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.

Performing A Role Or Performing A Show? Looking At The Fruit

1Yes, we’re all performers. 

The stay-at-home Mom performs her duties as well as she can on as little sleep as she gets. The mechanic performs his duties with the tools and training he’s gained through the years.

And the worship leader performs his or her Sunday duties on a platform of some kind, with musicians and vocalists of some kind, with training and (hopefully) practice of some kind. So, yes, worship leaders and their teams are performers, in one sense of the word.

But the word “perform” can mean two things: First, do a job. Second, put on a show. It’s the second meaning of the word that worship leaders have to avoid. We have to perform a role (which has both musical and pastoral components) focusing a congregation on Christ, without performing a show, focusing a congregation on us. It’s a fine line. And it’s a crucial distinction to make.

DISTINCTION ONEOur role is to serve our congregation by performing our role of helping them see and savor (and sing to) Jesus Christ.

– This requires pastoral gifts and sensitivities (i.e. knowing, loving, and serving our people).

– It requires musical skill (i.e. choosing songs, directing musicians, running rehearsals, and leading music).

– It requires leadership gifts (i.e. working with volunteers, arranging a team, interacting with different kinds of people, and leading a congregation in singing).

– And finally, it requires a certain comfort level with being up front, being seen, and being heard, in order to ensure the congregation’s confidence in singing to Jesus.

– All of these pastoral, musical, leadership, and up-front gifts go into us performing our Sunday morning role as a worship leader, facilitating the corporate exaltation of Jesus Christ.

DISTINCTION TWOOur role is not to entertain our congregation by performing a show (that they are welcome to follow along to if they can, or just observe).

– This diminishes the pastoral component of our role, since entertaining a crowd allows us to be more removed from the people.

– This disproportionately elevates musical skill to being the primary ingredient in the mix, since the demand is not so much on facilitating congregational singing, but more on keeping them entertained.

– This de-emphasizes pastoral/musical leadership, and instead demands a certain degree of star-power necessary to carry a musical performance from week to week.

– And this exalts the up-front persona, or stage presence, as being less about facilitating congregational singing, and more about performing the songs well.

– This is not the description of a worship leader performing his role. It’s the description of someone performing a show.

CRUCIAL DISTINCTION:
(1) Performing the different aspects of our role with humility, excellence, and skill, for the sake of building up of a congregation into Christ and helping them sing TO Christ, is effective worship leading. The fruit is that people focus on Jesus.

(2) Performing a sequence of songs in front of a congregation in a way that leads them to focus on the performance and the performers, is effectively performancism. The fruit is that people focus on the performers.

Of course we can’t help if someone, or let’s say a whole congregation, just happens to want to focus on us, even though our heart is absolutely in the place of performing a worship leading role. Every worship leader experiences leading a group of people who just aren’t responsive, no matter how hard they try or how much they pray.

But we can help what kind of fruit we’re planting.

If you want to grow apples, plant an apple tree. And take care of that apple tree. It might not grow apples for a long time. But eventually, if you planted it right, it will grow the right kind, and right flavor, of fruit.

Same goes for worship leaders. If we want people to look at Jesus, then plant that fruit. If we want people to look at us, then plant that fruit. We decide what kind of fruit to plant.

But God will only water one kind of fruit. The other kind will shrivel up and die.

Sing A New Song (But Not Too Many… And Not Too Many Of Yours)

1The Bible is clear: We should be singing new songs to the Lord (Psalm 96:1 as one example of many).

What is less clear: How often should we sing new songs at our churches? I took a stab at answering this question with some practical suggestions over three years ago.

What is even less clear: How often should we sing our (or someone in our church’s) original songs? In Monday’s post I said “in extreme moderation“. Some people understood what I meant by that. Others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we should never sing original songs”. And some others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we shouldn’t sing anything other than the Psalms”. It looks like my statement could use some clearing up.

Yes, the Bible is clear that we should sing new songs to the Lord. It’s less clear about how often we should sing original songs on a Sunday morning. So where can we look for guidance?

1 Corinthians 14 is one of the foremost places in scripture where we are given instructions about principles that should guide our worship gatherings. Paul deals with some tricky issues like tongues and prophecy, and in so doing, he lays out some guidelines that can help govern us as we think about using original songs.

1. Make sure the church is being built up (1 Cor  14:3-4, 12, 26)
2. Make sure what’s going on is clear to the people in the room (1 Cor 14:7-11, 33)
3. Engage both the spirit and the mind (1 Cor 14:15)
4. Try to engage outsiders (1 Cor 14:16)

So, when choosing songs for any worship gathering, some of the questions going through a worship leader’s head should be:

1. Will these songs build up my church? (i.e. build them up into Jesus)
2. Will these songs be clear/singable/accessible? 
3. Will these songs engage the minds and spirits of the people in the room?
4. Will outsiders find it too difficult to try to sing along with us?

These questions get us thinking pastorally about song selection. They guide us towards choosing songs that will serve our congregation. And they help us be objective about using our original songs. We can’t run away from these questions. We can’t run away from our responsibility to serve the people of God.

These questions point us towards balance and moderation.

Balance
– Using songs that have lasted for centuries (for a reason) and are known by Christians from all backgrounds and traditions, and even some non-Christians who may have heard them on random occasions
– Using songs from different sources, to ensure that we don’t only express things the same way, with the same wording, with the same kind of melodies and rhythms, but with a broadness and depth that using only one or two sources doesn’t get at.
– Using familiar songs that will build confidence and gain trust
– Using new songs that my church needs to learn so they can be built up even more

Moderation
– Using too many original songs might make it hard for outsiders (from other churches, visitors, non-Christians) to sing along until they’ve been around for a while
– Using too many original songs might make Sunday mornings hard work for the average singer who finds lesser-known songs to require more energy to learn
– It’s harder to think objectively about whether a song is (1) the right fit, (2) melodically and lyrically excellent, and (3) singable, when you’re the one who wrote it.
– If your church is a part of the broader Body of Christ, one principle way you can demonstrate that is by singing songs written by its different members.

To be clear:
1. The Bible clearly encourages the singing and writing of new songs (and so we should).
2. Paul’s encouragement to the New Testament church was to sing all sorts of different songs (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19) (and  so we should).
3. Paul advocates pursuing the Holy Spirit in our gatherings (and so we should).
4. Paul encourages the leaders of the gatherings to hold the building up of the body as the standard which governs what goes on during a gathering (and so we should).
5. Paul wants as many people engaged in what’s going on as possible (and so we should).

Therefore,

– Sing, sing, sing.
– Sing old songs, sing new songs, sing original songs.
– Sing songs that people can sing along to.
– Point to Jesus 

Oh 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.
(Psalm 96:1-2 ESV)

Know Your Destination

1Occasionally my wife and I will get in the car (i.e. minivan), with all three kids successfully fastened into their car seats, with the diaper bag appropriately packed with snacks, drinks, diapers, wipes, back-up clothes, etc., and the correct shoes on the correct feet, and have absolutely no idea where we’re going.

I’ll back out of the driveway and Catherine will ask me something like “where are we going?” I’ll respond “I don’t know“. And then we’ll proceed to decide if we want to go to Starbucks, or the grocery store, or the mall, or to a playground, or some other errand. We knew we wanted to get out of the house before we all went crazy, but we hadn’t quite figured out where we were going to go. Minor detail.

I think worship leaders can foolishly approach service planning like this sometimes. We get to the service with songs picked and rehearsed, a band/choir arranged and ready, a service outline printed out and ready to be followed, and the congregation coming to fill the seats. But we have absolutely no idea where we’re going.

I’ve heard preachers say that they know they’re in trouble when they can’t tell their spouse in one sentence what their sermon is going to communicate. I think the same is true for worship leaders. If we can’t articulate in one sentence what our songs (and whole service) is going to communicate, then we’re in trouble.

I’ve talked a lot about this idea in recent months. I used the example of the writers of the TV series LOST who obviously had no idea where the narrative was heading and just started throwing in nonsense. And last week I talked about how, when planning a service, you can approach it from the perspective of a core and an angle.

I just want to add that, just like on a successful trip in the car requires that you know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, what turns to take, and what route is best, an effective worship leader will know where he or she is going, how they’re going to get there, what turns to take, and what route is best. Choosing songs without knowing how they make sense in the larger narrative of your service will result in you driving around aimlessly for a while and burning lots of gas.

Know your destination! Your passengers will thank you.

When You’re Out of Ideas

dryWhat do you do as a worship leader when you’re all of ideas? Particularly when picking songs for yet another service seems to be next to impossible? Here are some suggestions:

Take a vacation
One sign of burn-out is mental fatigue. Take a break. Take one or two Sundays off in a row. Do whatever you have to do to get away. Visit a good church. Or (gasp) sleep in.

Buy a bunch of new worship CDs
Have you listened to Matt Redman’s “Your Grace Finds Me“, or The Gospel Coalition’s “Songs from the Book of Luke” or Keith and Kristyn Getty’s new live album, or Dustin Kensrue’s “The Water and the Blood“, or Sovereign Grace’s “Grace Has Come” or Indelible Grace’s “Joy Beyond the Sorrow” (from last year), or Paul Baloche’s “The Same Love“? Even if you listen to all of these and only take away 2 songs you could teach your congregation, you’ll still have a lot of new arrangement ideas, and melodies floating around in your head that help you feel more fresh.

Find time for personal worship
When I’m feeling all out of ideas, many times that means I need to sit down with my guitar or at a piano and just begin to play music and articulate praise to God. Your public ministry has to be an overflow from your private life or else you’ll be operating on fumes.

See/hear/ask what other churches are doing
If you know other worship leaders at different churches, send them a note and ask them what they’ve done recently (songs, or other ideas) that’s really clicked with their congregations. Maybe it’s a terrible idea. But maybe it’s a good one. And you should’t be ashamed to use it and adapt it in your setting.

Stretch your brain
Go to a conference, read a theological book, or take a seminary class (there are a bunch of options online if you don’t live near a good one). Ask if your church will pay for this out of their continuing education budget. They should! You being out of ideas is an invitation to fill your brain and your heart with a new supply of concepts, techniques, history, terminology, and bible.

Lean on your team
Invite your worship team over to your house for a half-day retreat on a Saturday. Feed them breakfast and then come together for a couple of hours before adjourning at lunch. Laugh, worship, and pray together, and then put some huge white paper up on the walls. Have a group conversation about where your worship ministry has been, where it is now, where it’s going, and what God is saying. You’ll get some tangents and some random comments, but you’ll also get a lot of good insight from people who are a bit more able to look at things from a 50,000 foot view than you.

Take a deep breath
An awful lot of worship leaders feel a pressure to perform, to be super creative, to be edgy, to be relevant, to be hipster, to be up on all the new stuff, to be musically inventive, and to get results on Sunday mornings. It’s not that being any of those is bad, or that hoping for fruitful worship leading is wrong, but when we allow the pursuit of creativity or ingenuity to have power over us, then we’ve gone too far. Focus on being faithful to Jesus, faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel, and faithful to your congregation. Sometimes when you think you’re out of ideas all you actually need to do is keep drawing from the same well again and again and again.

Ten Worship Leading Non-Negotiables

1There is so much good and helpful advice for worship leaders out there that I thought I’d try my hand at condensing it all down into 10 non-negotiables.

  1. You are not the center.
  2. You make Jesus the center.
  3. Your priority is helping the congregation sing with faith.
  4. You support your pastor.
  5. You choose songs that are full of truth.
  6. You use musicians who are gifted and have soft hearts toward Jesus.
  7. You tailor the keys and arrangements of songs to serve the people in the room.
  8. Your family comes first.
  9. You’re never alone with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse.
  10. You won’t ever compromise numbers 1-9.

May we be worship leaders who, at our core, love Jesus, love our congregations, and love our families.