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.

The Basic Principle

1One of things that having kids will do to you is force you to distill complicated things into simple summaries. It seems like I’m having to constantly explain big ideas to my kids in very simple terms. It’s good for them, but it’s even better for me. It makes me think!

This quote from Allen Ross’s book Recalling the Hope of Glory. Biblical Worship From the Garden of Eden to The New Creation provides a similarly simple (yet profound) summary of the basic principle of worship, and how that impacts those of us who wear the title of “worship leader”:

He writes:

…The basic principle in Scripture is that all of God’s creation, everything that has life, must praise Him. But whatever is done must exalt the Lord in the eyes of the people, focus attention on him and not the performers, and communicate truth about the Lord and not conceal or confuse it.

In short, music used in worship must be accurate in its theology, glorifying to God, and prepared well, and it must minister to the needs of all the people.

To be properly worshipful, music used in the public assembly of Christian worship must be guided by the theology of praise with its paradigm in Holy Scripture.

I think this is helpful.

So even more basically, according to Ross:

1. All creation must praise God.
2. Whatever is done in the assembly of his people should exalt God.
3. The truth about God should be clear not concealed.
4. So we should prepare well.
5. Good theology keeps us focused on what matters most

The worship of the Church, and the job of worship leaders who serve the Church, is all about God, and all for the glory of God.

Let’s not ever take our eyes off of this simple truth!

Let Me Repeat Myself? – Part Two

Yesterday I shared some thoughts on why we repeat things when we’re singing. Simply put, the bible encourages it. 

But there is such a thing as too much repetition, and it can be a valid criticism that worship leaders repeat things too much.

So how do worship leaders know whether to repeat or not repeat? I’ll try to get very practical here:

1. Assume that once is enough
Your baseline for a song should be to sing through it once. Simple.

2. Repeat something that’s unfamiliar
One way to think about leading discerningly is this way: effective worship leaders have four antennae up the entire time they’re up front. One for the Holy Spirit’s leading, one for the musicians who are leading alongside, one for the congregation, and one for the pastor.

If your congregation antennae tells you that they didn’t quite get that first verse or that chorus (i.e. it’s still new or the lyrics weren’t up in time), then it’s probably a good idea to sing it again.

3. Repeat something that the Holy Spirit wants to drive home
Using your Holy Spirit antennae, as you’re singing through the song, be sensitive for his prodding and prompting. For me, this comes in the form of a gut-sense that the Holy Spirit wants to drive a particular point home that we didn’t fully grasp the first time.

For example, this past week at my church we were singing the Matt Maher song “Christ is Risen“. At our second service, when we got to the second verse and we sang the line “In strength You reign; forever, let your Church proclaim…” I had the sense that we should sing that line again. We hadn’t rehearsed it, we hadn’t repeated it at the first service, and I hadn’t ever repeated that line of the song before (and our church really likes that song, so we’ve sung it a bunch of times).

But I was pretty sure that the Holy Spirit was telling me that we should repeat that line a few times. And so we did, and the band followed right along, and the choir and congregation did too, and the lyrics operator kept those lyrics on the screen, and as we sang that statement three times in a row, there was a palpable sense of faith and celebration building in the room. It propelled us into the chorus as we continued singing “Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling over death by death!”

That little bit of repetition made a big difference. But on the other hand…

4. Be aware that too much repetition works against you
One time: baseline.
Two times: Can be helpful depending on the group.
Three times: You’re pushing it.
Four times: You’ve crossed the line (unless you’re in a Pentecostal church).
Five times: You’re in your own world. 
Six times: You’ll never be asked to lead worship at this church again.

Once you start repeating things, be aware that you have to gauge whether or not your repetition will be adding or subtracting from the effect you’re hoping to achieve. Effective repetition is an underline. Ineffective repetition is white out.

5. Be aware of your congregation’s and musicians’ comfort level
If your congregation isn’t used to repeating anything, use repetition sparingly. Same for your musicians. Gradually get them used to the idea with practice, and by repeating only what’s really important, to show them how it can be helpful.

6. Are they still hungry?
There are times my two-and-a-half year old daughter won’t eat anything. Sometimes it’s because, while she is hungry, she doesn’t realize how good the food on her plate is. But sometimes it’s because she’s actually not hungry.

When you’re leading a song, try to be aware if they’re still hungry or not. Sometimes by repeating something you can help them realize what they’re missing and then they’ll gobble it up. Other times, by repeating something, you’re trying to pry their mouths open and force it down.

7. Favor repeating objective truth over subjective responses
Think to yourself when you’re leading worship: is there anything we’ve sung that we’d benefit from reminding ourselves about again? By repeating the truth about who God is and what he’s done for us in Jesus Christ we allow “…the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly…” (Colossians 3:16).

And that really is the point of repetition – to let the word of Christ dwell richly in our hearts. It’s not to work people into a frenzy or a mindless state, but to help them grab hold of the glory of God by helping them sing with understanding.

Wisely – and discerningly – using repetition as a tool, worship leaders can pastorally point their congregations to the one who is worthy of unending praise. May our use of repetition point to Jesus as an underliner, a highlighter, and a spotlight.