Three Signs You’re Leading Rehearsals Well

Effective rehearsals have many characteristics. They have a clear leader, they start and end on time, they’re organized, they’re light-hearted, they’re focused and efficient, they zero in on what’s not working, they don’t waste time on over-rehearsing what’s working fine, and the people who attend them are expected, encouraged, and equipped to be prepared for them and to work on their own parts on their own time.

These kinds of rehearsals are an art, not a science. It takes time to learn your own style, and for your team to follow you. Here are three signs you’re leading rehearsals well:

They end early every once in a while
Just because your rehearsal says it goes until 9:30pm doesn’t mean it has to. Or just because you rehearse before the first service doesn’t mean you have to rehearse right up until the first service. If you’re managing time well, if your team is prepared well, and if you don’t waste energy on things that could be skipped, then you’ll find yourself ending rehearsal early from time to time. Even ending just five minutes early sometimes sends a message to your team that you’re confident in them. And it means that the next rehearsal when you use up the whole time, they’ll know you really needed to.

There’s laughter
Everyone loves to laugh. Rehearsals that have moments of laughter, perhaps when you’re poking fun at yourself (or the drummer), or making a dumb joke, are rehearsals that people want to come back to. Musicians can be prone to take themselves way too seriously. Keep looking for those lighthearted moments when people can just relax and laugh. They’ll sit up straighter when you ask them to focus again when rehearsal gets back on track.

The first service doesn’t feel like rehearsal
At my church, I rehearse our instrumentalists from 7:30am – 8:15am (give or take) every Sunday. Then we have a 9:00am and 11:15am service. I know I’ve led a good rehearsal when our 9:00am service doesn’t feel like a rehearsal. We feel ready, relaxed, and confident. But if that 9:00am service has lots of missed cues or rough transitions, then I know I could have done a better job. When your first service starts, and your team is ready to go, then you know you’ve led a good rehearsal.

Perhaps the simplest way to know whether or not your rehearsals are working, is whether or not you and your team look forward to them. People should actually want to come to rehearsals. They know they’ll be stretched, encouraged, and noticed. They know you’ll lead them well. They know they’ll be making a contribution. And they know you’ll honor their sacrifice of time. Who wouldn’t want to come back to that kind of rehearsal?

Maintaining Congregational Connection

For the last two days, I’ve been at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, taking part in teaching at a worship conference hosted by Andy Piercy on the theme of “Restoring the Worship Connection”. I was one of the speakers, along with Andy, Paul Baloche, and Andi Rozier. It was great meeting and talking with so many gifted and faithful worship leaders.

In my session, I was asked to share on maintaining the congregation’s connection in worship. In other words, how do we help them not tune out? How do we remove road blocks to the congregation singing and participating? In an attempt to be succinct, and to cover some basic fundamentals of worship leading, I offered these 15 (!) essentials, and I share them here as well in the event that they’re helpful.

An invitational spirit
Psalm 34:3 is the heart of the worship leader, saying: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” We are like hosts at a feast.

A confident, humble, accessible style
Confidence to lead with clarity, humility to serve with pastoral care, and accessibility, so as many people as possible can follow and join in with you.

Songs worth singing
We have more songs at our disposal than ever, so we don’t have any reason to sing bad songs. Use songs that are musically, lyrically, and theologically rich. They’re out there!

A balanced repertoire
I wrote about the concept of “thinking in thirds” previously. Generally, the idea is that to keep as broad a cross-section of generations in your congregation engaged as possible, sing hymns, sing older/familiar songs, and sing new songs. Think in thirds.

Keys are key
The old adage of singing “from C to shining C” still holds true. Songs can dip lower, but don’t hang out in the doldrums. Songs can pop higher, but don’t hang out in the stratosphere. Keep your songs in singable keys for the average voice.

Building trust – and capital
Build trust with your congregation, and therefore build capital to save for later.

Spending that capital to push your congregation
Every congregation in the world has areas in which they can grow in worship. A worship leader who has built trust with his/her congregation can and should spend that capital to help the congregation grow. They’ll follow you if they trust you.

Modeling expressiveness
Worship leaders oftentimes lament the lack of expressiveness in the congregation. Start by modeling it from the platform, and you’ll send the message that it’s safe to be expressive in the congregation.

Using music – effectively and correctly – as a tool
Do whatever kind of style you can do, with the musicians you have, as well as you can. Don’t try to do what you can’t do. Don’t try to be who you aren’t. Don’t try to achieve a sound that isn’t achievable. Do what you can, as well as you can, and your congregation will appreciate it.

Having the right people – and equipment – run sound
Good sound encourages robust singing. It’s worth getting the right equipment and people to run sound in your setting. If you’re in a small church without a budget for this, call a larger church in your area with good sound, and simply ask for their help, and offer them a free lunch in return for a few hours of their time to help train your people and/or EQ your system.

Behind the scenes camaraderie with the pastor and worship leader
Tension or indifference between the pastor and worship leader will result in tension or indifference in the room. When a worship leader is seen as usurping or circumventing a pastor’s authority, that lack of unity is unhealthy for a congregation, and stifles their participation in worship. A pastor and worship leader must have a trusting and transparent relationship.

The worship space itself – acoustics, lighting, etc.
Dead acoustics in a room will deaden the singing, because people feel like they’re singing into a vacuum. Conversely, really bouncy acoustics will make everything unintelligible. Acoustics matter. So does lighting.

Driving the technology – so it doesn’t drive you
There’s nothing wrong with loops, multi-tracks, pads, etc. But when/if you integrate these things, make sure you’re driving them, and not the other way around. When technology drives us, and limits us, we run the risk of making the congregation’s involvement in worship incidental, not integral.

Faithfulness, faithfulness, faithfulness
Serve your congregation with faithfulness. Trust in God’s faithfulness. Over time, God will faithfully use your faithfulness, to accomplish his purposes, and glorify himself in and through the worship of his Church. You might not see the results you want to see, in the time you want to see them, but God is faithful, and your labor in him is not in vain.

The worship leader’s heart and diet
The public ministry of a worship leader starts – and is sustained – in private. Our private passion for God and his Word, will fuel our public ministry of inviting our congregations to feast upon him, and magnify his name with us.

Worship Leader Gathering: July 17 – 19, 2018

Last March, a group of 25 worship leaders and choir directors from all over the geographical and denominational map gathered in Atlanta for a wonderful time of community, worship, prayer, and teaching. We considered the challenges of leading/growing/building vibrant, worshipping choirs, and how to lead our worship ministries well. This gathering was one of the highlights of 2017 for me!

If you – or anyone you know – is interested in this topic, I would like to invite you back to Atlanta this July 17 – 19, for another gathering of worship leaders and choir directors, to encourage one another, pray for one another, and learn from one another.

We will once again have a welcome dinner on the evening of the 17th, and spend all of Wednesday (July 18th) at Mt. Paran Church of God, including observing their choir rehearsal that evening. On the morning of the 19th we’ll have one final session (and prayer commissioning), and will be done by 11:00am. We’re capping it at 50 attendees this year.

We’ll learn from each other, and from various speakers including the team at Mt. Paran, from Bradley Knight from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and from various others as well. We place a big emphasis on building relationships, praying for one another, and being real with each other.

Here’s a video with more info, featuring yours truly:

You can visit https://worshipleadergathering.com for all the info, and to register. I hope to see you there!

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.