Worship Songbooks: The necessary evil?
I have seen so many great musicians and singers in churches tied to worship songbooks. There are almost possessed by them, and cannot do anything not written in the book. Even worse, they can’t play anything different to the way they originally heard it recorded on the CD!
I encourage ALL people on stage to have the songs MEMORISED. This is, indeed, a scary word, because it takes a degree of effort and dedication. Believe me; you will rarely see a professional band with music sheets on front of them on stage. Why shouldn’t we be equally as good?
However, worship songbooks are considered very important because of the large number of songs we have these days in church. They also can avoid embarrassing goof ups on stage.
Considering both sides of the debate, songbooks on stage are probably a necessary evil (and certainly better than an embarrassing mistake), but should be there for glancing at only, not staring at! Songbooks also allow last minute changes, so you can have a flash of inspiration and throw a song not scheduled for the morning in, knowing that everyone with a songbook has the words and chords at their immediate disposal.
So, after years of soul searching, tears or frustration and prayer, here are a few suggestions on how to set up worship songbooks:
1. RESTRICT THE NUMBER OF SONGS: Unless you are Superman with the memory of an elephant, you cannot have five and a half thousands songs in your repertoire. I recommend that you have several categories in your song book:
a) Current song list: around 30-40 songs which you are currently using in church regularly. These are only the REGULAR songs you sing, not songs you sang once 10 months ago, or ones that one of your worship leaders does but everyone else hates.
b) Supplementary list: around 20 songs that are not real regulars, but are used often enough to not be expelled from the lists. Over time one of these may move up into the Current song list, or you might relegate one of the Current songs back to the Supplementary. Sounds a bit like the English Premier League, doesn’t it?
c) Hymns: Keep these in a separate list, because, as we all know, they will never die. Now, some of you young trendies in church reckon that all hymns are funeral marches. Think again!!! While some are woeful, there are lots which are classics, and which go great with modern band backing. Songs like, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Amazing Grace” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” if done well, can be awesome worship experiences. So, guys, put them in the lists, and use them, and see how they go. I try to use at least one hymn in a service, not for the oldies but for myself, because many are superbly written and deep in theology.
d) Home Grown: I love to hear of churches who are writing their own material. Encourage it in your people, because churning out what others have written is not the height of creativity, and God is a creative God. Now, you will need to audition songs, and not accept junky songs just because one of your guys wrote it. However, if you are patient and careful, and if you press into the Lord and ask Him for great songs, you will see wonderful home grown songs and then you, the team and the people will be blessed.
Should a specific song need to be done which is not on the list, then the worship leader is responsible for providing the music and words. So, these lists don’t restrict you and stop you using other songs, but they do provide a streamlined way to deal with the worship songbook issue.
2. Everybody needs a book: I am not a fan of seeing copious amounts of paper strewn across the stage. How much better, neater and easier to find is a songbook, which contains all of the above mentioned song lists. No excuses then for missing a chord or the words.
3. The song book needs to have simple chords: Complex songbooks (such as many of the ones published) are great for trained musicians, but many musicians nowadays cannot read music (I am one of these). Chords are quick, easy to follow and give sufficient flexibility to allow musicians to improvise. Sometimes the piano player complains that he or she needs the complex, written music. If this is the case, they are likely to be completely inflexible, so taking their sheet music and giving them purely chords is a great way to encourage them to loosen up. If they still complain, let them find the complete music themselves. For the rest of humanity, chords are the way to go.
In one church music team I led, there was an older man who played piano beautifully, but point blank refused to use chords, insisting on using the sheet music for every song. I decided to gently overrule him, and gave him chords alone, and he wined and complained week after week, but I kept encouraging his efforts. Within a few months, he was operating from chords brilliantly, and because he was not reading notes, he was not playing the melody, leaving plenty of room for our vocals. He then surprised both himself and me by becoming very creative, adding little bits here and there, and he eventually became one of the best pianists I have ministered with. Oh yes, I should mention that we stayed friends throughout: he’s a great guy!
4. Try to fit 2-3 songs to a page: That way you save paper, and trees, and the greenies will be able to come to church with a clear conscience. It is also easier to carry around.
5. Now you can do songs not on the play list! If the Lord speaks to your heart during worship to do a song not on the play list for that day, guess what: you all have a copy in your songbook. Just haul it out and away you go. This enables you to be sensitive to the Spirit, and enables all the band and singers to go with you!
So, while worship songbooks are not the be all and end all, they are very useful in both song selection and in helping your band and singers to keep up to speed. They are also a great tool for cell groups and people who just love to worship at home. Make sure EVERY PERSON in the band and singers gets one. This also helps to build solidarity among the team.
So, in summary…
Let me reiterate one final point: the songbooks are FOR REFERENCE ONLY, and not to be sight read. I encourage my guys to learn the songs and, yes, even memorize them. Hard work, true, but much more professional. (Can you remember the last time you saw a band on MTV singing from sheet music on a music stand? No, I can’t either!)
However, if you change tack mid-service, everyone will have the worship songbook and thus the power to be right there with you.