Lessons from 40+ Years of Being a Worship Leader

More Important Things...

People seemed to like my list of things I've learned from being a choir director, so I thought I'd tell you some more stuff I've learned. Many of these things are not original...but over a lot of years they have repeated themselves often enough to be important. They have stood the test of time, so to speak, and, if you are starting out in ministry, you might want to print this list and put it somewhere that you can find it in 25 years. This is not a "ranked" list. It is just a list.


People Feel Strongly About What is Familiar to Them

Love it or hate it, people are comfortable with the familiar. There is a peace about knowing "what comes next." In these days of economic unease, life is more unsettled than it has been in recent memory, and studies are showing that the stress level of the typical human is markedly elevated.

As a child of the sixties, for me, change was in the air. It was a desireable thing, in my opinion, and I got used to it. Change, in and of itself, is not particularly frightening to me. But we have a whole generation of walking wounded from the worship wars...and some churches that are still fighting those battles.

As a church leader, it is good to remember that change will provoke some people, and stasis will provoke others. Being a leader requires a deft touch when it comes to moving away from the familiar. Consider whether it is possible to provide continuity at some level when change is on the agenda. Giving people something familiar to hang on to may make that change less stressful.

Unless Everyone in the Building is the Same Every Week, There Will Never Be Complete Agreement on What is Familiar

California seems to lead the nation in diversity of people groups...and I'm not talking about what you think I am. I mean Iowa Lutherans, and Minnesota Lutherans, and Pennsylvania Presbyterians, and Alabama Presbyterians, and Georgia Baptists, and Colorado Baptists, and...well, you get the picture. If you factor in the variety of locales on your congregation's individual spiritual walks, and multiply the result by the percentage of seekers and first time visitors in your building, you can see that no two worship services are populated exactly the same, unless you have a house church that is only attended by your family, and nobody ever misses a service.

So what is "familiar" will never be the same either, as much as you would like to think it were the case. 

I think it comes down to attitude, and philosophy. If you travel, and you only eat at McDonalds, you accumulate the perspective that all food is the same all over the route you have traveled. If you never eat fast food on that trip, and only eat in "mom & pop" restaurants, you might decide that all the variety of food on your trip is tiresome.

As church leaders I would never suggest that your worship service stay exactly the same each week (boy that sermon on that one Scripture will get...well, you fill in the blanks...). Neither would I suggest that everything change every week. Will you provide familiarity to everyone in the pews each week? Probably not. Is it reasonable to expect that you should do so? That's for you to decide in your local situation, but I think you can guess how I feel about that.

Whatever Worked Wherever You Were Before Is Not a Formula For Success Wherever You Are Now

Even if you've been wildly successful in your previous position, it just means what you did worked there. Unless you bring your entire congregation with you when you move (see above), it is history to be learned from, not a recipe for success.

The irony of this is that many people who are called to new church ministries want to re-make their new situation into exactly what worked at the previous situation...and that is, in its own way, a longing for the familiar (see above).

As a church leader it is important, I believe, to "be still" and listen and learn about a new congregation before you decide to remake it in your last church's image.

Whether You Like It Or Not, Someone Is Always Watching the Clock

You think the sermon is too long. The youth director thinks the music is too old fashioned. The children's director wishes the children could be released from the sanctuary so that Sunday School has adequate time. The person in the fourth row is afraid they'll miss this week's kick off. You can never win this one. Don't even try.

But you can engage people in a way that time is not an issue. I'd venture to say that everyone reading this has, at one time or another, had the experience of being so absorbed in something that time "flew by." And everyone has had the experience of thinking that time had almost literally stopped ("are we there yet?").

As a church leader, I think that the clock should only be an issue if you have multiple services in the same space and/or with the same parking lot, or if you are broadcasting live and have to hit a time code. But whether you do one service on Sunday, or 23 in 18 different spaces during the course of a week, the clock will not be an issue if you engage people, and lead them to an encounter with the living God.

Without Rehearsal, You Never Know What is Going to Happen

Some churches depend wholly upon professional leadership on the platform. I understand that, and it makes sense if the quality of the presentation is a critical issue for the church's leadership. Some churches depend wholly upon volunteer leadership on the platform. I understand that, and the fact that it is often a function of the size of a small church, which prevents financial resources from being spent to control the quality of the presentation. Most churches have some combination of professional and volunteer leadership on the worship platform at the same time.

Experience has taught me, though, that whether it is a professional organist, a guest bishop preacher, or a volunteer reader of Scripture, unless you've heard that person play, preach, or speak, you have no idea what to expect. To give a few examples from my own experience: a missionary guest can agree to a 7 minute interview, and you literally have to interrupt in mid-sentence at the 25 minute mark answer to the first question and say "thank you" over the top of whatever they are talking about; the "really good" volunteer brass group recommended by one of your choir members has 3 people who can't read music above knowing that there are notes and rests; the guest organist can't play a 4/4 hymn with a single measure having 4 beats in it; a lay reader has to tell you exactly what they are going to do before they do it ("And at this time we are going to pray together. Will you please join me in prayer, as we together pray our prayer of intercession? You will want to think about those you will be praying for at this time. Let us pray." OK...I GET IT!

As a church leader, it is important to know what to expect during the next event in the worship sequence. But it can be tricky to predict when you have no prior experience from which to draw. I know of one colleague whose church has a cardinal rule (and no, it is not a Roman Catholic church): No one -- not a soloist, nor a lay reader, or an announcement giver -- is cleared to be in a platform leadership position without either attending a pre-service run through, or having done it before often enough that a level of trust about that person's contribution to worship is in place. Food for thought...

Without An Established Level of Trust, Creativity Can Be Misunderstood

In fact creativity without trust can be seen as a threat, or as insubordination (see the first item in this list). If you are a creative, I understand that it is almost impossible to "leave things be." It is difficult to even be a visitor to a church without thinking "why did they do it that way, when..."

As a creative, it is a way of life to want to make things better, and to think that you're the person to make that happen. A friend of mine tells a joke that has a lot of truth to it: the only thing two musicians can agree upon is the incompentence of a third.

As a church leader, remember that no matter how creative you think you are, nobody can evaluate your work until they see it in person. It is a simple thing, but being creative -- in rehearsal, a meeting, or a retreat -- long before it happens in worship, is a good thing. It will set the stage for your closest constituency and/or colleagues to see the results of your creativity in a safe, controlled environment, thereby establishing a trust level for that creativity to be applied where more people are present. For people who like the familiar, creativity is much easier to accept when other people are saying things like "you're really going to love what we're doing next Sunday."

As Creative as You Think You Are, It Is Still Not About You

Please read that one again. Creatives tend to get wrapped up in the seductiveness of "I can top that." But the sanctuary was not built so that the congregation could worship your creativity, or even you. If you don't remember that, sooner or later you will be packing your bags.

As a church leader, unless you are the sole leader, you have a shared agenda. It isn't healthy, relationship wise, for it to always be about you (not to mention which it is supposed to be about God).

Evolution is Better Than Revolution Unless the Situation is Desperate

You might also know this as "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Now I understand that it depends upon the definition of "broke" here, but still... Radical change gets people's attention, but remember the list item directly above this one. Everyone probably knows the story of the pastor who moved the piano from one side of the platform to the other by moving it one inch per week. Nobody noticed the change, and yet the piano was eventually 180 degrees opposite from its original position. There is wisdom in that story, and it can be applied to any element in worship.

As a church leader, take the long view. Change will happen, just by the nature of any organic system. Change that happens intentionally, over time, with a clear sense of purpose, tends to have a greater long-term impact than the short-term bombshell of revolutionary change, with much less upset.

Final Thoughts

I hope these 8 Things are useful. Worship leadership is an awesome responsibility...isn't it?


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