Don’t Waste Your Livestream

This past Sunday – and for the foreseeable future as the world grapples with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – my church, like thousands of other churches around the globe, livestreamed its worship service. With just a few days’ notice, we scrambled to buy a camera, test the audio and video, figure out which streaming platform to use, and find ways to communicate this to our congregation.

Praise God, it worked. And we had overwhelmingly positive feedback. Of course there was a lot of room for improvement, and in the weeks to come, as this crisis looks to be long-lasting, we will be working to make our livestreamed services more well-done. And we anticipate continuing to live stream at least one of our services going forward, even when our congregation gathers together again.

It’s occurred to me many times over the last week or so – as I’ve thought through our own livestreaming approach, and as I’ve read and watched how other churches did theirs – that this crisis is a moment in which worship leaders are being given such a rare and profound privilege.

Think about it, worship leaders: you are being streamed into peoples’ homes. Into their living rooms, their bedrooms, their kitchens. Into environments where there is increased tension, anxiety, and fear.

And there you are, right in the middle of their home, with your guitar, or sitting at your keyboard, leading them in worship via the miracle of livestreaming. What an opportunity. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

If we do this well, all around the world, gathered around sofas and coffee tables and kitchen islands, stressed-out, worn-out, and socially-distanced people will be lifting their voices in worship together. They’ll be remembering and proclaiming what is true. They’ll be re-centered around the One who holds all things together. They’ll be filling their homes, in those few precious moments, with the praises of God.

Do everything you can to facilitate small group singing in homes, even as people watch you on TV or on their laptop. Make it easy for them. Go back to the basics of worship leading.

Here are four really important components to remember whenever you lead worship, but especially when you’re being livestreamed into living rooms. Remember:

Tone
Have an invitational tone. Not only should you invite them to sing with you, but then as you proceed to sing the song, sing in such a way that the average singer (or non-singer!) at home can sing along with you without feeling silly. The more you deviate, the more you improvise, the more impressive you come across, the more opportunities you give the person in the pews (or in this case, in their PJ’s on the couch) to stop singing.

Key
Keep the range “from C to shining C”. You can dip lower and you can jump higher. But don’t hang out too low or too high, or people will just sit there and watch.

Song-selection
Choose songs that are biblically faithful, musically accessible, and congregationally edifying. Point people to Jesus. Work out smooth transitions between keys, tempos, and time signatures.

Humility
May God give us humble hearts, before the Lord, between our colleagues, and on whatever physical or digital platform we’re given. Pray for the invitational heart of David to say “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3). And for the deference of John the Baptist to say “ He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Oh, what a privilege and rare opportunity we have during this crisis, to simply, pastorally, carefully, and humbly facilitate the praises of God by the people of God, now scattered into living rooms, soon reconvened into sanctuaries and auditoriums, and one day gathered around the throne of God.

Be Thou My Vision

I was born with terrible vision. By the age of two or three I was in glasses to help me with my extreme nearsightedness, at the age of seven I was in soft contact lenses, and at the age of 13 I was in what are called “rigid gas permeable” (i.e. “hard”) contact lenses. My vision was about negative 15 in each eye, and I had severe astigmatism in both eyes as well. Over time, through high school and on into my twenties, after wearing hard lenses for 14 hours every day, I developed chronic dry eyes, redness, swollen eye lids, warped corneas, and experienced constant pain and discomfort every minute of the day.

Because of this, I was an eye doctor’s nightmare. My terrible vision and multiple other eye issues confounded most of the ones I visited. It wouldn’t take me long to be able to tell when a particular eye doctor had run out of ideas of how to help me see well, or which lenses would be best for me, or which issue with my eyes should be addressed first.

About a year and a half ago, after an eye doctor had tried to get me back into soft contact lenses with little success, she basically broke up with me as a patient. “Mr. Brown”, she said, “I don’t think I can help you anymore”. She was the fourth or fifth eye doctor to say that to me. I left her office discouraged, depressed, and hopeless.

That night I googled (for the hundredth time) a particular kind of eye surgery that would allow for my terrible vision to be corrected. It wasn’t a laser surgery (my eyes were way beyond their reach), it wasn’t a common surgery (my eyes required a very specific and rare kind of surgery), and for about 15 years since I became aware of this surgery’s existence, it wasn’t FDA-approved. But on that particular night, after that particular eye doctor had given up on me, I googled it again. To my delight, it had been approved by the FDA just two days earlier. And to my further delight, there was an eye surgeon about five miles from my house who performed the surgery. First thing the next morning, I called him.

Fast forward to this past June. After about 9 months of tests, treatment, poking, prodding, dilating, and staring at a lot of bright lights for a really long time, I woke up early on a Monday morning, drove with Catherine and my brother Matt to a surgery center, and received the gift of clear vision. Just before surgery, the surgeon took my hand and we prayed for each other, and thanked God together for what was about to happen.

I had prayed for God to heal my eyes from the time I was a little boy. I’d kneel in my bed and beg for healing, I would go up for the laying on of hands at different church services or youth retreats and ask for healing, and I’d dream about the day when I could just wake up, open my eyes, and see.

God heard those prayers, and he answered them in his time and in his way, thanks to amazing advancements in eye surgery, and using the hands of a wonderfully kind and compassionate eye surgeon five miles from my house, who just so happens to love Jesus. After making a small incision in each eye, he implanted a lens, and inserted it between my natural lens and iris. I was blind – but then I saw.

The adjustment is still ongoing. I still have to wear glasses to see clearly long-distance. I have significant halos in low-light or nighttime settings. There is still some fine-tuning to do. Maybe some future minor surgeries. I take a few different kinds of drops a few times per day. But the difference between what my vision used to be like – and what it’s like now – is staggering.

I now live with a daily reminder of how God gives vision. Of how God makes the blind see. And of who gets the credit for that vision.

The gift of clear vision was literally implanted into my eyes. It wasn’t something I was born with, it wasn’t something I could acquire on my own, and therefore it’s not something I can boast about. It really is a gift. It came from outside of me. My vision now is not really my vision. Because my natural vision is terrible. My vision now is a supplemented vision. It’s a replaced vision. A restored vision. My natural (i.e. terrible) vision has been made right, thanks to what was implanted.

And isn’t this just how God works in us? He comes to us in a state of deadness, of blindness, of hopelessness, and speaks his life and light into us. Paul put it this way: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Whatever vision we have, whatever knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that we have, comes from outside from us. It’s surgically implanted. And we don’t get any credit for having it.

And this is applicable for those of us in ministry as well. This is our prayer: That whatever vision we have, whatever clarity we have about a way forward, and whatever calling God has on us at a particular time for a particular people and/or season, is given to us by God. That it comes to us from outside of us. That God plants it in us. He gives the vision, he accomplishes it by his hand, and he gets the glory in the end.

God gives vision. God makes dead people alive, God makes blind people see, God gives vision-less people vision. And because of the life and light that he infuses into us, we walk forward in faith and with praise to him for what he’s done.

The story of my eyes is the same as the story of my (and your) salvation, and of how God sustains us in ministry: “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8a-9). All glory to one who does for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

Consequences of Musical Divorce

In many ways, the worship wars of the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s were like a marital conflict. The conflict grew so intense, and dragged on for so long, that reconciliation no longer seemed possible. Eventually, hearts were hardened towards one another, and what was once just separation was finally codified in divorce.

Different services, at different times, in different venues, with different musical styles, as a way to appease and appeal to different segments of the congregation, avoiding any one particular side having to lose the kind of style they preferred. In many churches across the globe, a cease fire was cemented into this kind of musical divorce.

And yet the partners didn’t move into different houses. They stayed under one roof and lived at the same address, but came and went at different times, spent time in different rooms, avoided each other as much as possible, and learned how to tolerate each other at Christmas and Easter. Family members had to choose sides, assets had to be divided up, and what was once a loving home was now a tinderbox of awkward dynamics.

This is a picture of churches whose musical conflict turned into musical separation and was codified by a kind of musical divorce. On the surface, conflict was resolved. Below the surface, conflict continued. But this time, the conflict was covered up and ignored. Churches believed that this would bring peace to its members and position them to reach different people with different preferences. And those pragmatic aims may very well have been achieved at some measurable level. People weren’t as angry anymore, and the traditional and contemporary services were free to attract their own constituencies.

But church-sanctioned musical divorce sends three dangerous messages to its own congregation.

First, we can’t do hard things. Because of the considerable baggage and history of musical conflict in the Church, putting traditional and contemporary music together in one service is hard. It’s much easier to separate them. When we separate them, we give up on having hard conversations, on expecting our musical volunteers and staff to work together like brothers and sisters in Christ, and on the messiness of change and experimentation.

Second, we enable dysfunctional behavior. Instead of lovingly, firmly, and biblically addressing the wrong attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors on each side, we reward those attituded, prejudices, and behaviors by protecting them and giving them their own service. Rather than removing mold from our walls, we simply paint over it. But the problem has not disappeared.

And third, we are short-sighted. In the short-term, having separate services makes things easier. But in the long-term, it kicks the can down the road to another generation to have to figure out what to do when all of the current players have stepped off the stage. Rather than serve the generation that comes after us with a biblical foundation that can be built upon, we serve the current stakeholders with a model that may only have a shelf-life of another decade or two at best.

In addition, church-sanctioned musical divorce causes long-lasting damage to its congregation in two unfortunate ways.

First, we institutionalize the separation. Once something happens one time in a church, it’s a tradition. This is why churches should always be careful about starting new traditions. It’s much easier to start a new tradition than it is to end one. The same principle applies to institutions. No pastor wants to be the one responsible for ending a beloved tradition, or dismantling an institution. When we institutionalize musical separation, we set up a load bearing wall that will be incredibly difficult to someday tear down.

And second, we become separate congregations within a congregation. Instead of a congregation becoming centered around the preaching of God’s Word, and interconnected in community with one another, a church with separate services based on musical style enables the creation of mini-congregations centered around which service they attend, what style they prefer, and interconnected within those sub-congregations.

Any church that offers multiple services experiences this side-effect, even when those services are identical. But when those services are not identical, they become like divorced former spouses still living under the same roof, demanding that the relatives choose to whom their allegiance will belong.

Perhaps most tragic of all is that church-sanctioned musical divorce is a willful ignorance of the clear call of Scripture to unity, to mutual edification, to whole-hearted praise, to cross-generational exhortation, to musical variety, and to God-glorifying singing.

We would do well to heed the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10 who said: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In those early days, Christians embraced divisions along the lines whom they followed, be it Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Paul’s admonition was to “be united”.

The consequences of musical divorce are more damaging to the Church than the worship wars were. For pastors and worship leaders to choose to walk the path of uniting these two musical languages into one expression may very well be one of the most difficult paths they will walk, but it is the path towards helping their congregation experience that there is a better way.

Helping a Worship Ministry Act Like a Healthy Body

One of the most vital contributions a worship leader can and should make to the culture of the worship ministry at his or her church is a firm commitment to building a healthy team, expecting (and helping) all of the members of the ministry – band members, choir members, tech team, and more – to act like the members of a healthy body.

Whether members of the worship ministry are up front or behind the scenes, one of the jobs of a worship leader is to help those team members contribute their gifts as one part of the whole body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul couldn’t be any more clear about this. We’re one body, with many members, arranged by God, interdependent, and all empowered by the Spirit.

A worship leader can’t emphasize this enough with his or her team. We’re all in this together. We’re all cheering for one another. We’re all pointing in the same direction. We all have the same job. We all have different gifts, distributed as God sees fit. We all need each other. No one is more or less important than anyone else.

In my experience, most musicians resonate with this, and appreciate this biblical model of a healthy body. And when this mindset becomes the norm in the culture of a worship ministry, beautiful cooperation can happen between people with very different gifts. A worship leader should encourage this!

But once in a while, a worship leader encounters a musician who isn’t a team player. There could be many reasons for this, and oftentimes they can be brought along, and after being shown a lot of patience and grace, they buy in. It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sadly, not all musicians buy in to the biblical model of a healthy body. They may refuse to work with the rest of the members in a cooperative way. When that happens, and when it’s clear that it’s not going to change, a worship leader’s job is to ask that member to step aside. Encouraging that kind of unbiblical behavior can make the whole body sick.

Over the course of time – and sometimes it may happen slowly – a worship leader can help cultivate a healthy culture in the worship ministry of his or her church, through consistent encouragement of the members of the body, and with the help of the Spirit who gives that body its life.

Five Common Rehearsal Killers

1I am a big believer in short, effective, enjoyable rehearsals. They should be short because you want to honor your volunteers’ time. They should be effective so that you actually accomplish something. And they should be enjoyable so that your musicians (and tech crew) look forward to them and want to come back.

In my experience, there are some common mistakes I’ve made, that I suspect other worship leaders make as well, that kill rehearsals. here they are:

1. Rehearse every song in full
There are certain songs your musicians know well enough to play in their sleep. If you’re confident in their confidence, you are well within your rights to say “do we all know this song? Yes? OK, great. Let’s skip it.” They will thank you, and you will have just saved five minutes.

2. Get bogged down in the mud of opinions
You want to make sure to encourage creative participation and the open sharing of ideas, particularly by not shooting down every idea that comes your way, or by never asking for input. But don’t hesitate to go against a strongly-shared idea, or even a consensus from your team, if you feel strongly otherwise. Make a joke, make sure you smile, give firm direction, and move on.

3. Don’t have songs picked or music ready in advance
Your song list should be finished at least (!) 2 or 3 days before rehearsal. Your chord charts/sheet music/etc. should be in the correct key, readable, in the order you’ll be singing them, and available to your team to have in advance. Every ounce of preparation you put into rehearsals, especially to help your musicians prepare at home, will yield great fruit later on.

4. Let the clock get away from you
There is no reason why 60 minutes isn’t enough time to have a complete worship team rehearsal.
– 7:30pm: Set-up, tune, get situated
– 7:05pm: Sound check/monitor check/etc.
– 7:10pm: Pray and start first song

See how rehearsal is starting 10 minutes after the hour? Yours should too. The more you allow set-up/sound check to drag on, the less effective rehearsal you’ll have. Even if your musicians are running late, just start without them.

– 7:10 – 7:50pm: 40 minutes to talk through each song, work on rough parts, smooth transitions, do three or four songs all the way through, etc.
– 7:50 – 8:00pm: 10 final minutes to review particularly tricky parts and emphasize what needs to be paid attention to, before a final prayer.

Look at that! A worship team rehearsal in 60 minutes. If it needs to go longer, it can, but give people a 10 minute break after an hour. Keep it fun and stay light-hearted, but keep the train moving.

5. Lose traction in between songs
Don’t let the space in between songs become chit-chat time, improvise time, or random question time. Keep it moving. When you finish one song, move on to the next song and they’ll follow you.

If people are fiddling around on their instruments while you’re trying to talk, here’s a tip: just start playing and singing the next song. That will quiet them up and keep things from stalling.

Never stop refining the craft of running short, effective, enjoyable rehearsals. Long, ineffective, unenjoyable rehearsals can create such a heavy drag on your team and ministry than can be hard to overcome. Take control, keep it moving, make sure you’re prepared, stay light-hearted, and keep your eye on the clock.

New Arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy”

A few months ago, my colleague and friend Andrew Cote wrote a new arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” for organ, piano, violin 1, violin 2, and double bass. The choir parts and accompaniment for the verses line up with the 1982 hymnal version, but this arrangement adds a fantastic new introduction, interlude before verse 4, and some instrumental embellishments throughout.

I love what Andrew did with this. It was fresh, inventive, and challenging. But it didn’t get in the way of the congregation belting it out.

If you’d like to download the score and individual instrumental parts, click here.

And if you’d like to hear a rough demo of it, it’s below. Keep in mind this is just exported from Sibelius, so it’s really just for reference only.

Feel free to use this if you’d like!

The Freedom of Long-Term Worship Planning

For much longer than I’d like to admit, I lived in the weekly tyranny of song selection. Monday morning would come, the upcoming Sunday would again be approaching (they have a way of doing that), and I’d be back where I was a week earlier. I’d put together a list, look at the Scripture readings and sermon topic for the coming week, consider anything special coming up (baptisms, communion, etc.) and try to find the right balance.

Oftentimes, I’d look at the upcoming readings or sermon, and realize that the *perfect* song was a song I had just used a week earlier, so I couldn’t use it again. Bummer.

Similarly, I’d realize that a particular song would work great as a sermon response, or as a service closer, but the congregation didn’t know it. If only I had taught it for a couple of weeks before. Bummer again.

And on many occasions I’d realize that I was going back to my favorites too often. Or we weren’t cycling through enough of the wonderful hymns that my congregation knew. Or we weren’t going back to new songs quickly enough to reinforce them. This weekly cycle I was stuck in wasn’t good. But it was all I knew. And it was how I thought I could stay “fresh”. And it was awful.

A couple of years ago I tried something that was new for me, which was to plan out the song lists for the upcoming four months of services. In August, I would plan out of the songs for September through Christmas. In the weeks after Christmas, I would plan out the songs through Easter. And in the weeks after Easter I’d plan out the songs through the summer.

This would require a lot of time, and several days of locking myself away in my office and not doing much else besides thinking about the upcoming services. It was tedious and a bit grueling, but I noticed several things began to happen.

I introduced new songs more strategically. I wasn’t repeating the same songs too often. When I needed the *perfect* song, I could schedule it and make sure people weren’t sick of it. We were cycling through a broader repertoire of hymns. And I wasn’t living in the weekly tyranny anymore.

Now when Monday morning came, I could look at what I had prayerfully planned months before, and see if it still felt right. I might make some small changes, rarely some major changes, but most often, I was happy with what was planned, and I was freed up to do other things. And when I would hear a new song and think “we’ve got to introduce that!”, then I could look ahead and see where it would make the most sense to include it, even if it meant bumping something else off of the list.

My process looked something like this (keep in mind I serve in an Anglican/liturgical context, and we sing about 291 songs per-service):

1. Choose the opening hymns
2. Choose the closing hymns
3. Choose the song that goes in between the readings
4. Choose the opening song(s) of praise
5. Choose the last song of communion (we usually like this one to be an upbeat song of celebration)
6. Choose the first two communion songs, trying to weave them together and build towards the closer.
7. Choose the call to worship (sometimes these are congregational, sometimes they’re choir pieces, and sometimes they’re instrumental, varying from contemporary to classical).

As for the offertory, which is usually a choir/band piece, my colleague Andrew and I usually map all of those out for the entire ministry year by the time we get to August. We’re just about done with that process as I speak.

This kind of long-term planning did not come naturally to me, and seemed unrealistic to me for a very long time. But now that it’s become the norm, I find that I enjoy no longer living in the weekly tyranny, and that I’m freed up to be spontaneous when I need to be.

Most of all, I’ve been freshly amazed at the wisdom of God and his kindness in helping me plan songs months in advance that will end up ministering to specific people or responding to certain current events in ways that there was no way I could have foreseen. He has a way of doing that.