Growing Healthy, Worshipping, Intergenerational Choirs: Worship Leader Gathering 2018

A little over one month from now I’ll be leading a small gathering of worship leaders and/or choir directors in Atlanta, centered around the theme of growing healthy, worshipping, intergenerational choirs, and partnering those choirs with worship teams.

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t grow up a “choir guy”, I never sang in choirs, I don’t conduct choirs, and for many years my only experience with church choirs was that they were dwindling.  I’ve seen choirs that are extinct, or dead, or hostile, or performance-minded, or divorced from contemporary music (with occasional awkward family visits at Christmas and Easter), or grasping at straws. The National Study of Congregations (Duke University) showed that in a 14 year period, between 1998 and 2012, the utilization of choirs in mainline protestant churches dropped 30%. And from what I’ve seen – in the last 5 years, that’s continued to drop.

Some churches strong, growing, stable choirs. But that’s the exception, not the norm. The trends are downward. Why do so many of us (even people like me, who aren’t your traditional “choir guys”) care that we continue the ministry of choirs?

Because a choir provides the Church a unique demonstration of the gospel – in that people from all tribes and tongues, generations, races, backgrounds, and skill levels – are redeemed and joined together to the praise of God’s glorious grace, they are not merely a decoration to be saved from the trash heap of musical yesteryear, but are a vehicle for TODAY’S CHURCH to display a microcosm of God’s ransomed people, joined together as the worshipping body of Christ.

God has planted in me – and my colleagues at my church, and many worship leaders and choir directors around the world – a vision for choirs that are:

  • Multi-ethnic
  • Cross-generational
  • Made up of “trained” singers and “amateur” singers
  • Growing
  • Able to sing difficult, classical pieces
  • Able to sing modern music with vigor
  • Meaningfully engaged in worship
  • Part of a unified team alongside the band
  • Such a welcoming family that people can’t resist joining
  • A worship leading engine, pointing the congregation to Jesus

One of the churches that demonstrates this kind of choir – and has been demonstrating it for several decades – is Mount Paran Church of God. It’s a different kind of church from the ones I’ve attended and served, it belongs a different denomination (which is VERY different from my stream of reformed Anglicanism in many many ways), and I had never even heard of it until about 10 years ago. But oh how wonderful – and how broad – is the Body of Christ. And this church had something to teach me about what choirs could do. This clip shows something most Anglican churches would never consider doing with a choir and band. And maybe that’s part of our problem. God may have more for us, and more for choirs, than we think.

If you have a passion for growing healthy, worshipping, intergenerational choirs, and partnering them with worship teams, then join us in Atlanta next month. All the details can be found at: https://worshipleadergathering.com.

Maintaining Congregational Connection

For the last two days, I’ve been at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, taking part in teaching at a worship conference hosted by Andy Piercy on the theme of “Restoring the Worship Connection”. I was one of the speakers, along with Andy, Paul Baloche, and Andi Rozier. It was great meeting and talking with so many gifted and faithful worship leaders.

In my session, I was asked to share on maintaining the congregation’s connection in worship. In other words, how do we help them not tune out? How do we remove road blocks to the congregation singing and participating? In an attempt to be succinct, and to cover some basic fundamentals of worship leading, I offered these 15 (!) essentials, and I share them here as well in the event that they’re helpful.

An invitational spirit
Psalm 34:3 is the heart of the worship leader, saying: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” We are like hosts at a feast.

A confident, humble, accessible style
Confidence to lead with clarity, humility to serve with pastoral care, and accessibility, so as many people as possible can follow and join in with you.

Songs worth singing
We have more songs at our disposal than ever, so we don’t have any reason to sing bad songs. Use songs that are musically, lyrically, and theologically rich. They’re out there!

A balanced repertoire
I wrote about the concept of “thinking in thirds” previously. Generally, the idea is that to keep as broad a cross-section of generations in your congregation engaged as possible, sing hymns, sing older/familiar songs, and sing new songs. Think in thirds.

Keys are key
The old adage of singing “from C to shining C” still holds true. Songs can dip lower, but don’t hang out in the doldrums. Songs can pop higher, but don’t hang out in the stratosphere. Keep your songs in singable keys for the average voice.

Building trust – and capital
Build trust with your congregation, and therefore build capital to save for later.

Spending that capital to push your congregation
Every congregation in the world has areas in which they can grow in worship. A worship leader who has built trust with his/her congregation can and should spend that capital to help the congregation grow. They’ll follow you if they trust you.

Modeling expressiveness
Worship leaders oftentimes lament the lack of expressiveness in the congregation. Start by modeling it from the platform, and you’ll send the message that it’s safe to be expressive in the congregation.

Using music – effectively and correctly – as a tool
Do whatever kind of style you can do, with the musicians you have, as well as you can. Don’t try to do what you can’t do. Don’t try to be who you aren’t. Don’t try to achieve a sound that isn’t achievable. Do what you can, as well as you can, and your congregation will appreciate it.

Having the right people – and equipment – run sound
Good sound encourages robust singing. It’s worth getting the right equipment and people to run sound in your setting. If you’re in a small church without a budget for this, call a larger church in your area with good sound, and simply ask for their help, and offer them a free lunch in return for a few hours of their time to help train your people and/or EQ your system.

Behind the scenes camaraderie with the pastor and worship leader
Tension or indifference between the pastor and worship leader will result in tension or indifference in the room. When a worship leader is seen as usurping or circumventing a pastor’s authority, that lack of unity is unhealthy for a congregation, and stifles their participation in worship. A pastor and worship leader must have a trusting and transparent relationship.

The worship space itself – acoustics, lighting, etc.
Dead acoustics in a room will deaden the singing, because people feel like they’re singing into a vacuum. Conversely, really bouncy acoustics will make everything unintelligible. Acoustics matter. So does lighting.

Driving the technology – so it doesn’t drive you
There’s nothing wrong with loops, multi-tracks, pads, etc. But when/if you integrate these things, make sure you’re driving them, and not the other way around. When technology drives us, and limits us, we run the risk of making the congregation’s involvement in worship incidental, not integral.

Faithfulness, faithfulness, faithfulness
Serve your congregation with faithfulness. Trust in God’s faithfulness. Over time, God will faithfully use your faithfulness, to accomplish his purposes, and glorify himself in and through the worship of his Church. You might not see the results you want to see, in the time you want to see them, but God is faithful, and your labor in him is not in vain.

The worship leader’s heart and diet
The public ministry of a worship leader starts – and is sustained – in private. Our private passion for God and his Word, will fuel our public ministry of inviting our congregations to feast upon him, and magnify his name with us.

When the Church Wounds You

Six weeks ago I began a four-month long sabbatical, for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which was to have the time and space to heal from a couple decades’ worth of bumps and bruises and scrapes and scars caused by the everyday journeys of life and ministry. The break from weekly worship leading has allowed me to slow down, zoom out, and examine myself and my ministry from 30,000 feet. God has graciously, mercifully, and sometimes painfully, shown me some areas that need his attention, and I’m very acutely aware that there are a lot of people praying for me. The Holy Spirit is doing his work of convicting, counseling, and comforting, and even while I’m knee-deep in five seminary classes this semester, I’m feeling refreshed and renewed.

Every single person in ministry bears their own wounds and has their own stories of how they’ve been hurt. And in the last six weeks alone I’ve had the chance to have long phone conversations with several worship leader friends of mine who are burned out, who have left worship ministry, who are thinking about it, who needed a break a long time ago but haven’t had the opportunity, who have been let go, or who feel like a car stuck in the sand, just spinning their wheels and not getting anywhere. They each have their own stories of being hurt while serving different churches, and while they genuinely want to be effective in ministry, they’re finding that it’s difficult to do so when you’re in pain.

A few weeks before I began my sabbatical I had one of those infamous conversations where someone told me something they had heard from someone else, who had talked to someone else, who had conveyed something they heard second-hand from someone, who heard it from someone somewhere. You know the kind of game-of-telephone thing I’m talking about. The particular thing that was communicated to me, and the particular dubious source from which it originated, was not surprising to me in the least, but it still hurt. Why? Because it happened to rub up against one of those wounds from decades earlier. It wasn’t the thing itself that hurt, but it aggravated an old wound.

I explained that kind of scenario to another worship leader friend of mine by likening it to when you walk into a room and smell something that takes you back to an old house or an old memory from 25 years ago. In an instant, you’re transported back in time. She told me that she knew exactly how I felt, and then proceeded to tell me something that had just happened to her the morning before our conversation. For her, it wasn’t the particular “thing”, but it was how it smelled, and what that smell evoked.

Being in a ministry is a wonderful privilege and joy. And it is also an exhausting and painful experience. When the Church hurts you, it leaves a wound. And when we’re not honest about those wounds, to quote an old seminary professor of mine, “it messes us up”.

We get resentful towards the Church. We become hardened. We react to almost everything with cynicism. We lead out of a defensive posture. And in our heart of hearts, we want to run away. It’s all understandable, and every single person in ministry has experienced (or is currently experiencing) these symptoms. It doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with you, but it does mean God is getting your attention.

These are like the check engine lights in your car, and you have to pay attention to them unless you want to wind up on the side of the road. And we all know people who have ignored those warnings for too long, and pushed it too hard, and eventually broke down. To be honest about our wounds, we need to be able to pull over, stop, allow the Lord to look under the hood, and with the Godly counsel of pastors, friends, counselors, and the healing balm of the Word of God, begin to actually heal. Warning: it will involve some pain, some discomfort, some forgiving, and some rest. It might involve some counseling, perhaps a break from ministry, and some difficult conversations. But you don’t need to pretend you’re not hurt, you don’t need to feel alone in this, and you don’t need to burn out.

Yes, the Church will wound you, and then by God’s grace, he will use the Church to help heal you.

We have to be willing to walk that road of vulnerability and healing. Most of us don’t get sabbaticals very often, but all of us can ask the Holy Spirit to help us take inventory of ourselves – and of how we’re really doing – and let God begin to soften hardened places, heal wounded places, and address neglected areas.

Then, in his sovereign wisdom, God will take our stories and wounds and use them for our good and for his glory, that Jesus would be exalted in our lives and through our songs, magnifying the one who bore our wounds on the cross.

Worship Leader Gathering: July 17 – 19, 2018

Last March, a group of 25 worship leaders and choir directors from all over the geographical and denominational map gathered in Atlanta for a wonderful time of community, worship, prayer, and teaching. We considered the challenges of leading/growing/building vibrant, worshipping choirs, and how to lead our worship ministries well. This gathering was one of the highlights of 2017 for me!

If you – or anyone you know – is interested in this topic, I would like to invite you back to Atlanta this July 17 – 19, for another gathering of worship leaders and choir directors, to encourage one another, pray for one another, and learn from one another.

We will once again have a welcome dinner on the evening of the 17th, and spend all of Wednesday (July 18th) at Mt. Paran Church of God, including observing their choir rehearsal that evening. On the morning of the 19th we’ll have one final session (and prayer commissioning), and will be done by 11:00am. We’re capping it at 50 attendees this year.

We’ll learn from each other, and from various speakers including the team at Mt. Paran, from Bradley Knight from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and from various others as well. We place a big emphasis on building relationships, praying for one another, and being real with each other.

Here’s a video with more info, featuring yours truly:

You can visit https://worshipleadergathering.com for all the info, and to register. I hope to see you there!

My Upcoming Sabbatical

A little over a week from now, Catherine and I will be embarking on a four-month faith journey with our three girls, while I take a sabbatical from worship ministry. I thought I would tell you a bit more about why I’m taking a sabbatical, what exactly I’ll be doing, and also ask if you would be praying for me!

Why a sabbatical?

Two reasons. First, I have been leading worship nearly every weekend of my life since the age of 13. To use a football analogy, I was “handed the ball” as an eighth-grade boy, and I’ve been running down the field ever since. These last 20+ years have been incredibly rewarding, as God has matured me, allowed me the privilege of serving at wonderful and dynamic churches, and given me the most precious gift of Catherine and our three girls.

But these last two decades have also been incredibly exhausting, and God has been speaking clearly over the last year or so, that for the sake of my own health, my ability to serve in ministry for the long haul, and my role as a husband and father, I need to take a time out. I need to put the ball down, step out of bounds, rest, and get ready to get back on the field for another stretch. Otherwise, I’m headed for inevitable ministry burnout. Catherine has affirmed this need for a sabbatical, and so has the leadership of Truro Anglican Church, where I serve. They have encouraged me to take it soon: from February – May.

Second, in the summer of 2010, I became a seminary student at the Washington D.C. campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. Through RTS, I am pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion, after which I feel called to discern whether or not God would lead me to become ordained in the Anglican Church.

I am now halfway through my seminary studies, but with the demands of full-time worship ministry, and family responsibilities, I simply don’t have the margins to take more than perhaps one course per year. It is time for me to focus more intentionally on making significantly measurable progress towards completing my seminary studies.

So this sabbatical is dual-purposed: First, to give me a rest from the weekly demands of up-front ministry, and the space to heal from some of the wounds and exhaustion. Second, to provide me the space to take a full semester of seminary classes.

What will we be doing?

Next week, my family and I will be temporarily moving to Central Florida, so that I can take a full semester of classes at RTS Orlando during their spring semester. We are looking forward to spending a season as a family outside of the pressurized environment of Northern Virginia, and being close to the water. I have been counseled by friends and mentors to devote evenings to Catherine, and weekends to my daughters (and the beach). On Sundays, we will worship at Celebration Community Church, and I hope to sit in on some of their elder meetings, so that I can learn from a church outside of the Anglican context. I will also be intentionally spending time with several mentors in the Orlando area, and enjoying time with some family who live close by. This will be a season for rest, study, family strengthening, and for experiencing an extended season of not standing on a platform every Sunday.

How you can pray for us

Catherine and I would be incredibly grateful for your prayers in these areas:

For me : That I am able to get meaningful rest from up-front ministry, rewarding times of theological study, space to process, grieve, and heal from the last 20+ years, and a renewed energy for the future.

For Catherine: That God grants her all the peace, energy, and wisdom she needs as she helps move our family for four months, homeschools our three girls, and helps them adjust to their new surroundings.

For our marriage: That God protects, strengthens, and renews our love for one another.

For Megan, Emma, and Callie: That they adjust well to their new/temporary home for these four months, and that God helps them handle this significant upheaval.

About this blog
I started this blog in July 2009 with a simple purpose: “to help worship leaders lead well”. I have every intention of continuing to write here for that purpose, and offer whatever help, encouragement, and resources I can to worship leaders. Catherine has encouraged me not to give up writing on here during my sabbatical, so in the weeks and months to come I hope to share some of what God is teaching me and showing me, and occasional updates about a worship leader gathering I’ll be hosting in Atlanta in July.

Finally, I do apologize to my readers for how quiet things have been here lately! Now you know a bit more of the reasons why. Thanks for your understanding, and most importantly for your prayers.

Beautiful Baby Boy

Eight years ago, just a couple of months after our first daughter was born, I found myself seeing and reflecting upon the incarnation of Jesus Christ with fresh eyes. As a first-time dad I was not prepared for the profound sweetness, tenderness, and innocence of a little baby. I had an overwhelming love and affection for this beautiful, soft, little girl.

It made me think how Mary must have felt when she cradled baby Jesus in her arms. And felt his warm little breaths on her arm as he slept, or heard his little cries when he was hungry, or stroked his smooth little chest. One day that beautiful baby boy would be nailed to a tree as the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. One day his soft little lips would speak forgiveness and proclaim good news. One day those little arms would embrace the sinner.

So I wrote the song “Beautiful Baby Boy” as a reflection on the very real incarnation of Jesus into the very real form of a beautiful, precious, tender baby boy. And I wrote it as a reminder that he came for a purpose, and that his destiny even from the time he laid in a manger, was to be a crucified and risen Savior.

You can listen to the song here (special thanks to Joshua Spacht for the string orchestrations):

Click here to download the mp3 from iTunes.
Click here to download the free chord chart.
Click here to download the free lead sheet (thanks, Zach Sprowls).
And here are the lyrics:

Beautiful Baby Boy

His tiny little hands will be nailed to a tree
His precious little feet will be pierced through for me
And His soft little lips will bless and forgive
Oh beautiful baby boy

His tiny little chest will be whipped and flogged
His precious little head will be stained with his blood
And His soft little cry will beg for my life
Oh beautiful baby boy

Oh beautiful baby boy. Oh holy Lamb of God
Away in a manger lies our perfect sacrifice
Oh beautiful baby boy

His tiny little eyes will seek out the poor
His precious little arms will welcome the whore
And His soft pudgy face is the image of grace
Oh beautiful baby boy

And we were dead in our sins, and we were lost on our own
And we were children of wrath, and we were all without hope
But God rich in mercy, but God great in love
But God full of kindness gave us His only Son

Words and music: Jamie Brown. © 2011 Worthily Magnify Music.  All rights reserved. CCLI song # 6026925

Red Flags

Adding members to a worship team, a choir, or really any volunteer team is one of the most important and consequential jobs of a worship leader. It requires patience (when no one is stepping forward), discernment (whether or not someone is gifted), wisdom (is this person suited for a leadership position in the church?), and leadership (am I building a team or expecting it to fall into place?)

I have made some wise decisions regarding whom to add to the worship team, and I have made some not-so-wise decisions. I’ve learned that there are some things to look out for (i.e. red flags) when considering whether or not someone should be asked to join the worship team.

Here are some red flags to be looking for (in no particular order of importance):

They speak bitterly about former churches
You will not break their cycle of joining a church, being on the worship team, and then leaving and trashing that church to the next church. Instead, you will probably end up joining the club.

They “need” to be on the worship team
Be wary of someone who approaches you about joining the worship team after only weeks at the church, someone who seems overly eager to sing or play an instrument on the team, or someone who is putting pressure on you. Instead of looking for a place to serve, they are looking for a source of self-validation. They really “need” to be up front. Watch out.

They really just want to play music and leave the worship leading to you
I tell my team quite often that I am not looking to build a team of back-up instrumentalists and singers. I am looking to build a team of worship leaders. If I’m auditioning someone and they just seem to be interested in playing music and unable to articulate a passion for helping people encounter God in worship, I would be hesitant to add them right away.

They aren’t committed to the church
Before someone is in a position of leadership at a church, they need to be committed to that church. Set a bar of expectations for the members of your worship team. You won’t regret it.

They say something like “I worship most easily when I’m leading worship”
This is usually code for “when I’m not up front I’m uncomfortable because I’d rather be up front”. People who really want to be up front maybe shouldn’t be up front as much as they’d like, for their own good. (See my post from a very long time ago: “Do You Worship When You’re Not ‘Leading Worship’?”)

They are over-confident
I once had a woman come up to me after a service and say “I would love to join you on the worship team some time. I used to sing many years ago. Feel free to call on me anytime. I don’t need to audition or anything like that. I’d be fine.” You might want to encourage that audition.

They are already over-committed
I’ll always ask a potential worship team member “do you have space in your life for another commitment?” Then I’ll tell them what is expected of worship team members. If they seem excited about making this commitment and able to fulfill it, that’s an encouraging sign. If they seem burned-out just thinking about it, that’s a red flag.

They don’t enthusiastically participate in singing from the pews
Look for them on a Sunday morning when they’re in the pews. Imagine they’re the one leading worship and you’re the one looking at them on a platform. Whatever message they’re sending in the pews will be greatly magnified on stage.

They take it lightly
I remind my team quite frequently that being on the worship team means being in a position of leadership. Make sure that any person you add to your worship team feels that weight and takes it seriously.

Add to your team slowly, intentionally, and wisely. Look for red flags and don’t just hope they’ll disappear. They hardly ever do – and they’re a whole lot harder to handle once you’ve already taken the plunge.