How to Start a Blended Worship Service Program at Your Church
by Steve Brown
At our church, we used to do only Traditional, Liturgical, Lutheran Worship. We used the various liturgies included in the hymnal, but we never varied from the organ-based accompaniment and the singing of hymns. And by the way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s God pleasing, worshipful, inspiring and awesome.
Two or three years ago, we hired WELS Parish Assistance to evaluate our worship practices and to assess the needs of our local community. Included in their recommendations was a suggestion to consider using more contemporary music in worship. We were a bit bewildered with this idea and only knew of one contemporary artist and one or two songs; i.e. Amy Grant. Being a guitarist and a servant at heart, I volunteered to spearhead the effort. I still remember our Pastor at the time (Tom Mielke) sitting down with me and telling me that there was more to contemporary music than “Amy Grant.” Of course he was right, but neither of us knew where to turn. I started out by buying compilation CDs (WOW Worship for example) and building up a personal music library. I cannot overemphasize the importance of listening to a lot of music and paying attention to lyrics. Following is a chronological list of what we did; along with some other suggestions should you want to consider trying this yourself. The italicized paragraphs are personal reflections that I have experienced in our journey down this road.
- The first thing you will need is someone who is passionate about contemporary Christian music (CCM). And this does not have to be a pre-existing character trait, as it wasn’t with us. You simply need someone who is open minded, enjoys music and is willing to really get into it. It would be helpful if this person is also a musician but it isn’t required. This person will become the driving force behind your blended service initiatives and will ultimately work closely with the Pastor. This person needs to be solid in their faith, have a heart for God and leadership qualities. Pastors, pray whole heartedly for help in finding this person. It’s critical to your success.
- If possible, attend a blended service at a nearby sister congregation and talk to their leaders. Go to lectures and seminars if they are available in your area and run by our Synod.
- Try a sample service. Keep it simple at first. Do a traditional service with all of the usual worship elements, including things like organ-backed psalm-of-the-day singing. The only thing different is the substitution of contemporary songs in place of hymns. Do your best to pick songs that go along with the readings and it goes without saying that your Pastor needs to review the lyrics for doctrinal accuracy. Since it’s your first service, most people will be forgiving when it comes to lyrical and thematic adherence to the readings. We actually held our first blended service on the night before Thanksgiving because evening, mid-week worship formats are often more contemporary feeling to begin with. And, Thanksgiving, by nature, is a praise-focused service so it went well. I remember one song was “Father I Adore You” because it was familiar and wasn’t in our hymnal!
- For help in evaluating CCM songs, check out “Text, Music, Context: A Resource for Reviewing Worship Materials” by LCMS Commission on Worship (ca $5 from CPH item# S05505).
- You will need at least a pianist and it helps to also have a guitarist and a few lead singers who can sing contemporary styled music. You will find that singing contemporary style is different than singing hymns. It takes a while to make this transition so be patient.
- Be sure to get the music into the hands of the instrumentalists and singers at least a week in advance and plan for some group practice time before the actual worship service as well as encouraging individual practice time at home.
- We actually struggled for more than a year with just a guitar, or using MIDI, or asking our organist to plow through the songs on the piano as best they could. The results were satisfactory, but I prayed like mad for more musicians. My prayers were answered; at least in part. A music teacher by trade, pianist and vocalist with a passion for contemporary music was transferred to us from another congregation, the results of a job transfer. Interestingly enough, she had not been using her talents much, because her church hadn’t tried blended worship. It was a blessing to both of us and to our congregation. To God be the glory.
- Pick songs that are easy to learn and to sing. Once you find music, you will need to obtain permission from the publishers to copy the lead sheets for your bulletins or for overhead projection. Some publishers will be accommodating, especially if you explain that you are just giving this a try, while others might not. Ultimately, you will need to purchase a copyright license agreement or songbooks but we’ll touch on that later. There are a plethora of music resources on the WEB and some are free and offered legally. Look around.
- I’ll never forget the opening song of our second attempt at blended worship. We now had me on guitar and six ladies (including two teenage girls) who helped out with singing. We did not yet have the luxury of a pianist. As a pre-service selection, we sang Tim Hughes’s song “Here I Am to Worship.” It was an incredible worship experience for me. There I was, the lone accompaniment, and to me, it sounded like there was a full band behind me. Right in the heat of the moment; I was genuinely “affected.” I was supposed to sing with the ladies, but I couldn’t. I was too choked up. Twenty five years of attending WELS worship services just came crashing down on me. Twenty five years of holding back my gifts to the Lord just started to gush. I was moved. I don’t think anyone else in the congregation felt the emotions that ran through me at that moment. Thank you God for allowing me to praise you through my gifts, which you gave to me and for forgiving me for waiting so long to use them to glorify your name. Thank you for filling me with your spirit on that glorious day.
- Another option might be to use MIDI accompaniment if you have that capability. Again, there is a lot of free, high quality, MIDI files available on the WEB for most of the popular contemporary songs.
- After the service, poll your congregation. Did they enjoy the music? Did it enhance their worship experience? Do they want to try it again? What do they want to do differently?
- Assuming that you get positive feedback, you next need to decide on the frequency of your blended worship services. We started with one blended service per month and are still doing it that way. We chose the second Sunday of the month which happens to be a non-communion service for us. I think this is important because Communion has additional liturgical musical pieces which are more work to convert to contemporary accompaniment. Having a regularly scheduled format is also better for your congregation because they can plan around it. Especially if you have more than one service per week because people might want to make adjustments, either being sure to be at the blended service, or, choosing to go to the alternate traditional service on that week.
- We also added a small group of volunteer singers to belt out the lyrics over the congregation. This helps to teach your congregants the new songs quicker and it helps to change the musical singing style from hymn-like singing to contemporary singing. Don’t be afraid to have your “band” sing the song first, followed by congregational join in, especially for new songs.
- It is helpful to get your singers listening to the songs that you will be learning. There’s several ways to do this. For the more popular songs, each singer can search for the song on YouTube, at their leisure, and usually find a version that they can listen to for free. Some of your singers might have the funds and the means to download their own MP3s. There’s also a Christian MP3 download service called “Songtouch” that allows you to make up to 10 copies of each downloaded song for your band members. “Songtouch” is associated with CCLI and is accessed through their website but I don’t believe that you have to be a contract holder to use it.
- Gradually, your blended service formats will start to change. At our church, we completely phased out the organ during contemporary services. The entire hymnal sung responses were eliminated. You need to work with your Pastor and your worship team to add in contemporary replacements. For example, for the psalm of the day, we sometimes read the psalm responsively or sometimes the pastor reads it followed by a contemporary song based on the text of the Psalm. Keep all of your current traditional worship elements, things like the prayers, benediction, creeds, confession of sins and absolution of sins. These are vitally important. You will find that you are doing more talking and reading than singing. You will also find that your people are reading more scripture as opposed to being read to. This is OK. This is part of the package.
- As you pick up steam, you will need a permanent solution to your copyright needs. This actually needs to be addressed fairly early. There are a number of options. Here’s what we did:
- We purchased a CCLI license agreement, identified a Lay coordinator of the contract, and assembled our own songbooks from music that was downloaded off the WEB through the CCLI songselect service.
- Each month, we added four or five new songs into 3-ring binders that were used as our congregational songbooks.
- The CCLI coordinator worked with the Pastor to identify good song choices, downloaded the song sheets, tracked song usage, reported copy activity to CCLI (when asked to do so) and got all the necessary copies made.
- We did this for about a year, then decided to purchase song books. Again there are several choices. NPH offers a songbook called “Let All the People Praise You” and there’s another book called “the Best of the Best” from Fellowship Ministries. We actually use both, and still maintain a CCLI license and a Onelicense agreement as well. This gives us maximum flexibility but it’s not necessary. There are additional song resources on the WEB, for example “Sovereign Grace Ministries” and “Getty & Townend” offer digital sheet music downloads for reasonable prices and their lyrics are usually beautifully crafted.
- We had another memorable moment when it came to songbook purchases. These can be expensive. We covered most of the cost of our books by a memorial donation from a member who had passed away; a member who enjoyed the contemporary services and even played guitar. But we fell short, and needed an additional couple hundred dollars. Two retired ladies, who both prefer traditional worship approached me and volunteered to purchase the remaining books. I don’t remember their exact words but the sentiment they voiced was that they prefer the hymnal and the traditional services but they saw the passion that the Lord has stirred in me and the excitement of several members, especially teens, over the new music and that they wanted to help out. Now that is a loving heart and a wonderful outpouring of faith.
- As you grow, you can add more contemporary ideas into your blended services. Our Pastor started to use PowerPoint for his sermons for example during the blended services thinking that the people are more tolerant of “new ideas” in the more relaxed contemporary mood of the blended worship services.
- We also started a children’s message during the blended service that eventually led into a weekly offering at our church.
- On occasion we use worship videos for either sermon illustrations or for sing-along musical accompaniment. There are many products available from outfits like Integrity, Igniter Media and Worshiphousemedia.com.
- On two occasions, we have even used art in worship. One was a sermon based on a Renaissance piece by Matthias Grunewald titled “the crucifixion” and the other was using a piece of art from one of our teenage members depicting the seraphim in the Isaiah 6 account.
- Don’t forget to include occasional hymns in your blended services. Give some of the newer arrangements a try. Indelible Grace offers song sheets for free off their website that includes many of our Lutheran hymns.
- We had another memorable service once when we included “Amazing Grace” but accompanied it with piano and guitar. It was another one of those worship moments when you just felt God’s fire inside of you. At some point in the song, our pianist just stopped playing. I continued strumming and the congregation continued singing. On the very next verse, the pianist joined back in but the Lord started to affect me. I got choked up again. I’ve been playing guitar for 35 years and this three chord song was all of the sudden beyond my reach. I was humbled right there before God and stopped strumming. Something inside me just said to “stop”. As the last verse rolled around, I joined back in. After the service, I asked our pianist what happened to him. He said, “I don’t know, I just couldn’t play.” Incredible!
- Use pre-service music and Offertory music as a vehicle to introduce new songs to your congregation. We used to use “next month’s” new songs as pre-service for “this month’s” blended service. This requires you to do worship planning a few months in advance but it is worthwhile.
- We also use a lot of Lay readings and other Lay participation during the blended services. This is exciting and should be encouraged.
- Build up a library of favorite songs and after several months, try to limit new songs to only one or two per blended service. Phase into this, after two or three months, your library will be small, so try to have one familiar song per service. After six months, have two familiar songs, then finally, after a year, maybe limit yourself to one new song per service.
- Be mindful, loving, respectful and considerate to those in your congregation who oppose the new music and/or instrumentation. Pastor Mielke once told me “keep your lyrics biblically based” and you can’t go wrong. It’s good advice. Make sure that you keep attending the traditional services and keep your energy and spirit levels up while singing those hymns! It’s not about favorites or our personal likes and dislikes. It’s about God and God is infinitely above style. Style doesn’t matter to Him, nor should it to you. This should not become a divisive issue. Something’s wrong if it does escalate.
- If your Pastor sings, ask him to solo or duet a contemporary song with you. This “buy-in” will go a long way with people that are opposed to the musical style.
- It also helps if your Pastor quotes the lyrics of a contemporary song in his sermon where appropriate – even during the traditional services.
- I’ll never forget the time that Pastor Mielke quoted the lyrics of Richie Mullen’s classic song “Awesome God” in a sermon. I was smiling from ear to ear because it showed open mindedness on his part, some acceptance, and it made a good point with respect to what he was saying.
- There are sound system and visual projection issues that come with contemporary media that will need to be addressed. I’m not going to do that in this posting but be forewarned that you will need a good sound person to man the soundboard or to listen in the congregation (during sound check and during the service). His or her job is to make sure that there is good volume and a good mix, so that the singers are loud enough to lead the congregation and the instruments (in the background) are loud enough to be heard (but not too loud that they distract).
- If you are the lead musician and work with your Pastor, become familiar with how worship is designed around a theme. Learn to use the Lectionary Calendar, read your bible, and use your songbooks scriptural and thematic indices. After you do this for awhile, you will begin to see common threads running in all three scripture readings for each Sunday. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as you select music.
- Exercise your religious freedoms in these services. You are not following a rigid script as its printed in your hymnal. We have done such things as “Earth Day” creation based worship services in April, flag folding ceremonies on Veteran’s Day and Mother’s Day Litanies in May. Just keep the focus on God.
Here are some web resources mentioned in the above list and other resources that you might find helpful as you consider blended worship:
Song Sheet & Lead Sheet Resources:
New Hymn Arrangements:
Song & MP3 Resources:
Choosing and Evaluating Contemporary Music:
“Blended Worship that Works” by James Tiefel (Forward in Christ, January 2004)
“The Church and Its Ministry – Music/Worship (01) WELS available here:
”Lutheran Hymnody: Orthodoxy in Song (Lutheran Worship: Why we do what we do) by Dr. Chad Bird available here:
“Pietism: Past and Present” by John Brenner available here:
“Choosing Hymns” available here:
“It’s about Substance” by Pastor Johnold Strey available here:
“Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship” by Johnold Strey, available here:
“Worship Wars at the Dawn of the New Millenium” by Richard Krause:
Song Lists & Good CCM Song Selections:
(CCM Songs.xls by John Kehl)