When Shorter is Sweeter

I was talking with a friend recently who had attended a fund-raiser dinner banquet at a local hotel for a Christian non-profit ministry. After dinner was finished, the program began with a local church’s worship team leading some songs. And when I say “some songs” I mean six or seven songs. Half an hour worth of songs. In addition, most of the songs were unfamiliar to anyone who didn’t attend this worship team’s church.

My friend described an awkward scene: a worship leader who kept going on and on, the back half of the room getting tired and sitting down, and the front half of the room unaware of this development and continuing to stand. When the worship leader finished, there was a subtle sigh of relief.

I wasn’t there, I don’t know the worship leader, and I don’t know who asked him to lead songs and how long they asked him to go. I can imagine a scenario in which someone asks a worship leader to “lead a few songs for 20 minutes or so”, not knowing that that can actually feel quite long at a fund-raising dinner and that the words “or so” are hardly ever taken to mean “less”.

And I’ve had my share of worship leading experiences when I look around the room and can tell that there are some people who are just not enjoying themselves at all. Maybe it’s because I’m going too long or doing songs they don’t know, but maybe the problem is with them. Who knows.

But even though there’s a lot I don’t know about this particular situation (i.e. any real details), it still reminds me of an important worship leading principle: sometimes shorter is sweeter.

If given the choice to go too long or too short, I’ll choose too short every time. I’d much rather leave people wanting more, as opposed to leaving them wanting me to be quiet.

Every church, every service, every fund-raising dinner, and every event is different. If and when you’re asked to lead worship for any one of those – it’s your responsibility to find out from whomever is in charge exactly what your parameters are.

But just because you’re given 30 minutes doesn’t mean you should take all of them. Maybe sometimes you should. Maybe sometimes you’ll go longer if that’s what works. But sometimes, even though you’re given 30 minutes, it’s actually better to go 15.

I’ll tend to take up all the minutes I’m allotted on a Sunday morning, or when I’m leading a service or event for a group of people who I know and who know me. But if I’m leading an unfamiliar group, or leading music at a dinner banquet, I’ll usually plan on erring on the side of brevity and familiarity. It’s hard to go wrong with either.

The average song is 3 – 4 minutes long. Add in repeats, transitions, prayers, etc., an average song during a time of corporate worship might take 5 minutes or more. When you’re planning a set of songs, plan on each song taking 5 minutes. This way you’re building in a buffer for yourself.

It’s always awkward when a guest overstays their welcome. It’s not that you don’t enjoy their presence, but it’s time for them to move on so that you can also move on. The same rule applies to worship leaders. Don’t overstay your welcome. Shorter is sweeter.

Why I Wrote “Come You Sinners”

I’ve not written many worship songs. But of the songs I’ve written, “Come You Sinners” has seemed to resonate the most in the different settings/churches where I’ve led it.

The verses for this song came very quickly one day as I was choosing songs to sing during communion. I wanted a song that I could sing over God’s people as they came forward to receive communion, and I wanted a song that God’s people could sing over each other, to teach and admonish one another in the good news of the gospel.

In two spots I borrowed a beginning line from an old familiar hymn “Come Ye Sinners”, but everything else flowed as an attempt at a fresh way to say some unchangingly amazing and refreshing truths:

Come you sinners, poor and needy
Come behold your Savior’s face
Full of love and rich in mercy
Hands outstretched with endless grace

Nothing you have done has earned it
Full atonement, vast and free
Nothing you can do can change it
Rest on Jesus’ victory

Come you weary, heavy laden
Burdened under shame and sin
There is never condemnation
When your life in Christ is hid

There is no one else to turn to
He will guide you all your days
His perfect love is perfect for you
Trust in Jesus’ saving grace

It needed a chorus, and my first attempt at one was less than stellar. If I recall correctly, the lyrics were “oh, oh, thank You Lord. Oh, oh, forevermore I will sing your praise”. I sent the song (with the first attempt at a chorus) to a few friends and I remember Bob Kauflin saying that the chorus “needs work”…

So one night the words of Augustine came to mind, and so I sat at the piano while the words and melody for the chorus came:

Our hearts are restless ’till we find our rest in You
Our lives are hopeless ’till we find our hope in You
Jesus, You are my life
Jesus, I give my life to You

This chorus seemed to “stick” and the song was done. And since the day I finished it, this is a song that I’ve found has ministered to me on countless occasions. It’s almost as if God gave me the song for me. But as I’ve shared it in a few different contexts, I’ve found that it has ministered to others as well.

I recorded this song with my previous church, and you can buy the mp3 from that album on iTunes here.
Here’s a free lead sheet (instead of the G7/D, just play a Dm).
Here’s a free chord chart.
I have string parts too, and if you email me I might be able to pass them along. :)

I hope this song is a blessing to you. Every time I sing the lyrics I’m amazed again that they’re actually true!

Flammable Sound And Its Implications

1Sometimes you find beauty in the most unexpected of places.

And then sometimes you find something you’re not sure how to describe in a place where you’re not totally surprised to find something like it but you’re still surprised to find it even though you’re not sure what it is.

That would describe my mental state last night when I stumbled upon an ad for an upcoming worship album which featured a phrase that almost took my breath away, but not quite all the way, leaving me with just enough breath to continue to breathe, and to continue to live to share the unexpected beauty of its mystery with you.

There, in all-caps, against a backdrop of a red-dust spreading ballet dancer in a pose I call the “Ouchie Pretzel”, was this phrase:

YOUR SOUND IGNITES THE COLOR OF HIS LOVE.

I found myself immediately questioning not only myself, but also all I know to be logical and established and true:

1. Does love have a color?
2. Can color be ignited?
3. Can (or could) sound ignite flammable color?
4. If sound can be used to ignite color, and if love has a color, then what’s the deal with all the frozen yogurt shops popping up everywhere?

Then a more philosophical question hit me:

1. What in the world does YOUR SOUND IGNITES THE COLOR OF HIS LOVE mean?

I realized in that moment something very true:

Obviously, it means that the more we draw sounds with the intonation of our thoughts and physicality in the universal realm of ballet, we’ll ignite an invisible flame that will actually be a reverse flame that doesn’t burn but actually creates something new in its place like a dimension in the musical sphere that’s unexplainable by words and incomprehensible by the human or animal mind, all the while transcending our very existence and leading us to that quiet place where we can commune with God.

How have I missed that simple truth all these years?

This ad awakened me to a new level of worship leading profundity. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same. It’s almost like I’ve stumbled across a new path that I never knew was there, but if I had only looked I would have seen the path was there the whole time, kind of like that time I lost my car keys for an hour but they were sitting on the kitchen island laughing at me (silently, like the flammable color of love) the whole time.

YOUR SOUND IGNITES THE COLOR OF HIS LOVE.

In other words, the mathematical yet musical combination of intervals that form themselves to create a culturally conditioned yet innately recognized product that we’ve deemed “music” (when we could have just as easily deemed it “croissants”) can literally and/or figuratively and/or eternally and/or tangentially ignite (using that word interchangeably with “jazz hands”) the color, which is really just a fancy way of saying “don’t do what you do, but be what you do, so that you end up doing what you’re made to be”, of his love, which is all possible for $9.99 on iTunes.

Get it today before your color is up and you’ve missed the ignition of the sound.

Or was it all just a dream? I’m going to get some frozen yogurt.

Pursuing Lyrical and Musical Flow

1What’s one thing that can make or break your effectiveness in worship leading?

Flow.

Good storytellers, movie directors, public speakers, and writers learn how to flow naturally from one chapter/scene/subject to the next. Bad or nonexistent transitions can weaken otherwise good content, because the joltiness of the finished project screams a lack of cohesion. Cohesiveness – or “flow” – is a really important thing.

Worship leaders who don’t lead their congregations and musicians with a cohesive flow from one song to the next run the risk of working against themselves. Even though the songs might be good songs, without those songs being threaded and woven together, it doesn’t matter so much. There’s no clear narrative, no natural progression, and no clear big picture. It’s all a jumble of little pieces, random songs, different keys, disconnected topics, and instead of leaving a congregation saying “aha!”, it leaves them asking “huh?”

Developing a good sense of lyrical and musical flow is absolutely essential for worship leaders.

Lyrical flow
Before I even mention some tips/ideas on how to connect songs musically, it has to be said that the most important thing is that songs connect to each other lyrically in a way that not only makes logical and theological sense, but that also points people in one direction. You don’t want to take a sharp right turn after one song and a sharp left turn after the next. The songs should connect to each other like a road leads to a destination. The destination being exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. Every week. Every Sunday.

It’s like you’re a tour guide at the Grand Canyon. Are there a lot of different ways people can look at the Grand Canyon? Yes. There are many different overlooks. Maybe they can take a helicopter ride. Maybe they can go deeper into it. Maybe they should look at from the north. Maybe from the east. You, as the tour guide, can point people to the Grand Canyon from different angles every time you stand before them. But you’re always pointing at the same thing.

The same goes for our songs. They point at the same thing, but from different angles, and they do so in a way that helps people see the greatness of the One to whom they all point.

Musical flow
Here are eight ways I try to make the songs I lead flow into and out of each other naturally. 

1. Songs in the same key. 
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. I’ll pick a song after it that’s in G. Easy as worship leading pie.

2. Songs in connected keys.
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. What’s the “4” chord in G? That’s right, it’s C. So I’ll pick a song after it that’s in C. Or what’s the “5” chord in G? That’s right, it’s D. You know your scales. Good job. So, I’ll pick a song after it that’s in D. Voila.

3. Be thinking of the tempo/groove/time signature of the next song when you’re wrapping up the first song
I’m finishing up “Cornerstone”. After it I’m going into “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”. I’m doing them both in E, so that’s easy, but how do I get from “Cornerstone” to “Praise to the Lord…” smoothly since “Praise to the Lord” is in 6/8 and “Cornerstone” is in 4/4? I make a mental transition to “Praise to the Lord” during the last two or three measures of “Cornerstone”. When I’m singing “…Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.” I’m getting ready to hit that 6/8 feel immediately on the word “all”. Then I establish a strong foundation for the next song and my congregation feels confident enough to sing with… I hope… confidence.

4. Don’t let your sheet music/chord charts/iPad/hymnal ruin your flow
Worship leaders should not, ever, under any circumstance other than it being their first year of leading worship (in which case you have an exemption that expires after one year), stop one song and take 3-5 seconds to shuffle pieces of paper around on your music stand (or swipe your iPad) before starting the next song. Do whatever it takes to turn pages without anyone noticing. Tape papers together. Use paper clips. Big tabs. Foot pedals. A page-turner. One of Santa’s elves. Whatever. This can kill momentum in a set faster than you can say “skinny jeans”.

5. Be confident enough to start and stop
Having said that, not every song can go into another song in the same (or related) key. In this case, be confident enough to stop the one song, and confidently start the next one. But you might to consider “covering it up” with a prayer, or reading a Psalm, or actually (gasp!) letting there be an actually intentional time of silence and stillness. There’s a difference between meaningless dead air when you’re flipping pages, and intentional quiet space for people to reflect on what they’ve just sung.

6. Look for a commonly shared note between random keys and make that note your best friend
There aren’t a whole lot of shared notes between C major and E major. But they both have a E in them! So if I finish “It is Well” in C and want to move to a song in E, I might (if I’m playing piano or have someone playing piano who can do this) find that E note, play it randomly for a few beats, and then keep hammering it while establishing the new key of E.

7. Modulate!
Song one is in C. Song two is in D. So make the first song modulate to D so they’ll connect better. Or, if I want to come out of Bb and go into the next song in G, I might make the song that’s in Bb modulate to C towards the end so that I can move from C to G more naturally (since G is the “5” chord in C).

8. Move keys around
My first song is in G. The next that works after it is in A. I don’t want to have to worry about a modulation. But that second song would work just fine in G. I’ll move it down to G and now I don’t have to worry about doing any gymnastics in between songs to make that transition sound natural.

Five years ago I tried to demonstrate some of these musical flow ideas in a tutorial video. If you’d find it helpful to see what I’m talking about with these musical flow ideas, click here.

Understanding the importance of lyrical and musical flow – and learning how to craft and lead a progression of songs that cohesively points people to the greatness of God in Jesus Christ – is a skill in which every worship leader needs to be consistently growing. I’m always finding new ways of connecting songs more effectively to one another, and I’m always learning in hindsight (or realizing during a service) some things I could have done differently. It’s all part of the process of growing as a worship leader. It should never stop.

Challenge yourself – and listen back to yourself – to make sure you’re leading worship like a good storyteller. We have the best story of all (because it’s true!) to proclaim week after week. Tell the story well and cohesively (lyrically and musically), so that the “ahas!” far outnumber the “huh?”s as much as you can help it.

Long-Term Fruitfulness or Short-Term Flashiness

1About a year ago I transitioned to a new ministry role at a new church. It’s been a whirlwind of a year – full of blessings and challenges. And over the course of the last year, I’ve thought and prayed a lot about what kind of worship ministry God has called me to help cultivate here.

Which reminds me of a story.

In 2006 I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, when something unexpected happened. The men’s basketball team from this relatively unknown school just outside of Washington D.C. advanced all the way to the NCAA final four. They nearly entered the final stage – the college basketball championship – but stopped just short.

Even though they didn’t win the championship, there was still – all of the sudden  – huge visibility for this “little” university. The number of prospective students skyrocketed. Tuition went up. Enrollment reached record numbers. New dorms were built. New academic halls began popping up. And now, nearly ten years later, on the rare occasion when I go on campus, it’s hardly recognizable. That unexpected basketball “Cinderella Story” brought about a lot of change.

But the men’s basketball team didn’t maintain their presence in the upper echelon of NCAA teams. In the years following their foray into the final four, their coach was poached by the University of Miami, and the school’s visions of a basketball dynasty fell back to earth.

In one sense, you could say mission accomplished. The basketball team raised GMU’s profile and reinvigorated the students and alumni. But in another sense, you’d be justified to say the basketball team (and the athletics department) didn’t really build anything lasting (even though they may have tried). They were just a flash in the pan of American college basketball folklore.

Some schools devote decades (and a ton of money) to building and maintaining an athletic powerhouse.

Other schools experience Cinderella Stories, and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts, before all the camera crews disappear and good coaches get poached.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare college athletic departments to church worship ministries, but I think there’s a lesson here:

Churches (and their worship leaders) should be seeking to build and maintain worship ministries with long-term effectiveness and fruitfulness. It might take decades to get there. It probably will. But these worship ministries that are built and cultivated over time become such sweet engines of life and vibrancy in a congregation that they aren’t just flashes in a pan, but are deeply rooted ministries that permeate the soil of a congregation with God-honoring praise.

Churches (and worship leaders) that expect the precious balance of power and cohesion in a worship ministry to fall together in a matter of months, or to ride on the shoulders of one star player, or to be held in the hands of one coach, may very well have a spurt of life and vibrancy in worship, but could see it all crumble in a matter of weeks.

I’m glad that GMU had so much fun in 2006 with its surprise appearance on the national college basketball stage. It certainly did some good things for them. But I wish they could have built on that success, and I wish they could have gone back the next year, or the year after that, and brought a trophy home to Fairfax.

Likewise, I hope that churches and the pastors who lead them (and the worship leaders who feed them) choose the more difficult but more established paths of long-term fruitfulness that will result in lasting effectiveness – not just from year to year – but over the course of decades.

This is what I’m hoping and praying for as I wrap up year number one at my “new” church and look forward (with continued prayer and faith) for what God has in store.

The Perfect Worship of a Shepherd King

1I love the story of David dancing in 2 Samuel 6 when the ark of the covenant is brought into Jerusalem. David’s heart of worship is on full display, overflowing into passionate dancing and celebration. This story provides worship leaders (and all worshippers for that matter) with a challenging example of:

1. Worship that is total (2 Samuel 6:14)
“And David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.”
David didn’t hold back. Here is the King of Israel, a strong man, a visible man, a well-known man, and he’s so consumed with what good things God has done that he’s dancing (picture this..) “with all his might”. And as if that’s not enough, he’s “wearing a linen ephod”. One commentary I read described a linen ephod as “form fitting”. There’s a mental image for you. David’s total worship is a challenge to us, who are so often so reserved and so self-conscious that we worship God in a bullet-proof cage of self-conscious reservation.

2. Worship that draws scorn (2 Samuel 6:20)
“Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, ‘How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!'”
You can hear the contempt dripping from Michal’s words. She heaps condemnation and scorn upon David for his public display of worship. There is a lesson here: heartfelt, expressive worship will often make you look stupid in some people’s eyes. But this can be a good thing for us to experience. Because we’re in good company thanks to David. Am I more like David in my worship, or more like Michal? Do I worship with a childlike love for Jesus, or a crusty old stiffness? I want the former and I hope you do too.

3. Worship that is God-centered (2 Samuel 6:21)
“And David said to Michal, ‘It was before the LORD…'”
David’s worship is God-centered. And because it’s God centered, he doesn’t care what people think of him. How much is our worship confined because of our self-consciousness or others-consciousness? Maybe it’s because: “I don’t like to sing. I don’t like this song. I can’t clap. I’m a guy, guys don’t clap. No one else is lifting their hands. I don’t want to be hand raiser.” The list goes on. When our worship is God-centered, then like David, we can worship with abandon.

4. Worship that is always growing deeper (2 Samuel 6:22)
“I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”
I don’t know about you, but on the scale of “undignified-ness”, dancing with all your might in a form-fitting linen ephod is pretty high up there. Not for David. There’s still room for him to grow. How about for us? How often (if ever) do we go outside our self-defined safe zones in worship? Are we seeking to grow in expressiveness, in articulating heart-felt praise and gratefulness to God? David is an example to us of a man who sought to grow in worship, not settle down in a safe zone.

This post could stop here, and many times when I’ve taught on this text, my messages have indeed stopped here. And the main point is “worship harder! Lift your hands more! Don’t be so self-conscious! Be more like David!”

But that’s missing the point. 

It misses that David’s worship in 2 Samuel 6 is pointing us to Jesus’s perfect worship.

Because David, the shepherd-king who worshipped God with abandon and joyfulness, is pointing to Jesus, the true and greater David, the true and greater Shepherd-King, who perfectly worshipped his Father with abandon and joyfulness, and became so undignified as to lay down his life for his sheep on the cross.

Only Jesus’ worship was truly total.

Only Jesus’ worship drew the ultimate scorn that led to his crucifixion in our place on a cross.

Only Jesus’ worship was perfectly God-centered.

And, thanks be to God, our worship, (even our meager/lame/reserved/self-conscious attempts), is covered over in Jesus’ perfect worship of the Father.

The point of David’s worship isn’t to make us feel guilty about our lesser attempts. The point of David’s worship is to point us to Jesus’ perfect attempt. And as a result:

We’re free to be expressive and joyful and undignified in our worship (though we do keep Paul’s instructions and admonitions in mind). Because we’re covered! Our worship is “before the Lord”, and acceptable to God, and delighted in because of Jesus.

We’re also free to bring our self-conscious, un-inspired, weary, off-beat, lackadaisical worship to God, and not be afraid that he’s disappointed in our lameness, because God sees our feeble attempts of worship through the lens of his son’s perfect (and ongoing) worship on our behalf.

We could all use some encouragement from time to time to loosen up, to grow up, and to look up in our worship, and stop being so incredibly self-conscious and reserved. David is a good example of this.

But ultimately, we all need to look to Jesus, the perfect worshipper, and find our freedom to worship, yes, even to dance with all our might, not in feelings of guilt or obligation, but instead in the good news of being covered up in him and raised to life forevermore.

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.