Jesus Isn’t Looking for Perfect Music (Or Musicians)

Several years ago I read the book Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best, and for me, it was one of those books that I couldn’t stop underlining, re-reading, and devouring.

In particular, I loved the point Harold made with respect to the ramifications of Jesus – as the perfect Son of God on earth – singing songs and hearing music written by sinners.

He wrote:

“Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem.

The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation.

So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.”
The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19

Jesus sang imperfect music written by imperfect people when he walked the earth. This is good news for us!

So let’s not try to impress Jesus with our perfect music this Sunday. Let’s thank him for making our imperfect music and imperfect worship acceptable through his perfect sacrifice. What a Savior!

Eight Of The Most Common Worship Leading Mistakes

No worship leader ever stops making mistakes. From the most seasoned and experienced worship leaders, to the newest and greenest, mistakes are inevitable, humbling, and part of the process of maturing. We’re imperfect people, working alongside other imperfect people, playing musical instruments and singing songs imperfectly, with a congregation of imperfect men and women trying to sing along.

So our goal is not to become flawless worship leaders who never make mistakes. Our goal is simply to keep being humbled by our awareness of our imperfection, and to keep growing, so we can more effectively point our congregations to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, not the power of our own professionalism.

To that end, here are eight of the most common worship leading mistakes that I’ve observed in my own ministry, and through friendships and experiences with lots of other worship leaders too:

Wrapping our identity up in our performance
We feel good about ourselves after a good service, and bad about ourselves after a bad service. We need to resist this temptation – every Sunday – and always ground our identity and our worth in the gospel reality of being hidden in Christ.

Inserting too much of our personality into our performance
Using “performance” here in a very broad sense of “standing in front of people”, worship leaders can sometimes make the mistake of allowing so much of their personality, sound, look, and “stage presence” onto the platform, that people in the congregation get a subtle hint that they should tune out and watch. Worship leaders, while remaining themselves and being who they are, have to also know how to dial back their persona, especially depending on the context, so that the congregation can focus on the main task at hand: signing along with each other and magnifying the greatness of God.

Doing too many new songs
This is another big, and all-too-common mistake. Too many new songs in a service, or in a row, can have an incredibly detrimental impact on your congregation’s ability to engage in worship. Worship leaders should be building a solid repertoire of songs, anchored by the best songs of the centuries, and enjoying the best songs of the modern day. Adding one or two new songs a month to that repertoire, is realistically the most we should aim for.

Doing songs with ranges that are too high
Most people don’t want to – and can’t – sing songs that hang out near Es and Fs and Gs. They just simply can’t do it. Being aware of this, and being willing to take the extra time to transpose songs down to sit in more singable ranges, will serve your congregation and result in stronger singing.

Playing it too safe for too long
What risks are you taking? Where are you pushing your musicians? Where does your congregation need to grow? In what ruts are you – and your congregation – stuck? If your worship team and/or choir and/or congregation is still singing the same songs, in pretty much the same way, with pretty much the same instrumentation, then you may be making the mistake of playing it too safe for too long. Prayerfully discern where you might need to expand your expression of worship to a God whose “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145).

Trying to be too creative too much
On the flip side – a common worship leading mistake comes in the form of always trying to be more creative, more inventive, more cutting-edge, and more different than last week, or last Easter, or last Christmas. Some worship leaders get stuck in a vortex of pursuing relevance/creativity and eventually lose their bearings. If this is you, take a step back, go back to the basics, and rest in the good news that, at the core of worship leading, is a call to be consistently, faithfully, reliability, and pastorally persistent in helping your congregation sing to, and see, and savor Jesus Christ, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. 

Allowing our wounds to harden us
Over time, even in the healthiest of churches with the most gracious volunteers and congregation, worship leaders get beat up. Maybe a full-fledged critical campaign is launched against you, or maybe it’s just one person who views their life-calling as being a thorn in your side. Whatever the case may be, every worship leader will get wounded. We can’t help that part. But we make a mistake when we allow those wounds to harden us, so we become angry, or burned-out, or resentful, or we pull back and just phone it in so we don’t get wounded again, or we quit ministry and give up. The good news of belonging to Jesus Christ, and knowing that he calls us, equips us, protects us, and goes before us, allows us to operate in ministry whether in good times or rocky times, with a rootedness and security that keeps us both soft-hearted and thick-skinned.

Basing our assessment of worship on what we see with our eyes
Lots of hands raised = worship happened. No hands raised = no worship happened. Sadly, that’s an all-too-common way that many worship leaders can tend to assess a service. We look out at a congregation, and we make a snap assessment, that may or may not have any basis in reality, especially in an invisible and spiritual reality which we cannot see with our eyes, and we stick with that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at our congregation, or that we can’t tell a lot by what we see. We certainly should, and we certainly can.

But never forget this, worship leader: you have no idea what’s happening in people’s hearts, you can’t possibly know all that God is up to, and you most likely won’t ever know the short-term and/or long-term impact of your faithful leadership in people’s lives over the course of years’ worth of Sundays that help them remember and proclaim the good news of the gospel. Don’t make the mistake of making a quick assessment. God is like a gardener, not a Photo Shop artist. So plant seeds, water soil, pull weeds, enjoy fruit, prune when needed, and repeat as needed. That’s the reality of ministry, and every worship leader in the world, from the most experienced to the most amateur, can never hear that truth enough times.

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!

All The Sheep Matter (And Have Names)

1As someone who’s constantly scheduling/recruiting/managing volunteers, I’ve been reminded (and amazed) recently by how much it means to people when you tell them that they matter. That you appreciate their gifts, you want them to contribute, you know they’re busy, their presence makes a difference, you really like it when they show up, and you know their name.

At my church we’ve been seriously pouring a lot of time and energy into our loving our choir, helping it to grow, and launching into the Fall with momentum, energy, and unity. A big part of that was hand-writing letters to over 65 people, some of whom had been singing in the choir for decades, and some of whom had only given it a try once in their lives (if ever).

And in the weeks since those letters hit people’s mailboxes, I’ve lost count of the number of folks who have said how much those notes meant to them. To actually receive a handwritten card – to them – that wasn’t just some sort of spammy, church-lingo, form letter, meant the world. One dear lady told me (in tears) how when she read my note that she “was a blessing”, she broke down in gratefulness.

I wonder how many of our volunteers are just hungry for some sort of pastoral connection, however sporadically, by someone in church leadership, that shows that we know their names, we appreciate them, we value their contributions, and we are blessed by their gifts. I think for some people it helps them go from feeling like they’re filling a slot, to actually being a part of a body.

Now don’t get me wrong: we have a long way to go at my church, and this isn’t some sort of pat on the back for having “arrived” at our destination with our volunteers. We have a lot of work, and loving, and recruiting, and community-building still to do. I’m an introvert, I have three kids, and I’m constantly juggling different responsibilities and initiatives like everyone else. Personally, I’m trying to grow in this area, and these last few weeks have reminded me of the fruit that can come from taking the time to tell people they are loved and they matter.

For those of us in any ministry position where it’s up to us to schedule, recruit, or manage volunteers, we have an important lesson from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. The sheep matter to Him, and so they should know that they matter to us too.

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.

O Praise The One Who Paid My Debt

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 2.50.00 PMLast month I observed one of my favorite fall traditions in Northern Virginia.

I paid my Fairfax County Personal Property Tax.

For the privilege of driving on their roads, and parking my car in my own driveway, each year I get a bill in the mail from Fairfax County, based on their assessed value of the two cars Catherine and I own, meaning I have to write a big fat check by the first week of October. It’s wonderful. It fills me with autumnal joy.

And so like I’ve done many times before, I dutifully paid my taxes to satisfy the Fairfax County Government. And now they’re pleased.

But come next summer, when they send out another bill, demanding my money by the first week of October, they won’t be pleased anymore. So I’ll have to do my civic duty and satisfy their demands so that they’re happy with me, and don’t penalize me even more, or threaten to take my car away.

It’s a constant cycle of demands-payment-satisfaction, demands-payment-satisfaction, demands-payment-satisfaction, that never ends.

Sounds to me like how a lot people view worship.

God demands it. So we dutifully (if not resentfully) give it, even if it’s very occasionally. And this “payment” of sorts will satisfy God and make him happy with us. Before our next sin rolls around. Or before the next Sunday rolls around. And then God isn’t happy with us anymore, and so he demands we come to church again, and so we do, and he sees that we do, and he’s happy. For a few days. Then he’s not happy anymore.

You get the picture.

Approaching worship like we’re paying taxes to a demanding God, in order to make him happy with us, is tragic. And I think it’s pervasive, which makes it even more tragic.

Two important correctives:

First: God doesn’t demand our praise in order to make him happy.

In the words of John Piper“God’s demand for supreme praise is his demand for our supreme happiness. Deep in our hearts we know that we are not made to be made much of. We are made to make much of something great… If he “humbly” sent us away from his beauty, suggesting we find our joy in another, we would be ruined… The reason God seeks our praise is not because he won’t be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won’t be happy until we give it. This is not arrogance. It is love.”

I love that. God doesn’t demand our praise like a maniacal dictator who needs to puff up his own pride. He demands our praise because he knows “we won’t be happy until we give it”.

Second: Our worship isn’t payment to God. Our worship is gratefulness for Jesus’ payment.

When people know that they were dead, but now they’re alive, they praise the one who raised them to life. We were born spiritually dead. Then God made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-8). This is the motivation for our worship. We’re not worshipping God in order to satisfy him! Jesus satisfied him perfectly for us. That’s motivation enough: simply to say “thank you” in a thousand ways, on a thousand Sundays, with a thousand tongues.

We worship God because it’s what we’re created for. And we worship God because in Christ he raised us from death to life.

So I’ll keep paying my personal property tax to Fairfax County every year. I’ll keep trying to make them happy with me. I’ll keep trying to stay on their good side.

And I’ll worship God with the full assurance of pardon from my sins, grace unending, and a heart of thanks that Jesus paid my debt forever.

How a Lack of Confidence Manifests Itself in a Worship Leader

1At some point in ministry you come to the terrifying realization that your personal issues are not as easy to hide as you’d like them to be.

Whether or not you use Crest or Colgate might not affect your worship leading (unless you use neither) but whether or not you’re short tempered sure can make things awkward at a rehearsal or service when someone crosses you at the wrong time.

Whether or not you eat your vegetables might not effect your worship leading, but whether or not you’re arrogant sure can ruin a relationship with your pastor.

One issue that can sink worship leaders is a lack of confidence. And when I say “confidence” I mean a confidence in the power of God’s call on you, the power of the Spirit within you, and the power of the gospel no thanks to you.

If you’re not confident that God has called you, that the Spirit has equipped and anointed you, and that the gospel will prevail in spite of you, then you’ll be walking around on shaky knees, making a mess, and allowing your “issues” to manifest themselves in some unhealthy ways.

Here are some ways a lack of confidence can manifest itself in a worship leader:

Hunger for the spotlight
Your name, your face, your time, your title, your platform, and your fame will become really important to you when you lack the assurance of who you are in Christ.

Resistance to sharing the spotlight
Instead of seeing and appreciating other people and their gifts around you (and wanting to prop them up for the glory of God and the building up of His Church), you will see them as threats to be neutralized.

An insatiable appetite for praise
The needy worship leader is a praise vacuum. He sucks it all up for himself and is always hungry for more. The applause of an audience becomes more to him than the assurance of the perfect love of Jesus. A confident worship leader doesn’t heed “man’s empty praise”.

An overreaction to criticism
A worship leader who finds his grounding and identity in Jesus will view criticism through the confident lens of a well-loved son, able to shake off what he needs to shake off, and learn whatever needs to be learned. A worship leader without this confidence will be crushed by criticism.

Impatience
A worship leader who lacks confidence is impatient because he self-centeredly thinks that every service, every performance, and every thing that he’s involved in is ultimately a verdict on his worth as a person.

People-pleasing
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have people on board with your vision. That’s a good thing. But there is something wrong with wanting to make everybody like you. Having people on board with your vision and having everyone like you are two very different quests. When you lack confidence you forget the difference.

As long as you’re in ministry you’ll be battling these symptoms of a lack of confidence in the God who has called you and gifted you for ministry. They can be frustrating! But they can also good reminders from God himself to keep you humble and dependent on him.

A God-rooted, gospel-informed confidence will enable you to survive in ministry for the long-haul, and will enable others to survive under your leadership as well.