Qualities to Look for in a Worship Leader

I believe that an essential, but often difficult, aspect of successful worship ministry is to “get out there” and see what’s happening outside our own church. It’s essential because we often risk getting too insular or tunnel-visioned ministering week-in, week-out at our own church without seeing the bigger picture of what God is doing in churches around us. It’s difficult because worship ministry is intense and demanding. Even with the best of intentions, worship leaders often don’t get much time to visit other churches and ministries (unless they are on holidays!).

Which is why I love what Ps Michael Battersby is doing with Metroworship Academy (MWA) – a space in our city for worship leaders in our city to gather together and learn together, all centred around the subject we love to study best – worship!

Yesterday, Dave Wong and I had the honour of facilitating one of the electives at MWA’s Worship Leaders’ Summer School.

Besides having the opportunity to impart the wisdom gleaned from our own ministry, it was great just to meet and network with other like-minded ministers in our city. Sometimes, even though you might think you are experienced, there’s always something new you can learn from others, a new perspective to glean, or even a tried and true principle that simply needs refreshing.

Metroworship Zac

Zac Gageler, Riverview Church’s worship pastor, gave the keynote address. He shared on some characteristics he looks for in his worship leaders. They were gold and I thought it’d be good to share them here, especially for those who didn’t get to attend the session.

Character 

  • Positive attitude
  • Committed
  • Dependable
  • Servant’s heart
  • Bold in their faith
  • Loves people
  • Humility
  • Teachable
  • Authentic
  • Student of God’s word
  • Empowered by the Holy Spirit

Competence

  • Strong vocal ability
  • 360 degree leadership (i.e. able to lead both the team and the congregation)
  • Attractional
  • Able to read a room
  • Responsiveness to the Holy Spirit
  • Able to lead without singing

Culture and Chemistry

  • An encourager of people
  • Able to release the gifts of others
  • Clear communicator
  • High level of emotional intelligence
  • Seeks and gives feedback

Essentially, what Zac was describing was really all the characteristics of a good, well-rounded leader. That sort of person is often hard to come by. If I measured myself against that list, I would have some glaring shortfalls. But I think the point is that, even if you’re not there yet (or the people you are working with aren’t there yet), we must be moving in the right direction towards developing those traits.

What other traits do you see are essential in your worship leaders?

The Metroworship Academy Summer School for Worship Leaders // 16 January 2016

Happy New Year friends.

Things had gotten a bit busy towards the end of the last year and it meant I didn’t end up writing as much as I would have liked.

I’ve just returned from holidays and I’ve just spent the last couple of days tidying up around the house, so everything is neat and orderly for the coming year. Why would I do such a thing? Because (whether it makes a difference or not) psychologically I feel that a neat and orderly environment gives you the best platform for success.

The same principle applies in ministry. When you start the year, you want to lay down the vision for your team; set out some strategies and goals; and make sure you have good procedures in place.

With this in mind, I want to invite worship leaders in Perth to kickstart their year at Metroworship Academy’s Summer School for Worship Leaders, happening next Saturday 16 January 2016.

As an alumni, I gained much from the tailor-made modules for those in worship ministry, but also from networking with like-minded, passionate worship ministers across our city.

The Summer School is a great appetiser for those who are looking to enrol in the full course.

But it will also be a great opportunity for those involved in worship ministry to learn from other leaders in the city and to see what others are doing in their churches. Being a worship leader in your church can often be a daunting task. I have personally found it helpful to get support from other worship leaders from other churches; to glean ideas from them; and just to have someone else from outside your church to be a listening ear.

The keynote speaker for the Summer School is Zac Gageler from Riverview. Dave Wong and I will also be leading an elective session on “Working with Your Senior Pastor”.

For more details and to register, read this: Summer School Invite

Looking forward to seeing you guys at the Summer School next Saturday!

The Songwriting Process Behind “My Shepherd”

In my earlier post this week, I described how our worship team began our journey into songwriting. In this post, I want to reflect on the process that I personally went through with my team in writing our song, “My Shepherd”.

The songwriting process is quite foreign to me. Prior to the New Song Cafe, I can point to having written two other complete songs. The first was a song I wrote for a church youth camp when I was the youth worship coordinator (I must have been about 17 years old at the time). It was suitably old-fashioned, even for the youth of that era! I wrote another song two years ago as part of an assignment for MetroWorship Academy. I don’t think I really liked either of those songs and they have suitably been relegated to the annals of obscurity.

For the New Song Cafe, the challenge was not so much in the quality of writing. For me, it was in the process of collaboration. As I had said before, the team groupings were pretty random. The only requirement was that each team had to have an assigned musician. It was quite perverse that I was given the role of musician around which a team would coalesce. Perhaps I should have seen it as a compliment, or perhaps it was a bit of wishful thinking on Dave’s part.

That evening, after Dave taught briefly on songwriting and we broke into our teams for the first time, we had to make a start on the song. We had 20 minutes.

It was one of the most awkward 20 minutes of ministry ever!

Our team was quite intergenerational, which was good in one sense, but in another sense, it presented all sorts of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Michelle (who plays keys) should have actually been the assigned musician, a part she eventually took up very competently. Sunray is young and edgy. As much as I try to be “with it”, I’m actually quite old-school. And so is James.

So our little misfit team tried to unite together to write something that hopefully wasn’t too embarrassing. I said perhaps we could write something along the lines of Psalm 23, because I was going through a period of uncertainty and decision-making and Psalm 23 really spoke to me in this season. So we opened up the Psalm and started reading.

Sunray then said that she already had a melody line. It sounded nice when she sang the first couple of lines, but in my unprofessional opinion, it really needed some swirly pads and indistinct chord changes, which didn’t gel at all with my pronounced old-school style. I admitted that I couldn’t hear the chords at all.  James and Michelle ably pitched in with some polite lyrical suggestions – some we ultimately adopted, and others we discarded.

At the end of 20 minutes though, we had…. absolutely nothing!

All the groups came back together and Dave had the audacity to get us all to share the beginnings of our songs.

Most of the groups had already strung together workable melodies and a structured verse and chorus. It was quite disgusting really how they all seemed to have it so together. Did I mention we had nothing?

Oh well, for our team, the most significant achievement of that evening was setting up a whatsapp group so that we could continue to confer on our non-existent song.

Over the next two months, we met about 3 more times. If memory serves me right, we began to put together the chord structure and the start of the lyrics. I wanted the verses to paint a picture of our personal need (with cues from Psalm 23) but with a resolution in the chorus based on God being our shepherd. So we all tried to contribute some lyrical ideas around that theme.

Eventually, we got a verse and half a chorus together, but we got really stuck on how to resolve the chorus. So I suggested a completely different chord progression, with attendant melody, which I think most of us were uncomfortable with at the beginning, until Sunray broke the ice and finally said, “I quite like it”. We recorded what we had and left it at that.

Sunray pretty much finished the second part of the chorus (she calls it a bridge because of the different melody and chord structure, but I think it’s still the chorus!) and we were pretty much well on the way to a complete song.

After that, Sunray wrote the second verse all on her own. It pretty much preserved the thematic approach, so I wasn’t going to argue with her.

By the third time we met, we were rehearsing the song, and Michelle was filling it out on the piano.

The more we played and sang the song together, the more it grew on us.

To be honest, we weren’t sure how people would take it. So we tried it on James’ son as an “impartial” observer, and he thought it was pretty good. He would say that of course, since his dad helped write it.

In the end, and I think to our team’s surprise, our song was the runner-up.

So here’s a video of the entire song, as performed during New Song Cafe. We even included a deliberate bit of free worship to demonstrate how the song could be used effectively in a congregational setting:

MY SHEPHERD
(c) 2015 James Ng, Lester Ong, Michelle Siew and Sunray Zheng

VERSE 1
Through the darkest valleys I have no fear
Cause You are with me
Through the driest desert You walk with me
To still waters

CHORUS
You are my Shepherd
You guide me to Your way
The warmth of Your embrace revives me
You are my Saviour
Forever I will praise
Your goodness and Your grace restores
So I will dwell in Your house all my days
And I will dance and sing praises to Your name
My King, my Shepherd

VERSE 2
Even though I’m broken You lift me up
You anoint me
Through my days I vow to devote my life
To my Redeemer

 

Converge 2015

About this time fours years ago, I had the honour of participating in Converge, a whole week of worship and prayer which was planned by the Commonwealth Prayer Initiative to coincide with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place in our city.

At the time, I was in-between churches, and not heavily involved in a particular church ministry, so I had a bit more capacity to serve the wider body of Christ in the city. It had always been on my heart that the church should be more than any one congregation. Converge (and serving with Wendy Yapp) started me on this new trajectory.

So it is apt that I get the opportunity to be part of Converge this year, with a focus on praying for the persecuted church.

But even more exciting is that I will be accompanied by some of my amazing team from Faith Community Church (Pastor Dave Wong, Joe Wong, Lydia Ling, Sam Ng, Addie Choon, Joash Ang and Caleb Leong) as we walk this journey together of broadening our horizons.

Tim Keller was asked in an interview recently about why, as a Senior Pastor of a successful church, he spent so much time invested in unifying and equipping the church at large. He responded, “in the Body, church growth that does not benefit the rest of the Body is not biblical. In the human body, cells that only benefit themselves are called cancer.” Wow! How often we tend to just focus on our individual churches and ignore the rest of the body that is around us!

My team is excited to be anchoring a one-hour session from 3 to 4 pm this Saturday 7 November at Wesley Church, corner of Hay and William Streets in the city. Join us as we take the hour to fill our city with His praises and as we lift up His glorious name!

There will be stuff happening the whole day, starting at 9 am with different groups anchoring prayer each hour, culminating in a special two-hour Blow the Trumpet prayer event anchored by Perth Young Adults and United Prayer!

It’s going to be an awesome day!

Week 5 Chronicles: The Worship Leaders’ Living Room

In our church, we try an experimental worship format once every quarter, during a month when there are 5 Sundays. The reason for this is that we used to roster four bands on worship, i.e. a different band each week and took the opportunity to try something different when there was a fifth Sunday. We’ve stopped rostering by band, but we still try to push the envelope of how we do worship during these months; to add freshness and to teach the church that worship is more than a band-driven 30 minutes of singing.

Over the last few months, Dave and I have been doing mentoring with worship leaders and worship leaders-in-training in our church. These guys come from the youth ministry, campus ministry, young working adults and adult zones of the church, representing nearly every demographic in the church.

Every time we gather to worship in my living room for mentoring, we usually start the session with a time of worship, followed by some constructive critique for the worship leader – the idea being that we are in safe space and can give useful feedback to help each other improve.

What I had noticed was that every time we worshipped together, there was such a sweet sense of God’s presence. All we had was an acoustic guitar and voices joined together (often with harmonies) and a real sense of freedom – not having to really worry about leading any congregation, but just enjoying God’s presence together.

And then I thought: wouldn’t be awesome if we could transport the times of worship we had in my living room so that the church could experience it too? So the idea came: a Sunday worship set which would be led with all 13 worship leaders in our group accompanied by piano. Simple, pared-back, free-flowing but above all, intimate.

So last Sunday, we had our worship leader’s mentoring group lead worship, with Delany on the piano. It was a beautifully refreshing time, with lots of great feedback from the church.

The set began with Pastor Dave explaining the vision behind the concept, and then we just flowed from song to song with space for plenty of free worship before ending on a couple of declaratory hymns. We experienced, as Matt Redman once called it, “the friendship and the fear” – intimacy and awe.

Here are a few thoughts from last Sunday (as well in the planning leading up to the session):

1.  Whenever you try something different, it stretches your faith.

When I announced to our group that we were going to do this, I was told it would be difficult. How do we mix 13 voices together so they sound good? And wouldn’t having so many leaders on the team be like herding cats?

In John 6, the crowd had followed Jesus up the mountainside to hear His teaching. Sensing that the crowd was getting hungry, He said to His disciples, “where should we buy bread to feed them?” Philip responded with logic, “even 8 month’s wages won’t get us all a bite!” But I love what Andrew does. He brings a boy to Jesus and says, “Here is a boy with five loaves and two fish, but how far will they go?”

Andrew hadn’t figured it all out, nor did he have complete faith. But he took a forward step. He says in effect, “I’m not really sure, but maybe Jesus, just maybe, you can work with this?” And Jesus does – because He is the bread of life.

Sometimes we don’t have to know how it will all end and what the result will be. God just needs us to do something, anything, to respond to His call.

2.  Sometimes vision is best achieved with good counsel from friends.

I’m not technical. Far from it. I just sense something and go with it; and I can’t honestly hear technical problems. Someone on the team asked me, “what happens if we make a mistake?” and I responded, “well, the only people who will really know and complain about it are already on stage!”

But I remained open to suggestions. I wanted to go with completely no structure, but some of us started suggesting that we should include some structure so that the rest of us knew, for example, how many times we would do a song and so we would know where to build.

Ultimately, the vision got modified and I’m glad we included some structure but still made room for spontaneity.

Be prepared to modify your vision. Sometimes, you don’t see the full picture. Be humble enough to accept suggestions from the people you trust.

3.  The best team is a team of leaders

I always say that all the members of our worship ministry are worship leaders. I don’t think it’s truly sunk in for everyone yet, but that is where we aspire towards.

If everyone saw themselves as leaders, they would take initiative, be courageous and innovative, and not hold back. But we would also be sensitive enough to submit and support.

We experienced some semblance of this last Sunday.

And I loved that the congregation didn’t have any one leader to look to for guidance; just a stage full of leaders until it seemed, there were really no leaders at all, but just the Holy Spirit.

Here is the recording of last Sunday’s worship, artfully mixed by our awesome sound engineer, Senny.

And here is the set list, which by the way, came about literally as the group worshipped together in the living room the Sunday before:

// Sinking Deep (G)
//  Set a Fire (with additional verse by Tae Kim) (G)
//  I See Grace (G)
//  Forever (G)
//  Crown Him (Majesty) (A)
//  How Great Thou Art (A)

Enjoy!

Carefully Curating Your Congregation’s Song Catalogue

 

I love the word “curate”. It used to conjure up images of stuffy old men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches carefully displaying artefacts in a museum. These days, the hipsters have taken hold of the term, and you can curate almost anything you like – magazine articles, photographs, ideas, images, conversations, recipes.

If you are in charge of your worship ministry at your church, hipster or otherwise, you have the job of curating your church’s song library.

What do I mean by this?

In the past, we used to give the worship leaders at our church free hand to choose whatever songs they wanted to sing. About a year ago, we introduced a catalogue of 30 songs for congregational use. Our worship leaders were told that, for a 25-minute Sunday worship set, they had to choose at least 3 songs from the library.

Ideally, the songs on the catalogue should be carefully curated, to take into consideration a variety of tempos, expressions and themes which reflects the current state of your church’s sojourn. We didn’t have that luxury, so we just identified 30 songs that we were singing at the church at that point in time. Then, every three or four weeks, we would introduce a new song, but as we did, we took out a song from the catalogue so the list always remained at 30.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure we’ve got it right. Maybe 30 songs is too few or too many. Perhaps it is too constraining.

But looking over the last year, I’m really glad we went down this route.

Here are some reasons why I think it’s important for worship leaders to responsibly and prayerfully curate a song catalogue:

1.  Consistency and Unity

Our church has an interestingly broad demographic. Being traditionally a migrant church, with an unusual bias of Methodists, many people were asking us to sing hymns and older worship songs (circa 1990). And yet, there was a group who had grown up in the Australian culture who would have never heard of those older songs, let alone be able to engage with them. This latter cohort listen to Planetshakers, Young and Free, Hillsong United, all replete with electro-beats and midi sounds.

Having a catalogue of songs wiped across, and wiped out, issues of preferences and preferential treatment. It was a means for the worship ministry to bridge the generational gap. Whatever your personal preferences, the church would be committed to singing from the catalogue.

What we found was that we began to move from a culture of singing my songs, to singing the church’s songs.

This also went for our worship leaders. I personally like the worship songs of the 1990s too, because this was a critical period in my own spiritual formation. But having to choose from the catalogue eliminated my own personal bias as a worship leader.

2. Increasing the Band’s Skill Level

Before we introduced the song catalogue, as a musician, you would never know where next week’s songs would come from. You hoped that you knew the songs, but there was a pretty good chance you wouldn’t, because a worship leader could choose an obscure song which was written before you were even born (such as Rich Mullin’s “Awesome God”, with verses!).

That meant that musicians would often have to learn new songs, even if they were in fact, old songs.

Having a catalogue means that musicians can target their practice towards a set of songs they know will likely be used on Sundays. Once they’ve got the 30 songs under their belt, they can continue to learn the new songs which are introduced over time. This levels the playing field, so to speak.

3.  Training New Worship Leaders

One of the most difficult aspects of a worship leader’s craft is song selection. I have always taught that if you can master this skill, then most of the work of Sunday worship is already done before you even step into your rehearsal.

But, in a landscape where new songs are being proliferated all the time, plus all the songs that have already been written, the different permutations of a Sunday songlist are virtually limitless.

On the other hand, if you are required to choose only from 30 songs, some of which naturally go together, and others which don’t, your choice becomes much more constrained. By limiting the permutations, choosing songs becomes a much easier exercise.

This means that as we train new worship leaders, we don’t have to worry so much as to whether their songlist is going to be a train smash. I have watched worship leaders create really bad song lists by the way. Train smash is the right term.

Instead, we can concentrate on worship leaders garnering their skills in stage presentation, flow, exhortation, prayer and leading the band. We remove one of the more time-consuming aspects of preparation.

As a seasoned worship leader who has to lead worship several times a month, having a compact song catalogue has also made it easier for me to choose songs, because I know what songs the church is singing and what they respond well to.

I have said that we are asked to choose 3 songs from the catalogue. Using a songlist of 4 songs, this means that we still have one free choice, just to pay homage to those of us who like to keep a bit of personal freedom!

Curating a song catalogue is therefore not just about putting together a beautiful list so that we can all gather around it, admire it and then quietly applaud. Curating a song catalogue is about cultivating a song culture in your church, right across a broad spectrum of generations, your band and your worship leadership.

One final thought. The old word “curate” also refers to a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish. To “curate” a song catalogue is therefore in essence a pastoral task, ultimately, helping your congregation and worship team to bring their best offerings in praise before the Lord. Have you thought about curating a song catalogue for your church? What songs would go on it?

Time for Breakthroughs

I love what God has been doing in our church lately. The only way I can put it is that God is bringing us into a season of breakthroughs. Glass ceilings are being broken through. Things which we thought could not be done are being done – and so naturally as well, without strain or striving.

Micah 2:13 (MSG) says:

Then I, God [the Lord of the Breakthrough] will burst all confinements and lead them out into the open. They’ll follow their King. I will be out in front leading them.

When God breaks out in front, he clears the way for us to simply follow Him into the open, into new territory.

For me, it began just before the end of the financial year, when our worship team had its team night. Dave Wong, our then worship director, was just about to be appointed worship pastor. Just before that, he and his girlfriend had, through what can only be divine orchestration, been asked to feature on a Sony Asia youtube commercial about long-distance relationships.

Here is the commercial:

And here is the full version of the song used in the commercial, which was actually written by Dave.

The commercial has already had over 540,000 views at the time of writing.

I told our team that it was significant that this happened on the eve of Dave’s installation. It was a prophetic moment for our ministry, because our worship pastor had broken through the song-writing barrier for us. We knew that if Dave could write a song which got recorded by Sony (!), then the idea of our ministry writing songs for our congregation, and eventually recording them, would not just be a pipe dream.

Next, came Children’s Sunday, the culmination of a three day Children’s Church camp. During the camp, the kids (with Cathie and Brandon Clancie) had written a song about Jesus being their superhero! And they led the congregation in the song that Sunday! And more surprising still, an eight year old girl had also written her own song which she performed in front of the whole church.

Not only that, our eyes were opened to the fact that the children could indeed minister as an adult would. I think for many, the limitations that we had put on kids ministry was lifted!

Then last week, our Young Working Adults zone hosted its very first Perspectives Conference: a whole-day conference about Christian engagement in the marketplace. Over 300 people, many from other churches and even unchurched people, came to hear notable Christian leaders in business speak. And we began to dream about what transformation in the marketplace might look like. It is probably the first conference of its type in our city. Yet another trailblazing moment. (I’ll write more about the Perspectives Conference shortly).

To top it all of, on the weekend just past, I had the privilege of leading worship at church. It was probably one of my favourite sessions so far this year. As you may know, I’ve been mentoring worship leaders in our church, and as part of the practical component, Dave and I have been getting them to co-lead worship with us on Sunday.

Last Sunday, I had Sunray Zheng and Ritchell Lim co-lead with me. It took away so much pressure to know that others were sharing the load. And the band just brought it. It was just an amazing time, with Ps Benny coming up to give an exhortation towards the end. The whole worship set lasted about 50 minutes!

Here is the recording:

 

I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us next!

Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

We Wait for You (Shekinah Glory)

I’m learning the song “We Wait For You” (by IHOP) as part of the preparations for the Sar Shalom Conference coming up in a week’s time. I’m so honoured to be part of a worship team with musicians and singers from Kingdom Light Church, Nations Church, FCC and New Life Church Fremantle and of course, with Sarah Liberman from Israel leading the worship.

I really like this song because, in a time when more songs are getting more lyric-driven and structurally complex, it’s nice to worship with a song that’s simple, repetitive, full of atmosphere and with a built in cry for more of God’s presence.

We Wait For You is especially good for a prayer setting or for extended worship times.

How Worship Leaders Should Respond to Compliments

In Faith Community Church, Pastor Benny has initiated our mentoring phase as part of our 2-year DNA campaign. Quite amazingly, there is a strong mentoring buzz now in our church with heaps of people getting connected into mentoring relationships.

Yesterday, I had the honour of launching our worship leadership mentoring group with worship leaders from Kinetic, Vibe, Young Working Adults and the Adult Zones in our church, the idea being that we would meet regularly and talk about all things related to worship leading.

It was actually really refreshing, despite a busy weekend, to be able to sit down in an informal setting with like-minded people just to talk about something we were all passionate about!

As we began our first session together, one of the key messages I wanted to get across was the importance of maintaining a heart of worship – that beyond talent, skills and outcomes, we have a responsibility of keeping the right posture of heart in a ministry that is often fraught with danger and hubris.

Tim Hughes once warned:

As worship leaders, are we getting too preoccupied with the sounds and songs we are creating? Is there a danger that we look first and foremost at gifting and talents, and forget the key thing: the heart?

John Wimber said:

The difficulty will not be so much in the writing of new and great music; the test will be in the godliness of those who deliver it.

One of the issues we talked about was how worship leaders should respond to compliments. Quite often, after you have finished leading worship, a well-meaning congregant might come up to you and say: “I loved your worship leading today”. Or “I just want you to know how nice your voice sounded”.

I don’t think we should over-spiritualise it. Imagine if you’ve just grilled a perfectly succulent steak. You are told ‘wow, you cooked that just right. You are really good at cooking steak’ and you respond with ‘no, I did nothing at all. I just stood at the barbie and the Lord moved through my arms and my tongs and compelled me to turn the hunk of meat just at the right time’. In any other context, if someone complimented you, your natural response would be to say “thank you”. So why not respond in the same way? After all, you did spend all that time putting in the effort to make your voice sound better, or to make sure the set flowed well, or to make sure your team played in unity.

One way of holding the tension is to accept the compliment for what you have control over, i.e. improvements in your vocal quality, the cohesion and drive of your team, the depth of preparation etc. In other words, by all means, accept the compliment for the fruit of your effort. But whether people encountered God and the resultant effect of His presence, well, that only happens by His Spirit, because true worship is by the Spirit. That aspect, we can’t take any credit for. God alone gets all the credit for the fruit of worship!

Bill Johnson actually provides an interesting spin on this. He says (in Experience the Impossible at p 179):

Humility is Kingdom; pride is at the root of everything evil. But the pursuit of greatness is not necessarily evil. In fact, it seems that those who spent time with Jesus had latent desires awakened in them regarding their own significance. As a result Jesus never rebuked His disciples for their desire for greatness. He simply redefined it by pointing to a child.

First Peter 5:6 says “therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.” Here we see the tension between humility and a desire for greatness. Johnson says that whilst being under the hand of God might seem like a frightening picture, God’s hand is actually one of a loving Father – a hand of covering and protection. And that’s exactly what we need as worship leaders (or any leader in the church for that matter!) – covering and protection as we pursue a place of greater influence in God.

We usually have no problem with accepting the need to be humble. Johnson says:

What is difficult for us to handle is God’s response to our humility: ‘that He may exalt you’. What do we do with that? Many of us squirm or say things to undermine the honour given to us. Yet if we do not know how to receive honour correctly, we will have no crown to throw at His feet.

A culture of honour is an important element in the community life of every church. We need to understand how to receive honour to allow such a culture to be propagated. It requires us to be quietly confident about the skills, planning and hard work that we have put into our service, and yet humbly dependent on God for the things that only He can do. And then, like Paul, be able to count all our accolades – the significance in our greatness and influence – rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ more. Then we will truly be able to hold that tension; to walk the paradoxical line of humbled exaltation.