Our band Menders recently led worship for a retreat where most of the students were used to singing worship songs from one specific genre. This was our third time getting invited, and every time we’ve done this retreat it’s been a powerful experience where we see God moving among the students. We were hired because we are a worship band that represents many different genres and because of our work in worship and reconciliation. I always have mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety going into retreats like these, because there’s a tension between choosing songs that people know vs. teaching them new ones that could add more depth and breadth to worship. Plus, there’s the inevitable cringe moment…
We taught some songs that were from different styles and different languages. We even did one original song, which we were very eager to share (we hope to record sometime soon!). The crowd followed along in learning the songs, although it was interesting to observe their hesitancy, confusion, and even a lack of participation. Nothing feels worse than blank stares from an audience. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know the exact moment . . . I felt the unrest and the tension of the staff leaders . . . When were they going to ask, or are they going to be passive aggressive the whole time?
Then BAM! about halfway through the retreat, the retreat director said very lovingly but a little anxiously, “We absolutely love what you’re doing, but is there a way we can sing more familiar songs?”
Possible feelings/reactions to this all-too-familiar question:
- Embarrassment – The people that hired you aren’t happy about it, and it’s professionally and professionally humiliating.
- Overeager Desire to Please – You want to scrap your entire playlist and replace it with the so-called familiar songs that everyone knows. And refuse to be paid since it was so bad.
- Fear – Will you be fired? Blacklisted from this organization and every church? Will you ever play music again??
- Anger and Defiance – How dare they question your choices and authority or worship?! Didn’t they know what they were getting when they hired you??
- Guilt – The students were there to worship God, and instead they were disengaged from worship. They might not come next year, and the organization that hired you will lose money because of your failures leading worship.
Over the years I’ve had the “sing more familiar songs” question asked in different ways. Some people are demanding and some are nice about it, while some don’t say anything at all but don’t invite us back. I’ve reacted in all the ways I listed above, to varying degrees, I’m embarrassed to admit. I used to think that this cringe-worthy question was a gauge in what a bad job I was doing. But over time I’ve learned that this question is a gauge in how much people are willing to be uncomfortable in order to learn about the Kingdom of God, and it’s very encouraging. This question which I used to fear so much is the ultimate sign that I’m actually doing a good job.
If everyone loves every song that you play/lead, does that mean that their voice and preference are being heard or considered too much?
If everyone disconnects with every song that you play/lead, does that mean their voice and preference are not being heard or considered enough?
Wanting to sing songs in worship that are familiar and known is not a bad thing. Wanting to only sing songs in worship that are familiar, known, and approved by you points to something deeper. I’m always looking for ways that God is trying to open my eyes to see Him, and when I try to open my eyes into worship I see that along with the comfort and familiarity there is also risk, uneasiness, adventure, and exhilaration. I see it the most when I learn songs from many different genres. It’s an invitation to see what God sees, and to worship God through dimensions I didn’t realize were there.
And I’m thrilled when I get to share this invitation with other people! By the end of the retreat the crowd that started off looking confused or uncomfortable with these new songs were now singing them at the top of their lungs! In Spanish! Some students approached us and told us how refreshing it was to hear new sounds in worship. A jazz major even pointed out that she loved all of our 7th and 9th chords.
The temptation to feel embarrassment, overeager desire to please, fear, anger and defiance, and guilt will always be there, but I hope we can be encouraged to focus on the vision for what God tries to show us if we open ourselves in worship to Him. We got asked this cringe-worthy question at a retreat where there was uncomfortable tension, and yet this retreat group has invited us back three times. We must be doing something right.