Beyond the Pitch Pipe (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Ryan Christian

I asked Ryan Christian, the worship minister for The Hills Church of Christ, to write an article explaining how a church considering the addition of an instrumental worship might go about it. After all, most of us in the Churches of Christ know nothing at all about how to conduct an instrumental service!

There are, of course, many ways that a church can offer an instrumental service, and the model used by The Hills is but one. It is the one found most commonly in the largest and fastest growing congregations.

As you read this, please consider —

  • “Band” does not equal “entertainment.” I’ve visited Ryan’s worship services, and they are nothing like a rock concert. They are intentionally and obviously worship services: congregational singing, accompanied by instruments.
  • It’s no more wrong to be selective in choosing instrumentalists who lead worship as in being selective in hiring a preacher or choosing a song leader — or selecting elders. Not everyone is gifted to lead. I’ve been in a cappella services led by a poorly chosen praise team or by a poorly chosen song leader, and it makes worship very difficult.
  • Musical styles and the kinds of instruments used will vary depending on the congregation, the surrounding community, and the talents God gives the church. Your church doesn’t have to be like any other church. It does need to be very thoughtful about how it puts its services together in light of these things. I believe Ryan’s article will help churches considering an instrumental worship anticipate some of the practical problems they’ll face and give them a leg up in solving those problems.
  • Of course, not every church needs to be instrumental. But for those churches considering adding an instrumental service, I strongly recommend visiting churches with a history of doing it well and spending some time with the worship leaders to learn all you can.

~ Jay Guin

So you want to start an instrumental service. What should the band consist of? What style of music is appropriate? How do we make sure the church doesn’t stop singing? Good questions. Read on.

Over the years, in our a cappella services at The Hills Church of Christ (formerly Richland Hills), we’ve attempted to craft assemblies that incorporate Christ-centered songs, encourage congregational singing, provide moments to encounter God, and create a flow of worship that allows people to respond to the Spirit’s moving.

Although these goals have remained the same since our addition of instrumental services, the planning, coordination, and execution of these services have become vastly different. Making the shift from a cappella to instrumental has by no means made us experts in the process. However, the experience has given us insights that we hope prove valuable to others who are embarking on this journey.

Leadership

For the transition to be successful, a talented, passionate worship leader is essential to paving the way. His talent must extend beyond having strong vocals or playing an instrument. A leader must also be gifted in running rehearsals efficiently, communicating with and leading a diverse team, as well as leading corporate worship. <br><br>Understanding the vision of the church leadership in terms of style, worship philosophy, and boundaries is also critical to creating a smooth transition for the ministry and the church body.

Style

A cappella is a great equalizer in terms of style. A song medley can contain a 200-year old song, followed by a Southern gospel song, followed by one written last year, and all may flow together nicely. That type of flow is more challenging to achieve when accompanied instrumentally. Although the worship band will want to branch out from time to time into different worship styles, church leadership needs to agree on a “go to” style of worship. The possibilities are numerous, ranging from softer Christian Top 40 to brasher twenty-something rock.

When choosing your worship style, consider the demographics of your church and community. What styles do they listen to? Also consider your talent pool. And remember that no style spans all tastes. The key is to agree on a single style so that expectations are understood by the church leadership as well as the worship band.

Start Up Costs / Sound Needs

Start up costs and sound needs should be carefully considered before moving to instrumental services. In most cases, sound systems will require upgrades, such as a sound board, speakers, and subs. Consider utilizing a local sound consulting firm and even sound techs from other churches for assistance.

In addition to the sound system, equipment will need to be purchased to support a full band. This may include a drum set, drum kit microphones, keyboard, music stands, cables, direct input boxes, and a monitor system. At The Hills, we utilize Aviom in-ear monitors that reduce room volume and allow for individually customized mixes. Your budget or even your venue size may not support a quality full band. If so, start small with just one or two instruments plus vocals.

Selecting Musicians

Churches won’t allow just anybody to preach, and the same should apply to those up front leading worship. An audition process is necessary to assure quality musicianship.

Before auditioning, we ask each musician to complete a questionnaire detailing their musical experience, other time commitments, their personal testimony, and why they’d like to be a part of the worship band. They also rank themselves in areas such as faithfulness to commitments and punctuality. We consider each of these areas prayerfully in the selection process.

When auditioning, recruit other musicians from within or outside your church to assist in selecting musicians. This method lends credibility to the worship minister and helps to avoid the illusion that only favorites are chosen. Provide auditioners several songs to choose from and have them play in more than one style. They’ll need to play songs in varying tempos, dynamics and feels.

The most crucial components to a contemporary band are the drummer and electric guitarist. A strong drummer will play in a steady tempo, locking the band together. In addition to skill on the instrument, the electric guitarist will need a working knowledge of effects pedals and amps to create the sounds common in modern worship. Even a talented classic rock guitarist may not be in the regular rotation if he/she doesn’t have a working knowledge of effects pedals.

With a strong drummer and electric guitarist on board, the next most key musician is the pianist, one who is able to play both lead and as a part of the rhythm section. Pianists must be able to improvise off chord charts instead of relying on fully notated music.

If you want a full band and lack the talent at your church, look in your community. Is there a local university with musicians who may be willing to play? Or a church down the road with musicians who would love to play more frequently? Consider paying outside musicians for their time. A talented drummer and electric guitarist would be well worth the investment.

Talented a cappella team vocalists may not transition well to singing with a worship band. Audition the singers on contemporary songs to listen for a stylistic fit. Have them sing accompanied by a guitar or piano to learn whether they can sing with instruments. We want a vocal team that can lead others musically, but most important, we want individuals who are committed to helping others worship. How they worship matters.

Quality

Our God is a creative God. And he doesn’t do shabby work. Let’s follow his lead and pursue excellence. We want the church to focus on the Lord rather than being distracted by technical difficulties and the band’s mistakes.

We often tell the worship band that their practice during the week and our rehearsal time is just as much a worship offering as leading in the assembly. Properly prepare, and then prayerfully pursue the Lord.

Practice vs. Rehearsals

At The Hills, we consider practice and rehearsal to be two separate things. Practice is what the musicians do by themselves to better their skills and prepare for each song. A rehearsal is when the band learns to put it all together. In practice, an electric guitarist will learn guitar riffs, determine what settings are needed on his pedals and amp, and determine when to play rhythm versus lead electric. At rehearsal, the guitarist will put what he’s learned into a full band sound.

Bottom line: when the full band rehearses, all musicians need to come already knowing their parts. The amount of time it takes to get ready differs with each musician according to his or her familiarity with the song and skill level. However, the expectation for preparedness at rehearsal time is the same for all.

At a rehearsal, the leader needs to:

  • Know what each of the instruments should be doing. At The Hills, our typical band is made up of drums, bass, one or two electric guitars, acoustic guitar, piano/synth, plus two vocalists. While musicians are certainly allowed the freedom of expression, direction and correction must be given on rhythms, entrances, dynamics, and so forth.
  • Communicate the style and flow of each song. It’s easy for the entire band to play throughout the whole song, but this is dynamically boring. Map each song out before rehearsal and communicate how each person should play and when.
  • Plan beforehand and rehearse all transitions in the service.
  • Know his own musical part well enough so that the rehearsal focus lies in directing the band and not rehearsing himself.
  • Keep all involved focused on the Lord.

Pride

Pride is always a concern when people lead in front of others. This is the case from the preacher to the song leader to the drummer. Continually remind your musicians that all is done for God’s glory and not their own.

New Worship Wars?

The addition of instruments provides a whole new set of challenges. Here are a few:

  • Volume preferences – One prefers that the instruments be barely heard while another prefers that the kick drum shakes their clothing. As in the case with musical styles, you will not succeed in pleasing everyone on volume levels. We try to land on a volume that’s very full but still allows the congregation to hear itself sing. If the volume is not loud enough, many feel self conscious in singing out. If the volume is too loud and especially with poor equipment and mixing, the worship experience can be literally painful. Quality sound equipment and a talented engineer are crucial.
  • Perception of performance – Whether the church worships a cappella or with a worship band, the lead worshipers risk criticism for seeking to entertain the church rather than to lead worship. More passionate musicians can sometimes be perceived as showy when their intention is simply to physically express the worship that they feel. Certainly, an element of trust between the worship leader and the church comes into play here (the congregation must trust that the worship leaders are sincerely worshiping and not just showing off), but there are ways (beyond the scope of this article) that the worship band can communicate a spirit of praise rather than performance.

Watch how others lead worship, and discuss their example with your team. Keep the band and the church focused on the Lord.

  • Style – Strong musical tastes tend to surface when instruments are present. Therefore, it’s crucial that the leadership have an agreed style of worship. Although branching into other styles from time to time can be refreshing, changing styles every week or between every song can be tiring and confusing to the band and the church.

Don’t Neglect the A Cappella Service

An instrumental service takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and coordination. If your church will still have an a cappella service, assure that the non-instrumental gathering has just as much attention put towards it as in the past. Those attending either style of worship deserve the best in terms of preparation and creativity.

In closing, if the Lord is leading your church to pursue instrumental worship, pursue it passionately and on your knees in prayer. May the Lord be magnified in all our services. May we grow more like Jesus as we honor him in worship. And when the lost in this world attend our assemblies, may they fall on their knees and proclaim “God is in this place.”

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1580 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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