How to Handle the Tambourine Lady

I met her when I was 15 years old and living in Panama City, Florida. My dad was pastoring a small Episcopal church, and my family had been there for about a year and a half.

I had been leading at our youth ministry’s weekly services, a couple of songs for the Sunday morning service, and songs at other events ocassionally.

This particular event was one of a series of summertime mid-week services held in the chapel, with an extended time of singing at the beginning, followed by a teaching. I had just started Paul Baloche’s new (at that time) song “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”, when she came in the back door with her tambourine swinging.

I was really young and had not been leading worship for very long. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t believe this was happening – and from the looks on the faces of the people in the congregation – they couldn’t either.

The tambourine is one of those instruments that either has to be played really well, or hidden deep inside a closet where no one would ever think to look. You know what I mean.

In this instance, it was not being played well. Honestly, it was being played horrendously poorly. That’s probably too kind of a definition. It wasn’t being played at all. It was being used as a weapon of mass distraction. That’s more like it. A bit cheesy but accurate.

No one had taught me what to do in this situation. None of the conferences I had attended had offered seminars on “what to do with the tambourine lady”. The worship leading books had all conveniently left this chapter out. And YouTube didn’t even exist yet, so I couldn’t log on and watch Paul Baloche’s instructional video on the topic.

So I would like to offer some tips on what do when you’re leading worship and all of the sudden a woman walks into the back of the room with her own personal tambourine. I call them the “AAA’s”.

Do a quick damage assessment of the congregation. What percentage seems to be distracted and disturbed? Has everyone noticed? Do they not even care? Are they about to stage a tambourine revolt and kick her out of the room? The extent of the damage will affect your next move.

If the tambourine “playing” seems to have distracted every single person in the room, you might want to think about skipping your fast songs and singing some slow songs. Really slow songs. Odds are (you hope – and pray) that the slow tempo will mean no more tambourine. Or you may just need to keep going on as you had planned.

In all seriousness, when a disruption like this happens, just relax, pray a quick prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and then make the decision that you feel is best. You may very well need to adjust your leading somehow.

Approach (and ask)
Seek the tambourine lady out after the service at all costs. If you can’t find her, call her. If you can’t call her, email her. If you can’t email her, drive to her house. If she doesn’t have a house, put an ad in the local paper. Somehow you have to talk with this person – with your pastor, ideally.

What you want to do is approach her, thank her for her desire to worship God with the tambourine, and ask her if she would like to come to an audition.

If she says no, then you can ask if she would refrain from playing during a service since the other musicians who are up front all rehearse together.

If she says yes, I would be surprised, but you’d need to set up a time to meet with her and audition her, and then be honest with her. (See my post on how to be honest with unskilled musicians who audition for worship teams.)

You may never meet the tambourine lady, but I have heard that she has a habit of showing up at most churches at one point or another.

If you do have the privilege of meeting her, please tell her I said hi.

Handling Awkward Moments – When a Song Bombs

Sometimes you teach a new song and it really clicks.

Sometimes you teach a new song and it just takes a while for it to catch on.

But other times you teach a new song and it bombs.

It sounded great on the CD and you liked it a lot when you sang it at a conference you attended, but in the context of your congregation it just doesn’t work at all. If the song were a TV show it would be canceled. If it were a politician it would be voted out of office. If it were a Washington Redskins quarterback… well never mind.

It can be awkward when you introduce a new song and it bombs. I had a guy come up to me one day after we taught a new song that fell incredibly flat and he said: “I thought to myself during that song you taught ‘I could learn this song if I really wanted to’ but then I decided I didn’t really want to”.

When a song “bombs” it might be because it was the wrong song for your particular congregation, it was the wrong time to introduce it, your worship team wasn’t quite able to pull it off, the congregation couldn’t hear the melody so they decided to not even try, or it wasn’t a very good song in the first place.

Whatever the reason may be for a song “bombing” – it’s awkward when you’re the one who’s imposing it upon the congregation.  What do you do?

If it’s the wrong song – let it go
Maybe the musical style is too far outside your congregation’s comfort zone. Maybe the melody is too complicated. Maybe the content doesn’t resonate. Yes, we want our congregations to grow and be comfortable with a wide variety of songs – but by forcing songs on them for which they’re not ready, we’ll make that growth happen more slowly.

If it’s the wrong time – put it on the bench
Once in a while I’ll introduce a new song and feel that it’s just not the right time. It’s a good song, but for some reason I just need to wait on it a bit longer. These songs get put “on the bench” – not thrown off the roster.

If your worship team can’t pull it off – don’t try
It might be a great song, and your congregation might be ready for it, but if your musicians can’t lead it confidently, it’s probably wise for you to wait until they can. Be honest with yourself and realistic about what kind of songs your worship team is able to lead well. Err on the side of deference to your volunteer musicians’ abilities – not what you hear on the CD.

If it bombed the first time – but you still think it could work – give it a second try
Don’t be afraid to be persistent with a song you really feel could work with your congregation, even if it did bomb the first time. It’s probably a good idea to get a few other opinions before you try it again, but oftentimes a song (especially one that’s a bit different than the norm) will take a while to gain traction with a congregation.

Tee it up it better
When I taught Tim Hughes’ “Happy Day”, I took a minute before we sang it to tee it up. I explained that we were going to learn a song that helped us celebrate how Jesus defeated death and rose from the grave, how that was indeed something to be “happy” about, how that kind of happiness isn’t a shallow, Hallmark-card “happy”, and that at the end of one the verses we would take a moment to lift up a shout of celebration together, and take it as an opportunity to rejoice in the fact that Jesus is alive. Then we learned the song and people weren’t completely caught off-guard. If I had just plowed right into it, it might not have gone over as well.

Don’t stress out about it
I can be tempted to spend some time licking my wounds after a song I introduce bombs. There’s no reason to do that. It’s an unrealistic expectation that every song of every service on every Sunday will be met with whole hearted enthusiasm by the congregation, and a sign of a sinful and prideful desire to come across as perfectly polished.

Two things remain true regardless of what songs I choose, and how enthusiastically they’re received. First, my only boast is in the cross, and second, God is great and greatly to be praised.

Losing Your Cool Isn’t Cool

You’re sitting in a window seat, reading the latest edition of Sky Mall, as your airplane leaves the gate and gets in line for take-off. After a few minutes you’re hurling down the runway at 180 miles per hour and beginning your climb to cruising altitude. You look out the window at the tiny cars for a few minutes before turning your attention back to the combination alarm-clock/onion-slicer that you’re debating ordering.

Then a strange rumbling/screeching noise catches your attention. It’s not a noise you’ve heard before. Maybe it’s nothing. But maybe it’s something. Is the plane about to fall apart into a thousand pieces? What is that noise? You begin to sweat. Profusely. Your life starts to flash in front of your eyes. You look around. None of the other passengers seem to be aware of the fact that their lives are about to end. Now you’re really concerned.

You look for a flight attendant. You can’t see up the aisle, so you turn around and look towards the back of the plane. You see both flight attendants… completely relaxed, reading novels, not sweating profusely, and definitely not strapping on parachutes. The noise goes away. The flight attendants, still relaxed, begin serving that delicious trail-mix.

You know you’re going to be OK when your flight attendants are relaxed. You know you might have a problem when they lose their cool. Flight attendants aren’t supposed to lose their cool.

It took me several years to realize that, to my worship team, I am the flight attendant.

Maybe you can relate to one of these worship leader nightmare scenarios:

The service is five minutes away from starting and none of your monitors are working. The sound engineer has no idea what the problem is but he continues to run back and forth from the sound board, unplug cables, turn different knobs, and look around confused.

You’re introducing a new song to your worship team at rehearsal and it keeps sounding really bad. The singers are singing it the wrong way, the acoustic guitarist doesn’t know half the chords, and the drummer is in a different universe than everyone else.

You have 10 minutes to run through 6 songs before the service starts. You could use an hour.

The computer is plugged into the projector.
The computer and projector both have power. The computer is displaying the PowerPoint slides. The projector is switched to “computer” as the input. The projector keeps projecting a blue screen. You restart both the computer and the projector. Still a blue screen. You try a different cable. You try a different input. You press a lot of buttons. Still a blue screen. The service was supposed to start three minutes ago.

Half an hour before the service is supposed to start, the power goes out. No sound system. No lyric projection. No lights. No air conditioning.

In these moments, the moments when you wish it was just a bad dream but it isn’t, you are the flight attendant. Your worship team has heard the rumbling/screeching noise, they’re starting to get worried, and they’re looking around for some reassurance that everything is going to be OK. If you lose your cool, it’s going to be a very bumpy ride for everyone. People won’t think clearly, they’ll overreact, and they may even start sweating profusely.

Without the help of the Holy Spirit, you won’t be able to keep your cool when you hit some turbulence. Galatians 5:22-23a says: “…The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” This is one reason why every worship leader, and every worship team member, needs to pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit every single time they get up to lead worship.

Worship leaders: your worship team is watching you, especially when things get a little bumpy. It’s incredibly important that you model a Holy Spirit-enabled “coolness”.

We might not have monitors. We might not sound polished. We might have to sing from memory or from 30 year-old songbooks lying in a closet. We might not have electricity. None of that matters. We’ll do what we can, in the power of the Spirit, all for the glory of God.

Handling Awkward Moments: Leading Songs After a Lousy Teaching

wordI am incredibly grateful to serve in a church where, week after week, God’s word is preached strongly by those who tremble at it, and where the teachings are consistently biblically sound, convicting, and Holy Spirit-empowered. In this environment, the songs I’m choosing and leading are helping people hear and respond to what God is saying through his Word and by His Spirit.

In contrast, many worship leaders serve in churches where the teaching is weak and ineffective, or worse, heretical and unbiblical.

What’s a worship leader to do in that environment?

I recall one occasion when I was asked to lead worship for an event held somewhere away from my church. I felt I knew enough about who was hosting the event to feel comfortable saying yes, so I did. I prayerfully chose the songs, prepared for the event as well as I could, prayed a lot, and rehearsed with the worship team. The event finally arrived, the opening time of singing went really well, and then the teaching came. It went on for over an hour, and, as my British father-in-law so kindly described it, it was “diffuse”. I might describe it as “lousy”.

Leading songs after a lousy teaching can be awkward. Here are some ideas on how a worship leader can handle it, particularly if it’s unexpected.

If you’re listening to the teaching and beginning to realize it’s going off-track, pray and ask God for wisdom about what to do. Especially if your songs come immediately after the “teaching”, how you respond will be critical.

Ask for advice
If you’re near anyone you know you can respect as someone who loves God and his Word, just ask them: “what do I do?” I did this at the event I mentioned above, and the advice I received was the way God chose to answer my prayer for wisdom.

Be prepared to call an audible
In American football, the quarterback will call “an audible” (a last-second switch to a new play) when he sees that the play he had originally chosen just won’t stand up against the defense’s formation.

If you’re leading songs after a lousy (i.e. weak or heretical) teaching, you’ll most likely need to call an audible. You’ll need to communicate this to your musicians, the lyrics operator (if you’re projecting them), and the congregation (more on that later).

Proclaim Truth
You have an opportunity to infuse the truth of God’s word into a service in which it’s lacking. You do not want to do this in an arrogant and preachy way, but in a humble and gentle way. I would gravitate towards songs that preach the Gospel. Some ideas are “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”, “In Christ Alone”, or “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. Anything that presents the Gospel clearly would be one of my first choices.

Hopefully, by responding to a lousy teaching with Christ-centered, God-glorifying songs, I can help people walk away from the service with at least some measure of truth being planted in their hearts.

Do it pastorally
When I stepped onto the platform after the “diffuse” teaching I mentioned, I looked out on a congregation that looked really confused. It would have been the worst idea in the world to say what I was thinking, which was: “how in the world did (so-and-so) let that just happen?” Instead, I said something like: “We’re going to spend some time now responding to God by singing to Him, and celebrating what he’s done for us in Christ. Our ‘hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness’, so let’s stand and proclaim that together.”

It’s easy to call this kind of audible when you’re projecting lyrics and you have musicians who are comfortable being spontaneous. If you don’t have either of those things, you can still infuse God’s truth into the service by turning to a different hymn in the hymnal (just call out the page number), singing a song of response all by yourself, encouraging them to a simple (but truth-filled) song sing from memory, reading from scripture, repeating a good song from earlier in the service, or just continuing on with what you’ve planned.

(If you serve in a church where this is a weekly occurrence – not just once in a blue moon like it is for me – plan ahead and choose music that will subtly yet clearly, correct error in the teaching. Also, check out this clip of John Piper answering a worship pastor’s question along these same lines.)

What Would I Say If This Guy Auditioned For The Worship Team?

I recently came across this video of a guy who claims to be able to sing “five octaves on the piano”. See for yourself.

I’ve auditioned some people who are clearly musically gifted and called to serve the church on the worship team, some whose giftedness and calling to serve is less clear, and from time to time people (like the guy in the video) who are clearly not gifted, not called to serve on a worship team, and completely oblivious. Those auditions are always a challenge.

What would I say if this guy auditioned for the worship team?

First, I’d lay a foundation before I ever heard him sing a note (or something resembling a note). It’s important that before anyone sings or plays an instrument in an audition that they understand they’re not “trying out” for a band – they’re entering into a discernment process regarding the gifts that God has given them. I do this by pointing people to Paul’s picture of “one body with many members” in 1 Corinthians 12. Every “member” of the body has a specific role and function. God arranges the parts of the body and decides who gets certain varieties of gifts. When someone auditions for the worship team, my job is to help them discern where their specific gift might be best employed.

After that foundation had been laid – the last thing I would say before hearing them sing or play would be something like: “Now, because of that, I want you to know that I’m going to be honest with you. I’m here to help you discern what gifts God has given you to serve the church. Do I have your permission to be honest with you?

If this guy had agreed to all of the above, here is how I would handle it:

Thank him
I need to recognize and express my thankfulness for this guy giving up part of his day, being vulnerable enough to do this, and for sharing his “gift” with me.

– Prepare him
Before giving my honest assessment of his giftedness, I’d briefly remind him that (a) this isn’t about his worth as a person, (b) this is about whether or not God has gifted him musically to serve the body of Christ on the worship team, and (c) I owe it to him to be honest with him.

Be honest with him
I would follow the K.I.S.S. rule here (keep it simple, stupid). There is no need for me to go on and on and pile on my honest assessment of his gifting. Briefly, gently, and simply, I would say something like: “My impression is that your strongest gifting is not in the area of singing. You had a difficult time matching pitch, and you struggled to stay in key. I know this might be a bit difficult to hear, but I need to be honest with you and tell you that, in my view, serving on the worship team isn’t the best match for your gifts.” That’s enough of that.

– Affirm him
Immediately after this honest assessment of his gifting, I would attempt to honestly and genuinely affirm what gifts I might have seen on display. Even if, in our short time together, I had only noticed one thing I could possibly affirm, I would point out that one thing. This isn’t a sneaky trick intended to make him forget what I had just said, but a heartfelt attempt at reminding him that just because he’s not gifted in one way doesn’t mean he’s not gifted in others.

– Talk with him
The last thing I would do is ask him what other ways he could imagine serving the church. Get him thinking and talking about what other gifts he might have and try to connect him with other opportunities for him to serve the body.

– Pray for him
I would ask “before you go home, do you mind if I pray for you?” I’d seek to thank God for giving me these 10 minutes with this guy, ask God to show us both some ways the guy could serve, and ask God to bless him. It’s important that this guy leaves the audition with a fresh reminder that God has indeed given him certain gifts.

No worship leader enjoys having to tell someone that they aren’t gifted musically. It can be awkward, a bit tense, and unpleasant if the person responds immaturely. But through your faithful and loving care for your congregation – even those who think they can sing five octaves on a piano – God will use you for his glory.