(This article was written more than a decade ago. While the songs mentioned are dated, I trust that the main points of the article are still relevant today.)
Live worship albums are surfacing at an unprecedented rate. Christians are buying them for the great music and inspiration. It is a big industry. Many are drawn to it. Is this freshly baked manna from heaven or fleshly crafted idols from earth? Or could it lie somewhere in between the two?
The main aim in producing a live worship album (which to me is the live recording of a worship service) is the edification of the community of believers. The secondary aim being to present Christ to unbelievers through contemporary songs about who God is, what He has done and is still doing today. Contemporary songs of worship express the Christian faith of our time, just as the hymns expressed the heart of Christianity during the era of the great hymn writers.
With these aims in mind, I would like to propose seven factors that should be considered regarding live worship albums. Church music influences our theology, and our theology influences our methods of ministry. It is my hope that these factors will serve their purpose in encouraging the production of great live worship albums and help music-makers to be prudent in their endeavours so that the Christian church will grow deep in our faith in God.
First, most of the songs should be God-centred and/or Christ-centred. After all, these albums are meant to help us express our love and faith in God. When this is neglected, our worship is reduced to mere human-centredness.
Human-centred songs are songs that focus on ‘us’ – who we are, how much we are loved, what we want from God and what we can do for Him. While an album may feature a few such songs, the majority should focus on who God is, what He has done and is still doing. The songs, “God of Wonders” (by Mark Byrd & Steve Hindalong, from the album, City On A Hill) and “You Are Lord” (by Ray Chee, from the album, Adore by Parachute Band) are excellent Theocentric songs.
Second, cross-centredness. The message of the cross is central to the Christian faith. It reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and this should be reflected through the songs we sing. However, we do find this either minimized or completely absent in some worship albums. Unpopular words such as “sin”, “sinner”, “sinful”, “death” and “cross” are replaced by words that are less offensive and more acceptable. Matt Redman’s “The Promise of Your Cross” (from the album, Where Angels Fear To Tread) is a good example of a cross-centred song. In fact, many of Redman’s songs are very much cross-centred.
Third, Scripture and sound doctrine. In our creativity in songwriting, we must not forget to include Scripture and doctrine in our songs. Songs that give people wrong ideas about God are perilous especially to new and young believers.
We must not be mesmerized by good music and neglect listening to the words of songs. Just because a song sounds good does not mean it is a good song of worship. When portions of Scripture and doctrine are properly and carefully included in songs, it actually promotes the constant reciting of God’s Word and sound doctrine. This was how believers of the past of whom many had no formal education were helped to remember Scripture and doctrine. An example of Scripture in a song is “Better Is One Day” (written by Matt Redman, from the album, The Friendship and The Fear). Another example is “God Is In The House” (written by Russell Fragar & Darlene Zschech, from the album, God Is In The House by Hillsong).
Fourth, prayer. This is an essential part of any worship service, and when included in a live worship album, it adds to the listener’s experience. The listener might even find the prayer relevant to his or her present circumstances. One example of a live worship album containing good prayers was Shine Your Light Through The Window (New Life Church, Colorado Springs, USA). The album focuses on asking the Lord to shine His light into the 10-40 window. It contains passionate prayers of several well known Christian leaders, standing in the gap on behalf of the unbelievers living in that segment of the world. The effect on the listeners is amazing.
Fifth, testimonies. I have found that testimonies of God’s grace and provision add a depth and reality in our worship experience. Ron Kenoly’s testimony in the album God Is Able from Hosanna! Music and Kevin Jonas’s testimony in Breath of Heaven from Christ For the Nations Music are excellent examples. I must also add that I simply love the testimonies of God’s transforming power in the albums released by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, for instance, Live … This Is Your House, absolutely inspiring! Sadly, testimonies are not often present in many of today’s live worship albums. Many albums tend to focus too much on the music and the churches releasing these albums a little too eager to introduce their new songs. Some are just packing as many new songs as possible into the single or double CD album without sufficient thought about the listeners’ entire experience of worship. Never underestimate the power of the spoken word!
Sixth, the theme. Many of today’s live worship albums are a mere compilation of the best and latest songs from a church or Christian organization. When one looks at the title of the album and listen to the songs, one wonders where the connection is. On some of the earlier Hosanna! Music albums, we find songs that were no longer current included in the worship because they were right for the theme. (For example, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” found on the album, Army of God). Isn’t this the way we select songs for a worship service? Just as no good preacher would preach a sermon that is made up of a collection of interesting but unrelated stories, no good worship leader should choose songs for a worship service with disconnected themes and ideas.
Seventh, graphics. The first point of contact we have with an album is usually the front cover. When the cover conveys something of the grandeur and wonder of God, or something appropriate to the theme or title of the album, it prepares the listeners for the songs and music within the cover. I love the album cover of Red Carpet by Christian City Church Whitehorse with the picture of a loaf of bread and a cup with spilt “blood”. It speaks volumes. Most albums these days also contain numerous photographic shots of the worship service which is a great idea. The listener not only gets to listen and participate in a live service, he or she also gets to see the church setting and the people involved. We should be careful not to over-promote certain individuals, making them icons or celebrities of Christian worship. We should be promoting Jesus and His redemptive work on the cross.
So those are the seven factors to consider with regards to live worship albums. Close examination of our motives, purpose and theology will ensure that our ministry is constantly churning out freshly baked manna from heaven. It will also ensure that we steer clear from producing albums that feed our insatiable fleshly desire for fame and success. I enjoy listening to live worship albums (just love the atmosphere!), and will eagerly look forward to many more to hit our Christian retail stores. And I will keep buying them as long as my wife and wallet give their approval, for this ain’t no cheap business – and that’s another concern altogether!