John MacArthur’s church in Los Angeles, Grace Community Church, has partnered with The Master’s Seminary to produce a great hymnal for today’s church. I’m thrilled that they decided to include both “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right” and “Never Cease to Praise” in this collection that includes all the classics plus newer hymns by the likes of Stuart Townend, the Gettys, and Bob Kauflin.
Late last summer, I was having a conversation with a younger worship leader over coffee. In the midst of discussing various practical ways to lead our worship teams, the subject of rehearsing songs came up. It went something like this:
Him: “How much do you worry about everything being just right?”
Me: “Well, I think it’s important that a leader pushes the team to excellence, so I do work to try to get them where I want them to be musically. But I usually don’t stop and fix something until we’ve played the song all the way through.”
That last part was new for him. At one point, it was new for me. Play the song all the way through before you go back and fix things. Why?
1) When you stop every time you hear something that needs to be fixed, the team does not get a feel for the song as a whole. When musicians don’t get a feel for the song as a whole, they don’t play with the kind of feel that they would if they did.
2) Many times, when I lead us to play all the way through a song, the musicians will fix notes or harmonies that they missed on the first time through a verse or chorus. It communicates a sense of trust that I don’t stop the song every time someone misses a note, and it gives them time to fix it on their own.
3) It’s much easier to enjoy rehearsal when you are actually doing full songs.
4) It gives musicians a chance to be creative as we move through the flow of the song. If they don’t know where a song is going due to all the stopping and starting, it can curb creativity.
Of course, there are times when I have to stop. Maybe the beat/feel is completely different than what I would like. Or maybe someone is consistently missing a note and I don’t want them to get in the habit of playing it wrong. Certainly it makes sense to stop when you can tell someone is lost. But overall, I encourage worship leaders to play it through. I’ve been pleased with how it enhances our rehearsals.
Each Sunday, I thank God if I am able to genuinely engage my heart and mind in worshiping him through song for five minutes. That may sound like I’m not very spiritual (I’m not). You might think I could do better (I’m sure I can). But seriously, if I’m able to sincerely sing my heart out to God for a few moments over the course of leading three services in worship, I’m ecstatic. Why?
Well, if you’re honest, you probably know why. If you’ve led consistently for any congregation, you know what it’s like up there. Tell me if this doesn’t take up 95% of your brain space:
“What is [insert name here] thinking about my arrangement of this hymn?”
“Are they singing?”
“Okay, I really hope my drummer/pianist/bassist remembers this transition.”
“Doh. Missed that lyric.”
“Don’t strum so hard. String breakage imminent.”
“What are those people laughing about?”
And so on and so on.
And then, for maybe 30 seconds, I sing wholeheartedly with the congregation. Maybe I get a minute at best until the mental intrusions continue.
Some of them are necessary – I do need to remember whether the next chorus is broken down and, if so, when the groove starts back up. I’m responsible for cueing the scripture reader at just the right time so that the flow between song and text helps the minds of my brothers and sisters track with the truth. Thoughts like these are a necessary sacrifice so that the congregation has a better chance than I do to engage with God while singing.
Of course, some of the distractions are not necessary. I’m every bit as much flesh and bone as anyone else, so the unwanted inner dialogue will happen. But, some of it doesn’t have to happen. It’s these distractions that I want to briefly address. What can we practically do to give ourselves the greatest chance of engaging with the congregation in singing praise to God?
1. Know the songs like the back of your hand. If you’re looking down all the time for the next lyric or chord, your chances of engaging get slimmer.
2. Put as much into place before Sunday as possible. For instance, I’ve learned over the years to communicate everything via email to any volunteers (scripture readers, staff who are doing the “Welcome,” etc.) involved in the service before Sunday – preferably before day’s end on Friday. I communicate every detail of what I’m asking them to do, down to “Come to the front row during the final chorus of the song before the scripture reading. I will give you a nod when it’s time for you to come to the podium.” That way, I don’t spend the final minute of the song prior to the scripture reading desperately looking for my volunteer.
3. Let the unwanted thoughts go. If I spend energy sulking about the fact that I’m failing as a worship leader because I’m worried about what someone in the congregation is thinking about me, I’ve doubled up on my distraction. When the thoughts come, smile that grace covers you, and move on.
4. Trust God. God loves his people, and his Spirit works when they gather in his name. Trust that he is working in them whether it looks like it or not.
5. Pray for the ability to engage your mind and heart in singing to God and with his people while you lead. I pray this almost every Sunday with my teams before we begin.
May God bless your worship through service to your congregation and grant you the ability to join your congregation in the experience of singing praise to God for five minutes (or more) this Sunday.