You Really Don’t Need To Talk That Much

1Good news for worship leaders all over the world: there’s no reason for you to do much talking. Seriously. You really don’t need to talk that much.

Ask yourself: how many times per month/per Sunday/per service do I interrupt the flow of songs to talk for more than 5 seconds? Like the game of golf, the lower your score, the better. If you get a high number when you ask that question, may I kindly suggest that you reconsider your approach?

There are many good reasons you should talk when you’re leading worship:
– To introduce a new song
– To read Scripture
– To give instruction (ask people to stand/sit/turn and greet neighbors)
– To transition (to a different element of the service, to a different theme in the singing)
– To explain (why are we singing an obscure hymn, what national tragedy are we responding to, why do you want them to just listen to the verses, etc.)

But there are many good reasons you shouldn’t talk when you lead worship:
– It places you front and center in the consciousness of everyone in the room
– Your songs should connect well enough (most of the time) that you don’t need to say anything
– It runs the risk of you usurping the responsibility of your pastor
– When you talk too much you become like the boy who cried wolf. When you really have something important to say, no one will listen because they’re tired of you talking so much
– It can make you unnecessarily nervous. If talking in between songs makes you anxious, then there’s an easy solution: don’t do it
– It places you in a professorial role (i.e. that of a professor to his students), as opposed to a familial role (i.e. that of a fellow brother or sister)

Think carefully about whether or not your congregation would be better served by you speaking or by you letting things speak for yourself. Most of the time, go with the latter option.

Would You Say it Like That in a Normal Conversation?

One of the best pieces of worship leading advice I ever received was from my pastor who told me to write down ahead of time whatever I planned on saying or praying on a Sunday morning. If I wanted to introduce a song, offer a quick reflection or encouragement, or pray out loud, he suggested I think it through ahead of time and write it down. Very good advice.

The problem was that when it came time to actually say what I had prepared, or pray what I had written out, it sounded canned, fake, and unnatural. It sounded like I was reading off of a piece of paper. The fact that I had to keep looking down at my music stand didn’t help either. The substance of what I was saying was good, but the delivery was bad.

So my advice to worship leaders (this includes me here…) is to not only write down ahead of time what you want to say/pray, but to make certain it sounds like you. Say it out loud. Would you say this in a normal conversation? Is that the word you would use? Would you phrase it like that? If you wouldn’t say it or phrase it like that in a normal conversation with a friend, then don’t write it down that way. Write with your voice.

My test for this is a little strange but I’ll share it anyways.

When I’m thinking through what I’m going to say when I introduce a song or offer a word of encouragement, I picture that I’m driving my car, with my wife in the passenger seat, and some good friends in the back seat, and I want to tell them why we’re going to sing a particular song on Sunday.

Imagine if, while driving my wife and some friends around town and the topic of my Sunday song list came up, I said something like: “Beloved, we’ve gathered here in the house of the Lord and I’m just so excited for what God’s gonna do. This next song says we have 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord, and as we raise our voices as one body this morning I just want to encourage you to really go for it this morning and ‘sing like never before’.”

My wife and my friends would look at me like I was an alien. I don’t usually talk like that. Why am I putting on this weird voice? Why am I phrasing things so awkwardly? What happened to the real Jamie?

How would I sound explaining something to someone in a normal conversation? That’s how I want to sound on stage. When you’re thinking through what to say/pray on a Sunday, try looking at an empty chair, and imagine one of your friends sitting in it. Talk to him. That’s how you naturally communicate. Capture that and communicate to your congregation the same way, if possible. Be yourself and they’ll hear what you’re saying.

Give-Me-a-Break Worship Leader Phrases

Worship leaders have a bad habit of saying things on the platform – to a large group of people – that they would never actually say in real life. I call these “give me a break” worship leader phrases.

If you said them to friends over dinner, they would look at you like you were an idiot. If you said them to someone riding in the car with you, they would assume you were trying to be funny.

But you (and when I say “you” I mean “we”) say them when you’re leading worship (because part of your brain has shut down apparently) and you expect the congregation to gleefully respond as if they were equally as brain-impaired.

Here are the top four give-me-a-break worship leader phrases that I’m aware of in existence.

1. Do you love Jesus today?
Seriously? Are you gauging my love for Jesus based on how long and loud I say “yeah!”? If I don’t say “yeah!” does that mean I don’t love Jesus? Would you ever say this to the dude changing the oil on your car? No. Well he might be in church today and you just made him whisper “give me a break” under his breath.

2. Are you glad to be in the house of the Lord?
There are several issues with this one: First, is “the house of the Lord” a term for “church” that most people understand? I don’t think so. Second, what if I’m not particularly “glad” to be in it? Maybe I’d rather be at home watching Football. Aren’t you just expecting everyone will happily respond “verily! Verily! Mine heart doth rejoice in this glorious morning of fellowship with my brethren!”? Give me a break. (Note: related phrases are “how we doing this morning?” and “are you ready to worship?”)

3. Come on!
This one is usually barked, and usually comes at the beginning of an upbeat song. Cue the drums, electric guitar riff, and worship leader offering some variation of “come on!” or “come on church!” or “do you love Jesus today? Come on!”

Imagine serving as the usher at a wedding. Instead of greeting a guest with a smile and a welcome and a word of greeting and an extended arm, you stand 20 feet away and yell “come on!” How will that make the guest feel? Welcomed or yelled at? Yelled at. When people get yelled (or barked at) they get defensive.

4. That’s some good singing, church!
I can proudly say I’ve never used this one. And I’ve not heard worship leaders use it an awful lot. But when I have heard worship leaders use it, I inevitably want to scream. Here’s the problem: people (hopefully) aren’t singing to you or for you. I know you’re just trying to encourage them, but this one just makes it seem like you’re a third grade music teacher congratulating your students on how they sang their state capitals song so well.  

I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. Please share them. My point isn’t to pick on worship leaders, since I often say things I wish I had phrased better! Rather, my point is to encourage us to not say things to the congregation that we wouldn’t say to friends in our living room, or that we wouldn’t want to have said to us if we were in the congregation. Be humble, be confident, and be yourself.

Maybe I Could Have Phrased That Better

Sometimes worship leaders have to communicate something in a short amount of time. Maybe to the band, the sound guy, the congregation, or the pastor. It can be during a set of songs, or perhaps quickly in between services. Whatever the situation and whoever the person, here are (in my experience) some of the most common phrases, and how they can be poorly worded or more effectively worded.

Bad: I need more of myself
You’re talking to the sound engineer. You can’t hear your voice or your instrument. You want to hear more. So you ask for more. The problem is you come across demanding and like you have a huge ego.
Try: Could you please help me hear myself better in my monitor?

Bad: You played (sang) that the wrong way.
A worship team member makes a mistake. They don’t seem to notice. You need to help them notice. If you say it wrongly you could cause their defenses to shoot up in no time.
Try: Can we look at that (insert relevant section of song here) again? Here’s what I had in mind.

Bad: That won’t work.
Your pastor has an idea. You don’t think it’s a good idea. You want to tell him this. Remember: he’s your pastor. You need to humbly submit. If he’s open to receiving your feedback, you need to share it out of a heart of submission.
Try: So you’re thinking we (insert his idea here. Convince him you’ve heard him out). What would you think about (insert your idea here. He still gets the last word).

Bad: Shhhh!!!
I actually used this once on a backup singer on a men’s retreat. He was singing much too loud and I needed him to back up, so I got his attention and said “shhh!!!” Very bad idea. This is for two year olds, and that’s about where it stops.
Try: Non-verbal: Back up from the mic or use your hand to indicate to lower the volume. Verbal: Let’s (include yourself in it) blend a bit better.

Bad: Please rise.
What are we? Army cadets? No. You can use more normal English to get us to stand up.
Try: Let’s stand together or would you like to stand (I learned this from my British worship leader friends).

These are just a few that come to mind. Please free to share of other ways you can say things with a bit more grace but still get the same point across in a short amount of time.

Say It Like You Mean It

A few months ago before one of our Sunday morning services, my pastor, John Yates came to me and asked me to give a little introduction to one of the songs we were singing to help the congregation understand why we were singing it.

He said something that struck me: “just say something briefly that will help people know why this song is being sung. But sometimes you sound apologetic when you speak. Just say it firmly and confidently”.

I thought about that for a long time. And I’ve thought about it a lot since then. He was right.

Rewind to seven or eight years ago. I was leading worship for a small church’s yearly retreat in a little town called Orkney Springs, Virginia, and the pastor had given me permission to offer encouragements and exhortations to help his congregation grow in worship, and so from time to time I would.

On Saturday afternoon, he came to me and (notice a theme here?) said something that struck me. With a loving gentleness he said: “you have a gift for helping people feel comfortable to worship God freely. But when you speak, you need to just look them in the eye and speak more confidently. You sound like you’re sorry you’re saying what you’re saying. Speak more boldly.”

When two totally unrelated people say the exact same thing to you eight years apart, it might be a sign that they’re onto an area in which you need to grow. For me, this area is speaking more confidently to the congregation.

I don’t usually have a problem leading worship confidently if I’m prepared and prayed up. I’ve been doing it for a relatively long time. But even though I feel confident speaking to the congregation, I (apparently) can come across as timid

It’s a bad habit I’ve developed – and my hunch is that other worship leaders have developed it too because I’ve seen it in them and it reminds me of myself.

In our attempt to be humble and gentle, we take on a particular tone of our voice and cadence of speech that is meant to sound non-threatening but ends up sounding apologetic, a bit immature, and unconfident. We don’t sound like ourselves. We sound like the diet-version of ourselves. Our voice is higher. We add in “ums”. We fiddle with our glasses. We repeat ourselves. We stumble over ourselves. We use “just” a lot. We keep our eyes closed.

Think about the four or five speakers/preachers you really enjoy listening to. They have different styles and approaches but I guarantee you they share one attribute: they speak with confidence.

Steve Brown, the guy whose class I took a month ago, likes to ruffle feathers, but one thing he said about his advice to preachers really struck me. It applies to worship leaders too. He says that every time before you preach (or lead worship) you have to do some “self-talk”. Say to yourself: “I’ve been commissioned by the High King of Heaven… and you WILL listen to me!

That can rub us the wrong way. But strange as it sounds, it actually helps. If we’ve been called and equipped by God to serve in a ministry capacity, then we have to believe that he’s put us on the very platforms we find ourselves and in front of the very microphones pointing at our mouths because he wants to use us.

So it’s a good idea to talk like it.

 

The more I think about this whole issue of not sounding apologetic when I speak, the more it seems like the key is balancing three God-centered attributes: love (1 Corinthians 13:2), humility (James 4:6), and power (2 Timothy 1:7).

Maybe you have the boldness and humility down but need to grow in loving the people who are listening to you. Maybe you’re confident and loving but you’re awfully arrogant about it and need to be more humble.

But maybe your (my) problem is that you need to feel released by God to be more confident and bold when you speak. He’ll help you do this if you ask. It’s not about you flexing your muscles – but about you leading with Gospel-centered humility and Spirit-enabled power.

Talking Before a Song Can Be a Good Idea (Sometimes)

A few months ago I shared some thoughts on how worship leaders will serve their congregations more effectively if they take time to prayerfully think through and write out anything they might say before or after songs during corporate worship. Oftentimes worship leaders will spend hours choosing and rehearsing songs, but spend no time preparing what they’ll say. They can end up rambling, fumbling over themselves, and confusing the congregation. (See “What Are You Talking About?” Pt. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Last night I was asked to lead 4 songs at the beginning of our monthly men’s ministry meeting. We sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (key of C and D), “In Christ Alone” (key of D), “Here I am to Worship” (key of D), and “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” (key of D and E).

As I was preparing to lead, I felt like it would be good for me to share an encouragement and also offer a bit of explanation before the first song. I spent a few minutes typing up what I would say to help me think through what I wanted to communicate and how. I read through it a few times, go comfortable with the basic gist of what I wanted to say, and had the paper on my music stand in case I needed it. Here’s basically what I said, and why I said it:

“Well, good evening everybody. In a moment we’re going to stand and sing together, and we’re going to begin by singing a line that’s probably so familiar that we’re in danger of just singing it without even thinking about what we’re singing.”

I wanted to draw their attention to what we were about to sing, especially since it was such a familiar song. It’s easy to get on auto-pilot and sing words without thinking about them.

“We’ll sing: ‘come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace’. What a great prayer! I almost wish we could start off every service and every meeting with this song just for that one line. We’re asking God, the giver of every good gift, the ‘fount of every blessing’ to ‘tune (our) hearts to sing (his) grace’, to help us to fix our eyes on what he’s done for us in Christ. He has lavished his grace on us, poured out ‘streams of mercy never ceasing’, and we’re asking him to help us to praise him.”

My goal was to make a simple point that what we were about to sing wasn’t just poetic imagery, but a helpful and necessary prayer to God. I explained the phrase “fount of every blessing”, and the idea of him tuning our hearts to sing his grace. Since “grace” can unfortunately become a churchy word without much meaning, I just tried to highlight it by reminding us all that God showed us undeserved grace ultimately in giving us Jesus Christ, and has shown us unceasing mercy.

“I know that for me, and probably for all of us here, our hearts get out of tune, we get weary, we sin, and we begin to worship other gods. When the music starts at a meeting like this we might stand with a heart far from God and no desire to sing to him, and no concept of his amazing grace.”

At 7:30pm on a Wednesday night, I knew that most of these men had come straight to church from a long day at work, a grueling commute in Washington D.C. traffic, and all sorts of situations and dynamics at home and the office. I also know that we’re all fallen and our hearts become set on our own glory, hardened by sin, and we become easily distracted.

“So as we sing that line, let’s ask the fount of every blessing to tune our hearts to sing about his grace, his streams of mercy never ceasing, and how Jesus sought after us when we were strangers to God. Let’s fix our eyes on our Savior and sing praise to him. We’ll sing about a ‘melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above’ – the song that the saints and angels are singing even now around the throne. We get to join in. So let’s stand together and sing.”

By this point I had gone for about a minute and a half, which is on the long side for a worship leader. I wanted to wrap it up, summarize a bit of what I had already said, and explain one more phrase that might be confusing to people. Then we stood to sing and I said very little after that. The songs flowed from one to another naturally and I didn’t really feel like I needed to add a whole lot.

I attempted to keep it brief, keep it engaging, keep it God-focused, and keep it helpful.

Generally, worship leaders shouldn’t talk very much. And if you don’t know what to say, it’s probably better to not talk at all. But if and when there are occasions when it might be appropriate for worship leaders to say something, it’s always a good idea to be as prepared as possible.

When is it OK to Use Humor?

My friend Mike Payne commented on my Checking for Ticks post last week and asked: “in what circumstances, if any, is the use of humor appropriate in a worship service?

In general, the worship leader should be as invisible as possible. The more attention worship leaders draw to themselves, the less attention the congregation is giving to the greatness of God. Trying to be funny just for the sake of being funny doesn’t serve the congregation, it serves the worship leader’s ego.

Sometimes, though, worship leaders can actually serve the congregation by using humor. While I’m sure there are more, here are a few circumstances in which humor coul help:
Breaking tension or awkwardness:
If the person projecting the lyrics accidentally puts up ESPN.com instead of “How Great is Our God”, you are not going to be able to cover that up. Just laugh about it, say something short and funny, and then transition back to the song.
Cleaning up a train wreck:
Here’s a perfect example.


Addressing the elephant in the room:
If it’s pouring rain and hail is falling outside as people are coming into a service, don’t ignore it. Just say something like “good morning, thanks for swimming to church today”. It shows the congregation that you’re aware it wasn’t easy to make it, and it makes them chuckle, which helps them relax.
Helping people feel comfortable:
At our lessons and carols services this past December, I sang Andrew Peterson’s song “Matthew’s Begats” in the middle of the service, which tells the story of the family history of Jesus all the way from Abraham. If you’ve heard the song, you know that it has more of a bluegrass feel, complete with a banjo. This isn’t a style we use that often at my church, so before I sang the song I said:

“this next song is a little different from what you might be used to hearing here on a Sunday morning. We’ve even imported a banjo for this one. That may or may not be glad tidings of great joy for some of you – but… oh well! If you’re  anything like me, when we get to the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospels, you might kind of tune out. But hopefully this next song will help us all hear it in a new way. You can stay seated for this one, and let’s hear together the genealogy of our Savior.”

I wasn’t trying to be a comedian, and I didn’t go on and on. My goal wasn’t to leave people in stitches. I just made a little joke that the song would be a bit different, and I picked on the banjo player a little bit, and it helped the congregation feel comfortable.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for a worship leader to use humor when:
A medical emergency interrupts a service:
Oftentimes the first thing a worship leader will be tempted to say if someone has a medical emergency during a service and has to be taken out is: “I guess they didn’t like my singing.” It might make people laugh, but it’s pretty insensitive. If you found out later that the person was indeed in serious trouble, you would regret making light of the situation. Instead, just lead people in a short prayer for the person, and then move on.
Someone’s cell phone goes off:
A few years ago we had finished our opening song (I think it was “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”) and someone’s cell phone started ringing “YMCA”. I was tempted to make a joke about it, but it would have more disruptive to do that than to just let it go. A joke would have embarrassed that person even more, and if they were a visitor or a seeker, that would have been a shame.
Referring to another service:
I cringe when I hear worship leaders say things like: “you guys are singing so much better than the 8:30 service” or “are you all more awake than the last service?” It’s insulting and insensitive to everyone who attended the service you’re making fun of. Not a good idea.
To make inside jokes:
Inside jokes are fine for rehearsal or for one-on-one, but not when the congregation is listening in. They’ll feel left out, and you’ll come across as inconsiderate.

Ultimately, you really have to practice discernment and pray for wisdom. Err on the side of playing it safe unless you’re sure your humor will, in some way, serve the congregation. If you’re just trying to be funny for the sake of being funny, it’s probably a good idea to keep it to yourself.