often say.
For the questions quoted above, they were asked to select from pre-determined options, to allow us to analyse the results more easily. There was space to report the weird and wonderful, but we made certain assumptions about which instruments might realistically be involved in any significant way
*In the UK and US chiefly, limited to the scope of our survey