There is Always Something to Learn – Pt. 1

This past Saturday I spent the afternoon/evening at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, watching how they “do things”. They’re about a ten-minute drive from my in-law’s house in Newport Beach, where Catherine and I are on “vacation” with Megan and her adoring grandparents.

Mariners Church is quite different from my church in many ways. It’s non-denominational and non-liturgical, while mine is Anglican and liturgical. Its average weekend attendance is over six times ours. All of the musicians are paid, while ours are volunteers. They have a state-of-the-art “worship center”, while we have a civil war-era Historic Church for our traditional services and a 900 seat “main Sanctuary” for our more informal services. They have a sprawling campus, complete with bar-b-q grills, a lake, bookstore, café, and tons of parking. They have a five-person camera crew at each service and project images of the worship leader, band, and speaker during the entire service. There are many more differences.

But while my church does differ from Mariners Church in some of our approaches to ministry, our facility, theological emphases, size, and cultural setting, we still share a love for Jesus, an evangelical and orthodox understanding of scripture, and a mission to preach the Gospel. And while my worship team looks and operates differently in many ways from Mariners’, there is always something to learn. I learned a lot on Saturday by sitting in on their sound check, rehearsal, production meeting, and evening service. They made me feel at home, gave me an in-ear monitor pack to listen in, and let me look “behind the scenes”. It was a blast. Here are a few things I learned:

Monitors, monitors, monitors
Mariners Church has a separate sound board to run separate in-ear monitor mixes for each band member, and an engineer whose only job is to run their mixes. Not every church can afford this (!), but most churches and worship teams would be well-served to devote more money and energy to making sure they have good monitor equipment and competent people running it. I have a renewed dream of having in-ear monitors for the entire worship team at my church, and having a separate person taking care of these mixes to free our sound engineer to worry about the main mix exclusively. This will take money, time, and patience.

“Rehearsal” shouldn’t be a bad word
Here’s Mariners’ typical rehearsal/service schedule:

Wednesday
– Evening rehearsal (musicians and monitor engineer) to get a feel for how they want to play the songs. This rehearsal is recorded and posted online for the band after rehearsal is finished.

Saturday
– 1:30pm: Band members arrive, tune, and plug in. Sound team is ready and equipment is in place.
– 1:45: Band plays together (ad lib) for five or ten minutes while monitor mixes are set. Note that they are playing continuously during this time, speaking to the monitor mix engineer through individual mics that are fed only into the headphone mix.
– 2:00: Rehearsal begins. Band plays through each song, stopping occasionally to correct chords, tempo, repeats, etc. Lyric operator runs lyrics concurrently to see if there are any errors and to get a feel for how to project them best. Camera and lighting operators are also in place.
– 2:45: Band takes 15 minute break. Worship leader takes part in a production meeting at this time which is attended by the directors of the different components of the service (video, lighting, audio, etc.) the “producer”, and others involved in the execution of the service. They talk through the service, what is happening and why, and what needs to happen before the service begins.
– 3:00: Everyone involved in any aspect of the service gathers to pray together.
– 3:15: First full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 3:40: 5 minute break.
– 3:45: Second full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 4:20: Break.
– 4:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 4:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 4:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 5:00: Service begins.
– 6:15: Service ends.
– 6:25: All the players from the earlier production meeting gather again to debrief. What worked? What didn’t?

Sunday
– 8:00am: Full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 8:30: Break.
– 8:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 8:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 8:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 9:00: Service begins.
– 10:15: Service ends.
– 10:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 10:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 10:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 11:00: Service begins.
– 12:15pm: Service ends.

Most worship teams/tech teams can’t (and shouldn’t) take on a rehearsal schedule exactly like this. Mariners Church does it because they have 9,000 people attending on a weekend, paid musicians, and have gone for a more highly-produced service. Don’t think I’m saying that every church should do three full run-throughs before its first service! If you’re not careful you can over-rehearse and burn out your volunteers.

But there are also problems with under-rehearsing, and I suspect most worship teams/tech teams (my church’s included) might be guilty of it quite often, if not every weekend. If your rehearsals are efficient and effective, most people won’t mind giving up their time to be there. You’ll be better equipped, your worship team/tech team will be better prepared, and your congregation will be led with better skill. Mariners Church rehearses often and well. That combination is key.

Keep arrangements fresh
I’m guilty of using the same chord charts for years and years. Once I have a chart for a song, I’ll use that one every time we sing it. One thing that Mariners does really well is keep their arrangements fresh. They’ll change a chord progression, try a different feel, slow it down, speed it up, use a different electric guitar or synth sound, drum pattern, etc. They’re always looking for ways to keep their songs from feeling stale, and that’s something most worship teams (again, mine included) could improve on.

Don’t take input personally. Musicians should seek to serve the song
At one point during rehearsal, Tim Timmons (the worship leader – a great guy) asked the drummer to change the feel on the chorus of one of the songs. The drummer said “OK.” It was that easy. Throughout their rehearsal, ideas and suggestions were offered freely and no one was defensive or took it personally. That’s how a healthy body works.

Have the lyrics operator at rehearsal
I am now convinced that this is crucial. The role of the lyric operator is so critically important to the skillful leading of a service, that to expect it just to “work” with no rehearsal, and with the person showing up ten minutes before the service starts is dangerously negligent. During the first run-through at Mariners, Tim realized the video for “God of Wonders” that projected the lyrics was about one beat behind, meaning the lyrics were “following, not leading”. They adjusted things so that once the service started, the lyrics were put up about 2 seconds before they were supposed to be sung. I’ll be talking with our technical director and discussing how we can get our lyric operators to attend rehearsals as soon as possible.

Walk, talk, and pray through the service with your team
Tim took time to walk through the service with the musicians and volunteers to explain why he had chosen certain songs for specific points, what would be happening at particular moments, what he was going to say in between a song, etc. Then they prayed over the service, including many of the specific moments Tim had said to look out for. This not only helped the team feel connected and on the same page, but it also helped Tim think through and articulate what he was going to say, why he was going to say it, and what his goal was. Great idea.

I’ll share some more things I learned tomorrow.

Not Getting Off to a Confusing Start

This past Sunday I thought it would be a good idea to begin the service a bit differently, by singing Joseph Stigora’s version of Psalm 96. I first heard this version at the 2008 Worship God conference (the time when they started it off in two keys) and really liked it. The chorus (“sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth, sing to the Lord, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”) is congregational, with the verses sung by the worship leader. It’s unusual for us to start off a service with an unfamiliar song, especially a song where the congregation doesn’t sing on the verses, but it seemed appropriate this past Sunday and I was looking forward to it.

Looking back, however, I realize that I forgot one important detail: since a good number of people come in late, or come in once they hear the music start, about half of the congregation wouldn’t hear my instructions to only sing the chorus and to listen to the verses.

So what ended up happening was that anyone who came in after I gave those instructions (a few hundred people) was really confused.

How come no one is singing the verses? Is Jamie expecting us to know these verses? These verses are not very easy. Have we ever sung this song before? What am I supposed to do on the verses – just stand here or something? The words are on the screen – but no one around me is singing them. This is weird.

It didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would work out. A good portion of the congregation seemed genuinely confused and not sure of what to do – which is a strange way to start off a service. I got a very kind email on Monday morning from a friend in the congregation (who walked in after I told the congregation to only sing the chorus) and let me know how hard the verses were to sing – and how no one around him was even trying!

So… lesson learned: it’s confusing for people when they walk into an already-begun service and are out of the loop that they’re not supposed to sing the verses to a song. Maybe it would be a better idea to wait until further into the service.

I’ll keep trying new, different, and fresh things. Some will work, some will not. It’s good for the congregation and it’s good for me. There’s nothing to be afraid of!

How to Handle the Tambourine Lady

I met her when I was 15 years old and living in Panama City, Florida. My dad was pastoring a small Episcopal church, and my family had been there for about a year and a half.

I had been leading at our youth ministry’s weekly services, a couple of songs for the Sunday morning service, and songs at other events ocassionally.

This particular event was one of a series of summertime mid-week services held in the chapel, with an extended time of singing at the beginning, followed by a teaching. I had just started Paul Baloche’s new (at that time) song “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”, when she came in the back door with her tambourine swinging.

I was really young and had not been leading worship for very long. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t believe this was happening – and from the looks on the faces of the people in the congregation – they couldn’t either.

The tambourine is one of those instruments that either has to be played really well, or hidden deep inside a closet where no one would ever think to look. You know what I mean.

In this instance, it was not being played well. Honestly, it was being played horrendously poorly. That’s probably too kind of a definition. It wasn’t being played at all. It was being used as a weapon of mass distraction. That’s more like it. A bit cheesy but accurate.

No one had taught me what to do in this situation. None of the conferences I had attended had offered seminars on “what to do with the tambourine lady”. The worship leading books had all conveniently left this chapter out. And YouTube didn’t even exist yet, so I couldn’t log on and watch Paul Baloche’s instructional video on the topic.

So I would like to offer some tips on what do when you’re leading worship and all of the sudden a woman walks into the back of the room with her own personal tambourine. I call them the “AAA’s”.

Assess
Do a quick damage assessment of the congregation. What percentage seems to be distracted and disturbed? Has everyone noticed? Do they not even care? Are they about to stage a tambourine revolt and kick her out of the room? The extent of the damage will affect your next move.

Adjust
If the tambourine “playing” seems to have distracted every single person in the room, you might want to think about skipping your fast songs and singing some slow songs. Really slow songs. Odds are (you hope – and pray) that the slow tempo will mean no more tambourine. Or you may just need to keep going on as you had planned.

In all seriousness, when a disruption like this happens, just relax, pray a quick prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and then make the decision that you feel is best. You may very well need to adjust your leading somehow.

Approach (and ask)
Seek the tambourine lady out after the service at all costs. If you can’t find her, call her. If you can’t call her, email her. If you can’t email her, drive to her house. If she doesn’t have a house, put an ad in the local paper. Somehow you have to talk with this person – with your pastor, ideally.

What you want to do is approach her, thank her for her desire to worship God with the tambourine, and ask her if she would like to come to an audition.

If she says no, then you can ask if she would refrain from playing during a service since the other musicians who are up front all rehearse together.

If she says yes, I would be surprised, but you’d need to set up a time to meet with her and audition her, and then be honest with her. (See my post on how to be honest with unskilled musicians who audition for worship teams.)

You may never meet the tambourine lady, but I have heard that she has a habit of showing up at most churches at one point or another.

If you do have the privilege of meeting her, please tell her I said hi.

Lessons Learned from This Weekend – Pt. I

mirrorFrom time to time, usually on Mondays, I think it might be helpful for me to post some reflections on the previous weekend’s services. Perhaps some ways I could have handled certain situations better, some specific ways God was at work through the music, or various other lessons learned (however major or minor). I’ll get it started this week with some situations that, looking back, I could have handled better.

Memorize the words
You would think that I would follow my own advice (“Put the Music Stand Away”) and spend some time during the week getting familiar with the songs so that I didn’t forget lyrics, fumble for the right chords, and come across as unprepared. I wish I had. This past Saturday night we used Andrew Peterson’s song “Invisible God” as a special song during the collection/offering time, and I mangled the first verse pretty bad. Oops. Lesson learned: I need to practice too.

Multi-tasking isn’t as easy as it seems
On Saturday night, in addition to leading the music, I also opened the service, led the time of prayer, and gave the announcements. The pastor who normally does this was on vacation, so he asked me to step in since I would be at the service anyway. I have to confess that I didn’t prepare for these responsibilities as thoroughly as I should have. At 4:45pm (15 minutes before the service started), I was trying to figure out what to say to welcome people, how to lead the prayers, etc. A few transitions were awkward, especially getting from the announcements to the offering. Lesson learned: Don’t ever wing it.

There are good ways to get your sound engineer’s attention and there are bad ways…
We had a crazy morning at my church with baptisms at both services, short transition times between them, and very little time for a sound check. In the midst of a noisy Sanctuary about 20 minutes before the service, I was having a difficult time getting the sound engineer’s attention, so I thought it made sense to yell “Andreeeeeeeewwwwwww!!!!!!”. There are about eighteen reasons why this is always a bad idea. Lesson learned: Never yell at your sound engineer. Sorry Andrew.

These are just a few of the lessons I (hopefully) am taking away from this past weekend. It’s good to look back and thank God for his guidance, his presence, and his grace – and pray that he’ll keep teaching me lessons each time I lead.