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.

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*

1
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

1

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.