By far the least favorite description of my worship leading came about eight years ago. My critic didn’t intend to compare me to this musician; he just couldn’t think of anyone as mellow—Barry Manilow.
Though it was arguable that my style resembled “Mandy” or “I Write the Songs,” it was that the worship songs I preferred tended to be the slower, more contemplative ones. In a set of six songs, at least three, maybe four, leaned toward slow or moderately slow.
Heart of a Troubadour
It had always been like this for me. I was always drawn to ballads: Richard Marx’s “Hold On to the Night” and “Endless Summer Nights” (he liked nights), Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience” and “November Rain,” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Something to Believe In.”
Even in classical music, which I didn’t care for much initially, I always liked nocturnes and the customary slower second movement of a symphony or sonata. Waltzes, mazurkas, and rondos just didn’t do it for me. What was the point in so much gaiety?
I didn’t used to be a very joyous person. Even today no one would ever describe me as boisterous or manic. I’m somewhat soft-spoken. Always accusing me of mumbling, Cindy wishes she could turn up the gain on my voice. She may be right. I could use some amplification.
Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate upbeat songs. I’m not as drawn to the ballads as much as I used to be, though a good one like Sara Bareilles’s “Gravity” can be hypnotic.
Plug it in, plug it in
The songs I now select for our worship sets are about 75% upbeat, especially since we added electric guitar to the mix. I’d been waiting through our acoustic-flavored offerings to be able to use songs like “Everyone (Praises),” “Open Up the Gates,” “Let God Arise,” and “All to You.”
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! —Psalm 137:5-6 ESV
Earlier in this ancient song, the composer wrote that their captors requested of them songs of mirth. I had to look up this word. It’s not one we use much today, yet ESV and NASB both use it. Mirth is defined as gaiety, jollity, amusement, laughter—as in the excitement and mirth of the holiday season or he was unable to conceal his mirth.
The psalmist is describing more than just an upbeat, happy song. These were songs the Jewish people would sing not in a solemn, dignified manner. Have you heard an upbeat Jewish song? They’re entirely jovial, somehow even when set in minor keys. (Watch the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof.) But the songwriter is saying, we can’t sing those songs, because these songs came from mirthful (I think that’s a word) hearts, which they no longer had.
Laughing with God
I think I’ve come to not simply tolerate songs of mirth but to actually enjoy them because my heart has changed. Before, my relationship with God tended to be only serious. Rarely would I joke in my devotional journal. But I’ve realized a sense of humor and laughter itself is not only a wonderful gift God has given us, but something I think he enjoys, as well. I love to hear my children laugh, and I think he does too. (By contrast, I always embarrass our girls at the movies with my constant laughter.)
I love all kinds of fast songs now. Inventive and playful classical pieces, impressive Hammond B3 runs, amazing rock guitar riffs, chords pounded on the piano like Billy Joel or virtuosic jazz lines from Bruce Hornsby or Keith Jarrett. And I love to sing mirthful lyrics like, “Today is the day you have made/I will rejoice and be glad in it” and “Raise your hands, all you nations/Shout to God, all creation.”
When God is our highest joy, we become joyful people who may still love a good ballad, who may still love to contemplate and at times yearn for solitude, but who also appreciate and absorb the “fullness of joy” found in his presence (Psalm 16:11).
May I forget how to play my instrument and be unable to sing if I set something other than God as my highest joy. Nothing else is lasting anyway. But when God fills us with joy, then we’ll be unable to conceal it, unable to contain it. And that’s the point.
What about you? What kind of songs do you lean toward? Power ballads, rock anthems, showtunes? Are you attracted to upbeat worship songs?