Handling Awkward Moments – The “Over-Compliment”

fanWe’ve all been there. After the service someone comes to tell you, with tears in their eyes, how you “sing with the voice of a thousand angels” (I’m exaggerating a bit with that one) or “took us right into the holy places” or “brought God’s presence down”.

These people are well-intentioned – wanting to encourage and thank you for helping them encounter God in corporate worship – but they’re off base in their understanding of what a worship leader can and cannot do.

No worship leader can take any one “into the holy places.” That’s Jesus’ job.

No worship leader can “bring God’s presence down”. While there are certainly times we’re more aware of his presence, and times God is at work in more noticeable ways, God is always “present” with us (“Where can I go from your Spirit? (Psalm 139:7)).

There are a few ways to handle situations when someone offers you what I call an “over-compliment”. You have to discern which way is best depending on the person, the setting, what they say, etc.

Just say “thank you”
If someone tells me they think I sing with the voice of a thousand angels, it’s probably not a good idea for me to correct the person and say “well actually, Ma’am, I sing a bit flat a lot of the time, and when I can’t hear myself I can kind of sound like a thousand meowing cats”. I know that the compliment is over-the-top, but it’s generally best to just say “thank you” and let it go.

Gently correct them without making it terribly obvious
If someone tells me that I “really led [them] right to God’s throne” and I just smile and say “thank you”, I will send a message to that person that I agree with them. I don’t. So I’d probably say something like “I’m so glad you were aware of God’s presence this morning” or “what a gift to be able to approach God’s throne because of Jesus”. I’m not giving the person a lecture or seeking to reprimand them. First, I don’t have the time after a service to give a lecture, and secondly, they don’t need a reprimand. Instead, I’m seeking to gently correct their thinking by responding with God’s truth. Over time, this person will (hopefully) think about the role of a worship leader more biblically.

Take a minute to address the over-compliment
A few weeks ago, a woman offered me the mother of all over-compliments. I felt as though her compliment was insinuating that I was responsible for whether or not the congregation could encounter God. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to say “thank you”, and I couldn’t afford to let her keep thinking this way by offering only a subtle correction. So instead I asked her one or two questions so that I understood what she was saying. Once I did, I tried to politely and gently point out where she was a bit off-base. Afterwards she thanked me for helping her understand better how “it all works”. It’s not always so easy, but it’s worth a try.

The best preparation for handling over-compliments happens long before the service starts and long before you stand in front of a congregation. By intentionally and prayerfully seeking to grow in humility, you’ll be well-equipped to be able to judge when a compliment crosses the line between well-intentioned encouragement and misplaced worship.

Lessons Learned from This Weekend – Pt. I

mirrorFrom time to time, usually on Mondays, I think it might be helpful for me to post some reflections on the previous weekend’s services. Perhaps some ways I could have handled certain situations better, some specific ways God was at work through the music, or various other lessons learned (however major or minor). I’ll get it started this week with some situations that, looking back, I could have handled better.

Memorize the words
You would think that I would follow my own advice (“Put the Music Stand Away”) and spend some time during the week getting familiar with the songs so that I didn’t forget lyrics, fumble for the right chords, and come across as unprepared. I wish I had. This past Saturday night we used Andrew Peterson’s song “Invisible God” as a special song during the collection/offering time, and I mangled the first verse pretty bad. Oops. Lesson learned: I need to practice too.

Multi-tasking isn’t as easy as it seems
On Saturday night, in addition to leading the music, I also opened the service, led the time of prayer, and gave the announcements. The pastor who normally does this was on vacation, so he asked me to step in since I would be at the service anyway. I have to confess that I didn’t prepare for these responsibilities as thoroughly as I should have. At 4:45pm (15 minutes before the service started), I was trying to figure out what to say to welcome people, how to lead the prayers, etc. A few transitions were awkward, especially getting from the announcements to the offering. Lesson learned: Don’t ever wing it.

There are good ways to get your sound engineer’s attention and there are bad ways…
We had a crazy morning at my church with baptisms at both services, short transition times between them, and very little time for a sound check. In the midst of a noisy Sanctuary about 20 minutes before the service, I was having a difficult time getting the sound engineer’s attention, so I thought it made sense to yell “Andreeeeeeeewwwwwww!!!!!!”. There are about eighteen reasons why this is always a bad idea. Lesson learned: Never yell at your sound engineer. Sorry Andrew.

These are just a few of the lessons I (hopefully) am taking away from this past weekend. It’s good to look back and thank God for his guidance, his presence, and his grace – and pray that he’ll keep teaching me lessons each time I lead.

The Importance of Leaving Space

open_field_homepageOne common mistake that worship leaders make is failing to leave space either during or after songs. Instead of viewing that space as something that is biblical and helpful, it’s seen as either being awkward or a waste of time. So where the worship leader could just play for several measures after a chorus and allow room for the congregation to consider what they’ve just sung – he jumps in and talks the whole time. Or where there could be a time of silence after a song, the worship leader rushes on to the next one.

It’s helpful to leave space for a variety of reasons:

Sometimes I don’t know what else to do
Oftentimes I’ll get a sense as we’re singing that we should move in a direction I hadn’t planned. This could be going back to a verse we sang earlier, offering a word of encouragement, a prayer, skipping a song, singing a different song, highlighting a line we sang, etc. Other times I’ll get a sense that we should do something – I just don’t know what. I’m learning to not be afraid, when this happens, to just pause (I’ll usually play quietly) and wait for clearer direction. This gives me time to consider where the Holy Spirit might be leading, how to smoothly transition in that direction, and how to communicate it to the congregation and worship team. If some time has passed and I still don’t have a clear sense of what I should do, I’ll just move on in the direction I had planned.

Sometimes we need to think about what we’ve just sung before moving on
We can be singing amazing truths but be thinking about whether or not we like how the drummer is playing. Our minds can wander so far off during a song that we can get to the end and realize we weren’t even paying attention to the words that were coming out of our mouths. Leaving space after or during a song is one way to help re-focus on what we’re singing. A little bit of direction can be helpful, such as: “before we sing that verse again, let’s take a moment to allow the truth we’re singing – that all of our sin, every single one, is ‘nailed to the cross and (we) bear it no more’ – to sink in to our hearts”. A little of space here could go a long way.

For many people, the only time they’re ever “still” is on Sunday mornings
I would suspect this is true around the world – not just for people who live in the crazy pace of Washington D.C. Many people who walk into the service on Sunday morning have been going non-stop, making no time to be still and quiet before God since they left church the previous week (if they even made time for that!). I can serve these people by giving them an opportunity to experience a few minutes of stillness and quiet on Sunday morning.

After we’ve sung 4 or 5 songs, and before we sit to hear the scripture readings, I might say something like: “let’s be still for a few moments and allow God to speak to us” or I might not say anything at all.

If people aren’t comfortable being still before God in a church service, how can we expect them be comfortable with it at home? Intentionally leaving space is not only a good way to stretch yourself as a worship leader, but also a good way to stretch your congregation.

Leaving space is certainly a biblical value. In Psalm 62:1, David wrote: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” And throughout the Psalms, the word “Selah” appears, which was most likely a direction to stop and consider what was just sung. David prayed in Psalm 131:1-2, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

It’s good to leave space in our times of corporate worship to “calm” and “quiet” our souls before God. Rushing through the songs does a disservice to the congregation in the long run because it makes periods of “calm” and “quiet” look like wasted time.

The main reason why I think most worship leaders make the mistake of failing to leave space is that it makes them nervous. We think that if we leave some silence at the end of the song then everyone will either be really bored or staring at us wondering how long it will last. We’re afraid that if we pause after a verse then everyone will think we’ve forgotten the lyrics. If this is you, I’d suggest two things: First, pray that God would fill you with his Spirit when you lead – reminding you that “…God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (I Timothy 1:7) Secondly, practice stillness with your congregation. The only way people will get used to “space” is by experiencing it. It might be awkward for some at first, but through your sensitive and strong leadership, they’ll grow in it and learn to value it.

Handling Awkward Moments – Breaking a String

stringIf worship leaders (who lead from guitar) had to list their number one most-dreaded moment, breaking a guitar string would most likely be at the very top.

One moment you’re happily strumming away, oblivious to the trauma your guitar is about to inflict upon you. The next moment, in the blinking of an eye, the string has snapped, your guitar is out of tune, your face is red, your band is confused, keen-eyed congregation members are snickering, and all of the sudden it feels like you just started playing guitar about eight minutes ago.

What do you do?

Don’t freak out
This is the first and most important step. The fact that your guitar string just broke is the biggest deal in the world to you – but not nearly as important to anyone else in the room. There is nothing you can do about it now. Your string is broken. Take a deep breath and stay focused on helping people encounter God, not share in your wallowing.

Keep singing
You would be surprised at how many people in the room have no idea when you break a string, if your drummer is in 6/8 but you’re in 4/4, if your singer is clapping on beats one and three, if your bass player is playing an A instead of an F#m, etc. Either they’re not sensitive enough to the music to notice such things, or they’re (thankfully) too focused of the greatness of God to be distracted by relatively minor issues. Don’t do anything (like stop singing) to draw people’s attention to your broken string. Play it cool, lead with your voice, and pretend that part of the song’s arrangement was for you to sit out. Most guitarists could play less anyway.

Unwind the broken string while you keep singing
The broken string will dangle and rattle around against the other strings unless you do something about it. You don’t have time to be picky about what to do, so either just yank it out by the bridge or unwind it from the tuners. (Note: don’t unwind it from the tuners by turning the tuning knob. This isn’t necessary because there is no longer any tension on the string. Grab the string near the top of the tuner and unwind it until you can pull it out). Once you’ve done this, just let it fall to the floor. You can pick it up later. Do this carefully so you don’t make a lot of noise!

If the guitar is relatively in tune, keep playing
You’ll be thrown off without all six strings, but you’ll still be able to provide at least some degree of rhythm and instrumental support.

If the guitar is out of tune, stop playing
Either go a cappella or let your other instrumentalists carry the rest of the song. Depending on the strength of your other instrumentalists this could go a number of different ways. But, it’s not a good option for you to keep playing with an out of tune guitar. It will be less distracting for in-tune instrumentalists to play weakly, than out-of-tune instrumentalist to play stubbornly.

Change your string after the singing is over
If I break a string during our opening time of singing, I’ll replace it in the back room during the sermon so that it’s ready to go for the closing song. In order to do this, I’m always sure I have a full set of guitar strings in my case.

Change your strings early and often
I’m always amazed when guitarists are playing on strings that they put on eight months ago. This is not something to brag about. These strings not only sound bad, but they’re hard to play on and they’re at risk of breaking. As a preventative measure, try to avoid playing on beat-up, corroded, or old strings in a service.

Have a back-up guitar close by
Whenever I lead from the guitar, I have a back-up guitar set up, tuned, and within close reach. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to carry two guitars around before and after the service. It takes some extra time to get them both tuned. I only end up needing it about once every two months, at most. But when I do need it – it’s worth every bit of the hassle and more. Both guitars sit on a double guitar stand, reducing the amount of space they take up. Setting up two guitars has become part of my routine and it doesn’t seem like too much work anymore. When my string does break, I am incredibly grateful for the back-up.

Don’t think you’ve ruined the service
If you handle this awkward moment with patience and self-control, the likelihood of anyone remembering your broken string by the time Sunday dinner has rolled around is very small. Use this as an opportunity to be humbled and reminded of your total need of God’s grace. Laugh at yourself too.

When is it OK to Use Humor?

My friend Mike Payne commented on my Checking for Ticks post last week and asked: “in what circumstances, if any, is the use of humor appropriate in a worship service?

In general, the worship leader should be as invisible as possible. The more attention worship leaders draw to themselves, the less attention the congregation is giving to the greatness of God. Trying to be funny just for the sake of being funny doesn’t serve the congregation, it serves the worship leader’s ego.

Sometimes, though, worship leaders can actually serve the congregation by using humor. While I’m sure there are more, here are a few circumstances in which humor coul help:
Breaking tension or awkwardness:
If the person projecting the lyrics accidentally puts up ESPN.com instead of “How Great is Our God”, you are not going to be able to cover that up. Just laugh about it, say something short and funny, and then transition back to the song.
Cleaning up a train wreck:
Here’s a perfect example.

Addressing the elephant in the room:
If it’s pouring rain and hail is falling outside as people are coming into a service, don’t ignore it. Just say something like “good morning, thanks for swimming to church today”. It shows the congregation that you’re aware it wasn’t easy to make it, and it makes them chuckle, which helps them relax.
Helping people feel comfortable:
At our lessons and carols services this past December, I sang Andrew Peterson’s song “Matthew’s Begats” in the middle of the service, which tells the story of the family history of Jesus all the way from Abraham. If you’ve heard the song, you know that it has more of a bluegrass feel, complete with a banjo. This isn’t a style we use that often at my church, so before I sang the song I said:

“this next song is a little different from what you might be used to hearing here on a Sunday morning. We’ve even imported a banjo for this one. That may or may not be glad tidings of great joy for some of you – but… oh well! If you’re  anything like me, when we get to the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospels, you might kind of tune out. But hopefully this next song will help us all hear it in a new way. You can stay seated for this one, and let’s hear together the genealogy of our Savior.”

I wasn’t trying to be a comedian, and I didn’t go on and on. My goal wasn’t to leave people in stitches. I just made a little joke that the song would be a bit different, and I picked on the banjo player a little bit, and it helped the congregation feel comfortable.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for a worship leader to use humor when:
A medical emergency interrupts a service:
Oftentimes the first thing a worship leader will be tempted to say if someone has a medical emergency during a service and has to be taken out is: “I guess they didn’t like my singing.” It might make people laugh, but it’s pretty insensitive. If you found out later that the person was indeed in serious trouble, you would regret making light of the situation. Instead, just lead people in a short prayer for the person, and then move on.
Someone’s cell phone goes off:
A few years ago we had finished our opening song (I think it was “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”) and someone’s cell phone started ringing “YMCA”. I was tempted to make a joke about it, but it would have more disruptive to do that than to just let it go. A joke would have embarrassed that person even more, and if they were a visitor or a seeker, that would have been a shame.
Referring to another service:
I cringe when I hear worship leaders say things like: “you guys are singing so much better than the 8:30 service” or “are you all more awake than the last service?” It’s insulting and insensitive to everyone who attended the service you’re making fun of. Not a good idea.
To make inside jokes:
Inside jokes are fine for rehearsal or for one-on-one, but not when the congregation is listening in. They’ll feel left out, and you’ll come across as inconsiderate.

Ultimately, you really have to practice discernment and pray for wisdom. Err on the side of playing it safe unless you’re sure your humor will, in some way, serve the congregation. If you’re just trying to be funny for the sake of being funny, it’s probably a good idea to keep it to yourself.