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.

From the Archives: Sometimes Bossanova Just Happens – Lessons from Your Worst Nightmare

Today, I thought I’d share one of my favourite posts so far…

I love this clip of Martin Smith leading worship, because it goes to show that no worship leader is immune from the silliest of mistakes:

I remember one time when I was leading worship and we had just transitioned into the song “At the Cross”. As we started singing, it was clear to me that something or someone was clearly out of tune. So I looked down at the keyboardist and gave him a real dirty look. I was sure it was him. As we were singing through the first verse, I was thinking to myself “come on, mate, we’ve rehearsed this. We’re meant to go up to the key of A. When we do the debrief later, we’re going to have some words!”

And then I began to ask: why is the bassist off as well? Am I the only one who is going by what we rehearsed? Why can’t anyone else seem to hear properly? And then, towards the end of the chorus, I looked down and realised, to my horror, that it was me! I had forgotten to capo my acoustic guitar and was playing (and singing) in the key of G whilst else was in A as we had planned. I nearly died…

At that moment, I was humbled.

I take comfort in the fact that something similar happened to Martin Smith! I also take comfort in the fact that Martin Smith also thought it was everyone else before he realised he had turned on the bossanova on his keyboard!

We are never immune from mistakes, no matter how hard we prepare. Making mistakes is part of life, but the important thing is to learn from them.

So, here are some lessons I’ve learnt from episodes like these:

Firstly, humility comes before honour. (Actually I stole this phrase from Faith Community Church’s Statement of Ministry Culture, but I like it, so I’m replicating it here). It’s very easy to look around at others’ mistakes, particularly when you are working in a team. It’s much harder to see your own shortcomings. Sometimes, God graces us with bossanova moments so that it is entirely clear with whom the mistake lies. After you look around to the drummer, or the bassist, or stare evils at the sound guy, you have to conclude that no one else was to blame but your fat finger touching the wrong button.

Secondly, we should put in place protocols to avoid repeats of the mistake. I was talking to my former music director Addie Choon recently and he said that bossanova moments happen way too often to keyboardists. So what he does is that he has his finger ready on the volume slide to bring the sound right down if any hint of bossanova appears. Or some keyboardists start with the volume on zero to gently slide it up. Especially during ministry times.

Thirdly, sometimes it’s good to “bite the bullet” and not take yourself so seriously. In my younger days, if I started singing in the wrong key, or if the song was pitched too high, I would keep pressing on like it was all part of the plan, even though the strain in my voice made it utterly clear that it definitely wasn’t part of the plan. Now, I’m quite happy to say, “oops, sorry guys, let’s just start again”. You’d be surprised how forgiving the congregation is. In fact, that moment usually results in the congregation throwing their support behind you as they cheer and clap to encourage you; their eyes are opened to the fact that the worship isn’t a superstar. Suddenly you don’t have to try so hard to lead them into worship because you are one of them!

Lastly, I wonder whether the Spirit of God is more robust and less prone to offence than we think. Often, we act like the Holy Spirit only works and moves in the quiet times when strings are playing solemnly and thickly in the background. But the Spirit of God also brings joy, even in the midst of our greatest embarrassments.

Have you, as a worship leader, had a bossanova moment? Share it with us below.

Reflections on Cindy Ratcliff’s Visit to Perth

It has been an amazing start to the weekend, first with Cindy Ratcliff’s ministry to the worship teams from different Perth churches on Thursday night, and then with the Just Worship event last night at Metrochurch, during which Cindy led worship.

My wife and I were really thrilled because at the end of the evening, we got to take a photo with Cindy and her husband Marcus. Our good friend and worship leader, Joanna, also got into the photo!

What really blew my mind was the fact that Cindy, her husband and their team didn’t have to come to Perth. But not only did they come, they did so at their own cost. Why? Simply for the purpose of, as Marcus Ratcliff puts it, “to leave a deposit”. I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant by the “deposit” and in what form exactly it took, but here are some thoughts and principles which I felt were deposited in me as I reflected on the last two evenings:

1.  A Call for Worship Ministers to Prayerfully Plan the Journey of Worship

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I first heard the We Speak to Nations album (Lakewood’s first live release), there was a real sense of capturing the atmosphere of worship rather than a showcasing of new songs.  

During last night’s worship, even though Cindy did do a few new songs, there was a planned focus, flow and progression in her worship set which, in my view, is missing in many churches today.  I could be wrong on this, but in my experience, a lot of worship leaders are still putting songs together which don’t necessarily mesh thematically or flow in tempo and feel.

We need to recover the sense of worship as journey.

2.  The True Mark of Leadership is Humility and Servanthood

Because I’ve been making all this fuss about Cindy Ratcliff in the last couple of days, some people were remarking that maybe I had put her on a pedestal.  Perhaps… But I think we have a lot to learn from her about leadership.

Cindy leads a worship team of 1000 people, some of whom are recording artists and world-class musicians, yet she comes across as level, easy-going, normal and above all, humble.  There was never any hint of her coming across with a sense of entitlement.

It reminds me of Philippians 2:5-11:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever…

Behind every leader that God elevates is the spirit of servanthood.

3.  It Happens to the Best of Them

I often get annoyed when little technical things go wrong.  But last night, about 30 seconds into the first song, the projection of the words failed.

I have seen worship leaders react in a number of ways when things like that happen, but Cindy’s approach was completely seasoned by humility.  After the first song, she welcomed the crowd and very seamlessly made the point that the technicians were doing their best to get the words up, but she encouraged us that even if the words don’t come up, we should try our best to sing along and she will prompt us with the lyrics where appropriate – because after all, we were there to worship God together.

When things like this happen, they often reveal the attitude of our hearts.  Do we get frustrated and annoyed? Or can we let go and do our best in the situation before us?

4.  Excellence, Heart and Faithful Ministry

I’ve been pressing this point of late, but I believe that excellence in ministry is not an afterthought or a secondary requirement.  I see excellence and the heart of worship as two sides of the same coin.

And when the two combine, a powerful synergy is created.

I have worked with bands where because the music isn’t tight, everyone has had to work extra hard to carry each other (this is a difficult concept to articulate, but if you’ve been part of a band, you’ll know what I mean). I’ve also been in bands where the musicians are technically excellent, able to support and cover each other, and where musicians are humble enough to let others soar at opportune moments.  In those times, a worship leader doesn’t have to do much, but you begin to realise that everyone on stage is, in effect, leading worship together.  It’s the difference between my coming out of a worship set feeling exhausted, and coming out of it feeling light and invigorated.

The musicianship was of a such a calibre last night.  Even though there were only 3 musos and a bass track, the music just enveloped you and made it easy for you to engage with God.

5.  Worship Meets Justice

I love “Just Worship” events because as far as worship is concerned, it’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s about worship which pleases the Lord, not just singing him nice songs in an electrified atmosphere to make ourselves feel good, but where worship and justice intersect.

Micah 6:6-8 says this:

How can I stand up before God
and show proper respect to the high God?
Should I bring an armload of offerings
topped off with yearling calves?
Would God be impressed with thousands of rams,
with buckets and barrels of olive oil?…

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously.

The Contemporary English Version says that God demands that “we see that justice is done”. Justice completes our act of worship. In worship, we bless God so that He blesses us, so that we, in turn, might be a blessing.  This is the cycle of worship.

So, I am glad to say that in an atmosphere of powerful worship and encounter last night, those who gathered raised $20,000, every single cent of which will go to Telethon to help children with medical needs in our community.

I am grateful to God for sending Cindy Ratcliff and her team to deposit something into my heart, and into our city, which I’m sure has left us all transformed.