Worship Leader Resolutions 2017

1Happy 2017, worship leaders! It’s a new year, with new opportunities, new songs to sing, new services to plan, new albums to record, new skinny jeans to buy, new interns to make our lattes, and new Twitter followers desperate for our selfies.

May I suggest some worship leader resolutions to make 2017 even more epic than a live worship album recorded in a boat on a mountain by a lake inside of a campfire in the middle of the night in outer space? Here we go:

More banners!
Your church may not be able to afford expensive lighting, set design, backdrops, or the most basic element of life itself (i.e. fog machines), but I bet your church can afford some good old-fashioned banners. I’m talking about the banners with streamers, glitter, glued-on letters, and inspirational phrases. Let’s commit ourselves to flooding our sanctuaries with big, bold, beautiful banners, and we will usher in a new era of innovation.

And more tambourines!
As they say, “where there’s a banner, there’s a tambourine”. And “where there’s a tambourine, there’s a praise party”. Bring those tambourines out of the vault, unlock the safe, remove the trip wire, disable the electric shock security fence, call off the attack dogs, and hand those tambourines out as generously as the big dollop of hair gel that keeps your hipster hairstyle in place.

Literal octave jumps
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I think octave jumps are the single greatest thing in the whole world. Congregations love them, and they’ve been hugely instrumental in helping people sing. To further enhance the effectiveness of octave jumps (which are the moments in a song when you go from singing in a comfortable range to all of the sudden singing like an intern just poured a latte down your neck), it’s time we actually insist that our congregations jump – and I mean literally jump – when we do an octave jumps. I call these “literal octave jumps”. Because we’re literally jumping, while jumping octaves. Or, conversely, we can call them “octave jump jumps”. Or, if your name is Jack, they can be called “Jumping Jack’s Jumping Octave Jumps”.

Bring back the bass solo
Every song would be improved upon by the presence of an extended bass solo. Preferably introduced by the worship leader saying “hit it, Gus!” Even if your bass player isn’t named Gus, you should call him Gus, because it will make him a better bass player. And then surprise Gus at unrehearsed points in a song with a call for a solo, and let him solo so low that your soul goes “woah!”

Leather jackets as the new robes
I’ve noticed something recently, happening on a large scale in worship leading, which basically means that I saw it once or twice and therefore can overgeneralize it and make a sweeping statement, thanks to the power of blog. All the cool worship leaders are wearing black leather jackets. And gold necklaces. And leather pants. I have never worn leather pants, or a gold necklace, or a leather jacket. And now I know why my worship leading has always been so “khakis and blue blazer” if you know what I mean, and I hope you do, because I sure don’t. It’s time to go full-throttle on the biker look, and buy our entire worship team black leather jackets and leather pants. It’s the new robe, and it will make our selfies look FANTASTIC.

Catch phrases
Every year I suggest new catch phrases to take your worship leading to the next level. This year, it’s time to start working some of these in, on a regular (i.e. twice-per-song) basis:

1. “Let me hear you SCREEEEEAAAAAAAMMMMMM!”
2. “Mmm, mmm, mmm, you’re sounding delectable!”
3. “Sing it again, con fuego.”
4. “Here comes this next part.”
5. “Now just the Grandmas sing…”
6. “How ’bout them worship apples?”

Any one of these catch phrases, especially when accompanied by the playing of a tambourine and/or the waving of a banner, while wearing a leather jacket and doing jumping jack’s jumping octave jumps, following one of Gus’s bass solos, is a non-refundable ticket into the awesome-sauce factory for you and your congregation.

Zero-tolerance (and $20 bucks!) for worship team mistakes
I once heard a story about how the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown (no relation, unfortunately) would handle ANY kind of mistake, wrong note, or missed cue from any member of his band. According to the story, James Brown would spin around, point at the perpetrator of the mistake, and say “$20 bucks!” And he was serious. This was how he demanded near-perfection from his musicians. I’m thinking about trying this with the musicians at my church, and I’m sure they’ll be totally in support of it and won’t mind at all. This is how you build good morale on a worship team, and gain your volunteers’ affection, while also earning money towards a new pair of skinny jeans.

One-song-Sundays
Ever since Delirious released their 29-minute-long single of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” in 1995, worship bands have been trying to out-do one another with song duration whenever possible. This past year, a worship team from Sacramento released an extended play version of “Good, Good Father” that literally lasts for three years. In this vein, I think it’s time we begin experimenting with single-song Sundays, where we only sing one song, but sing it for a really long time. Drag the first round of the song out for about 7 minutes, then insert a 3 minute musical pause (call it a Selah), then add layers of “woahs” for 5 minutes, then throw in 5 HUGE choruses, do a triple literal octave jump, then fake-end the song, but don’t really end it, because there’s another 4 minute musical build-up coming, before a reprised (but more epic) woah section, followed by 4 more choruses, and a final verse and a half. This will take about 30 minutes. You’re good to go! If you need to fill more time, add in a bass solo.

Pre-programmed congregation loops
Utilizing loops in worship music is all the rage these days. At your very fingertips, at the press of a button are pre-programmed loops of a drummer, or a cellist, or pianist, or multiple layers of synth pads (you can never have too many), or whatever instrument(s) you desire or can’t find in time for Sunday. One thing I haven’t seen or heard much of is pre-programming a congregation too. I say, why not? Uproarious applause, energetic clapping (preferably on beats 1 and 3), and the frenetic shaking of multiple fish-shaped tambourines, will all add to a feeling of raw, kale-fed, organic-ness in your church’s music.

Guitar endorsement deals
Last year, at the beginning of 2016, I did something incredibly difficult and painful: I sold my McPherson acoustic guitar. It was a beautiful instrument, played like a dream, and sounded better than any other acoustic guitar I had ever played BY FAR. A year later and I’m still in withdrawal. And so I think it’s time for worship leaders to begin accepting guitar endorsement deals. And selflessly, out of a desire to lead by example, I will gladly step forward and accept the first endorsement deal from McPherson Guitars. Their least-expensive guitar will suit me just fine, and I will gladly play any guitar they voluntarily send my way, anytime they choose, hopefully sometime this week.

Last but not least, I think we can all agree:

We need more worship albums, songs, etc.
There just isn’t enough new music out there. There aren’t enough new songs to choose from, and I think I can speak for most worship leaders when I say that one new album a day just isn’t enough. I need a new album, or an EP, or a single, or at the very least a modernized re-tuning of the entire book of Psalms in Hebrew, by breakfast at the latest, and then by lunch before I run out of songs to pick for the coming weekend’s services, and then something fresh by dinner so I can spend my evening curating the best of the best, before starting all over again in the morning before my intern brings me my latte, wrapped in a scarf, so I don’t injure my hands.

Here’s to 2017, worship leaders. You look great in that leather jacket!

Ten Worship Leading Essentials at Christmas Time

1Songs have been chosen, arrangements have been written, the copies have been made, rehearsals are happening, and Christmas Eve/Christmas Day is fast approaching.

Being involved in leading worship at Christmas time, especially for the big services with more visitors than usual, and more pressure than most other services during the year, can be stressful, exhausting, and exhilarating.

Here are ten things not to forget this Christmas when you’re standing before your congregation:

1. They want to sing carols. Don’t try to be so creative that you make some of the most singable and familiar songs in the whole world become hard to sing.

2. They need Jesus. Every single person. They don’t need to be wowed or dazzled or impressed by your awesomeness. They need to see Jesus.

3. They’re stressed out. Maybe they’ve wracked up credit-card debt, or they’re hosting a difficult family member, or they’re grieving the loss of a loved one. Give them space.

4. They’ve heard the story before, but they want to hear more. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the angels sang and there were some animals around. Is that all there is? Point them to the good news of the gospel, to the person of Jesus, to what God has done for us in Christ.

5. They’ll benefit from your preparation. You’ve been working on some of this music for weeks and months. They’ll sing it and/or hear it once. But God will use your preparation to edify his people.

6. Your identity is in Christ – not in your performance. Maybe you’ll do a great job and get a thousand thank-you emails. Maybe you’ll mess up. Maybe you’ll just do OK. Good news: your identity is in Christ, so you can relax and just do your best and then enjoy Christmas with your family.

7. You’ll need a break. If you’re in the office next week, trying to be productive, you’re most likely crazy.

8. You have a helper and his name is the Holy Spirit. You may feel empty, exhausted, nervous, or a little combination of all of the above. The Holy Spirit is your helper, and your power, and he’s even more concerned that Jesus gets the glory than you are.

9. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity. I’m looking forward to the string arrangements, the brass fanfares, the organ postludes, the choir anthems, the band, and all the special stuff we have planned. But the moment I’m looking forward to the most is the nearly acapella version of “Silent Night” that we’ll sing towards the end of our services. Look for those moments in your services when you – and your congregation – can just simply take a deep breath for a few minutes.

10. We are stewards. We all get to do this, and lead these Christmas songs, for a season. And then someday we pass the baton to someone else. Generations from now, a different worship leader will be leading “Joy to the World” with different arrangements (I hope!), different musicians, and a different group of people in the pews. So, let’s be good stewards of the message of Christmas, and proclaim loudly the message that will be sung for all eternity. It really isn’t about us!

O come let us adore Him!

And He Leads His Children On…

1One of the things I miss the most about my dad is hearing his voice. Not only his speaking voice, but also his singing voice. He was a great singer, and he loved to sing all kinds of songs – from silly songs to old hymns to “Mr. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkle to new worship songs – all with his strong, confident voice.

This being my first Christmas without my dad, I’m grateful for the memories of hearing him belt out Advent and Christmas songs. My brothers and I liked to tease him for royally messing up a song called “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” during one of his children’s sermons one Christmas Eve, but at least he tried, and at least he was comfortable singing out loud in church, which is actually pretty difficult for a lot of men.

I’m also grateful that a year ago today, he sent me this little clip from his church (Holy Trinity Church in McLean, Virginia) singing the carol “Once in Royal David’s City”. The verse they’re singing has the lyrics:

“And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above. And he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.”

You can hear my dad’s wonderful voice join in on that last line of the verse:

 

“And he leads his children on…” I can’t sing that line now without choking up.

This is a hard Christmas for me and my family, being the first Christmas since dad died in April. But because of Jesus, and because of his redeeming love, and because my dad had trusted in that redeeming love of Jesus, he is now with his Lord in heaven above.

And so this carol is now my favorite of them all. Because I can hear my dad’s voice, belting out with the saints and angels, the praises of the One who came to David’s royal city so long ago, to break the curse of sin and death, and to lead His children on to the place where he is now gone.

A few years ago I re-arranged this carol, and wrote a new verse (verse 4), and am happy to share it with you below. Special thanks to my good friend Joshua Spacht for his genius brass and strings orchestration, which is also available for free below.

In these last few days leading up to Christmas, may we all be amazed again by the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus came to save sinners, that we may have eternal life with him. I’ll be belting out that good news this Christmas, and I know my dad is joining in. I can’t wait to hear his voice again soon.

Once in Royal David’s City


Chord chart
Choir score
Violin 1
Violin 2
Viola
Cello
Trumpet 1
Trumpet 2

Growing In Your Unflappability

1One of the truest truths of worship leading is that you never know what’s going to happen on a Sunday morning. You can prepare, plan, rehearse, and practice until you’re blue in the face, but when Sunday morning comes, literally anything could happen. Off the top of my head, here are some of the unanticipated Sunday moments that stand out to me over the last 10-15 years:

  • The time one of my instrumentalists went on a profanity-laced tirade just minutes before our service was supposed to start, in front of the whole worship team
  • The time our computer than ran our projected lyrics completely failed, thus causing me to change the entire song list at the last minute to exclusively songs out of the hymnal
  • The time I was walking up on stage and a matriarch of the congregation stopped me to angrily demand I stop repeating the choruses so often
  • The multiple times someone has had a medical emergency in the middle of the service
  • The Easter when 2 of our 3 services had to be significantly delayed because of crowding and parking issues
  • The time I had an extended meeting in-between services with a group of significantly disgruntled church members
  • The time a well-intentioned gentleman decided to present me with a document detailing why contemporary music is satanic – again, just moments before the service started
  • The time I was leading worship for a conference with all new musicians, and was told I (and the sound crew) would have all day to set up and rehearse, but at the last minute was told that the venue would not be free until 15 minutes before the opening set was supposed to start
  • The countless times I could tell we’re not quite ready for that new song, or that new arrangement, but we have to start the service anyways!

I could list more examples of unplanned and unforeseen events before or during a service, and I’m sure that you have your own list as well! You never what’s going to happen on a Sunday morning, what surprises are in store, what people might decide to say unhelpful things to you at just the wrong time, or what technical issues might arise and cause you to jump to plan B without much warning.

It’s hard not to get completely sidetracked, distracted, worked up, and even a little bit angry or annoyed when the unexpected happens, and throws your planning (or maybe just your peacefulness) into disarray. We’re human, we’re not perfect, and we’re trying to balance multiple demands at any given moment.

But I’ve found that the best way to grow in becoming more unflappable on Sundays is simply to put your money where your theology is, and in those high-pressure hours on a Sunday when you’re “on”:

  • Hold firm to a high view of the sovereignty of God. God is not caught off guard by anything. So the computer dies that’s supposed to run your lyrics? Don’t be so quick to blame a bad hard drive. God might have a different direction for the service in mind.
  • Remain humbly mindful of your own limitations and neediness. You’re going to mess up, you’re not going to be able to control everything, and that’s OK.
  • Resist, resist, resist the lie that everything is riding on one service, or one Sunday. Amazingly, Sundays come around once a week. If something goes wrong one week, don’t over react and freak out like your life is over. You (and your church) will be fine.

The reality of worship leading is far messier and crazier than the polished images we see portrayed on worship albums or conferences might let on. Embrace (and expect) the kind of real-life issues that will arise with real people, buggy technology, and maybe just some miscommunication from time to time.

God is in control, and you are not God, and the best thing we can do as worship leaders is to be OK with those truths as quickly as possible. Then we’ll grow in our unflappability, and enjoy ourselves and our congregations a lot more while we’re at it.

Fix Your Eyes Upon Jesus

1What are we coming to church to feast upon?

Is it the beauty of the liturgy, the style of the music, the personality of the preacher, the sound of the instruments, or the particulars of the presentation?

Or it is Jesus Christ himself, present by His Spirit, alive in the Word, remembered at the Table, and exalted in our praises?

Oh what a tragedy when Christians gather for corporate worship and fix their eyes on lesser things, worship at little altars, obsess over preferences, and go home after 90 minutes having missed the forest for the trees. Jesus is beckoning us to feast upon him, to delight in him alone, and to lift our voices – whether they be loud and strong, or weak and feeble – to praise and magnify him.

I lament over how often I miss him. An entire Sunday can go by, complete with three different services, rehearsals, song lists, and sermons, and my attention has been everywhere in the world except for the preeminent One, the Risen Savior himself. What’s not working, what went well, who’s being difficult, what needs to be fixed, who’s complaining, where am I supposed to be, what’s happening next, and why did I mess that particular thing up? My mind is a swirling storm of competing demands that fool me away from feasting on Jesus, in all his glory and goodness.

I wonder how often you miss him too, and how often it has to do with choosing to feed your little appetites with little things that only leave you hungrier than you were before. Corporate worship becomes your time to seek after the things you deem important in order to satisfy the cravings you’ve allowed to creep up in your soul. Jesus is standing there, front and center, and you’re looking around him.

Let’s try looking at Jesus this Sunday. Maybe the sermon could have been improved. Maybe there are technical distractions. Maybe the songs could have been better chosen. Maybe that’s all true, and you have good points, and those points can be addressed later.

But never forget that Jesus is the feast. And he alone satisfies. Delight in him, lift your voice to him, turn your ear to him, and let him smash your little idols on their little altars, so you might worship him alone.

This is my prayer first and foremost for me, and also for you.

Oh, For a Couple Thousand Centuries to Sing

I recently read an article which quoted a mega-church pastor describing why his church hardly ever sings one of their most famous songs anymore, which was written all the way back in the medieval ages of 2012. That’s right. It’s four years old, and it’s already out of the rotation.

This is one sad example of what C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery”. It’s an “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on the count discredited.” 

Of course, chronological snobbery can work both ways. In many cases, it leads to an uncritical rejection of anything new, leading to an assumption that whatever has gone before is to be preferred.

I like this quote from G.K. Chesterton, describing a different way to view this whole idea of old-versus-new:

Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as a root.

As it pertains to what we sing in church, it’s very important for worship leaders to resist “chronological snobbery”, and instead view the songs that have come before more like roots, from which we can (and should) draw.

Yesterday at my church I shared the following article in our weekly newsletter:

Did you know that on any given Sunday here at Truro, the songs we sing aren’t just spanning recent years or decades, but are also spanning several centuries? Not only are different musical styles and liturgical prayers converging, but songs that were written just months ago or hundreds of years ago are converging too. How exciting, and what a beautiful reflection of a God whose greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3). In today’s worship guide, you’ll notice that we’ve included the year that each song was written, to help us be more mindful that our congregational worship is an intentional and prayerful blend of old and new, ancient and modern, all for the glory of Jesus Christ.

And here’s the front of our worship guide, showing the songs we sang, and the years they were written:

1

As you can see, we sang some modern worship songs, we sang old hymns, and we even sang “I Exalt Thee”. And the choir knocked the offertory out of the park, singing a gospel anthem “How Excellent” that was written in 1990, but re-arranged by David Scott and Bradley Knight in 2012. Some songs were band-led, the opening and closing hymn were led by organ/piano/timpani, and the first song of communion was the choir alone with hand percussion. The organ postlude was “Marche Royale”, composed by J.B. Lully in 1667.

Not only is it important that our repertoire span the centuries (though every church will have its own sweet spot, and I wrote on finding the right balance before when I described “thinking in thirds“) but it’s important that our people are aware of this too. Most people have no idea whether the song they’re singing was written two months ago or 200 years ago. So, once and a while, maybe you can point that out to them.

Whatever your church setting, denomination, or “worship style”, make sure you’re not falling into a trap of discrediting either the old, or the new. Instead, focus on what Harold Best describes as the “ancient path” of worship, which is Jesus himself. And let the “decorations” on the path, (i.e. styles, form, copyright dates, etc.) all exist as a means to exalt Jesus himself, and never as ends unto themselves.

What’s New? – A Brief Roundup Of Some New Resources

For most worship leaders, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of the new albums, EPs, books, resources, and articles that are out there. I try to stay current, but by the time I’ve been able to fully listen to a new album a few times, I’ve almost missed its sequel!

I thought I would share some of the new resources that I’m aware of, which I’ve found helpful either on a personal and/or ministry level.

Paul Baloche – Your Mercy
your-mercy
I’ve been listening to Paul Baloche since way before his “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” days. Way back then, he had something resembling a mullet, wore really cool sweaters, and was already cranking out really singable and congregationally accessible songs. And somehow, while his look, sound, and ministry location has changed (from Texas to New York City), he’s still the same gifted and humble guy, and one of the most grounded worship leaders around. I’ve never met him, but I’ve long admired him. And I’ve really been enjoying his newest album, “Your Mercy”. The very first song, a musical setting of Psalm 92, is just so refreshing. And while I haven’t listened to the rest of it enough times to figure out which ones might work congregationally, I’ve been really blessed by the simplicity, creativity, and depth of the lyrics and musical arrangements. Well done, Paul.

Prestonwood Worship – Songs of the People
songs-of-the-people
The last time I checked, Prestonwood Church in Plano, Texas has about 452,894 members. Give or take. It’s a mega-mega church, and their worship mnistry (led for the last year by another worship veteran Michael Neale) mixes band, choir, orchestra, singers, new songs, and old songs. And while they employ many of the mega-church worship elements that, if unchecked, might lend themselves to a culture of performancism, I’ve been impressed by their obvious heart to encourage congregational singing and participation, and to clearly exalt Jesus and proclaim the Gospel. Their new live album, “Songs of the People” is really good. I haven’t used any of the songs at my church yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 2 or 3 find their way into the rotation over the next year. Most worship leaders will agree that 2 or 3 usable songs off of a new worship album is an incredible feat. Some of my favorite songs are “Grace So Marvelous”, “Let the Redeemed” (I can’t WAIT to do this one at my church with choir and band), “Our Story Our Song”, and “Your Love is Our Favorite Song”.

Coresound Pads
pads
A few weeks ago, I got an email from Mike McGraff at Coresound Pads asking me to check out their “Deluxe Bundle” (full disclosure: he gave me a free download). To be perfectly honest, I was a bit suspicious at first. What was the heart behind this product? What was the marketing like? Were these “pads” going to be treated like the perfect solution to any worship leading problem, the one-size-fits-all bandaid for dead space in a worship set, or a technological substitute for the Holy Spirit? Now that I’ve worked with these pads for a few weeks (granted, in my office, or underneath a few of the testimony videos we’ve created at my church), I’m very happy to report that the heart behind Coresound Pads really is simply to help worship leaders who want a pad sound, but either don’t have the personnel to play it, or the equipment to create it, or both. Their goal is simply to provide worship leaders/worship teams with high quality pad sounds (guitar sky, orchestral strings, organ drone, warm serene, subtle sweet, and rich sparkle), and their heart is in the right place. These are good sounding pads, and if you’re need of this sound for your services, then I would recommend you purchase them from Coresound Pads. If you buy either the standard bundle or deluxe bundle, you can use the promo code ESAVE10 and get $10.00 off your order.

The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams – Zac Hicks
worship-pastorZac Hicks is one smart dude. He’s a prolific writer, keen theologian, astute liturgist, thoughtful leader, skilled musician, and pastoral worship leader. We’ve struck up a friendship over the last several years, and I’ve benefited from his ministry. He has a new book out called The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams and after reading through the first chapter, I can enthusiastically say that Zac has done the Church a great service in the writing of this book. This book is not filled with fluff or filler. It’s wonderfully dense, footnoted, thought-through, carefully laid out, and a good mixture of philosophy, principles, practicalities, and pastoral precepts. A worship leader who reads this book will be a better worship leader because of it.

In God We Trust – Stephen Miller
stephen-millerStephen Miller is out with a new EP, and I’ve enjoyed having this on in my car and/or on some runs. Whenever I listen to Stephen’s music, he points me to the truth of who God is, and what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. His music is consistently rich in content, and refreshingly gospel-saturated. This EP has 4 songs on it (one of which also appears on the aforementioned live album from Prestonwood, where Stephen is now one of the worship pastors).

Facing a Task Unfinished – Keith and Kristyn Getty
GettyThis new album by the Gettys is full of wonderful, singable, congregational, theologically rich songs. At my church we’re singing “He Will Hold Me Fast” and it’s been one of the best additions to our repertoire in months. I hope to use “The Lord Is My Salvation” soon, and the new arrangement of “Let The Earth Resound” makes we want to give this older song a new turn at my church as well. The Gettys are always so reliably solid, and this album is no exception.

1000 Tongues – Vertical Church Band
frontiersFinding good upbeat songs is always a challenge for me. This new song from Vertical Church Band‘s new album has really gone well at my church. The recorded key of G sits a bit high in the chorus and bridge, so we’ve done it in F. It works as an opener or as a closer. I like it musically and lyrically. The second verse is particularly strong: “And we have found our anthem / At the cross where sin is slain / Gathered under one name / Where every chain is broken / And every sorrow swept away / Gathered under one name”. This a good upbeat song that’s singable, not too-full of clichés, Christ-centered, and fresh. It’s the strongest song on the album.

God’s Highway – Sandra McCracken
SandraLast on my list, but CERTAINLY not least, I’ve really enjoyed Sandra McCracken’s newest album, “God’s Highway”. This is a collection of deep, meaningful, thoughtful, and well-crafted songs. One of my favorite things about Sandra is her total lack of pretense. She is who she is. She sings and she writes from her heart. She doesn’t hide her songs behind complicated layers of over-arranging or over-production. The message of the songs is able to stand on its own. She points to Jesus, and she consistently and sweetly helps paint a picture of a faithful God who’s worthy of our praise and trust in every season.