Over the years I have often been asked to be an advisor for church worship recordings and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t during the process. I have a heart to see church worship teams fulfil their calling in their communities and be all they were called for, being encouraged through the process to grow both musically and spiritually. Here are some thoughts on when to record a church worship album.
As I study church history, it seems that every revival had a sound attached to it. What I mean by this is that many moves of God carry a worship experience, songs, and worship culture with it.
Billy Graham had Ira Sankey, Charles Wesley had John Wesley, Think Brian Houston and Hillsong Music, Bill Johnson and Bethel as modern day examples. In fact, many have often said they don’t know what comes first – the sound, or the message. It’s a wonderful marriage when worship and teaching really capture the essence of God’s heart.
So obviously, worship is important. If we want revival, as a musician, I want to think about what that sounds like. I am sure you think this too because you are reading this blog. But we can really miss what God is trying to say and do through our communities when we are not clear in our vision for recording our worship experience.
It is true that there have been albums which have gone beyond the local church and grab the attention of a global community without much thought or preparation – but I believe to sustain a worship move of God in our churches takes prayer, planning and an awareness of why we do what we do. We want to do something that makes a difference, but we want to keep doing it as well. How we finish something is just as important as how we start.
After recording 8 albums of my own music, as well as singing and collaborating on 10+ church/worship albums, here’s some of my thoughts on when is the right time to record a church album.
1. Have a specific goal.
This may seem simple enough, but mantras like “We want to capture the new sound”, or “We have something the world needs to hear”, are not specific enough. They are noble (most of the time) but its not clear enough. A more concise goal would be “Provide an album of songs that our church can sing at home”, or “Foster community amongst our worship team”, or “Record an album that releases healing/salvation/peace/faith over people”.
It needs to be clear, concise, and everybody needs to get it. It needs to be short and to the point, so that people can say it without having to think too hard. It needs to be something your whole church can understand, not just musicians.
There may be more than one reason why you want to record a church album, and thats ok, but there needs to be one major focus that people, even non-musicians can decode. Secondary reasons are ok and should be included in the bulk of your vision, but your specific main goal is what needs to be the primary focus for all. Remember not every church album is meant for the global church. Every goal will be different because every church is different.
2. Provide some marketing finances in your overall budget.
Unfortunately marketing is severely overlooked when it comes to community projects. This is usually because churches don’t have much money anyway and all that’s in the bank will tend to go to getting the best recording possible. However, it takes money to let people know you have a great CD.
Whether you are just wanting to release a project to your community or on a broader scale marketing is still important. Depending on the scale of your project, it can be as simple as using social media like Facebook to your friends and family, to a small ‘ad’ that can be played in church, to taking photos and putting them in a newsletter, or as advanced as hiring a media consultant, trying to get radio play, touring or doing an album launch.
It doesn’t matter how great your music is, if people don’t know about it, they won’t hear it.
I’m also going to include your graphic design and branding in the marketing budget too – I’ve heard a lot of great albums, only to be really put off by the CD cover. You may not think these things are important, but it really does affect how people receive your music. I believe we serve the body of Christ when we do things well.
Now, you may be saying to yourself right now “Well, we just want to do an album for our church, we don’t need to worry about marketing”. I want to say to you- the cost of a big dream and the cost of a small dream is the same – your whole life! So if you are going to dream, you might as well dream big. Why go to all that effort only to do something that is ‘acceptable’? Let’s be excellent with everything we do, from the big to the small. Faithful over little allows the faithful over much. We be the best that we can be not because we need to compete with $150,000 budgets and ‘stadium’ worship, but because we want to be faithful in all we do in service to the greatest artist that exists – God. We are created after His own image, so let’s be great God-artists that don’t give him a bad name.
3. Have a pool of songs to choose from.
If you are going to record say, 10 songs, have at least 20-30 you can choose from. I have always done this with all my recordings and I would say the churches who have a larger pool of songs will have a better final selection of material. This might seem overwhelming at first, but it really does create a healthy flurry of songwriting. As you write, you become a better songwriter, and being a better songwriter means capturing the best songs for a recording. Again, we are coming back to being excellent at what we do, no matter how big or small the project is.
4. Invite people to be part of the song selection process.
Choose from a broad range of people. A lot of church albums I hear have never gone through this process. It’s normally the worship pastor choosing the songs. This is a very narrow way of song selection, because one person is never going to perceive how the songs are received by a whole community. It takes a community to reach a community.
I was once invited to be a part of a panel of helping choose songs for a church I wasn’t even involved in. I was so impressed by this and thought it was a great idea to include other songwriters that weren’t from their immediate community so that they could get a feel for how others perceived the songs.
Let me say very gently too, that if you are the worship pastor reading this, it doesn’t mean you are the best songwriter in the group. This is often a big downfall in worship recordings. Learn to be a facilitator of other peoples dreams, rather than trying to facilitate your own dreams. If you want an album full of your own songs maybe that’s a different album – not a community project. (ouch!)
Your song selection team should include people who are not musical (because that’s the people in your church who will sing and buy your albums), people who are not just the songwriters of the project, people who have good theological observations (so they can make sure the songs are Biblically sound), and possibly people outside of your immediate church community.
5. Include the whole team.
This is tough because different people have different levels of skill. But hear me out – I have seen a lot of confusion in worship teams when they are being told it’s a church album, only to have 3-4 key people involved in the project. This is another place where having a specific goal is important. If it’s just a selection of people from your team, then maybe it’s not a church album – maybe it’s a worship band. You need to think about who you are and how that projects what you do. Either one is ok, you just need to be clear and do whats best for your immediate community.
There are pros and cons for the problem of inclusion. The benefit of including many is that there is a big buy in from all. But this can also create a project that is not cohesive and has too many ideas.
So how do we work around this? It is true that a few will carry the bulk of the project and that is actually an important goal for the reason I just mentioned. But all the musicians don’t need to be playing on the project. You can include them in other areas – from marketing, to helping out on the day if it’s a live recording, from selling resources at the launch, to developing a prayer team for the project etc. The key is just include them all. A good way to do this is let them know from the beginning you are doing a project. Can you also see here that having a clear and concise vision can go a long way in helping people feel included? If they know what they are a part of, they will give more of themselves to it. If you include them after songs have been chosen, or when you are ready to record, it’s much harder for people to understand or feel a part of something. Everyone wants to feel a part of something. Everyone want’s to belong. Your goal is to find ways to include them, yet also be true to the vision of your project.
6. Finally, try your songs out before you record them.
The best songwriters I know always do this. They try them out in sunday services, in prayer meetings, small groups, in other churches. Observe how they are received. Ask the pastor what he thinks. Do these songs align with who you are as a people? Do they help the church sing? Are they capturing the specific goal for the project?
I pray every success on your project. Do you have any other thoughts? I would love to hear them.