Excellence is a much-talked about subject in church. There’s two camps we Christians can fall into. On the one-hand, many say excellence is our response to a God who gave his excellence for us, it honours Him to give Him our best, and excellence draws people in. On the other hand, excellence is seen as showmanship, trying to convince people to become Christians by playing rock music with flashing lights, rather than accepting the gospel on its own merit.
I think that excellence is a tick-box for people. Excellence is just the minimum standard that you need to achieve so that people don’t switch off, either mentally in physical services, or actually in online services. If you sing out of tune, can’t play in time or play in a way that isn’t tuneful, all you do is tell people to check out. And when it comes to worship, the standard is very high. Think about it, all day everyday people are listening to Spotify or Apple Music. The music quality is superb. That’s the standard the church faces, not to impress people, but to stop them from leaving. That’s not to say that that everyone are terrible people who are just consuming content. It’s just human nature.
So why do we still bother with music-based worship at all? After all, there are many different ways to worship God and to praise Him. It’s just that music, above virtually all other media God has created, connects people with something transcendent. Our emotions are taken to places that we didn’t think possible in a few short minutes. This happens not only with Worship music, but all music. However, when that medium is placed in the context of specifically inviting God into the centre of it, it can be literally life transforming. As a worship leader, I’ve seen many people be overwhelmed in the presence of God in a way I’ve never seen at a concert.
So, that means that our worship teams need to be excellent. We want to take away the distractions so that they can meet with the presence of God. So how do we help our team of musical volunteers get better?
Its very easy, especially in smaller churches, to accept anyone on to your worship teams, regardless of their ability level. That doesn’t help you or them. You need to set a standard that you won’t drop beneath, even if you think they’re a really nice person.
I’m also not in favour of the stories of churches allowing people on team who are really good at looking engaged and are worshipping but can’t sing, instead turning the microphone off. That’s disingenuous and doesn’t benefit the volunteer or the congregation. You need to have a technical standard, an engagement standard and team-player standard. It’s much better to have holes in your team than to let the wrong people on board.
Any team members you decide to bring on need the resources to be able to succeed. To quote Lee Baker, our Podcast Episode 5 guest, “You can’t expect what you don’t resource.” That means that you need to spend time resourcing your team with music, parts and set lists before you get to rehearsals. Once you resource your team, you can make the ask of your team to rehearse at home and come prepared. Create a pathway for new volunteers for joining the team. A great resource you can use is Meta by Lee's church 12Stone. This teaches the basics of playing to an excellent standard in a worship team.
Many churches use a large song book for their repertoire of songs. However, these books often have hundreds of songs in, which means that your band is always having to re-learn the songs each time you play them. That reduces cohesion and the ability for your team to be comfortable. When that happens, you start to see music stands, and lots of paper on the stage. That’s not engaging at all.
By keeping the repertoire tight, to 25-30 songs, you can expect your team to know each song really well. If you think your church will get bored with that many songs, just think. Let’s say you sing 4 songs per Sunday. That means that each song will be sung just over 8 times per year. If the average attendance is once per month, they’re only singing the song once every other month anyway, so if anything, they’ll be grateful to hear something familiar.
This of course doesn’t mean you shouldn’t introduce new songs, you need to keep it fresh too. If you introduce 1 new song a month, you give each song an average shelf life of just over 2 years, which means that it will be sung on average 16-17 times. Also, when you add a new one in, take an old one out. That freshness will help the congregation, but will also help your team stay sharp in learning new songs.
Learning to play to a click track is one of the biggest shifts you can make as a team. It requires some infrastructure to make it happen. You’ll need to invest in in-ear systems for your team so they can all hear it. Although, at the very least, the drummer can use it through earphones straight from his smartphone, although this is only ever a short-term solution.
The benefits of playing to a click track is that your band will get tighter, maybe not at first, as it takes time to get used to it. Give it a good few weeks in rehearsals before you go live with it. You’ll start to hear the band stay on time more. In reality, click tracks are the basis of all music recording, so getting your team used to this is the baseline standard.
Many people have philosophical problems with backing tracks, recalling pop bands of the 1990’s lip-syncing along to the track. That’s not what we’re talking about. Backing tracks do way more than just replace instruments. Backing tracks give you a framework for the whole song. They add instruments that you don’t have to give it a fuller sound, like pads and extra keys. Backing tracks also give cues to your team that they can hear in their in-ears so they know where the song is going next.
You can add in instruments that you don’t have (and we’ve all had those last minute drop-outs) so you always have a full sounding band. They also give you the ability to make changes to the song format, even on the fly if that’s how your church likes to roll. This helps with keeping the standard high too. There are great systems around that are making these specifically for churches. Check out Loop Community Prime and multitracks.com for starters. Advanced users may want to upgrade to Ableton Live, although this is very much designed for professionals.
I remember being taught this from a music director of a large Australian church 15 years ago. Don’t play on the edge of your ability, that is don’t allow your teams to be trying things that they aren’t confident with on stage. So don’t ask your guitarist to do a screaming solo if he’s not able to do it. During rehearsals, go for it, but on stage, play within your ability so that you can be confident in what you play.
This final point is arguably the most important. All of the others will get your technical quality better, but this suggestion is all about your heart. I remember hearing Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola to tell his players that as they train, so they will play. It’s the same in your worship team. As they rehearse, so they will play. That means that rehearsal isn’t a time for papers everywhere and sloppy attitudes. Rather, encourage your team to engage in worship during the rehearsal. As they rehearse, so they will play.
If you need help sorting out your worship team, we can help. Often problems in worship teams can be structural and systemic rather than purely musical. If you need help working out the strategy for your worship team, you can book a 2-hour facilitation session to help you work out where you need to go next.