Don’t Overreact to Minor Course Corrections

I have a love/hate relationship with paddling a canoe. On the one hand I enjoy spending a warm summer day on a river or a lake with friends and family, having a picnic on the shore, and gliding through the water, but on the other hand I don’t enjoy the prospect of tipping over, the sore arms, and trying to maneuver the canoe and make it go where I want it to go. Just when it starts to head in the right direction, it veers left and I have to paddle hard on the right, or vice versa. I’m constantly paddling on different sides in hopes of correcting course.

Growing as a worship leader is a bit like paddling a canoe. You know what general direction you want to go in (hopefully), you know the basics of how to get there, you have some knowledge of what you need to do, you know that a good deal of responsibility has been entrusted to you, at certain points all you’re trying to do is keep from sinking, you can get discouraged when you see other people around you having an easier time, and it’s not as easy at it looks.

Another similarity between growing as a worship leader and paddling a canoe is that worship leaders are constantly in need of minor course corrections. From time to time you might get totally flipped around or capsize and need major help. But most of the time, you’re doing a pretty good job of doing what you need to do, and you just need to periodically adjust your course so that you don’t collide with a tree.

Minor course corrections can come in many forms for worship leaders. Here are some ways I’ve received these little nudges from time to time:

  • My wife telling me that I looked frustrated when I led an unresponsive group of people
  • My brother letting me know that I had a bad habit of glaring at musicians when they made a mistake
  • My pastor cautioning me that when I interjected in-between lines of a song I could sometimes sound bossy
  • A friend warning me that I was trying to force change too quickly
  • A worship team member mentioning that we were doing too many similar-sounding songs from the same writer
  • A mentor telling me that I shouldn’t be so timid when I spoke
  • A sound engineer pointing out that I was over-playing and singing flat

It can be awfully tempting to overreact to minor corrections as if they mean we are terrible worship leaders, we have no idea what we’re doing, and we should just give up. But that’s silly. It would be a like a man paddling a canoe, realizing he’s drifting towards the bank, and then instead of simply correcting his course and continuing forward, he calls his wife to tell her he loves her one last time. That’s an overreaction.

There are definitely times someone gives you advice, and it’s bad advice. And there are times you receive criticism and you just need to ignore it. But God oftentimes uses people who know us to give input into how we can grow. The next time someone approaches you and suggests a way you might be to improve as a worship leader, don’t overreact. Ask yourself: “is this a minor course correction?” Most of the time it is. When we ignore these kinds – we end up in need of more serious help.

When you sign up to be a worship leader, answering God’s call on you to serve the church in this way, understand that you’re embarking on a never-ending journey of growing, maturing, gaining experience, making mistakes, receiving correction, keeping your eyes on Jesus, adjusting your course from time to time, and the occasional capsize. It’s not always easy, but God is always faithful. Keep paddling.

Handling Awkward Moments: Leading Songs After a Lousy Teaching

wordI am incredibly grateful to serve in a church where, week after week, God’s word is preached strongly by those who tremble at it, and where the teachings are consistently biblically sound, convicting, and Holy Spirit-empowered. In this environment, the songs I’m choosing and leading are helping people hear and respond to what God is saying through his Word and by His Spirit.

In contrast, many worship leaders serve in churches where the teaching is weak and ineffective, or worse, heretical and unbiblical.

What’s a worship leader to do in that environment?

I recall one occasion when I was asked to lead worship for an event held somewhere away from my church. I felt I knew enough about who was hosting the event to feel comfortable saying yes, so I did. I prayerfully chose the songs, prepared for the event as well as I could, prayed a lot, and rehearsed with the worship team. The event finally arrived, the opening time of singing went really well, and then the teaching came. It went on for over an hour, and, as my British father-in-law so kindly described it, it was “diffuse”. I might describe it as “lousy”.

Leading songs after a lousy teaching can be awkward. Here are some ideas on how a worship leader can handle it, particularly if it’s unexpected.

If you’re listening to the teaching and beginning to realize it’s going off-track, pray and ask God for wisdom about what to do. Especially if your songs come immediately after the “teaching”, how you respond will be critical.

Ask for advice
If you’re near anyone you know you can respect as someone who loves God and his Word, just ask them: “what do I do?” I did this at the event I mentioned above, and the advice I received was the way God chose to answer my prayer for wisdom.

Be prepared to call an audible
In American football, the quarterback will call “an audible” (a last-second switch to a new play) when he sees that the play he had originally chosen just won’t stand up against the defense’s formation.

If you’re leading songs after a lousy (i.e. weak or heretical) teaching, you’ll most likely need to call an audible. You’ll need to communicate this to your musicians, the lyrics operator (if you’re projecting them), and the congregation (more on that later).

Proclaim Truth
You have an opportunity to infuse the truth of God’s word into a service in which it’s lacking. You do not want to do this in an arrogant and preachy way, but in a humble and gentle way. I would gravitate towards songs that preach the Gospel. Some ideas are “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”, “In Christ Alone”, or “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. Anything that presents the Gospel clearly would be one of my first choices.

Hopefully, by responding to a lousy teaching with Christ-centered, God-glorifying songs, I can help people walk away from the service with at least some measure of truth being planted in their hearts.

Do it pastorally
When I stepped onto the platform after the “diffuse” teaching I mentioned, I looked out on a congregation that looked really confused. It would have been the worst idea in the world to say what I was thinking, which was: “how in the world did (so-and-so) let that just happen?” Instead, I said something like: “We’re going to spend some time now responding to God by singing to Him, and celebrating what he’s done for us in Christ. Our ‘hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness’, so let’s stand and proclaim that together.”

It’s easy to call this kind of audible when you’re projecting lyrics and you have musicians who are comfortable being spontaneous. If you don’t have either of those things, you can still infuse God’s truth into the service by turning to a different hymn in the hymnal (just call out the page number), singing a song of response all by yourself, encouraging them to a simple (but truth-filled) song sing from memory, reading from scripture, repeating a good song from earlier in the service, or just continuing on with what you’ve planned.

(If you serve in a church where this is a weekly occurrence – not just once in a blue moon like it is for me – plan ahead and choose music that will subtly yet clearly, correct error in the teaching. Also, check out this clip of John Piper answering a worship pastor’s question along these same lines.)

Do You Despise Instruction?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7

God can communicate instruction to us as worship leaders in numerous ways. Perhaps some of these ring a bell:

  • An email in your inbox on Monday morning
  • A church member who comes up to you after a service
  • A meeting with your pastor
  • An anonymous handwritten note in your mailbox
  • An unexpected phone call from a volunteer
  • Your spouse
  • Your Mom
  • A complaint communicated to you second-hand
  • A meeting with someone who isn’t particularly happy with you
  • Comments on your “annual review”

As I’m reading through the book of Proverbs this month, I’m struck by how often God commands us not only to receive instruction – but to embrace it. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (1:8). “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (4:7).

My natural, sinful response to correction or instruction is to turn away from it, to discount it as unwarranted, and to justify why I should ignore it. When I receive an email, a phone call, or a handwritten note – instead of seeing it as an opportunity for me to gain wisdom and receive instruction – I think of myself as too good to need it. This is a mistake, according to God’s word.

I will never get to the point, either as a Christian, or more specifically as a worship leader, when I no longer need instruction. There will always be areas in which I need to grow, skills I need to improve, habits I need to break, and ways I can be more effective.

As a worship leader in your church, do you despise instruction? Do you look upon those whom God uses to instruct you with arrogance? Do you roll your eyes as you listen to a voice mail or read an email from a church member who is suggesting ways you could improve? Do you consider your pastor as off-base when he offers examples of ways you could grow?

God’s word says that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). But “blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (3:13-14).

Do what comes unnaturally – intentionally seek instruction, receive correction, pray for humility – and you’ll grow in wisdom.

Watch the Clock

clockUnfortunately, many worship leaders in the Church have gained a reputation for not only being long-winded, but also insensitive to the clock during a worship service. Service times get affected, kids get rowdy, nursery workers go crazy, the preacher gets hurried, and everyone gets hungry – all because the worship leader just had to do 9 songs.

Some are oblivious.
They completely lose track of time and don’t realize that they’ve gone on for 45 minutes when the pastor had asked them to only go 20. They send the message that they are undisciplined and unaware they aren’t the only person in the room.

While it is definitely easy to lose track of time when you’re singing, there is a very simple way to get over this: buy a watch. I started leading with a watch on my music stand a few years ago and was amazed at what a difference it made. We’ve also installed a big digital clock at the back of our Sanctuary that I can see and the preachers can see. It’s easier to watch the clock when you’re watching a clock.

Some are arrogant.
They know full well how long they were asked to go, but they choose to go however long they want to anyway. They send the message that they can’t be trusted and that they view themselves as being answerable to no one.

While it can be difficult when you’ve prepared six songs to be told there’s only time for two, the way to handle this is very simple. Only do two songs. Arrogantly ignoring the time allotment and doing your own thing is one sure way to disrespect your pastor and your congregation and in the process grieve the Holy Spirit. There is a time and place to discuss how many songs will be sung, how much time will be allotted for music, etc. Once the decision is made, be a team player and a humble servant by doing your best to stay in the time limit.

Worship leaders (of all people!) should be willing to serve – in whatever capacity and in whatever time allotment given – with joy and humility. Make an effort to find out exactly how much time you have, and roughly how many songs you’re being asked to lead. Once those parameters are set, do your best to stay within them. Yes, God is at work in our services in ways we cannot always anticipate. But God is also at work in our planning and will lead us as we prayerfully seek to bring him glory and watch the clock at the same time.

What Are You Talking About? – Pt. II

sheepYesterday I suggested that, unfortunately, most worship leaders don’t devote any time to plan and prepare for what they will say to the congregation in the course of a service, and because of this they end up communicating inarticulately, nervously, and ineffectively. The first remedy to this that I propose is to actually think it through and write it down. The next thing is to submit to your pastor.

Your pastor is called to be a shepherd. This means two things for you: First, you’re one of those sheep. God has placed you under the shepherding of your pastor – not outside of it. It’s good to remember this simple truth since worship leaders can be tempted to forget it. Secondly, while you yourself are a sheep, in your position as a worship leader, you are also exercising leadership over your fellow sheep. It’s imperative, then, that when you are exercising leadership, you are doing so in submission to your pastor. This applies to every part of your ministry, including any words you might say on Sunday morning.

As a worship leader, you need to know that you have your pastor’s blessing over what you’re doing. Too many worship leaders are left guessing what their pastor thinks and only finding out when their pastor doesn’t like something. That’s not a good scenario.  Approach your pastor and have a conversation about what your parameters are so that you know generally where you’re covered and where you’re not. Ask a question like: “how comfortable are you with me offering encouragement from time to time to the congregation?” If your pastor’s answer is “I’d really rather you not unless I know exactly what you’re going to say”, then you’ll need to submit to that. But if your pastor’s answer is “I’m happy for you to do that whenever you feel led”, then you’ll know you have a bit more wiggle room. In either case, just asking this question of your pastor shows that you recognize you’re a sheep in his flock and you’re attempting to submit to his leadership.

Having this kind of conversation is a good idea for a number of reasons. First, it shows your pastor that you’re not attempting to exercise leadership outside of his pastoral covering. Second, it protects you if anyone in the congregation raises an objection to anything you say. If they come to you, you will be able to honestly say that you speak with the blessing of your pastor. If they come to your pastor, he will be able to honestly say that you all have spoken about this and he’s given you his blessing. Third, worship leaders are most effective when they’re operating in partnership with their pastor. This helps forge that kind of partnership.

Beyond having a general idea of what parameters your pastor is comfortable with you operating within, it’s also helpful, when possible, to know if your pastor has given his blessing to specific words you feel prompted to share. I say “when possible” intentionally – since you won’t always know ahead of time the exact words you’ll feel prompted to share. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t only speak to us on the fly. He speaks to us in our planning, and if you have taken the time to think it through and write and down, you’d be wise to run it by your pastor.

If I’m preparing for a service and I have a sense that God is prompting me to share a brief word of encouragement between a song, there’s no good reason for me to keep that a secret from my pastor. I need to find time to tell my pastor I’m feeling led to share something, tell him what I plan to share, and ask if he would be comfortable with that. If he’s not, then I’ll have spared myself an unfortunate moment of operating outside his parameters as my shepherd, honored God by seeking counsel, and grown in my sensitivity to the Holy Spirit since he doesn’t speak to me all by myself, but he also speaks to me through Godly people around me. If my pastor is comfortable with what I want to share, then I can do so confident that I have his blessing.

Again, it’s important for worship leaders to partner with their pastor, and to be a good sheep. All parties involved will benefit when there is good communication between pastors and worship leaders. You’ll feel protected, encouraged, and blessed, Your pastor will feel honored, respected, and informed. Your congregation will see healthy, functional, and wise leadership displayed.

The congregation shouldn’t cringe whenever the worship leader starts talking. Your pastor shouldn’t be out of the loop and have no idea what you’re going to say. You shouldn’t be acting only on impulse and putting yourself out there on a ledge. Think it through, write it down, and submit to your pastor.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the importance of using the right tone. See you then.