Sermonizing Harmonizing

One of the ways worship leaders can better serve their congregation and their pastor is by choosing songs intentionally and purposefully to underline and respond to the preaching of God’s word. Not every song has to line up perfectly with the theme of the sermon, or be based on the same passage of Scripture, but when all of the songs during a service are completely unrelated to each other and the message, it can result in no single message standing out at the end of the day.

In most of the weekend services at my church, the sermon comes toward the end of the service. Because of this, I’m usually most concerned that the closing song, which comes directly after the sermon, is carefully chosen.

For years I tried to do this mostly by guessing. If the pastor thought to mention something to me about what kind of song would work, then that would be great. But most weeks I was just hoping I got it right. Sometimes I would. But other times I would find myself sitting in the service thinking, “I wish I knew he was going to say that!”

So in recent years I’ve become more diligent about hounding the preacher in the week leading up to his sermon, to get as much information as I can to help me pick songs, particularly the closing song, that both underline and help people respond to the message.

Here are some ways you might be able to do the same:

If he writes it out word-for-word, get a full transcript
Whenever John Yates, our senior pastor, is preaching on a weekend, I will get a word-for-word transcript of his sermon on the Thursday leading up to it. This is invaluable. I take time to read it, chew on it, and then prayerfully discern what songs would help people respond to this most effectively.

If he preaches from an outline, ask to see that outline
Some of the other pastors at my church don’t write their sermons out word-for-word. So I’ll just ask for their outline, or any notes they have. Sometimes I get a lot, and sometimes I get a little. Either way, it’s still something.

If he hasn’t yet finished either a transcript or outline, ask him what he’s thinking
I’ll oftentimes email whatever pastor is preaching and say something like: “I’d love to have any crumbs you can throw my way to help me pick a closing song that works well with your sermon. Any ideas? Specific songs? Themes? Anything?” I’ll almost always get a helpful response. I don’t need an awful lot of information – just some sort of indication of the direction of the sermon.

The key question to ask yourself and the preacher is: how would you envision people responding to this message through a song?

Don’t try to summarize the entire message in a song. You probably won’t be able to, and even if you are, it might be information overload. Just help them respond. It will look different every Sunday, but by asking yourself this question, you’re helping to avoid a mishmash of messages. Say that five times fast.

Learning from General Stanley McChrystal

The news story that has been all the rage in America for the last few days has been the fallout caused by General Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. In this interview, both the General and his aides are openly dismissive and insulting toward other members of the United State’s national security team, the Vice-President, the President, and our allies in Afghanistan. The question on everyone’s mind has been “what was he thinking?” Apparently his answer to that question wasn’t very good, since he was fired yesterday.

How could he be so careless and undisciplined? How could he speak that way of his commander-in-chief? Didn’t he know what a stupid idea that was?

It’s a rare moment in American politics when people on both sides of the aisle can agree on anything. It seems like most people agreed on this: what he did was inappropriate.

Here’s my question for us worship leaders: what if a Rolling Stone magazine appeared on your pastor’s desk tomorrow morning with word-for-word quotes of things you and your “aides” have said about him? Your opinion of other people on your church’s staff? Your derogatory nicknames for certain people? Your critical words of him?

General McChrystal was careless in saying what he said in front of a reporter. But he was wrong to say what he said in the first place. It went beyond the appropriate communication of differences and the respectful dialogue between two people. It was more than confiding in a trusted friend your struggles and difficulties. It crossed the line and became insulting, petty, immature, and unprofessional.

We can all struggle with crossing this line – but in particular I think worship leaders cross it with respect to their pastors. We start off with our opinions, then our opinions become facts, then we tell people those facts, then we become careless about who we share those facts with, and before we know it we’ve said stupid things we can’t take back.

In Psalm 64:8, we see that one characteristic of the wicked is that: “They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them; all who see them will wag their heads.”

General McChrystal is an honorable man. And most of us worship leaders are good guys too. But we dabble in wickedness when we let our tongue loose. God cautions us in Psalm 34:13 to “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

Of course this truth applies to everything we say – not just about our pastor. But every once in a while it’s good to be reminded to keep our tongues in check, to watch what we say, and to be careful who we’re saying it around.

Odds are that a Rolling Stone reporter isn’t listening in on you and reporting to your pastor what you’re saying about him. But it’s damaging and unwise and inappropriate nonetheless.

Let’s serve our pastors well, honor God with our tongues, and be faithful at doing our jobs.

When Your Pastor Asks You to Drop a Song

Yesterday morning, about two hours before our 11:00am service, I got an email from the pastor who would be leading the service, asking me to drop one of the opening songs. Here’s what he said:

JB, Morning and a question.  We have the introduction of a Chinese delegation of pastors this morning, and several announcements and a video, and a really long reading, and JY doesn’t think he’ll be short (Melchizedek takes some ‘splaining).  In light of that I think we should drop one of the songs from the first set.  Does that work?  Can you zip me a reply on that so I know how to configure the other stuff?  Thanks, Dean.

I wrote back very simply:

Sure. No problem at all.

When your pastor asks you to drop a song, you should say “yes” every time.

Sure, I was looking forward to leading all four songs, and I thought doing all four songs helped the opening set be well-rounded and balanced. Part of me was bummed to have to cut one of them out. But, me being bummed doesn’t matter one bit. Submitting to my pastor(s), being a team player, and seeking to lead out of humility requires me to graciously do whatever I’m asked to do. Even dropping a song.

This doesn’t happen every week. It actually doesn’t happen very often. If it did happen regularly, it would probably be good to have a conversation about it during the week, and figure out exactly how much time we envision the different segments of a service taking. This would be the time and place to “push back” if it felt necessary. But a Sunday morning isn’t the time or place.

Worship leaders can quickly become territorial and protective of the time of singing as being “their time”. When that happens, requests to cut a song and/or shorten the time can be viewed as personal attacks warranting extreme defensive measures. This is a mistake and it will put you firmly on the pastor’s bad side. You don’t want to be there.

Get into the habit of reminding yourself the entire service is “worship”, and you just help lead one small part. Then it’s not so hard to say “yes” when and if it needs to be a little smaller.

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.

Handling Awkward Moments: Leading Songs After a Lousy Teaching

wordI am incredibly grateful to serve in a church where, week after week, God’s word is preached strongly by those who tremble at it, and where the teachings are consistently biblically sound, convicting, and Holy Spirit-empowered. In this environment, the songs I’m choosing and leading are helping people hear and respond to what God is saying through his Word and by His Spirit.

In contrast, many worship leaders serve in churches where the teaching is weak and ineffective, or worse, heretical and unbiblical.

What’s a worship leader to do in that environment?

I recall one occasion when I was asked to lead worship for an event held somewhere away from my church. I felt I knew enough about who was hosting the event to feel comfortable saying yes, so I did. I prayerfully chose the songs, prepared for the event as well as I could, prayed a lot, and rehearsed with the worship team. The event finally arrived, the opening time of singing went really well, and then the teaching came. It went on for over an hour, and, as my British father-in-law so kindly described it, it was “diffuse”. I might describe it as “lousy”.

Leading songs after a lousy teaching can be awkward. Here are some ideas on how a worship leader can handle it, particularly if it’s unexpected.

If you’re listening to the teaching and beginning to realize it’s going off-track, pray and ask God for wisdom about what to do. Especially if your songs come immediately after the “teaching”, how you respond will be critical.

Ask for advice
If you’re near anyone you know you can respect as someone who loves God and his Word, just ask them: “what do I do?” I did this at the event I mentioned above, and the advice I received was the way God chose to answer my prayer for wisdom.

Be prepared to call an audible
In American football, the quarterback will call “an audible” (a last-second switch to a new play) when he sees that the play he had originally chosen just won’t stand up against the defense’s formation.

If you’re leading songs after a lousy (i.e. weak or heretical) teaching, you’ll most likely need to call an audible. You’ll need to communicate this to your musicians, the lyrics operator (if you’re projecting them), and the congregation (more on that later).

Proclaim Truth
You have an opportunity to infuse the truth of God’s word into a service in which it’s lacking. You do not want to do this in an arrogant and preachy way, but in a humble and gentle way. I would gravitate towards songs that preach the Gospel. Some ideas are “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”, “In Christ Alone”, or “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. Anything that presents the Gospel clearly would be one of my first choices.

Hopefully, by responding to a lousy teaching with Christ-centered, God-glorifying songs, I can help people walk away from the service with at least some measure of truth being planted in their hearts.

Do it pastorally
When I stepped onto the platform after the “diffuse” teaching I mentioned, I looked out on a congregation that looked really confused. It would have been the worst idea in the world to say what I was thinking, which was: “how in the world did (so-and-so) let that just happen?” Instead, I said something like: “We’re going to spend some time now responding to God by singing to Him, and celebrating what he’s done for us in Christ. Our ‘hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness’, so let’s stand and proclaim that together.”

It’s easy to call this kind of audible when you’re projecting lyrics and you have musicians who are comfortable being spontaneous. If you don’t have either of those things, you can still infuse God’s truth into the service by turning to a different hymn in the hymnal (just call out the page number), singing a song of response all by yourself, encouraging them to a simple (but truth-filled) song sing from memory, reading from scripture, repeating a good song from earlier in the service, or just continuing on with what you’ve planned.

(If you serve in a church where this is a weekly occurrence – not just once in a blue moon like it is for me – plan ahead and choose music that will subtly yet clearly, correct error in the teaching. Also, check out this clip of John Piper answering a worship pastor’s question along these same lines.)

Do You Despise Instruction?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7

God can communicate instruction to us as worship leaders in numerous ways. Perhaps some of these ring a bell:

  • An email in your inbox on Monday morning
  • A church member who comes up to you after a service
  • A meeting with your pastor
  • An anonymous handwritten note in your mailbox
  • An unexpected phone call from a volunteer
  • Your spouse
  • Your Mom
  • A complaint communicated to you second-hand
  • A meeting with someone who isn’t particularly happy with you
  • Comments on your “annual review”

As I’m reading through the book of Proverbs this month, I’m struck by how often God commands us not only to receive instruction – but to embrace it. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (1:8). “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (4:7).

My natural, sinful response to correction or instruction is to turn away from it, to discount it as unwarranted, and to justify why I should ignore it. When I receive an email, a phone call, or a handwritten note – instead of seeing it as an opportunity for me to gain wisdom and receive instruction – I think of myself as too good to need it. This is a mistake, according to God’s word.

I will never get to the point, either as a Christian, or more specifically as a worship leader, when I no longer need instruction. There will always be areas in which I need to grow, skills I need to improve, habits I need to break, and ways I can be more effective.

As a worship leader in your church, do you despise instruction? Do you look upon those whom God uses to instruct you with arrogance? Do you roll your eyes as you listen to a voice mail or read an email from a church member who is suggesting ways you could improve? Do you consider your pastor as off-base when he offers examples of ways you could grow?

God’s word says that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). But “blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (3:13-14).

Do what comes unnaturally – intentionally seek instruction, receive correction, pray for humility – and you’ll grow in wisdom.

Watch the Clock

clockUnfortunately, many worship leaders in the Church have gained a reputation for not only being long-winded, but also insensitive to the clock during a worship service. Service times get affected, kids get rowdy, nursery workers go crazy, the preacher gets hurried, and everyone gets hungry – all because the worship leader just had to do 9 songs.

Some are oblivious.
They completely lose track of time and don’t realize that they’ve gone on for 45 minutes when the pastor had asked them to only go 20. They send the message that they are undisciplined and unaware they aren’t the only person in the room.

While it is definitely easy to lose track of time when you’re singing, there is a very simple way to get over this: buy a watch. I started leading with a watch on my music stand a few years ago and was amazed at what a difference it made. We’ve also installed a big digital clock at the back of our Sanctuary that I can see and the preachers can see. It’s easier to watch the clock when you’re watching a clock.

Some are arrogant.
They know full well how long they were asked to go, but they choose to go however long they want to anyway. They send the message that they can’t be trusted and that they view themselves as being answerable to no one.

While it can be difficult when you’ve prepared six songs to be told there’s only time for two, the way to handle this is very simple. Only do two songs. Arrogantly ignoring the time allotment and doing your own thing is one sure way to disrespect your pastor and your congregation and in the process grieve the Holy Spirit. There is a time and place to discuss how many songs will be sung, how much time will be allotted for music, etc. Once the decision is made, be a team player and a humble servant by doing your best to stay in the time limit.

Worship leaders (of all people!) should be willing to serve – in whatever capacity and in whatever time allotment given – with joy and humility. Make an effort to find out exactly how much time you have, and roughly how many songs you’re being asked to lead. Once those parameters are set, do your best to stay within them. Yes, God is at work in our services in ways we cannot always anticipate. But God is also at work in our planning and will lead us as we prayerfully seek to bring him glory and watch the clock at the same time.