Ten Worship Leading Essentials at Christmas Time

1Songs have been chosen, arrangements have been written, the copies have been made, rehearsals are happening, and Christmas Eve/Christmas Day is fast approaching.

Being involved in leading worship at Christmas time, especially for the big services with more visitors than usual, and more pressure than most other services during the year, can be stressful, exhausting, and exhilarating.

Here are ten things not to forget this Christmas when you’re standing before your congregation:

1. They want to sing carols. Don’t try to be so creative that you make some of the most singable and familiar songs in the whole world become hard to sing.

2. They need Jesus. Every single person. They don’t need to be wowed or dazzled or impressed by your awesomeness. They need to see Jesus.

3. They’re stressed out. Maybe they’ve wracked up credit-card debt, or they’re hosting a difficult family member, or they’re grieving the loss of a loved one. Give them space.

4. They’ve heard the story before, but they want to hear more. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the angels sang and there were some animals around. Is that all there is? Point them to the good news of the gospel, to the person of Jesus, to what God has done for us in Christ.

5. They’ll benefit from your preparation. You’ve been working on some of this music for weeks and months. They’ll sing it and/or hear it once. But God will use your preparation to edify his people.

6. Your identity is in Christ – not in your performance. Maybe you’ll do a great job and get a thousand thank-you emails. Maybe you’ll mess up. Maybe you’ll just do OK. Good news: your identity is in Christ, so you can relax and just do your best and then enjoy Christmas with your family.

7. You’ll need a break. If you’re in the office next week, trying to be productive, you’re most likely crazy.

8. You have a helper and his name is the Holy Spirit. You may feel empty, exhausted, nervous, or a little combination of all of the above. The Holy Spirit is your helper, and your power, and he’s even more concerned that Jesus gets the glory than you are.

9. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity. I’m looking forward to the string arrangements, the brass fanfares, the organ postludes, the choir anthems, the band, and all the special stuff we have planned. But the moment I’m looking forward to the most is the nearly acapella version of “Silent Night” that we’ll sing towards the end of our services. Look for those moments in your services when you – and your congregation – can just simply take a deep breath for a few minutes.

10. We are stewards. We all get to do this, and lead these Christmas songs, for a season. And then someday we pass the baton to someone else. Generations from now, a different worship leader will be leading “Joy to the World” with different arrangements (I hope!), different musicians, and a different group of people in the pews. So, let’s be good stewards of the message of Christmas, and proclaim loudly the message that will be sung for all eternity. It really isn’t about us!

O come let us adore Him!

All The Sheep Matter (And Have Names)

1As someone who’s constantly scheduling/recruiting/managing volunteers, I’ve been reminded (and amazed) recently by how much it means to people when you tell them that they matter. That you appreciate their gifts, you want them to contribute, you know they’re busy, their presence makes a difference, you really like it when they show up, and you know their name.

At my church we’ve been seriously pouring a lot of time and energy into our loving our choir, helping it to grow, and launching into the Fall with momentum, energy, and unity. A big part of that was hand-writing letters to over 65 people, some of whom had been singing in the choir for decades, and some of whom had only given it a try once in their lives (if ever).

And in the weeks since those letters hit people’s mailboxes, I’ve lost count of the number of folks who have said how much those notes meant to them. To actually receive a handwritten card – to them – that wasn’t just some sort of spammy, church-lingo, form letter, meant the world. One dear lady told me (in tears) how when she read my note that she “was a blessing”, she broke down in gratefulness.

I wonder how many of our volunteers are just hungry for some sort of pastoral connection, however sporadically, by someone in church leadership, that shows that we know their names, we appreciate them, we value their contributions, and we are blessed by their gifts. I think for some people it helps them go from feeling like they’re filling a slot, to actually being a part of a body.

Now don’t get me wrong: we have a long way to go at my church, and this isn’t some sort of pat on the back for having “arrived” at our destination with our volunteers. We have a lot of work, and loving, and recruiting, and community-building still to do. I’m an introvert, I have three kids, and I’m constantly juggling different responsibilities and initiatives like everyone else. Personally, I’m trying to grow in this area, and these last few weeks have reminded me of the fruit that can come from taking the time to tell people they are loved and they matter.

For those of us in any ministry position where it’s up to us to schedule, recruit, or manage volunteers, we have an important lesson from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. The sheep matter to Him, and so they should know that they matter to us too.

Pressing On, Feeding God’s Sheep

dryYou’ve been a worship leader at your church for nine months now. When you took the job you had high hopes for your new ministry. You really clicked with the pastor and some of the search committee members. You had a deep peace that God was leading you to move to this new city and take on a new challenge. And you knew it would be a challenge. The worship team was a mess, the congregation was opinionated, the sound system was laughable, the song repertoire was weak, the drummer couldn’t keep time, and the previous worship leader had quit after six months. You were comfortable where you were but took this new job out of obedience to God.

Nine months later and it’s been more challenging than you could have imagined. You’re frustrated with your pastor. A few members of the worship team have stepped down and been vocal in their criticism of you. You look out on Sunday morning and it doesn’t look any one wants to be singing any of the songs you’ve chosen. Whenever you try to introduce a new song people ask why you “sing so many new songs”. You sit in your office during the week and feel like you’re trapped in a bad dream. You visit other churches or attend worship conferences and leave more discouraged and weary because you can’t imagine your own church ever looking like that.

Am I even all that good of a worship leader? What am I doing wrong? Was that person right when he quit the worship team and called me an egotistical control freak? Did I make a mistake taking this job? Would anyone care if I just slept in on Sunday and watched football? How amazing would it feel to tell my pastor “I quit”?

You’re confused, burned out, beaten up, angry, and disappointed. Your body is in church on Sundays but your mind has already packed up and moved away. It’s a lost cause. You’ve come to the realization that you’re not cut out to be a worship leader, the church you’ve been serving for two years will never change, and you made a mistake ever taking the job.

Don’t give up, worship leader friend. Press on.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! (Psalm 126:5)

You are in the thick of real-life church ministry. It can be discouraging, tedious, boring, low-paying, and dry. But your labor is not in vain. Every day you are able to drive to that church and serve those people, buy your drummer a cup of coffee and then head back to church and practice with him, talk with your pastor, and get up on Sundays with a desire to help people encounter God in corporate worship, you are making the soil more fertile. One drop at a time. You didn’t make a mistake taking this job, you might have just made a mistake thinking it would be easy. It won’t be easy. But if you’re faithful, it will be fruitful. You will reap that fruit one day.

You are doing the hard work a worship leader. It isn’t glamorous. Your worship team won’t be recording an album anytime soon but you love them and encourage them anyway. Your congregation won’t suddenly look like the crowd at the worship conference you attended but you model and encourage heartfelt singing anyway. Your pastor won’t be speaking at any huge conferences next week or writing any books but you honor and pray for him anyway. Your Sunday service is a bit boring and predictable but you keep praying for God to bring a freshness and vibrancy. There isn’t a worship leader in the world who can change a church through his polish and skill. There is a God who can change a church by his Holy Spirit. Keep doing the hard work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So you’ve been sowing in tears for nine months. You can’t even imagine what shouts of joy would sound like. You’ve worked hard, labored faithfully, and done all that you know there is to do. Your high hope has become deep despair.

To the worship leader ready to quit and walk away in retreat, imagine the story in John chapter 21 went like this:

Jesus says to you, “worship leader, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus says to you a second time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus says to you a third time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my sheep.”

Press on, worship leader friend. May your love for the Savior compel you, and may the power of the Spirit sustain you. Your tearful sowing will one day turn to joyful shouting. Don’t stop feeding his sheep.

When Your Congregation Isn’t Singing: 15 Questions

 

1Every worship leader has the experience from time to time of a service that just seems to fall flat. The songs didn’t work, or the musicians didn’t gel, or the technology didn’t cooperate, or the congregation didn’t respond. Whatever the reason(s), even in the most passionate of congregations, there are times when the singing isn’t exactly robust.

But when that’s the regular pattern, and when the congregational singing is consistently paltry, what is a worship leader to do? I would suggest that if a worship leader is observing (over a period of months or years) his or her congregation isn’t singing, that some difficult questions need to be honestly asked and answered.

In no particular order or importance, here are ten questions a worship leader (and his or her pastor) should consider:

1. Are the songs too high? If they are, people will tune out. From C to shining C is a good rule for the average range of most singers, allowing for occasional dips down to As and Bs, and occasional peaks up to Ds or Es.

2. Are the songs too unfamiliar? Too many new songs will overwhelm people. Introduce new/unfamiliar songs at doable pace of one or two per month, with enough revisiting of those new songs that people can grab onto them. Follow up new songs with familiar songs to build back capital.

3. Are the songs worth singing? Maybe your congregation isn’t singing along because the song isn’t particularly strong, or intended for congregational use, or something that connects at a corporate level. Have a high bar for what you put on your people’s lips. A good song, at a certain level, is almost irresistible to sing.

4. Is the volume too loud? If people can’t hear themselves (or the people around them) sing, then they will deduce that their singing isn’t important, or needed, or valued, or even worth the effort.

5. Is the volume too low? If people don’t feel supported and safe enough to sing at a comfortable volume without feeling exposed and alone, then they will hold back and stay tentative.

6. Is the room too dark? Restaurants turn down lights so people feel isolated even though they’re in close quarters. Concerts turn down lights so people look at the stage. School teachers turn down lights so their students quiet down. People are conditioned to become more insular in dark lighting, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when churches turn down the lights during the singing, it actually has a detrimental impact on the goal of fostering congregational singing.

7. Is it all about the platform? The more pronounced the division between the platform and the congregation, the weaker the singing. The more continuity there is between the platform and the congregation, the stronger the singing. The congregation should not feel like their contribution is meaningless. Just the opposite.

8. Is the pastor un-engaged? This probably deserves the # 1 spot on this list. An un-engaged or disinterested pastor will do more to discourage congregational singing than all the other factors on this list combined. A congregation watches, studies, and ultimately emulates its pastor.

9. Is the worship leadership inconsistent? When a congregation encounters a different leader every week, drawing from different kinds of repertoires, teaching different songs, using different bands, and leading in a different kind of way, then they become defensive. The worship leadership (even if it’s shared amongst different people) needs to be consistent in repertoire, tone, philosophy, and approach, or else the congregation will tune out.

10. Is the melody clear? Call me old fashioned, but there is a right way to sing a song, and a wrong way to sing a song. A worship leader (and the vocalists and/or choir) should sing the song the right way. They should sing the melody correctly. And the sound engineer needs to make sure that melody is crystal clear. Then the congregation will know what they’re supposed to sing. (Sometimes it really is as simple as this.)

11. Are the lyrics readable? Whether you project the lyrics, or print them, or use a hymnal, or a combination of different methods, the lyrics need to be readable, in a big enough font, and presented at the right time. Badly done projection, late slides, too-small-fonts, typos, or all-of-the-above can do more to discourage singing than we realize.

12. Are the people regularly – and literally – invited to participate? Don’t underestimate the power of consistently saying things like “Let’s sing this together”, or “we’re going to learn a new song together”, or “we learned this song together last week, and we’re going to sing it again now, so please join in as soon as you’re comfortable”. Little phrases – said well – can send a regular message that you place a high priority on the idea of people singing together.

13. Have you prayed? Pray before you lead worship, with your worship team/choir/organist/instrumentalists, and ask humbly and boldly for God’s help, blessing, guidance, and power. Ask God to help your congregation see Jesus clearly, to worship him with freedom and joy, and to give you a heart of love for His people.

14. Have you tailored the arrangements to your congregation? Serve your congregation by tailoring the keys, introductions, interludes, transitions, etc. to them. Don’t just do a certain song a certain way because that’s the way it was recorded. Intentionally arrange a song to serve the actual people who will be standing before you at a given service.

15. Is Jesus at the center? If our worship is only possible because of Jesus, and if the scriptures really are all pointing to Jesus, and if the Holy Spirit really is always glorifying Jesus, and if the worship of heaven is now and evermore will be centered on Jesus, and if the deep need of every person in our congregation is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus, than the principle responsibility of a worship leader is to exalt Jesus. Choose songs that exalt Jesus. Do everything you can to point away from yourself, your name, your fame, your platform, and your presence, and point to Jesus. You will be moving in step with God Himself, and over the course of time, through faithful and pastoral leadership, you will see (and hear) a congregation more enticed to sing to the “heavenly anthem” that “drowns all music but its own”.

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.

A Week of Doing the Same Thing in Lots of Different Ways (And Places)

This past week was one of the wildest worship leading weeks of my life. And through it all, I was reminded of how Jesus-centered worship leading can work in a variety of settings, and for a variety of groups.

In addition to our normal Sunday morning services (both of which are communion services, with band, choir, organ, singers, and 12-14 songs per service on average), and family-style Sunday school in between those services (where we gather our families together for worship/teaching/fun/snacks, and I lead about 10 minutes worth of family-friendly worship), and our Sunday evening service (shorter, more informal, a small/acoustic worship team leading 5-6 songs), there were several extra opportunities last week that stretched me in new ways, and simultaneously wore me out and charged me up.

On Wednesday I led the music for the largest funeral I’ve ever been a part of. A young dad, only 39 years old, succumbed to a three-year battle with cancer, and our church hosted the service for him, since he and his wife had been married here about 15 years earlier. I would estimate between 900-1,000 people crammed into our sanctuary, which is only supposed to seat about 830. The singing was loud, the pain was real, the grief overwhelming, but the gospel was preached and proclaimed. From the pulpit, from the family (including the widow who spoke), from the liturgy, and from the music, Jesus was exalted. Jesus was lifted up as the way to eternal life.

On Thursday morning I was invited to lead worship and speak for a large media company whose offices are just a few blocks from the White House. A gentlemen has been leading a bible study there for 20 years, and invited me to come to the last one he’d be organizing before he moves on. In the room was a mixture of Christians, atheists, secular Jews, and people who just wanted to hear some carols. I brought my church’s drummer with me, and we played through a mixture of Christmas carols, interspersed with some readings from Scripture, and then I shared for about 4-5 minutes about the good news of Jesus that we celebrate this time of year. There was an incredible sense of receptivity and openness in the room. We sang and lifted up Jesus as the Good News, in the middle of a conference room in the nation’s capital.

And then last night my church hosted its third-annual “Carols by Glowstick”. This is one of our big “front porch” (i.e. outreach) events where we invite friends and neighbors to pack the sanctuary (with its windows blacked-out and lights turned down), wave a couple thousand glow sticks around, sing carols, hear a brief gospel message, and then celebrate afterwards with cookies, cider, hot chocolate, fire pits, and more cookies. The place was packed. We had fun: singing fun/silly songs, having a visit from Santa and his dancing reindeer, and being led in Christmas calisthenics by two elves wrapped in Christmas lights. And we heard the best news of all: hearing the Christmas story from Scripture, and also through the classic Christmas carols that proclaim that story so well. We laughed, shouted, waved glow sticks, and celebrated Jesus as the Light of the World.

In just one week, I had the privilege of helping point people to Jesus across a wide spectrum of occasions: from the usual Sunday services, to our Tuesday staff meeting, to an incredibly difficult funeral, to a seeker-filled “bible study” in D.C., to our Friday night Alpha course with many non-Christians present, to “Carols by Glowstick” where we progressed from “Jingle Bells” to “Joy to the World” in less than an hour. Whiplash is one way to put it. Gratefulness is another.

I’m grateful to have a front-row seat to witness the power of the gospel, and the power of gospel-centered music, to bring real joy, real hope, and real cause for singing in a variety of settings, and for a variety of groups. From little kids to older grandparents, from happy newlyweds to grieving widows, from lifelong Christians to hostile atheists: Jesus is the best thing, and the only lasting thing, I can offer them as a worship leader.

There’s still a lot to do between now and the end of December. A lot of services, rehearsals, arranging, planning, sound-checking, and music-making. It’s indeed a wild month. But, praise God, my main job through it all is to say the same thing: “O come, let us adore Him: Christ the Lord”.

When Your Worship Team is Small (Really Small)

1In my post “Four Types of Worship Teams“, I advocated that worship leaders seek to model their worship teams after the picture of the body that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12. This way we avoid the traps/pitfalls/discouragements that come from teams whose members are just filling slots on a schedule, or being in a band for the sake of being in a band, or always trying to get to the top so they can be seen as contributing something important.

But what about when your worship team is really small? You’re scraping by from week to week with a kind gentlemen who knows three guitar chords, a fifth grader who wants to be able to play the drums, your pastor’s wife who can sing soprano, and a high school junior who’s an excellent french horn player.

You don’t look or sound like any of the worship teams you see online or hear on albums. An electric guitar has never crossed the threshold of your sanctuary. The newest song you sing was written in 2001 (and that’s pushing it!). You would be thrilled to add more musicians to the team. You would love to have the problem of having so many musicians that they’re all clamoring to play on Sundays. You wish you had a plethora of people to fill different musical slots.

But those aren’t problems you’re in any danger of dealing with really soon. Right now, you’re discouraged and your team is small. Really small.  Your main problem is trying to keep things afloat, and trying to bring together the limited amount of resources at your disposal to present something relatively cohesive from week to week. It’s not easy.

Remember these truths, oh worship leader with a small (really small) team:

God arranges the members of a body
To draw again from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:18, don’t forget that “…God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose“. God doles out gifts and arranges members as he sees fit. Make as many invitations to musicians in your congregation to step forward, to audition, and to explore using their gifts in your team. Maybe you’ll get an overwhelming response. Maybe you’ll just get one 60-year-old who can play piano. See who God has placed in your midst. If he hasn’t given you what you want or need yet, then keep praying.

Newness and youth is an overrated idol
So your sound system hasn’t been updated since the 70s, the average age of your worship team is 70, the most people your church has ever had in attendance is 70, and the ideal era of worship songs for most people in your church is 1870. Don’t waste your time trying to be the man or woman who modernizes everything about your church. Focus first on faithfulness, listen well to the hearts of your people, and once your motives are to edify your church, move forward one step at a time. I think worship leaders worry way too much about newness and freshness and contemporariness. Of course we want our church and our ministries to be alive and vibrant, not dead and dormant, but don’t eschew rootedness for the futile pursuit of relevance.

Small worship teams can be incredibly fruitful
Maybe it’s just you on the platform with an old piano that your church can’t afford to tune. Or maybe there are four of you, and if you try to play anything faster than “Shout to the Lord”, the wheels fall off. Your ministry – and the ministry of a small worship team of just a few musicians – can be incredibly fruitful. Fruitfulness doesn’t come from numbers. Fruitfulness is a gift of the Spirit! And when God-empowered, Spirit-manifested, Jesus-centered gifts come together, regardless of the size, then beautiful and fruitful things can happen.

The people who sit in a small church meeting in a high school cafeteria need the same thing as the people sitting in padded seats in a megachurch. They need Jesus. There is absolutely no reason why a small worship team, even if it’s just one person singing along to worship songs off of YouTube, can’t very effectively and fruitfully exalt Jesus in his or congregation’s eyes. Don’t be discouraged if your team is small.

Finally, a practical encouragement:

Keep inviting
One of the most recent additions to the worship team at my church was at our church for about six months before he finally stepped forward. And I’m glad he did! He plays acoustic and bass guitar, and is a wonderfully gifted worship leader. He had heard my pleas for musicians, had read my blurbs in the church newsletter, and finally after hearing me invite people enough, he stepped forward. Never stop inviting those musicians-in-hiding in your church to step forward and explore using their gifts.

One last thing.

Even when you’re just trying to keep things afloat, or fill the slots on a schedule with a fairly small pool of resources, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re doing it in a vacuum, or that you’re the only worship leader who deals with these problems. The even greater news of 1 Corinthians 12 (verses 4-6) for Christians is that even though there are varieties of gifts, varieties of service, and varieties of activities, we’re all filled with the same Spirit, following the same Lord, and empowered by the same God, even as spread out and different-looking (and sounding) as we are.

Large teams and small teams (even when they’re really small) are all part of God’s grand design for his Body, the Church. This is good and encouraging news.