Don’t Believe Your Own Hype

You have a fan club, whether you realize it or not.

Maybe it’s small. A few old ladies who think you’re just adorable and ask when you’re going to make a CD.

Or maybe it’s larger. Gushing Facebook posts, lots of Twitter followers, people recognize you at the grocery store, and your church bookstore carries your very own CD.

Most worship leaders are somewhere in between. You don’t have a CD to sell or Twitter followers of any substantial number, but you do have a significant number of people at your church who see you up front regularly, have an affinity for you, and think you’re much more terrific and wonderful than you actually are.

In any case, it can be tempting to start to believe the hype that naturally surrounds anyone who stands on a stage in a position of leadership and possesses musical gifts. Before you know it you’re demanding only Evian bottled water, yellow M&Ms, and the auditorium a constant 72.4 degrees (that’s in Fahrenheit for my European friends).

Don’t believe your own hype. It’s a slippery slope to arrogance and pride and there is nothing that will hinder your effectiveness in ministry more. God isn’t exaggerating when he warns us that he “opposes the proud” (James 4:6).

Here are three practical ways you can keep the “hype” around you in check.

Be approachable
Avoid the temptation to cloister yourself away in a back room before and after the service. Rock stars do this. Worship leaders shouldn’t. Be available and approachable before and after the service. This is an easy and tangible way to demonstrate to your congregation that you love them, and to deflate the inflation of your ego.

Be humble
For anyone seeking to pursue humility, C.J. Mahaney’s book Humility: True Greatness is an absolute must-read. You can read it in one evening, but if you’re smart, you’ll take some time to read through it and allow the Holy Spirit to convict you and help you see where you need to grow.

It’s easy to say “be humble” but it’s hard to do. “Pursue humility” is a much better way to phrase it. Every morning, every day, and every night, resist the fleshly pull toward pride. Laugh at yourself. Encourage and honor those around you. Remember your sinfulness. Rejoice in Jesus’ work of redeeming you and covering you with his blood. That’s the only thing worth boasting in.

We start to believe the hype when we believe there’s something about ourselves that’s worth boasting in. Unless that “thing” is the cross of Christ, we’re off base.

Be cross-centered
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-3,

“…you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

You. We all. Our. By nature.

Verse 4:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

But God. Two of the greatest words in all of scripture.

The hype tells us we’re wonderful and adorable and a really big deal. The cross tells us we were children of wrath but are now objects of God’s mercy.

As a worship leader, to be effective you have to be deflective. People will sinfully want to praise you. You’ll sinfully want to receive it and believe it. Don’t. Deflect the praise of man and direct your own need to make much of something great onto the One who is rich in mercy and worthy of every bit of hype we can muster.

Always Learning

Every single time worship leaders lead worship, there are certain things they could have done better.

This applies to beginner worship leaders and “seasoned” worship leaders. Whether it’s your first time or four-hundredth, there is always at least one thing you can look back on and say “I could have done that differently“.

Beginner worship leaders can run the risk of getting discouraged by all the things they could have done better, and thinking maybe they’re not cut out for it.

More seasoned worship leaders can run the risk of thinking they’ve made every mistake there is to make, and that they’ve mastered the art.

Worship leaders who are just starting out should take comfort in the fact that the process of maturing never stops – and those who have been doing it a little longer should keep that in mind too. No one ever “arrives”.

Tonight I led the music for our monthly men’s ministry gathering. In no particular order of importance, here are some things I could have done differently:

  • The first two songs we sang, “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Come Thou Fount”, felt a bit over-done. I think I’m doing those songs too often, especially at these monthly meetings.
  • The last song we sang, “Here I Am to Worship”, felt really over-done. I should put that song on hold for a while.
  • I got to church too late to do a sound check. Since it was just me leading on guitar, I figured it would work fine this way. My guitar ended up being too loud and my voice too quiet. I should always do a sound check with the sound engineer, if possible.
  • Some of the words on the slides went too far down. Since the ceiling is low, some men had a hard time reading the bottom line or two. We should make sure we adjust the slides when we’re projecting lyrics in that room.
  • I kept my eyes closed for much of the time. I did that this past Sunday night too. I’m getting back into that bad habit.
  • I went too long. I need to be sure I’m wrapping up when I’ve been asked to wrap up.

A lot of these things are relatively minor, and might not have stood out to anyone else in the room. My goal certainly isn’t to make a big deal out of these little issues or beat up on myself. But rather, I’ve found it helpful for my own growth, and a practical way to pursue humility, to be in the habit of asking “what could I have done differently or better“.

Even if there’s only one thing I can point to, and there always is at least one thing, then hopefully God will use that to keep me moving forward on the road of maturity.

Don’t Overreact to Minor Course Corrections

I have a love/hate relationship with paddling a canoe. On the one hand I enjoy spending a warm summer day on a river or a lake with friends and family, having a picnic on the shore, and gliding through the water, but on the other hand I don’t enjoy the prospect of tipping over, the sore arms, and trying to maneuver the canoe and make it go where I want it to go. Just when it starts to head in the right direction, it veers left and I have to paddle hard on the right, or vice versa. I’m constantly paddling on different sides in hopes of correcting course.

Growing as a worship leader is a bit like paddling a canoe. You know what general direction you want to go in (hopefully), you know the basics of how to get there, you have some knowledge of what you need to do, you know that a good deal of responsibility has been entrusted to you, at certain points all you’re trying to do is keep from sinking, you can get discouraged when you see other people around you having an easier time, and it’s not as easy at it looks.

Another similarity between growing as a worship leader and paddling a canoe is that worship leaders are constantly in need of minor course corrections. From time to time you might get totally flipped around or capsize and need major help. But most of the time, you’re doing a pretty good job of doing what you need to do, and you just need to periodically adjust your course so that you don’t collide with a tree.

Minor course corrections can come in many forms for worship leaders. Here are some ways I’ve received these little nudges from time to time:

  • My wife telling me that I looked frustrated when I led an unresponsive group of people
  • My brother letting me know that I had a bad habit of glaring at musicians when they made a mistake
  • My pastor cautioning me that when I interjected in-between lines of a song I could sometimes sound bossy
  • A friend warning me that I was trying to force change too quickly
  • A worship team member mentioning that we were doing too many similar-sounding songs from the same writer
  • A mentor telling me that I shouldn’t be so timid when I spoke
  • A sound engineer pointing out that I was over-playing and singing flat

It can be awfully tempting to overreact to minor corrections as if they mean we are terrible worship leaders, we have no idea what we’re doing, and we should just give up. But that’s silly. It would be a like a man paddling a canoe, realizing he’s drifting towards the bank, and then instead of simply correcting his course and continuing forward, he calls his wife to tell her he loves her one last time. That’s an overreaction.

There are definitely times someone gives you advice, and it’s bad advice. And there are times you receive criticism and you just need to ignore it. But God oftentimes uses people who know us to give input into how we can grow. The next time someone approaches you and suggests a way you might be to improve as a worship leader, don’t overreact. Ask yourself: “is this a minor course correction?” Most of the time it is. When we ignore these kinds – we end up in need of more serious help.

When you sign up to be a worship leader, answering God’s call on you to serve the church in this way, understand that you’re embarking on a never-ending journey of growing, maturing, gaining experience, making mistakes, receiving correction, keeping your eyes on Jesus, adjusting your course from time to time, and the occasional capsize. It’s not always easy, but God is always faithful. Keep paddling.

There is Always Something to Learn – Pt. 1

This past Saturday I spent the afternoon/evening at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, watching how they “do things”. They’re about a ten-minute drive from my in-law’s house in Newport Beach, where Catherine and I are on “vacation” with Megan and her adoring grandparents.

Mariners Church is quite different from my church in many ways. It’s non-denominational and non-liturgical, while mine is Anglican and liturgical. Its average weekend attendance is over six times ours. All of the musicians are paid, while ours are volunteers. They have a state-of-the-art “worship center”, while we have a civil war-era Historic Church for our traditional services and a 900 seat “main Sanctuary” for our more informal services. They have a sprawling campus, complete with bar-b-q grills, a lake, bookstore, café, and tons of parking. They have a five-person camera crew at each service and project images of the worship leader, band, and speaker during the entire service. There are many more differences.

But while my church does differ from Mariners Church in some of our approaches to ministry, our facility, theological emphases, size, and cultural setting, we still share a love for Jesus, an evangelical and orthodox understanding of scripture, and a mission to preach the Gospel. And while my worship team looks and operates differently in many ways from Mariners’, there is always something to learn. I learned a lot on Saturday by sitting in on their sound check, rehearsal, production meeting, and evening service. They made me feel at home, gave me an in-ear monitor pack to listen in, and let me look “behind the scenes”. It was a blast. Here are a few things I learned:

Monitors, monitors, monitors
Mariners Church has a separate sound board to run separate in-ear monitor mixes for each band member, and an engineer whose only job is to run their mixes. Not every church can afford this (!), but most churches and worship teams would be well-served to devote more money and energy to making sure they have good monitor equipment and competent people running it. I have a renewed dream of having in-ear monitors for the entire worship team at my church, and having a separate person taking care of these mixes to free our sound engineer to worry about the main mix exclusively. This will take money, time, and patience.

“Rehearsal” shouldn’t be a bad word
Here’s Mariners’ typical rehearsal/service schedule:

Wednesday
– Evening rehearsal (musicians and monitor engineer) to get a feel for how they want to play the songs. This rehearsal is recorded and posted online for the band after rehearsal is finished.

Saturday
– 1:30pm: Band members arrive, tune, and plug in. Sound team is ready and equipment is in place.
– 1:45: Band plays together (ad lib) for five or ten minutes while monitor mixes are set. Note that they are playing continuously during this time, speaking to the monitor mix engineer through individual mics that are fed only into the headphone mix.
– 2:00: Rehearsal begins. Band plays through each song, stopping occasionally to correct chords, tempo, repeats, etc. Lyric operator runs lyrics concurrently to see if there are any errors and to get a feel for how to project them best. Camera and lighting operators are also in place.
– 2:45: Band takes 15 minute break. Worship leader takes part in a production meeting at this time which is attended by the directors of the different components of the service (video, lighting, audio, etc.) the “producer”, and others involved in the execution of the service. They talk through the service, what is happening and why, and what needs to happen before the service begins.
– 3:00: Everyone involved in any aspect of the service gathers to pray together.
– 3:15: First full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 3:40: 5 minute break.
– 3:45: Second full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 4:20: Break.
– 4:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 4:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 4:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 5:00: Service begins.
– 6:15: Service ends.
– 6:25: All the players from the earlier production meeting gather again to debrief. What worked? What didn’t?

Sunday
– 8:00am: Full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 8:30: Break.
– 8:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 8:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 8:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 9:00: Service begins.
– 10:15: Service ends.
– 10:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 10:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 10:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 11:00: Service begins.
– 12:15pm: Service ends.

Most worship teams/tech teams can’t (and shouldn’t) take on a rehearsal schedule exactly like this. Mariners Church does it because they have 9,000 people attending on a weekend, paid musicians, and have gone for a more highly-produced service. Don’t think I’m saying that every church should do three full run-throughs before its first service! If you’re not careful you can over-rehearse and burn out your volunteers.

But there are also problems with under-rehearsing, and I suspect most worship teams/tech teams (my church’s included) might be guilty of it quite often, if not every weekend. If your rehearsals are efficient and effective, most people won’t mind giving up their time to be there. You’ll be better equipped, your worship team/tech team will be better prepared, and your congregation will be led with better skill. Mariners Church rehearses often and well. That combination is key.

Keep arrangements fresh
I’m guilty of using the same chord charts for years and years. Once I have a chart for a song, I’ll use that one every time we sing it. One thing that Mariners does really well is keep their arrangements fresh. They’ll change a chord progression, try a different feel, slow it down, speed it up, use a different electric guitar or synth sound, drum pattern, etc. They’re always looking for ways to keep their songs from feeling stale, and that’s something most worship teams (again, mine included) could improve on.

Don’t take input personally. Musicians should seek to serve the song
At one point during rehearsal, Tim Timmons (the worship leader – a great guy) asked the drummer to change the feel on the chorus of one of the songs. The drummer said “OK.” It was that easy. Throughout their rehearsal, ideas and suggestions were offered freely and no one was defensive or took it personally. That’s how a healthy body works.

Have the lyrics operator at rehearsal
I am now convinced that this is crucial. The role of the lyric operator is so critically important to the skillful leading of a service, that to expect it just to “work” with no rehearsal, and with the person showing up ten minutes before the service starts is dangerously negligent. During the first run-through at Mariners, Tim realized the video for “God of Wonders” that projected the lyrics was about one beat behind, meaning the lyrics were “following, not leading”. They adjusted things so that once the service started, the lyrics were put up about 2 seconds before they were supposed to be sung. I’ll be talking with our technical director and discussing how we can get our lyric operators to attend rehearsals as soon as possible.

Walk, talk, and pray through the service with your team
Tim took time to walk through the service with the musicians and volunteers to explain why he had chosen certain songs for specific points, what would be happening at particular moments, what he was going to say in between a song, etc. Then they prayed over the service, including many of the specific moments Tim had said to look out for. This not only helped the team feel connected and on the same page, but it also helped Tim think through and articulate what he was going to say, why he was going to say it, and what his goal was. Great idea.

I’ll share some more things I learned tomorrow.

Not Getting Off to a Confusing Start

This past Sunday I thought it would be a good idea to begin the service a bit differently, by singing Joseph Stigora’s version of Psalm 96. I first heard this version at the 2008 Worship God conference (the time when they started it off in two keys) and really liked it. The chorus (“sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth, sing to the Lord, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”) is congregational, with the verses sung by the worship leader. It’s unusual for us to start off a service with an unfamiliar song, especially a song where the congregation doesn’t sing on the verses, but it seemed appropriate this past Sunday and I was looking forward to it.

Looking back, however, I realize that I forgot one important detail: since a good number of people come in late, or come in once they hear the music start, about half of the congregation wouldn’t hear my instructions to only sing the chorus and to listen to the verses.

So what ended up happening was that anyone who came in after I gave those instructions (a few hundred people) was really confused.

How come no one is singing the verses? Is Jamie expecting us to know these verses? These verses are not very easy. Have we ever sung this song before? What am I supposed to do on the verses – just stand here or something? The words are on the screen – but no one around me is singing them. This is weird.

It didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would work out. A good portion of the congregation seemed genuinely confused and not sure of what to do – which is a strange way to start off a service. I got a very kind email on Monday morning from a friend in the congregation (who walked in after I told the congregation to only sing the chorus) and let me know how hard the verses were to sing – and how no one around him was even trying!

So… lesson learned: it’s confusing for people when they walk into an already-begun service and are out of the loop that they’re not supposed to sing the verses to a song. Maybe it would be a better idea to wait until further into the service.

I’ll keep trying new, different, and fresh things. Some will work, some will not. It’s good for the congregation and it’s good for me. There’s nothing to be afraid of!