Fearless Living

At the beginning of Advent we sing carols of petition and preparation such as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.  These carols echo Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s coming in Isaiah 7:14 where the Lord says, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Taken by Spencer Jarvis at the Orsett Showground, Essex.

Taken by Spencer Jarvis at the Orsett Showground, Essex.

In Luke 1 Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, also prophesies of the coming of the Messiah:  “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel turns this prophecy into a prayer: “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Just before those words in Luke 1, however, Zechariah says, ”The Lord . . has raised up a horn of salvation . . to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Jesus came not only to rescue us but also to enable us to serve God without fear.

Do you struggle with fear?

I have often given in to fear.

At my core I love to please people.  In relationships my default setting is to do what I need to do to make certain everything is ok.  In reality this default setting can become one of fear.

If I am feeling insecure I become fearful of what others think of me.  I make assumptions about what people are thinking.  Then I adjust my behavior to suit what I think they might be thinking.

Sound confusing?  That’s because it is.  Fear complicates life and obscures reality.

Christ came to give the gift of a simple life without fear, just one of his many gifts to us.

Where in your life do you tend to act in fear?  How can you rely more on God in that area of your life?

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“We Don’t Have Enough Time for Music in the Service!”

Worship leaders, senior pastors, missions committees, and other church leaders are constantly jockeying for time in the services.  Worship leaders want more time for worship music, but the missions people want to keep the church’s missionaries front and center, and every ministry in the church wants time as well.

I have been playing on worship bands since I was 14.  Back then my dad was planting a church.  Because we were a small church we only had one service.  Also, because my dad, the pastor, loved music, worship music was always a priority.

When my former wife and I left for grad school the church service included about a 45-minute block for worship music at the front of the service, as well as a song after the message.

When we arrived at a new church in Rochester, NY, the service included a 15-minute block for worship music up front with an offering song and a song after the message.

Talk about culture shock and experiencing the polar ends of the spectrum.

The church in Rochester had about 1200 adults attending at the time and had 3 60-minute services in 2 styles.  My dad’s church had grown to 60 people and had just one service that varied in length.

At first I felt things were stifled with the small amount of time, but as time went on I grew comfortable with the change.

Now, 14 years later, a 45-minute block of uninterrupted worship music can even seem a bit long at times.

So I have to ask myself two questions:

  1. What contributed to the change in my thinking?
  2. Is there an optimal length of time for worship music in a service?  Why or why not?

I believe several changes occurred in my thinking and perspective.

  1. Before I moved to New York I believed I as a worship leader created space in the service for the Spirit to move.  Now I believe that the Spirit creates room for himself in the service; we only create room in our hearts.
  2. Before I moved I believed that certain elements in a service had more to do with worship than others.  Now I believe that no service element is in and of itself worshipful.  Elements become worshipful only when the heart of the person is already worshipping.

So is there an optimal length of time for worship music in a service?  You may have guessed by now that this is not the right question.

Instead, ask this question:

What will enable us to create room in our hearts for worship and for the Spirit to move?

Truthfully, you may not like the answer.  Matt Redman has described the now famous story of how his pastor felt their worship music was distracting from the worship service itself (my words).

In a move that would rock any church, he removed the band and sound system from the service for a period of time.  People would simply sit and share songs or Scriptures from their seats as they felt led to do so.

And this was at Soul Survivor, a very large church in England.

Eventually they began add music back in, but their hearts were different.  Matt wrote The Heart of Worship out of this experience.

I’m coming back to the heart of worship
and it’s all about you
it’s all about you, Jesus
I’m sorry for the thing I’ve made it
when it’s all about you
all about you, Jesus

The next time you feel tempted to launch into a heated discussion about how the service needs more time for music, stop a moment and ask God what would best help you and those who come to open their hearts to the Holy Spirit.  You might be surprised at the answer.

How have you solved your church discussions about time for worship music in the service?

What Are Your Goals?

What are your goals when you prepare to lead worship?  Stop and think about it.  If you are unsure, look at how you prepared and led worship the last week you were on team; those are your goals.

We can talk about preparation all we want, but goals turn talk into reality.

Our goals should not be

  • to learn our part at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing for the first time that week at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing for the second time that week on Sunday morning
  • to catch up with friends at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to rehearse some more on Sunday morning
  • to finally “get it right” in the last service
  • to let our minds wander throughout Sunday morning

Our goals should be

  • to learn our part securely and confidently before the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing regularly in the days before the mid-week rehearsal and between the mid-week rehearsal and Sunday morning
  • to use the mid-week rehearsal to make adjustments and put the big musical picture together
  • to begin to worship together at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to end the mid-week rehearsal with a good musical product
  • to reconnect spiritually, musically, and emotionally during the Sunday morning run-through so that we can focus completely on God and the congregation while we are leading worship

What are your goals?

5 Steps to Improve Your Preparation

Do you remember the parable of the talents?  In Matthew 25:14-30 Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey who entrusts his property to three servants.  Two of the servants invest the talents and double their investment.  The third, however, buries his talent and returns it unimproved.  The master is furious with him, gives his talent to the one with ten, and then throws out the lazy servant.

Until God returns we are to be improving the talents God has given us, not accepting mediocrity.  In Luke 12:48 Jesus tells us that “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”  Much has been given to us as worship leaders, and Christ expects us to use and improve it wisely.

Here are 5 steps that can help you improve your worship leadership and make the most of the talents God has given you.  When I have followed these principles, I have been able to plan more completely, worship more deeply, and lead more effectively.

Please note that I am assuming that you have an active relationship with Christ through prayer and Scripture reading; without an active relationship these steps will simply make you a better musician, not a better worship leader.

1.  Listen.  I always provide an example mp3 for me and my team members to base our song preparation upon.  Listening well means

  • clearly hearing your part on the recording
  • hearing how you are or are not matching your part on the recording.
  • adjusting your playing or singing to match the recording

The improvisational and seasoned musicians will balk at using recordings as a guide, arguing that we should not be a cover band.  True, but the band that recorded the song has spent countless hours perfecting an arrangement that is orchestrated well and flows well.  We would be wise to make use of their practice and not re-invent the wheel, particularly in an environment where we are teaching volunteers how to play as a band.  Consider the recording a free masterclass with world class musicians.

You can do this while driving, walking, or any number of things; just get the music in your blood.

2.  Read.  The chart you provide for the vocalists and instrumentalists should completely mirror your example recording to reinforce the listening we just discussed and to teach reading skills.  Reading is

  • being able to decode and follow the written music in your preparation and in rehearsal if necessary
  • being able to match the written music with what you hear in the recording to give you a fuller picture of how to prepare
  • being able to notice when something in the written music does not match with the recording so that you can address it before the rehearsal

Part of your preparation should always include sitting down and listening to the recording with the music in hand, followed by playing/singing through the music with the recording.

Did I mention that following these steps will reduce rehearsal time?  Who wouldn’t want that?

3.  Feel.  After you have learned all of the songs you need to personally practice the songs as a set; don’t wait for rehearsal to practice the songs as a set.  Feeling is

  • being able to experience a song well enough to feel and sense how it should connect to the next song, move from section to section, and fit into the bigger picture of the service.

At Lakeshore Community Church the Creative Arts Pastor, Frank De Luccio, refers to the service as a story, and the main point of the service as the moral of the story.  Worship leaders and musicians must be able to feel how a song fits into the story.  When I have made mistakes in worship planning I have often tracked the mistake back to not truly feeling how a piece fits into the big picture.

In order to feel through a set of songs, sit down and listen to them without your instrument or the music or moving; be completely still.

4.  Worship.  Worshipping is

  • knowing your music so well (usually by memory) that you can actually worship individually and as a team and not just play or sing on Sunday, in the Sunday morning run-through, or in rehearsal.

We should be at this level before the mid-week rehearsal.  Am I always there?  No, but I should be.  After all, we are here to lead worship, aren’t we?  I am playing keyboards for a multi-church service this week, and writing this post has been a good reminder of what my priorities need to be as I prepare.

Musicians: To get to this place you need to play or sing and feel through your music often in the days before rehearsal.

Leaders: If you are in charge of planning, your team members will prepare better or worse based on whether or not you have the music to them a week ahead of rehearsal or not ahead at all.  You are responsible for their success.

5.  Lead.  Actually, this step is not a step at all.  If we have listened and read well, felt through the music, and worshipped personally to the music, we will be ready to actually lead others in worship.  You have heard me say it before, but it is true: You can only lead someone somewhere after you have been there yourself.

What practical steps do you take to prepare for worship?

A Model for Worship Preparation, Part 1

Early in 2011 I began preparing for a presentation to my music team on preparation.  On our team, as is the case at many churches, the musicians often came to rehearsals without knowing their parts, without the music, without having listened to the example recordings, or some combination of the above.

Rehearsals could be frustrating.  One week the team would get to rehearsal on Wednesday night knowing the music, having listened to and prepared well both the new songs and the familiar songs.  One of our drummers would listen to a song and re-chart the song to learn it.  Another week I would arrive and very few, if any, of the musicians had looked at the music.  On those weeks we spent a lot of time working through simple details: tempo, how to begin and end the song, etc.  To be honest, I was also guilty of arriving less than fully prepared from time to time.  The music leaders and I felt that we all needed to understand preparation at a higher level.

Scripture says that leaders are held to a higher standard.  “Not many of you should become leaders, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  (James 3:1, ESV)  James is not referring only to people who teach, but in general to those who hold positions of leadership in the church.  Each music team member is a leader and should set the example on how to worship.  Every person can only lead, however, where they have already been.  We can only lead in worship where we have already worshipped by ourselves in private.

As I thought about this issue, I was drawn to Christ’s preparation for ministry as a kind of template for how we should prepare to lead worship.  Lots of funny comparisons exist here, such as when preparing for ministry you should expect to be crucified publicly (altogether too true, unfortunately), but in this blog let’s spend our time focusing on the amount of time Jesus spent in preparation.  In a later blog we will look at how Jesus spent his time in preparation.

Jesus lived for about 33 years.  About 30 years passed between his birth and the beginning of his ministry, and he only ministered three years before he died and rose again.  Applying some simple math we find that Jesus prepared at a ratio of 10:1, or ten years for every year he ministered on earth.

Stop and think about this ratio.  While this guide is somewhat arbitrary and not a Scriptural principle by any means, the fact that 30 years of growth and maturity were needed for Christ to be humanly prepared for his ministry should at least cause us to consider our own levels of preparation.

If we apply this ratio to our Sunday morning platform ministry, we could say that for each minute of worship leadership we should prepare for ten minutes.  That is a significant amount of time.  If you are leading worship for 25 minutes you should prepare for 250 minutes, or just over four hours.  (Sound checks are not preparation, by the way.)  Even writing this text right now I am asking myself if I spend this ratio of time in preparation for worship leadership.  This coming Sunday I will be leading worship in some capacity for about 30 minutes, which on a 10:1 ratio, requires five hours of preparation.  Let’s just say that I am a bit behind!!

When preparing for worship leadership we immediately make judgment calls on where to spend our time rehearsing.  “I know this song, but the other song is completely new, so I will spend my time there.”  “I’ve been playing piano for a while, but I will be playing keyboard this week, so I need to spend more time brushing up on that instrument.”  We prioritize our practice time.

We tend to continue beyond prioritization, however, to whittling down the amount of time we actually practice each week.  We have busy schedules and family comes first, so we fit our worship ministry in as we can.  We end up preparing at about a 5:1 ratio.  Some weeks we may be doing familiar music and we will be tempted to prepare even less “because we already know those songs.”

Christ had been preparing for an eternity, and when he arrived on earth he still waited 30 years.  He was physically mature before 30 years of age, so why did he wait that long?  God’s timing is a mystery and we may never know completely, but we do know that he prepared the right amount of time and began his ministry at the right time, which is what we should consider.

Are you spending the right amount of time in preparation so that you are fully prepared for your role in worship leadership, or are you just winging it?

Are You a Worship Leader?

This past September a band member asked how they could become a worship leader.  As a result I had to put into words what I think are the important signs that someone is ready to become a worship leader.  Of course, everyone up front is a worship leader in one sense, but here I am talking about the person who actually “leads” the time of worship, the emcee of the service, the contemporary cantor, if you will.

Telling someone whether they are or are not worship leader material can be difficult, and so I spent some time praying and thinking about the issue.  At first I wanted to list detailed skills, such as reading music or leading worship in a particular way, but after some interaction with my leadership team and a few drafts, I settled on five general areas: spiritual walk, leadership potential, team spirit, worship presence, and musicality.

Here is how I would define those areas:

  • In spiritual walk a worship leader will be someone who is pursuing God and his approval in their life, which will be evidenced by the way they live and worship.
  • In leadership potential a worship leader will be someone whom people naturally want to follow and someone who is always on time and prepared.  This person will also be teachable.
  • In team spirit a worship leader will be someone who adds to the energy of a team rather than detracting or remaining neutral.
  • In worship presence a worship leader will be someone who is welcoming, inviting and transparent on stage, and also who displays a heart of worship.  As mentioned above, this can be an indicator of your spiritual walk because you cannot lead someone where you have not already been yourself.
  • In musicality a worship leader will be someone who is able to sing parts and melodies with precision and expression.

How about you?  How would you decide if an aspiring worship leader was ready to take the plunge?

coming soon

Time flies, and it has been a long while since I published. Shortly I will begin a series of posts in relation to worship, specifically addressing personal and team preparation for rehearsal and moving on from there. Thanks for hanging with me and I will see you in about a week.