For all of the churches around the country that have incorporated modern, contemporary music into their services, there’s even more that are grappling with it. From basic logistics to community approval, changing the type of music played during worship can have a huge impact – both good and bad – within a church.
If you’ve ever wondered about starting a contemporary worship program at your church, or if you’re just curious about what goes into a successful program, check out the following FAQ from the Music Ministry at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. For more information about the church, check out northpointmusic.org.
Vision and Philosophy
What did the music ministry at North Point look like in the beginning?
Ten years ago there was just a piano player with a worship leader and about seven worship singers performing group vocals. Our style certainly wasn’t what we’re doing now. It had a more piano-driven sound compared to today’s guitar-driven sound. We had a mixture of songs, some old and some new.
For the time the music was right where it needed to be – it was innovative for its time. It was in a converted warehouse where it looked more like we were going to a concert than to church. There was a P.A. hanging up and there was a stage that you would expect a band to be playing on.
What would you say to the people who say you shouldn’t play secular music in church?
We believe we have to have people excited about what we’re doing. We want people who come to church here to talk to their friends and relatives and to say to them, “You won’t believe what they did last Sunday. You would like this. You ought to come and listen.” That’s one of the reasons that North Point has grown. We want to do it well enough that they will brag on the band and say, “This band did a John Mayer song on Sunday. I know you’re a big John Mayer fan.” That’s more important than if a Christian who attends is bothered by the fact that we did a secular song.
If people continue to complain about the music, we would suggest that they go to another church. I know that we have members who think that the bass is too loud or have other complaints, but they’re here because they believe in the mission of the church, which is to reach lost people. Christians that are here and don’t particularly love the music, come because they know their lost friends and neighbors will be engaged by the music, and they believe that is what is most important. They’re here in spite of the music, not because of it.
Do you have non-believers performing on the stage?
We do. It wasn’t intentional at first - it just happened. We booked a musician who wasn’t a believer, and after he started playing with us, he became a believer. He wasn’t hired as a staff member, but as a contractual musician, playing a couple times a month.
Since then, it’s become a policy of ours to book people who are recommended by other current players. They believe that God’s doing something in the lives of those unbelievers and that it would be great for them to be in this environment, and that they’re great players and would fit in with the environment here.
You can’t invite just everybody in. We don’t hire the best players we can find regardless of whether they’re Christians or not. Ultimately we’d like to have a band full of believers, but we will bring in nonbelievers like in the above situation. We make sure to keep them surrounded by believers - to outnumber them.
This has been a ministry and we’ve had a handful of people who have become believers by being here. Some haven’t and eventually stopped playing here, but they still come back sometimes, and they love us and we love them.
How do you manage the tension between creativity and structure?
We’ve got a unique problem here. We have two auditoriums, simultaneously performing the same music. Between the two sides, we try to synchronize them within 30 seconds of each other. Because we have to synchronize the worship music, worship leaders can’t be overly creative. Although this is difficult, it provokes proper planning and structured song arrangements. Structure gives us more freedom to be creative. Obviously, the Holy Spirit leads us in planning, just like he guides the worship leaders during the services and allows them to reach the people.
We meet with the worship leaders during the week and plan arrangements that work for everyone. We work very hard to capture the creativity of the worship leaders and put that in a form that can be duplicated on both of our stages. The Holy Spirit is able to move on Monday and Tuesday afternoons as well as Sunday mornings.
How much freedom is there during rehearsals to create new arrangements?
There is some freedom during rehearsals. But most of it comes when we plan for rehearsals because we don’t want to rely on creativity solely from rehearsals. If creativity does occur, we definitely try to incorporate some into services, but we have to be prepared. We have people in the band who are convinced they’re inspired and their arrangements are inspired, so there can be a difference of opinion.
Preparation before rehearsals eliminates a lot deliberation during rehearsals, which translates into better use of everyone’s time and eliminates friction that can arise within a band.
Practically speaking, how does North Point synchronize the worship in simultaneous auditoriums?
We have all of our arrangements worked out beforehand, so we know the lengths of the intros and endings. Worship leaders have the freedom to say things between songs if they feel it’s necessary. We try to run the songs closely together so there isn’t a long period of time between them, which helps the synchronization.
In addition, there is a large LCD monitor, for the worship leader, that contains lyrics for the songs (Pro Presenter software) and a countdown clock. We agree on an estimated time to play the songs and allow the leaders to communicate a bit with the audience – this is refined during rehearsal. Essentially, the worship leader has freedom to talk or extend a tag, but needs to stop by 0:00.
The way we fill the time needed to allow the auditoriums to synchronize is to have the keyboard or piano player play lightly until the audiences are together. We’ll put up either a scripture or some phrase that relates to the message while the music plays, and this can last 20 seconds to a minute. It’s a great transition for people to get settled and ready for the message.
Do all of your musicians read music?
Although not everyone can read music, most of them can read music to some degree, but we don’t actually require lot of music reading. There’s an occasional riff here and there, but we generally use rhythm charts, which are a lot more accessible to a lot more musicians.
Unfortunately, most church music programs think rhythm charts or chord charts are the lyrics with some letters sporadically written over them. While these types of “cheat-sheets” have helped bring modern worship music to the masses, they are only useful if the entire band has memorized the exact same arrangement, which is highly unlikely. These sheets can create band friction by debating rhythms, voicings, measures, time signatures, repeats, lead lines, hits, rests, etc. This can lead to chaos at rehearsal and inferior music being played by the musicians.
We tend to use rhythm charts where actual bars and measures are displayed. With a little practice, ANY musician can effectively read a rhythm chart. And when there is a need for written notation or a melody line, it’s included.
A properly written rhythm chart is legible by musicians of all skill levels, and immediately answers just about every question that can arise during rehearsal, specifically those relating to chord progressions, song form and band dynamics.
Worship Leaders & Players
Where should a church look for players and worship leaders?
You need a connection with the players in your area and people (contacts) who can speak their language. If you’re the programming director or the creative arts pastor at a church, you need to be involved with the network of musicians in your area. Musicians talk to each other, they know each other, they recommend jobs to each other, and they get jobs from each other. Word of mouth recommendations are what will supply your needs long-term.
The key is to get great musicians excited about your program – to the point that they rave about it to their musician friends. It’s a good sign if you’ve got fantastic players with a grassroots-style attitude lining up to be a part of your program!
Do you pay your musicians?
We pay our musicians and we advise that you do too (if your church can). I know many people don’t pay their musicians and that system works for them, but we want professional-level players who can do nearly anything musically that we want to try.