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.

Keep Trucking

1Yesterday morning at our 11:00am service we were halfway through our opening block of songs when I heard a crazy noise coming out of the speakers that seemed to make the whole room jump. No, it wasn’t my drummer deciding to let loose. It was the sound board deciding to go nuts for a second. Before deciding to do it again. At which point the engineer made the decision to mute everything. And restart the board.

So for 45 seconds yesterday we were smack dab in the middle of a song and the sound system was pretty much completely off. The interesting thing was that the band had no idea that the system was totally off for 45 seconds because our in-ear monitors were working just fine. (Chalk this one up as one major reason why in-ears might detrimentally effect your worship leading: because you can’t hear what they hear).

But I knew something had happened. I had heard the crazy noise and I had seen the people jump, and then I noticed that they seemed more reserved for the rest of the set. It would have been nice to know that they weren’t really hearing anything, but since I was blissfully unaware, I kept on trucking.

And the congregation kept trucking too. They were dealing with an enormous distraction, so of course they pulled back a bit, but they kept on singing. The projector hadn’t shut down, so the lyrics were still up. And they knew the song. And the band was playing and singing. So, slowly the sound system came back on, and slowly the engineer started fading up the channels hoping that the board would cooperate. And when I sat down I found out what had happened.

What did I learn?

1. In-ear monitors are great, but they really do cut you off from the congregation.
2. Unless there’s some sort of emergency, or a total loss of power, it’s better to keep on trucking than screech everything to a halt.
3. This kind of thing is humbling. It reminds you that you can’t control everything.
4. When the sound system dies, it’s probably best to keep people singing. If I had tried to stop the song and say something, it would have been hard for them to hear what I was saying. Plus, what would I have said?
5. Congregations look for cues from the people on stage. If you keep your cool, then they will too.

What Making Worship Albums Has Taught Me

1Last year I had the privilege of producing a worship album for my church called “A Thousand Amens“. This year I’m producing two more. It’s been a ton of fun, a lot of work, and a learning experience. Here are a few things making worship albums has taught me:

Make every measure count
Do you really need that 4-measure interlude between the chorus and verse? Could you cut it out altogether? Could it be more effective if it was just 2 measures? Extra measures can drag a song down. Cutting out 2 measures here and 2 measures there can make a huge improvement.

Play less. Really. Play a lot less
You hear this a lot and you know it’s true, but do you and your team members practice it? Probably not. I need to do a better job insisting that all of our team members, and this includes me, play less and play better stuff when we do play.

There’s no such thing as a live worship album anymore
We’re able to fix so much stuff in post-production that it’s almost ridiculous. The result is a great-sounding worship album, but the danger is that worship leaders and congregations expect Sunday mornings to sound like a worship album. Except for rare circumstances and rare teams, your Sunday morning services will not (and should not) sound like a recording. Relax.

I should only introduce new songs if they’re worth introducing
It wasn’t long after our first album released last July that I knew we’d be doing another one in 2013. So every time I thought about introducing a new song I had to think “is this a good enough song that I’d want it to be immortalized on an album, put in the cars and homes of my congregations, and held up to other worship leaders who buy this album as a song they should do as well?” Most songs didn’t meet that criteria so I didn’t introduce them. It was a high bar. But I don’t regret it. Set a high bar for what songs you introduce.

It doesn’t take much to freshen up a song
As our latest live recording in July was getting close, I had lunch with a good friend of mine who’s a gifted worship leader/arranger/composer. He cautioned me against doing songs the exact same way they were recorded. Change a chord here or there. Do a different melodic thing on the intro/interludes. Whatever. It doesn’t have to be much. Just use your brain and your creativity and freshen up a song. Good advice.

Congregations are hungry for extended worship
The two times we’ve recorded live worship albums, I’ve been amazed at my congregation’s response to the lengthy times of worship that we’ve offered on a Friday/Saturday night or even on a Sunday morning. They sat down when they wanted to. They stood when they wanted to. They wanted more at the end of 90 minutes. They seemed rejuvenated. So did I. I shouldn’t wait for album recordings as an excuse to offer extended worship. I should look for other times as well.

God gives congregations a song to sing
I’m not talking about a “song” as in an individual song, but I’m talking about “song” in a bigger-idea, over-arching-narrative sense. Our first album was recorded when we were losing our building. Our “song” was that Jesus was “all to us” (which happened to be an actual song, too). This time we recorded an album after a year and half of being a portable church without a home. Our “song” was the faithfulness of God and the unchanging power of the Gospel. What “song” is your congregation singing? What song should they be singing? Keep your ear to the ground and you’ll hear it.

Ten “Always Bad” Worship Leader Ideas

1Us worship leaders are the creative types who like to think outside the box, like to do things artistically, and like to have new ideas. Some of those ideas are good. Some of those ideas are terrible. Here are some “always bad” worship leader ideas.

1. Spur-of-the-moment modulations

2. On-the-fly worship sermonettes in-between songs

3. Eating 2 greasy pizza slices right before (belch…) leading worship

4. Attempting water-skiing or rock-wall climbing just a few hours before trying to play guitar. Good luck with those forearm muscles

5. Agreeing to sing at a wedding before specifying you don’t do John Tesh ballads. (First hand experience on this one)

6. Asking the groom at a wedding if he’s the Father of the Bride. (Again, first hand experience here)

7. Making fun of an old worship song that you think is terrible when it turns out that song is your Senior Pastor’s all-time favorite song because he used to sing it to his youngest daughter when she was a little. (You guessed it)

8. Pranking your drummer. He’ll get you back when you least expect it

9. Giving the projectionist a dirty look when they don’t advance the lyrics. The congregation is thinking the same thing as you, but when you make that mean face you look like a jerk

10. Purposefully playing too loud because “it’s good for people”. Wrong. Check your bravado at the door. And avoid the pizza

Figuring Out Who You Are

1When I was first starting to really get into worship leading during middle school, I was spending a lot of time listening to a Pentecostal worship leader out of Florida. You wouldn’t know who he is, since the only reason I could listen to him was because my Mom had subscribed to that church’s sermon ministry and when they sent the tapes they included the whole service.

So I’d listen to those tapes and sit there transfixed. The worship leader (and team) was really good. This stuff wasn’t edited or produced or anything. This was live, straight-from-the-sound-board, as-it-happened worship. In classic Pentecostal style, they could take a 3 or 4 minute song and make it go (and go) for 15 minutes. And the more they repeated a song the more people seemed to get into it.

You can criticize that style all you want, but for me at that point in my life, attending and leading worship in an old, dead Episcopal church, listening to those tapes was like water to my thirsty soul.

Naturally, when you listen to a particular worship leader and/or style of music for a while, you start to copy it. And so I, a middle school boy leading worship at a little Episcopal church, began to replicate the Pentecostal worship leader I was hearing on the tapes.

The guy on the tapes could hit a high G and make it sound like he wasn’t even trying. When I tried to hit a D it sounded like I was mimicking a farm animal. The guy on the tapes would add all these phrases and runs and cool embellishments and it made the congregation respond with more vigor. When I tried to do something cool it just sounded like I was… well… trying to do something cool.

I was over-doing it. Big time. Instead of being who I was, a fourteen year old guy who had an average voice, was pretty good on the guitar, and loved to worship, I was trying to be the guy I was listening to on my Walkman after school every day.

I began to become aware of this problem when I started recording our times of worship and listening back to them. As much I wanted to convince myself that I sounded awesome, I couldn’t. I was embarrassed. I felt bad for the people who had to endure my attempts to hit high notes, do cool embellishments, and be somebody I wasn’t. Thank God that the youth group I was leading worship for was gracious and encouraging and never critical.

So for several years, into high school and college, I began an adventure of attempting to lead worship as myself. I would swing from trying to be Bob Kauflin to trying to be Stuart Townend to trying to be Tim Hughes to trying to be like Matt Redman.

But eventually the time came when I had led worship for long enough, gleaned different positive things from different worship leaders I had seen or heard, made enough mistakes, and had enough freedom to stretch my own wings, that I began to get comfortable in my own skin. I was figuring out who I was as a worship leader, and who I wasn’t.

This process is ongoing. I still catch myself trying to be someone I’m not. But, by God’s grace, I feel less and less pressure to be someone I’m not.

How about you? When you lead worship are you trying to be someone else? Have you picked up things from other worship leaders that just aren’t who you are? Are you over-doing? Maybe you just need to relax and not try as hard to be who you think you need to be when you’re leading worship.

Incorporate all the good things from other worship leaders that you see or listen to. Learn as much and as often as you can. Always be eager to make adjustments to how you lead. But at the end of the day, be yourself.