And Now Please Admire My Musicianship

1We’ve all experienced that awkward moment when someone tries to say something nice about you but you take it as an insult. You’re not quite sure how to take it, how to respond, or how to process what they’ve said.

Several years ago I was having a conversation with someone I knew fairly well, and this person attempted to encourage me about my worship leading by saying: “Jamie, the thing about your worship leading is that no one walks away from one of your services thinking to themselves ‘wow, he’s a great musician‘”.

Um… thanks?

I know what the person was trying to say. I know the heart behind it. They were trying to say that I didn’t draw attention to myself. There is no higher compliment that can be paid to a worship leader than that. The problem wasn’t with what they said or even how they said it. The problem was with my heart: I wanted my musicianship to be admired.

I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too much, of course. But I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too little, either. And that was what I was afraid was happening. I was afraid that people didn’t appreciate me for the musician that I am. And I’m sure you can’t relate to what I’m saying at all.

Yeah right.

We can’t blame it on our artistic temperament. We can blame it on our sinful nature. We want to be the ones lifted high and exalted. And so we feed our desire for adoration with a sometimes-subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle attitude from the platform that basically says to the congregation “and now please admire my musicianship”. While I play this solo, while I do this postlude, while I play five instruments in one service, while I use six different tunings on one song, while I do a three-minute song introduction, while I do this song in a key that’s terrible for most voices but amazing for mine, while I sing this song that no one could ever sing along to and that’s kind of the point, or while I fill all the musical spaces instead of letting someone else.

And so on. We can get really good at doing little things to help people remember and appreciate that they’re really quite fortunate to hear us every Sunday. Lord, have mercy!

When my friend said those encouraging words to me and I took them as an insult, the Holy Spirit was putting his finger on an area of recurrent pride, that if not called out and killed, will grow into a ministry-destroying monster. It’s like those pesky weeds outside my house that never want to go away. I can either feed them or I can destroy them. There’s not really a third option.

Of course you’d never think of actually saying the words “and now please admire my musicianship” on a Sunday morning. That’s too blatantly egotistical! But those might be the very words you send without even realizing it.

Examine yourself. Simplify your leadership. You don’t need to do, in one service, all that you’re capable of doing. You don’t need to operate within the full parameters of your musical gifting every Sunday. No one needs to know how versatile you are. Is that glissando really necessary or do just want to sound awesome? Tie one hand behind your back if you need to. Whatever it takes.

May it be said of us very often: no one walks away from our services thinking “wow, what a great musician”. They walk away thinking “wow, what a great God”. We have got to decrease, my friends. For God’s sake, we must.

Do You Love to Worship Jesus?

For all of the practicalities and technicalities that we talk about when it comes to serving as a worship leader, there is one thing that is the most important of all: that you love to worship Jesus. You can pick great songs, lead an awesome band, have smooth transitions, sing beautifully, play proficiently, and have a command of the stage, but if you’re not enthralled with Jesus then pack it up and go home.

It’s totally possible to become such a professional, to gain experience, to have tenure, and to get really good at your job, that you take Jesus for granted, your heart becomes hard to him, and that you mostly go through the motions, maybe even closing your hands and raising your hands, but without genuine affection for Jesus.

The number one quality you should be seeking to foster in yourself as a worship leader is the quality of a worshipper. Someone whose heart beats to worship Jesus, whose lips prefer no other song above a song of praise, and whose soul is never satisfied by anything else than the goodness of God.

Forget all the programming and performing and fame and stage lights and people looking at you and the camera pointed at your face and the critical guy sitting in the front row. Forget all the current fads and bands and music with whom you’re supposed to be up-to-date. Forget it all. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you love Jesus more. Be a worshipper of Jesus. Love to worship him.

Watch this talk by Gary Millar, given at the 2013 “The Gospel Coalition” conference and let it help you remember just how amazing Jesus is, and what a shame it is when we take him for granted.

Ten Worship Leading Non-Negotiables

1There is so much good and helpful advice for worship leaders out there that I thought I’d try my hand at condensing it all down into 10 non-negotiables.

  1. You are not the center.
  2. You make Jesus the center.
  3. Your priority is helping the congregation sing with faith.
  4. You support your pastor.
  5. You choose songs that are full of truth.
  6. You use musicians who are gifted and have soft hearts toward Jesus.
  7. You tailor the keys and arrangements of songs to serve the people in the room.
  8. Your family comes first.
  9. You’re never alone with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse.
  10. You won’t ever compromise numbers 1-9.

May we be worship leaders who, at our core, love Jesus, love our congregations, and love our families.

Knowing How to Respond to Sunday Morning Complaints

1I don’t understand what people are thinking when they approach me on a Sunday morning with that fire-in-the-eyes look that says “let me give you a piece of my mind”. Can’t they understand that I’m busy? Don’t they see that I’m juggling a bunch of different mental and actual demands? Apparently not. And people in ministry all over the world and throughout the history of time have had to deal with the people who want to get into a conflict at the worst possible time of the entire week. It’s crazy.

This happens to me about three times a year now. I’m fortunate. Other worship leaders and/or pastors get it every week! But in one of the more memorable episodes, after a morning when I used the “That’s My King!” video as a call to worship, I was approached by an individual who had been very offended by it. He expressed himself to me for several minutes and every instinct in my body was to give it right back to him. I wanted to return the favor and give him a piece of my mind.

But I didn’t. I listened, gave lots of head nods and “hmmms”, thanked the man for sharing his concerns with me, assured him that I meant no offense, apologized for any offense that was caused, and he left slightly pacified. Of course, the rest of the afternoon I spent rehearsing in my mind what I could have said or what I should have said to set the man straight.

I wrote a former seminary professor of mine, Steve Brown, the next day and I apologized to him. If you’ve ever listened to Steve or read any of his stuff, you’ll know that he encourages pastors/people in ministry to be real, to not be afraid to offend people, and to not take people’s “stuff” when they they throw it at you.

I said to Steve: I’m sorry. I let you down. I had a guy come up to me after church yesterday who laid into me and I just stood there and took it. I didn’t fight back. I should have. Next time I will.

He wrote back. Here’s some of what he said:

I just stopped and prayed for the guy who came up to you with his drivel…

…that he gets the hives.

We showed that video at our church and the people were cheering by the end.  Anybody who doesn’t “get” the power of that is spiritually dead.

And you didn’t let me down.  In fact, you did the right thing.  Jesus said that we were to be as innocent as a dove and wise as a serpent.  You did the innocent thing.  The wisdom comes in knowing whose butt to kick and when to put it off for a better time.  The last thing you needed was to “speak truth” to a guy like that. 

But there will be other times.  Keep your gun loaded.

Steve was right.

9 times out of 10, when people approach you on a Sunday morning with complaints, the wise response is to kindly listen and then thank the person. You don’t need to deal with handling conflict when your attention is on leading the congregation and leading your team.

The only time I think it’s wise to rebut people is: (1) if it’s before the service. Tell them it needs to wait. Don’t let them throw you off your game. And (2) if they’re attacking you personally. They can criticize your song choices, volume, arrangements, etc. But if they come at you personally, you’re within your rights to say to them that you’d appreciate it if you had this conversation some other time and perhaps with your pastor present. That should take care of that.

We have enough on our plates on Sunday mornings without having to add doing battle with offended congregants. In that moment, unless it’s before a service or they’re attacking you personally, just let the Holy Spirit be Christ in you. And just like Jesus took scorn and insults and responded (most of the time) with love and wisdom, so let our response be also.

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.

A New Year To Do Old Things

1So it’s 2013. A new year, a fresh start, and a new number you have to get used to writing on your checks. That’s the hardest part for me.

We hear a lot in these first few weeks of a new year about doing new things, or making new resolutions. There’s a pressure on us, in our personal lives and in our professional lives, to do things a little bit differently.

Worship leaders aren’t immune to this pressure. We can begin feel the need to be more innovative, creative, and different than we were last year. Just this morning as I was watching the archived first session of the Passion 2013 conference I noticed feeling the pressure: teach these new songs, incorporate these new sounds, and do it this coming Sunday.

Growing and changing are not only good things, but they’re necessary things. Living things grow and change. Psalm 1 describes the man who delights in God as being like “a tree planted by streams of water…” Since when have you seen a living tree not change from year to year?

But the focus on the new can come at the expense of the focus on the old. Yes, it’s good to let God grow us up and change us as worship leaders as we draw from him. But don’t forget the old things that you’re called to. Year after year after year.

Love Jesus. Study his word and worship Him when no one’s looking.

Love your family. Don’t fall victim to the worldly pressure to overwork and miss out on your commitments in the home.

Love the Church. With all of its issues and problems and politics, it’s the body of Christ and you’re a part.

Love your worship team. Don’t treat your worship team like they’re just a bunch of names on a monthly schedule. Build community and foster friendship among your team.

Love your congregation. Don’t become a celebrity who only appears on a stage every Sunday. You might be a great singer, but if you don’t have love, you’re just a resounding gong (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Love to see your worship team leading your congregation in singing to Jesus. All of the above combine in a worship leader’s heart that finds no greater joy on Sunday morning than being caught up in praise to Jesus with a worship team and a congregation all singing the same song.

So, this new year with new pressures to do things in a new way, may we not forsake the old, foundational things that really matter: loving Jesus, loving our families, loving our churches, and loving to sing the unchanging song of heaven for all eternity: worthy is the Lamb.

Try Not to Act Like a Narcissist

A few months ago I was taking a seminary course on pastoral counseling through the Washington D.C. campus of RTS, or Reformed Theological Seminary. At one point the professor was making a tangential point about one of the defining characteristics of narcissists, which is that they treat the people in their lives like they’re cardboard cutouts. They can move them around, put them down, raise them up, dispose of them, and use them however it serves them.

Then he moved on, and moved back to whatever the main point was that he was making.

But I couldn’t get past what he had just said. Narcissists treat people in their lives like they’re cardboard cutouts.

I immediately started thinking about how I interact with the members of my worship team. The ones I know well. The ones I don’t know so well. The newer members. The stronger members. The weaker members. Do I value them and treat them like brothers and sisters with love and respect and honor? Or do I see them as cardboard cutouts, names on a spreadsheet, there at my disposal to be used as I deem best, with no consideration of their hearts?

Now, I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy and try to do my best to care for the musicians with whom I serve alongside. But, newsflash of the century here, I’m not perfect, and in that moment in that seminary class, I think the Holy Spirit was convicting me of a dangerous ability to be careless with people in the church and, perhaps unknowingly, act in a way that can be hurtful to them.

Maybe it’s not scheduling someone for 6 months and never explaining to them why. Maybe it’s never responding to an email from someone, deleting it, and assuming they’ll just go away. Maybe it’s not getting back to someone who asked you to call them. Who knows.

Try not to be a narcissist. Treat people with love and honor. It doesn’t mean you to have to make everyone happy and never be tough. You need to be tough in ministry sometimes. But don’t be a jerk.

As a wonderful old lady in one of my former churches once told me, ministry will (hopefully) make you tough and sweet. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants to help us be, and by God’s grace, he’ll keep helping us find the balance.