Liberating King: An Interview with Stephen Miller (And A Giveaway Too)

1A few months ago at the Doxology and Theology conference in Louisville, I met Stephen Miller and enjoyed getting to know him a bit. Stephen is a worship leader, recording artist, and a song writer, not to mention a husband to Amanda, a father to five children, and a pastor. For many years Stephen led worship at The Journey in St. Louis. He’s now the worship pastor at Real Life Church in Austin.

This week Stephen released his latest album “Liberating King“. You can read a great review of the album on WorshipLinks here. I wanted you to get to know him a bit better, so I asked him to answer a few questions about worship leading and ministry.

JB: Tell us a bit of your story: how you came to put your trust in Jesus, and how you got into worship leading.

SM: I grew up in church. My mom had me there every time the doors were open. I went down to pray a prayer at a Vacation Bible School when I was 8, but I don’t know that I really connected intimately with my belief in Christ until I was a sophomore in high school. God just met me in my bedroom one day as I was listening to this song that talked about Jesus dying for me and I was just wrecked out. I fell on my face there in my bedroom and said, “God I’m yours. Whatever you want. Here I am.” Didn’t think that would be worship leading. I wasn’t into church music at that time. It was all what I call Hand Wavey Guy, leading a choir and orchestra and I just wasn’t into that as a high school kid. But later that year I went to a camp and saw band lead worship for the first time, and I remember thinking, “Maybe that’s what God’s calling me to do.” So my Junior year, my youth pastor asked if I would start leading our student ministry in worship each week, and God just sort of had his hand on it and it grew from there.

JB: What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a worship leader?

SM: Man, I wish I could count them all. I think not knowing the people I was leading is huge. I would try to impose my world view on a room of people who just weren’t on the same page. Rather than meeting them where they are, I would just get angry and frustrated and think it was all their fault. But in the end it was a leadership problem for me. God was saying, “Be patient. Stay faithful. Trust me.”

JB: What are three main things worship leaders should always strive to do, regardless of their context?

SM: I think so much of the modern worship leader’s role is a song leader. So choosing songs that present the Gospel in a God-centered, clear and concise manner, then striving to sing those songs as excellently as you can so that as far as it’s up to you, there is no distraction from the glory of God. You want people to see him and respond to his majesty. So I think the third thing is to ensure that your own prayer life and worship life is active and vibrant, and that you are growing in your own knowledge of God each day, as well as walking in the obedience of faith that leads people to worship off the platform.

JB: You wrote a book a few years ago called “Worship Leaders: We Are Not Rock Stars”. How can worship leaders battle the temptations of fame and popularity

SM: Fame and applause are intoxicating, man. They’re like well-trained assassins waiting to take you out. We all love attaboys and attagirls. It’s just part of who we are. But I think that the way to combat that is firstly to realize that your greatest identity is not in your functional role as a worship leader, but as a redeemed and adopted child of God. That you’re a worshiper before you’re a worship leader. When you practice that private life of intimacy with God, it does change you. When you fill your mind and mouth and memory with the Gospel – even when no one is looking – it grounds you and centers you. And then I think having people around you who know you and can help keep you on track and encourage you when you’re distracted or down – that’s so key. That’s the beauty of the local church family too I think.

JB: If you had to summarize the calling of a worship leader in one sentence, what would you say?

SM: Be faithful to love the people God puts in front of you by giving them a huge picture of who God is and what he has done, so that they can respond in worship.

Thanks, Stephen, for your heart to see God’s people sing to him and delight in him!

GIVEAWAY INFO:
If you’d like to get a free copy of Stephen’s new album, leave a comment below. On Friday (5/22) at noon I’ll choose three random commenters and they’ll get a code to download the album for free.

GIVEAWAY UPDATE:
The three winners have all been emailed a free download link. Thanks everyone!

Leading On The Edge*

1
Someone once described an American football game as “22 people on the field in desperate need of rest, watched by 60,000 people in the seats in desperate need of exercise”.

Leading worship can feel this way sometimes, as you work hard and put in lots of hours behind the scenes, wearing yourself out, and wishing the “spectators” could be a bit more engaged in what’s happening on the field (i.e. stage).

So we either burn out and give up and phone it in from week-to-week, or in a desire to engage the people in the pews/seats/theater-style heated-recliners with cup holders, we push the envelope too far and end up working against ourselves.

I encourage all worship leaders to get comfortable leading on the edge*. Not playing it too safe, and not pushing it too far. But leading on the edge*.

Why the asterisk? Because what means “edge” for my church isn’t the “edge” for your church. Depending on who your church is and where it’s been, the “edge” could look vastly different.

Maybe it’s:

– *Leading two songs of praise in a row
– *Actually amplifying the instruments
– *Having lyrics projected, not printed
– *Singing one song in your service that’s not out of a hymnal
– *Having the organ and guitar play together
– *You actually praying after a song
– *Having someone play a shaker on one of the songs
– *Turning the lights up in the room during worship
– *Taking the worship leader’s face off of the screen during the songs
– *Lowering the keys from the original recordings
– *Singing a hymn
– *Singing a song from 2012

You get my point.

We work against ourselves when we go too far out there on our own, and push the envelope too far, resulting in a congregation that feels assaulted. They retreat into defensive postures on Sundays and come out in offensive postures on Mondays when they send you angry emails.

It’s good to position yourself as a worship leader in the “safe zone”. You have people’s trust, you have their confidence, and you lead in a way that maintains that trust and confidence.

But you need to know where the edge of that zone is. Where people can use some prodding. Where there are some idols. Where God wants to bring new freedom. What kind of expressions your congregation resists. Where things are stale. And then instead of yanking your congregation into those “red zones” and creating havoc for you and your pastor, you carefully and discerningly pick one to work on for a while.

Oftentimes, getting resistance is a sign that you’re doing the right thing. When everyone is happy with you, then you might be playing it too safe. But there’s a difference between getting resistance because you’re wisely leading on the edge*, and causing damage because you’re foolishly pushing the envelope too far.

Of course sometimes you’ll push it too far. And sometimes you’ll play it too safe. You realize it, or a wise person lovingly corrects you, and you recalibrate.

Why lead on the edge*? Because this kind of leadership is more likely to result in actual growth over a length of time. Your congregation will actually mature, stretch, and move forward in worshipping God with more freedom, more sincerity, more intentionality, and more broadness. You might go through hell helping them get there, but trust me, it’s a better use of your limited time on the field.

The Three Cs of Worship Leading

1There are so many different kinds of churches, with different expressions of worship, using different musical styles, in different parts of the world, with different histories, different emphases, and different callings. The worship leaders at these churches have different callings and have to discern how to serve their congregations most effectively, taking into account all of the uniqueness about their setting.

But taking into account all of the differences between churches (even churches across the street from one another!), can there be a shared calling amongst worship leaders who serve churches with a massively broad array of worship expressions?

I believe that ALL worship leaders – regardless of their setting – are called to maintain the three Cs in order to be an effective worship leader.

Christ-centeredness
Regardless of all of your church’s distinctions, the people in your congregation are fundamentally no different from anyone else in the world: they need Jesus. Effective worship leaders are doggedly persistent in pointing their congregations to Jesus week after week, month after month, and year after year. We never move on, we never assume people have “gotten it”, and we never muddle up the clarity of the gospel with layers and layers of figurative or literal fogginess. Every person in every seat of every church, from ancient cathedrals to hipster coffee shops, need Jesus. So every worship leader has a responsibility to exalt him above all things. Every Sunday. We’ll be doing it for all eternity so let’s set the pattern now (Revelation 5:9-10).

Congregational accessibility
From high-church to low-church, from rock-and-roll to smells-and-bells, from full-time production teams to volunteer worship teams, from rock star worship leaders to a sleep deprived young mother who told her pastor she’d lead this Sunday… We have a shared responsibility: to help people articulate praise to God in unity. It takes some creative theological hop-scotch for worship leaders of any variety to convince themselves that it’s OK if people in their congregations aren’t actively engaged, or at the very least, being invited to engage. We have to do all we can to help people sing along. While we can’t make anyone worship God, we can certainly do things (in our various and different contexts) to actually help people, not hinder people. Effective worship leaders take this responsibility seriously: to help their congregations exalt God in worship (Psalm 34:3).

Consistency
Over time, any congregation in any part of the world with any kind of worship expression will respond positively to worship leadership that consistently points to Christ in a way that helps people respond to him. How can I say this? Because this is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit points to Christ (John 16:14) and the Holy Spirit is honored when we worship “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Consistency not only ensures that we’re pointing in the right direction and sending the right message, but it builds trust with our congregations. When a congregation trusts its worship leader, it will follow that worship leader, and if that worship leader is pointing that congregation to Jesus, then a beautiful thing takes place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to worship leading. What I do in my Anglican church on Main Street in Fairfax, VA wouldn’t work at a store-front church in Daytona Beach, FL. And what you do in your bible church in Brighton, England wouldn’t work at a Cathedral in Sydney. So the practicalities of how we apply our principles will differ wildly from church to church. But those principles must guide the practicalities. And the principles of Christ-centeredness, congregational accessibility, and consistency will help us remain faithful to our shared calling as ministers of the gospel.

Jesus Is The Lion

LIONSeveral months ago I started reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with my two oldest daughters (now 5 ½ and 4 years old). We began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and they were instantly captivated by the story of the magical land through the armoire, the eternal winter, the Witch with the Turkish delight, the talking animals, the battles, the rescues, Father Christmas, and of course, Aslan.

Aslan made everything OK. Aslan made dead things come alive. Aslan made it into Spring again. Aslan died and came to life. Whenever Aslan appeared in the story, my girls squeeled with excitement.

We finished that book and moved onto The Horse and His Boy (even though, apparently, we should have gone to Prince Caspian next). We were in for a different kind of experience.

This story was… much less captivating, particularly for little listening ears. We slogged through chapter after chapter about a boy named Shasta and a girl named Aravis, and their Narnian talking horses, and how they got chased by Lions, how Shasta had to sleep outside the tombs (and met a mysterious cat), how Shasta and Aravis got chased by another Lion, eventually meeting a guy named King Lune, and it was just plain hard to keep my little girls interested.

WHERE IS ASLAN?” they kept asking. I didn’t know. I was ready to put the book down and pull out some Dr. Seuss.

A substantial 165 pages into the book, I was feeling very sorry for myself reading this tortuous book, and the main character (Shasta) was feeling very sorry for himself as well. He finds himself riding a non-Narnian-talking horse, alone in the woods, and terrifyingly, he can tell a big animal is trailing him, and he can’t take it anymore and throws a pity party.

The mysterious animal tells Shasta that he doesn’t feel sorry for him. Shasta is flabbergasted. He recounts his sad upbringing, his daring escapes, his night alone outside the tombs, his hunger, and just how unfortunate he’s been, especially considering all of the random lion chases. The Voice speaks up and says:

I was the Lion”.

Shasta gasps.

I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you could reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

In that moment, the “unfortunate” events all of the sudden make sense to Shasta.

And in that moment, the previous 11 chapters all of the sudden made sense to my daughters and me. It had been Aslan all along.

Shasta asks: “Who are you?”

“‘Myself,’ said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook and again, ‘Myself,’ loud and clear and gay; and then the third time, ‘Myself,’ whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.”

It was Aslan.

My daughters squealed with delight. And I sobbed.

Because like Shasta (and I imagine like you), I’m pretty good at throwing pity parties. I can recount a litany of unfortunate events that I didn’t deserve, that I didn’t enjoy, and that I didn’t think God should have let happen. In my life (and in my worship leading journey), I’ve felt chased and abandoned so many times that I’ve got a pretty good library of sob stories I can pull out when needed.

One of my favorite sob stories is from when I was a young worship leader (14 years old) at a small Episcopal Church in the Florida panhandle that had never sung a contemporary song on a Sunday morning in its life. After a few months of being subjected to my guitar-led, drum-accompanied, mid-1990’s praise music, it had gotten so bad that half the congregation would stand and sing along, but half the congregation would stay seated, arms folded, faces angry, and lips sealed.

Where was Jesus when I was up there all alone? Why was I going through this? Why did it have to be so hard? Why were so many things so hard?

Jesus was right there with me, by my side.

Jesus had a purpose and a reason for me to go through that.

And Jesus used it for my good and for his glory.

Jesus is the Lion.

And when we hear those words – and know that they’re true – a lot of the “unfortunate” events in our stories begin to make sense. Chapters that we slogged through are now re-interpreted. And we begin to see how Jesus was not only with us when we felt alone, but was actively and Sovereignly in control.

Jesus makes and will (someday soon) make everything OK. Jesus makes dead things come alive. Jesus turns Winter into Spring again. Jesus died and came to life.

And whenever Jesus appears in the story, we should squeal with excitement. He’s not safe – but he’s good – and we can trust our lives, our ministries, and our stories to Him.

Ten Commandments That Will Make Creatives Want to Quit

1Every church has “creatives” in the congregation and/or on the staff who have an artistic temperament, who are passionate about music/art/worship/liturgy, who have a lot of ideas swirling around in their heads, and who feel perpetually misunderstood.

Some of this is the fault of the creatives. They have a responsibility to be stewards of their gifts for the edification of the Church just like anyone else, but too often treat their God-given gifts like weapons they can point at people to get what they want, or like wild animals that can’t be leashed.

But a lot of creatives are driven to insanity – and to the point of wanting to quit – by the Church because of all the rules and regulations it imposes on them, thereby stifling and squashing the very gifts God has given them.

Here are ten commandments that will make creative want to quit:

1. Thou shalt not ask why
Creatives want to know details/context/background so they can use their gifts as effectively as possible, and so they can make suggestions for how people might be more genuinely blessed. Yes, creatives like blessing people.

2. Thou shalt not make anyone upset
Tell a creative not to upset anyone, and you’re basically telling them that to be timid is to be strong.

3. Thou shalt not re-invent anything
Creatives don’t always want to make a copy of a copy of a copy. They want a blank canvas from time to time.

4. Thou shalt not push the envelope
Give creative people in your congregation and/or on your staff the freedom and permission to experiment and to make mistakes in an atmosphere of grace.

5. Thou shalt not give input
Sometimes creatives have really bad ideas. Sometimes they have really good ideas. Listen to them.

6. Thou shalt not have support
Most creatives work better when they know the Church has their back.

7. Thou shalt not be defended
And when creatives are criticized and attacked, if they aren’t defended by the Church, they’ll be less motivated to pour their hearts out next time.

8. Thou shalt not receive affirmation
When a creative person in the Church pours their heart into a project, an event, a production, or a service, a lack of a “thank you” or “well done” or “here’s what I liked” can be debilitating.

9. Thou shalt not be paid fairly
The Church has a terrible reputation for treating creatives like they’re not worth much, primarily by expecting them to always work for free or at a discounted rate.

10. Thou shalt not sit in the driver’s seat
Most creatives want the opportunity to lead something. They want the freedom to see something through from start to finish, and they want to know they’re trusted and respected.

Give a creative person a little bit of context, a lot of freedom and grace, the right to speak up, support and back-up when they need it, affirmation, fair pay, and a leadership role, and they will be much likely to serve with joy for a long period of time.

Smother a creative person with commandments, and they’ll quickly move elsewhere!

Ministry Misses Before Ministry Hits

1It was a job I really wanted, at a church I had long admired from afar, with a pastor who was famous, in a part of the country that was beautiful, in a city near some of my extended family, with a high enough profile that if I got the job, I thought I’d get some bragging rights.

I had dreamed about what it would be like to have this job. And one Sunday evening, out of nowhere, I received an invitation to apply, directly from the pastor himself.

I could hear angels singing. I knew this was the answer to my prayers. In my mind, it was a done deal, less than an hour after hearing about the opening. The red carpet had been rolled out for my visit and I was sure I had landed the job of all jobs.

I visited a few weeks later and from the get-go, things didn’t go so well. A major storm descended on the area, throwing everything into chaos and nearly canceling services on Sunday. Didn’t this storm know that this was my weekend to shine?

The service ended up happening, and everything went really well. Until lunch with the pastor. I got the distinct impression that he knew fairly quickly that I wasn’t his guy, and the more I tried to impress him, the more stupid things I said.

They had already asked me to make a second visit, which I did several weeks later. But by then, the red carpet had been rolled up, the angel choirs were no longer singing, the lunch invitation was rescinded, and I found myself pulling out of the process before my plane even lifted off the runway. I couldn’t handle the prospect of being told I wasn’t good enough.

I was devastated, confused, and felt like I had missed God’s will.

Almost exactly a year later, another job opportunity presented itself. This was a job I didn’t particularly want, in an area of the country that didn’t excite me, at a place I had never even heard of before, with people who weren’t famous. But God clearly led me to apply. I didn’t have most of the qualifications they were looking for, but it never hurts to try, right?

The process played out over a few months, and lo and behold I receive an invitation to visit. Still wounded from my previous interview attempt, I went with trepidation, assuming I wouldn’t impress them either.

The visit was surprisingly sweet and invigorating. I found myself wanting this job, warming to the area of the country, enjoying the people, and wondering how in the world God could be doing this. I was offered the position, made a second visit with Catherine to scope out the area, and was one phone call away from accepting the job when God pulled the plug and made it clear that he was saying “no”. So I pulled out of the process and found myself, yet again, very confused.

“Let’s make 2014 a year of contentment” were my famous words to Catherine, after we had ridden these two wild potential-job rollercoasters, and experienced the emotional ups and downs that could drive any couple to a few dozen brinks. We were expecting our third child around Christmas 2013, and we resolved to just hunker down and not look at any potential jobs for a year.

That all came crashing down on my first day back at work after paternity leave in early 2014. My first day back in the office, it was clear to me that God was saying “you’re done here”.

That night, kneeling on our living room floor, I begged God to make his path clear. In one of my most honest prayers ever, I pleaded with him to finally show us what door to walk through and to end our waiting game.

The very next day I saw the posting for Director of Worship and Arts at Truro Church in Fairfax, VA. The same church were Catherine and I had met, where our fathers had been associate pastors, where my family had some considerable baggage, where I had led worship during High School, and where I had literally NEVER thought about serving as a worship pastor.

But when I saw that post – I had two thoughts instantly: First, “oh no” (because I knew some of the challenges, and the weight of the responsibilities that would await me there). Secondly, “this is it, isn’t it, God?”

Yes, it was.

In the first case (when I thought I knew what God was doing), God stripped me of my pride and spared me from stepping into an environment for which I wasn’t prepared.

In the second case (when I had no clue what God was doing), God re-invigorated me and gave me a nearly-complete dry run of how to explore and discern a ministry opportunity.

And in the final case (when God brought me and my family back to Truro), God showed me that he had been preparing me for this role all along, keeping me totally in the dark about it, and like a good Father, opening the door when it was time. When it was his time.

God uses ministry misses to prepare you for ministry hits. Like Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, he might even have to wound you a little bit in order to make you run faster. You won’t have any idea what he’s up to. You’ll be confused. Maybe even devastated. But if all you experience is success after success, promotion after promotion, and red carpets and angelic choirs and famous pastors, then you are literally living in place that’s called La La Land.

Embrace a full-hearted trust in a good God, a loving Father, and a sovereign King, who will put you exactly where he wants you, and will oftentimes lead you on several roller coasters in order to grow you up and strengthen your gifts before you land.

Keeping Things Professional

1I’m still young, but call me old school. Worship leaders should act professionally. And they should help their teams/bands/choirs/volunteers/crew act professionally too. There should an atmosphere of professionalism around the people who serve up-front and/or behind the scenes in a worship service, across the spectrum of worship expressions from traditional robed-choirs to casual rock bands. Why? Because everything we do preaches a message. And sloppiness, unpreparedness, franticness, and too-cool-for-school-ness all preach a lack of a sense of honor: honor towards the people in the room, and honor towards the One to whom we’re (hopefully) pointing. We become ineffective when we lose our love for our congregations, and we become loud clanging cymbals.

I’ve led in all sorts of environments. From very traditional (suit and tie, choir, organ, handbells, liturgy) to very casual (jeans and a t-shirt, band, loud, informal), and I’m not advocating or pushing one style over another. I’m a Psalm 150 type of guy, who believes that God can use anything (and any kind of music) for his glory, and who considers context to be key when deciding what kind of music serves a particular group of people best.

And in every context a worship leader could be called into to serve, that calling is an honor. And those people need to see Jesus. And that worship leader can do certain things to help them see Jesus more clearly, or on the flip side, do things to draw attention to him/herself. And just as performancism is dangerous in pointing people towards the performers, so too is a lack of professionalism.

A worship leader who keeps things professional:
Is well-prepared, and expects (and helps) the people on the platform with him/her to to be well-prepared as well.
Doesn’t rehearse when people are coming in to be seated before a service starts. He/she knows when to stop.
Doesn’t address the congregation like they’re stupid, or like they’re his/her buddies from high school, but like they’re adults and worthy of respect.
Doesn’t dress in such a way that causes him to stand out like a flip-flop in a sea of tuxedos, or like a bow-tie in a sea of cargo shorts. He can adjust here and there so that he doesn’t go against the contextual grain, so to speak.
Knows his/her parameters. You’ve been given 20 minutes? Go 19 minutes.
Treats the technical volunteers/team with respect… not like they’re his/her roadies.
– Keeps the platform tidy (cleans up cluttered cables, leftover pizza boxes from rehearsal, and puts cases in the back during the service).
– Cares about/works toward the success of an entire service, not just their “worship set”.
Is a team player. You’re not the star, you’re just one of the parts of a body.

A worship leader shouldn’t put on a facade, or assume a cherub-like perfectionism when he/she stands before a congregation, but they should certainly take on a heightened sensitivity towards avoiding acting in a flippant or annoying manner. From the high-church/smells-and-bells to the low-church/rock-and-roll environments, the people entrusted with leadership should pursue modeling a confident, humble, prepared, and professional approach to their role, within their unique contexts. Relax and be yourself, but do so with a servant’s heart for the people in the pews.

Acting in a professional manner helps accomplish one of the primary goals of worship leaders: that we can decrease, and that Jesus can increase. It reflects our love for the people we’re leading, and it helps make sure that only clanging cymbals our people are hearing are coming from the drum set.