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 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.

“Let’s Stand Together and Worship”

Romans12A few years ago, I realized I had developed a bad habit of saying “let’s stand together and worship” whenever I got up to lead some songs. It didn’t matter if it was the beginning, middle, or end of a service. It was what I said to get people to stand and sing after a time of prayer, the sermon, announcements, etc.

Someone finally pointed out to me that by saying “let’s stand together and worship” I was unintentionally sending two messages. First: worship is only singing. Second: what we have just been doing is not worship. Neither are true, of course, but you wouldn’t be able to tell I thought so if you listened to what I was saying.

I was also leaving off one important detail: who we are standing to worship. “Let’s stand together and worship” is not only inaccurate but it’s incomplete.

I can help the congregation see the whole service as a time of corporate worship and be reminded to whom we’re directing our praise by choosing my words carefully even when I’m just asking them to stand up. Here are just four examples:

  • “Let’s stand together and continue worshiping our great God.”
  • “Let’s stand and sing together to declare what Jesus has done for us.”
  • “I’d like to invite you to stand as we respond to God’s word by singing this song of thankfulness.”
  • “As we continue in worship by hearing God’s word read, you can be seated.”

Notice I use the word “continue” a couple of times. This is a gentle reminder to the congregation that “worship” doesn’t stop when the songs stop.

I also try to keep the fact that God is the object of our worship from being assumed. We can very easily just say things like “we’re going to worship” or “you all are really worshipping!” without realizing that we’re subtly teaching that God is a spectator of our worship rather than the receiver.

While the sermon topic may vary from week to week, the worship leader is teaching the congregation how to think biblically about worshipping in song every Sunday. Even the seemingly innocuous wording used when asking the congregation to stand conveys a message and shapes the congregation’s thinking.

Even the title “worship leader” misses the mark. I use it because, like it or not, it’s now a part of the lexicon and is generally understood to refer to the person who leads the singing. But while the title may be inaccurate and a tad misleading, our words don’t have to be!

What Are You Talking About? – Pt. V

pewsEvery worship leader has a mental checklist of what needs to happen before they get up to lead worship. Some worship leaders’ checklists are a bit fuller than others, but we all share certain responsibilities that have to be fulfilled prior to the beginning of the service.

Most of us wouldn’t ever think of standing before a congregation to lead worship without first choosing the songs. To be so glaringly unprepared would have terrible ramifications and would be such a bad idea in so many ways.

Most of us (hopefully) wouldn’t ever consider replacing the strings on our guitar and then plugging in to lead the band without tuning the strings a few times. To be so careless would be a huge distraction to the other musicians and to the congregation.

Most of us would never show up on Sunday morning two minutes before the service is supposed to start, ask a few people from the congregation to play along on the spot, tell them to guess what key the songs will be in, and tell the congregation to sing along if they know the words. To be so last-minute would be incredibly foolish and dishonoring to the people you’re supposed to be serving.

Yet how many of us never give any thought to how we’ll introduce a song until the moment comes? Or how many of us decide at the last minute that we want to encourage the congregation in some way and start talking with no notes, no idea of where we’re going, no scriptural basis, and no approval from our pastor?

Too many of us.

Every worship leader’s checklist needs to include intentionally thinking through and praying about how they can effectively communicate with the congregation. To be so presumptuous in our own abilities so as to devote no preparation to the important task of speaking to the body of Christ should be unthinkable to any of us who have that responsibility.

This week I’ve proposed four ways we can ensure that we’re communicating (or at least seeking to communicate) well when we lead worship. First, think it through and write it down. Relieve some pressure off yourself and know what you’re going to say before the service starts. Second, submit to your pastor. The pastor is the shepherd and you are one of the sheep. Partner with your pastor as much as you can. Operate under his covering and you’ll both be grateful. Third, use the right tone. Don’t talk to the congregation like they’re in Kindergarten. Respect them. Conversely, don’t talk to the congregation like you’re afraid of them. Relax and be confident yet humble. And finally, base what you say on the living and active Word of God. Your words will pass away – God’s Word never will.

You’ll notice a difference in how you’re communicating on Sunday morning, and the congregation will too. You’ll grow every time you do it and learn lessons along the way. And then, when the time comes when you do have to make something up on the spot – when the Holy Spirit prompts you to say something that you had not planned – you’ll be ready.

What Are You Talking About? – Pt. IV

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV)

biblepageGod’s word is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). It will never pass away (Matthew 13:31).  It is “God-breathed” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness…” (II Timothy 3:16)

I might speak to the congregation with the most eloquent and articulate words I can, use the right tone, have thought through and written down what I want to say, and even submit to my pastor. But my words are just words. I pray that my words are inspired by God and that he uses them for His glory – but they’re just words at the end of the day. They will pass away.

If you want to effectively communicate with the congregation when you speak, base it on Scripture.

You say:

  • (1) “Everyone lift your hands.”
  • (2) “Feel free to worship however you want on this next song.”
  • (3) “I just really want to say that I really feel like we should really be giving our all this morning and that we’re really not giving it our all.”
  • (4) “This song was written by a guy who lives on a farm in Kansas and a few years ago he saw a really big tornado and it made him think how great God is. Think about that as we sing this chorus.”
  • (5) “It just makes God smile when we sing loudly because he likes it when we sing loudly because it shows Him we love Him.”

They say:

  • (1) “I don’t want to lift my hands, thank you very much.”
  • (2) “I want to worship by sitting in my chair and checking football scores on my phone.”
  • (3) “You’re talking about me, aren’t you? That’s hurtful. You don’t know what kind of week I’ve had and that my best friend betrayed me.”
  • (4) “A tornado? Are you serious? Tornados kill people and destroy things!”
  • (5) “That’s bad theology. I’m going to email the pastor about you and complain.”

You might laugh – but many worship leaders just shoot from the hip and try to whip people up into responding a in certain way or doing a certain thing or singing at a higher volume by speaking “from the heart” or telling personal stories. This has the opposite effect because most people will become defensive when they’re told how they should be responding or when they get the feeling that the worship leader really wants them to do a certain thing for no good reason. It’s unfortunate on both sides. The worship leader puts him or herself in the middle and becomes the focus.

Worship leaders might wonder why nothing they say seems to get through to people. Oftentimes it’s because nothing they say is based on God’s word. It’s easy to argue with a worship leader’s words when they’re just “from the heart”. It’s harder to argue with God’s word.

As opposed to the examples above, compare these:

  • (1) “Psalm 63:4 says: ‘I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.’ This morning as we sing to our God who is ‘greatly to be praised’ (Psalm 145:3) let’s lift not only our lives to Him, but our hands as well.
  • (2) “We’re going to declare that God is good in all situations. Like Job said in the face of great loss: ‘the Lord gave and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Let’s proclaim God’s unending goodness together.”
  • (3) “Let’s take a moment to fix our eyes on the Lord this morning. Let me read to you from Psalm 62, verses 1 through 8.”
  • (4) “This next song declares ‘how great is our God’. As we sing, we join in with all of heaven as they sing ‘worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power’ (Revelation 4:11). Let’s join with heaven and sing.”
  • (5) “This morning we’re going to spend some time singing together. In Colossians 3:16 Paul wrote ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” As those who have been bought by the blood of Jesus, we have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to sing about. Let’s lift our voices and sing with all our hearts of all that God has done for us.”

These aren’t intended to be perfect examples – but I think you’ll agree that they’re an improvement. In each example my goal is to base what I’m saying on God’s word – which is living and active – and put God squarely in the middle (where he belongs) not me.

We have a choice as worship leaders to either be armed with our own words, or instead with the sword of the Spirit – the very word of God. The choice seems clear to me.

So the next time you speak to your congregation, think it through and write it down, submit to your pastor, use the right tone, and base it on scripture. Tomorrow we’ll wrap all of this up.