Red Flags

Adding members to a worship team, a choir, or really any volunteer team is one of the most important and consequential jobs of a worship leader. It requires patience (when no one is stepping forward), discernment (whether or not someone is gifted), wisdom (is this person suited for a leadership position in the church?), and leadership (am I building a team or expecting it to fall into place?)

I have made some wise decisions regarding whom to add to the worship team, and I have made some not-so-wise decisions. I’ve learned that there are some things to look out for (i.e. red flags) when considering whether or not someone should be asked to join the worship team.

Here are some red flags to be looking for (in no particular order of importance):

They speak bitterly about former churches
You will not break their cycle of joining a church, being on the worship team, and then leaving and trashing that church to the next church. Instead, you will probably end up joining the club.

They “need” to be on the worship team
Be wary of someone who approaches you about joining the worship team after only weeks at the church, someone who seems overly eager to sing or play an instrument on the team, or someone who is putting pressure on you. Instead of looking for a place to serve, they are looking for a source of self-validation. They really “need” to be up front. Watch out.

They really just want to play music and leave the worship leading to you
I tell my team quite often that I am not looking to build a team of back-up instrumentalists and singers. I am looking to build a team of worship leaders. If I’m auditioning someone and they just seem to be interested in playing music and unable to articulate a passion for helping people encounter God in worship, I would be hesitant to add them right away.

They aren’t committed to the church
Before someone is in a position of leadership at a church, they need to be committed to that church. Set a bar of expectations for the members of your worship team. You won’t regret it.

They say something like “I worship most easily when I’m leading worship”
This is usually code for “when I’m not up front I’m uncomfortable because I’d rather be up front”. People who really want to be up front maybe shouldn’t be up front as much as they’d like, for their own good. (See my post from a very long time ago: “Do You Worship When You’re Not ‘Leading Worship’?”)

They are over-confident
I once had a woman come up to me after a service and say “I would love to join you on the worship team some time. I used to sing many years ago. Feel free to call on me anytime. I don’t need to audition or anything like that. I’d be fine.” You might want to encourage that audition.

They are already over-committed
I’ll always ask a potential worship team member “do you have space in your life for another commitment?” Then I’ll tell them what is expected of worship team members. If they seem excited about making this commitment and able to fulfill it, that’s an encouraging sign. If they seem burned-out just thinking about it, that’s a red flag.

They don’t enthusiastically participate in singing from the pews
Look for them on a Sunday morning when they’re in the pews. Imagine they’re the one leading worship and you’re the one looking at them on a platform. Whatever message they’re sending in the pews will be greatly magnified on stage.

They take it lightly
I remind my team quite frequently that being on the worship team means being in a position of leadership. Make sure that any person you add to your worship team feels that weight and takes it seriously.

Add to your team slowly, intentionally, and wisely. Look for red flags and don’t just hope they’ll disappear. They hardly ever do – and they’re a whole lot harder to handle once you’ve already taken the plunge.

Rejecting The Weekly Verdict

1It’s a dangerous situation for worship leaders. Every day of their week leads up and builds up to Sunday, the day of all days, the day when they stand before their congregations and, in the course of a few hours, either succeed at their job (in which case they feel like a success) or fail at their job (in which case they feel like a failure), or do OK at our job (in which case they feel just OK). It’s what I call the weekly verdict.

Depending on how a combined total of anywhere from 25 – 100 minutes go, worship leaders head home on Sunday afternoons and begin a new week on Monday morning with a fresh report hot off the presses on whether or not they should feel good about themselves.

Obviously, there are a few problems with this:

1. Worship leaders who derive their sense of self-worth or vocational-aptitude from how one service goes are forgetting that their standing before God has been secured by Christ and can’t be improved upon by an awesome set-list or downgraded by a dud.

2. Worship leaders who feel like a success after a successful service set themselves up for a painful bursted bubble the very next week when, due to whatever many factors are at work, things don’t go so well. They also become arrogant.

3. Worship leaders who feel like a failure after a service that falls flat are allowing a gnawing neediness and insatiable appetite to creep up in their souls that becomes hungry for applause and accolades, and makes them no fun for their families to be around after church.

4. Worship leaders who feel “just OK’ after a ho-hum service forget that real-life worship leading (the kind that gets up and gets to church and gets things ready and gets rehearsed and so on…) is much more frequently “ho-hum” than it is awesome. A more provocative way to phrase it would be that worship leading is more of a long-term commitment than a one-night stand.

So what’s the solution for worship leaders who feel this weekly build-up and anxiety to the weekly Sunday morning verdict on where they stand that particular week?

First, remember your core. You’re hidden in Christ. The roller-coaster of approval/applause/criticism/yawning/euphoria doesn’t rock the person who pursues a fundamental certitude of who they are in Christ.

Second, embrace your calling. Worship leaders are not called to be actors for the sake of a crowd’s acclaim. We are called to be servants for the glory of Jesus’ name.

Third, balance your weight. Just like an airplane can’t fly if all the weight is in front, a worship leader can’t be effective if all his/her weight is placed on Sunday morning. Your hours in the office, at the piano, praying over songs, attending meetings, tending to administrative duties, arranging music, scheduling volunteers, rehearsing, emails, appointments, etc., must be the counterweight to the time you stand on a platform.

Don’t allow Sunday mornings to become a weekly determiner of how to feel about yourself. Approach worship leading with a confidence and conviction founded in Jesus, and then regardless of a great response or a royal flop, you’ll be anchored to the unchanging verdict of the Gospel.

Jesus Isn’t Looking for Perfect Music (Or Musicians)

Several years ago I read the book Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best, and for me, it was one of those books that I couldn’t stop underlining, re-reading, and devouring.

In particular, I loved the point Harold made with respect to the ramifications of Jesus – as the perfect Son of God on earth – singing songs and hearing music written by sinners.

He wrote:

“Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem.

The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation.

So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.”
The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19

Jesus sang imperfect music written by imperfect people when he walked the earth. This is good news for us!

So let’s not try to impress Jesus with our perfect music this Sunday. Let’s thank him for making our imperfect music and imperfect worship acceptable through his perfect sacrifice. What a Savior!

Summer Worship Nights

Earlier this year I approached some of my colleagues and asked if they would be interested in helping me host a series of eight “summer worship nights” at my church on Fridays. They all responded enthusiastically, and so we made some plans, spread the word, and went ahead with the idea. We just wrapped up our last one last week, so I wanted to explain why we did it, what we did, what about the kids, what the nights accomplished, and what we learned.

Why we did it
I regularly get approached by people asking me if we can have a more extended time of worship (they mean singing) at church. Sunday morning worship is wonderful, but there are a million moving pieces, and in the context of an Anglican liturgical service, you can’t really have a very extended time of uninterrupted singing without the service going on for 2.5 hours. So, I thought, “why not?” Offering people more opportunities to exalt Jesus Christ is always a win. It will always benefit the church. It will always have a bubble-over effect onto Sunday mornings. With enough advance planning, and making sure the Sanctuary was free for eight Friday nights in a row during the summer, we got word out, and offered anyone who wanted an opportunity for extended worship the invitation to come out on Friday nights.

What we did
We had these worship nights in our Sanctuary from 6:00pm – 7:00pm, so people with kids could come before it got too late. The first one was on the last day of school in Fairfax County. We started on the dot of 6:00pm with 30 minutes of singing, led by a full band, with space to repeat songs as much as we wanted, and time for reflection in between songs when it was appropriate. We would start with one song, then I would welcome people and read a Psalm, and we’d keep going. A big clock on the back wall kept me on time. At 6:30pm, before people were seated, I told the kids they could go down the middle aisle where “Dr. Jones” would meet them and take them downstairs for lots of fun. We’d all say “bye kids!” as they ran downstairs, then I’d encourage people to take a minute and greet the people around them. After that, we had a 15-minute Bible teaching having to do with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. To wrap up, we had more time for singing, prayer ministry up front, or time for people to stay and reflect/pray in their pews. At 7:00pm on the dot I would say “It’s 7:00pm now. You’re free to go, free to pick up your kids, of you’re free to stay if you’d like. We’ll keep singing a few songs, and you can come and go as you wish. Now may the Lord bless us and keep us, the Lord make his face…” By about 7:15pm or so, most people had trickled out, and we’d sing  the Doxology and that was it.

What about the kids
My colleague Mike Seawright, who leads our family ministries, was 100% behind these nights. Ministry really does work best with teams! So Mike got three summer interns, and one of their main jobs was to run an awesome 30-minute kids program downstairs during summer worship nights. So these three interns donned costumes which transformed them into mad scientists and professors, and had the kids doing ridiculous science experiments while also learning biblical/spiritual truths. Kids absolutely loved it. Many of them would ask throughout the week “is it Friday yet”? The interns – and the kids program – were awesome. And they helped the summer worship nights attract some younger families, so the demographic wasn’t exclusively empty nesters.

What the nights accomplished
1. They scratched an itch for people who longed for more extended times of singing.
2. They allowed the congregation to grow in their expression of worship. More time, less pressure, more freedom.
3. They were good practice for me – and my fellow worship leaders on stage – who had to use our “extended worship” muscles a bit more than we’re used to. Don’t get me wrong, we’re used to long services. But we’re not always used to 30 minutes of uninterrupted singing.
4. They were a good opportunity for young people to preach some of the sermons, and to run the kids program.
5. They allowed for multi-generational worship. For 30 minutes, everyone worshipped together. All ages. It was great.

What we learned
1. The people who came out to these evenings really wanted to be there. So even when we had small crowds, there was a wonderful expectancy amongst the people which allowed for some very sweet times of worship.
2. Summer rain storms seem to like Friday nights. We had several nights affected by torrential down storms. But there’s nothing you can do about that!
3. Nursery and kids program is key. If we hadn’t been able to offer nursery and a great kids program, these nights would not have been successful.
4. People are eager to be prayed for – and to pray for each other.
5. It was good to say at the start that we were going to offer eight. Maybe we’ll do these again next summer, but maybe not. We’ll see!
6. People were grateful that we started on time, and ended on time, every week.

Over all, I’m glad we did these, although they have significantly increased my need for a vacation. Next year, if we do offer these, I will need to spread the worship leading load out more effectively, and will leaning on Mike Seawright to help me recruit some worship interns to work in conjunction with his family ministry interns. That whole thing about teams being important is really… important.

These nights have helped us learn some good lessons about how to offer an extended time of worship in a way that works in our context, and between now and next summer, we may offer some seasonal worship nights, maybe one in the fall, one in the winter, and so on. I look forward to a good debrief with my colleagues in a few weeks, so we can make sure we affirm what worked well, and fix what didn’t.

Ten Thousand Reasons For a Thousand Tongues Forever and Ever

Recently I’ve been challenging myself to memorize individual Psalms, so that I can use them as a call to worship at our weekend services. A few weeks ago I memorized Psalm 145, and was struck by just how many reasons David gives for why we should worship God.

He begins the Psalm in the first two verses by saying “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.”

And then the list of reasons begins for why he should extol his God and King, and why he should bless and praise God’s name:

  • Because he is “great and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (verse 3)
  • Because of his “mighty acts” (verse 4)
  • Because of “the glorious splendor of (his) majesty, and… (his) wondrous works” (verse 5)
  • Because of his “awesome deeds…” and his “greatness” (verse 6)
  • Because of “the fame of (his) abundant goodness and… righteousness” (verse 7)
  • Because he “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (verse 8)
  • Because he “is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (verse 9)
  • Because of “the glory of (his) kingdom, and… (his) power” (verse 11)
  • Because of his “mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of (his) kingdom” (verse 12)
  • Because his “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and (his) dominion endures throughout all generations”, and because he “is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works” (verse 13)
  • Because he “upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (verse 14)
  • Because he gives everyone “their food in due season” (verse 15)
  • Because he opens his hand, and satisfies “the desire of every living thing” (verse 16)
  • Because he “is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (verse 17)
  • Because he “is near to all who call on him… in truth” (verse 18)
  • Because “he fulfills the desire of those who fear him” and “hears their cry and saves them” (verse 19)
  • Because he “preserves all who love him” and destroys the wicked (verse 20)

Finally, after all of those reasons, he finishes the Psalm in verse 21 by saying “my mouth will speak the praise of the Lordand let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever”.

The best kind of worship leading – all across the musical, denominational, and liturgical spectrum – is the kind of worship leading that saturates the congregation at every service with fresh reminders of the reasons why God deserves praise. When people are well-fed with a feast of the goodness of God, then they are well-served by their worship leaders, and well-prepared to stand and open their mouths to declare his praise.

Eight Of The Most Common Worship Leading Mistakes

No worship leader ever stops making mistakes. From the most seasoned and experienced worship leaders, to the newest and greenest, mistakes are inevitable, humbling, and part of the process of maturing. We’re imperfect people, working alongside other imperfect people, playing musical instruments and singing songs imperfectly, with a congregation of imperfect men and women trying to sing along.

So our goal is not to become flawless worship leaders who never make mistakes. Our goal is simply to keep being humbled by our awareness of our imperfection, and to keep growing, so we can more effectively point our congregations to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, not the power of our own professionalism.

To that end, here are eight of the most common worship leading mistakes that I’ve observed in my own ministry, and through friendships and experiences with lots of other worship leaders too:

Wrapping our identity up in our performance
We feel good about ourselves after a good service, and bad about ourselves after a bad service. We need to resist this temptation – every Sunday – and always ground our identity and our worth in the gospel reality of being hidden in Christ.

Inserting too much of our personality into our performance
Using “performance” here in a very broad sense of “standing in front of people”, worship leaders can sometimes make the mistake of allowing so much of their personality, sound, look, and “stage presence” onto the platform, that people in the congregation get a subtle hint that they should tune out and watch. Worship leaders, while remaining themselves and being who they are, have to also know how to dial back their persona, especially depending on the context, so that the congregation can focus on the main task at hand: signing along with each other and magnifying the greatness of God.

Doing too many new songs
This is another big, and all-too-common mistake. Too many new songs in a service, or in a row, can have an incredibly detrimental impact on your congregation’s ability to engage in worship. Worship leaders should be building a solid repertoire of songs, anchored by the best songs of the centuries, and enjoying the best songs of the modern day. Adding one or two new songs a month to that repertoire, is realistically the most we should aim for.

Doing songs with ranges that are too high
Most people don’t want to – and can’t – sing songs that hang out near Es and Fs and Gs. They just simply can’t do it. Being aware of this, and being willing to take the extra time to transpose songs down to sit in more singable ranges, will serve your congregation and result in stronger singing.

Playing it too safe for too long
What risks are you taking? Where are you pushing your musicians? Where does your congregation need to grow? In what ruts are you – and your congregation – stuck? If your worship team and/or choir and/or congregation is still singing the same songs, in pretty much the same way, with pretty much the same instrumentation, then you may be making the mistake of playing it too safe for too long. Prayerfully discern where you might need to expand your expression of worship to a God whose “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145).

Trying to be too creative too much
On the flip side – a common worship leading mistake comes in the form of always trying to be more creative, more inventive, more cutting-edge, and more different than last week, or last Easter, or last Christmas. Some worship leaders get stuck in a vortex of pursuing relevance/creativity and eventually lose their bearings. If this is you, take a step back, go back to the basics, and rest in the good news that, at the core of worship leading, is a call to be consistently, faithfully, reliability, and pastorally persistent in helping your congregation sing to, and see, and savor Jesus Christ, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. 

Allowing our wounds to harden us
Over time, even in the healthiest of churches with the most gracious volunteers and congregation, worship leaders get beat up. Maybe a full-fledged critical campaign is launched against you, or maybe it’s just one person who views their life-calling as being a thorn in your side. Whatever the case may be, every worship leader will get wounded. We can’t help that part. But we make a mistake when we allow those wounds to harden us, so we become angry, or burned-out, or resentful, or we pull back and just phone it in so we don’t get wounded again, or we quit ministry and give up. The good news of belonging to Jesus Christ, and knowing that he calls us, equips us, protects us, and goes before us, allows us to operate in ministry whether in good times or rocky times, with a rootedness and security that keeps us both soft-hearted and thick-skinned.

Basing our assessment of worship on what we see with our eyes
Lots of hands raised = worship happened. No hands raised = no worship happened. Sadly, that’s an all-too-common way that many worship leaders can tend to assess a service. We look out at a congregation, and we make a snap assessment, that may or may not have any basis in reality, especially in an invisible and spiritual reality which we cannot see with our eyes, and we stick with that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at our congregation, or that we can’t tell a lot by what we see. We certainly should, and we certainly can.

But never forget this, worship leader: you have no idea what’s happening in people’s hearts, you can’t possibly know all that God is up to, and you most likely won’t ever know the short-term and/or long-term impact of your faithful leadership in people’s lives over the course of years’ worth of Sundays that help them remember and proclaim the good news of the gospel. Don’t make the mistake of making a quick assessment. God is like a gardener, not a Photo Shop artist. So plant seeds, water soil, pull weeds, enjoy fruit, prune when needed, and repeat as needed. That’s the reality of ministry, and every worship leader in the world, from the most experienced to the most amateur, can never hear that truth enough times.

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!