Don’t Be A Monkey

1Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I was pretty convinced that whenever I ran into any sort of opposition or problems or inertia, the solution was that I needed to get my way.

Service feels dead? I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do. 

Musicians not performing well? You should let me clean house or crack the whip.

Only time for two songs? If you loved Jesus you’d give me time for at least five.

You don’t want to project lyrics? Then obviously you’re a neanderthal.

I’m supposed to get advice from a committee? A waste of my precious time.

I can’t have my own office? I’ll make as much noise for as many months as it takes for me to get what I want.

No one is singing? They’ll catch on soon enough once they come to appreciate my underlying brilliance.

You thought I repeated that song too many times? I should have repeated it more.

You want me to submit my song list to who? I hear directly from God.

The list could go on but I’ll spare you any more glimpses into my immaturity (none of which still exists today, of course… ahem…) or self-centerdness. I was convinced when I was first starting out leading worship that I had (a) all the answers, (b) all the insight, and (c) all the skills rolled into one worship leading powerhouse package: me.

And my artistic temperament coupled with my sinful nature and with a dash of preacher’s kid-itis thrown on top resulted in a working assumption that my degree of satisfaction and my ability to thrive in ministry was directly correlated to much freedom I had to do things my own way.

I once heard a statement (I can’t remember from whom) that the higher a monkey climbs up a tree, the better you can see his butt. This would describe the worship leader I was when I first started out. A monkey who wanted to climb high, high, high up the tree all on his own and be allowed to swing freely from the branches doing his own thing.

The problem? I’d eventually fall off one of those branches and I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone else but me.

Here’s my point: don’t make the mistake of thinking that the solution anytime you face opposition, or problems, or inertia, is that you be allowed to get your way. Many times that is completely the wrong solution.

Consult with others, submit to others, team up with others, bounce your ideas off of others, learn the political landscape from more experienced people around you, listen a lot, keep your mouth closed in meetings unless you’re sure you have the right thing to say, pursue humility, and above all things, make it about Jesus, not about you.

Too many worship leaders make mountains out of mole hills when they reflexively turn away from conventional wisdom or common sense or pastoral restraint, and instead do things their own way. When you do that, you’re the monkey climbing the tree. You’ll have fun and get some “oohs” and “ahs” at first, which will feed your ego, but then you’re in for an embarrassing fall.

Take it from me! Getting your own way is not always a good idea in the long run. There’s a difference between getting your way and implementing a vision. Pursue the latter option.

Getting Into a Worship Leading Career After College

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Last week I received an email from a senior in high school who’s discerning a possible call to a career in worship ministry, and is experiencing some push-back and questioning from her family who tell her she’s crazy. She asked a lot of good questions, basically trying to find out whether or not she’s… well… crazy.

Here’s what I said:

There are always churches looking to hire full-time worship leaders. Churches all across the country, in any city of any state. There are lots of employment options for people looking for worship leader jobs, but in order to be attractive to a potential church, you’ll need to able to show that you can do several things.

First, can you manage a music program? The budget/volunteers/scheduling/rehearsals/long-term planning/meetings/emails/auditions/Christmas/Easter/administrative/etc? To prove this, I’d recommend you start getting your hands dirty as soon as possible. Intern with a music program at a church somewhere. Start getting as much experience as you possibly can!

Second, can you lead worship well? Are you able to plan a cohesive service, effectively using songs to help people glorify God? Can you lead a band, or a choir, or an orchestra? You don’t need to be able to lead all of those types of ensembles, but if you can’t lead any of them, you’ll have a hard time getting a job. Again, the best way to prove this to a potential church is to do it consistently and well in some sort of setting. Most churches will not hire a worship leader with no regular worship leading experience. An internship somewhere can provide this, or better yet, enter into the “market” via an assistant/part-time/associate position, where you can gain experience, show your skills, learn your craft, make mistakes, and become more polished.

Third, are you a leader? Do people want to follow you? Will a congregation respond positively to your leadership and your musical abilities? Will a pastor look at your application and think “she’d help my congregation grow” or think “next…” The stronger you become as a leader, the better the odds that you’ll get a good position somewhere.

Start small. Build a good foundation. Pursue your education. Study music. Study theology. Lead worship/rehearsals/services as much as you can. Say “yes” to whatever worship leading opportunities come your way. This will help you grow!

Don’t worry about the naysayers, but do listen to whatever wisdom they have to offer. If you’ve been called by God to this ministry, then he will equip you.

(Related post: Getting Experience Makes You Experienced.)

Three Common Worship Leading Errors

1It can be dangerous when the role of a worship leader is over exaggerated. If we’re not careful, the worship leader can be elevated to the role of an Old Testament High Priest. Likewise, it can be dangerous when the role of a worship leader is under valued. If we’re not careful, the worship leader can be diminished to the role of a church jukebox: you put some money in it and tell it which songs to play.

Worship leaders are not high priests and they’re not jukeboxes. They’re pastoral servants, called by God to preach the message of the Gospel through song, and to serve a church’s musicians and congregation by helping them make much of the greatness of God. The role of a worship leader is crucial. When they get off track consistently (over months and years), they can get a congregation off track too.

Here are three common worship leading errors that can have a detrimental impact on the churches they serve:

1. The primary focus is on the wrong person’s surrender
In a laudable attempt to help their congregations worship God from the heart, many worship leaders put the primary focus of their leadership and songs on how much they’re surrendering. Their heart is in the right place. It’s their focus that needs to be shifted.

When the primary focus shifts from us and our surrendering to the cross and Jesus’ surrendering, then a congregation’s heart begins to be warmed and freed and affected by the shout from the cross that “it is finished” rather than the shout from the worship leader to “sing it louder”. Heartfelt worship springs from the gospel.

2. There is no primary focus
The worship leader without a focus is like a broken clock. He’s right sometimes but not on purpose.

This song is about that, and that anthem is about this, and this Sunday we’re singing these kinds of songs, and that woman is singing this kind of solo, and this group is leading that kind of music, and all your congregation can say is “huh”?

What makes you tick? Anything? If nothing, then you’re a broken clock. Not terribly helpful. But when the gospel makes you tick, then you start pointing to the right things whenever people look at you.

3. There is no passion
Passion-less worship leading could be attributed to a whole host of factors: maybe crippling criticism, burnout, pressure, or a lack of any support. If a worship leader experiences any of these things, he’s not likely to throw himself into the ministry or into his role on Sunday mornings. Likewise, a worship leader who feels really safe and comfortable is not likely to want to rock the boat either.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Power. He is the Spirit of Freedom. And he is the pointer to Christ. The absence of passion in a worship leader or in a worship ministry shows an absence of the Spirit’s empowering presence. When the Holy Spirit’s power is at work in a worship leader and in a worship ministry, the result is a passion for the glory of God above all things. And this passion will inevitably result in the boat getting rocked. And so be it.

When worship leaders stay focused on the Gospel and stay dependent on the Spirit, then their congregations will stay well served. May we resist the pull to focus on our meager sacrifices, and instead give ourselves to passionately and consistently point our congregations to the glory of God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit.

14 Crucially Important Experiences for A Worship Leader’s Development

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No worship leader ever stops growing. If they do, they’re in trouble. There’s always more to learn, more to understand, and more experiences to have. Likewise, no worship leader becomes “seasoned” overnight. If they expect to, they’re in trouble. To grow as a worship leader, there are some crucially important experiences you have to have.

Here’s a list of 14 of them, in no particular order of importance. They’re all important.

1. Retreats
Lead worship for 3 or 4 retreats and you’ll realize that they require an incredible amount of planning, coordination, logistics arranging, and flexibility, and leave you utterly exhausted. You need to get good at leading worship on retreats and remember to bring your own pillow.

2. Weekly leadership
It’s one thing to lead worship on an occasional basis, and this is a good place to start. But the next step is finding an opportunity to lead a regular congregation on a regular basis with a regular worship team of some sort. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs that you need to learn how to ride. Sometimes you’ll feel sick, but it’s actually a lot of fun.

3. Weddings and funerals
There are no do-overs when it comes to weddings and funerals. These are profoundly emotional, high-stakes, memorable, photographed, and meaningful services. You will mess up at them for sure, but you better make sure they’re small mess ups or there will be people who remember you for the rest of their lives (and not in a good way).

5. Fill-in
Serving as a guest-worship leader for a church that isn’t yours, with musicians you’re unaccustomed to working with, and using a repertoire you haven’t built is disorienting and a lot of work. Learn how to listen to what they need, serve them with humility, and come back to your home church more grateful for the blessings you don’t appreciate like that nice gentleman who always makes fun of your pants.

6. Small group
It requires much more sensitivity and pastoral skill to lead worship for 10 people than it does for 1,000. Don’t underestimate the life-long difference that leading worship in someone’s living room can make to your worship leading skills, especially when you’re interrupted by a screaming baby.

7. Big group
You can get away with things in a small group that you can’t get away with in front of a big group (200 or more people). Leading worship for a large number of people requires you to muster up a level of planning, preparation, and leadership authority that will seem impossible at first but will begin to feel natural the more you do it.

8. Christmas Eve and Easter
Mature worship leaders learn, through years of trial and error, how best to carry the burden of planning music for the two biggest-deal services of the year, in a way that doesn’t totally consume their lives (or their volunteers’), provides their congregation with a genuine encounter with God, and includes everyone’s favorite songs and ensures no complaints (yeah right).

9. On-the-side services
Occasional healing services, vow renewals, baby dedications, church staff meetings, Veterans’ Day services, and any other service that requires a time of singing that isn’t on Sunday morning, will cause you think outside the box and factor in a whole different slew of things while planning a time of worship that will engage people.

10. Kids
When adults aren’t engaged in worship they’ll stand there like a robot. When kids aren’t engaged in worship they’ll get really loud and ask their mom for a snack or jump on their friend’s back and try to tackle him. Learning how to lead kids in worship will prepare you for the grumpiest of all adults.

11. Elderly
The older generation isn’t impressed with your flannel shirt and skinny jeans and guitar delay and day-old beard growth. They would like to actually be able to sing along with you, hopefully something true and somewhat meaningful, without being subjected to physical pain while in the process.

12. Hostile
My experience as a teenager leading worship for a congregation in which one-half of the room would stand while the other half would remain seated with their arms folded, while staring at me angrily, was the most valuable worship leading experience I ever had. Leading worship for hostile groups will force you to grow in dependence on God, and confidence in who he’s gifted you to be.

13. Charismatic
Charismatics are hungry and ready and expectant for God to move during worship. You don’t need to convince them or win them over. Leading in this kind of environment can be refreshing, but also challenging. Find a way to help them meet with God in Spirit-soaked worship while ensuring the content of the songs is Jesus-centric and God-glorifying.

14. Meetings
This has nothing to do with playing an instrument or singing. It has to do with the fact that if you’re a worship leader, you need to learn how to run a good meeting. Have an agenda, be in control, move things along, don’t let anyone dominate, get results, and adjourn it before it goes too long and people start throwing things. This will serve you for the rest of your life, and help you run good rehearsals as well.

What did I leave out?

Figuring Out Who You Are

1When I was first starting to really get into worship leading during middle school, I was spending a lot of time listening to a Pentecostal worship leader out of Florida. You wouldn’t know who he is, since the only reason I could listen to him was because my Mom had subscribed to that church’s sermon ministry and when they sent the tapes they included the whole service.

So I’d listen to those tapes and sit there transfixed. The worship leader (and team) was really good. This stuff wasn’t edited or produced or anything. This was live, straight-from-the-sound-board, as-it-happened worship. In classic Pentecostal style, they could take a 3 or 4 minute song and make it go (and go) for 15 minutes. And the more they repeated a song the more people seemed to get into it.

You can criticize that style all you want, but for me at that point in my life, attending and leading worship in an old, dead Episcopal church, listening to those tapes was like water to my thirsty soul.

Naturally, when you listen to a particular worship leader and/or style of music for a while, you start to copy it. And so I, a middle school boy leading worship at a little Episcopal church, began to replicate the Pentecostal worship leader I was hearing on the tapes.

The guy on the tapes could hit a high G and make it sound like he wasn’t even trying. When I tried to hit a D it sounded like I was mimicking a farm animal. The guy on the tapes would add all these phrases and runs and cool embellishments and it made the congregation respond with more vigor. When I tried to do something cool it just sounded like I was… well… trying to do something cool.

I was over-doing it. Big time. Instead of being who I was, a fourteen year old guy who had an average voice, was pretty good on the guitar, and loved to worship, I was trying to be the guy I was listening to on my Walkman after school every day.

I began to become aware of this problem when I started recording our times of worship and listening back to them. As much I wanted to convince myself that I sounded awesome, I couldn’t. I was embarrassed. I felt bad for the people who had to endure my attempts to hit high notes, do cool embellishments, and be somebody I wasn’t. Thank God that the youth group I was leading worship for was gracious and encouraging and never critical.

So for several years, into high school and college, I began an adventure of attempting to lead worship as myself. I would swing from trying to be Bob Kauflin to trying to be Stuart Townend to trying to be Tim Hughes to trying to be like Matt Redman.

But eventually the time came when I had led worship for long enough, gleaned different positive things from different worship leaders I had seen or heard, made enough mistakes, and had enough freedom to stretch my own wings, that I began to get comfortable in my own skin. I was figuring out who I was as a worship leader, and who I wasn’t.

This process is ongoing. I still catch myself trying to be someone I’m not. But, by God’s grace, I feel less and less pressure to be someone I’m not.

How about you? When you lead worship are you trying to be someone else? Have you picked up things from other worship leaders that just aren’t who you are? Are you over-doing? Maybe you just need to relax and not try as hard to be who you think you need to be when you’re leading worship.

Incorporate all the good things from other worship leaders that you see or listen to. Learn as much and as often as you can. Always be eager to make adjustments to how you lead. But at the end of the day, be yourself.

Breaking Out of Worship Leader Prison – Pt. 4

“Guilty people make people feel guilty. Free people make people feel free.” This is one of the first things Dr. Steve Brown shared at a class he taught last week, before he shared the twelve prisons that entrap Christians and that are deadly to pastors.

I’ve shared nine of these prisons (part one, part two, and part three), and the underlying issues. Today I’d like to share the last three.

10. Rules
Believe it or not, people will try to manipulate you. They might not even realize they’re doing it, but they are. Don’t be manipulated by the rules people try to set for you. If you want to stay out of the prison of these other-people-imposed rules, you’ll need to set boundaries.

You might recognize some of these:
– Jerry needs a worship leader for his Tuesday night men’s ministry meeting. He asks you. If you say no he won’t have anyone. So you say yes even though it means you’ll be away from home for a fourth straight evening.
– Your bass player refuses to use the online rehearsal resource that the rest of your worship team uses. So you print out chord charts and mail him a CD and spend an extra two hours just on him.
– Amy Amison, a woman who has always sung solos at your church, wants to sing “O Holy Night” this Christmas Eve. She’s not very good. But she’s always sung. You’d rather not have her sing, but you hear from several people that you don’t really have a choice.

So rules get imposed on you. You have to lead worship for the men’s ministry meeting. You have to cater to your uncooperative bass player. You have to let Amy Amison sing.

Why? Because you have to.

No you don’t. You’ve been manipulated.

Being a Christian, and being a worship leader, doesn’t mean you lose your right to set boundaries, to say “no”, to go against unhelpful traditions, and to ruffle feathers. You will burn out more quickly than you can imagine if you allow the prison of rules to keep you locked up.

11. Religion
Leading people in magnifying and exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is exciting. Leading musicians in using their gifts to passionately, skillfully, and humbly lead the congregation in singing praise to God is a joy.

But presenting people with a safe, predictable, and polite collection of songs is robotic. Playing chords and melodies to please the ear and manipulate emotions is dangerous.

In the first example we have a picture of the church gathering to celebrate the glory of God. In the second example we have a picture of a religious institution that wants nice music.

When people get really excited about Christianity as an institution, then they’re in prison. The same principle applies to worship leaders. When they get more excited about presenting a polite collection of impressive songs than they do helping people encounter and exalt God’s greatness, they’re (no pun intended), behind bars.

If you find yourself dreading leading worship or coming into the church office to prepare for services and rehearsals, that might be a red flag that you’re in a prison of religion and need to be refreshed and amazed again by the freedom of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Jesus elicits our worship. Religion elicits our duty. If you’re duty-bound, then you really are bound. Worship Jesus, not the institution.

12. Gurus
The last prison that entraps worship leaders is the prison of gurus.

There is no shortage of worship gurus out there. To learn from them, be mentored by them, and follow their example is a good and healthy thing (depending on the guru). To worship at their altar is not healthy. In fact, it’s idolatry.

We all have people we put on a pedestal. We think that by emulating them and following them we’ll be more sanctified. But we’re not. We’re less so. We’re fake and in bondage.

There really is incredible bondage in worshipping other worship leaders. There is freedom in worshipping Jesus. Be intentional in seeking out good role models. But be careful not to cross the blurry line into idolizing them.

My prayer for myself, and any worship leader who reads this blog, is that God would continue to break the chains of bondage that seek to hinder our effectiveness in ministry, and that we would be set free, by his grace, more and more every day.

Breaking Out of Worship Leader Prison – Pt. 2

Yesterday I shared some of what I’ve been learning this week at a seminary class at RTS taught by Dr. Steve Brown. He is a crusader for the cause of God’s radical grace, and began the class by taking us through twelve “prisons” that keep Christians, and especially those in ministry, in dangerous bondage.

It made me think of how these areas affect worship leaders. Yesterday we looked at the prisons of sin, guilt, and failure. Today I want to look at a few more prisons.

4. The past
I have had incredibly painful experiences in ministry. Many of these came at a young age, leading worship at a small church, coming face to face with some very difficult people and situations.

You’ve had painful experiences too. People have written you vitriolic emails. You’ve made some bad mistakes. You’ve messed up. You’ve been beaten up.

I’ve had to deal with the meanness I encountered when I was a fourteen year old worship leader. I’ve had to really dig deep and forgive those people, repent of my bitterness, and let go of it. You need to deal with your past ministry-inflicted or otherwise-inflicted pain too (if you haven’t).

When we don’t deal with the past it affects the present. Oftentimes it affects us in ways we don’t realize and can’t anticipate. When we get a critical email from someone in our inbox today, we’ll blow up and freak out because we’re responding to the woman from 15 years ago. When our pastor critiques how we prayed in public we’ll overreact and draft our resignation letter because we’re responding to the nasty comments we heard two churches ago.

We get hit with stuff all the time as worship leaders. It will pile up if we let it. Let it go and drop it at the foot of the cross. Jesus has offered to carry our burdens, so let’s take him up on that offer. Break out of the prison of your past so you can be a better worship leader today.

5. Self-abasement
Being humble doesn’t mean being a pushover. Being a servant doesn’t mean being weak. Being conformed to the image of Christ doesn’t mean we can’t be ourselves.

It’s possible to be humble and be strong. It’s possible to be a servant and be bold. It’s possible to be conformed to the image of Christ and be ourselves.

The good news of the Gospel is that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. We’re covered. All the time. We’re not in danger of becoming un-reconciled because we speak up at a planning meeting when we disagree or make decisions that will offend the pastor’s wife who always wants to play piano (but can’t).

This prison – this bondage of always hanging our head low and apologizing for ourselves and taking the easy road and doing the same old bad songs to keep people happy and avoiding difficult conversations – will drive us to insanity.

Being a wuss doesn’t make God any happier with you! Nothing you do makes God any happier with you. God is only happy with you because of Jesus. You’re covered. So, in Christ, be yourself. Break out of this prison of self-abasement.

Yes, wash people’s feet. Yes, serve them. Yes, love them. And yes, pursue humility. But don’t be a pushover. Don’t be weak. It doesn’t make you a better worship leader.

That’s good news. And it should make you feel free.

6. Perfectionism.
Our assumption that perfection is possible is a fatal error. God knows this. So oftentimes God will give us a thorn in our side to prove this isn’t possible. Just because he loves us.

Sin and failure are God’s methodology of showing love to us and receiving praise unto himself since the only way we can really know and appreciate the depth of God’s love is to be unlovable. We are. And the only way to really be grateful for that love is not to deserve it. We don’t.

We all (hopefully) agree in theory that we can’t be perfect. Jesus is the only one who was ever perfect, and it’s through him, the perfect sacrifice, that we are reconciled to God. We don’t deserve God’s grace but it’s been lavished on us.

But in practice we often live in the prison of trying to be as perfect as we can be, in the hopes that it makes God happy with us. This makes us really nervous worship leaders.

Worship leaders who are trying to be perfect in order to please God are in a dangerous place. It’s only when we get it – really get it – that we’re only made righteous through Jesus and because of this we live in tremendous freedom – that we’ll be able to help our congregations get it. Break out of the prison of perfectionism and rejoice in the freedom that comes from the One who is perfect on our behalf.

More tomorrow.