On Tuesday morning, a new song comes across the wire that leaves you inspired.
It’s got everything you're looking for: solid biblical lyrics, a soaring melody line that manages to hang within the congregational range, and a killer guitar hook that stays with you for days. Sunday arrives and you decide to lead it, but halfway through that epic bridge you scan over the church congregation and all that looks back at you is a sea of blank faces. What went wrong?
Learning a new song is like meeting someone for the first time. Being a good worship leader means being a good teacher and good teachers find ways to present new ideas in ways students can understand. Here are some ways to make a solid introduction to a new song:
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Use Well-Known Worship Songs Too
Church communities can majorly differ from one another. For some, throwing in a new song is exciting and accepted... for others, being told a new song is on the way elicits a feeling of total dread. Qualm these fears by getting having your congregation sing some beloved, well-known favorites in the same service. A new song won't seem quite so daunting when it's snuck in amongst some classics.
You never want to pile on every experiment and new idea into one Sunday morning - any time you launch a new song, make sure there's something there for those who might not click with it the first time around.
Give a Reason for the New Song
You've put a lot of time and thought into the songs you choose to sing. And yet, hearing the words 'new song' can still send a bolt of panic through the congregation. Often, simply explaining why you made the choice to sing this song is enough to open minds and ears to hear it out. Now, this doesn't mean giving a 20-minute sermon (seriously - nobody wants to hear you give a 20-minute sermon).
However, something as simple as: "Last week we were discussing surrender, and this lyric really stuck out to me, I believe it's something we need to sing together" is enough. Let people hear why you believe God has put this song on your heart, and the congregation will be better prepared when your worship team starts playing.
Share a Story with the Worship Service
We are all human and humans are moved by stories. Songs aren’t written in a vacuum. A life event often moves a writer and in turn, they write a song as a response. “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” is a beautiful song, but when you learn it was written by Louisa M. R Stead after she and her daughter witnessed her husband drown trying to rescue a young boy, you have a new appreciation for it. Understanding the place from which a worship song is written helps us find a place for it in our own story.
If you're playing a new song for yourself and the service, take the time to learn the story behind it - or else share your own story from discovering it. Or, if you're playing an original song this Sunday morning, be prepared to share your heart and express vulnerability. We want people to connect with the songs of praise that they sing, and when worship leaders can connect music with stories this becomes so much easier to achieve. Familiarise everyone with the intention behind this new song.
Make Time to Listen
I like to internalize things before I sing them and that takes time. Allow time. Try asking everyone to be silent and simply meditate on the lyrics as you sing them. Keep the words on the screen. Play through slowly and deliberately. It not only helps the melody to stick but also gives weight to the words when you reintroduce the song later in the gathering.
As a worship leader, the creative choices you make during the church service serve both practical and spiritual goals. As you create space on a Sunday morning for the congregation to ruminate on these new lyrics, you are both allowing them to grow more familiar with the general melody line whilst also giving them time to pray and meditate as you play. Carving out time for the church to just sit and listen to the words and tune can be a powerful experience, all the while teaching them the basics of the new worship song.
Educating as Worship Leaders
It seems like a no-brainer but it took me years to make this my go-to introduction. After announcing that we are learning a new worship song, I sing through the chorus once with just a guitar then ask everyone to join me. Depending on how quickly we catch on, I may repeat it a few more times and then launch into the beginning of the song with the whole band.
After one pass through the first verse I give the old, “Let’s sing that again!”. Then, I'll run the verse one more time before playing the song in its entirety. By the time we hit that chorus, my voice is drowned out by the voices around me. Mission accomplished.
What you have to remember is that music doesn't come naturally to everyone. For the average church-goer, learning new worship songs can take time. They might not play instruments, or read sheet music, or have even the slightest aptitude for music outside of congregational singing. You're here to hold their hand and guide them through it, ensuring their worship experience isn't hindered by a new song.
Introducing a New Song However Works for You
In no way am I suggesting these are the only ways to introduce a new worship tune, but they are definitely the ones that have created the most engagement in my own context. Finding what works for you and your worship team is going to be a journey for you to embark on yourself. I'd love to learn from you. What methods have you used to introduce a new song, and how did they work for you? I'm all ears.