I had only been a leading worship at my first vocational ministry for a little less than a year. I was actually their youth pastor, but was slowly discovering that I’d rather be a worship pastor. This tiny, but growing, church paid me a monthly stipend of a couple hundred dollars and gave me squatter’s rights to a mouse-infested house on their property. (A large colony of wasps had also taken up residence in my kitchen wall. Bonus.)
My senior pastor was keen on using the phrase “for the praise of His glory” as the motto for the church. I’m not sure anyone knew exactly what that meant. At the time, I know I didn’t. But I figured I could write a song around it.
And I did. And it wasn’t horrible. I purposefully kept it simple. Which for me was a feat in itself. Being a theory geek and having more chord knowledge than musicianship, my songs were often a convoluted mess.
So I taught it to the congregation. And it caught on. A little. The crowning moment for me as young songwriter was to look back one Sunday and see Dex, the dad of two of my youth, with his arms raised and eyes closed singing my song.
Someone was actually worshiping to something I had written. It was both humbling and ego-inflating, depending which shoulder-angel was winning.
Not long after that, I moved on from that church. And I’m pretty sure that song ended up as some forgotten title on the master list. I can imagine one of my successors coming along and saying, “What’s this song, ‘For the Praise of His Glory’?” If the photocopied, handwritten chart was still around, I doubt that persuaded anyone to resurrect it.
I had to face a painful truth: not all songs are created equal.
Mine was not going to be the next Shout to the Lord. It would not be translated into Cantonese and Swahili and French. I would not be nominated for "Song of the Year" and get to go to the Dove awards. Nor would I have an article written about me in Worship Leader Magazine.
My song was just not good enough. But it served a specific purpose for a specific place at a specific time. And now with a decade and a half of life and ministry between that moment and me, I realize that’s a privilege for any worship songwriter.
In 2004, Chris Anderson, at the time, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, wrote about a concept that eventually led to his groundbreaking book in 2006 of the same title – The Long Tail.
The "long tail" concept looks at the infinite number of choices in a given area. The name is taken from the shape of the nearly infinite choices of products charted on an XY line graph.
iTunes is a perfect example. In the “short head” on the left side are artists like Adele, Justin Bieber & Michael Jackson. These few uber-popular artists get the highest sales. But in the long tail are the indie bands, the regional favorites, the stars in different underground movements and of course, the subculture genres (like “worship” music).
Or take ice cream for example. In this graph below, “short head” – the orange part – are the top sellers. The “usual suspects.”
right click to view enlarged image
But in the long-tail, the green part, are all the others. According to one study, beyond the top 15 flavors all the other flavors combined make up only 23% of all ice cream sold.* But in that 23%, are 1000s of other flavors. From the well-known ice cream aisle staples like Moose Tracks and Mint Chocolate Chip to all the unconventional flavors at my favorite ice cream place, Jeni’s. (Honey & Pistacio…mmmm.)
And then there’s also bacon-flavored ice cream towards the far right. You know a man invented that one.
Applied to worship music, at the “head” of the graph (left side), there are the usual suspects: Tomlin, Hillsong, Baloche, Crosby (as in, Fanny, not Stills, Nash and Young).
At the end of the nearly infinite end tail, you’d find my song that all 60 people in my first church sang. (Their heavenly mansions got premium upgrades for that act of sacrifice and compassion.)
So does that mean we only do songs on the “short head” – the popular songs? Absolutely not. There are undoubtedly great songs hidden in the long tail that deserve to be sung by the whole church.
What it really means is that you need to decide the best songs for your church to sing. That probably means NOT singing all popular songs. Some songs will be for a certain season that your church is in. Some may fit your church’s personality while the same song would fall flat at mine. And that’s OK.
The point here is the first truth: not all songs are created equal.
So don’t feel badly about discarding songs that don’t quite fit. And say no to songs you sense won’t. Not all of them are meant for all people and all times. Which leads us to our next truth…