effective musical worship

Having been in music performance over a quarter century, I’ve experienced a broad-range of genres and audiences: church youth group musicals, Broadway-style vignettes, piano recitals, stage-diving in a Christian rock band, Louisiana Philharmonic in St Louis Cathedral, Messiah arias, African villages, prisons, conferences, weddings and funerals.

To the praise of His glorious grace, God called me to Himself eighteen years ago to glorify Him through music. Thanks to the gift of mistakes, mentor figures and fellow pilgrims who share the same love for music, I’ve picked up a few nuggets along the way. For the glory of the only One worthy of our praise, I pray these nuggets contribute to your spiritual formation and effective musical worship leadership.

Nugget #1 – Don’t use the term “worship” when you intend to refer to the “musical worship”.
I first heard the term “musical worship” from Jim Shaddix – a preaching professor (NOBTS), pastor (Edgewater Baptist), mentor (Emmaus Road) and friend in New Orleans. Dr Shaddix forged in us a conviction that the singing portion of the worship service was just that: a portion of the service. Shaddix brought to our attention that Christians (including us seminarians) used the term “worship” to refer to the singing that occurred before and/or after the preaching. He rightly taught that the whole service – including the preaching and listening of a sermon – was worship.

If you want to reference the music aspect of the worship service, call it musical worship. Refer to the preaching along the lines of worship through proclamation of the word. Don’t call yourself the worship leader unless you also plan to deliver the sermon and lead the music. As the musical worship leader, you are glorifying God through music. In the same manner, the preacher glorifies God through heralding (preaching) and teaching the Scriptures. Not to be left out, the congregation glorifies God in the listening to the proclamation/teaching of His Word. [Read the excellent work, The Passion-Driven Sermon by Jim Shaddix].

If the sermon is boring, it may not always be the preacher…we should listen, expecting to hear God’s voice through His word. Are you listening for God’s voice through the sermon with the same intensity you desire God to listen to your voice through the singing?

Nugget #2 – Pick songs people know
Leading musical worship requires honing the same skill as understanding a passage of scripture: context! context! context! Know your audience.

[SIDE NOTE: There’s been an age-long battle called “worship wars”. Listen, if a congregation is having a worship war, they’ve got big problems! What they usually mean by “worship war” is they simply disagree on music styles (see nugget #1 for clarification, and explore how Luther and Calvin disagreed on church music). Don’t worry about being “traditional”, “contemporary” , “modern” (the new way of describing “contemporary”) or “blended”. Can anyone even define those words in hard terms? Don’t worry about transitioning a congregation – just know the audience! [Burying a “dead” congregation is a different story. I’m afraid you’ll need more than a change in music to address those thorny issues.]

Here’s the deal, pick and lead specific songs that serve the specific Christians gathered in that specific setting. Generally, the songs played in a prison are not usually the same songs played at a Ladies Tea. We musical worship leaders must learn to be intentional with our planning and I don’t mean planning to capo 4 and play in G the whole set. We must be intentional in preparing to be an effective ministry leader within the context of the specific Christians gathered specifically to exalt Christ. If the other worship leader (preacher) is asking God for a specific word from His Word, should not the musical worship leader exercise the same discernment? If the audience is a mixed demographic, acknowledge the creativity of God displayed among humanity, and then provide opportunity for each group to give their musical praise to the Lord. This is a great teaching tool: one day different languages, styles and preferences will cease; we will all sing heaven’s song with every tribe, tongue and nation represented among those who believe! When you find yourself criticizing other people’s musical preferences, remember that one day down the road you’ll ask a young person to play a Phil Wickham or Tomlin song, and they may not have a clue who or what you’re talking about…

It’s okay to teach the older crew new songs. It’s okay to teach the younger crew old songs. It’s okay to teach English-speaking Christians a song in Swahili. It’s okay to teach people songs they’ve never heard so as long as the lyrics are theologically accurate and the music is excellent.

Nugget #3 – Lyrics communicate theological accuracy
Pick songs that are theologically accurate. If the lyrics on the whole do not reflect the Gospel of Christ or lack Biblical precision, scratch the song – even if it’s being played over and over on the local Christian radio station. God is not honored with heretical praise. You may have to re-write words or phrases to make a song completely theologically accurate. God’s honor and people’s souls (what they are taught to believe about Jesus) are at stake with the songs you pick. No one goes about their week humming the sermon; they usually hum the songs they hear you sing.

Nugget #4 – Arrangement and performance is musically excellent
Regardless of a song’s style or genre, if it’s done poorly, God is not glorified. If you can’t play a particular song with musical excellence, regardless of how theologically accurate the song is, please don’t play the song. I’m not suggesting you must be a virtuoso musician in order to lead us in musical worship…I’m simply suggesting the rest of us should not have to suffer through your unprepared playing/singing.

Another professor/mentor/pastor/friend, Dr Bob Stewart, told the story of a musician who prefaced his song with This is a song God gave me. I’d like to play it for you. When he was done, he was told “Don’t blame that song on God.”

Practice. If you have other musicians playing with you, write charts and do your part to help them understand the way you play the songs. Expand your musical preferences for the purpose of effectively leading diverse congregations to see and sing the greatness of God. If the song is done with excellence, everyone will enjoy it, even if it’s not their preference. More importantly, God is honored in your art; namely, the preparation, execution and message.

Nugget #5 – Keep the music flowing
Other than heretical lyrics and atonal music, there is nothing worse than awkward silence between songs. In modern vernacular, the space is known as “transitions”. [Some people use a prayer as a transition to get the musical worship team up or down from the stage. Don’t be that guy!] The times for dramatic pause are few and far between. Whilst silence can be effective – when intentionally used – it is normally awkward for both the congregation and the musicians. Every musician is thinking about providing some music for the “transition” going on, but since this ain’t their gig, they don’t feel the authority to provide such. When one song has finished and you’re planning to go into another one, keep the music going – even if it’s one person noodling on the piano, padding on the keys or picking the guitar. The music will maintain continuity for the congregation as you move into the next song. Silence will be awkward…especially if the rest of us hear you flipping through your music sheets on the music stand.

Nugget #6 – Read or recite Scripture
You don’t have to use Scripture as a transition, but between songs or even at the beginning of the service, the Scriptures provide an opportunity for the congregation to engage with the voice of God. Don’t be afraid to read Scripture! Particularly if it helps us understand the next song, allowing our mind and heart to collaborate in praise to God.

Nugget #7 – If you’re gonna change keys, take a step UP, not down
I owe this nugget to a more charismatic brother, Danny Donham. Changing keys is exciting, especially if the change is up! Unless you know what you’re doing and can stretch out the modulation (see Nugget #4 for clarification) don’t go down a step, or you’ll feel a train wreck about to occur (actually, you won’t really know what’s happened, you’ll just know that something in the room is now different). Think of those epic ballad songs that change keys when the chorus repeats at the end: the pitch goes up and all over the room the hands go higher, the voices get louder and the hearts feel warmer! ha. I’m not suggesting we manufacture an emotional trance (see Nugget #3 for clarification), but I am suggesting that in God’s design, we respond to music like nothing else. It’s okay to exercise and explore emotions during musical worship, but please be aware of your own emotional intelligence so you can discern the range of emotional intelligence/maturity within the congregation. If you’re going to change keys, go up.

Nugget #8 – Keep the focus on Jesus
During my first year of seminary I was asked to lead the musical worship for one of the chapel services. The president of the seminary, Dr Chuck Kelley, was preaching this particular chapel service. I couldn’t mess this up! I sought him out and asked what he would be preaching so I could plan songs for the sermon’s theme (and impress him with my thematic prowess. Hey, made sense to me…). He smiled and replied, “You keep the songs focused on Jesus and I’ll keep the sermon focused on Jesus.” Oh. That makes better sense.

Don’t over-think it. Instead of trying to tie-in some obscure song with one of the sermon points, spend that time focusing on lyrical accuracy, musical excellence and effective leadership for your particular congregation.

Nugget #9 – Lead the followers
We are looking to you for direction on all fronts. It’s true that on some occasions all we will need from you is to play the songs. It is also true that some of us will stand up in the middle of the room while everyone else is seated, but for the most part, we’re all going to follow your direction. I learned this the one hard way. Also from Dr Kelley…

The very first time I led the musical worship in chapel (different from the service mentioned above), I opened with the very contemporary (or was it modern?) phrase “Feel free to stand, sit, or whatever, as we worship God.” (was I emotionally unintelligent!) A few people stood, some sat, and everyone else looked confused. After the service, Dr Kelley put his huge arm around my scrawny shoulders and said in his presidential voice, “Brian, you’re the leader. Tell us what to do. Don’t give us the option, just tell us when to sit and stand.”

Got it, Doc. Thanks for the nugget. (Eleven years later, that memory still makes me laugh.)

Obviously these nuggets aren’t original. They have been learned through making mistakes.

Nugget #10 – Don’t repeat my mistakes; make new ones and send me the nuggets.