Almost two years ago I had the joy of meeting Joshua Spacht for the first time. Joshua is an amazingly gifted worship leader, orchestrator, composer, arranger, and musician extraordinaire. He’s become a great friend, and in his relatively-recent role as Director of Worship at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia, he’s also become a neighbor. I’m impressed not only by Joshua’s worship leading and wisdom, but also by his musical creativity (you can hear his string orchestrations on this Advent EP that I produced and sang/played on with my former church last year, or at his Sound Cloud page). I asked him some questions about music and worship leading and I think you’ll find his answers encouraging and helpful.
1. How do you stay fresh musically?
I listen to music – lots of it! I listen at several different levels. Everything from superficially skimming through an album to listening to one section of a song over and over. I have friends whose musical tastes are different than mine, and I ask them to provide me with songs, bands, or entire albums that I “need” to listen to. I then systematically work my way through the recommendations. I don’t have time to sort through lists of bestselling recordings or scour blogs for what’s new and fresh. So, I ask others to fill me in and keep me in the loop. Even music I don’t prefer can have a positive impact on my writing and arranging.
If I only expose myself to my musical preferences, I will stagnate as a writer and all my ideas will inevitably begin to sound the same. Listening to things outside your comfort zone is like trying to increase your vocabulary. You have to actually find new words before you can begin to use them in normal, everyday conversation. The same is true with our “musical vocabulary”.
2. What are two things the average worship leader could do to grow in musical creativity?
Listen to things you don’t gravitate towards naturally – particularly music that doesn’t have an immediate payoff and may require several listens. This is one of the beauties of classical music. It’s layered, nuanced, and requires an investment of time and thought to fully be appreciated. I’ll often make CDs of classical music for my rhythm players – particularly baroque music if they’re a drummer or bass player. Rock-and-roll didn’t appear in the 20th century, it existed long ago in the music of rockers like Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel! There’s a drive, pulse, and “pocket” in their church music that long predates Chris Tomlin.
The other thing I’ll often recommend to worship leaders who want to grow creatively is that they simply watch themselves leading worship for several weeks (or even months) in a row. The recording doesn’t have to be professional or fancy, an iPhone will do. But look for patterns, monotony, thoughtless patterns that creep up in playing, speaking, or praying. We don’t just want to eliminate mistakes in our leading, but we want to eliminate those quirky things we all do that aren’t obvious to us (but often are to others). Sometimes the best way to give a freshness to our worship leading isn’t by adding more elements, but by removing unnecessary phrases, licks, whatever. Space can be a beautiful thing!
3. How should worship leaders handle criticism when they’re pushing the musical envelope in their congregation?
Arguing my case and musical convictions has yet to produce one convert to my perspective! You can’t strongarm or manipulate people into realizing the “superiority” of your opinions. You earn trust over time, which then allows you to speak into the “music transition” issue with credibility. You need to first build relationships with team members and those on your committee/elder board. Take people out to lunch – start with the most difficult cases. Leadership isn’t as simple as telling disgruntled individuals to “take two Bible verses and call me in the morning”. Change takes time, time, and more time. We should all understand this because of the slow process of growth we see in our own lives. You need to pray – not just that the Lord changes others’ hearts, but that He melts yours with love for the folks you’re supposed to be leading.
Don’t talk about music, talk about Christ! Reinforce this statement at every meeting, rehearsal, and service: “Content is King”. Few people will oppose that statement. Rally your music ministry and your church around the truth that what we sing is far, far more important than the form of our singing.
Be deferential and loving to naysayers by being willing to do things and choose songs/hymns that are meaningful to their particular spiritualheritage and tradition. Afterall, contextualization doesn’t only mean adopting practices that are perceived to be “hip and cool”. We also need to contextualize for those who are more traditionally and conservatively oriented than we are.
4. What’s some of the best musical/worship leading advice you’ve ever received?
I asked my dad, who was a minister of music for 30 years, this question on the phone in the last meaningful conversation we had before he passed away. He paraphrased Robert Murray M’Cheyne and said, “Pursue holiness. All else you do will be null and void without spiritual integrity.” There’s a lot of truth in that. We can debate techniques, philosophies, musical styles, sound amplification, drums as the day is long. However, all those issues are secondary to the importance of pursuing godliness.
Now, I know it’s Christ who qualifies us salvifically before the Father. And I know it’s Christ that mediates for His children as they sing, not our integrity and practical righteousness. But, let’s not pretend that our personal pursuit of the spiritual disciplines has no affect on our hearts and dispositions – your spouse will be the first one to agree with that statement! How much more will you benefit, protect, lead, and serve your congregation by pursuing Christ through His Word and prayer and by actually saying “no” to sin and “yes” to what pleases Him?
On another note, my dad used to say the phrase “loud and proud” to describe how a worship leader should speak when giving short exhortations or reading Scripture, etc. We all need to slow down and ruminate on what we’re actually saying. Don’t be hasty or apologetic. Be predictable, coherent, and purposeful in everything you say and sing.
And one final nugget of advice from Chuck Spacht, let’s occasionally pretend like we enjoy what we’re doing and smile at our people (note sarcasm)! It might feel a little awkward and doesn’t do much to feed our “rock star” personas. But, it goes a long way to demonstrate that we’re happy to be there and we’re not the “worship artist” that’s putting on a show and can’t show weakness. A smile says “I’m one of you. I’m a worshipper, too. Let’s rejoice together!“
Thanks, Joshua, for these fantastic words of advice, encouragement, and wisdom!