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.

Responding To The Increasingly Short Shelf-Life Of Worship Songs

1Things are not as simple for worship leaders/church music directors as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a more complicated thing.

There are now more songs to choose from than ever, at an increasingly rapid speed, coming from big publishers, independent artists, local churches, Christian radio, social media feeds, conferences, carrier pigeons, and their distant relatives, hipsters. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on introducing a new song to our congregation that was written in 2012, a newer new song comes along that’s even newer, making the new song we thought was new feel pretty old. Confused? You should be.

Studio albums. Live albums. EPs. Singles. Free downloads. Deluxe versions. Acoustic versions. Recorded on a beach versions. Recorded on top of a mountain versions. A lot of it is really good stuff! A lot of it is not-so-good stuff… And when you add it all together, it’s just a lot of new stuff to sort through, even if you had nothing else to do all week long than listen to all the new stuff. And even then you’d be out-of-touch if you took a few weeks off.

In the ancient past, known as the “1990s”, when a “new” song really caught on, like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” or “Shout to the Lord”, that new song (for better or worse…) stuck around in a church’s repertoire for a substantial period of time, even until present-day. Nowadays, in the era of worship song abundance (again, not a bad thing, just a more complicated thing), when a new song catches on, it might disappear several months later when new crop of new songs come on the scene.

What’s the result? Two things are happening: First, worship leaders are overwhelmed and inundated, possibly discouraged that they can’t keep up, and either resisting or succumbing to the pressure and marketing that screams at them to stay relevant. Second, congregations are being asked to learn more new songs than they can handle, aren’t given the opportunity to sing these new songs for years and years, are being fed songs that might not be particularly nourishing.

(Big caveat: not every new song should have “lasting power”. Some new songs will last for centuries to come. Some will (and should) be retired after a season. This is OK. We know that the New Testament church sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). We have many of those still today (i.e. the Psalms). But others have fallen away. So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. So we should be OK with singing songs that won’t necessarily be sung hundreds of years from now. We just have to be careful to keep our repertoire in a healthy balance. Caveat over.)

Because of the increasingly short shelf-life of modern worship music, worship leaders should make sure we:

Stay mindful of what’s out there
Don’t bury yourself in a cave of stuff-you-like-that-you’ve-used-before. Be willing to listen to new music, and incorporate what will work in your context.

Don’t stress out about keeping up with it all
It’s simply impossible, unless you have tons of time, to keep up with all the new stuff that’s out there.

Be OK with being a late adopter
It’s amazing how waiting a few years will allow the very best of the new stuff to rise to the top of the pile.

Have high standards
Biblical faithfulness, theological correctness, gospel centeredness, musical richness, and congregational accessibility are the five big boxes you should be able to check. If a new song is really popular but doesn’t check all five of those boxes, then maybe you shouldn’t use it.

Distinguish between usefulnesses
Of all the thousands of new songs that will be written this year, maybe just five of those should find their way on to your congregation’s lips. The other songs might be all be wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re useful for incorporation into your church’s repertoire.

Choose songs for the congregation you have
Certain songs will work well in big churches with big bands but flop in smaller churches with smaller bands. And likewise, certain songs will work well in your local context that no one else has ever heard of before! You have to be willing to put blinders on when choosing songs for your congregation, and choose what serves them the best.

Build a solid repertoire – not a cool playlist
A congregation will sing with confidence when they know the songs. A congregation will sing with timidity when they don’t. A solid repertoire cultivates congregational confidence. An ever-changing (but cool!) playlist cultivates insecurity. Focus primarily on helping people exalt Jesus in song, and let the copyright dates take a back seat.

Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have more resources to draw from than ever to help our congregations worship God in song. May we think wisely, pastorally, and discerningly as we adjust to the shortening shelf-life of what’s being produced, and remain faithful to proclaim the never-changing, always-relevant Good News.

Never Beat The Sheep

A few years ago, a friend loaned me a book by Bill Hybels entitled Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, with 76 short and succinct chapters with different leadership tips he’s learned over the years. I found parts of the book helpful, other parts not helpful, but one chapter really stood out to me.

Towards the end of the book he encourages leaders to “never beat the sheep”, because he knows that this is a temptation for anyone in a leadership role. We don’t get the results we want, so it must be the sheep’s fault. To get them in line, we want to “beat” them in order to straighten them out and whip them into shape.

He talks about a small groups pastor who came into his office one day furious at his volunteer leaders because not even half of them had signed up for a training retreat. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the retreat was really expensive, really far away, and being held at a really bad time. Maybe the problem wasn’t with the sheep after all!

He writes:

If your sheep aren’t responding the way you think they should, put down your stick and ask a few questions first. See if you served your sheep well, because when they’re served well, they tend to serve well in return. Never beat the sheep, my friend. A word of loving admonition every once in a while might be appropriate, but put the stick away. Permanently.

Worship leaders need to hear this word. We can get really frustrated with our sheep from time to time and think that if we could only whip them into shape then we’d see the results we want.

Maybe it’s our congregation. They always come to church late. They don’t engage in worship very much. They talk during the songs. They don’t come to mid-week worship nights.

Maybe it’s our worship team. Attendance at monthly meetings is always lousy. The drummer is always late to rehearsal. They don’t prepare at home.

Or maybe we tried something new. We invited our team on a worship conference and no one signed up. We asked our team to read a chapter of a book on worship before they came to rehearsal and not a single person did. We announced worship team auditions several months in advance and no one came forward.

In every case (and in almost every one I speak from experience), the temptation is going to be to want to beat the sheep. Send a stern email. Make it required or else they’re off the team! Give a glare during rehearsal. Never offer the opportunity again just to punish them.

But most of the time when you don’t get the results you wanted, it’s an opportunity for you to step back and take a look in the mirror. We can be too quick to pick up the stick to beat the sheep. Address your own issues first, do some tweaking and some re-grouping, and then love your sheep as well as you can. They respond to that a lot better.

Worship Leaders, Love Your Families

1Just a little over ten years ago I started in full-time ministry as a single guy, with no children, and all the flexibility in the world to build my work schedule around my commitments and my interests.

Fast forward to today and I’m happily married with three little girls. Now, my schedule and my commitments have a direct impact on the four people who share a home with me. When I’m home, when I’m not home, what nights (and how many nights) I’m out of the house at bedtime, how early I leave in the morning, whether or not I miss dinner, whether or not I’m distracted by my emails/unfinished work on my laptop or phone, whether or not I have the time to unload the dishwasher before I leave for work, and whether or not I actually take time off, has ramifications that extend far beyond what I may feel like doing, or what I’m told I “need” to do.

Now I have a choice, I can continue to build my calendar based on what’s good for me, or based on what’s best for my family. And this choice is made in a hundred different ways, through little things that add up.

It’s all well and good for me to get to the church office, or get to rehearsal, or get to a service for which I’m leading worship, but if I prioritize these things over the needs of my family, then something isn’t quite right. The rubber meets the road with a spouse and/or kids at home. If my most valuable commodity really is my time, then how I decide to spend that time will determine what I value.

Yes, there are busy seasons, there are sacrifices you and your family make, and your work commitments will occasionally cause strain within your family.

But in order to value your family as you should, you simply have to protect your time with them, especially at the times that really (and practically) matter.

You have to say no to certain things. You have to guard your evenings and days off as the property of your family, and keep people from intruding on that property more than they should. You have to think of little things you can initiate that add up to big things like lunches or quick coffees with your family in the midst of a busy day. You have to love your families more than you love your job, and you have to realize that the loudest way you can proclaim this love for them is by your presence with them when they need it.

Back in July, my amazing wife Catherine shared her perspective as a ministry wife in her post “From a Worship Leader’s Wife“. She shared some good insight for wives about how to support their husbands in ministry, and I was glad to see it bless a lot of different readers.

A few days ago we got a question on that post from a worship leader’s wife who is struggling with the the demands of ministry, especially with a toddler at home. Catherine responded to her in the comment thread, and I’d encourage wives of worship leaders to check it out if they need encouragement.

But this post today is aimed at the men who, like me, have a family at home while we’re doing our worship leader thing. And my main point is this: prioritize time with your family over time at work. As much as possible, submit your own schedule to the needs of your wife and kids. Be physically present. Be home at bedtime and then rush back to church for evening meetings if you need to. Take Sundays off even if things won’t go as smoothly without you there. Be late to things. Have strong boundaries. Whatever it takes, for your particular family, and their particular needs. This might mean you’re not in your office as much as some other people around you. But who cares? Worship leaders, love your families.

The Difference Between A Mentor And A Meanie

Your effectiveness in ministry will largely rest on whether or not you have wise, Godly, and humble mentors around you. These mentors can encourage, challenge, occasionally chastise, and regularly pray for you and your ministry. You can call on them when you face difficult tests, and you can count on them to have what’s best and biblical for you in mind when they offer you counsel.

Your effectiveness in ministry will also largely rest on whether or not you can distinguish between these kinds of mentors and their imposters: meanies. These kinds of people approach you from a position of counsel, but all they have to offer is critical observations, ungracious words, unfair judgments, and bad advice. They don’t know you, they don’t particularly love you, and their influence isn’t good for you. Actually, their influence can crush you and mess you up for a long time.

Here are some key differences between ministry mentors and ministry meanies.

1. A mentor says hard things to you in a way that builds you up. A meanie says harsh things to you that leave you feeling like you’ve been beat up.

2. A mentor loves you. A meanie judges you.

3. A mentor encourages you. A meanie discourages you.

4. A mentor comes to you from a position of humility, being no better than you. A meanie comes to you from a position of arrogance, as one who is superior to you.

5. A mentor reminds you of the Gospel. A meanie reminds you of your failings.

6. A mentor checks in with you for no other reason than to connect. A meanie only connects with you to criticize you.

7. A mentor has a lot of patience. A meanie has a list of grievances.

8. A mentor builds you up to encourage your strengths as gifts from God. A meanie tears you down and suppresses your strengths as if they’re problems to be managed.

9. A mentor helps you think wisely. A meanie tells you how to think their way.

10. A mentor pushes you to stand up and take wise risks. A meanie pushes you to sit down and play it safe.

Not only should those of us in ministry learn how to distinguish between mentors and meanies, but once we identify the meanies, we need to avoid them. Yes, love them. But protect yourself, your ministry, and your family from their toxicity.

Instead, pursue Godly mentors who will be a gospel-presence in your life, resulting in you blossoming in effectiveness in the soil of God’s grace.

Jesus Flips The Switch

1My brother-in-law loves to give his nieces (my daughters) the most ear-piercingly loud, annoying sounding toys that he can find. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds them, but he delights in giving them toys that will drive their parents crazy. (Thanks, Jon).

But I have discovered something about these toys.

On the back, oftentimes hidden under a tab, or behind some Velcro, is a switch. This switch has a “play” setting (noise at full volume and duration), a “demo” setting (noise at full volume but only for five seconds), and an “off” setting (no noise).

And I, as the sovereign interceptor of these toys, can flip the switch.

I intercept the gift, and in my flipping of the switch, I change the gift’s function.

Only someone who’s sovereign over something can flip its switch. Someone who’s sovereign can take something that was intended for one purpose, and alter it so it accomplishes something different.

This is what God does with suffering in our life. He flips the switch.

Satan intends to use suffering to destroy us. God flips the switch and uses suffering to refine us.

When Jesus wrote to the suffering church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11), he told them (in verse 9): “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested…”

In his exposition of this verse in What Christ Thinks About the Church, John Stott points out that while Satan intended the imprisonment of Christians in Smyrna to destroy the Church, God would use that imprisonment to refine his Church.

None of us can avoid suffering. It’s an inescapable reality of this broken world.

The church in Smyrna knew this. They suffered from poverty, slander, imprisonment, and death. And Jesus, speaking from his position of authority as someone who not only knew suffering, but conquered suffering, tells them “do not fear”.

How can Jesus say “do not fear” suffering? Because he’s sovereign over it. To quote Stott again, “Jesus has perfect knowledge of our present suffering and perfect foreknowledge of our future suffering”. We can trust him in the midst of it, because he alone is eternal, he alone is all-powerful, and he alone is good.

Whatever suffering you’re currently experiencing, or whatever suffering comes to you in the future, you can trust that you’re held in the hands of a sovereign King, who knows your suffering, is sovereign over your suffering, is with you (“Emmanuel”) in the midst of your suffering, and has conquered your suffering.

He flips the switch, allowing suffering to refine us, not destroy us. And he does so as the sovereign ruler over all things, “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8).

How Cold Is It?

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