Several years ago at my previous church we devoted an entire Sunday morning to one big, combined worship service to record a worship album. We never did this sort of thing. We never combined our services, we never devoted an hour and a half to music, we hardly ever got that loud for that long, we never sing that many new songs in one service, and we never pushed the envelope that much in a two-hour period.
It went really well. It was a ton of fun, it was the middle of the summer, and it was the right thing for that one Sunday. But it was very, very different.
The week after this big extravaganza I was sitting in my pastor’s office debriefing the whole experience. He told me how much he enjoyed it, that he was excited for the new album, and that we had all done a good job. Then he asked me what I thought. I said how thrilled I was with it all, and how grateful I was that he let us do it.
Then I said: “I woke up on Monday morning and thought to myself ‘well, I just used up all my capital for the next year!'”.
He looked at me, smiled, and said: “you sure did.”
We were both happy with how well the whole thing had gone. But we both knew that we had pushed the congregation. And that if I was smart, I’d ease off the gas for a little bit.
Worship leaders must learn the capital equation. Which is: Build capital. Spend capital. Build back capital. Repeat as needed.
When all you do is spend, spend, spend capital, you’re operating out of a deficit. People don’t trust you, they’re worn out, and you’re not going to find them all that adventourous. Too many new songs. Too loud. Too much liturgy. Too many hymns. Too many electric guitars. Whatever it is. You’re spending too much, too soon, too often, and maybe too recklessly. Be smarter.
Likewise, when all you do is build, build, build capital and never take any risks or push people anywhere, then you’re wasting opportunities. Safe choices, same songs, no creativity, no one is upset with you, bored musicians, ho-hum services, and no lost sleep over a risky idea.
Do both. Spend capital! But once you’ve spent it, then ease off the gas and build it back. Feel it out. You’ll almost certainly lean too much in one direction before you realize it and then make a correction.
And that’s why regular conversations with your pastor are so important. So you can debrief, be honest with one another, and be receptive to his counsel about when he thinks you might be need to do some spending, or some building.
Like millions of other people, I’ve enjoyed Matt Redman’s song “Ten Thousand Reasons” ever since he wrote it in 2011. I’ve sung it a lot, led it a lot, listened to it a lot, and been helped by it a lot.
But one of the lines in the chorus has kind of always bugged me.
“…Sing like never before, O my soul…”
Like, sing louder than I did last time? Or with more feeling? Or more genuinely? How can I – even after having sung this song something around 10,000 times – “sing like never before”? At some point, won’t I have reached the point of having sung like I can sing?
No. I can always sing like before. But… how?
I came across these two quotes recently from commentaries on Psalm 145 (one of the Psalms in which David talks about worshipping God every day, forever and ever, etc.) and they helped answer that question:
The first from Matthew Henry:
God is every day blessing us, doing well for us, there is therefore reason that we should be every day blessing him, speaking well of him.
And the second from John Calvin:
Since God is constant in extending mercies, it would be highly improper in us to faint in his praises. As he thus gives his people new ground for praising him, so he stimulates them to gratitude, and to exercise it throughout the whole course of their life.
So, in other words, God is always blessing us, always extending new mercies to us, always stimulating us to new gratitude, so we can always “sing like never before”.
Because since the last time I sang that song, God has shown me ten thousand new mercies, has blessed me in ways I’m not even aware of, and has been faithful to me with such constancy and love that would absolutely floor me if I knew the reality of it.
So, yes, whenever I sing Matt Redman’s well-known song, or really any song of praise for that matter, I can “sing like never before”, not necessarily louder or prettier or more impressively, but with reasons and causes and mercies that I hadn’t known before, for “ten thousand years and then forevermore”.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Rachel Wilhelm, who at that time was living in Northern Virginia with her husband and kids, and was helping to serve as a interim worship leader of sorts at my church when I arrived. I was instantly struck by her giftedness, her voice, her wisdom in worship leading, and therefore was very bummed when she and her family relocated to Minnesota. Rachel recently released an excellent album, Songs of Lament, and I asked her some questions about her background, her passion for the biblical expression of lament, and her new project.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’m the Director of Worship Arts of a lovely small church in Minneapolis. I am also co-founder of the Roots Worship Collective, Minneapolis Chapter, consisting of a pool of worship leaders and church musicians who care about Church unity by leading local hymn sing events with the object of getting different denominations to sing together on days other than Sunday. I really love the Church. Sometimes I don’t know why because the Church can be a place where you can get hurt badly if you dare open up or put yourself out there. But the Church is beautiful because Christ says it is. I think I am a person who is learning all the time about grace and how deep and wide God’s love runs.
2. What has your worship leading journey looked like?
Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve been on worship teams since I was in junior high, singing for my youth group’s team in California. In a lot of ways, I think that is what kept me in the Church. Through the years I vowed I would never lead worship, but only be on teams since I thought that worship leaders only attracted drama, and some got this diva complex. Eventually I started going to some churches where women couldn’t technically “start” a song because it looked as if she were exercising authority over men. It bothered me that there would be no judgment if she sang at a bar, but if she started a song at church? Eventually my family landed at a church where the pastor approached me to think about training under him to lead music since he needed help. It actually was a terrible experience, but very good for me. When that stint was over, I quit going to church for six months. It was one of those times lament made an appearance. I was angry at God for trudging me through the mud when I obeyed Him. After that six months, my family moved closer to an Anglican church where we had some friends and low and behold, they needed a music person. That experience humbled me greatly. It was probably the best time in my worship leading journey. I learned to set boundaries for myself, think theologically about song selection, and unfortunately, judge other ways of leading worship. Years later I met you at Truro, and learned in my interim position there that a “hymns only” approach is not for everyone. God loves diversity. That sounds trite. But I took leading music so seriously that I wanted “to do it right.” Grace on myself and everyone else has been a huge part of my worship leading journey.
3. You have a passion to help the Church recover the biblical expression of lament. Where did this passion come from?
You know, it is super hard for me to give you an exact answer to that. Minor keys chimed when I was born or something. Since I was a small girl I have written music, and mainly in my head. I didn’t play guitar until I was an adult, so I memorized melancholy movements of my songs in every instrument on my long commutes to church and school in the back of the car, often lying down (before seat belt laws) or looking out the window. I came from a very low income background, so obtaining an instrument seemed impossible. Forget lessons. I was a very worried kid. I think if anyone were to diagnose me I would have had extreme anxiety. I worried about things a kid had no business worrying about. So I turned to the Scriptures because I really felt hopeless. And the passages in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and other prophets relating any kind of destitution, sorrow, pain, worry, et cetera really hit me as the most beautiful pieces of literature I’d ever read. I think I appreciated how real it was, how honest these people could be to God and He did not strike them down. From then on, that is how I talked to God myself. Later, in my worship leading journey, I noticed that most songs people loved to sing were just the upbeat happy songs. It seemed like people wanted to go to church to escape the rest of the week. Then I realized where it is so natural for me to just “go there” with vulnerability to God about my own weaknesses, it is not so for others. In fact, denial is huge. I think sometimes people don’t heal because they don’t lament to God. Sometimes you have to crack open that wound on purpose, clean it out, and sew it up to make it right again. You can’t just leave it like that. Leading worship in an Anglican church also taught me about how lament can be liturgically appropriate. That is when I realized that there was or could be a real place for it.
4. What are some of the common questions or misunderstandings you run into with regards to this topic?
Lament is bad because it is complaining. I think people forget that Scripture is God-breathed and righteous complaint is all throughout the Bible. They cite the passage about grumbling and complaining and end it there. I’m sure some of our modern misconceptions come from the bad theology of positive confession. People love denying the harshness of real life. Look at how packed Joel Osteen’s church is. I have been saying lately that complaining is not a sin. It’s who you complain TO. God can handle it. He wants to handle it!
People also think that lament is solely tearing our sackcloth, patting our heads with ashes, and crying for hours. I’ve heard that lament is not about justice even when the word complaint is a very courtroom term. I’ve also heard people ask me what lament even means because they have never heard the word before.
The record came from seeing the need for lament to be addressed in the worship music genre. I don’t think I would have made an album if there wasn’t a need. I have such a high view of God’s Word that I think it is tragic that there are not more Scripture songs being sung (like during the Jesus Movement of our parent’s time). The Psalms are meant to be sung. There is power in singing God’s words back to Him. Something mysteriously healing happens.
My album has songs from Ezekiel 16, where God laments, Jeremiah 8 & 9, Lamentations 1, four movements of Habakkuk, Psalm 13, and to end, Psalm 139, which is to me, the resolve of lament. Some of the songs were written when I was a girl, some just last fall!
My hope is that some of the songs can be used corporately in church and others can be for personal devotion
Rachel, thank you for your ministry to the Church, and your passion to help congregations recover the biblical necessity of lament.
The piano’s out of tune again. The sound board is possessed. The drummer’s belt pack just died, and over in his plexiglass space pod, he can’t hear a thing. The alto section decided to take the day off. The second verse of the opening song vanished from ProPresenter. The bulletin accidentally printed last Sunday’s hymn numbers.
And it’s only 8:45 am.
This is worship leading in real life.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to spend a little over 24 hours with worship leaders from all over the country at a little get-together we had in Atlanta. Over the course of our time together, as I sat with them at meals or while making a cup of coffee, I lost track of the number of times someone said how encouraging it was to hear real stories from real worship leaders, dealing with real issues, and to be reminded that we’re not alone.
Worship leading in real life isn’t all that glamorous. It’s a weekly exercise in humility, servanthood, leadership, patience, direction-giving, fire-extinguishing, and sometimes crisis managing, with a little bit of music thrown in.
It’s like this at my church, and it was like this at my previous church. It’s like this at your church too. And that other guy (who you think has it easy) deals with real life issues as well, and if you could have lunch with him you’d hear his own stories.
The airbrushed images of worship leading that we see presented to us can warp our expectations of what we will experience in our own local-church contexts, and lead us to think that we’d have it easier somewhere else. Just like airbrushed images of a man or woman in a magazine or on the internet can warp our expectations of what a real relationship with a real person will actually look and feel like, and lead us to think we’d have it better with someone else.
Real husband and wife relationships are messy, involve a lot of dirty dishes, require a lot more laundry than any pre-martial counselor ever told you about, and are more difficult than either party thought possible. Only Jesus can sustain a real marriage over the long haul and make it fruitful and joyful. Forget the airbrushed images. They’re fake.
Same deal with worship leading in real life. It’s messy, involves a lot of meetings, last-minute Planning Center cancellations, and maybe even a lady in the fourth row who scowl at you. But you’re not alone. Your brother and sister worship leaders are in the same boat as you. And once we realize we can’t get through this ministry thing on our own, we will see Jesus sustain us and remain faithful to us over the long haul, making us fruitful, and yes, even joyful, for his glory and our good.
Last week I led a one-day gathering of worship leaders and/or choir directors in Atlanta that we called a “choir/worship ministry intensive”. 27 people (from 20 different churches, 10 states (and the UK), six different denominations, big congregations, small congregations, and from worship ministries that utilize a choir and ones that don’t) gathered for an amazing time of worship, fellowship, teaching, conversation, and learning.
If you’ve been wondering why this blog has been so quiet recently, now you know why! 🙂
We were exploring together the challenge and the possibilities of cultivating growing, thriving, worship-leading choirs in the modern worship landscape that finds choirs dwindling at a rapid pace. Since our time was short, I encouraged us all to “cut to the chase” and share openly and honestly with each other what we were experiencing in our own congregations and worship ministries/choirs. There was a lot of encouraging stuff to be shared, and also a lot of challenges across the board.
We came from different places, with different stories, different strengths, and different weakness. But fundamentally, we were all there for the same reason. And that reason was this: deep down in our hearts, there is a level of what Bill Hybels calls “holy discontent” about the way things are. And in particular, the way things are in our worship ministries. And even more specifically, the way things are when it comes to choirs, the direction that choirs are headed, and where we find ourselves in 2017 when it comes to a fairly pronounced divide between choirs and contemporary worship.
We’re not happy with the way things are. We think there must be a better way. And we’re looking around – saying to ourselves “am I the only one who’s thinking this? Am I crazy?”
This gathering answered that question: no, we’re not crazy. A lot of worship leaders and choir directors are struggling with the same things and asking the same questions.
This “holy discontent” about the direction of choirs in modern worship has been building over several decades in my life. And it still surprises me, to be honest with you.
I’ve seen choirs that are extinct, or dead, or hostile, or performance-minded, or divorced from contemporary music (with occasional awkward family visits at Christmas and Easter), or dwindling and grasping at straws. And something finally broke inside of me. I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I began to pray the most heartfelt prayer of my life: “God, you’ve got to make this work”. God, in his sense of humor, had placed me as worship director for a church with a history of a vibrant choir ministry, which was now at a place of transition.
So obviously, I needed help. And there were many moments when I had no faith, mostly because I knew I had some significant weaknesses. But instead of making me into a worship superman who can somehow do everything myself, God began to put people around me who had gifts and strengths that I don’t have, who could help me begin to turn this “holy discontent” into fresh vision.
And as we began to pray about what exactly we were “discontent” with, some things began to surface that had boggled my mind for years:
Good singers who would NEVER consider singing in the choir
Good singers who (like me) can’t read music, so are ruled out of the choir
A culture in the choir (and the choir room itself) that screamed exclusivity
A choir that could sing a French Requiem, or a Bach cantata, but looked at a four-part harmony of a Chris Tomlin song like it was a poopy diaper
Services in which the choir and band play a game of musical ping pong
A choir that spends 95% of its time working on an anthem that takes up 5% of the service, and doesn’t contribute much (either sonically or visually) on the other music, resulting in a dynamic which finds the choir MOST engaged when the congregation is LEAST engaged, and vice versa
A pronounced white-ness and grey-haired-ness of choirs. Could there be more of a spread of ages and ethnicities?
And I just can’t take it anymore. God has stirred up a holy discontent within me – a contemporary/non-classically trained musician, lifelong Anglican, preacher’s kid – and many others too. I’m realizing that there is a growing contingent of worship leaders and choir directors all around the world who are desperate to see if there isn’t a way that in the mainline protestant church and beyond, we can’t see God breathe new life into the idea of a choir.
(Sidebar: I’m not the first person to ask this question, by a long shot. This has been the topic of countless articles, books, and even conferences for quite some time. Sidebar over.)
We all know that the odds are stacked against us…
The National Study of Congregations (Duke University) showed that in a 14 year period, between 1998 and 2012, the utilization of choirs in mainline protestant churches dropped 30%. And from what I’ve seen – in the last 5 years, that’s continued to drop.
Some churches strong, growing, stable choirs. That is the exception, not the norm. The trends are downward.
(Now a quick timeout: how is this conversation any different than, say, a conversation of organists and/or organ enthusiasts, bemoaning the dwindling utilization of organs in worship? Another traditional hallmark of classical music and more formal worship. What’s the difference? Are we just holding on to a relic? Are we just trying to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic? (And for the record, I love the organ, and we use it every Sunday at my church.))
Because a choir provides the Church a unique demonstration of the gospel – in that people from all tribes and tongues, generations, races, backgrounds, and skill levels – are redeemed and joined together to the praise of God’s glorious grace, they are not merely a decoration to be saved from the trash heap of musical yesteryear, but are a vehicle for TODAY’S CHURCH to display a microcosm of God’s ransomed people, joined together as the worshipping body of Christ.
That’s something I can get excited about. And I still can’t quite believe I’m hearing myself say that.
10 or 15 years ago I wouldn’t have said that. But I came across a church webcast that showed a choir doing something that was SO unlike anything I had ever seen a church choir do before. And it rattled me. And thrilled me. And made my jaw drop.
Here’s one of the clips I saw:
See what I mean?
The church’s name is Mount Paran Church of God. It’s a different kind of church from the ones I’ve attended and served, it belongs a different denomination (which is VERY different from my stream of reformed Anglicanism in many many ways), and I had never even heard of it before. But oh how wonderful – and how broad – is the Body of Christ. And this church had something to teach me about what choirs could do. That clip shows something most Anglican churches would NEVER EVER consider doing with a choir and band on Easter Sunday. And maybe that’s part of our problem. God may have more for us, and more for choirs, than we think.
God has planted in me – and my colleagues at my church – an audacious vision. I long to see a choir that is:
Made up of “trained” singers and “amateur” singers
Able to sing difficult, classical pieces
Able to sing modern music with vigor
Meaningfully engaged in worship
Part of a unified team alongside the band
Such a welcoming family that people can’t resist joining
A worship leading engine, pointing the congregation to Jesus
At my church we’ve begun to simply repeat two different phrases over and over: First, “the choir is a community of worshippers and worship leaders” and secondly, “God has given us a vision of an 80-voice choir”.
We’re not quite sure how we’ll get to that number. 50 or 60 we could maybe do if we recruit really well. But 80? We don’t know. It’s forcing us to our knees in prayer.
God is stirring up a holy discontent. And he’s planting an audacious vision. That we wouldn’t continue to see choirs dwindle, or just live in a divorced relationship with contemporary music.
And that’s why a bunch of us gathered in Atlanta last week. To say “God, stir up a holy discontent inside of us” and “God, give us an audacious vision”. However that’s supposed to look in our own setting.
– Whether it’s numerical growth, or perhaps some strategic pruning.
– Whether it’s to do with our administration, or our repertoire.
– Whether it’s imitating something new, or killing something old
During our gathering last week in Atlanta, we learned from each other, learned from the amazing team at Mount Paran, and came away with a huge dose of encouragement. I’ll be sharing more of what we learned in the weeks to come, but for now, I’ll share this short little audio clip of a room full of worship leaders and choir directors from all over the country, who after a long day of wrestling with some big questions, lifted their voices together to sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”. May he use this little gathering we had in ways that surprise us in the years to come.
I always cringe when I hear worship leaders begin a service by asking the question “are you ready to worship?” The hope is that the congregation will respond with an enthusiastic “yes!” and everything will go swimmingly. But the reality is that the answer to that question might actually be a resounding “no!”, but no one really feels comfortable admitting it.
Most people don’t come ready to worship God on Sunday mornings. It’s true. They couldn’t find anything to wear, and before they could get out the front door, their dog puked all over the new carpet. Then their toddler decided to pour her chocolate milk all down her dress when they pulled out of the driveway. On the way to church, they got in a fight with their spouse over who forgot to start the dishwasher last night. When they get to church, they really don’t feel like talking to anyone, but they get stuck in a conversation with an extrovert who really wants to talk about her home renovation nightmare. They drop off their screaming chocolate-milk-covered toddler in nursery, and feel like the worst parents in the world. They make their way into the sanctuary, where the music has already begun and the first thing they hear is the worship leader asking “are you ready to worship?” This, of course, makes them feel guilty, because they really just feel like terrible parents who forgot to start their own dishwasher, and who have dog-puke-covered carpet waiting for them at home. But they’ll sing along and try to muster something up so people don’t judge them.
A better question would be “are you not ready to worship?” Are you feeling distracted, discouraged, spiritually dry, emotionally spent, or condemned? Did you just have a fight on the way to church? Are you feeling lonely as you sit there all by yourself? Are you annoyed by something right at this moment? Did you forget to eat breakfast? Did you yell at your kids literally six minutes ago?
Most people are somewhere on the spectrum of “not ready” when that first song starts up. My extreme example certainly won’t apply to everyone, and there are of course some people who are ready, well-slept, prayed-up, and right there with you from the first downbeat. But even the most spiritually disciplined Christians will find themselves assaulted by the pressures, concerns, bad traffic, and far away parking spots of the world between the time they leave their house and the time they sit down in their pew.
So worship leaders can’t approach their congregations with the expectation that they’re “ready to worship”. And they certainly shouldn’t ask them that out loud!
Worship leaders should approach their congregations with the expectation that they’re probably not ready to worship. (But they shouldn’t say that out loud either.)
A worship leader who’s aware that his/her congregation is most likely filled with people who aren’t exactly fired up and ready for the kind of epic worship we see in those online worship videos will present a congregation with the gloriously good news of a great and faithful God, a gracious Redeemer, and a generously outpoured Holy Spirit, instead of a guilt-inducing pressure to hype something up that isn’t there to begin with.
Because it’s God who initiates worship. Not us. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6). God speaks, God shines, God reveals, and then we respond. Not the other way around. God’s revelation of his glory is not dependent upon our worship of him. God’s revelation comes first. Our response comes second.
So don’t start a Sunday service with the response. Don’t expect distracted people to be ready to go on the first beat of the first song. Start by letting God shine in his people’s hearts. Again. And again next Sunday. And again the Sunday after that.
That’s what the people in the pews – as distracted, disjointed, and disgusted by dog puke – need from their worship leaders. Don’t expect them to be ready. Expect them to be needy. Let God shine, and then let them respond – not to a question from their worship leader – but to the glory of their Savior.
When I was first starting out as a worship leader, I was an eager 12-year-old who knew how to play some chords on a guitar, thought I had a good voice, and was ready for my youth pastor to let me on stage so I could do what I was made to do.
Not so fast, he said. We need to have a conversation.
First, I sat with my youth pastor in his office while he gave me “the speech“. I knew it was coming, since it was something of a rite-of-passage for the different musicians growing up in the church. I can still remember balancing my Peavey Patriot electric guitar on my scrawny lap while my youth pastor communicated the following expectations:
Don’t show off
Don’t promote yourself
Above all else, try to stay humble
He was clearly and carefully telling me that if I ever wanted to stand on the stage, and if I wanted to be invited back the next week to stand on the stage, I needed to understand the basic and unchanging rules of the game: this was never to be about me.
And in the years to come, my youth pastor would hold me to those rules. When he caught a whiff of me showing off, or becoming impressed with myself, he would call me on it. And to this day, whenever I lead worship, somewhere in the back of my mind, “the speech” is on repeat, and I’m slightly nervous that if I veer into show-off mode, my youth pastor is going to call me on it.
Over the last 20 years, as the prevailing model of worship leading has slowly but noticeably morphed from something very average looking/sounding, to something almost flawlessly airbrushed and polished, it has been harder and harder for worship leaders to stay true to what used to be the generally accepted rules of the game, as were concisely presented to me by my youth pastor in “the speech”. The principles of restraining our egos, refusing to promote ourselves, and resisting the pull of pride.
Now, in many circles, there’s a pressure on worship leaders (especially young ones) to exude more of a stage presence/persona, to build and maintain a social media following, to find ways to share their look, their recordings, and their accomplishments, and somehow do it in a way that isn’t blatantly self-promoting, but is more subtle. I know that I’ve not been immune to feeling this pressure myself.
It’s a pressure that all worship leaders need to regularly resist. The Holy Spirit himself will give us “the speech” on a daily basis, if we let him, with all of the gentleness and love that we should expect. We need to let him call us out on stuff from time to time, just like my youth pastor used to. Not in a way that condemns, but in a way that points us (and thereby our congregations) ever consistently to Jesus.