Pursuing Lyrical and Musical Flow

1What’s one thing that can make or break your effectiveness in worship leading?

Flow.

Good storytellers, movie directors, public speakers, and writers learn how to flow naturally from one chapter/scene/subject to the next. Bad or nonexistent transitions can weaken otherwise good content, because the joltiness of the finished project screams a lack of cohesion. Cohesiveness – or “flow” – is a really important thing.

Worship leaders who don’t lead their congregations and musicians with a cohesive flow from one song to the next run the risk of working against themselves. Even though the songs might be good songs, without those songs being threaded and woven together, it doesn’t matter so much. There’s no clear narrative, no natural progression, and no clear big picture. It’s all a jumble of little pieces, random songs, different keys, disconnected topics, and instead of leaving a congregation saying “aha!”, it leaves them asking “huh?”

Developing a good sense of lyrical and musical flow is absolutely essential for worship leaders.

Lyrical flow
Before I even mention some tips/ideas on how to connect songs musically, it has to be said that the most important thing is that songs connect to each other lyrically in a way that not only makes logical and theological sense, but that also points people in one direction. You don’t want to take a sharp right turn after one song and a sharp left turn after the next. The songs should connect to each other like a road leads to a destination. The destination being exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. Every week. Every Sunday.

It’s like you’re a tour guide at the Grand Canyon. Are there a lot of different ways people can look at the Grand Canyon? Yes. There are many different overlooks. Maybe they can take a helicopter ride. Maybe they can go deeper into it. Maybe they should look at from the north. Maybe from the east. You, as the tour guide, can point people to the Grand Canyon from different angles every time you stand before them. But you’re always pointing at the same thing.

The same goes for our songs. They point at the same thing, but from different angles, and they do so in a way that helps people see the greatness of the One to whom they all point.

Musical flow
Here are eight ways I try to make the songs I lead flow into and out of each other naturally. 

1. Songs in the same key. 
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. I’ll pick a song after it that’s in G. Easy as worship leading pie.

2. Songs in connected keys.
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. What’s the “4” chord in G? That’s right, it’s C. So I’ll pick a song after it that’s in C. Or what’s the “5” chord in G? That’s right, it’s D. You know your scales. Good job. So, I’ll pick a song after it that’s in D. Voila.

3. Be thinking of the tempo/groove/time signature of the next song when you’re wrapping up the first song
I’m finishing up “Cornerstone”. After it I’m going into “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”. I’m doing them both in E, so that’s easy, but how do I get from “Cornerstone” to “Praise to the Lord…” smoothly since “Praise to the Lord” is in 6/8 and “Cornerstone” is in 4/4? I make a mental transition to “Praise to the Lord” during the last two or three measures of “Cornerstone”. When I’m singing “…Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.” I’m getting ready to hit that 6/8 feel immediately on the word “all”. Then I establish a strong foundation for the next song and my congregation feels confident enough to sing with… I hope… confidence.

4. Don’t let your sheet music/chord charts/iPad/hymnal ruin your flow
Worship leaders should not, ever, under any circumstance other than it being their first year of leading worship (in which case you have an exemption that expires after one year), stop one song and take 3-5 seconds to shuffle pieces of paper around on your music stand (or swipe your iPad) before starting the next song. Do whatever it takes to turn pages without anyone noticing. Tape papers together. Use paper clips. Big tabs. Foot pedals. A page-turner. One of Santa’s elves. Whatever. This can kill momentum in a set faster than you can say “skinny jeans”.

5. Be confident enough to start and stop
Having said that, not every song can go into another song in the same (or related) key. In this case, be confident enough to stop the one song, and confidently start the next one. But you might to consider “covering it up” with a prayer, or reading a Psalm, or actually (gasp!) letting there be an actually intentional time of silence and stillness. There’s a difference between meaningless dead air when you’re flipping pages, and intentional quiet space for people to reflect on what they’ve just sung.

6. Look for a commonly shared note between random keys and make that note your best friend
There aren’t a whole lot of shared notes between C major and E major. But they both have a E in them! So if I finish “It is Well” in C and want to move to a song in E, I might (if I’m playing piano or have someone playing piano who can do this) find that E note, play it randomly for a few beats, and then keep hammering it while establishing the new key of E.

7. Modulate!
Song one is in C. Song two is in D. So make the first song modulate to D so they’ll connect better. Or, if I want to come out of Bb and go into the next song in G, I might make the song that’s in Bb modulate to C towards the end so that I can move from C to G more naturally (since G is the “5” chord in C).

8. Move keys around
My first song is in G. The next that works after it is in A. I don’t want to have to worry about a modulation. But that second song would work just fine in G. I’ll move it down to G and now I don’t have to worry about doing any gymnastics in between songs to make that transition sound natural.

Five years ago I tried to demonstrate some of these musical flow ideas in a tutorial video. If you’d find it helpful to see what I’m talking about with these musical flow ideas, click here.

Understanding the importance of lyrical and musical flow – and learning how to craft and lead a progression of songs that cohesively points people to the greatness of God in Jesus Christ – is a skill in which every worship leader needs to be consistently growing. I’m always finding new ways of connecting songs more effectively to one another, and I’m always learning in hindsight (or realizing during a service) some things I could have done differently. It’s all part of the process of growing as a worship leader. It should never stop.

Challenge yourself – and listen back to yourself – to make sure you’re leading worship like a good storyteller. We have the best story of all (because it’s true!) to proclaim week after week. Tell the story well and cohesively (lyrically and musically), so that the “ahas!” far outnumber the “huh?”s as much as you can help it.

Leading On The Edge*

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Someone once described an American football game as “22 people on the field in desperate need of rest, watched by 60,000 people in the seats in desperate need of exercise”.

Leading worship can feel this way sometimes, as you work hard and put in lots of hours behind the scenes, wearing yourself out, and wishing the “spectators” could be a bit more engaged in what’s happening on the field (i.e. stage).

So we either burn out and give up and phone it in from week-to-week, or in a desire to engage the people in the pews/seats/theater-style heated-recliners with cup holders, we push the envelope too far and end up working against ourselves.

I encourage all worship leaders to get comfortable leading on the edge*. Not playing it too safe, and not pushing it too far. But leading on the edge*.

Why the asterisk? Because what means “edge” for my church isn’t the “edge” for your church. Depending on who your church is and where it’s been, the “edge” could look vastly different.

Maybe it’s:

– *Leading two songs of praise in a row
– *Actually amplifying the instruments
– *Having lyrics projected, not printed
– *Singing one song in your service that’s not out of a hymnal
– *Having the organ and guitar play together
– *You actually praying after a song
– *Having someone play a shaker on one of the songs
– *Turning the lights up in the room during worship
– *Taking the worship leader’s face off of the screen during the songs
– *Lowering the keys from the original recordings
– *Singing a hymn
– *Singing a song from 2012

You get my point.

We work against ourselves when we go too far out there on our own, and push the envelope too far, resulting in a congregation that feels assaulted. They retreat into defensive postures on Sundays and come out in offensive postures on Mondays when they send you angry emails.

It’s good to position yourself as a worship leader in the “safe zone”. You have people’s trust, you have their confidence, and you lead in a way that maintains that trust and confidence.

But you need to know where the edge of that zone is. Where people can use some prodding. Where there are some idols. Where God wants to bring new freedom. What kind of expressions your congregation resists. Where things are stale. And then instead of yanking your congregation into those “red zones” and creating havoc for you and your pastor, you carefully and discerningly pick one to work on for a while.

Oftentimes, getting resistance is a sign that you’re doing the right thing. When everyone is happy with you, then you might be playing it too safe. But there’s a difference between getting resistance because you’re wisely leading on the edge*, and causing damage because you’re foolishly pushing the envelope too far.

Of course sometimes you’ll push it too far. And sometimes you’ll play it too safe. You realize it, or a wise person lovingly corrects you, and you recalibrate.

Why lead on the edge*? Because this kind of leadership is more likely to result in actual growth over a length of time. Your congregation will actually mature, stretch, and move forward in worshipping God with more freedom, more sincerity, more intentionality, and more broadness. You might go through hell helping them get there, but trust me, it’s a better use of your limited time on the field.

Getting Into a Worship Leading Career After College

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Last week I received an email from a senior in high school who’s discerning a possible call to a career in worship ministry, and is experiencing some push-back and questioning from her family who tell her she’s crazy. She asked a lot of good questions, basically trying to find out whether or not she’s… well… crazy.

Here’s what I said:

There are always churches looking to hire full-time worship leaders. Churches all across the country, in any city of any state. There are lots of employment options for people looking for worship leader jobs, but in order to be attractive to a potential church, you’ll need to able to show that you can do several things.

First, can you manage a music program? The budget/volunteers/scheduling/rehearsals/long-term planning/meetings/emails/auditions/Christmas/Easter/administrative/etc? To prove this, I’d recommend you start getting your hands dirty as soon as possible. Intern with a music program at a church somewhere. Start getting as much experience as you possibly can!

Second, can you lead worship well? Are you able to plan a cohesive service, effectively using songs to help people glorify God? Can you lead a band, or a choir, or an orchestra? You don’t need to be able to lead all of those types of ensembles, but if you can’t lead any of them, you’ll have a hard time getting a job. Again, the best way to prove this to a potential church is to do it consistently and well in some sort of setting. Most churches will not hire a worship leader with no regular worship leading experience. An internship somewhere can provide this, or better yet, enter into the “market” via an assistant/part-time/associate position, where you can gain experience, show your skills, learn your craft, make mistakes, and become more polished.

Third, are you a leader? Do people want to follow you? Will a congregation respond positively to your leadership and your musical abilities? Will a pastor look at your application and think “she’d help my congregation grow” or think “next…” The stronger you become as a leader, the better the odds that you’ll get a good position somewhere.

Start small. Build a good foundation. Pursue your education. Study music. Study theology. Lead worship/rehearsals/services as much as you can. Say “yes” to whatever worship leading opportunities come your way. This will help you grow!

Don’t worry about the naysayers, but do listen to whatever wisdom they have to offer. If you’ve been called by God to this ministry, then he will equip you.

(Related post: Getting Experience Makes You Experienced.)

When to Speak Up… Or Not

I should have said something.

I shouldn’t have said what I said.

Should I say what I’m really thinking?

Am I the right person to speak up?

When to speak up and when to be quiet is something I wrestle with fairly often. Whether it’s in meetings, over emails, responding to something someone said, offering my input on a decision, or even offering constructive criticism, I regularly find my asking if/when I should say something, and then looking back and wondering if it was the right call.

Several years ago I was in the middle of a season of wrestling over how to approach a very difficult situation. During lunch with a great friend who is a brilliant lawyer in Washington D.C. (and also a gifted musician and worship leader), he gave me some advice that he had once received. It was really helpful.

Here’s what he said:

A friend of mine used to quote another minister as saying that a “divine idea” was “the right people doing the right things at the right time in the right way.”  You have to have all of those elements for it to be a God-thing.

You might have a clear sense of what is needed in some situation or someone’s life, but you might not be the right person to share that with them, or to intervene.

Or you might be the right person to help someone, but it might be the wrong time.

Or you might be the right person and the right time, but if you get the solution wrong or carry it out in an insensitive way, it can be unproductive or even cause damage to a relationship.

I have said some really stupid things and ended up complicating matters more often that I’d like to admit. This has happened when I’ve been a volunteer, part-time, and full-time worship leader.

When I speak up, my prayer is that it is a “God thing”, not a “Jamie thing”. I’m learning to take my friend’s advice, and before I speak up, I ask God: (1) am I the right person? (2) Is this the right thing to say? (3) Is this the right time to say it? (4) Am I saying it in the right way?

If God seems to be saying “yes” to all four questions: then I’ll speak up. If he seems to be saying “no” to any of them, then if I’m smart, I’ll be quiet. And wait. And pray.

God’s timing is perfect. Mine is not. And this is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.

Lessons From the Last Decade: Criticism, Controversy, and Conflict

1It’s been a wonderful ten years in ministry at my church. And it’s also been very hard.

Some of the hardest moments have come when I’ve been the recipient of criticism, the cause of controversy, and involved in conflict. Sometimes the criticism was justified, and I needed to hear it, but other times it was just someone being mean and hurtful. And sometimes the controversy was because I had unknowingly ruffled some feathers, while other times it was because I stumbled into some spiritual strongholds. And sometimes the conflict was over insignificant things like whether or not we should have drums play during communion, and sometimes it was over major things like whether drums are Satanic in origin or not (they’re not).

For many years I struggled with responding to challenges with defensiveness, all the while getting my feelings hurt, my ego bruised, and my identity in limbo. I’d write multi-page emails responding to a woman’s harmless complaint about volume, or I’d be a bit of a jerk in a meeting with someone who thought the 4/4 rock beat was going to cause people to lose their salvation, or I’d get depressed, lose sleep, and get overwhelmed.

Ministry can be very tough and lonely at times. Especially when you have detractors. What do you do?

Cling to the good news of Jesus Christ
You. Are. Hidden. In. Christ. That’s very good news. And you can’t let yourself forget it when you’re someone’s target. You are safe, you are loved, you are accepted, and you are covered by Jesus’ blood. It’s amazing how freeing this is, and how bad things can get for you when you forget it.

Rest assured: most of the time it’s not about you
When you have the unfortunate experience (and you will) of being the target of someone’s displeasure, remember that it’s most likely not about you. Maybe it is. But most of the time it’s not. Address their concerns, listen to them, and respond with grace. Apologize if you need to and then move on. Don’t let someone fixate on you. If they’re mad, it’s probably because they’re sad.

Practical tip #1: stay away from email
Email is good for everyday stuff. It’s bad for weighty stuff. An in-person conversation is ALWAYS better. Always. One of the biggest mistakes (or, sequence of mistakes) in my last ten years was keeping a multi-week dialogue over email running with someone who was very upset with me. It was terrible. I should never have allowed it to go on like that.

Practical tip #2: have hard conversations in neutral territory
Another one of the biggest mistakes I made was insisting that someone come to my office for a difficult conversation. Understandably, they flat-out refused. Never insist on dealing with difficult issues in your office. It immediately places you in the “winning” position. Find a public place, like a Panera with semi-private-yet-public booths. The dynamic is instantly more favorable for a good conversation, not a confrontation. If a conflict has reached a point where it needs to be in an office, have it in one of your pastor’s offices with him present.

Be quick to make it right
Just get it over with and reach out to someone with a personal card, or a phone call, or a coffee, and put the difficult issue to rest. The longer it drags on, the more the molehill becomes a mountain.

Be steadfast
Too many people in ministry are incredibly afraid of the slightest whiff of criticism, controversy, or conflict, that they’ll do anything to avoid it, including changing their mind, accommodating the critics, weakening their convictions, and literally trying to keep everybody happy. This is one definition of insanity. Sometimes you just need to stick to your guns.

Never forget: you have been called by God
God is faithful. He will defend you. He will accomplish his purposes in and through you. No elder board, no angry member, no petition, no nasty email, and no “I’m going to leave the church unless…” should frighten you. You can sleep well and let him deal with your problems for you. You’ll be much happier in ministry and you’ll last a lot longer too.

Lessons From the Last Decade: Leading A Worship Team Well

1When I came to The Falls Church Anglican ten years ago, I inherited a worship team of about 20-30 members, made up of men and women of different ages, backgrounds, musical experiences, etc. Over the last decade there’s been almost complete (and constant) turnover in the team (Washington D.C. is a very transient area), though there are a few that have been with me the whole time, and I have really enjoyed this part of my “job”.

But I’ve not always done a great job at leading a worship team. I’ve made some mistakes (!) and learned some lessons, and I offer these suggestions for those of you who have any role in the leading, caring, and feeding of a group of volunteers/musicians in your own church.

Recruit to a vision
Don’t just fill musical slots. Recruit people who want to be involved in serving the congregation in a pastoral role, using music as a tool to point the church to Christ.

Add slowly
It’s easier to add someone to a team than it is to ask someone to step down from a team. Resist the temptation to put someone up front before you’re sure (and they’re sure) they’re ready to be a committed member of the church.

Add carefully
Don’t just audition someone musically. Ask them to tell you their story. Ask them why they want to serve. Listen to their testimony. Tell them what you’re looking for. See what questions they ask you. Let them come to a few rehearsals. Let them play on a Sunday or two before they’re officially on the team. Look for the three Cs: character, competency, and chemistry.

Build community
Your team’s effectiveness in worship leading will increase exponentially if they love each other, have fun and laugh together, pray together, worship together, go out to eat with one another, have inside jokes with one another, and enjoy each other’s company.

Don’t lose momentum
It will take years to build the kind of community I describe above. But you can torpedo it in a matter of weeks or months if you don’t keep cultivating it, through intentional time together outside of Sunday mornings.

Be a clear leader
In your musical and pastoral roles, be as clear as you can be about what your goals are, and what your expectations are. People respond well to clear leadership. They shy away from timidity.

Be organized, dependable, and consistent
A disorganized leader breeds a messy team. An undependable leader breeds a flaky team. And an inconsistent leader breeds a dysfunctional team. You set the tone.

Always pray when you’re together
No meeting, rehearsal, or service should happen without you calling your team to a time of prayer. Never give people the impression that you think you don’t need God’s help.

Keep people laughing
People love to laugh. If your times together as a team are marked by laughter, then people will want to come back, even if it means getting up early, staying out late, or spending an entire morning at church. Laughter is a powerfully magnetic tool.

Laugh at yourself
Be the first person to poke fun at yourself. This will set a tone of humility and self-forgetfulness that will permeate the whole atmosphere of your team.

Don’t ask too much of people
The members of your team are real people with lives, families, jobs, other commitments, etc. If being a member of your team has a detrimental impact on their lives, you’re asking too much of them. When the problem is that you’re asking too much, you need to reevaluate your system. But if the problem is that someone is just too busy, then you need to be quick to release people before they get burned out.

Don’t ask too little of people either
Call people to a high standard of service, musicianship, involvement, preparation, ministry, and commitment. Then expect them to step up. It’s possible to do this in a way that’s not at odds with people’s family/personal lives and careers (and it looks different depending on where your church is). People want to be challenged, they want to grow, and they want you to help them.

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?