"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Developing Student Praise and Worship

Professional Report on Music (Part 3)

Steve Miller

Chapter Three
Choose and Tweak Your Styles Carefully

A Startling Revelation

A couple of years ago I was shocked into realizing that I, who had written an entire book on youth music, had lost my musical edge. Driving home from church, I field tested a song on my teen-aged son that I thought would well illustrate next week's youth group topic. The song? "Show Me the Way," by Styx, one of the most popular rock bands of the 80's. Experiencing the song at concert level in the car, chills went up my spine as the music revealed the heart of a disillusioned soul who was desperate for the truth.

The song ended and I asked, "Well, what did you think?" He responded nonchalantly, "Well, it's okay, but I really prefer rock."

"Really prefer rock!?!" I shouted inwardly. The audacity of him to imply that Styx was no longer even considered rock! How could a song that moved me so powerfully do nothing for him at all? Naturally, I questioned his salvation.

I can hear some of you younger readers chuckling condescendingly. Convinced that you minister on the cutting edge of youth culture, you pity this 45-year-old who's so out of touch. But not so fast. I live with five teens, immersed in a world of mainstream rock, Emo, Punk and alternative Metal Core. Why could I not hear this song through his ears?

In my earlier youth ministry years I missed the edge by not keeping up with youth music. Listening exclusively to the Christian music of my favorite eras, I missed the subtle shifts of the larger culture. Today I miss the edge because of appreciating too many musical eras. In the 60's it took me an entire week at camp with a Beatles nut to appreciate the Beatles. I had a decade to adapt to 80's music, another decade to learn 90's music. The result? When I hear a great worship song that helps me love God, I can't distinguish what elements make the song powerful to me. I can no longer hear it through the ears of a youth who has heard only popular music since 1996.

Since our musical exposure and tastes differ radically, I submit that we must pursue a more disciplined, prayerful and biblical approach to choosing a worship style for our youth groups. None of us can trust our instincts. Are you willing to consider that your ministry, starting with its music, may be missing the mark, scratching the youth of 1995 right where they itch? Even if you minister today on the cutting edge, how can you keep from losing that edge?

The Power of Heart Music

Missionary Ethnomusicologists, who study the music of various cultures, tell us that each person has not only a spoken language that is most natural for verbal communication, but also a musical language (a culture's "heart music") that is most natural for musical communication. Missionaries go to great pains to understand and use this heart music in their worship. (1)

The impact of finding and using the heart music of a people group can be quite dramatic. (2)You've probably experienced it at a youth conference or a Promise Keeper's conference, when the musical style allowed the worship to flow freely from your heart. This is why finding the heart music of our youth groups is critical. Using anything less hinders worship. (3) Finding it can start a revolution.

Applying Missionary Strategy to Youth Worship

How can we apply a missionary mindset to finding the heart music of our groups? (Readers, I've never seen a strategy for determining your optimum worship style laid out like this. If you would suggest additions or corrections, I'd love your input.)

1. Distrust your instincts. Assume that you don't know the "heart music" of your students. Informed missionaries assume they can't take their favorite worship CD and use it for a radically different culture. But in working with students in our own culture who seem so similar to ourselves, we falsely assume we understand them. Even a 22-year-old youth minister has been out of high school for four years. When he was in the 9th grade, in the center of youth culture, the middle schoolers he now works with were in Kindergarten. You'll become less and less relevant each day that you refuse to adopt the humble posture of a missionary student of youth culture.

Many times we listen to our favorite worship CD, hear a song that transports us into the heavenlies, and assume that any spiritual youth will react similarly. Without further thought, we plan it for the upcoming youth meeting. Perhaps the youth respond. But often we've foolishly assumed that our heart music is the same as theirs. Sometimes that style that makes us cringe may be the very style that opens up the portals to heaven for many youth.

2. Get cues from the pop-charts, not the final analysis. Missionary Ethnomusicologists study deeply the popular music of their target culture. Although that culture may appreciate many forms of music, they look for the forms that the people sing to themselves in their most relaxed moments, what they sing in the fields and hum while preparing food. (4)

To minister like a missionary, find out what CD's your kids purchase, what radio stations they listen to, what songs they hum while shooting baskets.

3. Develop a constant stream of open communication with your students about their worship. The Apostle Paul became all things to all men in order to reach them. To similarly adapt to our students, we must allow them to tell us their likes and dislikes. When I ask for their evaluation of a worship meeting, I often discover that my sense of how things went was dead wrong. I felt the acoustic music went way too long. They loved it. I thought the guest worship leader hit a home run. They didn't like it. Here are some ways to get their honest input.

a. Do regular anonymous surveys. Ask what songs make worship real for them, which songs do nothing for them. Anonymity makes honesty easier. (For an example Youth Worship Survey, click http://www.reach-out.org/article.asp?ai=78&ac=2&al=70 .)

b. Talk to youth personally. When they are negative, resist getting defensive. We desperately need their constant feedback. Defensiveness trains our students to withhold their true opinions. Rather, praise them for their candor. Tatiana Ostanina (Siberia) encourages a free atmosphere of sharing in their youth worship team, letting them know that their opinion is important. Paul David Cull (Brazil) purchases as many worship CD's as he can afford (In English and Portuguese) and lets the youth tell him what music speaks to them.

c. Get input from a diversity of students with a diversity of musical tastes. By limiting your input, you may fall prey to the whims of a fringe group. Remember, Solomon wrote that safety rests in an "abundance of counselors."

Some groups respond to a more acoustic sound. Other groups worship better jumping up and down to punk, or singing rap, ska, emo or country. The only way to discover heart music is to interact with our "natives."

4. Learn from other sharp youth groups, while being wary of the lure of the Christian subculture. Take your youth to a variety youth ministries and conferences and ask for their honest opinion on the worship style. But resist the temptation to simply copy what other youth groups are doing. Christian youth groups tend to lag 10 or so years behind the heart music of mainstream youth culture (perhaps because they're using the heart music of their youth ministers?) Be cautious of:

a. Your local Christian subculture. Styles tend to stagnate in youth groups, so that five years later your youth may feel comfortable worshiping to dated styles at church, even though their true heart music has changed. Counter this tendency by constantly asking newcomers how they would change the worship style.

b. The larger Christian subculture. By limiting yourself to Christian radio, you develop and reinforce a personal heart music that has insider elements. Keep one ear tuned to Christian youth-oriented radio for some great songs, but keep your other ear to mainstream stations to keep up with culture. When we seclude ourselves in the cultural Christian "ghetto," we lose the ability to become all things to all men and instead develop ministry styles that require all men to become all things to us.

Steve Fee, worship leader for many of the hugely successful One Day conferences and Passion Festivals, told me that in order to keep his fingers on the pulse of youth music, he studies the top 10 on M.T.V. and purchases the top secular C.D.'s. Otherwise, he'd lose his edge.

5. Observe your youth in worship. Some non-musicians can observe more objectively than musicians blinded by their own taste. The great evangelist D.L. Moody was probably tone deaf. But he felt this was an asset, because he could choose music based solely on the response of the audience, not his personal taste.

Always take these observations together with your other input. Often their faces don't reflect what's going on in their hearts. I'll never forget one jock-type kid who always hung his head down and looked bored during worship. One day his mother told me that what he really liked about youth group was the singing. Go figure…

6. Note what worship music stays with them outside of youth group.

When church innovators Martin Luther, Charles Wesley and others tapped into heart music, people sang the songs in daily life, outside of church. A missionary to the Philippines noted which worship songs were requested frequently in worship and which were sung on the mountain trails or in the fields. If a song failed this test, he dropped the song, no matter how much he personally liked it. (5)

Vernon Rainwater (Florida) chooses

"music that is relevant to the style and "feel" that students will relate to. Music is like anything else in student ministry – it needs to not be a distraction. Out of date songs and styles only distract students from worshipping. Not to say you can’t include some "classic" or traditional songs – they need to have the same feel as the rest of the music. We don’t ever try a style of music that we can’t pull off with credibility or authenticity (i.e. we don’t "rap" well or play bluegrass well!)

Once we find the heart worship style of our group, our next challenge is to either find or create songs in that style which effectively communicate sound theology and sincere worship. Then let the revolution begin as they express their love for God through the musical language of their hearts.

Chapter Three End Notes

1) See particularly http://www.sil.org/anthro/ethnomusicology.htm .
2) For the impact in church history, see Steve Miller, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, O.M. Publishing pp. 107-147.
3) R. Laverne Morse, "Ethnomusicology: A New Frontier," Evangelical Missions Quarterly 11:1 (Jan. 1975), 33.
4) T.W. Hunt, Music in Missions: Discipling Through Music (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), pp. 128-129.
5) Delbert Rice, "Developing an Indigenous Hymnody," Practical Anthropology (May/June, 1971), p. 112.


Chapter Four
Get Wise Input from Successful Worship Leaders


Visit area ministries to find what's working and what's not working in contexts similar to yours. Read these articles to gain wisdom from the experience and observations of others.

  • Adding Creative Elements to Worship: Over 70 Techniques and Taboos . Read this article to find very specific ideas for improving your worship. Based on my personal observations in many ministries over the years. Click


  • How to Build a Healthy Worship Team describes how one successful youth worker does it. Click http://www.reach-out.org/article.asp?ai=57&ac=2&al=70
  • How to Lead Students in Worship and Training Students to Lead in Worship give us insight from another long-term youth worship leader. Access them at



Chapter Five
Develop a Studied Opinion on Style


Using the heart music of a culture is almost always controversial among the traditional church crowd. You can find the perfect styles, and train an awesome worship team, only to split a church in the process. Since many discussions of music and the church generate more heat than light, I urge you to gain as much wisdom as you can in order to be able to answer sincere questions and bring healing where Satan wants to divide.

I presented several lectures on this topic in Moscow at a youth worker training conference that I want to make into a series of free articles on the Web. Until I get those up, the best resource I know of to deal in depth and fairly with these issues is my book, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, which can be ordered in English from our site by clicking http://www.reach-out.org/catalog/item.asp?i=1122 . It is also available in Dutch, German, Russian, Spanish (on the Web at http://www.paralideres.org/sections/section_142.asp ), and Romanian (soon?). E-mail me at smillero@mindspring.com for info on how to get the translations other than English.

Recommended Resources

Recommended by Eric Ball:

Vineyard Music (www.vmg.com)
WorshipTogether.Com (
WorshipMusic.Com (

Recommended by Paul Friesen and David Bryant: Together in Hope: How to Have a Concert of Prayer Rally in Your City or Church. David Bryant's in the process of getting the manual up on his web site for free download at
www.DavidBryantDirect.com (From e-mail correspondence with David Bryant, March 19, 2002).

Paul Friesen benefited from two seminars, led by two seminars, one led by Bob Fitts, the other by Kent Henry. "Both are anointed worship leaders."

Recommended by Steve Miller. For articles related to cross-cultural worship and ethnomusicology, see http://www.sil.org/anthro/ethnomusicology.htm . My book, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, deals in depth with the complex issues surrounding the use of modern music by the church.

Check out http://www.cyberfret.com/index.php Although not a Christian site, it's great for your guitarists, whether they're picking up a guitar for the first time or need to go further. Everything from how to play a power chord to more advanced theory to how to handle stage fright. All is in simple language, FREE, and enhanced by audio and video.

Cynthia Cullen highly recommends The Heart of the Artist as a great book to read through as a worship team. It especially helps you learn to deal with the sometimes quirky personalities of musicians. Frank Fortunado, global worship leader with Operation Mobilization, recommends Worship Evangelism by Sally Morgenthaler and Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best.

For other helpful websites, go to http://www.reach-out.org/links.asp .


A 29 year youth ministry veteran, Steve Miller wrote The Contemporary Christian Music Debate (available at www.reach-out.org) and writes resources for Reach Out Youth Solutions, including their online "Legacy Lessons," illustration database and the "Professional Youth Ministry Report."


Thanks to the following people who contributed their insights to this report: Tatiana Ostanina and Dondie Johns (Siberia), Jean Claude Davidson (Jamaica), Tim and Annette Gulick (Mexico), Brent Budd (Russia), Danny Jones (Slovakia), Maj. Russell Chun (Turkey), Paul David Cull (Brazil), Paul Friesen (Russia), Lisandro Montenegro (Costa Rica), Edwin Lowe (Singapore) Vernon Rainwater (Florida), Eric Ball (Florida), Cynthia Cullen (Georgia).

Editorial Board

Annette Gulick and Cherie Miller read the entire report and gave me input on this one. Thanks for keeping me on track!

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© Copyright 2002 Professional Youth Ministry Report & Steve Miller - All Rights Reserved. However, permission is granted to circulate this publication via manual forwarding by e-mail to others providing that the text is forwarded IN ITS ENTIRETY. All other translation, broadcast, publication, or copying to the WWW, e-mail lists, or any other medium, online or not, is prohibited without prior written permission from Steve Miller ( smillero@mindspring.com ) .