Pressing On, Feeding God’s Sheep

dryYou’ve been a worship leader at your church for nine months now. When you took the job you had high hopes for your new ministry. You really clicked with the pastor and some of the search committee members. You had a deep peace that God was leading you to move to this new city and take on a new challenge. And you knew it would be a challenge. The worship team was a mess, the congregation was opinionated, the sound system was laughable, the song repertoire was weak, the drummer couldn’t keep time, and the previous worship leader had quit after six months. You were comfortable where you were but took this new job out of obedience to God.

Nine months later and it’s been more challenging than you could have imagined. You’re frustrated with your pastor. A few members of the worship team have stepped down and been vocal in their criticism of you. You look out on Sunday morning and it doesn’t look any one wants to be singing any of the songs you’ve chosen. Whenever you try to introduce a new song people ask why you “sing so many new songs”. You sit in your office during the week and feel like you’re trapped in a bad dream. You visit other churches or attend worship conferences and leave more discouraged and weary because you can’t imagine your own church ever looking like that.

Am I even all that good of a worship leader? What am I doing wrong? Was that person right when he quit the worship team and called me an egotistical control freak? Did I make a mistake taking this job? Would anyone care if I just slept in on Sunday and watched football? How amazing would it feel to tell my pastor “I quit”?

You’re confused, burned out, beaten up, angry, and disappointed. Your body is in church on Sundays but your mind has already packed up and moved away. It’s a lost cause. You’ve come to the realization that you’re not cut out to be a worship leader, the church you’ve been serving for two years will never change, and you made a mistake ever taking the job.

Don’t give up, worship leader friend. Press on.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! (Psalm 126:5)

You are in the thick of real-life church ministry. It can be discouraging, tedious, boring, low-paying, and dry. But your labor is not in vain. Every day you are able to drive to that church and serve those people, buy your drummer a cup of coffee and then head back to church and practice with him, talk with your pastor, and get up on Sundays with a desire to help people encounter God in corporate worship, you are making the soil more fertile. One drop at a time. You didn’t make a mistake taking this job, you might have just made a mistake thinking it would be easy. It won’t be easy. But if you’re faithful, it will be fruitful. You will reap that fruit one day.

You are doing the hard work a worship leader. It isn’t glamorous. Your worship team won’t be recording an album anytime soon but you love them and encourage them anyway. Your congregation won’t suddenly look like the crowd at the worship conference you attended but you model and encourage heartfelt singing anyway. Your pastor won’t be speaking at any huge conferences next week or writing any books but you honor and pray for him anyway. Your Sunday service is a bit boring and predictable but you keep praying for God to bring a freshness and vibrancy. There isn’t a worship leader in the world who can change a church through his polish and skill. There is a God who can change a church by his Holy Spirit. Keep doing the hard work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So you’ve been sowing in tears for nine months. You can’t even imagine what shouts of joy would sound like. You’ve worked hard, labored faithfully, and done all that you know there is to do. Your high hope has become deep despair.

To the worship leader ready to quit and walk away in retreat, imagine the story in John chapter 21 went like this:

Jesus says to you, “worship leader, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus says to you a second time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus says to you a third time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my sheep.”

Press on, worship leader friend. May your love for the Savior compel you, and may the power of the Spirit sustain you. Your tearful sowing will one day turn to joyful shouting. Don’t stop feeding his sheep.

Don’t Be A Monkey

1Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I was pretty convinced that whenever I ran into any sort of opposition or problems or inertia, the solution was that I needed to get my way.

Service feels dead? I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do. 

Musicians not performing well? You should let me clean house or crack the whip.

Only time for two songs? If you loved Jesus you’d give me time for at least five.

You don’t want to project lyrics? Then obviously you’re a neanderthal.

I’m supposed to get advice from a committee? A waste of my precious time.

I can’t have my own office? I’ll make as much noise for as many months as it takes for me to get what I want.

No one is singing? They’ll catch on soon enough once they come to appreciate my underlying brilliance.

You thought I repeated that song too many times? I should have repeated it more.

You want me to submit my song list to who? I hear directly from God.

The list could go on but I’ll spare you any more glimpses into my immaturity (none of which still exists today, of course… ahem…) or self-centerdness. I was convinced when I was first starting out leading worship that I had (a) all the answers, (b) all the insight, and (c) all the skills rolled into one worship leading powerhouse package: me.

And my artistic temperament coupled with my sinful nature and with a dash of preacher’s kid-itis thrown on top resulted in a working assumption that my degree of satisfaction and my ability to thrive in ministry was directly correlated to much freedom I had to do things my own way.

I once heard a statement (I can’t remember from whom) that the higher a monkey climbs up a tree, the better you can see his butt. This would describe the worship leader I was when I first started out. A monkey who wanted to climb high, high, high up the tree all on his own and be allowed to swing freely from the branches doing his own thing.

The problem? I’d eventually fall off one of those branches and I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone else but me.

Here’s my point: don’t make the mistake of thinking that the solution anytime you face opposition, or problems, or inertia, is that you be allowed to get your way. Many times that is completely the wrong solution.

Consult with others, submit to others, team up with others, bounce your ideas off of others, learn the political landscape from more experienced people around you, listen a lot, keep your mouth closed in meetings unless you’re sure you have the right thing to say, pursue humility, and above all things, make it about Jesus, not about you.

Too many worship leaders make mountains out of mole hills when they reflexively turn away from conventional wisdom or common sense or pastoral restraint, and instead do things their own way. When you do that, you’re the monkey climbing the tree. You’ll have fun and get some “oohs” and “ahs” at first, which will feed your ego, but then you’re in for an embarrassing fall.

Take it from me! Getting your own way is not always a good idea in the long run. There’s a difference between getting your way and implementing a vision. Pursue the latter option.

The Point Of A Worship Leader Is To Point

1This week my church is hosting “Genesis Arts Camp” for 200+ sweaty K-6th grade students in the morning and about 50 middle/high school students in the afternoon. I’ve had a blast leading worship in the morning, and sharing a quick teaching about some aspect of the gospel (this camp draws a good number of kids from outside of our church and from families who don’t go to church at all).

In between the songs and the teaching we’re also goofing around a good bit. We’ve thrown in some David Letterman-inspired bits (complete with their own theme songs) like:

Mr. Gil Tells a Joke
In which Mr. Gil comes up and tells a joke. The theme song would get stuck in your head if I shared it, so I’ll spare you. Unless you click on this link, in which case prepare yourself for getting the theme song stuck in your head. You don’t want to click on this link. Really. Don’t click on it.

Kalisthenics with Kirsten
In which Kirsten comes up (to the band rocking out to Van Halen’s “Jump”) in her 80’s head band and leads a couple hundred kids in doing crazy exercises. We’re doing some pretty aggressively contemporary stuff at this camp for sure 🙂

Superhero Art Tryouts
In which two superheroes (Flash and the Green Lantern) attempt to get a job as teachers at Genesis Arts Camp by demonstrating their different “gifts”. They could use some work. Their interpretive dance to “Let it Go” was particularly moving.

Teaching
At the end of each session I’m sharing a quick teaching with the kids, in an attempt to communicate the gospel to them in a clear, understandable way. On Thursday or Friday I hope to invite kids to put their trust in Jesus for the first time if they haven’t ever done so. I’m excited!

On Monday I held up a bull horn and told them I had some really good news. “God loves you!” “God will always love you!” And how did God show us he loves us? By sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. We looked at a bunch of different logos. The kids knew all of them! I asked them what would God’s logo be? God’s logo would be a cross. He didn’t didn’t tell us he loved us. He showed us!

On Tuesday we looked at a bunch of pictures of cute babies. We oohed and ahed at the cute babies. But I told the kids that even the cutest babies are still born sinful. No one teaches a baby how to grow up and steal a cookie! No one teaches a little boy how to grow up and hit his sister on purpose. We sin naturally. It’s like I was born with a red choir robe on me (and I donned a lovely red choir robe for this example). And no matter what I do (give money to my friends, give food to the poor), I can’t get my red robe off. Then I walked up to the cross on stage, which had a white robe on it to show that Jesus died on the cross, but he was perfect. He took my sinful robe off of me! But… it didn’t stick to him.

Jesus defeated my sin! He stomped on it (so I stomped on the robe). He beat it (so I beat the robe). And he threw it far, far away (so I threw the robe far, far away). And he gives me his white robe (I put a white robe on). He makes me clean. He makes us new.

Today (Wednesday) I shared how Jesus wants to be our best friend. He wants to be by our side for our whole life (and after). He wants to be with us when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we want to sin, and when we’re scared. Who would say “no” to having this kind of friend? I did a bunch of silly shenanigans like riding my daughter’s pink bike, and a pretend horse, and pretending to be scared of thunder… All to show that Jesus is with me all the time.

And the week will wrap up with me reminding the kids of what we’ve learned… and that Jesus is knocking on the doors of their hearts (and they should let him in!)

We’re singing mostly upbeat, action, call-and-response type songs. There’s a large number of little kids who can’t read, much less handle wordy songs. It’s been a lot of work but it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s reminded me of one major worship leading lesson.

I do the pointing. Jesus does the work.

 

Not everyone will sing along. Not everyone will get it. Some people (i.e. the super cool 5th grade boys) will sit there with their arms folded. Some people just won’t like it.

But if I use my microphone/guitar/pink bike/pretend (or real) horse/superhero skits to point people to God’s great love for them in Jesus Christ, then I don’t have to worry. My job is simple. Whether it’s a summer camp or a Sunday morning. Whether I’m leading 3rd-graders or 70 year-olds. My job description always has the same basic instruction: use your platform to point to Jesus. Then let him do the work.

The point of a worship leader is to point. Every context, every age group, every time you stand on stage.

May God increase our desire to see his name, and his name alone, exalted in the lives of those who sit in our churches. Even the sweaty ones.

Four Wrong Turns On The Road To Performancism

1The evangelical church is at a worship crossroads.

A generation of older, baby-boomer, not-so-hipster worship leaders are in the last decade or two of their full-time ministry. And a new generation of younger, Generation X, youthfully vigorous worship leaders have taken (or are about to take) the wheel. They are determining the trajectory of worship in music all around the world and will be at the helm for the next 20-30 years.

As a card-carrying member of this generation, I say that we have some very important decisions to make. Can this trend towards performancism be reversed? Can we spend “our turn” stewarding our ministries in such a way that orients the worship of the church more strongly towards the glory of God in Jesus Christ and away from the performance of the people on stage?

It’s important to know the wrong turns that have led much of the evangelical worship world to where it is today: embracing a trend of performancism in worship.

Wrong turn # 1: Away from substance
The message really does matter. The means matter, but when the means become the message, or obscure the message, and when this is OK with us, we have lost our bearings. Sadly, too many in the evangelical worship world have lost their bearings, and the style is predominant, while the substance is subordinate. Our message is the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ. The only hope for the world.

In our different contexts, we can and should use any musical means we can to exalt him. But it must always be about exalting him. Is the message crystal clear? Let’s not settle for obscurity. We must ensure that Jesus (the substance) is always front and center, and the music (the style) is always pointing to, magnifying, proclaiming, exalting, and celebrating him. We can’t turn away from this.

Wrong turn # 2: Away from congregational singing
One of the most stunning descriptions of worship in heaven comes in Revelation 5:11-13 when John says that he “looked, and… heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!‘”

Not only is the substance of the worship in heaven crystal clear, but the sound of countless voices worshipping “him who sits on the throne and… the Lamb” together is crystal clear as well. How about in our churches?

Worship leaders: we are tragically losing our priority for congregational singing, under the guise of offering people an “experience”. What people need to experience during corporate worship is the corporate praising of Jesus. There is no greater experience to offer people than to stand among others who are lifting their hearts and voices in praise. As wonderful as good effects, art, lighting, arrangements, videos, buildings, liturgy, and pipe organs are, they pale in comparison to the sound of human voices lifted together in worship of God. A worship leader who doesn’t cultivate a singing congregation over time isn’t fulfilling the number one most important part of his job.

If we continue to settle for offering people worship “experiences” and settling for lackluster or even non-existent singing, we are setting evangelical worship on a sure course towards a crash into a wall of flashy, unsatisfying performances. We must lead with a invitational, pastoral heart to draw others in to singing praise with all of heaven. The best kind of “congregational experience” is congregational singing.

Wrong turn # 3: Away from the gospel
I’ve sat through entire church services, listened to entire worship albums, and attended entire conference sessions where the gospel is assumed, not proclaimed, as if everyone in the room has heard the gospel before, has that box checked, and except for when it pops up in a popular song, we don’t really need to emphasize that whole gospel thing very much.

Practically, the gospel assumed is the gospel omitted. Worship leaders, we have a responsibility to our congregations to ensure the centrality of the gospel in our worship services.

It’s Jesus’ “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that “call for songs of loudest praise”. It’s Jesus alone who makes a way for us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). Christ-centered worship isn’t just a trendy new worship catchphrase. It’s our reality. And we can either choose to center our worship around the good news of Jesus Christ, or we can choose not to. Something will be at the center. What will that “something” be?

When the core is compromised, all the branches are compromised. The core must be the gospel. Must. Must. Must.

Wrong turn # 4: Towards the performers
When you’ve lost your substance, when no one is singing along, and when you’re not centered around the gospel, you gravitate towards hiring/elevating a performer as your worship leader, making him into a mini-celebrity, maybe putting his face on the big screen, and hoping he gets your congregation to worship.  The performer/celebrity worship leader phenomenon is troubling and dysfunctional, but it’s a symptom of much deeper problems, and previous “wrong turns” that led to this place.

And this is what has now bubbled up to the surface. Performancism, which requires performers to perpetuate Sunday morning worship performances. But under the surface are deeper issues, and significant wrong turns. We need to commit to addressing the underlying issues, and then we’ll begin to see a change above the surface.

Final thoughts
Lest any of what I’ve written be construed as exclusively relevant to contemporary churches with drums and guitars, let me say loud and clear that formal, high-church, liturgical churches with organs and choirs are just as prone to performancism. The performance of an organist, the offerings of a choir, the recitation of a liturgy, the sacred movements of the clergy and acolytes can all become the same kind of performance prevalent in the mega-church down the street. The choir directors, organists, accompanists, and worship leaders at those churches have just as much reason to step back and evaluate their ministries as the guy with a guitar at a church whose liturgy is pretty much “songs then sermon”.

This crossroads is before all of us, formal and informal, liturgical and non-liturgical, mega or small.

We can go down the road towards performancism and find ourselves with congregations who come to observe the actions of the select few on the platform, hearing words and seeing sights that have little lasting impact on their life, with worship leaders building their little worship kingdoms.

Or we can experience another reformation, and cultivate congregations eager to exalt Christ, engaged with God as they draw near to him together, with hearts fixed on him, all the while being served by musicians whose passion is to see the Church gathering and celebrating the good news of the gospel, encountering a living God through his living Word, in the power of his Holy Spirit.

I want to spend my years stewarding that worship reformation wherever I am. 30 years from now I want to hand off to the next generation a worship ministry with an unmistakable trajectory towards Jesus, for Jesus, through Jesus, about Jesus, and in Jesus.

How about you?

Let’s All Be A Bit More Childish

1I am a big proponent of worship leaders thinking seriously about their role, thinking deeply about their theology, thinking practically about their skills, and thinking critically about current trends and pressures. A lack of introspection, evaluation, and hard conversations will inevitably result in a shallowness and flimsiness that doesn’t serve the Church well. To put it succinctly, worship leaders should always be growing up.

But if there is a downside to all of this serious/deep/practical/critical thinking, it could be that sometimes we lose our childishness.

There is such a wealth (praise God) these days of solid resources/articles/blogs/videos/conferences/books aimed at getting worship leaders to grow up and into their pastoral role and their function as ministers of the gospel. Most of the time it’s all really solid stuff. But sometimes I fear that some of it might run the risk of making us lose our childishness.

In the gospels, we have three different accounts of Jesus embracing children, saying “let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, but also in Luke 18:16 and Mark 10:14). In all three accounts, people bring their children to Jesus, the disciples try to keep the children away, and Jesus tells the disciples to stop. And then Jesus says that he wishes everyone was more like the children!

Fundamentally, we must always come to Jesus like a child. Helpless. Transparent. Needy. Light-hearted. And, yes, clueless. But the thing about a child’s cluelessness is that it’s two sided: (1) they don’t know a lot of stuff that grown-ups know, but (2) they don’t know what they don’t know (and they don’t care). Is it any wonder why Jesus points to childishness as an ideal?

There’s a difference between childishness and immaturity. And to all the resources, articles, blogs, videos, conferences, and books aimed at helping worship leaders grow and mature, I say “the more the merrier”. But when I start to feel like I’m a child being turned away from Jesus because I don’t know enough stuff, I start to get nervous. And so should you.

So where’s the balance?

1. Always pursue growth. And always pursue leading in a more mature, skillful way. That honors the God who gave you the gifts you have (and some gifts you might not know you have).

2. Stay childish. And help your congregation stay childish too. Come to Jesus like little children. You might not know everything, you might not say everything the right way, and (gasp) you might even exhibit joy in your body/hands/feet (children are known to do that from time to time…) But that’s what you do when you’re a child. You’re helpless, transparent, needy, light-hearted, and clueless too.

In the disciples eyes, there seemed to be two different types of people around Jesus: the disciples and the children. Perhaps Jesus’ point was that, if he had his way, there wouldn’t be any difference between the two? Worship leaders, let’s not forget it.

And Now Please Admire My Musicianship

1We’ve all experienced that awkward moment when someone tries to say something nice about you but you take it as an insult. You’re not quite sure how to take it, how to respond, or how to process what they’ve said.

Several years ago I was having a conversation with someone I knew fairly well, and this person attempted to encourage me about my worship leading by saying: “Jamie, the thing about your worship leading is that no one walks away from one of your services thinking to themselves ‘wow, he’s a great musician‘”.

Um… thanks?

I know what the person was trying to say. I know the heart behind it. They were trying to say that I didn’t draw attention to myself. There is no higher compliment that can be paid to a worship leader than that. The problem wasn’t with what they said or even how they said it. The problem was with my heart: I wanted my musicianship to be admired.

I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too much, of course. But I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too little, either. And that was what I was afraid was happening. I was afraid that people didn’t appreciate me for the musician that I am. And I’m sure you can’t relate to what I’m saying at all.

Yeah right.

We can’t blame it on our artistic temperament. We can blame it on our sinful nature. We want to be the ones lifted high and exalted. And so we feed our desire for adoration with a sometimes-subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle attitude from the platform that basically says to the congregation “and now please admire my musicianship”. While I play this solo, while I do this postlude, while I play five instruments in one service, while I use six different tunings on one song, while I do a three-minute song introduction, while I do this song in a key that’s terrible for most voices but amazing for mine, while I sing this song that no one could ever sing along to and that’s kind of the point, or while I fill all the musical spaces instead of letting someone else.

And so on. We can get really good at doing little things to help people remember and appreciate that they’re really quite fortunate to hear us every Sunday. Lord, have mercy!

When my friend said those encouraging words to me and I took them as an insult, the Holy Spirit was putting his finger on an area of recurrent pride, that if not called out and killed, will grow into a ministry-destroying monster. It’s like those pesky weeds outside my house that never want to go away. I can either feed them or I can destroy them. There’s not really a third option.

Of course you’d never think of actually saying the words “and now please admire my musicianship” on a Sunday morning. That’s too blatantly egotistical! But those might be the very words you send without even realizing it.

Examine yourself. Simplify your leadership. You don’t need to do, in one service, all that you’re capable of doing. You don’t need to operate within the full parameters of your musical gifting every Sunday. No one needs to know how versatile you are. Is that glissando really necessary or do just want to sound awesome? Tie one hand behind your back if you need to. Whatever it takes.

May it be said of us very often: no one walks away from our services thinking “wow, what a great musician”. They walk away thinking “wow, what a great God”. We have got to decrease, my friends. For God’s sake, we must.

Do You Love to Worship Jesus?

For all of the practicalities and technicalities that we talk about when it comes to serving as a worship leader, there is one thing that is the most important of all: that you love to worship Jesus. You can pick great songs, lead an awesome band, have smooth transitions, sing beautifully, play proficiently, and have a command of the stage, but if you’re not enthralled with Jesus then pack it up and go home.

It’s totally possible to become such a professional, to gain experience, to have tenure, and to get really good at your job, that you take Jesus for granted, your heart becomes hard to him, and that you mostly go through the motions, maybe even closing your hands and raising your hands, but without genuine affection for Jesus.

The number one quality you should be seeking to foster in yourself as a worship leader is the quality of a worshipper. Someone whose heart beats to worship Jesus, whose lips prefer no other song above a song of praise, and whose soul is never satisfied by anything else than the goodness of God.

Forget all the programming and performing and fame and stage lights and people looking at you and the camera pointed at your face and the critical guy sitting in the front row. Forget all the current fads and bands and music with whom you’re supposed to be up-to-date. Forget it all. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you love Jesus more. Be a worshipper of Jesus. Love to worship him.

Watch this talk by Gary Millar, given at the 2013 “The Gospel Coalition” conference and let it help you remember just how amazing Jesus is, and what a shame it is when we take him for granted.