The Three Cs of Worship Leading

1There are so many different kinds of churches, with different expressions of worship, using different musical styles, in different parts of the world, with different histories, different emphases, and different callings. The worship leaders at these churches have different callings and have to discern how to serve their congregations most effectively, taking into account all of the uniqueness about their setting.

But taking into account all of the differences between churches (even churches across the street from one another!), can there be a shared calling amongst worship leaders who serve churches with a massively broad array of worship expressions?

I believe that ALL worship leaders – regardless of their setting – are called to maintain the three Cs in order to be an effective worship leader.

Regardless of all of your church’s distinctions, the people in your congregation are fundamentally no different from anyone else in the world: they need Jesus. Effective worship leaders are doggedly persistent in pointing their congregations to Jesus week after week, month after month, and year after year. We never move on, we never assume people have “gotten it”, and we never muddle up the clarity of the gospel with layers and layers of figurative or literal fogginess. Every person in every seat of every church, from ancient cathedrals to hipster coffee shops, need Jesus. So every worship leader has a responsibility to exalt him above all things. Every Sunday. We’ll be doing it for all eternity so let’s set the pattern now (Revelation 5:9-10).

Congregational accessibility
From high-church to low-church, from rock-and-roll to smells-and-bells, from full-time production teams to volunteer worship teams, from rock star worship leaders to a sleep deprived young mother who told her pastor she’d lead this Sunday… We have a shared responsibility: to help people articulate praise to God in unity. It takes some creative theological hop-scotch for worship leaders of any variety to convince themselves that it’s OK if people in their congregations aren’t actively engaged, or at the very least, being invited to engage. We have to do all we can to help people sing along. While we can’t make anyone worship God, we can certainly do things (in our various and different contexts) to actually help people, not hinder people. Effective worship leaders take this responsibility seriously: to help their congregations exalt God in worship (Psalm 34:3).

Over time, any congregation in any part of the world with any kind of worship expression will respond positively to worship leadership that consistently points to Christ in a way that helps people respond to him. How can I say this? Because this is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit points to Christ (John 16:14) and the Holy Spirit is honored when we worship “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Consistency not only ensures that we’re pointing in the right direction and sending the right message, but it builds trust with our congregations. When a congregation trusts its worship leader, it will follow that worship leader, and if that worship leader is pointing that congregation to Jesus, then a beautiful thing takes place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to worship leading. What I do in my Anglican church on Main Street in Fairfax, VA wouldn’t work at a store-front church in Daytona Beach, FL. And what you do in your bible church in Brighton, England wouldn’t work at a Cathedral in Sydney. So the practicalities of how we apply our principles will differ wildly from church to church. But those principles must guide the practicalities. And the principles of Christ-centeredness, congregational accessibility, and consistency will help us remain faithful to our shared calling as ministers of the gospel.

Back to Basics: Ten Lessons From Leading Small Group Worship For Those Leading Large Group Worship

1I wonder if some worship leaders who have become accustomed to leading large numbers of people in worship (and by “large” I mean “any number too large to fit in a living room”) have gotten the wrong impression that the rules that apply to encourage people singing in a living room don’t apply in a sanctuary or auditorium. While the trappings, instrumentation, volume, etc., might change from the living room to the church building, the principles you learn in a circle of 5-10 people don’t/shouldn’t change at all when you find yourself on a stage with a sound system.

Here’s what you have to learn in order to survive as a worship leader in a small group setting:

1. The songs need to be singable
Hard melodies, intricate rhythms, and weird syncopations won’t fly in a small group. You might cover them up a bit better in a large setting, but they’re just as hard for people.

2. The key is key
You’ll learn really quickly in a small group that if you’re hanging around Ds and Es and (please, no) Fs or Gs, things get awkward really fast. You might mask this with the amplification and anonymity in a larger setting, but it still makes Joe the Plumber give up singing just as much. (I’ve written on this in detail before. And here too.)

3. Show offs are turn offs
Try pulling a guitar solo while leading worship in a small group. You might not notice the weird glares as much in a large group as you would in a small group, but epic musical moments with no other purpose than to showcase an epic musical moment leave just as large a percentage of people scratching their heads.

4. Competence begets confidence
The best kind of small group worship leader is competent. He or she doesn’t need to be amazing, know more than three chords, or even just know how to press “play” or put together a song list/play list. He or she needs to be competent in their calling. People respond well to competence. They are scared by weakness and they’re turned off by arrogance.

5. People follow your melody
If you start to go off of the melody in a small group, everyone wonders whether they’re supposed to go with you or not. Same thing in a large group, but you can get away with it a bit more for some reason. But when you go off on vocal embellishments, you leave people confused. Vocal embellishments could be tanking your effectiveness level as a worship leader and you don’t even realize it.

6. Less is more
When you pick too many songs in a small group, you can begin to feel the collective sense of “really? another one?”. You can become numb to that in a large group. It’s better to leave people wanting more than wanting you to just put your guitar away and sit down. Same principle applies in a large setting. There can be too much of a good thing.

7. You really want people to sing along
If you’re leading a small group in worship and you’re the only one singing, you know you have a problem. But why is this dynamic OK in a larger setting? I don’t think it should be. The inherent power in congregational worship is congregational singing, and thus the congregational exaltation of the one to whom (or the one about whom) we’re singing. When we lose our focus on facilitating congregational singing, and settling for congregational spectating, we have successfully missed the whole entire point of why we’re there in the first place.

8. Relationships matter
Try showing up in the living room just one minute before leading singing, and packing up and leaving the room immediately after the singing. Things won’t go too well for you because people won’t really trust you, and you’ll have no idea who you’re leading. Same thing in a large setting. People are watching you to see if you love them or if you’re just there for a gig.

9. New songs need to be taught
Even just saying the words “we’re going to sing a new song, so listen to me for a moment and then join in when you’re comfortable” will go a long way towards helping a new song go well in a small group setting. Just launching into it will leave people wondering if they’re supposed to know it, if they’re supposed to sing it, and if they’re supposed to even try. Taking time to teach a new song will help people feel confident, whether there are five of them or 5,000 of them.

10. You’re there to serve
It’s hard to get a big ego when you’re leading worship in a small group setting because you’re keenly aware that you’re one of them, that you’re there to serve them, and that you really need God to help you if it’s going to go well. When and if you step into a larger role in a larger room with a larger congregation, don’t ever forget that your role is first and foremost the role of a servant, and that if things are going to go well, you really need God’s help.

Before you can ever drive on the interstate, you have to learn how to navigate your own driveway. Before you ever cook a culinary feast, you have to learn how to boil water. And before you ever lead a large group in worship, you need to learn how to lead a small group in worship. Because the essential principles that you learn in a small group that help you facilitate the glorious act of congregational singing will never (and should never) change regardless of where you go from there.

Never forget the basics!

About Tuning Out

1A few weeks ago I stirred the evangelical worship pot with my post “Are We Headed For A Crash? Reflections On The Current State of Evangelical Worship”. One of the lines that got me the most flack was this one (when explaining my experience at a worship service/concert):

“…Even I didn’t know most of the songs that we were supposed to be singing along to at the conference. I tuned out. I sat down. I Tweeted. I texted my wife. I gave up.”

Some people very sweetly encouraged me to try a bit harder next time, while others offered to pray for the state of my soul.

I wanted to say two things about this whole “tuning out” thing:

First, it’s good for worship leaders to sit back from time to time and analyze a worship service. Analyzing isn’t a bad thing when it’s not the only thing. If all you’re doing is analyzing, then you’re missing the forest for the trees. But if you never do any analyzing, you’re missing the trees that need pruning.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had at the worship conference to enjoy some sweet times of congregational worship, and to enjoy some enlightening times of observing. I was in a section where I could sit and not be a distraction or discouragement to anyone, and I learned a lot. Worship leaders have to be able to analyze and observe. It will make them and the services they lead more effective.

Second, it’s hard for people to stay engaged when the songs are all unfamiliar (and this should not be a controversial statement). This is true on Sunday mornings, and it’s true at your favorite performer’s concert. New songs are great, but familiar songs are an anchor.

When we don’t sing any familiar songs, we take away any sense of there being an “anchor” for the congregation, causing them to get defensive and pull back. Will there always be those who aren’t engaged no matter what you do? Yes. And will there always be those who say things were great no matter what you do? Yes.

But most people, including worship leader bloggers, will eventually succumb to fatigue in a service where there are no familiar songs. We should be aware of this when we lead worship, and not wear our people out.

I eventually succumbed to that fatigue, and “gave up” singing along, and decided to check in with my wife (putting three girls to bed), check in on the outside world, and observe. I would have preferred to sing along.

Your congregation probably prefers to sing along too. But when they can’t sing along, they usually won’t sing along, and that was my experience several weeks ago, as a normal person in the pews. Or, nicely padded theater seats.

So worship leaders: when you’re leading, try not to give people excuses to tune out. And when you’re in the congregation, try to be as engaged as you can be. But from time to time, it might be a good idea to sit down, observe, and analyze. (But be careful blogging about it unless you’re prepared to explain yourself!)


Where Am I Pointing?

1One of the beautiful things about the Church is all of the different ways it expresses its worship in music around the world, in different cultures, in different denominations, with different instrumentation, and with different opinions about how it should be done. It’s a wonderful expression of the unsearchable greatness of God (Psalm 145:3).

And even though this breadth of worship expressions can make it hard for worship leaders across the spectrum to talk principles and practicalities, I do think there is one question that gets to the heart for all worship leaders, regardless of their culture, denomination, instrumentation, and technique.

That question is: “where am I pointing?

The local worship leader with a team of two musicians (one of whom can’t play in 5 keys). The underground worship leader playing some songs off of her iPod. The mega-church worship leader with five weekend services, three weekly production meetings, two full dress rehearsals, and an all-paid band. The organist who chooses hymns according to the lectionary, and selects anthems for a small but good choir to sing. All very different churches. All with different challenges and responsibilities for their respective worship leader/organist/choir director. But in each of those churches, the person responsible for leading the worship in song has to decide where to point. 

And the kicker is that any moving object can only move in the direction it’s pointing. Try walking in multiple directions at once. Try driving on multiple roads at the same time. It’s logistically, physically, and literally impossible. You can only move in one direction at a time. So when a worship leader is planning and leading a service, in whatever context and with whatever style, he can choose to point towards Jesus, or to point away from Jesus. You can’t point away from Jesus and point towards Jesus at the same time. You can’t exalt yourself and exalt Jesus at the same time. It’s impossible.

I’m afraid that some worship leaders across the broad spectrum of worship expressions think it’s possible, permissible, and even preferable to point to themselves, their music, their style, their personality, their instrumentation, their professionalism, their polish, and their performance. There’s a word for this, and it’s called “mission creep“, and it’s what happens when we forget our original mission’s goals and move in other directions.

All worship leaders, and I’m preaching just as loudly to myself here, need a constant reminder: No. It is not OK to point to yourself. By doing so, you are pointing away from Jesus, and vainly seeking after a share of the glory he is due. Our mission has one aim: the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Who am I to say that worship leaders have one aim? Don’t blame me. Blame Paul.

(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18)

That. In. Everything. He. Might. Be. Preeminent (ie. totally, completely, unmistakably above all other things). Where is there wiggle room in this? Where is there grey? Where is there room for me to exalt myself? There isn’t.

Jesus is the image of the Father. He’s glorified by the Spirit (John 16:14). He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Is he the center of our worship services? He either is or he isn’t. We’re either pointing to him or we’re not. Regardless of our musical expression, context, stye, technique, approach, or denomination, we have this one question to answer. And it’s not multiple choice.

Final Thoughts On Performancism… For Now At Least

1About two weeks ago I posted some thoughts and concerns about the evangelical worship culture after I attended the National Worship Leader Conference in Chantilly, Virginia in mid-May. Having been blogging here at Worthily Magnify for almost five years, I’m accustomed to my usual/average numbers of readers, and honestly (I mean this) it’s something I really don’t keep track of. Occasionally a post will spark a vigorous discussion – we’re talking a huge number of comments like six or seven – but my reason for writing isn’t to get a bunch of readers. It’s just to help whoever happens to read.

Well, it didn’t take long for me to get the sense that this post wasn’t going to be like any of my other posts. Within hours, comments started trickling, and then pouring in. I was hearing from people all over the world. I checked the stats and it was over 10,000 hits on the first day. Over the next two days it got over 100,000 views. And then another 100,000+ views since then. Over 450 comments so far. Some people were very supportive. Some people were very angry. Some people weren’t sure what I was trying to say. One person even pointed out that I misspelled “curmudgeony” when it should have been “curmudgeonly”. I misspelled it on purpose, since that’s how I say that word (not that I use it that often), but oh well. He noticed. I was impressed.

I wanted to wrap this little two-week focus on performancism, faces on big screens, new songs, wrong turns towards performancism, and performing a role versus performing a show with some final thoughts and reflections before, hopefully, I can just starting writing a normal blog again next week 🙂

Here’s what I want to say:

1. There are a lot of worship leaders, musicians, pastors, and congregants out there who are concerned. I heard from them in the comments, in emails to me, in Tweets, on Facebook, and even at my church last Sunday. They see a trend towards performancism in worship, which continues to shine a bright light on what’s happening on the stage, while lowering the light on the congregation, and sometimes, tragically, shining a murky light on Jesus. They want to see a change.

If a post written by an unknown worship leader at an Anglican church in Northern Virginia can reverberate on the Christian blogosphere like mine did, then I think God is up to something. We have to be willing, each of us in our local contexts, to look at our worship services, our worship leading approaches, and our worship theology, to make sure we’re pointing people to Jesus as clearly as we can.

2. A lot of those people are committed to being faithful in their local church. One person asked me “so what are we supposed to do?” I told him: be faithful to your local church, and be available to God for any way he wants to use you. That’s what we can do. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Work to cultivate a culture of Christ-centered, congregational, vibrant worship in your congregation. Whether that’s using an organ and hymnals, or guitars and screens, do what you can to encourage your congregation to see and savor and exalt Jesus Christ above all things.

3. Modern worship leaders would be smart to re-focus on helping their congregations sing. I heard this refrain from all sorts of people, countries, denominations, and worship styles. People just want to sing. We’re robbing our people of a glorious experience: corporate singing. This is foolish.

I had one commenter write that his pastor specifically says that if everyone is singing every song on Sunday, it’s a sign of an unhealthy church. That’s insanity. A healthy church is a singing church, because a healthy church loves Jesus, and when you love Jesus, you want to sing. So let’s help people sing. Seriously.

4. You can never make everybody happy. This is lesson number one in ministry 101, and I’ve lived it as a preacher’s kid and someone in worship ministry for a while now. But lest we forget this unfortunate truism, let my posts over the last two weeks remind us that there will always be people who take offense when no offense was intended. No matter how often I said “new songs are great, but in moderation” there were always some who thought I meant “new songs are terrible!” And now matter how often I said “lights, loops, and creativity is great, but not at the expense of the clear proclamation of the gospel” there were always people who thought I meant “don’t use loops, don’t use lights, and don’t be creative, and while you’re at it, don’t use electricity either”. I had some very constructive conversations with some people who weren’t happy with something (or everything) I said, but my post certainly struck a nerve and I’m actually quite happy about that.

Many churches, worship leaders, and pastors have embraced whole-heartedly a model of worship leading that leans heavily towards performancism, which I define as “performing songs in front of a congregation in a way that leads them to focus on the performance and the performers.” I think this model is dangerous. I’ll keep calling it out when I can, and hopefully offering constructive suggestions.

5. What is the role of a worship leaderThe heart behind this answer is ultimately what this all comes back to. For those whose answer to this question is relatively simple (i.e. to help people see Jesus), then what I said in my post wasn’t all that offensive. But for those whose answer includes things like “create an emotional atmosphere” or “lead people through dark woods like a woodsman”, then my post ruffled their feathers. While our roles as worship leaders are surely more complex than I make it sound (we have administrative, musical, pastoral roles to name a few), I’m talking about the heart of our role. The heart of our role is simple. When we complicate the heart of our role, then we can start to justify a complicated rationale for leading in a way that’s not so simple for people to see past to Jesus.

Finally, let me say that I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Chuck Fromm yesterday morning. Chuck is a legend in the evangelical worship world. And he’s also the publisher of Worship Leader Magazine, which hosts the National Worship Leader Conferences. He was gracious, encouraging, and kind enough to listen to me share my heart on some of this stuff. There’s no “beef” whatsoever, and we’re very much on the same team.

Thanks everyone for a fascinating conversation over the last two weeks.

Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
(Psalm 115:1)