When Does the Task of Worship Leading Begin?

I’ve been thinking recently on the question: when does the task of worship leading begin? So I thought I might jot down some points here.

As a preliminary point, we need to understand that worship leading is (obviously) a form of leadership. John Maxwell defines leadership as influence – nothing more, nothing less. A person who thinks he is leading and has no followers, according to Maxwell, is simply taking a walk.

For the gathered congregation on a Sunday, the task of worship leading might begin at the moment when the countdown clock reaches zero, the drums click in, the electric guitar screams and the worship leader steps forward into the spotlight and says something inspiring to get the crowd going. The prominent traits here are charisma and stage presence.

But worship leading begins well before that.

For the music team, worship leading begins when the worship leader charts out the worship set. He or she has chosen the songs, planned the transitions and leads the musicians and singers in a productive rehearsal. Here, technical skills and visualisation are key. (I’m not a technical person by the way, and I failed a recent music theory test. But I recently discovered that one of my giftings is that I am able to work well with music directors – something I’ve been very grateful for over the years of ministry because my hard-working music directors have always propped me up and made me look good!)

Incidentally, visualisation, in my view, is probably more important than technical ability. It is about being able to see the entire worship set being played out well before anyone else does – anticipating how the congregation might react at certain junctures of the set; sensing the ebb and flow and movement of the music; and being able to recite the narrative of the worship journey.

But worship leading begins well before that as well.

There is an interesting principle known as “the principle of Absalom at the gate”. In 2 Samuel 15, the Scriptures give us a pointed counterexample of how influence may be garnered. In that passage, Absalom is plotting how he might usurp David’s throne. So he stands by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Verses 2-7 say this:

Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, “what town are you from?”… Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.” And Absalom would add, “If only I were appointed judge in the land. Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.”

Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way towards all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

It didn’t actually take much for Absalom to win over the majority, and before long, David was fleeing the city.

To the church (and I use this term in the sense of the “local church” and as distinct from the gathered congregation), worship leading begins at the gate! The key issue here is relationship. You might actually say that the task of worship leading had begun ages ago, when you first joined the church. How did you relate to the people around you? Do they like you as person (irrespective of what a wonderful on-stage persona you have)? Do they feel you are on their side?

At the end of the day, you can’t lead people who don’t like you. It’s actually a really simple proposition. And it’s also a simple proposition that it doesn’t take much for you to win the hearts of people. Sometimes, people just like you to say “hi”, shake their hand (since kissing is probably not entirely appropriate in our modern day churches anymore) and listen to them.

I have always wondered how Lucifer was able to deceive a third of the angels of heaven into following him into rebellion. There is no doubt about it: Lucifer was one of the best worship leaders there ever was. His job was to lead the hearts of heaven into expressing affection towards God. Imagine the strength of the influence he had to be able to convince angels accustomed to God and His presence – God, who is Truth embodied and Glory unparalleled – into joining him in an uprising!

Most of us don’t lead huge crowds in a stadiums. But I remember Carlos Whittaker writing once that whenever he leads worship in a large conference, he will walk amongst the crowd half-an-hour before the set begins, just to chat with those who have come. They get really surprised (and feel quite special) when they realise the friendly guy who had been chatting with them just minutes before is actually the worship leader on stage!

I have been in Faith Community Church now for about 15 months. I started leading worship during Sunday services in March this year. But my task of leading worship actually started well before that. It probably began when I started helping out in the prayer ministry, becoming part of a cell group and actively contributing to cell life, hanging out with some of the young people, helping out whenever I can and being involved in the life of the church. That was when worship leading actually started.

As worship leaders, we must love our local church. We must love it enough to serve the people in whatever way we can, even before we start serving them as worship leaders. And when you serve the people, you will win their hearts and worship leading on a Sunday will be easy.

Just be careful not to go crazy and lead them into a rebellion…

Imagine the Unknown

Shimon Perez once said:

People prefer remembering to imagining. Memory deals with familiar things; imagination deals with the unknown. Imagination can be frightening – it requires risking a departure from the familiar.

We love the safety of the familiar; the tried and true. It’s safe because it’s predictable. But growth, innovation and transformation comes from taking risks; of walking into new frontiers of unfamiliar territory.

People often say this as a foundational principle of worship leadership: “You can’t lead people to where you haven’t been before”. I understand the motivation behind such a statement. But when you think about it, is it true?

We talk about this in the context of God’s presence. Now, I’m not trying to detract from the idea of wholehearted preparation and a worship leader’s private devotion unto God. These are noble things. But every now and then, doesn’t the leader find him or herself in a place that they’ve never been before (with congregation in tow?) Doesn’t God surprise us with His limitless and uncontainable presence when we least expect it?

By definition, I think true leadership does sometimes require us to lead our people into places we’ve never been before. Courage in the face of uncertainty is a hallmark of leadership.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently and he had the most radical thought about an inter-church worship gathering. Anointed and excellent musicians who serve hard often don’t get the chance to truly worship on a Sunday. So the idea was that we would gather musicians together in a circle and just worship together. We’d be proficient enough to “go with the flow”. But (for once), it won’t be about musical excellence and precision. It won’t matter if it doesn’t sound good. Because there won’t be a secondary audience next to God. We would just worship together and if anyone wanted to take up an instrument, they can just do it. By the same token, if you want to lay down your instrument, you can do that too. No fixed agenda – just a bunch of worshipping musicians and singers enjoying God’s presence.

I loved the idea. So we’re going to do it.

We haven’t gone there before. But we are going to try anyway. We want to do something different. Will it work? Who knows? I know my friend’s motivation is pure. If it falls in a heap, we will have learnt something anyway. So what is there to lose? And yet, there is so much to gain.

So watch this space!  We are aiming for a date in September!

Five Facets of a Worship Leader

Worship leadership 101: a worship leader does a whole lot more than singing songs in front of a congregation on a Sunday. This is obvious. The task of a worship leader is so much more than that. In fact a worship leader is called to help shape the corporate worship life of a congregation.

Here are at least 5 functions which I believe a worship leader must fulfil:

1.  The Worship Leader as Worshipper

The worship leader must first be a worshipper.  What you do in public should be an outflow of your personal devotion.

Matt Redman once coined the phrase “lead worshipper”. This means that  a worship leader is the first to worship, i.e. the worship leader leads by their example of worship.

2.  The Worship Leader as Leader

The worship leader leads.  A worship leader must be able to influence people into following him.  John Maxwell quotes the following proverb:  ‘He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.’

As a worship leader, you lead two groups of people.  First, you lead the congregation. Lead them by giving them examples of how to express worship to God in a corporate setting. If you don’t lift up your hands, you can’t expect the congregation to do the same.

The second group of people you lead is the band. Make sure you give them a direction and vision for where you want to take the service. Even though I’m not a technical musician, I always approach a worship set having mapped out its ebb and flow; its dynamics and the spiritual direction. I’m also at pains to make sure that I give the musicians and singers a set of accurate chord charts well in advance so they can practise and have some certainty to navigate with me. I do what I can as a leader, then I delegate the more complicated technical stuff to the music director!

As a worship leader, you should also lead confidently.

3.  The Worship Leader as Facilitator

I like the term “worship facilitator” because it makes it clear that the worship leader is not the only person who “does” the worship. The whole congregation must engage and the role of the worship leader is to make it as easy as possible for as many members of the congregation to engage in worship.

This will mean choosing songs that are easy for the congregation to sing; pitched comfortably; properly directing the congregation to participate.  Most of all, it means not making the stage the focus of attention!

4.  The Worship Leader as Pastor

Although the worship leader must be worshipping, they should not get ‘lost in worship’.  It is important to be keenly aware of how people are responding and how the Spirit is moving.

I have always thought that I wasn’t a “pastoring” kind of person, which is why worship ministry is great fit for me. I thought I could simply “inspire from afar”.  But good worship leading is practised in the trenches, especially if you are leading a congregation regularly.  You have to interact with people in the life of the church, get to know them better, talk to them, get a feel for their expectations etc. And serve with them, in cell groups, on mission trips, in prayer meetings.

Too often worship leaders have a sense of contempt for the people – “they don’t understand how to worship”, “why can’t they worship like me”, “if only they did God would really show up”, etc…. That’s called pride.

I heard Andrew Ironside say this once: if you’ve got a few minutes before the start of the service and the sound’s not ready, you have a duty to make sure the sound is good so that the people can worship.  He said that the worse thing you could do in that instance was to pray!

It was a bit of a hyperbole, but you get his point.  The worship leader must love the people he leads.

5.  The Worship Leader as Prophet

A worship leader must continue to break new ground in worship expression, for example, in introducing new styles of worship and new songs.

Why?  Because otherwise, we can rely so much more on tradition and ritual than to really worship God.  Can you imagine waking up one morning and saying to your wife: “Honey, truly thou art beautiful and thou dost smell like the sweet fragrance of a bouquet of flowers”?

The next day, you do the same thing.

And then the next day.

In due time, what was once a sweet spontaneous gesture has become a rote thoughtless ritualistic repetition.

Yet, many of us hang on to tired old familiar songs and expressions even though they have ceased to be meaningful to us, and presumably also to God.

Worship leaders need to continue to keep on the prophetic edge, in the sense of both exploring new songs and new expressions and also in allowing a sense of unpredictability to come into the worship.

But it is also very important to balance the ‘prophetic’ and ‘pastoral’ role.  That is, we need to find the right balance between the desire to break new ground and the desire to take people with us.

So those are the five functions I think worship leaders need to fulfill. Are there more? Share your thoughts with us!

What Does Unity of the Church Look Like?

I’ve had a pretty inspiring weekend.

As some of you may know, I’ve been thinking long and hard about unity, particular in relation to how worship ministers can contribute towards God’s move in uniting the church in the city. Part of this includes my crazy idea of having people from different churches form a band to lead a worship event in the Perth Cultural Centre.

Of course, I am at once both excited and freaked out by the idea.

But I think God has been speaking to me to take a serious step of faith through the encouragement of others around me.

On a small scale, the process of my discerning the will of God in this has been a blessing of unity. First Corinthians 2:16 says this:

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.

Admittedly, I’ve always skipped over this passage because the use of the pronouns confuses me no end. But could this passage mean this: “who (individually) can discern the mind of Christ? It is only we (plural, together) who have the mind of Christ.”

So what started out as a thought (which may or may not be the will of God, tempered by my own sense of insecurity and inadequacy) is confirmed by the company of believers as the will of God.  And at a macro level (since 1 Corinthians was written to the entire church in Corinth, not just one congregation), perhaps it takes the whole church in the whole city to discern and execute the will of God for the city!

So, as I was praying about the idea of bringing worshippers together, a pastor came up to me yesterday and encouraged me.  He told me that I should pursue the dream because, in his words, “I don’t want to die wondering”.

And this morning, during a Missions Forum at Faith Community Church, a missionary friend of mine was asked what concluding thought he would give the congregation, and he said (words to the effect of) “just go and do what God has placed in your heart”.

So now, I’m feeling all the more that pursuing the dream of uniting worshippers in the city is part of God’s plan and desire. I’m more and more confident of this.

As I was talking to the pastor yesterday (who by the way has helped prototype unity in cities before), he asked me what I thought unity amongst worshippers might look like.  Here are some of the thoughts I shared with him:

  • Worship ministers being able to support and encourage one another through the challenges of leading worship ministries in our own congregations;
  • Worship ministers sharing ideas;
  • Worship ministers sharing resources and joint training (in fact, I learnt this weekend that next year, Metrochurch is about to launch its Worship Academy to train worship ministers in the city!);
  • Worship teams from large churches being sent into smaller churches to help the smaller churches lift the watermark of worship and to develop self-sufficient teams in the medium term;
  • Worshippers gathered together from different congregations together to passionately exalt the name of Jesus in public places.

My pastor friend had more ideas to, including worship leaders exchanging platforms (that made sense, seeing that pastors sometimes exchange pulpits, so why not the worship leaders?).  He told me how he had seen this happen and I wondered what it would look like for an Anglican to lead a worship service in a Charismatic church for example.

And my pastor friend told me of even more examples of what unity might look like, such as congregations helping each other to pay off debt; the church in the city planting congregations (led by students and teachers) in every school in the city; intercessors being mobilised to pray 24/7 (this is already happening in Perth!) and youth groups coming together.

In Prayer Evangelism, Ed Silvoso said:

God did not give all His gifts to one person or one congregation in the city but distributed them all over the Church. This way its members would be required to interact and be interdependent in order to be effective.

In other words, it takes the whole church in the whole city to reach the entire city!

My prayer is that you will also dream big for the city. In the ministry God has called you to, what would it look like if the congregations in your city united together for Christ’s cause? What would it look like when intercessors across congregations get together? Or worshippers? Or teachers? Or youth leaders? Or community workers? Feel free to share your thoughts here.

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.

 

Cindy Ratcliff’s Insights into Worship Ministry

I just got back from an amazing evening at Metrochurch’s OneNight with Cindy Ratcliff, the Senior Worship Leader of Lakewood Church. I had always been a big fan of Cindy’s ever since I heard the album We Speak to Nations. That album was for me a return from an artist-centric approach to worship music back to the grassroots of home-grown church worship (albeit on a scale that most of us wouldn’t usually experience). There is an unusual sense of God’s presence particular in the medley culminating in the song “Show Me Your Glory”.

After hearing Cindy in person, I am now even more of a fan. I was impressed by the strength of her leadership in a ministry with people like Israel Houghton, Steve and Da’dra Crawford (from the Christian group, Anointed) and world-class vocalists and musos. But even more impressive was her transparency, humility and sensitivity to the Spirit.

Cindy shared insights into worship ministry in the context of her own journey to Lakewood and building a worship team which numbers about 1000 members today (that’s right, their worship team is larger than most churches!). I thought I might just quickly record some of her thoughts here:

// As worship ministers, we need to guard the condition of our hearts. The purity of our hearts displays the glory of God.

// What you do in private sets the stage for what you do in public.

// Submit to your leaders and champion their vision. Your ability to submit sets an example of how people should follow you.

// Choose to think the best of the people in your team, even though it’s much easier to think the worst of them. Doing this helps diffuse conflict quickly.

// Be yourself – be confident in who God has made you to be.

// The job of the leaders in the ministry is to provide a touchstone and sense of family for members of the team and to provide prayer support. They do not do counselling. For counselling, these are referred to trained counsellors in the church.

// Have accountability to people close to you (like your spouse – they are like your personal Holy Spirit!). They keep things from getting to your head.

// About worship musicians who play on the secular stage: they are not there to partake, but to impart. In other words, they are sent out as missionaries as positive influences in the secular arena.

Above all, from what I heard tonight, I think the secret to Cindy’s success in ministry is her reliance on the Holy Spirit. Worship ministry often throws up tricky questions like “how do you balance skill and heart?” or “do you allow non-Christians to play on your band?” Cindy’s response to these questions was about knowing what is right for your team in a particular season or situation. More than a prescription (on the one hand) or gut instinct (on the other), I am again reminded that effective leadership requires that we lean in and listen to what the Spirit is saying, just like how Jesus would only do what He saw the Father doing.

 

Worship’s Dirtiest Word

In recent posts, I have been ruminating about worship auditions. Over the years, worship ministries have accepted auditions as a completely legitimate way to vet and induct new candidates into the ministry.

But whenever you talk about auditions, you also bring up another concept, which to mention in the context of worship is virtually taboo. It is one of worship’s dirtiest words. It may not be the dirtiest, but it certainly is up there. So, please promise me that, after you read this post, you will go into your prayer closet and ask for forgiveness for even entertaining the thought (actually, “entertain” is also a bad word, so pray for forgiveness twice!)

Used in any other context, the word causes absolutely no offence. In fact, it has a neutral to positive connotation. Used in the context of worship however, it is downright obscene.

That word is “performance”.

It is such a provocative word that, in fact, the July/August 2012 edition of Worship Leader magazine devotes itself to what the editor calls “an ancient controversy”.

The question is this: should performance be part of worship leading?

Ask me that question 10 years ago and I would have given you a very different answer to what I would give you today.

The church’s aversion to performance in worship leading can be traced to how those of us who have been in worship ministry for a long time were trained and brought up. We were told to “let no flesh glory in God’s presence”. Performance is therefore “fleshly” and therefore “not of the spirit”. And true worshippers must worship “in spirit and in truth”.

In an article published years ago entitled “Worship vs Performance” (I can’t find its source now), Kelly Carpenter (a Vineyard worship leader and composer of “Draw Me Close to You”) said this:

Worship is not performance. Performance is not worship. They are mutually exclusive. If we keep that straight, then we will be able to properly give God His due. Problems develop when we turn worship into a performance. When we bring the performance mindset and pattern into worship, it becomes polluted.

Over time, my mindset has changed. I no longer think that worship and performance are exclusive. I believe that for a worship leader to truly lead worship, they must actually bring an element of performance into their craft. This requires musical excellence, the ability to connect and engage the congregation, appropriate articulation of instructions and exhortations and being able to pray inspiring prayers.

To what end? If this is to bring attention to ourselves as worship ministers, then we’ve probably missed the point. But we equally miss the point if we don’t “perform” and by failing to “perform”, we fail to inspire the congregation to bring their best praise offering to God.

This is not to say that the ultimate audience of our worship isn’t God. Worship leaders should understand this point well. But, without derogating from that principle, worship leaders also need to (whether they like it or not) appreciate that there is a secondary audience – the congregation. This is of course not ideal but you just need to look at how we set up our worship in churches all around the world week-in and week-out to know that this is true. There is a stage; the stage is raised; the seating arrangements have the stage as a focal point; and the lights point towards the stage. What are we all looking at? I can tell you now that God is not on stage (at least not visibly).

The only visible people on stage are the worship musicians!

Until we get rid of this set-up, we can’t deny that performance will play an important part of our worship leading.

When I lead worship in cell group (where we usually gather in a circle), I use a different approach to worship leading to how I would lead in a Sunday service. For example, I gravitate towards simpler, more melodic songs. I use different language. I tend to speak as someone within the company of gathered worshippers, rather than someone in front of them. I am usually more laid-back and my tone is more relaxed.

When I lead worship in a Sunday service, I appreciate that not everyone in the church knows me like my cell group nor do I know them like I do my cell group. I need to be more exacting in my use of language; I need to craft my prayers more deliberately; I need to make sure that I use the 25 minutes with which I am entrusted to bring as many people in the congregation to a place of encounter with God.

I had a friend years ago who used to lead worship in cell group as he would on the platform. So he’d stand there (in front of all 8 of us), put on a faux American accent (because back then, all the good worship albums came from the USA) and give the most rousing performance he could muster. We were able to move past it all and worship anyway, and we’d tease him later and laugh about it. But he probably didn’t need to impress us so much in a cell group setting.

So why are we so averse to performance anyway?

Musicologist Monique Ingalls says this in her article “Reclaiming Performance in Worship” (Worship Leader, July/Aug 2012):

We often use the word ‘performance’ to describe what happens when someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with the way they really feel or the way they are in ‘real life’. We impute questionable motives to their actions: ‘performers’ in this sense act with an intention to deceive or manipulate, like an actor adopting a persona.

Next, Ingalls continues:

In the context of congregational worship, ‘performance’ is used to negatively describe what happens when the focus is placed on the musicians onstage (‘performers’) while the congregation (‘audience’) remains passive and uninvolved.

Recognising the cause of our aversion is part of the way towards our healing. When we actually analyse those two causes, we come to realise that (1) when worship leaders perform, they aren’t necessarily being fake or manipulative; and (2) our performance isn’t to negate the congregation’s involvement in worship, but rather to inspire and enhance that involvement. In fact, I believe that a worship leader must perform well if they are to faithfully steward their anointing.

And I’m glad to say that in recent years, the church has begun to embrace “performance” as a legitimate skill to be deployed by worship leaders. Very much in the same way that we would like our preachers to be interesting and engaging.

Paul Baloche, in his article “A Leading Worship Performance” (Worship Leader, Jul/Aug 2012) says that musically preparing is important because it will “greatly affect the participation of the congregation”. Baloche goes on to say:

We have to acknowledge that leading worship has aspects of performance. It’s naive or dishonest to pretend there is no element of performance when we walk out onto a platform or stage in front of others.

In an interview with Israel Houghton in the same issue of Worship Leader magazine, Houghton talks about a big Easter event that Lakewood Church had put on:

We poured great effort into how the songs wold be structured, how we were going to go about it, we planned this big drum feature thing. I asked our team, ‘What if we did that every week?’ Just put it all out there every single week? Some would see that as the wrong kind of performance, but I would see it as caring for the people that are coming to hear from God.”

Properly motivated, performance is a powerful thing. As Houghton might say, if we want to honour God and if we care about our congregations, then we’d better put some effort into our craft and our delivery. Not because we want to bring glory to ourselves. Not because we seek the adulation of others. But because, as worship leaders who pastor our congregation into God’s presence, we want to maximise participation both in breadth (in the numbers of people who worship) and in depth (in terms of the quality of their encounter with God).

Maybe the worship team should think of themselves as the “support act” (oops, ‘act’ is probably another dirty word!). When God’s presence comes (the main event), we will get out of the way and join back with rest of the congregation in giving our praise and adulation to the audience of One.

So what do you think? Is this the right balance to strike?

Next Generational Leadership

I was off work today, recovering from a cold, and I spent a good deal of the day devouring Ross Parsley’s new book, Messy Church. Yesterday, I suggested that everyone should get a copy of it. See my post here.

I’m about halfway through the book and what Parsley is advocating is to see the church and its mission through an entirely new lens: the church, not as a well-oiled corporate machine, but as family, where life reigns over structure, relationship reigns over protocol. And where there is life, there is usually mess. But it’s okay for church to be messy.

I couldn’t agree more.

Part of the appeal of this book is that many of the lessons learnt were forged in the context of worship ministry, when Parsley was the worship pastor of New Life Church. It is interesting to see how worship ministry is often the place where a lot of the issues of church are often played out most sharply.

As I read this book, I saw a lot of my own philosophies of worship ministry being articulated, and articulated well.

In 2010, when I was one of the worship ministry leaders setting up a new satellite service planted by my then church, one of the things I was keen to do was to involve and grow the next generation of leaders. My co-leader and I decided to establish what we called a “Think Tank”, a group of emerging leaders in the worship ministry who would bring fresh and innovative ideas into worship ministry, but who would also get the opportunity to work alongside, and to glean from, more seasoned leaders. I even challenged some of them that in two years’ time, they could take over my job and I would remain to stand alongside them, rather than to lead them.

Parsley presses the need for a multigenerational approach to ministry, which he calls the “family worship table”. The key is to invite the younger generation to the table, because freshness and innovation lay with that generation. He says:

“The family worship table” was a way to describe our multigenerational approach that would help every age-group embrace people at different points on the age continuum….

The commitment to use Sundays as a gathering place for the “family worship table” began when I started thinking about how to integrate fresh faces and young hearts into the leadership of worship at New Life Church. We made a shift in our church to remain musically relevant, and I struggled to get people to understand what we were doing. New Life had always been a charismatic church theologically, but our style and culture had stagnated. We were thriving spiritually but hadn’t progressed in our expression artistically or musically…. The church continued to grow, and we built the foundations of a successful worship ministry with strong musicians and biblical teaching, but we weren’t moving culturally at the speed we needed to. I recruited some young college graduates to inject life into our ministry and help chart the course ahead….

Slowly, we began to change and experience genuine multigenerational worship. New Life was a thriving and healthy church, but as we began to change musically and artistically, the process uncovered some poor attitudes and selfishness in some who had been there for a while. Some of the family did not want to invite the kids to the table. They wanted them to stay at their own kids’ table.

Parsley goes on to make a pretty bold claim: “Young people create the culture of our tables, our churches, and our country… Our job as parents is to raise them – to influence them and give them our hearts”.

My own experience agrees with this statement. The older I get, and the longer I have been in worship ministry, the more I realise how “uncool” I’m becoming. Even using the word “uncool” betrays my lack of “coolness”. Young people interact and integrate with, and influence, culture in a way I can’t even begin to grasp. Some of the guys in our “Think Tank” were actually “back seat driving” our worship culture by telling me to listen to new songs and to deploy them in our worship sets. In the end, our ministry owed a lot to the young people for pushing us all forward.

However, we are often like Eliab (David’s older brother) and Saul. When Goliath stood there day after day, taunting the armies of Israel, Saul was paralysed, with no new strategies for victory. In comes David the young punk to deliver some cheese to his brothers. And Eliab tells him (with a great deal of indignation perhaps), “Shouldn’t you be back home looking after the sheep?” When David finally gets to confront Goliath, Saul gives his armour to David: ill-fitting, heavy and speaking of old methods and paradigms. Instead, David rejects the old, and launches an assault that is completely innovative (but birthed by God): a sling and a smooth-stone to the forehead of the giant.

Many of us who have been in the game a long time are reluctant to hand control over to the young, because in our minds, they are tempestuous upstarts who lack credible experience. If we let them play, we become like Saul, forcing old paradigms and old wineskins in the hope of somehow containing the new flow of the Spirit and the new wine.

By the way, anyone who thinks that we don’t need to keep renewing our worship expression stands on dangerously tenuous ground. We simply can’t keep singing the songs that are 20 years old and expect the next generation to connect with them. Personally, I love the songs of the 90s because they were the songs I was first taught as a young Christian. But stylistically, they mean nothing to the present generation. They simply make the church look old and weary. Of course, there can be space for blending of old and new (I often like to throw in an old song into every worship set) but if we don’t keep moving forward, as they say, we are actually moving backward.

Parsley goes on to say:

Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could take the maturity, wisdom and resources of age and put them together with the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of youth? Our churches would be an unstoppable force in our communities….

Creating opportunities for young and inexperienced leaders is one of the most effective tools we have to continue to make the church dynamic and relevant in our culture. Helping young leaders is extremely challenging because it demands accountability, it involves some risk, and it can be downright messy; but it is indispensable to a church that is committed to longevity.”

I don’t think the question we should ask is whether our young people are ready. If we ask that, we will always conclude that they are not. The question is whether the older generation is ready to stand alongside the youth, to nurture them, to father them, to guide them and to create save spaces for them to take risks and push established boundaries.

So, this is a call for worship ministry leaders to participate in the “family worship table”, to build up the next generation of leaders of our churches and ministries.

Will it work? I believe that the results speak for themselves. New Life Church and Desperation Band, through Parsley’s leadership, remains one of the cutting edge forces in the worship landscape today, producing worship music that is relevant, edgy and yet congregation-friendly. And that sort of legacy can be ours too.

Why the Distinction Between “Praise” and “Worship” Matters

In an earlier post entitled Defining Worship, I introduced Harold’s Best definition of worship as continuous outpouring.

If worship encompasses all of our life, then “worship” is a much bigger concept than “praise”.  In fact, we can think of “praise” as a subset of “worship”.  Robert Webber once said that “worship is a verb”, but I’d like to think of it as worship being a state of being and “praise” being the verb by which “worship” is expressed.

If we refine this thought further, we can say that “praise” is the ignition point, or pilot light, of “worship”.

Think about it this way:  what we do in corporate praise on a Sunday is only the start of how we live a life of worship from Monday to Saturday.  Our aligning of focus towards God through praise should be the inspiration and catalyst for a life of worship demonstrated in how we live for God in the workplace, in our homes and in our communities.

This has a couple of pretty significant implications which I want to explore further in this post:

1.  Who is the Real Worship Leader?

I’m not one to make a fuss about nomenclature, but I remember in the early 90s how those in worship ministry made a conscious shift from referring to the guy on stage as “song leader” to “worship leader” to the more funky Matt Redman-driven “lead worshipper”.

About 10 years ago, I said that maybe a better designation would be “worship facilitator”.  I said this because I thought that the role of the guy on stage would be simply to facilitate the offering of worship for which each member of the congregation was ultimately personally responsible to bring.

These days, I don’t mind what you call the guy as long as you know what role he is fulfilling.  For ease, and because of general acceptance, I tend to use “worship leader” more.  In fact, when I think about it, I am now more inclined to call that guy the “praise leader” for the reasons set out at the start of this post.

But if we understand that “praise” is a subset of “worship”, we need to ask ourselves:  “who then really is the worship leader”?  If worship is the stuff that encompasses all of our lives, then the worship leader definitely is not the guy on stage who leads the singing for the first 30 minutes of a church service.  He is, as I say, just the “praise leader”.

Neither is he the preacher, because whilst the preacher gives instructions on how we worship with our whole lives, the preacher doesn’t see to those instructions being fulfilled during the week.

So if we take this a bit further, the “praise leader” and the “preacher” on a Sunday are only the initiators.  The real worship leaders are those found in the worshipping community – your spiritual mentors; your peers; your family; models of character and attitude – those who see to it (perhaps sometimes inadvertently) that in your daily life, Christlikeness is being formed in you.  In other words, all of us in the church are the real worship leaders!

2.  Fast Songs and Slow Songs

Those of us in worship ministry for a while will remember a time when we equated the fast songs with “praise” and the slow songs with “worship”.  This created an unfortunate dichotomy where fast songs were seen as a means of emotional hype (and belonging to the “outer court” experience) whereas slow songs (in which “worship” occurs) were deep and spiritual and therefore more desirable.

Also partly because the current style of fast songs were harder to execute, I have seen some worship leaders take to the extreme of ever only singing slow songs.

For those of you as shallow as I am, it meant that people got bored during the Sunday services.

If we understand that what we are doing on a Sunday is “praise” and the catalyst for our daily worship, then the distinction between fast songs being “praise” and slow songs being “worship” is no longer valid.  This is a great leveller between fast and slow songs.

So, I would suggest that intimately seeking God in a slow song has just as much significance as exuberant celebration through the fast song.  A cursory glance through the Psalms will confirm this:  we are commanded as much to thirst and hunger for God as we are to clap our hands and celebrate his victories.

Because of this, I now try to give as much “air time” to both fast and slow songs.

One day, when the time is right, I will lead a worship set that consists only of fast songs – for no other reason than perhaps to address the imbalance and to get us thinking.  For that, I’m going to need a drummer with heaps of stamina!

What Type of Worship Leader Are You?

Years ago, I came across John de Jong’s catalogue of different types of worship leaders (from his book Riding the Storm), which I thought was rather amusing. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but in the process, he makes some quite incisive observations about worship leading methodology.

So here are the categories, but I want to just make the disclaimer that any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental:

1. The Cheerleader

  • After a hearty welcome, the cheerleader likes to encourage the congregation with a brief but uplifting “thought of the day” before launching into a bone-jarring praise song.
  • He’s not too concerned about musical finesse; most songs feature scrubbed acoustic guitar (slightly but annoyingly out of tune).
  • He is an eternal optimist and his approach involves much encouragement to “give God the glory” followed by frequent clap offerings.
  • He often works up a sweat and is particularly fond of bouncing.
  • It’s generally a good hour before he lets the pastor onto stage for the announcements.

2. The DJ

  • The DJ is the cheerleader’s brother but attends a different church (again, any resemblance to real life is entirely coincidental! – I know my brother will read this and he’s going to say something to me.)
  • He loves to talk especially between songs.
  • He often prays extemporary prayers that are shallow, if not trite, using many well-worn cliches.
  • He likes to start the service by explaining in detail why worship is really important.
  • Before singing the first song, he reads a scripture that the Lord gave him that morning as he was cleaning his teeth.
  • His eyes are closed most of the time but he frequently opens them to check that that congregation is paying attention.
  • At the end of the song, he will remind the congregation why the have just finished the last song before helpfully explaining why the next song was chosen.

3. The Dictator

  • The dictator is essentially a control freak.
  • He is a bit like the cheerleader with all the compassion squeezed out of him.
  • He is sometimes a serious, domineering, priest-like figure who seldom smiles yet often stares with piercing eyes at the congregation or he wears the mask of super-spirituality, retreating behind a veil of mystical communion.
  • He often exhibits a breathtaking command of Scripture.
  • He might accuse some of the congregation of failing to worship with sufficient abandon.
  • Whilst he is a capable musician, he seems almost unable to enjoy himself and unable to relinquish control to allow people to find their own pathway to Jesus.
  • He likes hymns with challenging lyrics rather than musical or artistic beauty.
  • Instead of gently leading people into worship, he will march boldly ahead expecting them to follow.

4. The Transcendental Meditator

  • He stands at the front with his eyes firmly closed most of the time.
  • His voice is not very loud but he’s a pretty good (acoustic) guitarist having spent hours in his bedroom working out new chord inversions.
  • Sometimes when he leads worship, the congregation is unaware that the service has started.
  • He loves working in a team, but sometimes the musicians around him get bored.
  • Songs seem to go on forever as he gently sways.
  • He cannot stand shallow praise songs, but instead prefers repetitive dirges that lead him towards Nirvana as the congregation dreams of coffee and doughnuts.
  • He likes the sound of the phrase “deep calls unto deep” but hasn’t a clue what it means.

5. The Small Animal in Bright Lights

  • The small animal in bright lights is a pretty girl (remember, this is John de Jong’s words, not mine!).
  • Someone once told her that if she fixed her eyes on a point on the back wall just above the last pew, it would look as though she was making eye contact with people without actually having to look at them. What they failed to tell her was that it’s advisable to change the spot occasionally, so now she looks like a rabbit caught in headlights.
  • Her mum says she has a really nice voice, but few people have actually heard it.
  • She’s a real sweetie and no one minds that they can’t actually hear her sing.
  • When she’s feeling really relaxed, she closes her eyes and lifts one hand in worship.

When I first read this list, I had to have a bit of a chuckle and I mentally slotted in the worship leader friends I had into the different categories.

I’m a definitely a cheerleader, but not attractive enough to be a real cheerleader! Yes, I do encourage people to “give God the glory” and I really, really love clap offerings. In fact, I can’t stand a worship set not ending with a rousing clap offering! And I bounce too. When it gets really exciting, I might even … twirl. Yes, that’s right, twirl! There I said it!

So, what type of worship leader are you: cheerleader, DJ, dictator, transcendental meditator or deer caught in headlights? Post your comments below.