All posts by Dr. Will Whittaker

About Dr. Will Whittaker

I'm a local church Minister of Music from the Atlanta area with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Church Music with specializations in worship and hymnology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Contact me at drwillwhittaker@gmail.com

Familiarity: The Key to Selecting Worship Songs

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a church member who wanted to know how and why I chose the songs for worship here at our church. To get a better idea of how to respond, I asked more specific questions such as: what are some of your favorite songs for congregational singing and why? Do you like newer songs and if so, why? What I usually get in response may be boiled down to one word: FAMILIARITY! In the course of the conversation, I learned that this man wants to be able to participate, but doesn’t always know every song we sing. Isn’t this true of all of us? I don’t think people are necessarily opposed to learning new songs, but what they really crave are songs that are familiar. People will tell you they know what they like, but the truth is, they like what they know.  I think this adage should guide the worship planner/leader in balancing choices made when selecting songs for the intergenerational church along with other salient criteria such a doctrinal truth and other musical and textual concerns.

Here are a few points to consider regarding choices in worship planning for congregational song for familiarity:

  1. Familiar songs may be new or old. Familiar songs do NOT necessarily mean time-tested hymns. Familiar songs are songs that are sung enough that most in your congregation knows them well enough to participate. Further, familiar songs for one congregation may not necessarily be familiar in another context. Some songs have special meaning to a congregation that might not be on the radar of another congregation. Songs used for special occasions or at special times in the life of the church can have powerful meaning not found in any other congregation. Just remember your context and be sure to include worship music that has special meaning to the congregation often.
  2. New songs should stand the test of time. There have been many new songs that I’ve taught our congregation over the course of many years as worship leader here at the church. In my conversation with the man who asked me about my choices for worship music, I explained that the newer songs chosen for worship here at the church have been very intentional and told him to stick around, he’d know it well enough in time.
    I try very hard to pick songs with memorable text, melodies, and harmonic interest. I told him while there are some very popular songs in our evangelical world, many of them will not become part of what I call “time-tested hymnody.” I always aim to use songs that I believe will be sung by our children and grandchildren for years to come. One more note about this: I try to stay current in what new worship music is out there. Most of the time I wait some time to see if a song is going to “fall off the radar.” By the time we sing the song, it’s usually something that will last.
  3. Familiarity may be taught.  When I introduce new songs, I try make sure we sing it often enough for it to catch on. Many others have offered wonderful ideas for introducing new songs. Have someone sing the song as a solo, have one of your choirs or praise teams sing the song, have the children sing it first, etc. Once the song has been heard, try to sing it with the congregation. The tune should be easy enough to catch on by the end of the song. Continue to use the song judiciously in worship so it becomes familiar enough. If your pastor does sermon-series, or if you have a revival or something where a new song can accentuate that series, try to introduce something then. I’ve found revivals are a wonderful time to introduce  new songs because if it’s used in all those services, the people will have many daily interactions with the songs. Some of our favorite songs here at Ivy Creek were “learned” during this intensive times of worship.
  4. Familiarity may be gauged by watching the congregation. One of the things I do every week is look at our people as I’m leading. Are the people singing? While I expect time-tested hymnody to have greater participation, I’m watching to see what’s going on with different generations.Here’s what I’ve noticed:*Unless your people are die-hard listeners of Christian radio, they are not likely to know the newest songs. PERIOD. There is no age stratification here. This is why I’m not convinced that specific generations like specific types of music.
    *The songs in which more people participate are the ones that have been around longer.

POINT: BE CAREFUL TO BALANCE VERY FAMILIAR SONGS WITH SONGS THAT ARE EMERGING IN FAMILIARITY! I recommend there be familiar song(s) to most people in your congregation every week. I hope no one in our congregation leaves without being about to participate if they wish.

I don’t think worship leaders, especially in intergenerational contexts, should strive to arbitrarily insert some hymns and new worship songs into worship services and call it a day. While there is much to be considered in terms of the sermon, the theme (if you have one for the day), the key is to consider YOUR church context when selecting songs each week. Because there are many songs from which to choose for worship, be choosy worship leader!

Why Non-White Dominate Congregations are More Intergenerational

The other day I was rereading an article written by Michael Hawn “Singing Across the Generations: is there Hope?”and I came across this statement on page 20, “congregations that are virtually all African American or Latino most often worship together as multigenerational families.” He goes on to say that Anglo-dominated, middle-class congregations from 200-400 in attendance were more likely to offer two or three different patterns of worship (based on musical style). According to Hawn, minority-dominant congregations tend to worship intergenerationally. Hawn does not aim to explain why this data exists, but focuses on strategies for how churches can find unity in their musical worship.

I’m curious as to why. Why are Anglo-dominated congregations more likely to have multiple types of styles of services? The argument that a new, improved, more energetic contemporary service in the name of attracting new or de-church people will bring young families in doesn’t seem to be the answer in the non Anglo-dominated church. Many of our minority-dominated churches are thriving The African American and Hispanic dominated congregations I’m familiar all over the with all over the world aren’t dying…in fact they are growing! I’ve been to several Latin American churches (all intergenerational) that are THRIVING and the gospel is proclaimed and received.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking, praying, strategizing about how to bring musical elements that transcend generations into our worship context. I’m very interested how minority-dominated congregations have managed to avoid the “worship wars” and what I can learn from them.

This post is not designed to find ways to bring multi-ethnic elements into a particular church content. Anyone with Google can find hundred of articles and books on the subject. However, to begin the conversation, I want to discuss some traits I’ve found in minority-dominated churches that might give a few clues as to why these types of churches have chosen to worship intergerationally. I have a few ideas I’d like to share–all anecdotal although observed many times. As always, there are doubtless others.

  1. Minority-dominated congregations are made of families that VALUE being together. Go to any Latin American country and you’ll see multiple generations living together. They value all; church is no different. Most non-Anglo cultures are ultra family-centric. The “it takes a village” mentality is evident. My observation is women in minority-dominate churches are taking care of many generations of children and raising in a “pack-mentality.” It’s not uncommon to find many Hispanic and African American grandmothers helping raise their own grandchildren.
  2. Minority-dominated congregations are not afraid of emotionally-driven, passionate times of worship. One of the reasons many Anglo-dominate churches have decided to add “contemporary” services alongside their “traditional” services has been that some feel that traditional worship is stuffy, uninspired, boring, and lacking passion. Those who find comfortable in the predictable liturgy of a traditional service find contemporary services irreverent. Minority-dominate churches just don’t have (my opinion) boring or dispassionate music. It’s always been passionate and will continue to be. Ergo, there is no need to separate services based on style.
  3. Minority-dominate churches cling to their ethnicity while embracing new.  The musical worship in these churches is rooted in who they are historically. While they aren’t afraid to embrace new styles of music, they would never create a worship service that excluded one musical style over another. They know their culture and context.
  4.  Participation comes from all generations in minority-dominate churches. Some of this is due to the size of the church. Many are small churches that need everyone to work together. However, my experience has been that even as these churches have gotten larger, (some of our largest churches in America are African- American and Asian dominated) they have not lost their intergenerational nature. All have a role in worship leadership.
  5. Choir participation in minority-dominate churches is still HIGH. I can’t think of an African-American dominate church today that doesn’t use a choir. This could be said for many other non-Anglo ethnic groups as well. While authors of the “National Congregations Study” (Chavez and Anderson 1998 and 2008) reported that choirs in all types of churches has decreased from 72.3% in 1998 to 58% in 2008, there is no evidence of decreased participation in minority-dominated congregations in this study. In fact not only does it remain common, it is intentionality intergenerational (not just choirs of members with with white hair)! These churches have figured out how important a choir can still be relevant.  In fact many leaders of these churches depend on the energy that the choir brings to musical worship, an energy that cannot be replicated by any other means.

I’m positive I’ve only scratched the surface and there are always exceptions to these comments, but I can’t help but notice that it seems to me that only Anglo-dominated churches (and generally in America) think creating separate worship events which contains only one style of music and liturgy is ultimately healthy for the church. This can lead to generational separation, but more importantly, separate services also prevents the fusion of multi-ethnic musical variety. It is only through cooperation and inclusion of multiple styles that we may paint of picture of how heaven will truly be—all peoples worshiping together in many different ways, but worshiping…together.

1Liturgy, 24 (3), 2009: 19-28.

Band and Orchestra Kids Go To Church (Part 3)

Tips for Adding Band and Orchestra Kids to the Worship Team
by Dr. Brian Reichenbach

Believe it or not, there are excellent ways to engage a variety of instruments in a contemporary style ensemble. But if you don’t have any experience with band or orchestra instruments, this can be be daunting, and making it accessible for young musicians can be even more challenging. What follows are some general guidelines and places to begin:

  1. Provide the right written tools. As I mentioned in the first post, we must be mindful of a young (or old) instrumentalist’s proficiency in reading written music or lead sheets. The most common challenge (and one that often stops band kids from even trying this) is transposition or clefs. For example, a clarinetist typically reads music transposed up a step and a violist typically reads alto clef. You may have to do a little bit of homework with the help of Google, a local music teacher, or music notation software.
  2. Ask them to do something within their ability. An acoustic wind or string instrument adds color unlike anything else in the typical worship band. For that reason, what they play does not need to be anything super technical. A simple lick adds a lot to the texture and prevents the student from becoming overwhelmed.
  3. Reimagine electric guitar, pads, or other lines. Oftentimes, these are simple and repetitive lines of music that can be easily played by a wind or string instrument. Also, a string instrument’s line on a recording might work for a different wind instrument. For example, a violin layer could work well on flute, or a cello pad could be covered by a good euphonium player.
  4. Find the jazz band kids. Once a jazz band student has learned the basics of improvisation with chord charts, a typical church leadsheet will be well within their ability.
  5. Don’t play all the time. My biggest pet peeve (and the reason string and wind instruments often sound bad when used in contemporary worship) is that they play too much. Use the colors of these instruments sparingly. Add the instruments just like any other layer and perhaps on only one or a few songs in a given Sunday morning. It’s okay if they don’t play a lot of notes. After all, it’s about serving the church not playing lot of notes, right?
  6. Add an instrumental verse. Many contemporary songs have very simple melodies. Be sure to select the key and range appropriately. And unless a student is accustomed to playing by ear, give them music written in their key to read at first.

A final word of caution: Avoid making much of the young people themselves in the worship service. Don’t stand up and say something like, “Aww, wasn’t that sweet?” Sure, before and after the service you can affirm their contribution to the worshipping community. But make it less about them and more about their giving of God’s gift back to Him and the congregation.

Involving more people and young people in whatever we are used to doing in our worship services can be hugely time consuming. But I believe it is worth it, not only for the students involved, but as a model for the entire congregation and an investment in the future of our churches.