Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church?"

A graduate from Hope College and the chapel worship team has written me a big, open-ended question that I figure is a good occasion for another post here. It's not that I believe I have the best or the final word on these things. I hope mostly this blog will stir up more conversation like it has in the past. Perhaps you are a Hope student who reads something here and you'd like a further conversation. I have a tab at Lemonjellos, our local corner coffee shop, and would be glad to buy you a cup and sit down to chat further.

This is what she sent my way:
I was also hoping get some insight from you on worship...I'm not really working underneath anyone because our church doesn't have a worship leader. Basically, I'm it. Period. My pastors are really good at giving me encouragement--right now they are all just so happy to have me because we haven't had someone in so long, but I'm finding that no one really knows how to give me constructive criticism or guide me in a musical sense because none of them are musical people....tough, right? I've definitely taken SO much from what I learned on worship team with you and the group, but I know there's a lot I don't know. For instance...what is your process for choosing songs/repeating songs? I'm in a weird position because I've been away for four years, so I'm not completely familiar with all the music [her church name here] does. I've introduced a small handful of new songs, but I know I need to take it slow... that I'm finally writing you, I can't seem to think of questions....but maybe I should just ask, what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church? And I was wondering if you could suggest some readings/books about worship, maybe the ones from your class?
Dear friend,

Some topics here: song selection, critical feedback, how to familiarize yourself with your congregation and serve them well...and book recommendations.

Let me begin with "what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church?" Those other topics are good, but there are some fundamental basic ideas I work with that should be touched on first.

Back in college, John Willison, the worship leader at my church taught me the difference between:
  • Song leader, aka a musician
  • Worship leader, someone who is musically and spiritually capable of leading a group of people into the presence of God.
  • Worship pastor, a worship leader who also has nurturing gifts with a long view of how to shepherd a congregation through music.
This can get tricky in regards to semantics because I always taught you and the rest of the students on the worship team that each one of you are called to be worship leaders with me. I don't want just good musicians who warm a drum throne or sound good on a mic. I want each member to participate in the discernment and the public presence of drawing people to God. A side benefit of this for a person like myself with limited musical abilities like is that when we get stuck creatively, we can always fall back to the long conversation of answering the question, "how can we best use these instruments to focus on God," or said differently "what does that guitar sound like when you worship through it?"

So now you are not just a member of the team. You are the point person introducing the songs, creating the liturgical flow. You are no doubt leading prayers and interacting with the pastoral leadership at some level to consider the scope of the worship services. Here is the semantic trouble: while I want the whole band to be filled with worship leaders, there are some people who have specific gifting in being able to lead the worship leaders: lead worship leaders, or further...the worship pastor.

I'm excited for you. You have the musical ability and the charisma no doubt to be a worship leader, but I read in your email a deeper question that leads to the question of what a worship pastor is. More on that in a bit.

As you wade deeper into this new, unexpected position of leadership, there will be many things that you don't quite know yet, both practical things and also instinctual things. All leaders feel a deep sense of inadequacy at the beginning, middle and endings of their tenure in any given place. I know this based on my own experiences and from watching others. There will always be more to know, better ways to serve people, more creative approaches, but ultimately we have to accept our limitations and just go to sleep at night.

Focus more now on finding some regular personal time to worship on your own. You are busy with other things too, so schedule in 30 min or an hour a day or every other day. Spend some time praying, time in the Scriptures and singing through songs. Sing, sing, sing. You are a very well trained musician. You have the skill. Now the goal is to nourish your personal worship space, your worship self. You knew who you were as a worshiper as part of our team, but do you know what you will sound like, feel like, think like...what presence you should project as the lead worship leader? This kind of leadership only comes from a secret place of solitude with the songs and silence. The more you nourish this place in your being, the more resilient you will be with challenges and the more focused you will be on learning what next is necessary.

I have a curriculum for Theology of Worship & Music, MIN 21, the course I teach. I can recommend some books to you , but in your development as a worship leader there is a curriculum of the Holy Spirit that only comes with time, love and patience.

Quick thoughts about:

Song selection: find some people you really trust who know the church well and brainstorm. Start making lists of possible songs that you know would easily serve the congregation well. Then add to that list a set of songs that really inspire you personally. Then spend as much time alone with the songs as possible before you lead them.  A good worship set should be focused on worship that will both truthfully (Biblically) form and also immediately serve the congregation. Being a worship pastor means you will grow in the ability to pick songs out of love for the people you are serving, loving them by aesthetically connecting with them but also loving them by making sure the music you serve up is worth singing.

While worship pastoral decisions are largely other focused on the congregation, you will also need to connect with a portion of the music. You need to do some music that makes sense to you creatively and spiritually. I lead songs that aren't my favorite. They are like my "yellow zone." I rarely do songs that I dislike ("red zone"). I'd say at least half of the services I plan are in my "green zone," stuff I connect to and enjoy. But I've been in this position for six years and the distance between my preferences and what connects with the college students has gotten smaller each year as I learn to love college students more and as I have shaped the sound (aka tricked them into liking what I like...joke).

Critical Feedback: very important. I wouldn't sweat the musical feedback right now as much as I'd focus on ministry feedback and surely your pastors have the intuition to help you know if your leadership is spiritually feeding the congregation. They are likely able to identify certain moments in the service, a transition, a prayer, a particular song...that can be improved upon. Try to find some people who love you but who will speak honestly about your leadership. My chapter in For the Beauty of The Church has some further thoughts on critical feedback. If you aren't interested in purchasing the book, I can send you a .pdf of the essay.

Getting familiar with the congregation: in order to know what songs and what aesthetic are best for a congregation, yes, you need to know your people. You can't fake this. So don't worry if you miss the mark for now. From what it sounds like everyone is just happy to have you. In a year or so that will wear off and people will start to get picky, but in a year you will know this church better.

Always place yourself in a learning/listening posture even with people your not ready to trust. Some of the best things I've learned come from people that I might not ever be able to consider a friend. I tend to go out of my way to listen to people who are different than me. I want to connect with those people too and especially. There are several songs I've picked up over the years that were chosen precisely because I knew I this other person would enjoy it. Even though I would never have picked such a song on my own, sometimes these are the very songs that really connect with the congregation. And when I can see my people worshiping, I learn to like the song. But of course I don't just pander and grab any song willy nilly. There is a set of criteria that I have internalized so deeply that it'd worthless for me to try and write out here when I can just recommend Constance Cherry's The Worship Architect. She includes, among other great material, a long list of evaluation questions for song selection.

A good book to start with for asking good questions: How Shall We Worship? Marva Dawn

For thinking about Biblical, Psalm oriented worship leading: Answering God Eugene Peterson

For theological, heart warming Christianity Augustine's Confessions...(seriously)

The best "how to" worship leadership manual The Art of Worship Greg Scheer (I don't like these kinds of books, but Greg's is thoughtful, experienced and gets to the point)

For thinking about worship language Worship Word Deb and Ron Rienstra

For deepening your understanding of the church calendar and an abundant source of material: The Worship Sourcebook Calvin Institute of Worship

A good website with lots of resources:

Isaac Wardell has some good thoughts here:

You honor me by inviting me to spew out some thoughts, friend. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to continue with any further questions.


Courtney Kay said...

I so wish I would have known this in HS when I was thrust into a role way bigger than I imagined at the time and in the midst of a "church war" centered on music.

cardiphonia said...

Hi Joshua. thanks for the thoughtful post! and the link love. hope you are well. -Bruce