Thinking in Thirds

1There are few responsibilities that a worship leader should take more seriously than choosing songs for his or her congregation to sing. In the words of the theologian Gordon Fee, “show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology”. With centuries of older songs, and an ever-increasing library of new songs from which we can choose, how is a worship leader supposed to prioritize what to put on their congregations’ lips?

I have found it helpful to think in thirds. Visualize each of these thirds as a slice of one whole pie. The size of each slice will change depending on your own context, culture, and even particular service and/or venue. But a healthy repertoire, with the goal of shaping your congregation’s sung theology in a balanced way, will typically draw from these three thirds.

The ancient
Every church should have a list of at least (!) 20-30 ancient hymns that their church can sing. Why? Because we don’t want to fall into what C.S. Lewis describes as “chronological snobbery”, a trap which ensnares far too many worship leaders, causing us to think that newer is better, and older is worse. We have centuries of well-written and robustly-scriptural hymns that we would be fools to ignore. Do them as written, do them with a rock band, do them with new choruses, or do them with organ and timpani. But do them.

The proven
It’s been about 50 years since the worship renewal movement hit, thus spawning hundreds of thousands of new songs. It’s been long enough now for us to know which ones are worth keeping and which ones are not. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be “stuck” in the 80s or 90s, but it would be an equally bad idea to pretend they didn’t happen either. Sure, most of them have lost their new-car smell by now, and might make the chronologically-snobbish among us tempted to turn up our noses, but some of them deserve an occasional place in our repertoires, if for no other reason than to simply honor those people in our congregations for whom those songs are actually quite helpful.

The modern
So we have the ancient hymns, the proven and tested songs of previous decades, and the new songs being written by the Church today. By focusing first on the biblical faithfulness of the lyrics, second on the congregational accessibility of the music, and third on the particular and pastoral usefulness in your own context, you can filter out a substantial amount of new music. Then, you add to your church’s repertoire new and fresh songs that help your congregation (in the words of John Piper) “see and savor Jesus Christ”. Some of these songs will last for decades, and join the slice of the pie I call “the proven”. Who knows, maybe in 100 years they’ll be classified as “the ancient” by your grandkids. Or maybe they’ll fall away in a few years’ time. And that’s OK.

The goal for all worship leaders should be to maintain a repertoire of songs that serves the congregation whom God has called them to serve. In my setting at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia, that means I keep these three slices pretty even with one another (with the second slice, “the recent”, being the smallest, and the two other slices “the ancient” and “the modern” being bigger).

None of our respective “pies” will look exactly the same.

But, as worship leaders, if we’re thinking discerningly, and choosing songs wisely, then hopefully the songs that we’re choosing will help our congregations have a sung theology that has sufficient enough roots that it’s also able to branch out.

Beholding the Beauty of Jesus: In His Suffering

“ECCE HOMO (Christ Before the People)” by Edward Knippers.

A few nights ago I was about to head out to choir rehearsal for a few minutes before doing a couple of errands around town – when I decided to ask my oldest daughter (Megan) if she wanted to stay up late and come with me. Of course she responded enthusiastically. Staying up late – and going out when it’s night – is one the best things in the world for a six-year-old.

When we were about to leave she came around the corner wearing a new jacket that Catherine had bought her the week before. I hadn’t seen her wearing it until that moment. And when I looked at her, in that cute brown jacket, I thought (and I said) “Oh my goodness. You are beautiful.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

I was reminded of how beautiful she is. It’s not that she hadn’t been beautiful in the first place, but it’s that I had just grown accustomed to it. I had gotten used to it. I was taking it for granted. I see it every day!

This happens on a regular basis with me. One of my three daughters, or my wife Catherine, will come around the corner sometimes and I’ll just look at them, reminded of something I had forgotten: They’re beautiful.

Do you ever have this experience?

We get used to beautiful things and we don’t remember they’re beautiful anymore. They don’t take our breath away.

We need to be reminded.

And that’s why worship leaders have a responsibility to point people to Jesus every Sunday. To center their songs and their leadership around the clear proclamation of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Worship leaders need to beckon their congregations to hear the Gospel again. To consider the cross again. And to behold the beauty of Jesus again.

This week I’d like to highlight some attributes of Jesus that should be prominent when we point people to him during corporate worship.

First, his suffering.

John Piper writes in Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ:

The agonies of God’s Son were incomparable. No one ever suffered like this man. No one ever deserved suffering less, yet received so much. The stamp of God on this perfect life is found in two words: ‘without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). The only person in history who did not deserve to suffer, suffered most. ‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22). None of Jesus’ pain was a penalty for His sin. He had no sin.

 

He was betrayed, arrested, mocked, tortured, beaten, whipped, scourged, spat upon, and subjected to the very cruelest form of execution ever known to man. His physical suffering is impossible for us to fathom.

But beyond his physical suffering – is his spiritual suffering. And his spiritual suffering far outweighs his physical suffering, if that’s even possible.

Because on the cross:

All of the sin, suffering, betrayal, woundedness, evil, darkness, sickness, terminal illnesses, fear, twisted perversions, and heartache was laid squarely on Jesus.

The airplanes flying into the twin towers. Bodybags coming out of yet another school. Bombs claiming 100 lives at a rally for peace in Turkey. All of it was laid squarely on Jesus.

Jesus cries out on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

No one has ever suffered like Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t deserve any of it. Only he had lived a perfect, blameless, holy, morally upright life. And yet he suffered more than anyone has ever – and will ever – suffer.

Isn’t Jesus amazing?

The suffering of Jesus teaches us that: Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. And we can run to him.

And even though we might not know the answer to why he allows it – we know that:

It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. … So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.” (Tim Keller, Reasons for God)

 

And that’s the beauty of Jesus in his suffering. We see the vileness of evil in all of its wretchedness. And we see the fullness of love in Jesus. What a wonderful Savior.

Worship leaders: don’t shy away from singing songs that deal with the suffering of Jesus.

It helps stop people in their tracks and see again the beauty of Jesus that we all far too easily forget.

More on Wednesday.

On Not Beginning with the Ending

1This past August, during two weeks’ vacation, I had the wonderful experience of actually sitting with my family during church, not leading any songs, not being up front, and being the one to do the nursery and Sunday school drop-off/pick-up. It was great.

And whenever I get to experience church as a someone in the pews (or comfortable padded chairs), I’m reminded of how helpful it is when the worship leader begins with the beginning and ends with the ending.

Here’s what I mean.

On those Sundays, when I had finally gotten my kids signed up for Sunday school, dropped my 21-month-old at nursery (and left her crying), convinced my 4-year-old that the donuts she just saw were not for her, and figured out that my 6-year-old had a very specific seating chart in mind (in between me and Catherine), the opening song was already halfway done, and I needed to get my bearings.

Kindly, the worship leader had chosen opening songs that focused me upward. He helped me get my bearings on just who this God is that I’m singing to, and some of the countless reasons why he’s worthy of my worship.

This is good worship leading: it’s thinking through how to pastorally guide people, as distract-able and weary as we’re all prone to be, to behold again (and again, and again) the God who has revealed himself to us, principally in the person of Jesus Christ.

But all too often, worship leaders don’t begin at the beginning. Instead, they begin at the ending. And to make things clunkier, they end with the beginning.

When the opening songs have to do with sending, going out into the world, or songs of mission, your congregation might be saying “but I just dropped my crying kid off at nursery, and I’m not even sure I remembered to lock our front door when we left the house…” It’s good to sing these kinds of songs, but it’s a better idea to sing them after you’ve laid a little bit of groundwork first.

Wait until people have gotten their bearings, heard the Good News, and had God’s Word opened to them before singing songs about the implications of it all.

Songs that articulate a response, and a willingness to go out in mission to the world are good and necessary (and rare), but usually work a whole lot better at the ending. And this way, you can begin with the beginning: consistently calling people to look upwards, before calling them to look outwards.

Pursuing Lyrical and Musical Flow

1What’s one thing that can make or break your effectiveness in worship leading?

Flow.

Good storytellers, movie directors, public speakers, and writers learn how to flow naturally from one chapter/scene/subject to the next. Bad or nonexistent transitions can weaken otherwise good content, because the joltiness of the finished project screams a lack of cohesion. Cohesiveness – or “flow” – is a really important thing.

Worship leaders who don’t lead their congregations and musicians with a cohesive flow from one song to the next run the risk of working against themselves. Even though the songs might be good songs, without those songs being threaded and woven together, it doesn’t matter so much. There’s no clear narrative, no natural progression, and no clear big picture. It’s all a jumble of little pieces, random songs, different keys, disconnected topics, and instead of leaving a congregation saying “aha!”, it leaves them asking “huh?”

Developing a good sense of lyrical and musical flow is absolutely essential for worship leaders.

Lyrical flow
Before I even mention some tips/ideas on how to connect songs musically, it has to be said that the most important thing is that songs connect to each other lyrically in a way that not only makes logical and theological sense, but that also points people in one direction. You don’t want to take a sharp right turn after one song and a sharp left turn after the next. The songs should connect to each other like a road leads to a destination. The destination being exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. Every week. Every Sunday.

It’s like you’re a tour guide at the Grand Canyon. Are there a lot of different ways people can look at the Grand Canyon? Yes. There are many different overlooks. Maybe they can take a helicopter ride. Maybe they can go deeper into it. Maybe they should look at from the north. Maybe from the east. You, as the tour guide, can point people to the Grand Canyon from different angles every time you stand before them. But you’re always pointing at the same thing.

The same goes for our songs. They point at the same thing, but from different angles, and they do so in a way that helps people see the greatness of the One to whom they all point.

Musical flow
Here are eight ways I try to make the songs I lead flow into and out of each other naturally. 

1. Songs in the same key. 
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. I’ll pick a song after it that’s in G. Easy as worship leading pie.

2. Songs in connected keys.
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. What’s the “4” chord in G? That’s right, it’s C. So I’ll pick a song after it that’s in C. Or what’s the “5” chord in G? That’s right, it’s D. You know your scales. Good job. So, I’ll pick a song after it that’s in D. Voila.

3. Be thinking of the tempo/groove/time signature of the next song when you’re wrapping up the first song
I’m finishing up “Cornerstone”. After it I’m going into “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”. I’m doing them both in E, so that’s easy, but how do I get from “Cornerstone” to “Praise to the Lord…” smoothly since “Praise to the Lord” is in 6/8 and “Cornerstone” is in 4/4? I make a mental transition to “Praise to the Lord” during the last two or three measures of “Cornerstone”. When I’m singing “…Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.” I’m getting ready to hit that 6/8 feel immediately on the word “all”. Then I establish a strong foundation for the next song and my congregation feels confident enough to sing with… I hope… confidence.

4. Don’t let your sheet music/chord charts/iPad/hymnal ruin your flow
Worship leaders should not, ever, under any circumstance other than it being their first year of leading worship (in which case you have an exemption that expires after one year), stop one song and take 3-5 seconds to shuffle pieces of paper around on your music stand (or swipe your iPad) before starting the next song. Do whatever it takes to turn pages without anyone noticing. Tape papers together. Use paper clips. Big tabs. Foot pedals. A page-turner. One of Santa’s elves. Whatever. This can kill momentum in a set faster than you can say “skinny jeans”.

5. Be confident enough to start and stop
Having said that, not every song can go into another song in the same (or related) key. In this case, be confident enough to stop the one song, and confidently start the next one. But you might to consider “covering it up” with a prayer, or reading a Psalm, or actually (gasp!) letting there be an actually intentional time of silence and stillness. There’s a difference between meaningless dead air when you’re flipping pages, and intentional quiet space for people to reflect on what they’ve just sung.

6. Look for a commonly shared note between random keys and make that note your best friend
There aren’t a whole lot of shared notes between C major and E major. But they both have a E in them! So if I finish “It is Well” in C and want to move to a song in E, I might (if I’m playing piano or have someone playing piano who can do this) find that E note, play it randomly for a few beats, and then keep hammering it while establishing the new key of E.

7. Modulate!
Song one is in C. Song two is in D. So make the first song modulate to D so they’ll connect better. Or, if I want to come out of Bb and go into the next song in G, I might make the song that’s in Bb modulate to C towards the end so that I can move from C to G more naturally (since G is the “5” chord in C).

8. Move keys around
My first song is in G. The next that works after it is in A. I don’t want to have to worry about a modulation. But that second song would work just fine in G. I’ll move it down to G and now I don’t have to worry about doing any gymnastics in between songs to make that transition sound natural.

Five years ago I tried to demonstrate some of these musical flow ideas in a tutorial video. If you’d find it helpful to see what I’m talking about with these musical flow ideas, click here.

Understanding the importance of lyrical and musical flow – and learning how to craft and lead a progression of songs that cohesively points people to the greatness of God in Jesus Christ – is a skill in which every worship leader needs to be consistently growing. I’m always finding new ways of connecting songs more effectively to one another, and I’m always learning in hindsight (or realizing during a service) some things I could have done differently. It’s all part of the process of growing as a worship leader. It should never stop.

Challenge yourself – and listen back to yourself – to make sure you’re leading worship like a good storyteller. We have the best story of all (because it’s true!) to proclaim week after week. Tell the story well and cohesively (lyrically and musically), so that the “ahas!” far outnumber the “huh?”s as much as you can help it.

The Gospel Works

1A worship leader can never go wrong having his congregation proclaim the gospel in song. In our weekly quest to find something that “works”, we quite simply don’t have to look any further than to Jesus, to what he accomplished for us, and to what he has secured for us. Regardless of your church’s setting, demographics, traditions, worship style, successes, failures, attendance numbers, and whatever buzzword is floating around at the moment, singing songs grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ always – always – “works”.

The gospel works on the slow summer Sundays. It works on Easter. And it works when a snowstorm cuts your attendance by 80%.

The gospel works when your church votes to leave a denomination. It works when your church wins a lawsuit. And it works when your church loses a lawsuit.

The gospel works when you welcome a new pastor. It works when you lose a pastor. And it works when you’re in between pastors.

The gospel works with organs. It works with electric guitars. And it works with a iPod plugged into a sound system when that’s the best you can do.

The gospel works when your church is growing. It works when your church is stagnant. And it works when your church is dying.

The gospel works when the sermon is bad. It works when the music is bad. It works when the sound system is bad.

The gospel works when you have a lot to celebrate. It works when you’re full of sorrow. And it works when you aren’t sure what in the world to sing.

The gospel works when people are singing with gusto. It works when they look bored to tears. And it works on the high school boys who are too cool to sing.

The gospel works in a packed mega church. It works in a half-full 7:30am service. And it works in a small group of 8 in a living room.

The gospel works when a nation celebrates a holiday. The gospel works when a nation is approaching election day. And the gospel works when a nation is grieving yet another tragedy.

We are not called to be more and more creative each Sunday – finding a new spin or incorporating the newest song or writing a new liturgy or saying a new thing. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We are called to help people sing the good news of Jesus Christ.

We are called to be doggedly persistent and consistent, in the face of whatever ups and downs our church and/or our culture is riding, and point people to the unchanging and uncompromising gospel. It always – yes always – works.

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.

Christ-centeredness
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).

Consistency
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.

Responding To The Increasingly Short Shelf-Life Of Worship Songs

1Things are not as simple for worship leaders/church music directors as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a more complicated thing.

There are now more songs to choose from than ever, at an increasingly rapid speed, coming from big publishers, independent artists, local churches, Christian radio, social media feeds, conferences, carrier pigeons, and their distant relatives, hipsters. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on introducing a new song to our congregation that was written in 2012, a newer new song comes along that’s even newer, making the new song we thought was new feel pretty old. Confused? You should be.

Studio albums. Live albums. EPs. Singles. Free downloads. Deluxe versions. Acoustic versions. Recorded on a beach versions. Recorded on top of a mountain versions. A lot of it is really good stuff! A lot of it is not-so-good stuff… And when you add it all together, it’s just a lot of new stuff to sort through, even if you had nothing else to do all week long than listen to all the new stuff. And even then you’d be out-of-touch if you took a few weeks off.

In the ancient past, known as the “1990s”, when a “new” song really caught on, like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” or “Shout to the Lord”, that new song (for better or worse…) stuck around in a church’s repertoire for a substantial period of time, even until present-day. Nowadays, in the era of worship song abundance (again, not a bad thing, just a more complicated thing), when a new song catches on, it might disappear several months later when new crop of new songs come on the scene.

What’s the result? Two things are happening: First, worship leaders are overwhelmed and inundated, possibly discouraged that they can’t keep up, and either resisting or succumbing to the pressure and marketing that screams at them to stay relevant. Second, congregations are being asked to learn more new songs than they can handle, aren’t given the opportunity to sing these new songs for years and years, are being fed songs that might not be particularly nourishing.

(Big caveat: not every new song should have “lasting power”. Some new songs will last for centuries to come. Some will (and should) be retired after a season. This is OK. We know that the New Testament church sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). We have many of those still today (i.e. the Psalms). But others have fallen away. So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. So we should be OK with singing songs that won’t necessarily be sung hundreds of years from now. We just have to be careful to keep our repertoire in a healthy balance. Caveat over.)

Because of the increasingly short shelf-life of modern worship music, worship leaders should make sure we:

Stay mindful of what’s out there
Don’t bury yourself in a cave of stuff-you-like-that-you’ve-used-before. Be willing to listen to new music, and incorporate what will work in your context.

Don’t stress out about keeping up with it all
It’s simply impossible, unless you have tons of time, to keep up with all the new stuff that’s out there.

Be OK with being a late adopter
It’s amazing how waiting a few years will allow the very best of the new stuff to rise to the top of the pile.

Have high standards
Biblical faithfulness, theological correctness, gospel centeredness, musical richness, and congregational accessibility are the five big boxes you should be able to check. If a new song is really popular but doesn’t check all five of those boxes, then maybe you shouldn’t use it.

Distinguish between usefulnesses
Of all the thousands of new songs that will be written this year, maybe just five of those should find their way on to your congregation’s lips. The other songs might be all be wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re useful for incorporation into your church’s repertoire.

Choose songs for the congregation you have
Certain songs will work well in big churches with big bands but flop in smaller churches with smaller bands. And likewise, certain songs will work well in your local context that no one else has ever heard of before! You have to be willing to put blinders on when choosing songs for your congregation, and choose what serves them the best.

Build a solid repertoire – not a cool playlist
A congregation will sing with confidence when they know the songs. A congregation will sing with timidity when they don’t. A solid repertoire cultivates congregational confidence. An ever-changing (but cool!) playlist cultivates insecurity. Focus primarily on helping people exalt Jesus in song, and let the copyright dates take a back seat.

Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have more resources to draw from than ever to help our congregations worship God in song. May we think wisely, pastorally, and discerningly as we adjust to the shortening shelf-life of what’s being produced, and remain faithful to proclaim the never-changing, always-relevant Good News.