Worship and the culture of duplication Subscribe To My Blog (RSS)(Click this icon to Subscribe)

This post has been brewing in my head for a while now. As a songwriter and worship leader, I am always thinking about the questions of how and why we do what we do in our worship services on Sunday, and one of the things I keep coming back to is the whole idea of duplication. What do I mean by this? Here are some examples:

- One of our worship leaders emailed me recently regarding a new song he wanted to do and said, "can we make this sound as close to the CD as possible?"
- Often in rehearsals, I will hear people saying things like, "in the recording, they do X with the vocals" or "the keyboard should do this here, that's what the recording does."
- Companies like multitracks.com and praisecharts.com will now allow you to purchase "stems" from the original recordings, in multiple keys, so that you can get that synth sound people love from Hillsong's recording or fill in that missing rhythm guitar part that you can't cover because you only have one guitarist that week.
- I have a good friend who is a worship leader for a multi-site campus. They are very intentional in their efforts to make sure that each band is playing the songs the same way, with the same arrangements and the same overall sound.

I'm wondering...should we be trying to duplicate the sound of Bethel (or Hillsong or Chris Tomlin or [insert your favorite worship artist here]) in our Sunday worship services? I know many churches and worship leaders for whom that tends to be the modus operandi - try to "make it sound like the CD" as much as possible.

In the interest of exploring this further, I decided to try to think through the pros and cons of what I call duplication culture. I'll start with the pros:

Familiarity. Many people in our churches are used to hearing those songs played / sung in a particular way - either on the radio or as they listen on Spotify or iTunes. And they might be more apt to join in and sing if they are hearing the songs in ways that are familiar to them.

Simplicity. From a music director's standpoint, it's easy to send out MP3s to your band and tell them "learn your part from this." When you have limited rehearsal time, it's certainly easier to work this way - and many musicians find it easier to cop an existing part or riff than to come up with something appropriate on their own that works.

Availability of resources. If you download charts from CCLI or PraiseCharts or WorshipCharts or any other similar site, those charts tend to be based on specific recordings / arrangements, and thus lend themselves to reproducing the sounds from those specific recordings / arrangements. Don't have a drummer this week? Buy the stems from multitracks.com, plug them into Ableton with a click track, and play without one. Or add the acoustic guitar tracks when your acoustic player is out sick on Sunday morning.

Ease of rehearsal. When you're trying to do what's already been done, and do it the same way, it's pretty easy to tell in rehearsal when it's not right. For many churches, rehearsal time is limited, so time for experimentation or for musicians to "find" a new part for a song is hard to come by.

Consistency. If your philosophy is to do it "like the recording," you know you're more likely to get a consistent sound from week to week, even if you have different players or vocalists on your teams from week to week. It gives everyone a specific target to shoot for.

Now, there's nothing wrong with these things I've listed; from a practical standpoint, many people working in churches choose to adopt the policy of trying to duplicate recordings for many (if not all) of those reasons. And the purpose of this piece is not to say duplication is wrong; it's simply to take a good look at it and see if we're doing it in a good way, and for the right reasons.

Here are some cons I can see with duplication culture:

Unrealistic expectations. Very few churches (my own included, even though it's a larger church with a lot of great volunteer musicians and ample resources) are capable of sounding "just like" the Passion band, or Hillsong United, or Bethel, or Jesus Culture. If that is the expectation from week to week, the worship team will always fall short of the expectation - from a purely technical standpoint and from a musicianship standpoint. The commercial recordings we are used to hearing are professionally produced, the musicians are pros who play for a living (even if they are part of a church), and to expect a local church band to duplicate that sound is completely unreasonable - and can be downright intimidating to an amateur volunteer musician who works 50 hours a week at his day job and only plays a couple hours a week for church rehearsal and services.

A related con: Duplication can be difficult, especially for amateur musicians. Not every church has pro-caliber players available. Many churches might have one or two players in their regular band who are at that level, but many of them will be amateur musicians - good players who are comfortable with their own style, but struggle with trying to duplicate someone else's playing. This can be a musicianship issue, but it can also be a technology issue - modern worship music tends to feature a lot of effects and ambient guitar sounds, which an amateur electric guitarist who plays an amazing 1970's style rhythm guitar will struggle to emulate because he won't have the right gear to create those sounds.

Also related: (lack of) technology makes duplication difficult. Many of the "live" worship recordings you hear today are played with click tracks and include loops, ambient textures, and other stuff that is pre-produced and pre-recorded. Plus they most likely do a lot of post-production (including pitch correction on vocals). Some of the bands (like Hillsong and Jesus Culture) will have upwards of a dozen or more musicians on stage, not to mention sound and technology support that costs more than some small church buildings. Many small-to-mid-sized churches cannot even come close to duplicating recordings because their sound systems are not adequate to support that kind of sound in their room.

Duplication is easy. Wait, that's not a con, that should be a pro, right? This is where we can get into an ideological argument. I happen to be of the mindset that if something's easy, maybe we should be doing it differently, especially when it comes to the arts. Just because something is easy doesn't necessarily mean it is good.

Here are a couple other general observations before I wrap this post up:

Something that struck me a while back and has been nagging at my mind over the past few months as I've pondered this topic was a comment I heard from a member of my congregation (a non-musician but a music lover). He had been to the Passion conference, and was talking with me one Sunday after our band had played a song from the most recent Passion recording (and basically came as close as we could to duplicating the CD). He said to me, "I'm glad we sang that song, but I kind of want to hear our band play it their way." I asked him what he meant; he said that he really enjoyed the playing styles of a couple of our guys, and was curious what it would sound like if we did the song but let them play it with their styles instead of simply trying to duplicate what they heard on the recording.

A couple months later, I was having breakfast with a worship pastor friend from another church and we began talking about worship and body life. One of the things that came up was the philosophy behind duplication and how, in his opinion, duplication actually harmed body life because instead of our musicians sounding like only they can because of their unique combination of gifts, talents, and styles, we are forcing them to become little (and inferior) copies of Bethel or Elevation or Jesus Culture in our churches all over the world. I had never thought of it that way, but it really got me thinking (and was part of what spurred me to put together these thoughts in blog form).

Am I saying we shouldn't duplicate? No, not at all - I think there are times where duplication can be perfectly appropriate. But if that's all we are doing, or if that becomes our only objective, it becomes an idol and brings all kinds of negative baggage along with it, and it relegates the worship service to something that feels much more like entertainment and less like worship - from a purely philosophical perspective, if not from a practical one.

So what's my conclusion?

I think it's fine to use duplication sometimes...but I would also encourage worship leaders everywhere to be open to trying new things on occasion - if you're missing a drummer or guitarist or other member of the band, don't use a multitrack to fill in the missing part; instead, look for ways to allow your players to innovate and come up with something fresh and new and different instead. Most musicians I know - even amateurs - will rise to the challenge and you'll love the end result. And it will be a truer reflection of the variety of talents that exist within your church body!

One final anecdote to finish up...one of the most enjoyable worship services I can remember, and one in which our congregation was clearly engaged, was one where we intentionally moved away from the duplication model and tried something unique with instrumentation and arrangements. We used instruments we typically don't have on stage (acoustic bass, banjo, fiddle) and took a fresh look at the arrangements for all of the songs we used. It was a lot of hard work at our midweek rehearsal, but the end result was a beautiful thing - and the response (and level of engagement) from the congregation was amazing.

God has called us to worship Him with excellence and with creativity. Duplication certainly can be a part of that, but I believe that we are also called to move beyond duplication to innovation. Even if it takes more work, taking a song and "making it your own" for your church band instead of just "making it sound like the CD" can certainly contribute mightily to both worship and body life in the church.

Thoughts and comments always welcome! See you next time!

posted by Forrest Wakeman on 08/14/2017