The Point Of A Worship Leader Is To Point

1This week my church is hosting “Genesis Arts Camp” for 200+ sweaty K-6th grade students in the morning and about 50 middle/high school students in the afternoon. I’ve had a blast leading worship in the morning, and sharing a quick teaching about some aspect of the gospel (this camp draws a good number of kids from outside of our church and from families who don’t go to church at all).

In between the songs and the teaching we’re also goofing around a good bit. We’ve thrown in some David Letterman-inspired bits (complete with their own theme songs) like:

Mr. Gil Tells a Joke
In which Mr. Gil comes up and tells a joke. The theme song would get stuck in your head if I shared it, so I’ll spare you. Unless you click on this link, in which case prepare yourself for getting the theme song stuck in your head. You don’t want to click on this link. Really. Don’t click on it.

Kalisthenics with Kirsten
In which Kirsten comes up (to the band rocking out to Van Halen’s “Jump”) in her 80’s head band and leads a couple hundred kids in doing crazy exercises. We’re doing some pretty aggressively contemporary stuff at this camp for sure :)

Superhero Art Tryouts
In which two superheroes (Flash and the Green Lantern) attempt to get a job as teachers at Genesis Arts Camp by demonstrating their different “gifts”. They could use some work. Their interpretive dance to “Let it Go” was particularly moving.

Teaching
At the end of each session I’m sharing a quick teaching with the kids, in an attempt to communicate the gospel to them in a clear, understandable way. On Thursday or Friday I hope to invite kids to put their trust in Jesus for the first time if they haven’t ever done so. I’m excited!

On Monday I held up a bull horn and told them I had some really good news. “God loves you!” “God will always love you!” And how did God show us he loves us? By sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. We looked at a bunch of different logos. The kids knew all of them! I asked them what would God’s logo be? God’s logo would be a cross. He didn’t didn’t tell us he loved us. He showed us!

On Tuesday we looked at a bunch of pictures of cute babies. We oohed and ahed at the cute babies. But I told the kids that even the cutest babies are still born sinful. No one teaches a baby how to grow up and steal a cookie! No one teaches a little boy how to grow up and hit his sister on purpose. We sin naturally. It’s like I was born with a red choir robe on me (and I donned a lovely red choir robe for this example). And no matter what I do (give money to my friends, give food to the poor), I can’t get my red robe off. Then I walked up to the cross on stage, which had a white robe on it to show that Jesus died on the cross, but he was perfect. He took my sinful robe off of me! But… it didn’t stick to him.

Jesus defeated my sin! He stomped on it (so I stomped on the robe). He beat it (so I beat the robe). And he threw it far, far away (so I threw the robe far, far away). And he gives me his white robe (I put a white robe on). He makes me clean. He makes us new.

Today (Wednesday) I shared how Jesus wants to be our best friend. He wants to be by our side for our whole life (and after). He wants to be with us when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we want to sin, and when we’re scared. Who would say “no” to having this kind of friend? I did a bunch of silly shenanigans like riding my daughter’s pink bike, and a pretend horse, and pretending to be scared of thunder… All to show that Jesus is with me all the time.

And the week will wrap up with me reminding the kids of what we’ve learned… and that Jesus is knocking on the doors of their hearts (and they should let him in!)

We’re singing mostly upbeat, action, call-and-response type songs. There’s a large number of little kids who can’t read, much less handle wordy songs. It’s been a lot of work but it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s reminded me of one major worship leading lesson.

I do the pointing. Jesus does the work.

 

Not everyone will sing along. Not everyone will get it. Some people (i.e. the super cool 5th grade boys) will sit there with their arms folded. Some people just won’t like it.

But if I use my microphone/guitar/pink bike/pretend (or real) horse/superhero skits to point people to God’s great love for them in Jesus Christ, then I don’t have to worry. My job is simple. Whether it’s a summer camp or a Sunday morning. Whether I’m leading 3rd-graders or 70 year-olds. My job description always has the same basic instruction: use your platform to point to Jesus. Then let him do the work.

The point of a worship leader is to point. Every context, every age group, every time you stand on stage.

May God increase our desire to see his name, and his name alone, exalted in the lives of those who sit in our churches. Even the sweaty ones.

The Gospel Works

1A worship leader can never go wrong having his congregation proclaim the gospel in song. In our weekly quest to find something that “works”, we quite simply don’t have to look any further than to Jesus, to what he accomplished for us, and to what he has secured for us. Regardless of your church’s setting, demographics, traditions, worship style, successes, failures, attendance numbers, and whatever buzzword is floating around at the moment, singing songs grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ always – always – “works”.

The gospel works on the slow summer Sundays. It works on Easter. And it works when a snowstorm cuts your attendance by 80%.

The gospel works when your church votes to leave a denomination. It works when your church wins a lawsuit. And it works when your church loses a lawsuit.

The gospel works when you welcome a new pastor. It works when you lose a pastor. And it works when you’re in between pastors.

The gospel works with organs. It works with electric guitars. And it works with a iPod plugged into a sound system when that’s the best you can do.

The gospel works when your church is growing. It works when your church is stagnant. And it works when your church is dying.

The gospel works when the sermon is bad. It works when the music is bad. It works when the sound system is bad.

The gospel works when you have a lot to celebrate. It works when you’re full of sorrow. And it works when you aren’t sure what in the world to sing.

The gospel works when people are singing with gusto. It works when they look bored to tears. And it works on the high school boys who are too cool to sing.

The gospel works in a packed mega church. It works in a half-full 7:30am service. And it works in a small group of 8 in a living room.

The gospel works when a nation celebrates a holiday. The gospel works when a nation is approaching election day. And the gospel works when a nation is grieving yet another tragedy.

We are not called to be more and more creative each Sunday – finding a new spin or incorporating the newest song or writing a new liturgy or saying a new thing. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We are called to help people sing the good news of Jesus Christ.

We are called to be doggedly persistent and consistent, in the face of whatever ups and downs our church and/or our culture is riding, and point people to the unchanging and uncompromising gospel. It always – yes always – works.

Own The Song

1You hear a worship song. It’s a good song. You want to do that song in your church. You want your congregation to sing that song. You can picture that song working well on a Sunday morning at your church.

So you buy/download (or make) a chord chart/lead sheet/rhythm chart/orchestration of that song. And you send/post the mp3 for your worship team.

Sunday comes and you teach the song and lead it in your context. Exactly like it was on the recording. Every measure, every chord, every melodic riff, and every repeat. But strangely enough, it didn’t go ever quite as epic-ly as it did on the recording.

Of course it didn’t.

It’s not a bad thing to hear a song on an album or at a conference and want to incorporate it in your own setting.

And it’s not bad to get/make an arrangement of it and get it to your musicians to rehearse.

But in between your musicians hearing the song, and the actual implementation of that song in your rehearsals and services, a very important thing has to take place.

You have to own the song.

You have to tailor four important things in every song in order to make it work in your specific context.

1. The key. Is it too high? Is it too low? Transpose the song up or down a few steps to get in the average voice’s sweet spot.
2. The repeats. Just because the chorus needed to be repeated five times in a stadium full of 15,000 people doesn’t mean it should be reported five times in your hotel ballroom of 150 people.
3. The feel. On the recording the drums start it off, and the electric guitar drives the verse, and the chorus is an epic rock anthem. But in your church of mid-50 Cleveland residents, perhaps you should straighten it out a little bit.
4. The goal. A producer and a mixing engineer listen to a song asking the question “how can I make this sound awesome?” And of course they should. That’s their job. But a worship leader listens to a song and asks “how can I make this accessible to my congregation”. And of course a worship leader should. That’s their job.

Own. The. Song. Don’t just replicate a recording. Don’t always do it the same way. Don’t assume that because it worked a certain way on a recording or at a conference/concert then it will work the same way in your setting. It won’t. Tailor it!

Let me state two quick/important caveats: (1) It’s not always bad to do a song exactly like a recording. I do this from time to time! If you have a lot of moving parts, like a choir, small string/brass section, or orchestra, or even just some insecure players, then it would be foolish not to nail everything down beforehand. (2) With the advent of the ability to purchase click tracks/backing tracks, and create your own tracks to accompany a song live, that certainly limits your ability to make changes on the fly.

But before you bring a song before your band/choir/80-year accompanist, and before you ever teach it to your congregation, make sure you’ve made it your own. Make sure you’ve pictured it being sung in your sanctuary/auditorium/ballroom/YMCA gym. Then, tailor it, arrange it, transpose it, and set it up for success.

It won’t sound anything like the recording, and that’s absolutely OK. The more important thing (by a mile!) is that your people will actually (hopefully) sing along.

A Sample Job Description for a Worship Leader

1I’ve never had to search for a worship leader. Because I am a worship leader. :)

But, hypothetically, if I was looking for a worship leader, how would I phrase a job description for him or her?

There are a lot of bad/vague/overly ambitious job descriptions out there. I’ve seen some that are as vague as “lead music at our church”. And that’s it. I’ve seen others that are so detailed, down to how the worship leader should spend every day of his/her week, that all creativity seems to have been intentionally choked out.

If I were to write a simple, meat-and-potatoes job description for a worship leader, with the basic bare-bones responsibilities, here’s how I would phrase it:

SUMMARY
The worship leader (or whatever title you want to insert here) will work closely with our pastor in cultivating worship services and worship teams that help lead our congregation to see and savor the greatness of God in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Fostering dynamic congregational worship, singing the best of the old and the best of the new, is a key priority for our church and we are seeking an individual who’s called and gifted by God in the following areas:

SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITIES
1. Planning our weekly Sunday 10:00am worship service. Choosing congregational hymns and songs that engage the congregation and support the reading and preaching of God’s Word.

2. Modeling and leading heartfelt worship in an invitational style – that draws people in, encourages participation, and points people to Jesus.

3. Recruiting, auditioning, teaching, and training musicians in the church to serve the congregation as a team with musical skill and humility.

4. Leading weekly rehearsals that serve a dual purpose: (A) preparation for Sunday and (B) cultivation of Christ-centered community.

5. Building on our traditions and having a vision for where God might be calling our congregation and our musicians to grow in new expressions of worship.

6. Serving as a member of the ministry team at (insert church name here), demonstrating a commitment to this congregation and its mission.

This individual is expected to: (A) be gifted in leading congregational worship (B) possess leadership and organizational skills, and (C) be a team player.

At this point, if this is a part-time position, the description should stop.

But if it’s full time, then 3 or 4 more bullet points could be added. For example, the worship leader could be expected to:

– Oversee the AV/Production team and volunteers.
– Lead additional services (mid-week, evening, etc.)
– Oversee other groups within your church (acolytes, readers, ushers, choirs, etc.)
– Do something in that individual’s particular area of strength, like media, communications, video, training, preaching, youth, etc.
– Move beyond a mainly musical role with the team to a more pastoral role with the team, cultivating a worship community of singers and instrumentalists within your church.
– Oversee staff
– You get the idea

Over four years ago I posted a very similar article, which went into more specifics than this, and even gave my ballpark attempts at what a worship leader should be paid, according to a slew of different variables. It’s been one of the most-viewed articles in this blog’s history, which makes me think that a lot of churches and pastors are wondering how to break down appropriate expectations for a worship leader’s responsibilities.

What I offer above is my best attempt at articulating the essentials, while leaving room to add in specifics that will help the person meet the needs for a particular church with its own particular needs.

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.