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.

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).

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.

About Tuning Out

1A few weeks ago I stirred the evangelical worship pot with my post “Are We Headed For A Crash? Reflections On The Current State of Evangelical Worship”. One of the lines that got me the most flack was this one (when explaining my experience at a worship service/concert):

“…Even I didn’t know most of the songs that we were supposed to be singing along to at the conference. I tuned out. I sat down. I Tweeted. I texted my wife. I gave up.”

Some people very sweetly encouraged me to try a bit harder next time, while others offered to pray for the state of my soul.

I wanted to say two things about this whole “tuning out” thing:

First, it’s good for worship leaders to sit back from time to time and analyze a worship service. Analyzing isn’t a bad thing when it’s not the only thing. If all you’re doing is analyzing, then you’re missing the forest for the trees. But if you never do any analyzing, you’re missing the trees that need pruning.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had at the worship conference to enjoy some sweet times of congregational worship, and to enjoy some enlightening times of observing. I was in a section where I could sit and not be a distraction or discouragement to anyone, and I learned a lot. Worship leaders have to be able to analyze and observe. It will make them and the services they lead more effective.

Second, it’s hard for people to stay engaged when the songs are all unfamiliar (and this should not be a controversial statement). This is true on Sunday mornings, and it’s true at your favorite performer’s concert. New songs are great, but familiar songs are an anchor.

When we don’t sing any familiar songs, we take away any sense of there being an “anchor” for the congregation, causing them to get defensive and pull back. Will there always be those who aren’t engaged no matter what you do? Yes. And will there always be those who say things were great no matter what you do? Yes.

But most people, including worship leader bloggers, will eventually succumb to fatigue in a service where there are no familiar songs. We should be aware of this when we lead worship, and not wear our people out.

I eventually succumbed to that fatigue, and “gave up” singing along, and decided to check in with my wife (putting three girls to bed), check in on the outside world, and observe. I would have preferred to sing along.

Your congregation probably prefers to sing along too. But when they can’t sing along, they usually won’t sing along, and that was my experience several weeks ago, as a normal person in the pews. Or, nicely padded theater seats.

So worship leaders: when you’re leading, try not to give people excuses to tune out. And when you’re in the congregation, try to be as engaged as you can be. But from time to time, it might be a good idea to sit down, observe, and analyze. (But be careful blogging about it unless you’re prepared to explain yourself!)


Where Am I Pointing?

1One of the beautiful things about the Church is all of the different ways it expresses its worship in music around the world, in different cultures, in different denominations, with different instrumentation, and with different opinions about how it should be done. It’s a wonderful expression of the unsearchable greatness of God (Psalm 145:3).

And even though this breadth of worship expressions can make it hard for worship leaders across the spectrum to talk principles and practicalities, I do think there is one question that gets to the heart for all worship leaders, regardless of their culture, denomination, instrumentation, and technique.

That question is: “where am I pointing?

The local worship leader with a team of two musicians (one of whom can’t play in 5 keys). The underground worship leader playing some songs off of her iPod. The mega-church worship leader with five weekend services, three weekly production meetings, two full dress rehearsals, and an all-paid band. The organist who chooses hymns according to the lectionary, and selects anthems for a small but good choir to sing. All very different churches. All with different challenges and responsibilities for their respective worship leader/organist/choir director. But in each of those churches, the person responsible for leading the worship in song has to decide where to point. 

And the kicker is that any moving object can only move in the direction it’s pointing. Try walking in multiple directions at once. Try driving on multiple roads at the same time. It’s logistically, physically, and literally impossible. You can only move in one direction at a time. So when a worship leader is planning and leading a service, in whatever context and with whatever style, he can choose to point towards Jesus, or to point away from Jesus. You can’t point away from Jesus and point towards Jesus at the same time. You can’t exalt yourself and exalt Jesus at the same time. It’s impossible.

I’m afraid that some worship leaders across the broad spectrum of worship expressions think it’s possible, permissible, and even preferable to point to themselves, their music, their style, their personality, their instrumentation, their professionalism, their polish, and their performance. There’s a word for this, and it’s called “mission creep“, and it’s what happens when we forget our original mission’s goals and move in other directions.

All worship leaders, and I’m preaching just as loudly to myself here, need a constant reminder: No. It is not OK to point to yourself. By doing so, you are pointing away from Jesus, and vainly seeking after a share of the glory he is due. Our mission has one aim: the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Who am I to say that worship leaders have one aim? Don’t blame me. Blame Paul.

(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18)

That. In. Everything. He. Might. Be. Preeminent (ie. totally, completely, unmistakably above all other things). Where is there wiggle room in this? Where is there grey? Where is there room for me to exalt myself? There isn’t.

Jesus is the image of the Father. He’s glorified by the Spirit (John 16:14). He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Is he the center of our worship services? He either is or he isn’t. We’re either pointing to him or we’re not. Regardless of our musical expression, context, stye, technique, approach, or denomination, we have this one question to answer. And it’s not multiple choice.

Final Thoughts On Performancism… For Now At Least

1About two weeks ago I posted some thoughts and concerns about the evangelical worship culture after I attended the National Worship Leader Conference in Chantilly, Virginia in mid-May. Having been blogging here at Worthily Magnify for almost five years, I’m accustomed to my usual/average numbers of readers, and honestly (I mean this) it’s something I really don’t keep track of. Occasionally a post will spark a vigorous discussion – we’re talking a huge number of comments like six or seven – but my reason for writing isn’t to get a bunch of readers. It’s just to help whoever happens to read.

Well, it didn’t take long for me to get the sense that this post wasn’t going to be like any of my other posts. Within hours, comments started trickling, and then pouring in. I was hearing from people all over the world. I checked the stats and it was over 10,000 hits on the first day. Over the next two days it got over 100,000 views. And then another 100,000+ views since then. Over 450 comments so far. Some people were very supportive. Some people were very angry. Some people weren’t sure what I was trying to say. One person even pointed out that I misspelled “curmudgeony” when it should have been “curmudgeonly”. I misspelled it on purpose, since that’s how I say that word (not that I use it that often), but oh well. He noticed. I was impressed.

I wanted to wrap this little two-week focus on performancism, faces on big screens, new songs, wrong turns towards performancism, and performing a role versus performing a show with some final thoughts and reflections before, hopefully, I can just starting writing a normal blog again next week 🙂

Here’s what I want to say:

1. There are a lot of worship leaders, musicians, pastors, and congregants out there who are concerned. I heard from them in the comments, in emails to me, in Tweets, on Facebook, and even at my church last Sunday. They see a trend towards performancism in worship, which continues to shine a bright light on what’s happening on the stage, while lowering the light on the congregation, and sometimes, tragically, shining a murky light on Jesus. They want to see a change.

If a post written by an unknown worship leader at an Anglican church in Northern Virginia can reverberate on the Christian blogosphere like mine did, then I think God is up to something. We have to be willing, each of us in our local contexts, to look at our worship services, our worship leading approaches, and our worship theology, to make sure we’re pointing people to Jesus as clearly as we can.

2. A lot of those people are committed to being faithful in their local church. One person asked me “so what are we supposed to do?” I told him: be faithful to your local church, and be available to God for any way he wants to use you. That’s what we can do. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Work to cultivate a culture of Christ-centered, congregational, vibrant worship in your congregation. Whether that’s using an organ and hymnals, or guitars and screens, do what you can to encourage your congregation to see and savor and exalt Jesus Christ above all things.

3. Modern worship leaders would be smart to re-focus on helping their congregations sing. I heard this refrain from all sorts of people, countries, denominations, and worship styles. People just want to sing. We’re robbing our people of a glorious experience: corporate singing. This is foolish.

I had one commenter write that his pastor specifically says that if everyone is singing every song on Sunday, it’s a sign of an unhealthy church. That’s insanity. A healthy church is a singing church, because a healthy church loves Jesus, and when you love Jesus, you want to sing. So let’s help people sing. Seriously.

4. You can never make everybody happy. This is lesson number one in ministry 101, and I’ve lived it as a preacher’s kid and someone in worship ministry for a while now. But lest we forget this unfortunate truism, let my posts over the last two weeks remind us that there will always be people who take offense when no offense was intended. No matter how often I said “new songs are great, but in moderation” there were always some who thought I meant “new songs are terrible!” And now matter how often I said “lights, loops, and creativity is great, but not at the expense of the clear proclamation of the gospel” there were always people who thought I meant “don’t use loops, don’t use lights, and don’t be creative, and while you’re at it, don’t use electricity either”. I had some very constructive conversations with some people who weren’t happy with something (or everything) I said, but my post certainly struck a nerve and I’m actually quite happy about that.

Many churches, worship leaders, and pastors have embraced whole-heartedly a model of worship leading that leans heavily towards performancism, which I define as “performing songs in front of a congregation in a way that leads them to focus on the performance and the performers.” I think this model is dangerous. I’ll keep calling it out when I can, and hopefully offering constructive suggestions.

5. What is the role of a worship leaderThe heart behind this answer is ultimately what this all comes back to. For those whose answer to this question is relatively simple (i.e. to help people see Jesus), then what I said in my post wasn’t all that offensive. But for those whose answer includes things like “create an emotional atmosphere” or “lead people through dark woods like a woodsman”, then my post ruffled their feathers. While our roles as worship leaders are surely more complex than I make it sound (we have administrative, musical, pastoral roles to name a few), I’m talking about the heart of our role. The heart of our role is simple. When we complicate the heart of our role, then we can start to justify a complicated rationale for leading in a way that’s not so simple for people to see past to Jesus.

Finally, let me say that I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Chuck Fromm yesterday morning. Chuck is a legend in the evangelical worship world. And he’s also the publisher of Worship Leader Magazine, which hosts the National Worship Leader Conferences. He was gracious, encouraging, and kind enough to listen to me share my heart on some of this stuff. There’s no “beef” whatsoever, and we’re very much on the same team.

Thanks everyone for a fascinating conversation over the last two weeks.

Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
(Psalm 115:1)

Performing A Role Or Performing A Show? Looking At The Fruit

1Yes, we’re all performers. 

The stay-at-home Mom performs her duties as well as she can on as little sleep as she gets. The mechanic performs his duties with the tools and training he’s gained through the years.

And the worship leader performs his or her Sunday duties on a platform of some kind, with musicians and vocalists of some kind, with training and (hopefully) practice of some kind. So, yes, worship leaders and their teams are performers, in one sense of the word.

But the word “perform” can mean two things: First, do a job. Second, put on a show. It’s the second meaning of the word that worship leaders have to avoid. We have to perform a role (which has both musical and pastoral components) focusing a congregation on Christ, without performing a show, focusing a congregation on us. It’s a fine line. And it’s a crucial distinction to make.

DISTINCTION ONEOur role is to serve our congregation by performing our role of helping them see and savor (and sing to) Jesus Christ.

– This requires pastoral gifts and sensitivities (i.e. knowing, loving, and serving our people).

– It requires musical skill (i.e. choosing songs, directing musicians, running rehearsals, and leading music).

– It requires leadership gifts (i.e. working with volunteers, arranging a team, interacting with different kinds of people, and leading a congregation in singing).

– And finally, it requires a certain comfort level with being up front, being seen, and being heard, in order to ensure the congregation’s confidence in singing to Jesus.

– All of these pastoral, musical, leadership, and up-front gifts go into us performing our Sunday morning role as a worship leader, facilitating the corporate exaltation of Jesus Christ.

DISTINCTION TWOOur role is not to entertain our congregation by performing a show (that they are welcome to follow along to if they can, or just observe).

– This diminishes the pastoral component of our role, since entertaining a crowd allows us to be more removed from the people.

– This disproportionately elevates musical skill to being the primary ingredient in the mix, since the demand is not so much on facilitating congregational singing, but more on keeping them entertained.

– This de-emphasizes pastoral/musical leadership, and instead demands a certain degree of star-power necessary to carry a musical performance from week to week.

– And this exalts the up-front persona, or stage presence, as being less about facilitating congregational singing, and more about performing the songs well.

– This is not the description of a worship leader performing his role. It’s the description of someone performing a show.

(1) Performing the different aspects of our role with humility, excellence, and skill, for the sake of building up of a congregation into Christ and helping them sing TO Christ, is effective worship leading. The fruit is that people focus on Jesus.

(2) Performing a sequence of songs in front of a congregation in a way that leads them to focus on the performance and the performers, is effectively performancism. The fruit is that people focus on the performers.

Of course we can’t help if someone, or let’s say a whole congregation, just happens to want to focus on us, even though our heart is absolutely in the place of performing a worship leading role. Every worship leader experiences leading a group of people who just aren’t responsive, no matter how hard they try or how much they pray.

But we can help what kind of fruit we’re planting.

If you want to grow apples, plant an apple tree. And take care of that apple tree. It might not grow apples for a long time. But eventually, if you planted it right, it will grow the right kind, and right flavor, of fruit.

Same goes for worship leaders. If we want people to look at Jesus, then plant that fruit. If we want people to look at us, then plant that fruit. We decide what kind of fruit to plant.

But God will only water one kind of fruit. The other kind will shrivel up and die.