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.

Sometimes Bossanova Just Happens: Lessons from Your Worst Nightmare

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.

When the Music Fades…

Despite the title, this post actually has nothing to do with Matt Redman’s famous song.

Today, I want to write about what worship teams often do at the end of the service: the debrief session. I’m naturally a critical, um, I mean analytical sort of person so I like to evaluate things. But a debrief session can be beneficial as well as completely unhelpful depending on how you run it.

What is useful is for team members to evaluate how each person carried out their function and for there to be some input on how things can be done better. For example, as a worship leader, it’s good for me to know whether the songs I chose were appropriate; whether the transitions were handled well; whether the song endings were strong enough. It’s good for musicians to get feedback on how they played and what they can do to play better; whether singers could do certain things to blend better etc.

The feedback session should never be used to address personal issues. For example, if you believe that one of your team members didn’t practise enough, or has an issue with being punctual, tell them gently one-on-one, not in front of the rest of the group. Public correction only brings public embarrassment and in some cases, breeds resentment in the person being corrected.

So, properly focussed on the technical aspects, I think debriefing is an entirely constructive tool that will help your team minister better.

But I have also been in debriefings where people have tried to gauge the spiritual outcome of the service. I find this enquiry extremely unhelpful, and that’s coming from a worship leader who is in a sense entrusted with the spiritual reins of the worship part of the service. Questions such as “where did we peak spiritually?” are not only near on impossible to answer, but they also look amusing when put to paper.

The truth is, the spiritual side of the worship can only be accessed and experienced by faith. One time, someone told me that they felt that as I led worship and changed a particular song, I had changed the spiritual direction of the meeting. Now, that certainly wasn’t my intention at that point in time, and I certainly didn’t feel that I had done so. On the other hand, I think what I did was to try to sense what God was doing and then to take a step of faith in obedience to the Spirit’s prompting to change songs or repeat songs or to exhort or to pray. That’s really all that can be required of a worship leader: to act in faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will have his way in the midst of the worship.

Martin Smith observes in his book Delirious:

You can’t always trust your own emotions – I might come offstage and think it had been amazing, whereas Stu might feel blank. Next time, I might come off feeling like I’d not connected, like everything I’d said was rubbish, but Jon might say ‘No way! I was watching this kid all night, and he was crying and God was obviously moving in his life – what a great night!’

You learn quickly that you can’t trust your own emotions; you can’t adjudicate it, because you’re not the one to judge how it went.

How true! We can never really judge how it went. Who is to know what the Holy Spirit is doing in the unseen? At the end, we can only trust that as we have responded faithfully to God, the rest of it is in His hands.

When we approach leading like this, it is extremely liberating. One of my old worship pastors used to say “if you can’t claim the credit for the worship, you shouldn’t take the blame”.

So I encourage you to have constructive debriefing sessions: analyse the technical aspects so your team can improve, but also celebrate good things and the wonderful work God did during the service!

Worship and Performance

When I was learning to lead worship, one of the things that I was taught early on was that worship is very different to performance. The two things don’t mix and in fact, I was told that performance made worship impure, for “no flesh should glory in God’s presence”.

I think a lot of that teaching derived from the early days of the Vineyard movement. Worship leaders like Andy Park were very laid back and it was a culture most probably set by John Wimber. Wimber had always been a proponent of being “naturally supernatural” and those who have documented his healing ministry always mentioned the fact that he was completely (and consciously) unpretentious.

This shunning of showmanship to an extent was (in that context) a way of answering the critics of the Charismatic movement who tried to discredit the movement by pointing to its emotionalism and frenzy, particularly coming out of the era of the healing evangelists. Wimber gave them something that shielded the movement from discredit. But in the context of worship, I believe that it has given way to a form of extremism which labels performance as carnal.

Even recently I have had detractors say that I am too performance-orientated, as if that were a bad thing.

The church these days is beginning to accept that performance is very much part of worship leading.

It was only around last year that I first heard this during a message by former Parachute Band frontman, Wayne Huirua. Huirua said that it wouldn’t make sense if worship leaders put off the performance aspect and instead tried to appear as level and emotionless as possible. This simply does not inspire anyone to worship.

Recently, as I was reading Martin Smith’s memoir Delirious, Smith makes the same point. Writing about his first foray into the American worship scene, Smith writes:

Getting your head down and ploughing on with worship was not the culture in America. I still think that the crowds in the United States are much more limber when it comes to being led: They expect the person onstage to take control and do a show even if it’s one full of God-songs. I’ve always said that the United States taught us how to play on those big stages and opened our eyes to a new way of engaging with an audience. We came offstage at that first Creation gig knowing that we had to up our game if we were going to play more “shows” like that. It was obvious that we had a long way to go before we could present what we did to a field full of people, and I can still remember feeling utterly petrified by not knowing how to do it.

Somewhere amid that fear was something else – the sense that this could all end by being something profoundly great. I’d always thought that the two parts of me – one liked to perform, and one liked to worship – existed in separate spaces, finding different outlets. But up on a stage with a crowd that stretched out in front of me like a lake, it was different. Perhaps those two parts of me weren’t strangers after all. What would it be like if I could learn how to draw the crowd in and then step aside to join them in worship?

….

At times, I felt that my showman side needed to be kept separate from the worshipper, but I knew deep down that the two were brothers, not strangers. And they enriched each other: My performance had meaning when linked to worship, which in turn was able to draw more people in when delivered with confidence in front of the crowd.

I’ve highlighted some of Smith’s insights here because I think performance is a very important part of worship leading. To try to look unemotional and uninvolved is false humility (unless that’s your natural disposition).

Think about the preacher. The most effective preachers are the ones who are animated, who translate their passion into words and gestures. And when the cloud of emotion settles, you know that the seed of transformation has been planted.

I think Smith is absolutely right: worship leaders need the performance element to bring people in before moving aside to join them in worship.

Of course, there is a line to be drawn. A worship leader can become so obsessed with performance so as to forget the reason why he or she is up on stage. A worship leader can be so performance orientated so as to bring attention on themselves rather than God. But a degree of performance is a good thing and I think it’s about time that the church recognises that performance is very much part of the art of worship leading.

Epochal Songs of the Praise and Worship Movement

I have been leading worship for the last 19 years within the Charismatic Renewal and I have seen the style (and to some extent) the content of our worship evolve. Rewind 20 years back and it would have been unimaginable for the church back then that we would sing the types of songs we sing today.

The instrumentation has changed. From keyboard-driven and big band orchestral music, the forerunner music of today’s worship is guitar-driven grunge and electronic techno.

We have also moved on from traditional hymnology to a much more prophetic, apostolic lyric but at the same time, injecting elements of heartfelt personal poetry and imagery. Worship music is beginning to bridge the cultural divide between sacred and secular.

The praise and worship movement had its origins in the 1960’s. Two streams were particularly influential: presentation blue-grass gospel songs (popularised by the Gaithers) and the Jesus People movement (which brought rock-and-roll music and musicians into the church). (It is interesting to see even then how the generations converged in Charismatic worship).

Since then, those on the cutting edge have continued to revolutionise worship music, bringing to it strong artistic merit without comprising biblical content.

An epoch means an era or season. And so when I refer to “epochal songs”, I am referring to songs that are significant to an era or season of the church in one of two ways: either it defines the season (i.e. it captures and articulates the heartcry of the church at a moment in time, usually an emotion or perspective which was felt but not yet expressed) or it is defining of the season (i.e. it catapults the church into a new prophetic direction).

Here, I want to list what I believe are the epochal songs of the praise and worship movement. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this but my opinion is based on extensive reading, listening and thinking about praise and worship and also experiencing it first hand for the last 22 years of my Christian walk.

So here they are – my list of the 15 epochal songs of the praise and worship movement in chronological order:

  1. All Hail King Jesus (Dave Moody, 1977)
  2. Give Thanks (Henry Smith, 1978)
  3. I Love You, Lord (Laurie Klein, 1978)
  4. As the Deer (Martin Nystrom, 1984)
  5. Ancient of Days (Jamie Harvill and Gary Sadler, 1992)
  6. Power of Your Love (Geoff Bullock, 1992)
  7. Shout to the Lord (Darlene Zschech, 1993)
  8. Everything That Has Breath (Michelle Hira/Parachute Band, 1994)
  9. I Could Sing of Your Love Forever (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1994)
  10. Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1994)
  11. Breathe (Marie Barnett, 1995)
  12. History Maker (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1996)
  13. The Heart of Worship (Matt Redman, 1997)
  14. How Great is Our God (Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash and Jesse Reeves, 2004)
  15. How He Loves Us (John Mark McMillan, 2005)

In my next several posts, I will explain why I have picked these songs and their significance to the worship life of the church. You may not agree with my list or you may think other songs should be included. What would be interesting for me (as a bit of social research) is to hear your thoughts on my list. What songs do you think should be here? Why do you think they are significant? I look forward to reading your comments!