An Open Letter to Worship Leaders

Dear Worship Leaders,

I have the opportunity every year to worship with many different churches, as well as various chapel services at seminaries, colleges, and parachurch ministries. The vast majority of these worship settings include at least a few modern worship songs. By modern worship songs, I mean the type of songs written mostly since the late-1990s and sung by recording artists associated with ministries like Passion and Hillsong. I enjoy singing many modern worship songs and find that they instruct me in the faith and help me to draw near to the Lord in worship. Nevertheless, as I participate in various corporate worship gatherings, I frequently observe a trend that I believe is unhelpful. That trend is the reason for this open letter.

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In too many worship services, all of the modern worship songs are sung in the same key as they are sung by the recording artists who have popularized them. While this is completely understandable, it is not always helpful. Simply put, many well-known worship leaders are blessed with an incredible vocal range and are able to “hit” musical notes that cannot be sung by most of the folks in a typical corporate worship gathering. Remember, worship leaders who record songs are also artists; like all musical artists, they are showing off their range on their albums. These album versions, while often beautiful, are not fit for congregational singing. Too many worship leaders in local churches and similar settings try to sing like the worship leaders on the radio, but they lose the congregation in the process.

I want to offer a friendly suggestion to worship leaders: labor to make sure that every song you select for corporate worship is pitched so that most believers who can “carry a tune” are able to sing it. This will require re-setting some of the most popular modern worship songs so that they are pitched lower than their album versions. But if the point of leading musical worship is guiding the whole congregation to sing praises to the Lord, then you must remember that your average worshiper does not sing like Chris Tomlin or Kristian Stanfill. I am a tenor who spent years singing in choirs, ensembles, and praise teams, yet I often have to sing modern worship songs in a lower key. Imagine how those saints with lower singing voices feel.

I hope worship leaders will receive this open letter in the spirit that it is written. I am not an opponent of modern worship music. My iPod is loaded with modern worship music. Many of my students are worship leaders whose “bread and butter” is modern worship. When my own church’s elders decided to include more modern songs in our corporate worship gatherings, I supported them. After I became an elder, I helped to implement that transition. Our church’s worship pastor is a dear friend of mine. I love worship leaders!

This letter is a plea from someone who truly appreciates what you do when you lead a congregation of Christ-followers in musical worship. I am not asking you to change your style. I am asking you to be sensitive to the abilities of the average worshiper rather than trying to sound as much like Phil Wickham as you possibly can. Be a worship leader and lower that key for the sake of the congregation.

Worship leaders, thanks for considering this friendly suggestion. I wish you the very best in your strategic ministries among God’s people.

Sincerely in Christ,

Nathan Finn

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  11Comments

  1. Mark Jackson   •  

    My experience is that the key is most often attuned to the particular person who is leading the song. I appreciate the fact that some songs are led by women who sing in a key higher than I can sing… I drop an octave… It’s not the sweet spot for my voice, but I am thankful that finally my wife can comfortably sing. Of course if we all knew how to read music and sing “parts” this would not be an issue…

  2. Ivey Rhodes   •  

    I’m a 15 year worship band guitarist and I agree! But I will say keeping them in the same key as the album can have a practical use for the band. It allows them to practice in the same key as the cd. It’s takes a little more effort for Worship Pastors to re-record the songs in another easier to sing key, but I think it should be done.

  3. Bob Cleveland   •  

    I’m a big fan of the “Brooklyn Tabernacle Method”. Jim Cymbala said, many years ago at a “Fresh Wind Fresh Fire” conference in Atlanta, that if you have to put the words up on a screen, then the song is too complicated. And he led us in a couple of songs to demonstrate.

    It was great worship!

    And the place I’d rather worship than anywhere else … Red Hills Baptist Church in Jamaica … demonstrates this every time I’m there. I still remember the choruses we sang there.

  4. Joshua Breland   •  

    Amen. Leaving with my heart full and my throat aching is not pleasant. Also not pleasant…my falsetto.

  5. Miles Mullin   •  

    Yes!

    If hymns are used, they also need to be pitched lower–especially for men. When I was younger, I never understood why the hymn books did not do this in keying them.

    Thanks, Nathan.

    ~Miles

  6. Steve Schenewerk   •  

    As a pastor who has extensive musical training let me say AMEN AND AMEN! I have been a single staff pastor most of my life and because of my training I have been chief worship leader and planner- much of what folks hear on KLOVE is just not singable by the average singer yet that is the standard by which we are often judged. Serving in small rural churches as I have it is a constant challenge to find folks who can even sing! Hopefully your words will be read and heeded!

  7. David Regier   •  

    Nope. Say it nicer, or we’ll raise it even higher.

  8. Greg Hill   •  

    You are so very right about this. For certain artists, I almost always lower the key and even after years of singing a song, we may still change it again. Another trend I’m noticing is that many songs are becoming too high and too low. The range increases when the chorus jumps an octave from the verse. I love and lead many of these songs but it’s getting harder to find the right balance.

  9. Pat Avery (Bubbie   •  

    Thanks Nathan, the older I get the lower my voice gets. Just found out recently the truly “old” hymns that I love were written in one popular key that any one who could read slight musical notes could play the chords. I always thought they were the best! Now I know why.

  10. Pingback: The Modern Worship Problem: A Response | Jared B. Johnson

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