When the Congregation Claps On the Wrong Beat

This past Sunday we closed our service with Tim Hughes’ song “Happy Day” celebrating the “empty cross, the empty grave” and “life eternal” that Jesus won for us.

I started the song off by playing four measures on my own, and then the rest of the band joined me. The problem? They were one beat behind.

Because my intro was just straight eighth-notes and I jumped into it after saying something to the congregation, my drummer (who is super gifted) couldn’t quite tell which beat was the downbeat. Hence the band coming in one beat behind.

I quickly realized that this meant the congregation was clapping on the wrong beat.

What should I do? Go the entire song with the congregation clapping on the wrong beat? Try to fight them and hope they figure it out? Or just stop the song and start over?

I chose the last option. I just motioned to the band to stop, told the congregation we were going to start over and why, and then we tried it again and got it right.

Here’s how it sounded:

I think this is the first time I’ve ever had to stop a song and re-start it. I don’t imagine it will happen that often. But sometimes, like this past Sunday morning, it’s the best option.

And I think it was the right call this time. It showed the congregation we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it helped the band get back on track, and allowed us to sing the rest of the song without a huge distraction. This kind of thing helps keep us humble. It’s also fun to look back on it (or listen back as the case may be) and laugh. And learn. But mostly laugh.

Why Be Sly?

I really enjoy watching other churches’ worship services online. It might sound a little weird but it’s true. Sitting at my desk, I can visit churches all over the world, without having to pay for airfare or a hotel. It’s great. It bores my wife to tears, but I think it’s fascinating to see how other churches do things, how their worship leaders lead, what kind of songs they’re singing, how their services are structured, and how the congregations seem to respond.

I have to be careful not to be overly critical of the churches I watch online – since it’s easy to criticize when I’m watching a service on my computer screen – but I have to say that there are far more things I see that concern me than encourage me.

By far, the most common criticism I would have is that worship teams seem to be much more interested in performing songs and putting on a show than they are in leading people to exalt and magnify the greatness of God. I get the feeling I’m watching a Disney production – slick, overly rehearsed, and seamlessly choreographed. And I can’t quite understand why worship leaders and their vocalists stare into the congregation, scanning from left to right, with a smile on their face at all times, with an occasional head-nod or finger-point.

But that’s not my main point. One other common criticism I have is that churches, and specifically their worship leaders, seem either incapable or unwilling to make the truth of the gospel plain in the songs they sing. They’re sly about it. Under the guise of creativity, the clear message of the good news of Jesus Christ gets covered over by confusing lyrics, subtle references, and sparse objective biblical truth. Everything is foggy.

I’m reminded of a quote by Northrop Frye, a literary critic, who said in reference to the writings of Jacob Boehme, a 17th century German theologian: “…his books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning.”

The same could be said about the songs so many churches are singing. The time of singing is the picnic, the worship leader brings the words, and the congregation is asked to deduce the meaning on their own.

Why be sly? Why “beat around the gospel bush” as Bob Kauflin puts it. Why would we, as worship leaders, squander any opportunity to present people with the glorious truth of the Gospel? It doesn’t make any sense and it’s tragic.

A large church in Indiana opened their Easter service with the song “When the Morning Comes” by OK Go. Here are the lyrics to the first two verses:

You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down
And you can’t keep draggin’ that dead weight around.
If there ain’t all that much to lug around,
Better run like hell when you hit the ground.
When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

You can’t stop these kids from dancin’.
Why would you want to?
Especially when you’re already gettin’ yours.
‘Cause if your mind don’t move and your knees don’t bend,
well don’t go blamin’ the kids again.
When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

What does this have to do with Easter? What does this have to do with Jesus conquering death and being raised to life? I don’t get it. And my guess is that a lot of people that morning didn’t get it either. 

While this is one of the more egregious examples of a song that, rather than making Jesus plain, is murky and lightweight and confusing, it isn’t too far off from the kinds of songs other churches are singing.

They might have great melodies, be in the CCLI top 25, be really modern, have a great groove, or be a congregation-favorite. But is the message clear? And what is that message exactly?

Paul said in Romans 1:16: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”

If the power of God is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, then let us not be ashamed in making that gospel clear every single Sunday, every single service, and every single song. Let’s not be sly or subtle about it. And try to stop scanning the room and nodding your head if you can help it.

Are You a Worship Diva?

Last Saturday as I was driving to church for our afternoon rehearsal and evening service, I was listening to an interview with Ricky Gervais (creator of “The Office”) on National Public Radio’s show “Studio 360”. At the very end of the interview, Ricky was asked what he thinks about his critics. His answer was striking. Here’s what he said:

“I’ve only ever tried to do one thing – and that’s please me and no one else in the world. I don’t care if anyone else likes anything I’ve ever done. I don’t care about critics. I don’t even care about the audience that I never see. I only care – did it turn out exactly as I wanted it? And if it is, I’ve won. You’re bulletproof. I don’t care about ratings or awards. I don’t care about box office. I’ll do this until someone says ‘you can’t have any more money to do stuff. No one cares. Everyone hates you.’ Bob Dylan said: ‘a man can consider himself a success if he wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between he did exactly what he wanted.’ And that’s what I do.”

In other words, “I don’t care about pleasing anyone else other than me. I’m happy as long as I can do exactly what I want to do.”

I might be tempted to laugh at Ricky’s brazen self-centeredness if it weren’t for the fact that I think the same exact thing from time to time. Or every day.

I want what I want, I want to do it the way I want to do it, I want it to go exactly like I want it to go, I want to be pleased with what I did, I want to win, I want to be bulletproof, and I don’t want to hear any criticism.

That’s the flesh talking – which is why we can all recognize its voice as not being Ricky Gervais but just our sin nature. It’s ugly and it’s toxic. We need the Holy Spirit to fight it. And for those of us who lead worship, if we don’t fight it, we can quickly become worship divas.

I want to do the songs I want to do. I want them to sound like I want them to sound. I want the service to go exactly the way I want. I want a nice office and I want an impressive title. I know what I’m doing and I don’t need anyone’s suggestions or criticism. I’m happy when things go my way, and I like when I look good. As long as I can do what I want to do then everything is fine.

We all have that diva inside of us – Paul calls it “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19 – and the only way to keep it from being let loose is to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16). Every week, every day, and especially every time I stand before a congregation to lead them in singing, I need the Holy Spirit’s help to keep me from wanting to get my way. With the Spirit’s help I’ll want his way.

Worship divas exist to serve themselves and their ego for their glory. Worship leaders exist to serve their church for God’s glory. Which are you? 

Leading Worship When it’s Early

How early is too early to sing?

11:00am is a pretty good time to sing in “the morning” since it’s almost afternoon.

10:00am is doable.

9:00am is on the early side, but still doable, especially for the ones who have had a cup of coffee or two.

8:00am and below is when you start getting into tricky territory. It’s early, people are moving slowly, and except for that rare morning person who is perkier than should be allowed, most people aren’t in the mood to break into heartfelt song.

So if you’re fortunate enough to be asked to lead worship at a service when it’s early in the morning, you’ll need to lead differently than you would later in the day or in the evening when people are actually awake.

If you come across like an annoying alarm clock, blaring “wake up! Wake up! This is the day the Lord has made! He is worthy of your praise! Put those hands together! Alleluia! Woooo!!!” then people are either going to be tempted to hit you in order to press “snooze” or decide to sleep in next week. No one likes a rude awakening.

Be gentle. Be encouraging and enthusiastic, but allow people to wake up and warm up.

I probably wouldn’t start a 7:30am service with Tim Hughes’ “Happy Day”. I might close the service with it if by that point we had been singing for a while and people were more awake and engaged, but at the very beginning of a service early in the morning, it’s probably a good idea to learn more towards slower, less aggressive songs

Use keys that are in the lower range for most people. If you normally sing Chris Tomlin’s “Holy is the Lord” in G, you might want to move it down to F. Move your songs down a step or two and it will make it more comfortable for people to sing.

Most people who come to an early-morning service have used their vocal chords very little, if at all, by the time they get to church. The first time they make a sound may very well be when the first song starts. If the song is too high or too fast, or if you’re expecting too much, they might just give up and not try. But if you’ve chosen songs in good keys, lead in a pastoral and gentle way, and help people lift their eyes to the glory of God, your congregation might actually sing! 

A Word for Worship Leaders and Those Who Listen To Them

I recently came across a blog post by JR Vassar (pastor of Apostles Church in New York City) titled “A Word to Preachers and Those Who Listen to Them“. And while it’s aimed towards preachers, I think what he says is applicable and helpful for worship leaders too. Here’s some of what he said:

  • Trust that there is a cumulative effect to your preaching. Not every sermon needs to be a home run. Just be consistent and over time you will see a lot of fruit from your preaching. You don’t have to “kill it” every Sunday; in fact you can’t. Very few people have the ability to preach a lights out sermon week to week. Just preach the Gospel, relax and trust that God will bring about fruit.
  • Define the win. If you have not defined what makes a sermon good, then you have no objective criteria by which to judge your sermons. Here is how I define the win: Was it text sourced, Christ exalting, gospel centered, and audience focused?
    Text Sourced
    – did the sermon come from a text in the bible and was it taught in context? This requires a lot of study.
    Christ Exalting – was Jesus the hero of the sermon? Did I preach in such a way as to move people’s minds and hearts toward him? Was he shown to be the One we need? Was he exalted as more than just an example or a model, but as a Savior? This is key. If we only present Jesus as a model for how we live, we condemn people. Jesus died the death he died because we cannot live the life he lived. So our preaching must put Jesus forth as Savior.
    That is what I mean when I say Gospel-Centered. Was the Gospel presented not merely as the starting point for the Christian life, but the very track on which the Christian life is ran? As Dr. Tim Keller puts it, the Gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian faith, but the A-Z of the Christian faith. We do not grow by getting beyond the Gospel, but by going deeper into it. Show in your sermon how the Gospel is the answer. If you are teaching on generosity, show your people how the Gospel liberates us from greed by revealing a trustworthy, generous God who sacrifices greatly to meet our needs. In fact, if your sermon is just as true had Christ not died and risen from the dead, you did not preach the Gospel, you gave advice.
    Lastly, was it Audience Focused. You are not preaching to podcast land; you are preaching to a group of people who live in a certain place at a certain time who have certain idols. Study your audience and preach to them. This is the hardest part of preaching for me and an area where I need greater focus and growth. So, define the win or you will measure your sermon by the wrong things. You will be asking, “did the people like it and respond,” or “was it entertaining or engaging.” A wrong definition of the win brings about some critical losses.
For those that have to listen to preachers every week, I have two quick things to say:
  • Trust that there is a cumulative effect to your pastor’s preaching. Don’t expect him to hit a home run every week. It is impossible. Receive the sermon trusting that God will add it to the work that He is currently doing in your life and bring forth fruit. Your pastor’s sermons should be supplemental to the work God is doing in you through your own times in the word.
  • Define the win. Don’t judge your pastor on whether he is funny or dynamic or captivating. If your pastor is preaching the bible, exalting Christ, keeping the Gospel central and applying it to your context, then you have a great pastor and you should thank God for him. Stop complaining about your pastor’s delivery; pray for your receptivity. I hear people criticize their pastor’s preaching but never scrutinize their own listening. Maybe the problem is not what you think it is.

It’s a relief for me to know that there is a cumulative effect to my worship leading. And it’s a good reminder that I don’t have to “kill it” every Sunday – but rather be faithful in making Jesus central.

Thanks, JR, for such a helpful and convicting post.