How To Teach A New Song To Your Church

Have you ever had a big meal that left you basking in the afterglow of a delectable dish?  The kind of meal that caused you to recline at the table, undo a notch in your belt and ask for a cup of coffee to keep you from slipping into a food coma?

At our home, this pretty much describes our annual Thanksgiving family dinner.  I grew up in Canada and Thanksgiving is scheduled to happen the second Monday in October, opposed to the fourth Thursday in November when our friends from the South indulge and bulge.  

We spend a lot of time with the set-up of the dining room for the big meal.  My Mom typically hosts and brings out her best dishes.  She has this thing where every part of the meal needs to be presented in a fine dish of some sort.  In other words, there’s no soda cans, sour cream tubs or condiment bottles on our Thanksgiving table, everything is transferred to a uniform matching dish.  The table is set with a linen tablecloth and matching napkin set and depending on how many people are coming, name placements for each seat.  Needless to say, the set-up is extremely intentional and beautiful.  In fact, my mom enjoys setting-up Thanksgiving dinner so much that she’ll often take a picture of her spread before we sit to eat!

Thanksgiving at our house also has a sequence.  Mom usually brings out the beverages first, followed by rolls.  Then it’s the good-ole pass-the-dish-clockwise routine with the turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and cranberry sauce.  The sequence is complete with a variety of pies (Pumpkin, Apple and Pecan typically) washed down with a tall cup of coffee – anyone getting hungry yet? 

Just in the same way that Thanksgiving dinner involves a scheduled time set-up and sequence, teaching new songs to the church involves those same three steps.  These three steps are critical in helping the church digest something new that their bodies are not yet used to as part of their worship diet.

Let’s unpack each step:

Set-Up.  When introducing a new song into your congregational worship diet, a set-up can be helpful.  Your church is about to try some new food it’s not regularly accustomed to eating and alerting them to this can put them at ease and help the song to take hold.  When you introduce a new song without even recognizing it as such, you can quickly alienate your church and shift from participation to performance.  Now I am not saying there’s anything wrong with a “performance” piece but pro’s learn how to manage the moment with a well-thought set-up that allows your audience to contextualize and receive the new song in the best light possible. 

So often we over complicate this as worship leaders.  Remember, the “win” is when people are singing and engaging in worship.  One way we can foster this with new songs is by using the same ways we use when trying new foods; sampling a little bit at a time.  Usually when I introduce a new song, I take the opportunity to lead a conversational moment, share a Scripture the song is based out of (because that’s where the authority comes from) and break the song down into small digestible pieces and teach them how it goes.  Most of the time this means simply playing the chorus on the guitar or piano just by myself.  My set-up for a song like Goodness of God may sound something like this.

This morning we want to take a moment to teach you a new song that declares God’s goodness and faithfulness.  God LOVES new songs.  In fact we are commanded in Psalm 33:3 to sing to the Lord a NEW song.  New songs are opportunities for us to say something fresh to God in a way we haven’t said it before.  They give a fresh focus for our hearts and a new language for our church family to worship.  Let’s learn the chorus together.  I’ll sing it through once and then why don’t you join me when you have it:

All my life You have been faithful
All my life You have been so, so good
With every breath that I am able
I will sing of the Goodness of God

Let’s try that again — lift your voice to the Lord . . . 

When you take the time to break down a new song into digestible bites and teach it to the church, you practice a pastoral function of a worship leader to shepherd and teach the congregation.  Your willingness to do this demonstrates that you respect your audience.  You will be surprised at how easily your church can digest a new song if you simply shepherd the moment.  Your church is smarter than you think when it comes to their propensity to learn new music.  They just need (and desire) to be led in the moment.  Trust your pastoral instincts and speak to them assuming the best.  Church isn’t a broadway show, so any awkwardness to “tear down the fourth wall” and instruct the masses is only self-inflicted.  

Remember in your set-up not to steal the thunder of the song.  Great songs don’t need to be explained.  Great songs speak for themselves.  A well-crafted song in a well-crafted moment ought to do the heavy lifting.  If you find yourself needing to explain the song, especially its meaning, you may want to reconsider its appropriateness for congregational worship.

A strong set-up helps songs to take root in the hearts of its hearers.  You click the fast-forward button on engagement because you’ve paired things back and taken the time to patiently show them how the song goes.  A strong set-up helps new songs to succeed.

Sequence. When we speak of sequence we’re talking about where in a worship set a new song goes.  Within the worship community you will get a wide variety of answers reflective of varying worship cultures.  I can’t tell you where the best place to do a “teach” is at your church but I can confidently say the worst place is often in the first slot.  When people arrive at church they need to be refocused.  Their hearts need to be tuned, dialed in and recalibrated.  It seems counterintuitive to meet people at the front door of God’s house, call them to worship and then lead a song they’ve never heard before.

As alluded to earlier, sometimes placing a song in a “special” spot with the congregation seated makes for a great spot to do a teach.  With covid having killed the offertory at many churches, you may need to create this moment in the middle of a set or after announcements, before the message.  Having people seated allows them to give attention to the lyric and presentation of the new food you are about to serve them.  It helps them to concentrate on hearing a song before participating and engaging with it.  This of course is helpful when teaching an original as you want the church to have crystal clarity surrounding the melody, rhythm and lyric.  Until it’s recorded, church is the only place where they’ll hear it.  Assuming you’ve done a strong set-up and taught them the chorus, the congregation may be on it’s feet by the end if the song’s something they’re ready to welcome into their worship diet.

Scheduling.  Songs need time to take root.  The timeline of how a song takes root in a worship leader versus a congregation is vastly different.  Prior to the church hearing a new song, worship leaders have often heard it a dozen times, can sing it frontwards and backwards and have engaged in their hearts with it multiple times.  It may even feel tired to a worship leader the first time they lead it because of how rooted it is already in their hearts.  Not so, with the congregation.  What’s been ruminating in your heart for a month they’re hearing often for the first time

So much of the sacrifice of worship musicians is playing and presenting songs over and over so they can take root in the hearts of those they serve.  It takes the average congregation hearing a song at least three times before they know a song well enough to sing (remember, most of church goers are not musicians or singers) and another three times before the song takes root in their heart and it’s familiar enough for them to engage in it in spirit and truth.

In light of this, it’s unfair to any song to judge its receptivity based on the first time it’s scheduled.  In order for new songs to have a chance you need to commit to them for a month.  Our new song rotation where I serve typically looks like this over the course of a month:

Week One – Set-up and Teach
Week Two – In the worship set
Week Three – Rested (not scheduled)
Week Four – In the worship set and evaluated

Giving a new song time to rest creates space and protects against overkilling a song.  The time elapsed between week three and four gives time for the dust to settle, to make adjustments (if it’s an original) and to set the table for a true, accurate read on whether the church has embraced the song as part of its worship diet.

An Important Note: No one likes to be force-fed.  The church is the ultimate determiner of what songs are a part of your worship diet.  I’ve actually asked the congregation to vote (by raise of hands) on a new song in a worship set!  The litmus test is always the same: Is the church singing and engaging with this song?  If they’re not singing, you shepherd your church well by not demanding they eat a food they don’t like.  Keep your eyes open when you introduce new food to your worship diet.  Is the church learning in or leaning out?  Are they singing loud or merely mouthing the words?  Are they using their bodies to engage with the song or staring at screens with blank faces?  

An honest evaluation of a new song can be challenging, even hurtful, especially when an original song close to your heart doesn’t catch on.  But we always need to remember the church isn’t a showcase for our original music, but the gathering of God’s people to worship and adore Him.  Honest evaluation of whether or not new songs are working is part of our job as keepers of the song canon.  Sometimes a song may not be right for your church or right for the season your church is in.  That doesn’t mean the song doesn’t work or have value. It just means it’s not right for you right now.  We do our job well when we remove any hindrances and barriers to engagement, including songs that simply aren’t working. 

Every church’s worship diet is different.  Some churches thrive and gravitate to multiple new songs a month, others only a few a year.  Take note of your church’s capacity for new songs and respect it. Don’t ruin your church’s diet because you want to play new music. Leading worship isn’t about our song preferences, but about God’s preferences.  God’s greatest worship preference is that His bride would worship in spirit and truth.  No doubt new songs can help with this but there’s great wisdom in discerning and learning your church’s new song capacity.  If you need a general place to start, I’d suggest introducing one new song every 4-6 weeks.  If you introduce your new songs with a strong set-up, sequence them in a spot primed for reflection or engagement and schedule them enough to become familiar, you will be well on your way to building and expanding your church’s worship song diet.  

My prayer for you is that it would taste as good as my Mom’s Thanksgiving dinner 🙂 


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