Eight Of The Most Common Worship Leading Mistakes

No worship leader ever stops making mistakes. From the most seasoned and experienced worship leaders, to the newest and greenest, mistakes are inevitable, humbling, and part of the process of maturing. We’re imperfect people, working alongside other imperfect people, playing musical instruments and singing songs imperfectly, with a congregation of imperfect men and women trying to sing along.

So our goal is not to become flawless worship leaders who never make mistakes. Our goal is simply to keep being humbled by our awareness of our imperfection, and to keep growing, so we can more effectively point our congregations to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, not the power of our own professionalism.

To that end, here are eight of the most common worship leading mistakes that I’ve observed in my own ministry, and through friendships and experiences with lots of other worship leaders too:

Wrapping our identity up in our performance
We feel good about ourselves after a good service, and bad about ourselves after a bad service. We need to resist this temptation – every Sunday – and always ground our identity and our worth in the gospel reality of being hidden in Christ.

Inserting too much of our personality into our performance
Using “performance” here in a very broad sense of “standing in front of people”, worship leaders can sometimes make the mistake of allowing so much of their personality, sound, look, and “stage presence” onto the platform, that people in the congregation get a subtle hint that they should tune out and watch. Worship leaders, while remaining themselves and being who they are, have to also know how to dial back their persona, especially depending on the context, so that the congregation can focus on the main task at hand: signing along with each other and magnifying the greatness of God.

Doing too many new songs
This is another big, and all-too-common mistake. Too many new songs in a service, or in a row, can have an incredibly detrimental impact on your congregation’s ability to engage in worship. Worship leaders should be building a solid repertoire of songs, anchored by the best songs of the centuries, and enjoying the best songs of the modern day. Adding one or two new songs a month to that repertoire, is realistically the most we should aim for.

Doing songs with ranges that are too high
Most people don’t want to – and can’t – sing songs that hang out near Es and Fs and Gs. They just simply can’t do it. Being aware of this, and being willing to take the extra time to transpose songs down to sit in more singable ranges, will serve your congregation and result in stronger singing.

Playing it too safe for too long
What risks are you taking? Where are you pushing your musicians? Where does your congregation need to grow? In what ruts are you – and your congregation – stuck? If your worship team and/or choir and/or congregation is still singing the same songs, in pretty much the same way, with pretty much the same instrumentation, then you may be making the mistake of playing it too safe for too long. Prayerfully discern where you might need to expand your expression of worship to a God whose “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145).

Trying to be too creative too much
On the flip side – a common worship leading mistake comes in the form of always trying to be more creative, more inventive, more cutting-edge, and more different than last week, or last Easter, or last Christmas. Some worship leaders get stuck in a vortex of pursuing relevance/creativity and eventually lose their bearings. If this is you, take a step back, go back to the basics, and rest in the good news that, at the core of worship leading, is a call to be consistently, faithfully, reliability, and pastorally persistent in helping your congregation sing to, and see, and savor Jesus Christ, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. 

Allowing our wounds to harden us
Over time, even in the healthiest of churches with the most gracious volunteers and congregation, worship leaders get beat up. Maybe a full-fledged critical campaign is launched against you, or maybe it’s just one person who views their life-calling as being a thorn in your side. Whatever the case may be, every worship leader will get wounded. We can’t help that part. But we make a mistake when we allow those wounds to harden us, so we become angry, or burned-out, or resentful, or we pull back and just phone it in so we don’t get wounded again, or we quit ministry and give up. The good news of belonging to Jesus Christ, and knowing that he calls us, equips us, protects us, and goes before us, allows us to operate in ministry whether in good times or rocky times, with a rootedness and security that keeps us both soft-hearted and thick-skinned.

Basing our assessment of worship on what we see with our eyes
Lots of hands raised = worship happened. No hands raised = no worship happened. Sadly, that’s an all-too-common way that many worship leaders can tend to assess a service. We look out at a congregation, and we make a snap assessment, that may or may not have any basis in reality, especially in an invisible and spiritual reality which we cannot see with our eyes, and we stick with that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at our congregation, or that we can’t tell a lot by what we see. We certainly should, and we certainly can.

But never forget this, worship leader: you have no idea what’s happening in people’s hearts, you can’t possibly know all that God is up to, and you most likely won’t ever know the short-term and/or long-term impact of your faithful leadership in people’s lives over the course of years’ worth of Sundays that help them remember and proclaim the good news of the gospel. Don’t make the mistake of making a quick assessment. God is like a gardener, not a Photo Shop artist. So plant seeds, water soil, pull weeds, enjoy fruit, prune when needed, and repeat as needed. That’s the reality of ministry, and every worship leader in the world, from the most experienced to the most amateur, can never hear that truth enough times.

It All Really Does Rise and Fall on Union with Jesus Christ

Two weeks ago, Thursday, April 13th, 2017, was the one-year anniversary of my father passing away. It was also Maundy Thursday, when Christians around the world remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples (as they were observing the feast of the passover), when Jesus famously washed his disciples feet. I had the privilege of preaching that night, and I wanted to share my message below. My goal was to faithfully point people to Jesus, and honor the work of Jesus in the life and through the death of my dad, especially over the painful months since his passing.

Maundy Thursday, April 13th, 2017
Jamie Brown

My dad loved Holy Week. He loved the pageantry of it, the liturgy of it, the theology of it, and the beauty of it. And he loved Maundy Thursday. In particular, he loved how the service ends. If you’ve been to a Maundy Thursday service here before, you’ll know this, but if this is your first time I’ll give you a sneak peak. After we have communion together at the end of the service, instead of ending with a song, the service ends in silence. And in darkness. We remember how, on the night of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, he was arrested, and betrayed. And so we end in darkness. And all the vestments and linens and colors are stripped from the front of the room, as a reminder of how Jesus was stripped and humiliated and eventually crucified. This is what we call the “stripping of the altar”.

And I have vivid memories growing up as a preacher’s kid of my dad walking up to the Lord’s table at the end of the service, after everything had been stripped away, and grabbing the fair linen with both hands – the fair linen is the very thin, precious, fabric that sits right on the wood of the table – and with all of his strength, he would SNAP it off the table.

And you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in the room would sit up straighter. We would all be paying attention. It was one of the most powerful moments of the year.

Why did my dad love that moment so much? And Holy Week and Maundy Thursday so much? Because that’s what this night – and this week – is all about. It’s calling us to pay attention. To wake up. To simply stop… and be quiet… and let it hit us right here in our chests.

And on a night like tonight, with all of us gathered here, with all of the different things and pressures and joys and heartaches swirling around in our lives, God is calling us to fix our eyes on Jesus. It really all does rise and fall on this.

There are two – what I call – “pictures of grace” that I want to help us see God paint on this holy night. Two converging pictures that come together – each one revealing a different angle of the greatness of Jesus Christ, and the indescribably good news of the gospel – that literally have the power to change our lives forever.

The first “picture of grace” that God paints for us on this night is the story of the Passover from Exodus 12 that we heard read just a few minutes ago. This is a story of deliverance from judgment. Of freedom from slavery. Of the saving power of God. God’s judgment was about to come down on the Egyptians, the people who had enslaved God’s people. The firstborn son of every household would be killed. And God’s people were to be saved not by their own works, not by their own worthiness, not by their own might – but by the blood of a spotless lamb.

What does the Passover have to show us? What we’re Saved FROM, and whom we’re saved THROUGH.

If we had kept on reading, we would have heard from Exodus 12:29 that the death had extended “From the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne – to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon – AND all the firstborn of the livestock”. The curse of death hit EVERYONE. (Echoes of Ephesians 2 here).


  • Exodus 12:3 says: “a lamb for a household” (repeat it)  Instead of the firstborn dying – the lamb dies. The lamb is the substitute.
  • Look at what Exodus 12:13 says: “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you…”

What are we to take from this story of the Passover? How is this a picture of grace? This is really important for us to GET: The Passover story is ultimately a picture for us of Jesus as our Passover Lamb.

(1 Cor 5:6 “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”) We’re saved FROM death. Saved THROUGH CHRIST.  Not just physical death, but SPIRITUAL DEATH. Everyone in this room. From the most spiritually mature to the least.

In Christ, because of his blood, because of his death on the cross, God passes over our sins. We have been saved from death – by the death of our Passover lamb, in our place, once for all, by the shedding of his blood, applied to our doorposts… Praise the Lord! 

The second “picture of grace” that God paints for us is in the image from John 13 of Jesus – that spotless Lamb of God – at a meal celebrating the Passover of all things! – getting down on his knees – and washing his disciples dirty feet. It certainly got his disciples attention! This was something that slaves were supposed to do. Not Jesus! Peter says in John 13:8 “…You shall NEVER wash my feet!”

The reason why this picture gets our attention is because of just how practically we can “feel” the same tension his disciples felt. Let’s be real. Most of us don’t want someone to touch – or wash – our feet. Much less Jesus touching – or washing – our feet. It’s up close and personal. It’s not theoretical or abstract. It’s almost invasive. And that’s the point. It represents our place of vulnerability… And Jesus says I’LL WASH IT.

In Christ, God doesn’t only pass over our sins, he washes them away.

And he knows our places of vulnerability. And he says “you can trust me”.

Jesus says it plainly in John 13:8: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Look at that. “If I do not wash you.” A lot of us in this room have it all backwards. We think the message of Jesus is this: “If you do not wash yourself, you have no share with me”. If you do not wash yourself.

But the reality of grace and message of the gospel is the opposite of that. It’s Jesus saying to us “I wash you”. I wash you. It’s why the symbol of Christianity isn’t a ladder: us climbing up to God. It’s a cross: God coming down to us. A basin and towel, not Jesus walking into other room. Can you accept this grace?

And once we accept this grace, we extend this grace.

Jesus said in John 13:14: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

This is why every year at this service we take time to reenact this scene. We have different stations around the room where you’re invited to come, to sit down, and have someone wash your feet. This is another one of those jarring moments of Maundy Thursday. One of those moments that says “pay attention”. Because when you wash someone’s feet, or when someone washes your feet, you’re saying “This is what grace feels like.” And you accept this – awkwardly – and extend it – awkwardly! Grace reaches down, and grace stretches out.

And this is why God calls us to pay attention, to wake up, because we have to get this. Because we so often miss this!

The gospel is the gospel of grace. God’s great grace to us in Jesus Christ. It’s a grace that passes over our sins. That washes our sins away. It gets up close and personal. Jesus literally touches our dirty feet. And it sounds too good to be true, but it’s true.

Behold your Passover Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. Behold your Servant who washes your feet.

And behold your Savior who leads you from death to life.

See these pictures of grace converge tonight.

This is a message I need to hear tonight.

It was exactly one year ago tonight when I was sitting in a seminary class over in Falls Church and I got a call from my brother Matt that he had found my dad alive but unresponsive on his apartment floor. I rushed there as fast as I could, and he was still alive but barely. I called out to him. He was rushed to the hospital, and the E.R. doctor soon came to deliver the news that there was nothing they could do to save him, his heart had failed, and that he had died.

There is nothing that can prepare you for that moment. For the utter horror and helplessness that you feel. For the incredible waves of grief that begin to swallow you up. The finality of death and the deep void that it leaves in your life is literally heart-wrenching. Many of you in this room know what this heartache feels like.

And in the dark days that followed my dad’s death, and in the weeks and months since then of walking the path of grief – all of this stuff we’re talking about tonight has been all I’ve had to cling to. I never had a dramatic conversion experience growing up. This past year has been my dramatic conversion experience.

Jesus has gotten my attention. Now I know:

– Just how hopeless this would ALL be without Jesus.
– Just how glorious the good news of the gospel REALLY is.
– Just how deep and wide the blood of Jesus reaches to wash away our sin and shame.
– Just how kind and merciful Jesus is to get on his knees and wash us instead of expecting us to wash ourselves.
– Just how much we need a Savior who defeats death by his death and offers eternal life through his life.

Because here’s what I KNOW is true for my dad:

That he was covered by the blood of Jesus. That his sin was passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus had washed him clean. That Jesus led him – by the hand – from death to life. That my dad is now more alive – in Christ – than ever before.

And here’s what I KNOW is true for me:

That Jesus’ blood covers me. That my sins have been passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus is washing me clean.

And he has washed me clean of a lot of things this year.

I grew up close to my dad. I loved him. He was a wonderful man. But he had faults and he had made mistakes, and over the last 5 years I had put distance in our relationship. And what was – at first – necessary and needed distance became unforgiveness, and bitterness, and shame.

I’m grateful for two wonderful coffees with my dad in the months before he died. But when he died, I still harbored a weight of bitterness in my heart. And Jesus – who I knew theologically as the Passover lamb – became very practically the foot washing servant. In a matter of days, going through my dad’s apartment, seeing how he had lived his final days in very real victory over sin and in pursuit of Jesus, Jesus washed all of my unforgiveness, and shame, and bitterness – AWAY.

In one of my dad’s journals that he kept towards the end of his life, I came across this hand-written note: “It all really does rise (or fall) on union with Christ (or lack thereof).” My dad got that. And he gets it now! And I’m starting to get it. And that’s what Holy Week and Maundy Thursday is all about.

God wants to get our attention. He wants us to get it. To fix our eyes on Jesus. (We need to know what’s true!) Look at Jesus.

We see him in these pictures of grace that converge on Maundy Thursday. As the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. As the Servant who washes our feet. And as the Savior who leads us from death to life.

In just a moment we’ll wash each other’s feet, if you’re comfortable.

We’ll say “this is what grace feels like.”

And then we’ll come to the table and feast on the Passover Lamb, Jesus himself. And we’ll say “this is what grace tastes like.”

And then we’ll end the service in darkness, in silence, and in solemnity. And we’ll say “this is what grace looks like.”

Last August, my family gathered for a small burial service for my dad in Florida. And this prayer out of our Book of Common Prayer was prayed at the conclusion of the service:

Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend thy servant Marshall, our dear brother, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, beseeching thee that he may be precious in thy sight. Wash him, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatsoever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented pure and without spot before thee; through the merits of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Amen. 

In this life, and in our death, we are washed… in the blood of that immaculate lamb… our defilements are purged and done away… and we are made to be without spot through the merits of Jesus Christ on our behalf, in our place. And one day we’ll gather around his table…

It all really does rise or fall on union with Jesus Christ. Our Passover Lamb. Our Foot Washing Servant. Our Savior who leads us from death to life.

The State of Choirs in the Modern Worship Landscape: A Holy Discontent

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:

  1. Good singers who would NEVER consider singing in the choir
  2. Good singers who (like me) can’t read music, so are ruled out of the choir
  3. A culture in the choir (and the choir room itself) that screamed exclusivity
  4. 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
  5. Services in which the choir and band play a game of musical ping pong
  6. 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
  7. 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.))

Here’s why:

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:

  • Multi-ethnic
  • Cross-generational
  • Made up of “trained” singers and “amateur” singers
  • Growing
  • 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.

O God Of Perfect Holiness (New / Free Song)

A few weeks ago I wrote a song called “O God of Perfect Holiness”, and wanted to share the free chord chart, lead sheet/choir parts, and video below.

The song was written for one of our services where I wanted something that focused us upward on God’s attributes of holiness, faithfulness, righteousness, gentleness, tenderness, and loveliness, in contrast to our sinfulness. It’s a simple four-verse modern hymn.

The lyrics are:

Verse 1:
O God of perfect holiness
Seated high above
What ocean-depths of faithfulness
And sacrificial love
That all of our iniquities
Were placed on Jesus’ head
So we, who once were enemies
Are now his heirs instead

Verse 2:
Oh God of perfect righteousness
True in all your ways
What kindness in your promises
What all sufficient grace
That you would send your Son
To live and die upon the cross
That through his victory he would give
That victory to us

Verse 3:
O God of perfect tenderness
Who welcomes sinners home
What Father-hearted gentleness
In Jesus you have shown
And we will spend eternity
With angels and the saints
Who day and night forever sing
His never-ceasing praise

Verse 4:
Oh God of perfect loveliness
Who made us from the dust
Who saved us from our wretchedness
In you we place our trust
And now to him who sits upon
The throne and to the Lamb
Be blessing, honor, glory, power
Forevermore, Amen!

Jamie Brown. © 2017 Worthily Magnify Music. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Here’s a free chord chart, here’s the free lead sheet/choir parts (thanks to my colleague Andrew Cote for arranging this), and a video (sorry about the poor quality) is below.

Are You Not Ready to Worship?

1I 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.

The Speech

micWhen 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:

  1. Don’t show off
  2. Don’t promote yourself
  3. 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.