What Are Your “Go-To” Songs?

Fill in the blanks:

When I really want to get a service started off strong, we’ll sing _____.

On Easter Sunday we always start off by singing _____.

When the sermon has been on the topic of mission, I love to sing _____.

If we want to sing a song about being “in Christ”, then _____ is perfect!

If we sing _____ then I love following it up by singing _____.

_____ is my go-to song for starting off communion.

We all have our “go-to” songs. We’ve tried them and they’ve worked. Not only have they worked but they’ve worked really well. I love starting off a service with “Beautiful One” by Tim Hughes or closing a communion service with “Let Your Kingdom Come” by Bob Kauflin, or singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” as the opening hymn on Christmas Eve. It’s nice to fall back on those tried-and-true songs when I can’t think of anything better to use or don’t have the time or energy to try something different.

I’ve been realizing lately that my tendency to gravitate towards the same songs in the same slot time after time can contribute to a staleness and predictability in our services. God never ceases to be indescribably great and beautiful, but singing the same song about him being the “beautiful one” can become monotonous and seem rote. God’s greatness is unsearchable, but singing about “how great” our God is with the same song once a month for four years can get boring. I’ve likened it before to making a copy of a copy – you gradually lose crispness and vibrancy with each one.

I’m learning that in order to help people be aware that we can never sing enough about the cross, I need to help them articulate praise to the Lamb who was slain in as many combinations of words and melodies as possible. To help people come into a worship service reminded afresh of God’s greatness and kindness we can’t sing the same three songs on a rotating basis. If I want a Christmas Eve service to help shake people out of their last-minute-shopping-stress-coma, I need to think about whether “O Come All Ye Faithful” really is the best opening hymn, or if something else would be more effective.

Newness and creativity for the sake of being new and creative is idolatry. But newness and creativity for the sake of helping people see and encounter the glory of God afresh is worth the time and worth the effort, and one of our jobs as worship leaders.

Look for different and varied sources of congregational worship songs from which you can draw. Visit other churches or watch their services online. Put your most frequently sung songs “on the bench” for six months and force yourself to sing something different. Take a risk. Instead of starting off a service with a fast song, start it off slow. Read an appropriate Psalm corporately in between verses of a song. Anything to help you avoid doing the same song you always do in the same way you always do it.

What are your “go-to” songs? Try “not-going” to them for a while. It’s a good exercise in staying fresh.

How Long Does Your Sunday Service Last?

It’s Monday afternoon and the Sanctuary is empty. The lights are off, the microphones are put away, the guitars are in their cases, the projectors are powered down, and the room is totally quiet. The people who just 24 hours earlier had filled the room are now scattered around the city – at their jobs, in class, at home, in their cars, at the Doctor’s office, in court, at an airport, in meetings, or maybe sitting on the couch.

We sang a handful of songs yesterday morning. We heard God’s word read to us and preached to us, we prayed together, and we shared the Lord’s Supper. From beginning to end the service took a little over an hour and a half. But for those people who are now scattered around the city, did it last any longer than that?

I ask myself: for the man who left his house at 5:30am to beat the traffic on his way to a job that he hates, or the Mom who couldn’t get any sleep because the stomach flu has now struck all five children, or the guy who left church yesterday afternoon and proceeded to get drunk at a downtown party that lasted until 3am – might the songs that we were singing just 24 hours ago have lasted into today?

It’s easy for worship leaders to get caught up in what they’re seeing in the room as they’re leading. Do people look engaged? How many hands are raised? Are people clapping? Is that guy scowling at me? How does it sound? Did people like that last song? Can anyone hear the electric guitar? On and on the questions go.

Sure, we should be concerned that people are engaged with God as they sing to him, that expressiveness is encouraged and modeled, and that the musicians lead effectively and skillfully. But it is possible to get so concerned with the here-and-now “how is this service going right at this moment” questions that we forget to ask ourselves the questions that matter more.

Are we singing songs that feed people with God’s truth? Am I seeking to point people to the glory of God in Jesus Christ? Are we, in our planning and in our leading, dependent on the Holy Spirit? Was Jesus made central today?

The fact is that very few people can remember a single song we sang yesterday. Even fewer will be able to remember them the next day. By the end of this week, hardly anyone could name a single song we sang this past Sunday.

This always amazes me, by the way, since I could probably tell you what songs we sang on a particular Sunday a couple of years ago. I think about songs a lot – which ones to sing, where we should sing them, how we should respond to a particular sermon most effectively, etc. –  and for some reason, I am able to remember them for months, if not years, later. Most people (thankfully) are not like this.

So on a Monday afternoon, a little over 24 hours since our Sunday morning service ended, it’s good to ask myself “how long did that service last?”

I want to plan services and choose songs that will feed people long after they go home, long after they get to the office, and long after the lies and deceptions of the world start grabbing hold.

For the woman who has lost all hope – she needs to know that “on Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand, all other ground is sinking sand…” not that I pick the newest and coolest songs.

For the man who is seeking pleasure from the world – he needs to know that “wonderful, so wonderful is (Jesus’) unfailing love” and that Jesus’ “cross has spoken mercy over me…” not that my bass player and drummer are totally locked in together.

This is incredibly freeing for worship leaders. And it’s incredibly serious.

Choose songs and plan services that will last longer than an hour and a half, and longer than Monday morning. Use every opportunity you have to point people to the glory of God and the truth of his word which never passes away.

How to Ask Your Congregation to Stand Up

pewsIn the more informal services at my church, the worship leader is usually the one who invites people to stand at the beginning of the service. In other churches or in more formal services, either the church’s pastor will do this, or the first hymn will just start and signal that everyone should probably stand up.

I’ve seen worship leaders invite their congregations to stand in some pretty funny ways.

Some are timid or nervous and don’t quite know what to say. They might say something like “uh, hi everyone, please find your seat, uh, please stand up, and please, uh let’s sing this first song ‘How Great is Our God’”.

Well, if you say so.

Some are overconfident and come across like they had a bit too much coffee to drink. “Hello everybody! I said hello everybody! Alright, that sounds more like it. Now let’s stand to our feet and worship the Lord! I said let’s stand to our feet and worship the Lord! Are you with me? Yeah! One, two, three, four!

I think I might have a headache.

Others just say random things like “get on up!” (reminds me of a James Brown song) or “please rise” (reminds me of a legal proceeding).

When it comes to the very first thing a worship leader says in an entire service, it’s important that they not come across as nervous, annoyingly enthusiastic, flippant, or robotic.

Just relax, make eye contact, and say something simple like “good morning everyone, why don’t we stand together and sing to the Lord”. It’s confident, simple, and clear. Or “let’s stand together this morning and proclaim God’s glory as we sing”. It doesn’t need to be fancy or eloquent. It shouldn’t be more than a sentence or two.

It’s not the most difficult thing in the world – and it may come easily to many worship leaders – but it’s easy to overlook until you get onto the platform on Sunday morning. Just treat your congregation like your family and kindly invite them to stand. An awkward start is just plain awkward. A smooth start makes things easier.

Oftentimes at my church we’ll start playing a few measures of the opening song, and then I’ll ask the congregation to stand before we start singing. Here’s an example of how I did that a few months ago before singing “Praise the Lord” by Bob Kauflin and Doug Plank from Sovereign Grace Music (it’s on their Psalms CD). You’ll hear people chattering at first, and even a bit during the first verse, but slowly people join in, and by the chorus we’re all singing together.

Handling Awkward Moments: Leading Songs After a Lousy Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Questions for My Worship Team – Pt. 2

growth2Yesterday I shared the first five questions I asked the worship team at my church in order to challenge all of us to continue growing, stay focused on God’s glory, and not wind up an unhealthy and dry worship team one year from now.

Here are the last five questions I asked:

Am I a foot trying to be a hand?
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body” (1 Corinthians 12). 

Paul is making the point that every member of the body is equally a part of the body. No part is more or less important than another. But, every member has a different role.

This worship team will get into trouble if we start wanting to play different roles than God has assigned. Play your role as healthily as possible and rejoice at how God has arranged the other members of the body. A healthy body rejoices in the varieties of gifts displayed, all empowered by the “same Spirit”.

Am I more eager to play music than I am to lead the congregation?
In order for us to be a team of worship leaders, and not just musical back-up, we have to share the same passions and priorities when we gather together. I suggest this order:

(1)   God’s glory
(2)   The congregation
(3)   Our skill

When our skill helps the congregation encounter God’s glory, we are an effective worship team. It’s OK to be eager to play music – but make sure your priorities are straight.

Am I at a loss for words when I’m asked to pray before a service begins?
I long for our times of prayer before and after rehearsals and services to be characterized by specific and heartfelt participation by the whole team – not just one or two people. If we are not able to articulate prayer for God’s guidance and anointing, it may be an indicator that we are not aware we need it. These prayers don’t need to be eloquent or verbose. If you’re not comfortable praying out loud, ask God for boldness. No one is forced to pray. Not everyone has to pray. But this is area in which we can and need to grow.

Has my skill improved at all in the last six weeks?
This is an easy one to answer. If your skill as a worship leader and musician doesn’t improve, the worship team won’t improve. Be a good steward of the gifts God has given you and never settle for getting stuck.

Am I relying on my own talent or on the power of the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is passionate about revealing the glory of Jesus Christ. If we’re filled with and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, this will become our passion too.  A lack of passion about God’s glory reveals a lack of reliance on the Holy Spirit. Every day, every rehearsal, and every service, we need the Holy Spirit to help us point the congregation to the glory of God. Without the Holy Spirit, our natural and sinful inclination will be to point the congregation to our talent. Not only will we become arrogant, but the worship team will become proud, and our services will become dry. Friends, “…be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

It’s important for anyone in ministry to regularly step back for a period of honest and prayerful evaluation. These questions are not exhaustive, and may not be applicable to every worship team at every church. But there are some good questions here for our church and our worship team as we seek to be a healthy body that exists to serve the congregation by leading them in “worthily magnifying” our glorious God.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.”
(Psalm 145:3)