By Mark Roach
I don’t know about you, but when a new year comes around, I sometimes find myself surrounded by people who get anxious for newness. New year, new budget, new platform setup, new approaches… “let’s not just keep doing things like we did all last year… let’s change it up!” So it seemed appropriate to me for us to discuss the topic of new songs in worship. How often should we introduce new songs? How do we introduce them? Are ‘new’ songs better than ‘old’ songs? What criteria should we use in selecting new songs?
Let me start by saying that I’m quite confident every scenario is different and I don’t have any empirically right answers to these questions. That said, over the last 14 years of leading worship in our space with our demographic, I’ve learned a few things:
New is good. Nothing wrong with new… plenty right with new. Let’s be honest, singing new songs is even Biblical, right? Yeah, I just Googled it, and every single English translation I saw of Psalm 96:1 used the word new. New is good.
Familiar is essential. Uh oh. All the new-cravers are getting nervous now. Yes, you read it right. In my experience, inside and outside of churches in fact, familiarity is almost always essential to a positive music experience, even if that familiarity is established during an unfamiliar song. The musical worship experience is no exception, and it’s often even more important. Familiar, in my experience, is essential.
Old is way older to you than it is to your congregation. In any given week at my church, we practice, polish, run-through and play every song in three services. If you do the math, I’ve now played any given song 6-8 times that week. Most people in our church hear it once that weekend. Combine that with the fact that our average attender (unfortunately) comes to church just under twice a month. They heard it 3 times of the 6 we played it last year. I’ve heard it 36-48 times and that’s just the weekend services I’ve led. Old is way older to you than it is to your congregation.
So what do we do with all that? Well, we’ve established new is good. We’ve established that we have to develop the new into familiar while balancing with that which is already familiar. Lastly, we’ve hopefully taken some comfort in the fact that ‘old’ is not nearly as bad a thing as we tend to think. With that, we start to form a few best practices.
At our church, I try to introduce new songs no more than once a month. I tend to avoid starting a set with a brand new song, leading with the more familiar. With the number of people who are new each week at our church, I am ridiculously strategic in only selecting (and writing) very ‘singable’ songs... songs which begin to become familiar hopefully as early as the second verse. We often sing a new song as a feature song (aka ‘special music’) a few weeks before introducing it in our congregational singing. We try to reprise brand-new songs at the end of the service in which we introduced them to further facilitate familiarity. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, we embrace ‘old’ songs—and not only in the form of hymns… we sing new songs for years and years, only removing them from our rotation when they seem they’ve truly ceased to be relevant.
Hopefully I’ve given at least some insight to our philosophy regarding new songs, and even though nothing applies to every situation, maybe this will at least provide some fodder for your new song strategies in 2014.
Mark Roach is the Worship Arts Director at Morning Star United Methodist Church in O’Fallon. If you have questions for Mark, email him at email@example.com.