Who’s In Control Here?

Some Sundays just really work. The songs you choose are just right, the band plays well, the sound system sounds really good, you can hear each other, the congregation is engaged and enthusiastic, there is a sense of the Holy Spirit being at work, people are encountering the glory of God, and you’re actually enjoying yourself.

awesomeSome Sundays just don’t seem to work at all. The songs fall flat, it would be a stretch to call the musicians a “band”, the sound system feeds back every three minutes, you can’t hear yourself, the congregation resembles a room full of wax figures, it feels dry to you, people are distracted, and you’d rather be getting a root canal.

Most Sundays, though, are somewhere in between. They’re neither awesome nor awful, they just feel kind of average. Some songs work while some songs don’t, the band plays well enough to get by without any train wrecks, sound is coming out of the speakers, you can sort of hear yourself, some people in the congregation seem to be engaged while others look bored out of their minds, you’re trying to discern how the Holy Spirit is at work, and you’re not quite sure what to think when you get in your car to drive home. You get an email from someone who just loved it – and another email from someone who hated it. Lovely.

Worship leaders get into trouble when they expect every service to resemble the upper room at Pentecost. Three things end up happening. First, they try to do what worked last time. Second, if it doesn’t work, they force it to. And third, they get frustrated with the congregation for not responding like they think they should.

This worship leader is the boss, and when things don’t happen like he or she says they should happen, it’s someone’s fault. If only the band had played this way, if only this song had been sung, if only there were more people, if only the Pastor did this, if only people got their act together, and if only God would do what I want him to do.

And this worship leader ends up getting burned out after a couple of years (if not earlier), and either quits or goes to another church expecting it to be better there. It’s not.

It is disappointing to put a lot of work into a service, only to have it fall flat. We wonder what we could have done differently, what went wrong, and whether next week will be any better.

But the sooner we realize that we are not in control, the better off we’ll be.

Yes, our planning, preparation, and prayer are all critically important. But we’re delusional if we think that any of them qualify us to be the ones who decide how and when God is at work. We’ll either manufacture or quench a genuine move of the Holy Spirit, imposing our demand for an “awesome” service onto the congregation. It would be good for us to ask in these situations, “who do we think we are?”

God asked Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7) He goes on. And on. Job answers in chapter 42: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…

As I walk away from a service that felt average, or really bad, wondering why it didn’t seem to go as well as a previous week, I hear God whisper in my ear: “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

To say that I cannot contend with the sovereignty of God is the understatement of the century. But it’s true. Who do I think I am – that I would be so powerful as to control when and how God moves, or when and how people encounter Him?

Have you ever wondered why, on the Sundays when you’re the most prepared, things seem to fall flat, while oftentimes on the Sundays you’re the least prepared things seem to go really well? Perhaps it’s because our preparation can lead to an arrogance which has us believe that we’re the ones in control.

If I’m in control of a service – then step back – it’s going to be really bad.

If God’s in control of a service – then whether or not we can see it with our eyes – it’s going to be awesome.

We cannot see or even comprehend how God is at work when we gather together. All we can do is be faithful – in our preparation and leadership – and beg him to use us for his purposes. Then, and only then, will we know the joy of leading people in worshipping God in song, in the freedom that “(God) can do all things, and no purpose of (his) can be thwarted”.

Just Relax

dropIt’s 10:15am and people are milling around before the service starts at 10:30. You’re the worship leader.

The songs are picked and rehearsed, the microphone and guitar amp are set up, the projector is connected to the laptop, the PowerPoint slides are ready to go, and you’re starting to feel really nervous. You have that feeling in your stomach like you’re on a roller coaster that has reached its peak and is about to drop you straight down 200 feet.

There’s an old man sitting in the third row with his arms folded and you’re afraid he’s going to hate all the songs you chose. There are 200 chairs set out, but only 25 people have showed up so far. No one is talking. It’s now 10:20 and your hands are starting to sweat. This whole leading worship thing sounded like a good idea a few hours ago, but now you’d rather be sitting on your couch at home.

On the worship CD the crowd screamed and cheered, but you’d be shocked if this crowd even sang along. At the worship concert the musicians rocked and rolled but you’d be grateful if your pianist even played the right notes (she’s 73 years old and prefers Bill Gaither music). Your “lighting system”? Fluorescents with a noisy hum. Your sound system? A couple of old microphones, a 2 channel mixer, and speakers built in to the ceiling. Your in-ear-monitor system? You wish. Your “ambience”? Cinder-block white walls and dark brown carpet.

Now it’s 10:29. Now there are 33 people in the room. Now you’re really really nervous.

Leading worship at your local church is not as glamorous as it looks at the worship conferences and concerts, and it doesn’t sound like the worship recordings by Tim Hughes or Matt Redman. When this reality hits you five minutes before the service starts, it’s easy to become nervous, fearful, and discouraged. You end up rushing through the songs, stumbling over prayers and transitions, shutting your eyes tightly, breathing a huge sigh of relief when it’s all over, and never wanting to do it again.

A few words of encouragement for those of us who lead worship in the real world.

First, relax. Your only job is to be faithful.
Hundreds of concerns, doubts, and questions can flood your head before you step up to lead worship, and when you get in your car to drive home. Some of them are valid, most of them are not. The one question that matters most is “was I faithful?”. Was I faithful in prayerfully trying my best to help these people encounter God in song? Was I faithful in making the Glory of God in Christ central? This focus on what matters will give you one of the most important qualities of an effective worship leader: a humble confidence.

Ignore the silly concerns that get you nervous and panicked like “will the old guy on the third row hate these songs?” or “this song sounds so much better on the CD” or “I’m not a very good guitar player” or “no one is lifting their hands” or “I wish I was at a different church”. Focus on being faithful. If you are, it won’t matter if you’re leading 33 people or 3,000, if everyone sings or if everyone stares at you, or if you “feel” good about the service or not.

Secondly, relax. Your only boast is in the cross.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 “…far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

If you don’t have things like expensive sound systems, professional musicians, lighting, staging, new instruments, totally engaged congregation members, packed-out rooms, video screens, in-ear monitors, tons of experience, and multiple services, be grateful. While none of those things are inherently sinful, they can become major distractions and sources of pride. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t “need” any of them in order to effectively lead people in worship.

If you’re nervous before you lead worship because you feel inadequate and small, you’re in a good position. You are inadequate and you are small! But don’t allow this realization to be a source of nervousness for you – let it become a constant reminder that your only boast is in the cross. Jesus has covered your inadequacies and sinfulness with his blood, making it possible for you to approach the throne of grace not with nervousness, but with confidence. Effective worship leaders are the ones who boast only in the cross.

And thirdly, relax. You’re only leading one service.
Think back to Sunday, July 27th, 1997. Did you go to church that day? If so, do you remember who preached? What was the song list? Did the guitarist play the right arpeggio on top of verse two? Did the drummer remember to play the open hi-hat instead of the ride cymbal on the last chorus? Did the worship leader fumble over his prayer after the opening song?

You can’t remember?

Exactly.

Don’t allow yourself to feel overwhelmed before you lead worship. Take a deep breath and remember that it’s just one service. There will be more. Many more. You might make mistakes, there might not be very many people there, and you might be inexperienced. But there will be a service next week, and the week after that. The weeks will turn to months, and the months to years. You’ll get more experience. You’ll get more comfortable with being in front. No one particular service, in the grand scheme of eternity, is critical enough to the souls of whoever will attend, for you to feel sick over. Effective worship leaders have long-term perspective and patience.

So, just relax the next time you get ready to lead worship. Pray and prepare as much as you can, show up early, and then when it’s time to start, be faithful and trust that the Holy Spirit will do his work. He will!

Top Ten Ways to Make Your Congregation Stop Singing

confusionDo you think the Psalmist was trying to make a point when he said “sing praises to our God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!”? Psalm 47:1

That’s just one of over 500 references in scripture to singing. Throughout the bible and throughout history, God’s people have been a singing people. God created us, even commanded us, to sing to him. We’ll sing to him forever in heaven. What a joy and humbling honor it is to sing to him here on earth, and even more so to lead people in magnifying his greatness through song.

Worship leaders, whether full or part-time, volunteer or paid, experienced or inexperienced, should place as one their top goals, the full and whole-hearted engagement of the whole congregation in singing. If people aren’t singing, there’s a problem. They’re missing out on one of the greatest joys of being a Christian, and I could do a better job of leading them.

Here are some ways you might cause your congregation to stop singing.

Sing melodies that are impossible to learn
People will just give up and wait for the next song to start, hoping that maybe they’ll know that one. While we don’t want to sing songs that are boring and predictable, we also don’t want to sing songs that are overly complicated, intentionally difficult, and just plain hard to sing.

Sing notes that are impossible to hit
I try to follow the “C to shining C” rule. I can dip down to an A from time to time, but not hang out that low. I can hit a D or an E, but not hang out up there either. If the song is too low and everyone is mumbling, move it up a few steps. If the song is too high, transpose it down.

Singing notes that are too high, and especially “hanging out” on those notes, can cause physical discomfort, be unreachable for most people, and make people just want to take a break and not sing.

Sing words that are impossible to understand
If people are confused by what they’re singing, they might be tempted to just drop out. If I’m in a service and the worship leader uses a song in which the meaning of the lyrics is unclear, I’ll have a hard time singing them. Watch out for lyrics that are wide open to interpretation, in other languages, are “churchy”, or no longer part of people’s vocabulary.

Sing the same thing over and over and over and over
Repeating a chorus eighteen times will not do any of the following things: (1) make people worship, (2) make God’s presence more tangible, (3) make people sing more intentionally, or (4) win you any fans. Over-repeating a line or a section of a song could do just the opposite: (1) wear people out, (2) move the focus onto the song, (3) cause people to sing mindlessly, and (4) annoy them.

Sing only your own songs
You might have a passion for writing congregational worship songs, and maybe even a gifting for it, but that doesn’t mean you should introduce every single one of them to your church, and only sing other people’s songs when you’ve run out of yours. This will alienate visitors and newcomers, ignore a vast body of good, vetted, and known songs, and keep people from singing along.

Sing too quietly
If they can’t hear you, if they don’t know what they’re supposed to sing, if all they can hear are the instruments, and if the band is so loud is that they can’t hear themselves, they’ll probably stop singing.

Sing too loudly
If they get the impression that they’re at a concert and you’re the performer, and that they’re there to listen to you and you’re there to put on a show, they’ll usually sit back and let you have the stage.

Sing melody and harmony and everything in between
If you’re the worship leader – sing the melody. The congregation is following you and looking to you to provide clear and easy-to-follow leadership. If you jump back-and-forth between melody, harmony, and your own embellishments, you’ll confuse the congregation and leave them just listening to you.

Sing bad theology
Singing songs with weak and/or bad theology will cause two things to happen at once: First, you will no longer be feeding people with the truth of God’s word, but misleading them with wrong doctrine that happens to rhyme. Those in the room who are not discerning enough to know this will keep singing and be subtly deceived. Secondly, those in the room who are discerning enough to know that what’s being sung is not truth will stop singing and might not come back the following week. I can’t blame them.

Sing too many songs
This is an oversimplification, but I’ll share it because I keep it in the back of my mind: It’s better to leave people wanting more than leave them wanting you to stop.

It’s good to leave people longing to keep singing, excited to sing the songs when they get home, and expectant for the time of singing next week. It’s not good to sing so many songs that people are ready to stop, ready to go to lunch, and dreading how long the time of singing will go the following week.

There are times to stretch people and have extended times of corporate worship. Pray that God would give you wisdom to discern when to keep going, and when to stop.

Psalm 147 begins “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.

Let’s do all we can do, and remove whatever distractions we can, so that the whole congregation can sing praises to our worthy God.

What They See is What You’ll Get

CongregationThey just stand there looking disinterested, disengaged, and unaffected by what they’re singing. Their bodies are stiff and their faces are stoic, betraying no emotion, no joy, and no life. Their eyes are glued to the lyrics in front of them as if they’re in a trance. The men don’t even sing. They all look uncomfortable. They look like they would rather be somewhere else. To call them “reserved” would be an understatement. They suck the energy out of the room.

And they call themselves the worship team!

It’s an interesting phenomenon for worship leaders to grab hold of: what they see is what you get.

Disinterested worship team = disinterested congregation.

Male instrumentalists not singing = men in the congregation not singing.

Zero expressiveness on the platform = zero expressiveness in the pews.

Worship leaders shouldn’t be surprised to look out and see a disinterested congregation if that’s what’s being modeled for them.

I am increasingly persuaded that this is the case: a congregation will not go beyond what they see modeled from up front.

A few months ago, I led worship for an evening session of the Anglican Church in North America’s inaugural assembly. To say that it was a challenging setting in which to lead would be an incredible understatement. We were in a crowded tent with low ceilings in the middle of summer in Texas. Five industrial-sized air conditioners lined the entire back wall going at full-blast (imagine the noise). The screens which were there to project the lyrics could hardly be seen. For many of the attendees this would be the first time they had ever heard a worship team or sung anything outside of a hymnal. The sight of drums on the platform could cause some to go into convulsions. The sight of an electric guitar could cause them to fall into a coma. During our sound-check people were plugging the ears and telling the sound engineers to “turn it down!” We had zero rehearsal. I had never played with half of the worship team before.

This was going to be interesting.

7:00pm rolled around and I welcomed the people – trying to read their faces and gauge whether or not they would even sing a single word once the songs started. We stood to sing and started off with Chris Tomlin’s “Holy is the Lord” – hoping that it would be a “new” song that most people would know.

The song began “We stand and lift our hands for the joy of the Lord is our strength.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw my electric guitarist and bass guitarist with their hands lifted in worship, singing to the Lord. Then I looked out at this group of Anglicans, who, five minutes earlier had been plugging their ears and looking a bit uncomfortable. I saw them, hundreds of them, with their hands lifted in worship, singing at the top of their lungs.

What they saw on the platform – I saw replicated in the congregation.

You can stand in the back of a room during a worship service and see this phenomenon displayed. Look at the worship team and then look at the congregation. They match!

A lot of instrumentalists and singers on worship teams don’t consider themselves “worship leaders”. They see that as the job of one person, and their job is to provide musical back-up to that person as he or she “leads worship”. That mindset leads to worship teams who just stand on a platform, with their faces buried in their music, offering no real leadership to the congregation. My goal is to cultivate members of the worship team who see their role as being a worship leader alongside me. Their musical responsibility is secondary to their primary responsibility of leading the congregation in encountering the greatness of God. When this priority is made clear, the dynamic on your worship team and in your services will change.

Look in the mirror the next time you lead worship. What do you see?

Handling Awkward Moments – When the Lyrics Operator Falls Asleep

SpaceBarWe’ve all been there.

You’re leading a song on Sunday morning when all of the sudden everyone stops singing. You look over at the screen and realize the lyric operator (or whatever you call the person who controls the projection software) has not advanced the slide. You start to sweat. You can feel yourself growing impatient. You look back at the person and they’re oblivious. You feel like screaming “PRESS THE SPACE BAR!” but decide (wisely) that’s not a good idea. Finally after what seems like eighteen minutes, the lyric operator wakes up and advances the slide and everyone in the room breathes a collective sigh of relief.

How do you handle this situation?

First, a few suggestions of what not to do.

Don’t allow yourself to get angry
I saw this happen once when I was visiting a church in the UK. When the slide didn’t advance, the worship leader stopped singing (thereby making everyone else stop even though they knew the song by heart), let out a huge sigh, looked back at the lyric operator and gave him the kind of glare that said “I want to kill you”. This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it embarrasses the lyric operator. Second, it magnifies the distraction, as opposed to minimizing it. Third, it could result in the congregation getting angry and wanting to kill the lyrics operator too. You turn a late-advancing slide into a major crisis.

Don’t stop singing if you’re in the middle of a verse or chorus
Nothing screams “we are completely dependent on the screens” like stopping during a verse or chorus that’s already started. Just go ahead and finish whatever section of the song you’re in, hoping that most people will either know it by heart, or just patiently wait until the slide progresses again.

Don’t take it too seriously
If it happens all the time, you’ll need to talk with your lyric operator and ask them to be a bit more attentive. But if it happens once, just let it go. As someone who has operated the projection software from time to time, I know how easy it is to forget to advance the slide when you’re singing along, when a member of the congregation interrupts you, or when your mind wanders. Extend grace to the lyric operator and don’t take it too seriously.

Now, a few suggestions of what you can do.

Offer a subtle prompt to the lyric operator by talking to the congregation
Instead of saying “Sally, will you please advance the slide?” – try saying “let’s sing the next verse together”. If that doesn’t work, try saying “this next verse says ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise…’” By prompting the congregation, you just might jolt the lyric operator back to life.

Offer line prompts to the congregation
With a gentle and calm voice, call out the line before it’s sung. If you sound relaxed and like this was planned all along, you’ll minimize how much of a distraction is caused by the late-appearing slide.

Make a small joke out of it
In my post “When is it OK to Use Humor”, I suggested that, on occasion, the worship leader can use humor to break tension. When a room full of people is staring at a screen, and staring, and staring some more, it might get a little tense. Instead of feeding into it by being tense yourself, you can break it by making a small joke.

I had to do this when I led worship for an event in Bedford, Texas, with a few hundred pastors and bishops in a big tent, singing the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign”. I didn’t have the words in front of me, and was relying completely on the screen, which wasn’t such a good thing when I couldn’t remember how the third verse started. Neither could anyone else. We all stood there for about 10 seconds just waiting. Finally I made a joke and said something like “what do you all say we try singing the next verse now?

On the inside I was begging the person to “just press the space bar!” but, by God’s grace, I was able to relax, make a little joke out of it, break some of the tension, jolt the lyric operator to life, and help the congregation feel comfortable.

Go back and sing the verse or chorus again once the slide comes up
If we’ve gone through nearly an entire verse or chorus without the right slide (and the slide finally comes up at the very end), I’ll usually say “let’s sing that again”. In a way, it kind of redeems the fact that everyone stood there waiting for it the first time through.

Just wait for a few measures
The lyrics operator might get the hint if he or she realizes no one is singing. If we’ve ended a chorus and the next verse hasn’t come up yet, I might just play for another measure or two. Oftentimes that does the trick.

Connect with the lyrics operator before the service
This is something I could improve in. Take a few minutes before the service to connect with the person who will be in control of the lyric projection and let them know of any repeats you know about, any new songs you’re teaching, etc. This will help them be more alert and aware that you’re depending on them – and the congregation too.

Ultimately, if your lyric operator falls asleep during a song, you have a split-second decision to make: How big a deal am I going to allow this to become? If you want to make it a big deal, then stop the song, look angry, embarrass the volunteer, and distract everyone in the process. If you don’t want it to be a big deal, just relax, keep leading worship, offer some more prompts than usual, and don’t overreact.