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”.

Blending The New With The Old: Two Lies

1Worship leaders and pastors who are wrestling with the important and difficult decisions about when and how to bring fresh expressions of worship into traditional services, or more traditional/liturgical elements into contemporary services have a hard job in front of them.

Blending the new with the old is not as divisive an issue as it was 10 or 20 years ago, mainly because the worship wars have largely subsided, resulting either in different styles having their own services, or a different style having prevailed after a long battle.

But many churches are still attempting unified expressions of worship, in one service, either on a weekly or occasional basis.

And for those kinds of churches, and their worship leaders and pastors who are thinking through how to blend the new with the old (and do it well), I would like to caution against two commonly believed lies.

Lie # 1: The presence of something new will result in the removal of something old

There is no reason why this has to be true. Just because you bring a drum set into the sanctuary doesn’t mean you’ll be removing organ pipes. Just because you have the choir sing an anthem doesn’t mean your electric guitarist needs to pack up his pedals. There has to be a way we can embrace a Psalm 150-esque model of robust and God-centered worship that draws out from praise from a variety of instruments across the spectrum.

And the way we begin to embrace that model is to just go ahead and do it. Will it be messy sometimes? Yes. Will we get critical responses? Yes. Will we do it perfectly? No. But we can’t just talk about putting the new and the old together in one unified expression. We actually have to make the hard decision to start doing it.

The pastor has to decide to spend some capital on teaching on it. The worship leader, and/or the worship staff, has to decide to do some hard work on moving forward as one with a broad variety of musicians with a broad variety of tastes and training. The leaders (or elders, or vestry, or deacons) have to be prepared to answer the congregation’s concerns.

Deciding to do some addition doesn’t mean you have to do subtraction. You can add without subtracting. This is the beauty of worshipping a God whose greatness is unsearchable! Lead your people with the constant refrain: “do not be afraid”.

Lie # 2: The immediate embrace of something new will bring immediate revitalization

There is no evidence that this is true. Many churches over the last few decades have rushed to incorporate contemporary music into their services, oftentimes firing their choirs and organists, and assuming that by bringing in new forms of worship, they will experience immediate growth and revitalization. Similarly, many pastors have decided to introduce a lot of liturgy and/or formality into a service unaccustomed to it, thinking that it will bring immediate health or depth.

Most of the time, however, the opposite happens.

When you drop a bomb on something, it always leaves destruction. You can’t drop a bomb on decades-long expressions of worship and expect flowers to bloom and birds to chirp sweetly. You’ll not only be dishonoring the past, but you’ll also be destroying the foundations for the future, and ensuring that nothing can grow.

Except for very rare circumstances, never introduce new elements into worship immediately. Always move slowly. laying a good foundation, lovingly pastoring your people, while also resolutely moving forward.

If a service has never ever had drums before, then plan on using drums sparingly for the first year. Yes, a whole year. Then the second year, once a month. By the third year, you might be able to do it every Sunday. Why move so incredibly slowly? So that people will go with you. You want them to go with you? Move slowly. Did I mention you should move slowly?

If a service has never had liturgy before, then start saying a Psalm together as a call to worship once a month or so. Then maybe you can decide to start saying the Lord’s Prayer together when you do communion. Maybe after a few months, or a year, you can introduce a confession and absolution (or “assurance of pardon” if the word “absolution” freaks you out). Then your congregation can see liturgy as something beautiful and helpful, not something distracting.

Don’t believe the lie that making drastic and immediate changes will result in drastic and immediately positive results. The more likely outcome is that you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.

The first lie (new things are bad) stems from fearfulness. We’re afraid of what might happen if-this or if-that. We’re afraid so-and-so might leave. For the lack of a better phrase, we care too much.

The second lie (new things will bring immediate life) stems from carelessness. We don’t care who might get hurt. We don’t care what people think. For the lack of a better phrase, we don’t care enough.

Worship leaders and pastors who are thinking and praying through how to blend the new with the old would be wise if they are continually asking these questions out in the open:
– What are we afraid of?
– What are we ignoring?

Honestly and prayerfully dialoging about those questions – and then faithfully and biblically walking forward, together, in helping lead your church to embrace a robust view of worship – might actually result in changes that will bear fruit for generations to come, long after we’ve passed the baton.

Beholding the Beauty of Jesus: In His Suffering

“ECCE HOMO (Christ Before the People)” by Edward Knippers.

A few nights ago I was about to head out to choir rehearsal for a few minutes before doing a couple of errands around town – when I decided to ask my oldest daughter (Megan) if she wanted to stay up late and come with me. Of course she responded enthusiastically. Staying up late – and going out when it’s night – is one the best things in the world for a six-year-old.

When we were about to leave she came around the corner wearing a new jacket that Catherine had bought her the week before. I hadn’t seen her wearing it until that moment. And when I looked at her, in that cute brown jacket, I thought (and I said) “Oh my goodness. You are beautiful.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

I was reminded of how beautiful she is. It’s not that she hadn’t been beautiful in the first place, but it’s that I had just grown accustomed to it. I had gotten used to it. I was taking it for granted. I see it every day!

This happens on a regular basis with me. One of my three daughters, or my wife Catherine, will come around the corner sometimes and I’ll just look at them, reminded of something I had forgotten: They’re beautiful.

Do you ever have this experience?

We get used to beautiful things and we don’t remember they’re beautiful anymore. They don’t take our breath away.

We need to be reminded.

And that’s why worship leaders have a responsibility to point people to Jesus every Sunday. To center their songs and their leadership around the clear proclamation of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Worship leaders need to beckon their congregations to hear the Gospel again. To consider the cross again. And to behold the beauty of Jesus again.

This week I’d like to highlight some attributes of Jesus that should be prominent when we point people to him during corporate worship.

First, his suffering.

John Piper writes in Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ:

The agonies of God’s Son were incomparable. No one ever suffered like this man. No one ever deserved suffering less, yet received so much. The stamp of God on this perfect life is found in two words: ‘without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). The only person in history who did not deserve to suffer, suffered most. ‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22). None of Jesus’ pain was a penalty for His sin. He had no sin.

 

He was betrayed, arrested, mocked, tortured, beaten, whipped, scourged, spat upon, and subjected to the very cruelest form of execution ever known to man. His physical suffering is impossible for us to fathom.

But beyond his physical suffering – is his spiritual suffering. And his spiritual suffering far outweighs his physical suffering, if that’s even possible.

Because on the cross:

All of the sin, suffering, betrayal, woundedness, evil, darkness, sickness, terminal illnesses, fear, twisted perversions, and heartache was laid squarely on Jesus.

The airplanes flying into the twin towers. Bodybags coming out of yet another school. Bombs claiming 100 lives at a rally for peace in Turkey. All of it was laid squarely on Jesus.

Jesus cries out on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

No one has ever suffered like Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t deserve any of it. Only he had lived a perfect, blameless, holy, morally upright life. And yet he suffered more than anyone has ever – and will ever – suffer.

Isn’t Jesus amazing?

The suffering of Jesus teaches us that: Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. And we can run to him.

And even though we might not know the answer to why he allows it – we know that:

It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. … So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.” (Tim Keller, Reasons for God)

 

And that’s the beauty of Jesus in his suffering. We see the vileness of evil in all of its wretchedness. And we see the fullness of love in Jesus. What a wonderful Savior.

Worship leaders: don’t shy away from singing songs that deal with the suffering of Jesus.

It helps stop people in their tracks and see again the beauty of Jesus that we all far too easily forget.

More on Wednesday.

On Not Beginning with the Ending

1This past August, during two weeks’ vacation, I had the wonderful experience of actually sitting with my family during church, not leading any songs, not being up front, and being the one to do the nursery and Sunday school drop-off/pick-up. It was great.

And whenever I get to experience church as a someone in the pews (or comfortable padded chairs), I’m reminded of how helpful it is when the worship leader begins with the beginning and ends with the ending.

Here’s what I mean.

On those Sundays, when I had finally gotten my kids signed up for Sunday school, dropped my 21-month-old at nursery (and left her crying), convinced my 4-year-old that the donuts she just saw were not for her, and figured out that my 6-year-old had a very specific seating chart in mind (in between me and Catherine), the opening song was already halfway done, and I needed to get my bearings.

Kindly, the worship leader had chosen opening songs that focused me upward. He helped me get my bearings on just who this God is that I’m singing to, and some of the countless reasons why he’s worthy of my worship.

This is good worship leading: it’s thinking through how to pastorally guide people, as distract-able and weary as we’re all prone to be, to behold again (and again, and again) the God who has revealed himself to us, principally in the person of Jesus Christ.

But all too often, worship leaders don’t begin at the beginning. Instead, they begin at the ending. And to make things clunkier, they end with the beginning.

When the opening songs have to do with sending, going out into the world, or songs of mission, your congregation might be saying “but I just dropped my crying kid off at nursery, and I’m not even sure I remembered to lock our front door when we left the house…” It’s good to sing these kinds of songs, but it’s a better idea to sing them after you’ve laid a little bit of groundwork first.

Wait until people have gotten their bearings, heard the Good News, and had God’s Word opened to them before singing songs about the implications of it all.

Songs that articulate a response, and a willingness to go out in mission to the world are good and necessary (and rare), but usually work a whole lot better at the ending. And this way, you can begin with the beginning: consistently calling people to look upwards, before calling them to look outwards.

Leading On The Edge*

1
Someone once described an American football game as “22 people on the field in desperate need of rest, watched by 60,000 people in the seats in desperate need of exercise”.

Leading worship can feel this way sometimes, as you work hard and put in lots of hours behind the scenes, wearing yourself out, and wishing the “spectators” could be a bit more engaged in what’s happening on the field (i.e. stage).

So we either burn out and give up and phone it in from week-to-week, or in a desire to engage the people in the pews/seats/theater-style heated-recliners with cup holders, we push the envelope too far and end up working against ourselves.

I encourage all worship leaders to get comfortable leading on the edge*. Not playing it too safe, and not pushing it too far. But leading on the edge*.

Why the asterisk? Because what means “edge” for my church isn’t the “edge” for your church. Depending on who your church is and where it’s been, the “edge” could look vastly different.

Maybe it’s:

– *Leading two songs of praise in a row
– *Actually amplifying the instruments
– *Having lyrics projected, not printed
– *Singing one song in your service that’s not out of a hymnal
– *Having the organ and guitar play together
– *You actually praying after a song
– *Having someone play a shaker on one of the songs
– *Turning the lights up in the room during worship
– *Taking the worship leader’s face off of the screen during the songs
– *Lowering the keys from the original recordings
– *Singing a hymn
– *Singing a song from 2012

You get my point.

We work against ourselves when we go too far out there on our own, and push the envelope too far, resulting in a congregation that feels assaulted. They retreat into defensive postures on Sundays and come out in offensive postures on Mondays when they send you angry emails.

It’s good to position yourself as a worship leader in the “safe zone”. You have people’s trust, you have their confidence, and you lead in a way that maintains that trust and confidence.

But you need to know where the edge of that zone is. Where people can use some prodding. Where there are some idols. Where God wants to bring new freedom. What kind of expressions your congregation resists. Where things are stale. And then instead of yanking your congregation into those “red zones” and creating havoc for you and your pastor, you carefully and discerningly pick one to work on for a while.

Oftentimes, getting resistance is a sign that you’re doing the right thing. When everyone is happy with you, then you might be playing it too safe. But there’s a difference between getting resistance because you’re wisely leading on the edge*, and causing damage because you’re foolishly pushing the envelope too far.

Of course sometimes you’ll push it too far. And sometimes you’ll play it too safe. You realize it, or a wise person lovingly corrects you, and you recalibrate.

Why lead on the edge*? Because this kind of leadership is more likely to result in actual growth over a length of time. Your congregation will actually mature, stretch, and move forward in worshipping God with more freedom, more sincerity, more intentionality, and more broadness. You might go through hell helping them get there, but trust me, it’s a better use of your limited time on the field.

The Three Cs of Worship Leading

1There are so many different kinds of churches, with different expressions of worship, using different musical styles, in different parts of the world, with different histories, different emphases, and different callings. The worship leaders at these churches have different callings and have to discern how to serve their congregations most effectively, taking into account all of the uniqueness about their setting.

But taking into account all of the differences between churches (even churches across the street from one another!), can there be a shared calling amongst worship leaders who serve churches with a massively broad array of worship expressions?

I believe that ALL worship leaders – regardless of their setting – are called to maintain the three Cs in order to be an effective worship leader.

Christ-centeredness
Regardless of all of your church’s distinctions, the people in your congregation are fundamentally no different from anyone else in the world: they need Jesus. Effective worship leaders are doggedly persistent in pointing their congregations to Jesus week after week, month after month, and year after year. We never move on, we never assume people have “gotten it”, and we never muddle up the clarity of the gospel with layers and layers of figurative or literal fogginess. Every person in every seat of every church, from ancient cathedrals to hipster coffee shops, need Jesus. So every worship leader has a responsibility to exalt him above all things. Every Sunday. We’ll be doing it for all eternity so let’s set the pattern now (Revelation 5:9-10).

Congregational accessibility
From high-church to low-church, from rock-and-roll to smells-and-bells, from full-time production teams to volunteer worship teams, from rock star worship leaders to a sleep deprived young mother who told her pastor she’d lead this Sunday… We have a shared responsibility: to help people articulate praise to God in unity. It takes some creative theological hop-scotch for worship leaders of any variety to convince themselves that it’s OK if people in their congregations aren’t actively engaged, or at the very least, being invited to engage. We have to do all we can to help people sing along. While we can’t make anyone worship God, we can certainly do things (in our various and different contexts) to actually help people, not hinder people. Effective worship leaders take this responsibility seriously: to help their congregations exalt God in worship (Psalm 34:3).

Consistency
Over time, any congregation in any part of the world with any kind of worship expression will respond positively to worship leadership that consistently points to Christ in a way that helps people respond to him. How can I say this? Because this is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit points to Christ (John 16:14) and the Holy Spirit is honored when we worship “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Consistency not only ensures that we’re pointing in the right direction and sending the right message, but it builds trust with our congregations. When a congregation trusts its worship leader, it will follow that worship leader, and if that worship leader is pointing that congregation to Jesus, then a beautiful thing takes place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to worship leading. What I do in my Anglican church on Main Street in Fairfax, VA wouldn’t work at a store-front church in Daytona Beach, FL. And what you do in your bible church in Brighton, England wouldn’t work at a Cathedral in Sydney. So the practicalities of how we apply our principles will differ wildly from church to church. But those principles must guide the practicalities. And the principles of Christ-centeredness, congregational accessibility, and consistency will help us remain faithful to our shared calling as ministers of the gospel.