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.

Breaking Out of Worship Leader Prison – Pt. 1

This week I’m taking a seminary class at Reformed Theological Seminary here in Washington, D.C. The course is called “The Christian Life” and is taught by Dr. Steve Brown (no relation, by the way). Steve is hammering home the great freedom of grace that belongs to us in Jesus Christ and the horrible bondage most of us live in without realizing it. This is a shame for believers. It’s dangerous for people in up-front ministry.

Steve describes 12 prisons that keep us from experiencing radical grace and damage our ministry. They’ve been eye-opening for me and I want to share them with you.

1. Sin
Most of us are in a dangerous place. We’re up front, on a stage, sometimes on a screen, and in a position of leadership. The congregation thinks we’re pure, holy, righteous, have a great prayer life, tithe, sponsor an orphan in Colombia, and never get angry or lust.

The problem is that we know we’re not wonderful. We know we’re sinners. There are things we’ve done that, if people in the congregation knew about them, we’d be humiliated and never want to show our face again.

We’re in a profession where we have to pretend to be who they think we are. This is a terrible prison. This is great bondage.

If you go around pretending you’re wonderful (but feeling ashamed of your secret sin), you’ll be miserable. And so will the people who work with you and serve under you.

Guilty people make people feel guilty. Free people make people feel free. We have been set free from our sin by the blood of Jesus. Yes, we’re depraved. But we’re redeemed. Do you lead worship like a free person or a guilty person?

2. Guilt
Conviction says I have failed to be obedient. Guilt is the feeling associated with that conviction, and its purpose is to send us to Jesus. But once we’re there, guilt has no purpose.

Sadly, we carry guilt with us for years and years, and it is a heavier weight than we realize. This weight weakens us, limits us, makes us do stupid things, and acts as a leash around our neck, keeping us from running free in God’s grace

In addition to making people feel guilty, guilty people are always trying to work towards their own freedom. Most of the time this takes the form of us punishing ourselves in the futile hope that this earns us favor.

Hanging your head low, saying “no” to great opportunities, and carrying crippling feelings of anxiety and unworthiness won’t make you free. They’ll keep you in prison.

Worship leaders who walk in the radical and total grace of God are more emboldened to lead their teams and their congregations with abandon. Are you ministering with abandon or do you feel bound up?

3. Failure
Steve Brown describes the problem this way: “There is a neurotic sense of Christians that they don’t deserve success because of their sin. This sense creates failure”.

Think about that for a second.

Too many Christians, and too many worship leaders, have a neurotic sense that they don’t deserve success because of their sin. And so they fail. Maybe they go to a new church and take a new job. But they still don’t understand God’s grace. So they don’t think they deserve success. And so they fail again.

The sooner we realize that our “sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and (we) bear it no more”, the more freely we can sing “praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” Until we do that, we carry our sin with us, we don’t think we could possibly succeed because of it, and our songs are halfhearted.

More tomorrow.

Always Learning

Every single time worship leaders lead worship, there are certain things they could have done better.

This applies to beginner worship leaders and “seasoned” worship leaders. Whether it’s your first time or four-hundredth, there is always at least one thing you can look back on and say “I could have done that differently“.

Beginner worship leaders can run the risk of getting discouraged by all the things they could have done better, and thinking maybe they’re not cut out for it.

More seasoned worship leaders can run the risk of thinking they’ve made every mistake there is to make, and that they’ve mastered the art.

Worship leaders who are just starting out should take comfort in the fact that the process of maturing never stops – and those who have been doing it a little longer should keep that in mind too. No one ever “arrives”.

Tonight I led the music for our monthly men’s ministry gathering. In no particular order of importance, here are some things I could have done differently:

  • The first two songs we sang, “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Come Thou Fount”, felt a bit over-done. I think I’m doing those songs too often, especially at these monthly meetings.
  • The last song we sang, “Here I Am to Worship”, felt really over-done. I should put that song on hold for a while.
  • I got to church too late to do a sound check. Since it was just me leading on guitar, I figured it would work fine this way. My guitar ended up being too loud and my voice too quiet. I should always do a sound check with the sound engineer, if possible.
  • Some of the words on the slides went too far down. Since the ceiling is low, some men had a hard time reading the bottom line or two. We should make sure we adjust the slides when we’re projecting lyrics in that room.
  • I kept my eyes closed for much of the time. I did that this past Sunday night too. I’m getting back into that bad habit.
  • I went too long. I need to be sure I’m wrapping up when I’ve been asked to wrap up.

A lot of these things are relatively minor, and might not have stood out to anyone else in the room. My goal certainly isn’t to make a big deal out of these little issues or beat up on myself. But rather, I’ve found it helpful for my own growth, and a practical way to pursue humility, to be in the habit of asking “what could I have done differently or better“.

Even if there’s only one thing I can point to, and there always is at least one thing, then hopefully God will use that to keep me moving forward on the road of maturity.

Don’t Overreact to Minor Course Corrections

I have a love/hate relationship with paddling a canoe. On the one hand I enjoy spending a warm summer day on a river or a lake with friends and family, having a picnic on the shore, and gliding through the water, but on the other hand I don’t enjoy the prospect of tipping over, the sore arms, and trying to maneuver the canoe and make it go where I want it to go. Just when it starts to head in the right direction, it veers left and I have to paddle hard on the right, or vice versa. I’m constantly paddling on different sides in hopes of correcting course.

Growing as a worship leader is a bit like paddling a canoe. You know what general direction you want to go in (hopefully), you know the basics of how to get there, you have some knowledge of what you need to do, you know that a good deal of responsibility has been entrusted to you, at certain points all you’re trying to do is keep from sinking, you can get discouraged when you see other people around you having an easier time, and it’s not as easy at it looks.

Another similarity between growing as a worship leader and paddling a canoe is that worship leaders are constantly in need of minor course corrections. From time to time you might get totally flipped around or capsize and need major help. But most of the time, you’re doing a pretty good job of doing what you need to do, and you just need to periodically adjust your course so that you don’t collide with a tree.

Minor course corrections can come in many forms for worship leaders. Here are some ways I’ve received these little nudges from time to time:

  • My wife telling me that I looked frustrated when I led an unresponsive group of people
  • My brother letting me know that I had a bad habit of glaring at musicians when they made a mistake
  • My pastor cautioning me that when I interjected in-between lines of a song I could sometimes sound bossy
  • A friend warning me that I was trying to force change too quickly
  • A worship team member mentioning that we were doing too many similar-sounding songs from the same writer
  • A mentor telling me that I shouldn’t be so timid when I spoke
  • A sound engineer pointing out that I was over-playing and singing flat

It can be awfully tempting to overreact to minor corrections as if they mean we are terrible worship leaders, we have no idea what we’re doing, and we should just give up. But that’s silly. It would be a like a man paddling a canoe, realizing he’s drifting towards the bank, and then instead of simply correcting his course and continuing forward, he calls his wife to tell her he loves her one last time. That’s an overreaction.

There are definitely times someone gives you advice, and it’s bad advice. And there are times you receive criticism and you just need to ignore it. But God oftentimes uses people who know us to give input into how we can grow. The next time someone approaches you and suggests a way you might be to improve as a worship leader, don’t overreact. Ask yourself: “is this a minor course correction?” Most of the time it is. When we ignore these kinds – we end up in need of more serious help.

When you sign up to be a worship leader, answering God’s call on you to serve the church in this way, understand that you’re embarking on a never-ending journey of growing, maturing, gaining experience, making mistakes, receiving correction, keeping your eyes on Jesus, adjusting your course from time to time, and the occasional capsize. It’s not always easy, but God is always faithful. Keep paddling.