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.

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.

 

A Heads-Up Before Auditions

1Meeting with potential singers and/or instrumentalists for auditions is always something I look forward to, but it’s also something that carries potential risks for awkwardness if the person I’m meeting with is under the impression that they have a musical gift (when in reality they don’t), or if they think they’ll definitely be given an up-front role (when in reality they might not).

I’ve found that once someone has indicated an interest in singing and/or playing on a team, and I’ve arranged a time to meet with them, communicating in advance the possible outcomes from the meeting is helpful.

A few weeks ago I sent the following brief explanation to an interested musician at my church:

First, thank you for your willingness to explore using your voice to serve this congregation. I’m grateful!

Secondly, please relax and be yourself, and don’t worry about anything.

Third, please think of 2 or 3 worship songs that you love, and come ready to sing those (advance notice of which songs would be great). Let me know a good key for you. Bring lyrics, either printed out or just on your phone.

Fourth, it’s my job to listen well to your voice, and then to prayerfully discern what I think God might be intending for your musical gifts. Usually one of three options will be obvious: (Option A) Your voice is well-suited for group singing, namely in our choir. (Option B) Your voice is well suited for singing on a mic, either on Sunday mornings or Sunday nights, or at things like Alpha, or occasional events. (Option C) Your voice could work in one of the previously mentioned applications, but I suggest singing lessons. (Option D) Your voice has been given to you to praise God from within the congregation, but not in a public setting, so let’s think about another place where you could serve the church.

I always tell singers (and musicians) before I hear them sing (or play), that the number one thing to remember is that their musical giftedness level has absolutely nothing to do with their worth as a person, or their place in the church. The good news of the gospel is that we’re covered, we’re loved, we’re accepted, and we’re free to be good at some things, not-good at other things, and bad at other things 🙂

 

It’s a lot to send someone before an audition, but I’ve learned through experience that it lays a foundation for things to go a lot more smoothly.

Never Beat The Sheep

A few years ago, a friend loaned me a book by Bill Hybels entitled Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, with 76 short and succinct chapters with different leadership tips he’s learned over the years. I found parts of the book helpful, other parts not helpful, but one chapter really stood out to me.

Towards the end of the book he encourages leaders to “never beat the sheep”, because he knows that this is a temptation for anyone in a leadership role. We don’t get the results we want, so it must be the sheep’s fault. To get them in line, we want to “beat” them in order to straighten them out and whip them into shape.

He talks about a small groups pastor who came into his office one day furious at his volunteer leaders because not even half of them had signed up for a training retreat. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the retreat was really expensive, really far away, and being held at a really bad time. Maybe the problem wasn’t with the sheep after all!

He writes:

If your sheep aren’t responding the way you think they should, put down your stick and ask a few questions first. See if you served your sheep well, because when they’re served well, they tend to serve well in return. Never beat the sheep, my friend. A word of loving admonition every once in a while might be appropriate, but put the stick away. Permanently.

Worship leaders need to hear this word. We can get really frustrated with our sheep from time to time and think that if we could only whip them into shape then we’d see the results we want.

Maybe it’s our congregation. They always come to church late. They don’t engage in worship very much. They talk during the songs. They don’t come to mid-week worship nights.

Maybe it’s our worship team. Attendance at monthly meetings is always lousy. The drummer is always late to rehearsal. They don’t prepare at home.

Or maybe we tried something new. We invited our team on a worship conference and no one signed up. We asked our team to read a chapter of a book on worship before they came to rehearsal and not a single person did. We announced worship team auditions several months in advance and no one came forward.

In every case (and in almost every one I speak from experience), the temptation is going to be to want to beat the sheep. Send a stern email. Make it required or else they’re off the team! Give a glare during rehearsal. Never offer the opportunity again just to punish them.

But most of the time when you don’t get the results you wanted, it’s an opportunity for you to step back and take a look in the mirror. We can be too quick to pick up the stick to beat the sheep. Address your own issues first, do some tweaking and some re-grouping, and then love your sheep as well as you can. They respond to that a lot better.

Six Mistakes You Shouldn’t Make When Disciplining (or Correcting) a Worship Team Member

1One of the responsibilities of worship leaders is to build and cultivate a community of fellow musicians to help serve the congregation in leading worship. You can call that community a worship team, worship band, praise team, praise band, band, or whatever term you come up with. Whatever you call it, it can be a great joy to lead this kind of community of fellow-musicians. It can also be really difficult. 

Musicians have the infamous artistic temperament that makes them not only opinionated, and not only comfortable sharing those opinions, but turns those opinions into “rights”. Musicians then want to protect their rights and their territories against anyone who would seek to invade. Plus, they’re sinners like everyone else.

From time to time, if you’re a worship leader attempting to lead a healthy worship team, you will be faced with difficult situations when you’ll need to bring correction to one of your fellow musicians, or in more difficult situations, bring discipline. You will lose sleep over these situations, and you will want to avoid them. But sometimes it will be clear to you that you need to address an issue with a member of your team. 

Here are six mistakes I’ve made, that you shouldn’t make, when disciplining or correcting a worship team member.

1. Interact Primarily Over Email
If at all possible, avoid the use of email from beginning to end. The more difficult the type of interaction, the more healthy it is. A face to face conversation is crucial. If that’s impossible, then a phone call. Under no circumstances should you interact over email. Emails can be so much more easily misinterpreted, misread, forwarded, blind-copied, and saved forever. Pretend you’re handling this before the invention of the computer.

2. Insist On Meeting On Your Turf
Do not insist that the meeting take place on church property, or in your office. That’s your turf, not theirs, and it will immediately cause their defenses to go up. Not good. Find a neutral place, and a public place, for both of you. A coffee shop or a restaurant. This will level the playing field and increase the odds of a relaxed atmosphere.

3. Handle It All By Yourself
You have people over you. Take advantage of their covering. The single most stupid thing I’ve done when I’ve had to deal with a difficult issue is to keep it from my pastor until it had blown up. Consult him, ask him what you should do, have your pastor in the meeting with you, and keep him totally in the loop. Don’t put yourself in a position to take all the bullets or do/say something unwise. Use the covering God has put over you.

4. Let It Simmer
So a band member has a profanity-laced temper tantrum at rehearsal. The rest of the team is shocked. You’re shocked. They’re all wondering if you’re going to address it. Tension is building. Don’t let it simmer. You might not think stopping rehearsal is wise, but address it before the guy goes home. It might be easier in the short-term to let things slide, but in the long-term it will build tension and pressure in your team that will be unhealthy.

5. Don’t Know What Outcome You Want
On a scale of 1 – 5, 1 being minor correction (i.e. I can tell you didn’t practice one single bit and that’s why you ruined half of the songs) and 5 being major correction (i.e. I need to ask you to step down from the team for a while), you need to know what you want for the person. If you go into a meeting/conversation with the person without an acceptable outcome in mind, then you could very likely get trampled on. 

6. Be Unwilling to Apologize
You’re not perfect. You don’t communicate with your team as well as you could. You lead a rehearsal on an empty stomach and say something mean-spirited to your drummer. You ask a singer to sing a song you know he or she can’t pull off. It could be anything. Be the first to apologize, the first to show contrition and humility, and genuinely ask forgiveness for things you’ve done wrong. Even if your apology isn’t reciprocated, you’ve done the right thing and will get a better night’s sleep even if the meeting doesn’t end the way you hoped.

It’s a great joy to lead a worship team. It’s also hard work. If you’re faithful and consistent in the hard things, then the joy, morale, and unity on your team will increase. If you avoid the hard things, then no one will be happy.