Fresh new songs birthed in the local church have such amazing potential. In my experience there is almost nothing else like it in corporate worship. Original songs written in our local church will most likely be in the church's own "native" dialect. Original songs can speak to unique situations like tragedies or they can be simple crafted responses to a sermon series. They work really well with the seasonal rhythms like those of the Church calendar. I have also noticed as i've traveled around the world that local songs are often steeped in regional musical styles, making them uniquely familiar to the bodies they were birthed in. All of these elements add up and give original songs a leverage that the music industry will never be able to fully overcome. Songs crafted in our local or regional churches have perhaps the greatest potential for engagement - or they have the worst!
Rarely do I think that the greatest potential of a new song is fully realized. Over the years I have witnessed many, many great songs never get momentum in a local church, not because they weren't great songs, not because the body doesn't like new songs, not because the pastor doesn't like creativity, but because there was a void of some really simple practices that prevented them from ever getting a chance. Here are a couple of things to consider before premiering your next original song.
I'm from the school of thought that arrangements can make or break a song. When arranging a new worship song we walk a fine line of making the arrangement strong enough to stand out, yet loose enough to leave room for future adjustments. This can be a bit challenging but I think it's important. Before I introduce a song I typically make sure the song has at least these 5 basic foundational elements:
FLOW - Top to bottom flow of song structure is working for corporate uses (verse-chorus-bridge etc.).
TONE - Commitment to a tonal/style palette (i.e., folk, indie rock, pop, etc.).
HOOK - At least one basic melodic hook.
RYTHM - Good foundational rhythmic support.
DIRECTION - Basic ideas for band builds (when certain instruments are in and when they are not).
Many churches encourage band members to learn their parts from a popular recording. It's highly likely that over time they will know those songs inside and out because they've practiced and listened to them over and over again. That's not the case with new songs. Because of this it becomes super important to get the arrangement elements in place ahead of time, have the band members rehearse their parts, and get as familiar as possible so the new song doesn't feel like it's out of place in the context of the whole setlist. Too many times i've seen the opposite happen - new songs introduced with no intentionality, no confidence, and it usually doesn't go well - especially when it sits in the shadows of the more familiar songs!
*If you are not a strong arranger than I encourage you to find either someone in your church or in your region that can help you. It's important to be open handed and not tight fisted during this co-creative process.
I tend to think that songs only get a couple shots at landing with a group of people. If there is momentum on a song than that momentum usually tends to increase for a season. If there is no movement than I tend to think that there most likely never will be. We cannot always dictate when or how or even why this phenomenon happens, but there is a really simple mechanic that I use to help level the playing field so all songs start at the same place. I call it positioning.
Positioning a new song, whether it's homegrown or new to a church, is really important. At the Mechanic Falls Vineyard we have developed a culture that is really receptive and gracious with new songs, but set positioning is still super important. My favorite thing to do is sandwich the new song in-between songs that the Church really knows and loves deeply. We typically will do 4 songs on a Sunday. Typically I will start with two very familiar songs and then introduce the new song as number 3 in the set and then end with the set with a song that everyone is familiar with.
Rules are for breaking. I don't always use the above method but I lean into that thought process most of the time. Full disclaimer, I have led new songs at the very top of the set, but I need an incredible reason for doing so. In fact I almost never do it because if the song doesn't land than there is a good chance that i'll never have a chance to recapture the attention of the body. What about the end of the set? Buttoning up the whole set with a new song can actually work really well. Again, I almost never do it and I need a strong reason for doing it.
Another positioning rule that I follow all the time is never introduce two new songs back to back. In my experience this has been the best recipe for minimal engagement and new song failure.
Invite the body into the vision. There are two basic visions that are important here, "Why local songs?" and "What inspired this song?". These are very important questions. There are also perhaps several ways to invite communities to engage with them. At Mechanic Falls we knew it would be imperative to first start from the top. Our senior pastor did a series on worship and intentionally made some simple but empowering statements to the body about why writing and singing original songs is important. He than gave permission and an invitation to everyone in the body to engage with new songs. This was then repeated periodically by the worship leaders or other leaders from the platform. It went something like, "We really value bringing new songs to the Lord. We think it's important tell the stories of what He's doing here in Mechanic Falls and to describe Him and His wonderful deeds with fresh language. Over the next couple of months you'll be hearing some new songs that we hope will be inspiring and we pray that they encourage you as we all seek to worship God together in this new season with new songs!" Having leadership speak this out accomplished a couple of things:
For all the writers and musicians involved, it placed value on local songs and on the process of songwriting.
For the wider body, it encouraged buy in. It gave permission to engage, be ready for something unfamiliar, and to support a full community vision.
The next type of buy in is "What inspired this song?". It's an invitation to allow the body see what inspired the writing of this song. Careful now, this is not time for the full story or for the mini-sermon. Keep it short and sweet. Just a real quick one or two sentences will suffice. I like to say a little something about the scripture verse that inspired the chorus or maybe one of the other key lyrics in the song. I love to watch people respond when that particular section of the song comes around. All of a sudden you see light bulbs turning on all around the room and people really begin to engage with the lyric. What you did was just give them some buy in to the vision of the song. I cannot stress enough - keep it short and sweet.
I often hear worship leaders complaining about how leadership doesn't support them creatively, or that they're not allowed to do original songs at main services. I understand that there can be a lot of layers to that issue, but I often think that a lot of it has to do with bad arrangements, weak positioning, and no corporate buy in. Numbers 1 and 3 are really important in building trust with senior leaders. No good leader is going to let you get up in front of the church and play your crappy songs over and over again, especially if there is not an attempt to make them great, and no value for getting the community involved in the process. It's important to mention that there are also those wishing to use the local church as their stepping stool for a songwriting career. In my opinion these individuals are missing an amazing opportunity and are typically red flags for smart leaders. When writers and leaders have their hearts together, fixed on blessing the Lord, and serving the local church, small attempts in these areas usually yield beautiful results.
Ask yourself: "Which of these 3 areas do I need to work on?"