Worship songs that go “whoah”

screenThe dreaded “whoah” section. You’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a Sunday morning with a friendly stranger, trying to get your mouth and vocal cords around another new song, and then you see it flash up on the screen.

“Whoah! Whoah! Whoah!”

Just to confirm, the worship leader encourages everyone, “Ok everyone, let’s lift our voices, sing ‘whoah’!” The room explodes with an anthemic melody to end all anthemic melodies, the glory comes down and the Second Coming is initiated.

Or not. The lead singers keep on singing, a few courageous congregation members belt it out at the sides, and you and your neighbour shuffle a bit to make room for the awkwardness that just moved in.

Several songs spring to mind, but I will only mention one. ‘With Everything’ by Hillsong is quite popular at the moment. The recording features a massive long ‘whoah’ section. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, I was at a conference this Summer where they sang that song, and yes, they definitely used the ‘whoah’ section.

What’s Good About ‘Whoah’?

Now that I’ve miffed a few readers off, let me soften the blow by suggesting what I think might be good about having ‘whoah’ sections/choruses in worship songs.

  1. The Biblical writers sometimes use their letter ‘O’ to do a similar job. You need a syllable just to say, well, ‘Oh’. It’s a sigh. Many of the Psalms are ‘sighing’ or ‘lament’ psalms, though admittedly this isn’t often the context in which ‘O/Oh/Whoah’ appears in modern worship songs. But it just adds a breathy emphasis to what you want to say. It comes from your soul.
  2. Therefore, sometimes we want to express the inexpressible. Music is obviously the principle way in which we’re doing that. We could stand up and read a piece of liturgy, or we could sing it. When we sing it, we’re acknowledging that what we really want to say is, in fact, just beyond words.
  3. Therefore, ‘O/Oh/Whoah’ might not be a wholly inappropriate syllabic insertion into our worship songs.

What’s Not So Good About ‘Whoah’?

But my objections relate to the way in which ‘whoah’ tends to be used in modern worship songs – and settings.

Most of the time, it’s simply part of a rock anthem. Go to a rock concert, and you’ll hear plenty of ‘whoah’ sections. It’s often a musical riff. And it’s not saying a whole lot. Most churches at least in the UK aren’t stadium-sized. A lot of them are community-centre, local-primary-school, parish-church-sized gatherings. And it’s these settings where I often find myself shaking my head, when a worship leader rocks up to the front and tries to get everyone singing ‘whoah’.

Part of shedding our desire for glory and being humble as worship leaders (or lead-worshippers) is to make choices about the worship times based on other people, not on ourselves. This is the sign of true maturity in someone gifted to lead worship. So the questions should be:

  • “Which songs are right for the congregation to be singing now?” Not “how many of my own songs can I get in there?”
  • “Is this melody/key singable for men, women and children all together?” Not “how high can I go in this chorus to show off my impressive vocal range?”
  • “Is this something that anyone could connect with easily?” Not “people everywhere really ought to have no theological or physical problem singing this.”
  • “Will the worship team be able to pick this up easily and enter into a flow of worship?” Not “I really hope they crack this great arrangement.”

Paul’s principle definition of worship was the offering of our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice (read the whole of Romans 12:1). Even a verse in the NT which sounds a bit more like what we do on Sunday mornings calls it a ‘sacrifice’ of praise (Heb 13:15). What we offer must involve some level of sacrifice, which is why I believe every lead-worshipper should be asking themselves these questions.

So, much of the time ‘whoah’ can potentially be just a glory-anthem. If, conceivably, the way it’s used in your setting is wholly appropriate to give glory to God at that moment, then fine. But it’s worth thinking about, rather than riding rough-shod over the issue because we’re just desperate to do it.

But the other thing is, sometimes, I think it’s just plain bad songwriting. Which is my last point.

How Should We Really Say ‘Whoah’?

This point echoes a general philosophy I’ve been trying to hold to for some time, which may mean I’m repeating myself to some readers. I make no apology; this is a good point.

As I hope I acknowledged earlier, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to say ‘O/Oh/Whoah’, when we are overwhelmed. But my hope is that we’re not just overwhelmed by the loud music, the lights and the smoke-machine. Or the ropey half-band some of us throw together on a Sunday morning to try and rock out our anthems with. I hope we’re overwhelmed by God’s love and presence.

No amount of great songwriting will do this. We need the Holy Spirit to lift our hearts into that place of ‘wonder, love and praise’. But we can be like Bezalel, the Spirit-anointed, God-gifted craftsman, without whom there would have been no articles of worship for Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 32). We can use our gifts. And for those gifted in songwriting, let’s craft portraits of God, capture visions of his love and declarations of his goodness which can only leave us, when we’ve sung them, saying ‘whoah’.

We could learn a little from C.S. Lewis, a gifted writer. In one of my favourite quotes on writing, he said: “Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.” For anyone who’s read the Narnia books, you’ll know what this looks like. Lewis conjours up imagery and puts it together in such a way that he never explicitly has to say ‘this is about Christ/Christianity’ or even ‘the meaning of this is…’; we just know there’s something deeper going on behind his narrative. Descriptive scenes aren’t supposed to be filled with adjectives; as Lewis says, saying that something was ‘delightful/terrifying/exquisite’ etc. is like saying to the reader, “please will you do your job for me”. Instead, find the imagery in places, things or activities that most readers (or singers of your song) are likely to have their own positive experience of, so that their memory can fill in the gaps. (I wrote more about this in two articles for Musicians’ Republic: 3 keys to great descriptions, and How to captivate your listener.)

In summary then:

  1. Let’s be mature about our decisions for our church context, in terms of song choice.
  2. Let’s write songs to the best of our ability, not needing a ‘whoah’ section because everything that is said through words and music evokes an impulsive ‘whoah’ in every singer.
  3. Let’s always invite the Holy Spirit to do what we can’t do as lead-worshippers and songwriters!

2 thoughts on “Worship songs that go “whoah”

  1. Thanks Ben. Great to have your sensitive playing during worship at Ashburnham this week. I am not a ‘musician’ but I do lead others into the presence of the Lord through worship. I wonder how a musician feels, but in a small church hall with ‘half a band’ I omit long riffs that don’t suit the congregation and change the key to make them singable. In other words, I would use the song as a resource for enabling the congregation to worship. I wonder how you, a musician/songwriter, feels about that?

    1. Thanks Sue, that’s what we do, too! A song should only be a resource for enabling a congregation of people of which the musicians are a part, to be able to worship. Unless a song has been specifically designated a ‘performance song’, which can be helpful in certain situations eg. for reflection or response. Glad to find other people on the same page!

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