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.

When You Get The Flu On Easter

It all started last Saturday night with the tell-tale whole-body shivers. I had watched my kids battling ear-infections and strep throat earlier in Holy Week, and I had skated above their germs and fevers, while I practically lived at church with rehearsals and services most evenings. But on Saturday night, just before it was time to set the 4:30am alarm for Easter morning, I knew my body was about to be hit by something bad.

I woke up on Easter Sunday with the flu. Fever, chills, shivers, cough, body aches, you name it. I loaded up on DayQuil and headed in for our 7:00am sunrise service. Halfway through our 9:15am service, the DayQuil ran off and my fever spiked again. Down went the magic potion again, and temporary relief was mine, though I still felt subhuman. I got through our 11:30am service, left afterwards without talking with (and thus contaminating) hardly anyone, and fell into bed for a nap, while my entire family feasted on London Broil, lamb, potatoes, veggies, and about 4 different desserts. Without me.

Then it was off to our evening service, feeling like I was going to fall over and fall apart any moment. On the way home from that final service, I could feel my body disengaging from “Easter-services” mode, and preparing for “get run over by a semi-truck” mode. The next several days were pretty much spent in bed, unable to do much of anything, while Catherine (who had just had to endure several weeks of an increased parental burden while I prepped for Holy Week) bore the parental/cooking/house-cleaning/bedtimes/bathtimes/etc. load on her own, in addition to taking care of her sick husband.

On Friday I began to come up for air, and feel normal enough to be able to be helpful and functional. Which is good. Because now Catherine has the flu (or something like it). And our oldest daughter now has a fever too.

Needless to say, it has been a difficult seven days in the Brown family!

It has been a humbling week: God reminded me – through the experience of having the flu on Easter Sunday – of my total dependence on his power, his strength, his leading, and his upholding. I was not only praying for God’s help because it’s the worship leader thing to do… I was praying for God’s help because I had no strength on my own. I hope I remember this lesson on the Sundays when I feel fine.

It’s been an insightful week: God used this sickness to bring my work to a complete halt. I couldn’t send emails, I couldn’t return phone calls or texts, I couldn’t even think straight enough to plan this weekend’s upcoming services. I couldn’t do anything. And yet he’s taken care of everything with my family (mainly through my amazing wife), and everything for this coming weekend (mainly through the incredible worship and arts team at my church who are all phenomenal at their jobs). God really does take care of things, and our constant busyness gives us such a false sense of our own control of our lives. He reminded me of that again this week.

And it’s been a challenging week: God used my Easter-day flu to completely change my plans for how this week would look. I was planning on taking my kids out a lot, enjoying the spring weather, taking my family to see the cherry blossoms, giving Catherine a break after all she had done on her own… But none of that happened. God had other plans. He made our whole family slow down. Way down. It was frustrating. But he knew we all needed it.

I’m eager to be done with this sickness all the way, and to no longer have to cough incredibly painful coughs every 15 seconds. I hate to see Catherine (and my kids) not feeling well, with the same tell-tale whole-body shivers and flushed cheeks. But when you get the flu on Easter (or strep, or ear-infections, or maybe all of the above), it’s yet another opportunity run to Jesus and trust in his sustaining grace. If I declare this as a worship leader every Sunday, I better be able to declare it when sickness hits my household!

May God continue to teach me to run to him – either in sickness and in health – and lean on him completely not only in my worship leading role, but especially in my family role. May the grace of God not just be the theme of my songs, but also the theme in my home as well. And even when I get the flu on Easter.

Don’t Be A Monkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blending The New With The Old: Two Lies

1Worship leaders and pastors who are wrestling with the important and difficult decisions about when and how to bring fresh expressions of worship into traditional services, or more traditional/liturgical elements into contemporary services have a hard job in front of them.

Blending the new with the old is not as divisive an issue as it was 10 or 20 years ago, mainly because the worship wars have largely subsided, resulting either in different styles having their own services, or a different style having prevailed after a long battle.

But many churches are still attempting unified expressions of worship, in one service, either on a weekly or occasional basis.

And for those kinds of churches, and their worship leaders and pastors who are thinking through how to blend the new with the old (and do it well), I would like to caution against two commonly believed lies.

Lie # 1: The presence of something new will result in the removal of something old

There is no reason why this has to be true. Just because you bring a drum set into the sanctuary doesn’t mean you’ll be removing organ pipes. Just because you have the choir sing an anthem doesn’t mean your electric guitarist needs to pack up his pedals. There has to be a way we can embrace a Psalm 150-esque model of robust and God-centered worship that draws out from praise from a variety of instruments across the spectrum.

And the way we begin to embrace that model is to just go ahead and do it. Will it be messy sometimes? Yes. Will we get critical responses? Yes. Will we do it perfectly? No. But we can’t just talk about putting the new and the old together in one unified expression. We actually have to make the hard decision to start doing it.

The pastor has to decide to spend some capital on teaching on it. The worship leader, and/or the worship staff, has to decide to do some hard work on moving forward as one with a broad variety of musicians with a broad variety of tastes and training. The leaders (or elders, or vestry, or deacons) have to be prepared to answer the congregation’s concerns.

Deciding to do some addition doesn’t mean you have to do subtraction. You can add without subtracting. This is the beauty of worshipping a God whose greatness is unsearchable! Lead your people with the constant refrain: “do not be afraid”.

Lie # 2: The immediate embrace of something new will bring immediate revitalization

There is no evidence that this is true. Many churches over the last few decades have rushed to incorporate contemporary music into their services, oftentimes firing their choirs and organists, and assuming that by bringing in new forms of worship, they will experience immediate growth and revitalization. Similarly, many pastors have decided to introduce a lot of liturgy and/or formality into a service unaccustomed to it, thinking that it will bring immediate health or depth.

Most of the time, however, the opposite happens.

When you drop a bomb on something, it always leaves destruction. You can’t drop a bomb on decades-long expressions of worship and expect flowers to bloom and birds to chirp sweetly. You’ll not only be dishonoring the past, but you’ll also be destroying the foundations for the future, and ensuring that nothing can grow.

Except for very rare circumstances, never introduce new elements into worship immediately. Always move slowly. laying a good foundation, lovingly pastoring your people, while also resolutely moving forward.

If a service has never ever had drums before, then plan on using drums sparingly for the first year. Yes, a whole year. Then the second year, once a month. By the third year, you might be able to do it every Sunday. Why move so incredibly slowly? So that people will go with you. You want them to go with you? Move slowly. Did I mention you should move slowly?

If a service has never had liturgy before, then start saying a Psalm together as a call to worship once a month or so. Then maybe you can decide to start saying the Lord’s Prayer together when you do communion. Maybe after a few months, or a year, you can introduce a confession and absolution (or “assurance of pardon” if the word “absolution” freaks you out). Then your congregation can see liturgy as something beautiful and helpful, not something distracting.

Don’t believe the lie that making drastic and immediate changes will result in drastic and immediately positive results. The more likely outcome is that you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.

The first lie (new things are bad) stems from fearfulness. We’re afraid of what might happen if-this or if-that. We’re afraid so-and-so might leave. For the lack of a better phrase, we care too much.

The second lie (new things will bring immediate life) stems from carelessness. We don’t care who might get hurt. We don’t care what people think. For the lack of a better phrase, we don’t care enough.

Worship leaders and pastors who are thinking and praying through how to blend the new with the old would be wise if they are continually asking these questions out in the open:
– What are we afraid of?
– What are we ignoring?

Honestly and prayerfully dialoging about those questions – and then faithfully and biblically walking forward, together, in helping lead your church to embrace a robust view of worship – might actually result in changes that will bear fruit for generations to come, long after we’ve passed the baton.

A Heads-Up Before Auditions

1Meeting with potential singers and/or instrumentalists for auditions is always something I look forward to, but it’s also something that carries potential risks for awkwardness if the person I’m meeting with is under the impression that they have a musical gift (when in reality they don’t), or if they think they’ll definitely be given an up-front role (when in reality they might not).

I’ve found that once someone has indicated an interest in singing and/or playing on a team, and I’ve arranged a time to meet with them, communicating in advance the possible outcomes from the meeting is helpful.

A few weeks ago I sent the following brief explanation to an interested musician at my church:

First, thank you for your willingness to explore using your voice to serve this congregation. I’m grateful!

Secondly, please relax and be yourself, and don’t worry about anything.

Third, please think of 2 or 3 worship songs that you love, and come ready to sing those (advance notice of which songs would be great). Let me know a good key for you. Bring lyrics, either printed out or just on your phone.

Fourth, it’s my job to listen well to your voice, and then to prayerfully discern what I think God might be intending for your musical gifts. Usually one of three options will be obvious: (Option A) Your voice is well-suited for group singing, namely in our choir. (Option B) Your voice is well suited for singing on a mic, either on Sunday mornings or Sunday nights, or at things like Alpha, or occasional events. (Option C) Your voice could work in one of the previously mentioned applications, but I suggest singing lessons. (Option D) Your voice has been given to you to praise God from within the congregation, but not in a public setting, so let’s think about another place where you could serve the church.

I always tell singers (and musicians) before I hear them sing (or play), that the number one thing to remember is that their musical giftedness level has absolutely nothing to do with their worth as a person, or their place in the church. The good news of the gospel is that we’re covered, we’re loved, we’re accepted, and we’re free to be good at some things, not-good at other things, and bad at other things 🙂

 

It’s a lot to send someone before an audition, but I’ve learned through experience that it lays a foundation for things to go a lot more smoothly.

Jesus Is The Lion

LIONSeveral months ago I started reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with my two oldest daughters (now 5 ½ and 4 years old). We began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and they were instantly captivated by the story of the magical land through the armoire, the eternal winter, the Witch with the Turkish delight, the talking animals, the battles, the rescues, Father Christmas, and of course, Aslan.

Aslan made everything OK. Aslan made dead things come alive. Aslan made it into Spring again. Aslan died and came to life. Whenever Aslan appeared in the story, my girls squeeled with excitement.

We finished that book and moved onto The Horse and His Boy (even though, apparently, we should have gone to Prince Caspian next). We were in for a different kind of experience.

This story was… much less captivating, particularly for little listening ears. We slogged through chapter after chapter about a boy named Shasta and a girl named Aravis, and their Narnian talking horses, and how they got chased by Lions, how Shasta had to sleep outside the tombs (and met a mysterious cat), how Shasta and Aravis got chased by another Lion, eventually meeting a guy named King Lune, and it was just plain hard to keep my little girls interested.

WHERE IS ASLAN?” they kept asking. I didn’t know. I was ready to put the book down and pull out some Dr. Seuss.

A substantial 165 pages into the book, I was feeling very sorry for myself reading this tortuous book, and the main character (Shasta) was feeling very sorry for himself as well. He finds himself riding a non-Narnian-talking horse, alone in the woods, and terrifyingly, he can tell a big animal is trailing him, and he can’t take it anymore and throws a pity party.

The mysterious animal tells Shasta that he doesn’t feel sorry for him. Shasta is flabbergasted. He recounts his sad upbringing, his daring escapes, his night alone outside the tombs, his hunger, and just how unfortunate he’s been, especially considering all of the random lion chases. The Voice speaks up and says:

I was the Lion”.

Shasta gasps.

I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you could reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

In that moment, the “unfortunate” events all of the sudden make sense to Shasta.

And in that moment, the previous 11 chapters all of the sudden made sense to my daughters and me. It had been Aslan all along.

Shasta asks: “Who are you?”

“‘Myself,’ said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook and again, ‘Myself,’ loud and clear and gay; and then the third time, ‘Myself,’ whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.”

It was Aslan.

My daughters squealed with delight. And I sobbed.

Because like Shasta (and I imagine like you), I’m pretty good at throwing pity parties. I can recount a litany of unfortunate events that I didn’t deserve, that I didn’t enjoy, and that I didn’t think God should have let happen. In my life (and in my worship leading journey), I’ve felt chased and abandoned so many times that I’ve got a pretty good library of sob stories I can pull out when needed.

One of my favorite sob stories is from when I was a young worship leader (14 years old) at a small Episcopal Church in the Florida panhandle that had never sung a contemporary song on a Sunday morning in its life. After a few months of being subjected to my guitar-led, drum-accompanied, mid-1990’s praise music, it had gotten so bad that half the congregation would stand and sing along, but half the congregation would stay seated, arms folded, faces angry, and lips sealed.

Where was Jesus when I was up there all alone? Why was I going through this? Why did it have to be so hard? Why were so many things so hard?

Jesus was right there with me, by my side.

Jesus had a purpose and a reason for me to go through that.

And Jesus used it for my good and for his glory.

Jesus is the Lion.

And when we hear those words – and know that they’re true – a lot of the “unfortunate” events in our stories begin to make sense. Chapters that we slogged through are now re-interpreted. And we begin to see how Jesus was not only with us when we felt alone, but was actively and Sovereignly in control.

Jesus makes and will (someday soon) make everything OK. Jesus makes dead things come alive. Jesus turns Winter into Spring again. Jesus died and came to life.

And whenever Jesus appears in the story, we should squeal with excitement. He’s not safe – but he’s good – and we can trust our lives, our ministries, and our stories to Him.

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.