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.

Getting Experience Makes You Experienced

Every worship leader has to start somewhere: as a beginner. There’s no secret fast track to become seasoned, no easy way to learn hard lessons, and no short cuts through the long process of maturity. Every worship leader, at some point, is at square one. How does a beginner worship leader become experienced? By getting experience.

The process of becoming an “experienced” worship leader never ends. I do not claim to have “arrived” at some sort of final point of maturity or expertise as a worship leader. Have I grown in the last fourteen years? Yes. Do I still have room to grow? Oh yes.

To a beginner, just-starting-out worship leader who wants to grow but doesn’t know how, I would suggest two simple things:

First, say yes to every single opportunity
If someone asks you to lead music for a vacation bible school, some songs for a small group meeting in a basement, a time of singing at a student ministry bar-b-q by the lake, a senior’s ministry breakfast at IHOP, or a song at the bedside of a dying woman in the hospital, say yes.

It might be the most awkward experience of your life. Maybe no one will sing. Maybe you’ll fail miserably. It doesn’t matter. You’ll learn so many more lessons from leading worship in as many different settings as you can, then you ever will by reading a blog or going to a conference. Seek out as many possible venues, settings, age groups, traditions, and occasions as you can.

The worst thing that can happen is you’ll learn a lesson. That’s called becoming experienced.

Second, have mentors
I remember the time I left a service so frustrated by the congregation’s lack of participation, enthusiasm, and physical expressiveness. That afternoon I shared my discouragement (and how it was all spiritual warfare!) with one of my mentors, a pastor friend who had been in the service the morning. He listened and said to me: “let’s go to Starbucks”.

He then proceeded to, gently but firmly, tell me that I was developing some bad habits as a worship leader that were beginning to grate on people. I was going on for too long, talking too much, demanding certain physical responses, and being more of a “presence” than I needed to be.


I asked him “have I caused real damage?”, and he responded “no… but you might if you keep it up for much longer.” He then encouraged me about things I was doing well, and ways I was displaying maturity and humility. He wasn’t harsh, but he was honest.

If you want grow as a worship leader, you need people who you trust, and who love you, who can be honest with you. They’re not just expressing an opinion or criticizing you for the fun of it. They have your growth and development in mind, and they have been given the freedom to give input into your life.

Seek out two or three people, preferably older than you, and regularly ask them for an hour or two of their time.

These two things: regular hands-on worship leading experience, and honest and loving critique, will, by God’s grace, result in steady growth and maturity.  

Do You Despise Instruction?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7

God can communicate instruction to us as worship leaders in numerous ways. Perhaps some of these ring a bell:

  • An email in your inbox on Monday morning
  • A church member who comes up to you after a service
  • A meeting with your pastor
  • An anonymous handwritten note in your mailbox
  • An unexpected phone call from a volunteer
  • Your spouse
  • Your Mom
  • A complaint communicated to you second-hand
  • A meeting with someone who isn’t particularly happy with you
  • Comments on your “annual review”

As I’m reading through the book of Proverbs this month, I’m struck by how often God commands us not only to receive instruction – but to embrace it. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (1:8). “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (4:7).

My natural, sinful response to correction or instruction is to turn away from it, to discount it as unwarranted, and to justify why I should ignore it. When I receive an email, a phone call, or a handwritten note – instead of seeing it as an opportunity for me to gain wisdom and receive instruction – I think of myself as too good to need it. This is a mistake, according to God’s word.

I will never get to the point, either as a Christian, or more specifically as a worship leader, when I no longer need instruction. There will always be areas in which I need to grow, skills I need to improve, habits I need to break, and ways I can be more effective.

As a worship leader in your church, do you despise instruction? Do you look upon those whom God uses to instruct you with arrogance? Do you roll your eyes as you listen to a voice mail or read an email from a church member who is suggesting ways you could improve? Do you consider your pastor as off-base when he offers examples of ways you could grow?

God’s word says that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). But “blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (3:13-14).

Do what comes unnaturally – intentionally seek instruction, receive correction, pray for humility – and you’ll grow in wisdom.

Lessons Learned from This Weekend – Pt. I

mirrorFrom time to time, usually on Mondays, I think it might be helpful for me to post some reflections on the previous weekend’s services. Perhaps some ways I could have handled certain situations better, some specific ways God was at work through the music, or various other lessons learned (however major or minor). I’ll get it started this week with some situations that, looking back, I could have handled better.

Memorize the words
You would think that I would follow my own advice (“Put the Music Stand Away”) and spend some time during the week getting familiar with the songs so that I didn’t forget lyrics, fumble for the right chords, and come across as unprepared. I wish I had. This past Saturday night we used Andrew Peterson’s song “Invisible God” as a special song during the collection/offering time, and I mangled the first verse pretty bad. Oops. Lesson learned: I need to practice too.

Multi-tasking isn’t as easy as it seems
On Saturday night, in addition to leading the music, I also opened the service, led the time of prayer, and gave the announcements. The pastor who normally does this was on vacation, so he asked me to step in since I would be at the service anyway. I have to confess that I didn’t prepare for these responsibilities as thoroughly as I should have. At 4:45pm (15 minutes before the service started), I was trying to figure out what to say to welcome people, how to lead the prayers, etc. A few transitions were awkward, especially getting from the announcements to the offering. Lesson learned: Don’t ever wing it.

There are good ways to get your sound engineer’s attention and there are bad ways…
We had a crazy morning at my church with baptisms at both services, short transition times between them, and very little time for a sound check. In the midst of a noisy Sanctuary about 20 minutes before the service, I was having a difficult time getting the sound engineer’s attention, so I thought it made sense to yell “Andreeeeeeeewwwwwww!!!!!!”. There are about eighteen reasons why this is always a bad idea. Lesson learned: Never yell at your sound engineer. Sorry Andrew.

These are just a few of the lessons I (hopefully) am taking away from this past weekend. It’s good to look back and thank God for his guidance, his presence, and his grace – and pray that he’ll keep teaching me lessons each time I lead.

Checking for Ticks

tickYou may not know this, but it’s a fact that those of us who lead worship are targets for ticks. Without realizing it, ticks can latch on to us and survive unnoticed for years.

There is a wide variety of tick species to look out for. Check yourself before you lead worship next time for any one of these:

Here we go!
One of the sneakiest ticks around, it causes a worship leader to exclaim into the microphone something more appropriate for the beginning of a road trip to Yosemite than the transition into the bridge of a song.

Come on everybody!
The brother of the previous tick, its victim unwittingly uses a crowd-rousing technique first developed by Richard Simmons in an attempt to infuse enthusiasm into a service.

I just really want to…
Native to youth groups, this tick has spread into a wide variety of settings. The afflicted worship leader begins any personal word with this preface, followed by sentences of varying levels of competency, depending upon the amount of preparation devoted.

Yes Lord!
A difficult tick to remove once it has become attached – the “Yes Lord” tick presents itself before, during, or after songs, oftentimes with a high number of repetitions. While a declaration of agreement and affirmation may be effective and appropriate on occasions, this tick causes the statement to become so common that it is ignored.

Sing it like you mean it
Native to Sunday school and VBS, this tick is able to multi-task by being patronizing, insulting, distracting, and counter-productive all at the same time.

This is perhaps the most common species of tick to attach itself to worship leaders, Amen?

Put your hands together!
A potentially dangerous tick. An infected worship leader could cause mass confusion. “OK, I put my hands together… Now what do I do with them? Can I take them apart yet?” Unfortunately, the worship leader is not thinking about what he or she is asking the congregation to do. Very sad.

Oh, oh, ohhhhhhh!
Rearing its ugly head in between lines of a song, this tick causes a worship leader to employ a vocal flourish more suited for a 1980’s power ballad. Severe cases have been reported in which worship leaders attempt the highest note they can hit before fainting for no apparent reason.

Mmm, mm, mmmmmm
The descendent of “oh, oh, ohhhhhhh”, this tick has slightly different characteristics. While still rearing its head in between the lines of a song, the resulting vocal flourish is more suited for a 1960’s sappy love song. Most common to worship leaders who forget the lyrics to the second verse.

If you ­­­___ then let me hear you ___
The distant cousin of the “sing it like you mean it” tick – this species causes its host to insert any combination of words, resulting in groans and rolled eyes in the congregation. “If you love Jesus, then let me hear you shout!” “If you came ready to worship then let me hear you sing it loudly!” Swift action should be taken to remove this tick before its host is harmed by angry church members.

Ask trusted friends to examine you for any evidence of these ticks or any mutation. Long-term infection is unwise. Recovery time is quick for the former host and enjoyable for the congregation.