What Makes A Great Opener?

On November 14, 2011 by Eddie

Yesterday was a really fun and rewarding day at North Point. If you weren’t here or didn’t see it online, you definitely missed out. I know I’m biased, but I think it was one of the best days we’ve had in a while. And it all started with a great opening song, “Dream On” by Aerosmith. That song was perfect for the day, the people we had singing with us, and our crowd, and I’m so thankful to our SPD team for coming up with the suggestion.

As I meet people from other churches across the country, I hear one question a lot of the time. “Do you guys do a secular opener ever week?” For now, we’ll leave aside the matter of what music is “secular” versus “sacred,” that’s a conversation for another time. But I understand the question and totally get where it is coming from. The answer is no, we don’t do an opener every week, or even every month. We don’t do opening songs just to do them, or because we think they’re “cool.” Instead, we wait and work hard to find the perfect song for the perfect moment. We try to put all of our efforts towards a few of those moments each year. This fits in with the overall philosophy of our church, we don’t try to do everything well, instead focusing on a few things and executing them as excellently as possible. But this inevitably leads to another question— what makes a great opening song?

Over the past few years, we’ve thought long and hard about what makes openers successful at our church. After some unforeseen successes and big mistakes, I think our team has learned a bit more about how to find an opener that will be a success. Finally, instead of just picking songs out of thin air, we’ve landed on something that helps us pick the best song for each situation.

What we’ve noticed over the last few years is that our most successful openers have some distinct qualities:

1. Fun – For those of you that witnessed the YouTube phenomenon that was the iBand, you know that it was simply a blast. Secretly, we all thought it was going to flop, we thought people wouldn’t get it. And honestly, if we had taken ourselves seriously, I think it would have. But by wearing Santa hats and playing “Feliz Navidad,” the audience knew we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously, and once they started laughing, it was over from there.

2. Multi-Generational – We found a comedy routine on YouTube involving a four-chord song medley that was hilarious. We tweaked it a bit and did it live, and people went nuts. Afterwards, what we kept hearing over and over was that people of all ages loved it because everybody had a song or two (or ten) that they loved, and they were eagerly waiting to hear their song. In a room of people of every age, we unintentionally connected to all of them by spanning the generations, musically. Had it been only pop songs of the 2000s, it probably would’ve gotten a few yawns.

3. Wow-Factor – A few months ago we opened a service with “Free-Bird,” for no particular reason. The song was fun, it was multi-generational too, but unless it had the wow-factor of actually being done well, it would’ve totally flopped. Any time you can see two slayer guitar solos, it’s pretty impressive. Basically, we want people asking themselves, “How in the world did they pull that off?” You can’t do these all the time, they’re far too difficult to pull off more than 3 or 4 times a year, but everyone once in a while they will bring the house down.

4. Topical/Seasonal Tie-In – Topical openers are actually quite rare for us. We typically don’t just find a pop song related to the series or message and play it, because of one big reason: the curse of knowledge. We know what the sermon is about, the people who attend don’t! So as much as this great song ties in perfectly with the message, no one knows that until after the message, and chances are they’ve forgotten it by the time the service is over so you just thoroughly confused them to begin with. For this reason, we use these openers rarely, and only when we can tie them in immediately following the song. Now, if the tie-in is related to a season or a holiday – like doing a Beach Boys medley during summertime, that makes sense to everybody. We do those types of things all the time.

5. Culturally Current – Every once in a while we’ll find a song that’s culturally very current and find a way to bring it to life on Sunday. We just recently did this with “Rolling in the Deep.” There isn’t always a reason to do these, but when it’s a super-popular song it can make sense.

Now I know, this isn’t rocket science, and we should’ve figured these 5 things out a long time ago. But here’s the thing we realized that has really helped us in our search for the perfect opener: having one of these qualities isn’t enough. You have to have at least two, and the more you can have at the same time, the better.

For instance, the iBand was fun, tied in seasonally, and had a bit of a wow-factor. “Santa Went Down to Georgia” had the same three characteristics. The Love Song 4 chord medley was fun, topically tied-in, multi-generational, and had wow-factor. Again, the more of these you put together, the better the opener gets.

Many times, we will get stuck on a song that only has one of these characteristics. We’ll think to ourselves, “But it’s so big on the radio right now, people will really like it!” And they might. But without more than cultural relevance, it doesn’t stand a chance of being a show-stopper. And if there’s no chance of it being a show-stopper, why do it?

This has worked for us, but I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list. Surely there are more characteristics that make openers successful. What have you found that works? And have you seen this play out in your own church?

9 Responses to “What Makes A Great Opener?”

  • #6 what about a song that celebrates the gospel


    #7 a song that declares gods glory…

    Just a thought

    • Trust me, Eddie and the North Point team do an amazing job every single Sunday with choosing songs that celebrate the gospel and declare God’s glory as the main part of the worship service whether they have an opener or not.
      What I love about the opener (just as a NP member), is it reaches out to the ones who are in church for the first time. They may not yet understand Jesus or relate to the worship songs, but they thought the Adele song was amazing, so they are coming back.
      When they did the iPad performance, I showed it to one of my co-workers on YouTube, his response was “this is at your church??”, I said “yes, you gotta come”, now, one year later, he attends on a regular basis. In my opinion that is what it is all about.

  • Robby – I think Eddie’s main discussion here is how they choose “secular” songs. At its basic definition, secular suggests that it’s not going to be talking about the Gospel or God’s Glory. However, i think his hint at another discussion of what makes something secular or sacred (paragraph 2) suggests that our separations can get a little grey. I really appreciate his take on how they make their decisions for choosing songs to accomplish a certain thing. We do secular songs from time to time, and we find that having fun with openers breaks down barriers that we inadvertently put up when we walk into a church. Our worship times are incredible after we “warm” people up with something fun. If the song doesn’t conflict with scripture…why avoid them? Especially if you see results that help meet some of the goals of the church.

  • I LOVE how Eddie breaks down how what the process is to pick a great opener. It sets clear guidelines and allows you to know if you are winning or not. I also feel some pressure (from myself from time to time) to come up with great openers/closers, so I was relieved to see that you don’t have to do them ALL the time. Just do the very best you can with a few of them and make those count. I guess you want lose the effect they would have on people either if you don’t do them all the time. Thanks Eddie!
    Now to piggy back on the convo that started here. North Point is a church for the “unchurched”. That could mean ALL kinds of things. People who were hurt by churches in the past or maybe they didn’t grow up in church. Either way North Point ministries is about connecting people to God where they are at. Now Eddie’s discussion was NOT about how to pick out a GREAT worship set, however it was about picking great openers. So if your church is about creating a environment for unchurched or “outsiders” of the faith, then this is a great blog for you.

    “To reach PEOPLE NO else is reaching. YOU have to be willing to do what NO one else is doing.”

  • I totally agree with Eddie. It’s hard to talk about the science of decision-making for opening songs (in an effective way) without spending hours proving to readers that the hearts of the North Point staff are fundamentally set on reaching the “unchurched” in the Atlanta community. North Point is amazing at being laser-focused on that, while ruthlessly balancing their Biblical convictions. To Robby’s point, this approach is sometimes unpopular in the religious community, fearing that it waters down the Gospel. The good news is that North Point didn’t create this model, Paul did:

    1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)

    Paul’s Use of His Freedom
    19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

  • This is a good post. Good way to think about openers. And Robby and Nic touch on an age old debate between two ways of thinking about outreach/evangelism/church environment.

    – Connect first, then Evangelize
    – Evangelize first, then Connect

    In many ways, North Point and its Partners have proven time and again to faithfully build an environment of connecting first, without sacrificing the point (evangelism).

    An opener is a fantastic and fun way to connect with people and build a common ground to share.

  • Without knowing the context or understanding the model of what the goal of an opening song is, its hard to understand the guidelines you have set before us. However, I have attended Drive Conference and I serve on the production and planning teams at a partner church, so this post is absolutely golden to me. It’s like the Rosetta Stone for openers! Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • Great point, Nic. I have a feeling that some of my non-church friends would have been totally blown away by the performance of “Dream On” at NPCC this past Sunday — I think it those types of experiences open us up to thinking “okay, i didn’t expect THAT”, which then opens us up to being led to other unexpected places during the service. That type of unexpected experience at the top of the service challenges misperceptions, and teases our minds open, even if just a crack (and sometimes a crack is all it takes!).

  • Interesting thoughts on the purpose of the musical opener. Not sure I agree, but I enjoy the backstage insights. May I go slightly off-topic with a related subject dealing with music and the “unchurched?”

    First, I love – yes, LOVE – the music at NP, and it totally makes sense with the church’s goal of having no barriers to outsiders/seekers. My one caution here: nothing’s less cool than trying too hard to be cool. That said …

    It’s that holiday season again – and I fear we try so hard NOT “do church” traditionally that we try way too hard when it comes to Christmas music. No, I don’t mean the iPad performance, which was fun, cool and buzzworthy. I mean – and 10 years of North Point Christmases back me up here – what I laughingly call NP’s pathological terror of “Jesus” Christmas music, even “modern” Christmas-with-Jesus-in-it music with guitars & drums. It used to be funny, then kind of sad, annoying, and now, yeah, I guess it does piss me off a bit. A big deal? No – more like an annual tooth ache.

    Some NP members “cheat” by going to candlelight services all around Atlanta, desperate for a fix of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Sure, we’ll do a song or two about Jesus’ birth – maybe one or two more in a service with communion. But that’s in the entire month-long run up to Christmas. Face it, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Jesus/Christmas songs at North Point are about as common as Elvis sightings. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not berating North Point as un-Christian, or less spiritual for this; I’m just saying it’s dang strange.

    Why is it strange? Because NP’s all about reaching out to people who normally don’t go to church. Yet at Christmas, unchurched people flock to churches all over the country in droves. We don’t have enough seats for them, but every year, come they do – and here’s a tip: it ain’t for the preaching, folks. (No offense to Andy!)

    Music that tells the story of a Baby, God come to earth, on a night bringing joy and relief to a desperate world – well, that music connects to people emotionally as no other music can this time of year; yes, even the “unchurched” that NP seeks. People, saved and unsaved, churched and unchurched, long for this story, and seek out this music. So it just seems weird that in our perpetual search for relevance, we’d opt for playing a Stevie Wonder tune instead. And no offense, but Stevie hasn’t been that relevant since “Songs in the Key of Life.”

    I’ll hear Stevie at the mall, but I won’t hear about Jesus. Well, actually, that’s not true; several times this season, I will. I’ll hear “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” – even with lyrics that mention Jesus – all over town – probably more often than I’ll hear them at church. Which frustrates me. And while it’s understandable that the NP worship team can’t pander to what I want to hear at Christmas – why should they? – this year, like every year, I just hope they’ll remember the once-a-year window of opportunity they have; and use the power Christmas music has to speak to a hunger in people that they may not even be aware of at any other time of year.

    I love NP and our amazing musicians.


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