One of my favorite recent songs has been “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I bet you may have heard it a few too many times, but it’s hard to be unhappy when Happy comes on. It’s an unavoidably effective mood lifter. Even now, writing about it, I can’t get the song out of my head! It isn’t a “worship song” or even a “Christian” song, but it moves me. My own thought is that music, no matter the genre or category, has the potential to be inspired by God. God gave us music and song, and sometimes in the act of writing or singing we touch on the heart or intention of that creation. But that’s just me.
One of my favorite worship leading examples might surprise you. It happened during the seventh inning stretch of a 2012 National League Championship Series game. Tony Bennett came out on the field at AT&T Park in San Francisco to sing God Bless America. I love Tony Bennett. He’s had an amazing life and an incredibly long singing career. The man is 87 years old, and still sounds awesome. The crowd always responds to him well here. After all, he left his heart here. So, Tony started singing. Subdued at first, he seemed respectful of the God he was asking to bless America. His voice rose as he asked God in to bless America in particular places (mountains, prairies, oceans). Then his voice rose in power as he sang God bless America, my home sweet home. He could have continued on singing to complete what was building to be one of those “goose bump” performances. But he took a moment to engage the people, shouting “Everybody”! Then you hear 40,000+ people belt out the last line and high note. I was watching on television, but felt like I should join in too. I believed Tony believed every word he was singing to the very depth of his soul. I’m sure many of the people in the crowd probably didn’t even believe in God, but Tony Bennett did, and he made the most of it. The Giants ended up winning the World Series, but I don’t think God intervened on their behalf. I’m an Oakland A’s fan.
Maybe we won’t have the chance to lead 40,000 people in song, but we can use the chances we do have to do it with the most we have to give. My wife, Linda, has a sign she gives me sometimes when I’m leading worship. With a smile, she’ll tap her heart with her fist, sometimes after a technical band or sound distraction, or something else that has distracted me from engaging with the meaning of a song. It’s a reminder to invest or go deep into the words I’m leading. I have no problem reading her. It doesn’t mean get louder or more emotional. It means to put everything into it. Set aside the distraction. Remember who this is all about. I haven’t always had the ability to do this. But through the years, time spent sitting alone with God, my bible, my notebook and my guitar, has helped me engage in the moment, stay present at a personal level that becomes training for the corporate level. There’s an investment of time spent abiding. You can’t fake depth of meaning for very long without investing in the relationship. You’ll be putting on a performance, which is great for someone who’s performing, but leading people in worship is different. Great skill and talent are awesome tools to have, but the ability to lead others in meaningful worship is about relationship. Relationship with the God we come together to worship.
Check out Tony Bennett. Maybe I’m overstating what he does here, because he really is a hero of mine. Check it out a few times and see what God says to you.
If we’re going to be worship leaders who in turn, raise up worship leaders, there’s something we’re going to have to learn how to do. We can train them in all the ins and outs of Pro Presenter and chord changes. We can train them in building a worship song set. Those are important, but there’s something else we need to give them, which has nothing to do with Sunday mornings. We need to give them access to our lives.
If you have a house, you can invite people over. When they’re around you in your home environment, they can see who you really are, what you value and how you relate to family. If you’re the same person in private that you are in public, you’ll be giving them the gift of seeing that you aren’t putting on some kind of magic show when you’re leading worship. They’ll start to see how they can do it the way you do it by doing it like you do it!
We had a great time in our back yard last weekend. We invited our leaders over for a potluck barbecue. There wasn’t any fancy set up involved, but the place was clean and welcoming. After a nice time together at dinner, we sat in a circle on the lawn. We worshiped with a few songs, then shared some God stories (things we’d seen God doing in the past few weeks). Then we prayed for each in small groups and had dessert. Pretty low bar stuff. But our leaders felt welcome and loved, and we were encouraged in Kingdom values. It was an easy evening to host, and it bore fruit.
There’s something good about opening your home. It’s a higher challenge than meeting at a coffee shop. We’ve opened up our private lives. When we’re transparent, we’re modeling a life worth imitating.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” Matt hew 22:2
Last weekend, something happened for the first time in my life as a worship leader. I came down with a bad stomach bug and couldn’t lead. I had to ask Becca, one of our other leaders, to fill in for me at the last minute. As it turned out, I ended up going in to run the audio, which gave me a chance to see something encouraging. Becca leads worship a lot like me. She has the concept of leading people into God’s presence and getting out of the way deeply imbedded in her nature. She thoughtfully put together a group of songs that engaged well, and led them with confidence and skill. She didn’t draw attention to mistakes and did a solid job leading the band. Even though I wasn’t feeling too well, it was good for me to be there to see it. I’ve only seen her lead in “I lead, you help”, or “you lead, I help” situations. This time, she was leading and i was watching. She led the way she leads, which looks a lot like the way I lead. I’d feel confident having her teach a new worship leader, and she has a daughter coming along who just might be that next one. There’s a saying in churches that people are hired for skill and fired for character. I knew quite a bit about Becca’s character development before she developed worship leading skills. It’s easy to see her lasting for the long run, because the personal, family and community relationships are strong. Character outweighs competence, but in this case, both parts are doing really well.
Have you heard of unconscious competence? It’s having the practiced skill at something so you don’t have to even think about it when you do it. I’ve had the opportunity to lead worship many times in many settings for many years. Along the way, I’ve gained some unconscious competence. The problem with unconscious competence is that it’s just there and since you don’t think about it, you don’t think about explaining it and sharing it. In this blogpost, I’m going to share some things I’ve learned, along with giving you the opportunity to share and ask questions.
We connect with God and with His people in worship. These are a few of the practical things I’ve figured out along the way.
Love your people by singing songs in a singable key. In most cases it will be a little lower than you’re used to, but you’ll have more people engaging if they aren’t pulling a throat muscle trying to sing along.
Enjoy what you’re doing and tell your face. Open your eyes and smile once in awhile. Be genuine. Be yourself. God loves you and He’s really, really proud of you.
Don’t be afraid of repeating songs. If a certain song is moving people’s hearts, and you sense the Spirit moving among you, why would you be afraid to sing it a few weeks in a row? Some songs seem to have a season of anointing or power. Singing heartfelt, familiar songs to Jesus, where they are so familiar people can sing them without looking at the screen; joyful, weeping, kneeling……… Songs like Break Every Chain, Revelation Song and Wonderful make their way into our hearts. Our kids sing them while they’re outside on the swing set. Why would we not encourage them by keeping it going?
Dynamics are important. You need to be aware of what’s going on. Sometimes, I’ll bring a loud song down to just the people’s voices, with very little instrumentation and repeat a section several times. It’s a matter of being sensitive to the Holy Spirit and our hearts. It’s not mystical and mysterious, but it is Spirit led. I can see faces of people connecting, engaging and embracing worship. I just see it on their faces and in their actions. It’s prophetic, but it is learned by observing and listening. Just about every week, we end up doing a song differently than we did in practice, because there is a nudge from the Spirit and we respond. It works.
Here’s a tip for leading different groups and multi denominations. If you’re given 15 minutes for worship songs, ask the Father to lead you through it, and He’ll do it in 14:59. If you’re given a time parameter, honor it. If you’re asked to do Shout to the Lord as your closing song, do it. Giving honor to leaders is so good to do. Laying down your preferences to bless the folks you’ve been asked to lead builds their confidence in you. You’re there to serve.
Never flinch when you make a mistake. Most people won’t notice if you don’t point it out. I have a piano player friend who would quietly say “no” every time she hit a wrong note. She didn’t realize she was doing it, and was grateful when we pointed it out to her. It’s a good idea to gently, privately, positively point out these kinds of things to team members. They’ll be grateful and feel loved.
If your denomination and congregation are open to it, invite the people to stand, raise their hands or show some other outward form of connection or surrender in worship. As you lead, you are also teaching by example. Be conscious of your own physicality that speaks and teaches your people as you lead.
Be the one who becomes friends with other worship leaders in your area. Pull them together. Do it to bless and encourage each other. Worship with each other. The fruit will be amazing!
If you have stories or questions, feel free to comment below.
The week before Easter is one of the very best times of the year, here in the Diablo Valley. I’m aware of the irony in that last sentence. Our hometown area has a dominant feature. Mt. Diablo is about 4,000 feet in elevation, with a nearly as tall north peak joined to it. It’s a beautiful mountain, and it has an incredible view from its peak. The legend I choose to believe about the mountain is that the Spanish originally named it “Montaña Doble”, or double mountain. When American settlers came in, they renamed it Diablo and came up with some Native American legend about what went on up there in ancient times. I think they just didn’t understand Spanish very well.
Here in Diablo Valley, we have a multi-denominational family of churches named Church Without Shoes. During holy week, we share in 40 hour prayer time on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a community wide communion service on Maundy Thursday. There are about 35 churches involved, to varying degrees. The pastors even go on a yearly retreat together.
This year, the worship band for Maundy Thursday consists of 13 musicians and tech folks from 9 churches. We play pretty universally known worship songs, but the biggest thing going on is relationship. We’re excited to see how God will use us together in worship, in relationship and in mission.
Have a great Easter Week!
The Road to Worship Leading
I started playing guitar at 14. My parents signed me up for lessons because they were concerned I was getting too quiet and turning into a loner. They were right. My junior high experience isn’t one I look back on with any fondness. I grew to my full 6’4” without gaining any weight. I was, however, growing a nice crop of acne all over my face. My dad told me would be character building. My eighth grade campaign ended with 6 weeks of mononucleosis, which did not come from kissing a girl.
I started guitar lessons, and was immediately immersed. My non-school waking hours were spent practicing on a $40 Orlando acoustic guitar. After a few months, my teacher passed me along to another teacher, who passed me along to another. I took lessons all through high school, and was progressing right along, until I realized that the cool guitar players also sang. With that in mind, I bought the songbooks for every Beatles, Dylan and James Taylor song I could find. I was still pretty reluctant to sing and play in front of people, but my parents made me do it, even though I groaned and resisted.
My junior year, a girl at school asked me to come to a Young Life meeting, which was being led by my biology teacher, Mr. Ashlock. I don’t know how he knew I could play and sing, but he asked me to bring my guitar. When I arrived, he told me to go up front, next to the other guitar player and play along. Everything was going well, I was just playing guitar and singing. There wasn’t any big pressure until Mr. Ashlock asked me to sing “A Horse With No Name”, by America. I knew the song well, so I figured, “why not?” and went ahead and did it. I don’t know why he asked me to do it. I’ve asked him about it since; he says he doesn’t remember. But, after a couple of months, in the Ashlock’s family room, as Seals and Crofts “Summer Breeze” played on the stereo, i quietly decided Jesus was who I wanted to follow. And I followed Him, with my guitar, the last two years of high school.
After high school, I moved into a dorm at San Diego State. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album and the ubiquitous “Free Bird” were playing on every dorm room stereo. There was a whole lot of partying going on all around me, and for some reason I just couldn’t join in. I got really lonely, and moved back home after one semester.
Meanwhile, my friend, Mike McCoy, had taken over leading the Young Life club at Concord High, and asked me if I’d like to help lead. (That was 1975. It’s 2014, and we’re still in this together.) I thought it sounded like a good idea, so I enrolled in junior college and led songs and Campaigners for Young Life. There was a very pretty brunette named Linda who was also helping out. She already had a boyfriend, but man, she seemed really nice and was becoming a really good friend. Of course, we fell in love, listening to the Doobie Brothers “Black Water”. We were engaged in 1976 to Bread’s “Baby, I’m a Want You”, married in 1977 to “Beautiful” by Gordon Lightfoot, raised a family, and now are grandparents together. Our grandkids like Mumford and Sons. So do we.
In the summer of ’75, our Campaigners group started reading Bonhoffer’s “Life Together”. After reading it, we were convinced the only way to live life like Jesus was to move in together, pool our money and share our lives. So started Life Together Community. We bought and shared houses, worshipped at home, ate generic foods, homeschooled our kids and looked for some place far away from the city, where we could live out our lives following Jesus. We were sure the institutional church had it all wrong and we were going to blaze our own trail to Christian living. We never ended up leaving town, because we never sensed God saying it was a good idea to leave. We’ve also since repented of our view of the church. Now we’re part of Church Without Shoes, a multi denominational family of local churches. The remnant of Life Together still live right here on the same street, four families who live in two houses. They’re set up like duplexes, sharing a laundry room.
In 1984, our friend, Marty Reitzin, invited us to Santa Barbara for a weekend conference at Westmont College, to see John Wimber. We had heard stories of the Vineyard and the Fuller Seminary course, MC501, but we were pretty skeptical. So we, the McCoys and a couple other friends drove south in our 1975 Mercury Marquis to see what was really going on.
I remember walking into the gym at Westmont. Worship had already started. The songs were so simple, but there was something different going on. I ran through a flurry of emotions as worship went on. The music, the thick presence of the Spirit, the healing; I was sold right then and there. I knew. I needed to become a worship musician. Many kairos moments (we used to call them divine appointments) over 14 years led to that night. So many have come since and will continue, but from that point on, the decision was made. I was a worship leader.