Worship Leading, Qualifications, Compensation,'s complicated!

There are lots of great forums out there for online dialogue between worship leaders about important issues. But one group has always, for me, been a HUGE cut above the rest...Liturgy Fellowship. Many of the posts and conversations are thoughtful, pastoral, and move beyond the typical "What songs do you all do?" and "What's your fav verb pedal?"

Recently, my friend Wendell Kimbrough (check out his thoughtful site and great music here) offered up a provocative and powerful set of questions, and they were answered in equally provocative and powerful ways. I have everyone's tacit permission to post the thread here, but because I only have Wendell's approval in particular, he's the only one I'm going to explicitly name.

I have filtered and mildly edited the comments, and I have categorized them into "realms." There are some incredible insights in here. You might not agree with them all (I don't), but they are worth consideration.

Some Overall Thoughts of My Own

Like the original post, I too get countless calls from church planters, pastors, and headhunting organizations telling me they're looking for worship leaders "like me." Like the original post, I often have to tell them, "I don't know anyone, but I'm working with a few people. Call me back in two years." Like the original post, I am exasperated by this.

To set the stage, here are some of the summary insights for me:

  • Pastors (of the non-worship leading type) are often oblivious about the level of training, experience, and sophistication they're looking for when they set out to find a worship leader...resulting in the expectation that a worship leader's hours and pay can be much less than they're really worth
  • Worship leaders are sometimes oblivious to those same needs/desires and get blindsided when they enter a church and find that their leadership is appraised as highly inadequate
  • Worship leaders need theological training!
  • Worship leaders are pastors!
  • Our post-Christian era, where churches are going to have to be leaner, poses unique challenges to the future of the "professionalized" worship pastor/leader ministry.
  • The local church is going to be the best primary context to train and raise up Worship Pastors.
  • Our educational institutions (Christian colleges, seminaries) haven't fully figured all this out quite yet, and the shift from the older model of a "sacred music" or "church music" degree to the new model of "worship leading tracks" is playing catchup to the changing landscape.
  • More churches (including mine) need to think about investing in long-term internships and apprentice programs.

I have reorganized the comment thread below into broader categories. Check it out. It is GOOD.

The Original Post

Wendell Kimbrough:

Friends, I need to let off some steam/frustration and try to articulate some thoughts. Can y’all read this and a) talk me down from my self-righteous ledge or b) affirm what's true, or c) tell me to shut up and go back to work?

I just got off the phone with a church planting pastor who is asking the same questions I keep hearing over and over again from church leaders and lay people. “Where can I find someone to lead the kind of musical worship we are all longing for—the best of traditional and contemporary songs, presented in a way that really fosters singing and participation?” We talked a little about his journey—from traditional to contemporary, and how unsatisfying and alienating both can be. All he can find are people who get up and perform for his congregation. He called me looking for help. I listened to his story, affirmed his desire, and basically said the same thing I always end up saying, essentially, “I can’t help you.” Unless you have a budget to do a national job search for a full time position, in which case I can post a job description to Liturgy Fellowship and you can hire an experienced worship leader away from a church where he or she is currently serving. Otherwise, I can’t help you because: 

  1. It seems like very few people understand how to do what you’re asking, and 
  2. I don’t know anyone training new people to do what you’re asking, and 
  3. The handful of people I know who can do what you’re asking all figured it out in different ways—trial and error, mentors, apprenticeships, and experience.
  4. Although leading worship is not rocket science, it’s too complicated to teach in an elevator speech. And many of the resources available will simply train you to perform better for a passive audience, not lead people into a shared participation in corporate song.
  5. The resources available for traditional music are hymnals, which are designed for congregations that can sight read in parts. Which is to say, almost nobody. 
  6. And the resources available for contemporary worship are built around the paradigms of the radio single and the rock concert, neither of which are ideal for fostering participatory song. 
  7. Therefore, it’s that much more important that you have a worship leader who can swim upstream against the current of contemporary worship and rework and adapt traditional resources to fit new contexts. Which leads me back to the top of this list—very few people who know how to do this, no one training new people, etc.

Can you feel my frustration here? What can I tell this pastor besides, “Sorry, I can’t help you”? Do you get these questions?

Thanks for reading.

1) On Finding Worship Leaders in a Church Planting Context


Church planters must develop that in the church. They probably can't lure someone away, but they CAN raise up someone and work with them to that desired goal. As a church planter, you're building. You're looking towards the future and building with that in mind. In essence, if you build it, they will come.


 To church planter: go get involved in the art culture in your community. Befriend, support, encourage local artists, share the gospel and then disciple. Share your heart, teach sound doctrine and let artists flourish in your church and eventually lead. That's a lot harder than stealing a worship leader with money, but it's a much better idea. In the meantime don't hide your deficiencies in music, let the need be known and deal with what you have. 


I'd echo the sentiment here, particularly as it relates to planting - a world that I am very much immersed in. If the idea of planting is more like "transplanting" - taking something that's mature and developed and just putting it in a new context (be that pastors/leaders, laity, etc), then this frustration will be compounded. In my experience, it's more important in the long run to communicate the "why" of corporate worship then it is to be able to execute on the "how". That is something the lead guy/planter can start doing now even if it means the music is rough for the next few years. If he can start regularly articulating a solid philosophy/theology of worship (and maybe you can help him in this) then the foundation will be laid to train up local leaders. The training centre you are describing is the local church. The results will be slow but I think its the best (only?) way for new church plants.


I really like what was said above concerning churches being planted in new communities. If you can train up a music leader in that community then his/her understanding of that culture could more naturally fit into the desired style. However making sure they have the theological and liturgical understanding could be a challenge. Maybe that pastor's first disciple needs to be a musician....


In my experience, I have found 2 types of planting pastors: The first wants exactly what you have described but they want them in a 23-33 year old body that plays guitar and the second, if they can find the first, wants them for as cheaply as possible. For those of us with "the goods" - the theology, the skills to lead, arrange, choose selections from every generation and package them in a way that are singable to the congregation - there are often not churches nearby that understand just why this is so important for them as a congregation. At least that's what I have found in the Baltimore area. To do it well, it takes a lot of thought and prayerful consideration for the worship leader and then we stand as one crying in the wilderness, "Where are the churches that will teach the whole council of God through the entire Word with the Gospel at the center of the preaching?"


What a fascinating conversation. I love this! Isn't it interesting that the success of a church plant these days depends as much as it does on having a solid worship leader? A danger in this, and maybe some wisdom we can give our church planting friends, is searching for and treating the worship leader as a commodity to achieve the planting pastor's dream of a successful church. Good musicians are artists, and artists can sniff out utilitarianism from a mile away. I hate feeling like a tool. At the same time, churches need to sing, and artists need to bring their gifts. At least we all can be aware of the consumer temptation to treat worship leaders as hot commodities in the church marketplace.


What these pastors don't often say overtly is they also want someone young, hip and cheap. They also don't realize that in 2-3 years the congregation gathered may be very different from the one imagined in the church planting prospectus/plan.

2) On Training for Worship Leaders


Wendell, you know I've shared your frustrations in this area. That's why we've been doing our one-year worship apprenticeship program here. it's been going great for the last five years, and I'm really happy about our placement rate of apprentices into just these kinds of jobs you're talking about. I think it's incumbent upon us as churches to be thinking about using our resources to not just lead our own people in worship but also to be training and equipping the next generation. I challenge any churches with membership of more than about 200 people to consider creating a position like this at their churches. In our case, we're able to offer a full-time apprentice position for a very small salary, as the apprentice receives room and board for free in the home of a congregation member for the year.


I would encourage the pastor to contact schools like The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL as they are actively training worship leaders to have an understanding of Biblical, Historical and Cultural worship contexts.


I affirm your frustration, Wendell; and more importantly affirm your sense of what is needed: pastorally and theologically and musically trained worship leaders as well as congregations willing to be led by them. I teach at a seminary (Western Theological Seminary in Holland), and though most of my students will go on to ministries of many different shapes, every year I have a few students whose specific aspiration is to be worship pastors, but they've submitted to the three-years discipline of ministerial formation because they understand how important this work is. We will typically find apprenticeships for them -- both at WTS where we have worship every day, and at local congregations. Building on our success, we hope to offer a Graduate Certificate in Worship Leadership within two years, and an M.A. a few years after that. All of that to say, I suppose, that there are some places that are trying to offer the sort of training you're longing for. We don't do it flawlessly, but we're trying.


Honestly I get too many of these calls and wish I had more trained people to recommend. 


In Australia, we start with the congregation's existing musical giftings and invest into these, knowing that the administration of the team may develop into a paid position. Certainly not foolproof but we don't end up with the same entertainment vibe as in Nth America. It's interesting that many of your comments come across as lobbying for more money. 

(Of course I relate to the need to eat meals, just not sure how to coincide both goals of a great church & a professionalized national wide musical service)


I echo all the thoughts about a need for training these types of pastoral musicians, and for churches to honor the calling with living wages ... It's a big part of why I went the route of an MDiv. I was lucky/blessed to find a church that would call me as a full-time ordained pastor to a position centered around planning and leading worship. There aren't that many out there.


Andy Piercy said he can help...and he can. I'm one of his poster children. 


Wendell I've gotten these questions several times and I basically give the same answers. Maybe a decade down the road when these training institutions are bearing steady fruit, we will see some positive change in availability of well-trained worship leaders. But it's a long hill to climb, mostly because of the tectonic cultural forces you mentioned, among others. So I affirm your frustration.

3) On Qualities of Great Worship Leaders


What i've found is some people have the vision but not the talent, and a lot of people have the talent, but not the vision. it's hard to find someone with both.


When we say "worship leader," do we really mean "music leader"? Liturgical worship, imho, involves so much more than being able to read and lead music. My advice, as stated before, is to find some layman in the church who shares his views and work with him as a "liturgy leader." The "liturgy leader" (or "liturgist') could then work with the musicians in the church. Speaking as someone who has no musical abilities, I have a huge desire to sing with the congregation in worship and NO desire to be sung to. And I love liturgy. But, there is an assumption that the person in front (on the "stage") has to be a musician. In the times I've planned and led the liturgy in my small church--as a layman--I've stepped back from the mic during the singing and allowed the stronger singers in the congregation to "lead" from the pews. This worked in our small setting and may not be best in a larger facility.


Great thoughts and is a level-headed frustration, Wendell. I echo what others have said in that there has to be less of the "right guy" for worship and more of a collective embracing of a vision at the outset of a church-plant or in a church seeking worship renewal. The type of full-bodied role this is with pastoral sensitivity, musical proficiency, improvisational ability, aesthetic awareness, and all else that comes with the territory (leadership, organization, administration) is a role that has to be valued for it to be sustainable!


I think some of you have said this (but in different language), but isn't it less about finding someone perfect for the position and more about formation/discipleship? What does the charismatic, extroverted, worship leader tell a visitor to the church about God? I was so impressed by the worship leaders at our church the first time I visited because they were so quiet and gentle, their lives seemed so tucked into the heart of God. I'm now at a church where I'm "leading" for the first time, but leading is so not a helpful word - on the wise council of a worship leading friend, I have thought about it as facilitating the communal singing. The worship leaders I admire have just given me the advice of just being myself and by doing that people will feel invited to join in this worship. 

So, how to understand that church shouldn't be a performance? A stronger doctrine of the Trinity, the Torrance brothers would say; this sounds like what J.B. Torrance called Unitarian worship—that it's all about me and Jesus and not about the community that is supporting and contributing to worship. 
No concrete answers here but I echo what others have said: pool on the resources you already have. And a real spirit of throwing yourself into things - one worship leader I know recounts leading worship the 3rd or 4th time she attended our church. 

And, what I don't think I've seen mentioned yet: pray!

4) On Compensation for Worship Leaders

Comment (discouraged):

these guys so often want someone mission-minded who will move to their city for a part-time gig too...


Here's the thing that's not being spoken: that pastor is (likely) getting paid a livable wage to plant that church. If worship leaders (directors/ministers) regularly got paid livable wages, Wendell wouldn't be getting these phone calls. Instead, there would be seminaries and colleges producing talented, knowledgable worship musicians with hearts for ministry and that pastor would pick from a great pool of candidates. Instead, it's (generally) treated like an avocation, and unfortunately lots of good candidates have to take work elsewhere.


Having gone through a search process in the last 5 years, I have found most expectations to be insulting. Candidate must have a degree in music with Theological training preferred. Must be organized, disciplined, and a self-starter. Must be able to engage with artists and be a fantastic musician. 5 years experience preferred. Part time. $15k.


We wanted gifted artistic types who also can seamlessly navigate a corporate environment, all the while shepherding the congregation through song, prayer, and discipleship and yet pay them like they are bagging groceries.


Let's form a union!!!




Well, that escalated quickly.


What we're lobbying for is a recognition that there is a difference in training, experience, and ability. A church should consider its ability to support its pastoral staff and let that be part of the equation when deciding who they want to hire. We cannot (and should not) expect a professional with a family to support to work for an unlivable wage when we expect a professional level of leadership and development of a ministry.


RE: some of the statements around pay and the economics of all this... I get it, but in the church planting world (and especially in my Canadian context) the lead church planter is often not even making a decent living wage. I really believe that the future of church planting in the west is about organic multiplication - more plants, sooner and on a smaller scale. Neighbourhood parish plants, missional communities, small inner city plants that don't utilize building infrastructure, etc. I'm seeing more models all the time that are bi-vocaltional by design - often for the long haul. If we can't imagine a scenario where the church can really be the church as a vibrant, healthy worshiping community (solid leaders and leader development and all) outside of the existing models of full time paid vocational ministry... well, I think that's a problem if we want to plant in many places where the Gospel is most needed.


To be clear, I'm not advocating that we all become money-grubbers. (I think my own life show that if that were my intent, I've been unsuccessful.) Certainly, situations like bi-vocational church plants can't afford full time music ministers. I usually recommend that ministry staff earn 75%+- of the senior pastor--that gives a good ballpark figure for most situations. I do still think this is one of the most pressing issues in worship today. I don't think a strike is going to be helpful, but I've long hoped to form a multi-denominational union/guild that could provide salary guidelines, skill certification, and advocacy. The Liturgy Fellowship Guild has a nice ring to it...


I found this gem - "Because Sunday morning worship is a corporate experience and is not considered compensated time. It is part of your volunteer duties as a Generic Church member. Understanding this, your 20 hr workweek should be spent on the aforementioned duties."


Yeah, I once had a pastor say, "Of course, I'll expect all of you to be at the prayer meeting." And those of us who were paid by the hour just couldn't make him see that it wasn't really fair to require something but not pay for the time-- he felt it was just something any Christian would want to do." Oh, I want to pray, but I don't want to give up my shift delivering pizzas to do it!

5) On Congregational Singing


I've found that where I am at right now, I am considered a radical because the performance worship before was all they knew. I'm making the Sunday morning team smaller (6 musicians rather than 10 or more!), bringing down the sound, using mainly acoustic instruments and avoiding electric, bringing the musicians closer to the congregation visually, singing hymns and songs that are orthodox only, no long intros, no instrumentals, no interludes. The congregation is there to SING to God, not stand there and listen to us play for awhile. I also do nothing fancy with my voice like runs or deviations from the melody so the congregation can follow me completely. I smile. I put energy---as much energy as I can into the old hymns (a little faster, brighter, folksy). I figure if I can't hear the congregation while I am leading music, then it's a fail. I haven't done my job. For me, this works and it is in many ways, for a musician, a death to self. I can't sing all awesome because it is not helpful to the people. I can't show off instrumentally either. We are there to guide and aid the VOICE of the congregation. If we think this way as worship leaders and base all our decisions on it, it will produce the results needed for engaging participation. I've seen it happen over and over. 


Can I challenge your fifth point: "...hymnals, which are designed for congregations that can sight read in parts." Is that a USA-ism? Over here in the UK, congregational hymnbooks are words only, no music. A small number of places may make the melody edition an option in the pew. Almost never, anywhere, these days, congregational harmony books. So the hymn culture here is that the congregation are doing the tune from memory, rather than reading. So... one can argue this case various ways. But to me, that point is relatively minor, compared to all the others which are much more significant.


Yup. Valid frustrations. From my experience, here are a few ways that pastors can instill in developing leaders a value for congregational singing: 

a) provide song leaders with the congregation's home repertoire - what they already know and love to sing (even in church planting setting)

b) insist on familiarity and limit introduction of new songs. E.g. my rector will not let me start or end a service with a new/unfamiliar song. Ever. I've come to appreciate the need for the congregation to begin and end with high participation. 

c) place musicians somewhere other than center stage. This is about the congregation, not them.


One Subversive Worship Songwriter You May Not Know

Re-gifting Worship

I once heard David Gungor (of The Brilliance...fabulous) talk about his charismatic past meeting his liturgical present as coalescing around a "ninja liturgy"--a stealth liturgical narrative quietly creeping into and taking over the modern worship song set. I've been thinking more about this kind of subversion (especially as I've been writing The Worship Pastor), maybe arriving at the conclusion that it's less subversion and more just great contextualization... re-gifting in the best possible light.

When it comes to worship songwriting, I'm grateful for our generation's hymn-writers (I really believe something exciting is going on) who seem to be exhibiting a daring and risky backbone as they venture into some uncharted (or not recently charted) waters. I'm thinking of the Gungors, John Mark McMillan, David Crowder, Audrey Assad, etc., who are pressing beyond the (not all bad) standard fare of conventional modern worship songwriting.

Reimagining Latin Hymns

One songwriter, though, that may be flying more under our radar is John Mason Neale. We may not recognize his name, not because he hasn't done great work for the church, but because we're one year shy of his death-date 150 years ago (August 6, 1866). Neale was a 19th century hymn writer probably most famous for "O Come O Come, Emmanuel." He was controversial and subversive as a songwriter because he was trying to re-give to the Church some old, forgotten, historic songs of her past. He dug up old Latin hymns and translated them into English. In fact in 1851, he published a collection of Medieval hymns, including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (can you imagine Advent/Christmas without THAT?!?), whose Latin original is from the 12th century.

During Neale's day, the Church of England was going through its "Anglo-Catholic" awakening. Many don't realize this, but the fact that large swaths of the Anglican/Episcopal church "feel Catholic" is largely due to what happened in the 19th century in England in Neale's day. The Anglican tradition didn't always mirror Rome in its worship appearances/practices (at least it certainly did not begin that way under Thomas Cranmer). The 1800s saw a groundswell of folks desirous to get back to more "ancient" roots. There was a rediscovery of early church figures and writers and an unearthing of forgotten Medieval liturgies. And, for folks like Neale, there was a dusting off of forgotten hymnals as a handful of subversive songwriters dug up the Church's old songs.

I really think I know what Neale felt like. In college, I remember being exposed for the first time to the Church's rich hymn tradition. I was taken aback by how different these worship songs sounded from what I was used to. I started collecting old hymnals and pouring over what were for me "forgotten texts." It was exhillarating. And it wasn't before long that a compulsion developed in me to want to re-give these forgotten songs to the Church. (Hence, my albums...especially the first two.) 

Songwriters: Keep the Dialogue Alive

Whatever we might say about the merits or demerits of the Anglo-Catholic movement, I think it was a great win for the Church that this time period saw a renaissance of regifting old hymns for new generations. Neale took all his training in Latin and, like a good missionary, translated and contextualized some long-forgotten hymns for his day and age.

Every generation of worship songwriting needs similar subversion--a bucking of trends, a shaking up of the status quo. My hope is that as songwriting becomes more central to the M.O. of the modern worship leader (a shift I'm grateful for), we will always stir the pot, mixing old with new. My dream is that worship songwriters will be in dialogue with old songs. Even if their call is not to re-gift old hymns to new generations, there is still something incredibly healthy about having hymns as conversation partners. They, like all thoughtful historical inquiry, expose blind spots and stir our creative and theological imaginations.

(If this is new to you, a great place to start would be to get your hands on a good [FREE] hymn collection like Gadsby's Hymns, the hymns of Isaac Watts, or the hymns of Joseph Hart. I go back to these collections again and again, astounded at their wisdom and beauty.)


Why the Reformed Need to Look to Our Own Roots for the Seeds of Anti-Liturgical Worship

The history of the Reformed tradition of Christianity is beautiful and bizarre. When I was an outsider looking in (I didn’t grow up in the Reformed tradition), I thought the tradition's historical map was a lot more straight-lined than it was. I did not realize that within a generation or two after John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and Thomas Cranmer (I consider all these names, in varying ways, influencers in the Reformed reformation), there would be such a divergence of expressions of Reformed Christianity.

A Broad Landscape

When it comes to worship, the landscape is broader many people think. Certain Reformed thinkers will sometimes claim that a specific expression (e.g. Psalms-only singing, highly liturgical, practicing weekly Communion, more low/free church expression) is the one true way of Reformed worship. I think this perspective lacks both generosity and honesty. Perhaps there’s still more of Calvin’s understanding of the Bible to unlock when it comes to worship, but the truth is that Calvin (the beachhead of the Reformed reformation) was either purposefully ambiguous or irretrievably silent on some issues. And it’s my perspective (not all will agree) that this ambiguity in Calvin is why we’ve got so many tributaries of worship practices streaming from sixteenth century Geneva.

The "Heart" in Puritan Christianity

One of those tributaries is the Puritan stream, whose headwaters sprung from England but certainly spilled over the Atlantic into the emerging United States. Some evangelicals don’t realize just how much Puritanism runs through our veins, whether we’re Reformed or not.

One of the Puritan distinctives was a strong spirituality of the heart. In reaction to what they perceived to be the heartless religious ritualism of the established church, they strove to shake off all unnecessary pomp and circumstance. Simplicity and sincerity, for them, were marks of true worship--heart-borne and heartfelt. When these sensibilities commingled with the newness and looseness of the American frontier's westward religious expansion, we can see the seeds being sown for evangelicalism’s deep-seated suspicion of formalized liturgy and ritual in worship. This all comes together in worship historian Paul Westermeyer’s summation:

Heart religion, the part of the Puritan strain that did not want religion mediated by set forms, and the American frontier with no structured church life all pointed toward a future that would presumably avoid the marks of the church’s history, liturgy, and music.*


When I read this, I had an “aha” moment about my own Reformed tradition. For those of us in the Reformed tradition who value historic liturgy, we can sometimes get little cranky about other traditions that write it off or don’t take it very seriously. But the reality is, whether we appreciate it or not, we have our own tradition to thank (or blame). And, we need to be honest that at least some impulses of Calvin himself were the very seedlings that sprouted an anti-liturgical branch in the Reformed tree. Calvin was, after all, a theologian of the heart very much in the spirit of Augustine. You read in his Institutes an ongoing concern for empty religious practices that not only lack heart but almost deceive the practitioner as a kind of heart-substitute. You hear this, for instance, in his explanation of the cautions and joys of singing (Institutes 3.20.31).

The fact of the matter is that any liturgy (either the formal or the informal kind) will always carry in its DNA a kind of entropy. That means, left unchecked, our rituals will have the latent potential to downgrade into heartlessness because we are people who are always fighting the flesh. The Puritan strain of my Reformed heritage reminds me of this, and it also gives me a greater appreciation for and understanding of my fellow brothers and sisters who look at me funny when I get all excited talking about liturgy.

I am also reminded that liturgy must always be injected with heart and meaning by its liturgical leaders. Yes, even a rote liturgy has the power to shape, as James K. A. Smith has proven (even going through the motions is still formative), but do we really want to get there? Do we really want to get to a place where liturgy’s detractors observe so very little heart in liturgical practice that they feel forced to jettison the project altogether? The challenge of our Puritan forefathers and mothers stands before us.

*Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 245.

Spontaneity, Planning, and the Holy Spirit in Worship

In the Cracks

For many of us who have been knowingly or unknowingly schooled by a certain influential slice of evangelical worship, our view of the Holy Spirit's role in worship is pretty straightforward. The Spirit comes in the "cracks"--the surprising moments, the in-between times, the unplanned invasions. And, to God's glory, Scripture describes the Spirit's work in this way. We witness Jesus, for instance, sparring with a well-educated theologian with this little jab about the way salvation works: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8, ESV). The Spirit's surprising, unplanned work is tied in with some pretty pivotal moments in the history of the Church, such as Pentecost (Acts 2). The very Greek and Hebrew terms for "spirit" (pneuma, ruach) are the same words for "wind" and "breath," those ethereal elements of nature that can't be fully pinned down. 

So it's natural and fitting for us to believe that the Holy Spirit works in worship in the unexpected places. Some traditions actually plan for unplanned time so that this kind of Spiritual work might be made manifest, and I for one need to constantly listen to these voices and practices...God really does amazing things there.

Orderly Spontaneity

I would hope, though, that the traditions that preeminently cherish the Spirit's spontaneous work in worship would also increasingly hear Scripture's voice about the work of the Spirit in the order of things. Now, with that statement, I'm sure that for some, it feels like I have thrown a big bucket of water on the raging Fire of God. Hang with me, though, and check out what Constance Cherry has to say about all of this:

[When we turn to the Scriptures,] what we find there is that God is a God of order--it is one of the most significant aspects of God's nature. There are many examples of this in Scripture, but none more obvious than that found in the creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis. One simply cannot miss the orchestrated plan that God uses to create the heavens and the earth...The order of creation mattered. ...

When we give some forethought to planning the order of worship, we emulate God's approach to events. Remember, in providing for order, one creates a condition in which every part or unit is in its right place. An order (to anything) is simply a plan for a succession of events. Order provides direction for these actions.

The Holy Spirit is always at work--in advance, during, and after the events of human history. Though the Holy Spirit may appear to us to act spontaneously, this is because we are often unaware of the Spirit's action until it occurs, for we are not often privy to God's actions in advance. Therefore it is a leap in logic to assume that the Spirit primarily acts spontaneously and is therefore the preferred mode for the ordering of worship events. I am not suggesting that there should not be room for unexpected movements of God's Spirit in worship; these should be expected and welcomed when they occur. Yet there is no biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is especially available as an antidote for inadequate worship planning.*

There is a lot of great wisdom packed in there, and it's a helpful balance for those of us who plan and lead worship. If we lean toward believing that the Holy Spirit's work is more or less equivalent to the unplanned and spontaneous, it's a helpful check to ponder the "orderliness" of God's actions. The Spirit, who hovered over the waters, had a central role in moving creation from chaos to order as those opening days progressed. Order is rooted in the nature of God, who is the Holy Spirit. This is what more liturgical traditions will try to articulate to more charismatic traditions about the nature of the Holy Spirit in their worship services, and I think it's worth hearing.

How I Try to Find a Balance

Here are some of the ways I try to find a balance, being someone who believes in the dynamic and immediate work of the Spirit in my life, open to surprises yet believing in His work in the "systems."

First, with some regularity, I pause to invoke and invite the Holy Spirit even as I'm sitting before Planning Center thinking through my liturgy and song set. As I do this, I must admit that things still feel very human. I'm thinking through songs, wrestling with tempos, keys, arrangements, and affects. I'm not all of a sudden feeling like I'm in some heightened spiritual state (though it would be refreshing if it happened more often). It feels very mundane. But I try, I strain to believe that when I ask for and invite the Holy Spirit's presence, He graciously condescends to fill me.

Second, I'm often firing up what some of us evangelicals call "arrow prayers" throughout the week and especially on Sundays, asking the Holy Spirit to prepare the people and fill the service with His life and power. As I'm going about other tasks, when it comes to mind, I simply ask God for those things in one or two sentences.

Third, I'm repeatedly firing up those same types of prayers throughout the service I am leading. In little instrumental breaks or turns between verses, choruses, and bridges, especially in the opening songs, I'm praying in my head/heart (or even sometimes with my lips), "Holy Spirit, come and fill your people," "Help us now, Spirit!"

Fourth, with less frequency but with a steady regularity, I pray with our teams before worship and include this type of sentiment: "O Holy Spirit, we want to acknowledge that You've been moving among us through the planning and rehearsing of this service. These plans are your plans, and we believe that You've been faithful to make them. Even so, sometimes we can get in the middle of things and mingle our sin, idolatry, and misdirection into Your perfect plans. Forgive us. We give this service to You. If you want to take it in an entirely different direction, or if you would desire to disrupt and change our plans, make us ready and open. We come to you with open hands. We want to be honest that though our plans aren't sacred and infallible, Your work in them always is."

Fifth, I try to plan for what I know the Holy Spirit loves all day every day: Jesus. I'm firmly convinced that a Spirit-filled worship service is, at its core, a service that makes little of ourselves and much of the person and work of Jesus Christ. (For more on this, check out this post.)

Trans-Tribal Relationships

I know my charismatic brothers and sisters will want to press me here for at least one more thing on this list--actually creating space for spontaneity in the service, whether it be an extended interlude or an open time of prayer and ministry. Ah, I'm trying. Seriously, pray for me and my church. I believe that these moments can be powerful, and within who God has made us to be and what God has called us to do as a church, I want to foster this kind of culture in the appropriate places.

But, hopefully, we can keep the dialogue open and ongoing. I certainly haven't said anything new, but I thought it worth reiterating and sharing what my practice is. My encouragement to all of us across traditions is to continue listening to each other...and I mean a deeper listening than reading a blog post or article from "outside your tradition." I mean relationships. Get to know the worship leaders in your town and give them the freedom to talk about what their passions, hopes, and dreams are for worship. Give them the benefit of the doubt (love hopes all things), and then graciously share your own heart. I've found strange and wonderful things happen when I legitimately get out of my tribe for a bit.

*Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 40-41.

Leading Worship Through a Major Church Crisis

It's been a while since my last post. Most of you all know what has happened at Coral Ridge, and I've personally received a lot of love, prayers, and support from so many of you. Thank you! This blog, for me, has always been a place to think out loud by wrestling thoughts to the ground, processing in real time the ins and outs of one local worship leader who is asking questions about worship and pastoring in his little corner of the globe. I've been encouraged to see that some of my thoughts have been helpful to others in their contexts. So today I turn to what will be a cathartic post. It will help me to organize the jumble of thoughts and emotions that go into trying to keep your head above water in a pastoral crisis.

I've been serving churches as a worship pastor long enough to have gone through several crises. Though none have been this large and this public, on the ground there are certain common themes that have emerged for me over and over again that I now perceive as "givens." I want to talk about these in hopes that my very immediate reflections might be of help to others. I am on the front end of this new season in our church's life, but I'm already witnessing things that, though painful and difficult, are quite predictable simply because every church is full of train-wrecked sinners like me who tend to exhibit the same types of behaviors in moments like these. So, here goes...

1. The Vacuum

Whenever there is a shakeup at "the top," it leaves a leadership hole. That vacuum tries to get filled in a bunch of ways. On the leadership side, it means that we church leaders need to rally as a team, pray and seek the Lord together, and lead strongly and visibly. In a sense, for the time being, it is our job to fill that vacuum. It means more time, more emotional energy, more prayer, more burden. This is a given.

One of the negative sides of the vacuum is that there are unhealthy ways that congregations can seek to fill it in short order. Many times, when a leader is gone, it becomes an opportunity for some to declare the things they've been holding back. These things include ministry emphases, visionary choices, but also (maybe especially) things relating to worship. This has certainly been the case for me, and based on my past experience, it won't really let up for quite some time. In fact, we're still sort of in "shock" phase, which means that as the newness wears off, people will be able to process more...which means that the best is yet to come. :)

But knowing that the vacuum always happens and will continue to cause weird things to occur is half the battle. And all this leads to the second point.

2. The church needs stability and familiarity in its worship.

In moments like these, people's concealed desires for what worship "should have been like all along" become revealed. In some cases, these desires are the worship leaders', too. (Not in my case. My senior pastor and I thankfully saw quite eye to eye on most of it.) It can be very tempting to start implementing all those desired tweaks and changes, but this is exactly the wrong time to do this. What churches need in moments of crisis is stability and familiarity in their worship. Whatever the liturgy has been, stick to it. Give them more songs that everyone knows and loves. People don't need to be raising eyebrows or tweaking their heads. They need to be crying out to God.  

3. The church needs stability and familiarity in its leadership...but not mini-Messiahs.

Every church is different, but in my context, I was one of the two faces of leadership that people were used to seeing more or less every Sunday. One of those faces is gone. Mine is the only familiar face left. It's really important that I'm there. It's really important that I'm present and undistracted. It's really important that I exhibit a non-anxious presence and display a confidence in the one and only Head of God's Church--Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I have to wrestle with very honest "Messiah complex" feelings. I am not the church's Savior. I had a moment where I started to think I was, though, when I almost cancelled my vacation plans coming up in a few weeks, feeling the burden of the fact that "the church needs me." In one sense, the church does need me. But I know my heart, and my wife knows my heart. When I started to hint at the transgression of our vacation plans, I knew that would be disaster for me (and my need for rest) and disaster for a family who needs their husband and dad. When that got some clarity, it became as simple for me as remembering that Jesus loves His church more than I do and that I'm not Coral Ridge's Messiah. Praise God for that, for my sake and the church's.

4. (1) and (2) mean that I need to find safe places off the beaten path to process my own personal pain and confusion.

Yes, I need to be a strong, stable, non-anxious leader in this time. But I still have anxiety. I still am weak. I still question my calling. Like my congregation, I'm going through my own version of the stages of grief. I need safe places to explode, to cry, to vent, to strategize, to collapse. On the one hand, it would be very "authentic" of me to do that in front of the church. But the church doesn't need that, and I actually think it would be detrimental to her health. 

But if I bottle it all up, I have no doubt that I will find myself in my own crisis in a few short weeks or months. And then I'm no good to anyone. So, I've chosen a few friends, a few safe havens. And they have been a wellspring of life for me. They have been Jesus.

5. No emotions are off limits, and we should expect (and in worship make room for) every kind. 

When churches go through crises, congregations experience the full spectrum of emotions. It brings up PTSD-like symptoms for some. Others get depressed, angry, or cynical and jaded. Some people surprise you by leaning into the church like they never did before. Others surprise you by becoming quite oppositional. Some get upset over very peculiar and specific things that happen. Others seem upset over everything. Some retreat and go into radio silence. Others are emailing, texting, calling every day.

Knowing that all emotions will come, and knowing that they are all perfectly valid ways of handling situations like these, we need to be ready for them by giving voice to them in worship. In my experience, a great place to handle this is in the church's moment of confession. I've been given to praying more extemporaneously to help give voice to some of these emotions. My prayers, privately and publicly, have sounded like this:

God, this is a very confusing time for us. We confess that we've been angry...with others and with You. We confess that we feel hurt. We confess that these moments cause us to doubt Your goodness, Your promises, Your faithfulness. We struggle at times to see the good in these moments.

We confess that some of us feel numb and cold. Some of us are finding it hard to honestly and earnestly worship You. For others of us, it's all we can cling to. We confess that we aren't the kind of people that can handle this well apart from Your grace. We're weak. Be strong for us.

As odd as it may sound, the last three weeks of worship at Coral Ridge have been sweet times of community. We're more broken open, leaning a bit more on God and a bit less on ourselves. Desperation is a remarkable catalyst for authentic, vibrant worship. And our emotions have been all over the map. I'm grateful that God has created enough of a safe culture of worship at Coral Ridge that at least some can feel free to be honest before the Lord in community. God has been faithful and good to us.

6. Care very little about what is being said "out there." Care very much about what is being felt "in here."

In all honesty, I'm paying very little attention to what's happening in the sphere of blogs and social media. So much of it is partially informed and feels distant, cold, and dispassionately clinical. It can be very distracting, though, and it can raise fears and concerns that simply don't need to be there. Through past experience, I've learned to pay attention to the flock in front of me. What are their hurts, their fears, their concerns? I don't need to answer the critics. They're not the ones God has called me to keep watch over. I need to be close to our flock, spend lots of time with them, and really listen. So I've been sending lots of emails, making lots of phone calls, and drinking way to much coffee with folks. My office has been a revolving door.

As a workaholic and a task-oriented person, I'm tempted to think that all this people time is very un-productive. (I'm not getting anything done!) I've learned, though, that such thoughts spring up more from the enemy and my own idolatrous heart than they do from any good place. My call now is to be very, very present for people that need it. I feel a bit relationally stretched thin, and I feel like some important goals are getting sidelined. But there's just a strong sense that I'm doing the right thing. So I just have to let the chips fall where they may.

7. The church needs the hope of Jesus.

Worship needs biblical lamentation, which is another way of saying that the church needs to be able to cry out "How long?" WITH HOPE. In times like this, I've found that emphasizing the following themes are important and powerful:

  • God's faithfulness generally
  • God's faithfulness specifically--His mighty deeds of the past
  • Confession & Lamentation
  • Death & Resurrection (both literally and symbolically)
  • Jesus' undying love for His Church
  • The Eschaton--the End when God will make all things new
  • The nearness of the Holy Spirit

All these things, when emphasized, become a soothing balm for the anxieties, fears, pain, anger, and sorrow of a congregation going through crisis. Thankfully, there are so many Psalms, songs, and prayers that speak right to these things, because, well, suffering seems to be one of the few givens for every human being. 

You feel it in the air of Coral Ridge right now, and I think any Gospel-oriented community would feel the same: hope abounds. This doesn't mean that everyone is feeling hopeful, but there is a kind of communal sense of hopefulness and trust when we gather. We're still smiling and laughing. And some of us are getting very energized for where God will take us as a local church in this city. 

Still, right now, we're a jumble. If you've seen Inside Out, it feels like we're in that deconstruction-reconstruction phase that characterizes most of the movie's storyline. It's an unsettling place to be, and it's a blessed place to be. I'll write more when I have something to say...and only then!


Two Diagrams That are Captivating My Imagination Right Now

I'm continuing to chip away at this book of mine. It's amazing to see the ways God is using the very chapters I'm working on to minister to specific and immediate needs in my life and the lives of my brothers and sisters at Coral Ridge. I'm working on a couple of diagrams that visual learners might appreciate. (Click on the diagrams for detail.)

The "Gospel-Shaped" Emotional Journey of a Worship Service

This is a kind of "schematic" of the emotional journey a worship service can take when it is shaped according to the gospel narrative of scripture. Some people call this narrative Creation-Fall-Redemption. Others call it Gathering, Confession, Assurance. I tried for a little alliteration: (1) Glory of God; (2) Gravity of Sin; (3) Grandeur of Grace. In any regard, I think the diagram is a helpful one, but I'm trying to hone the descriptors in yellow to fill out the "emotional palette." 

The Worship Pastor's Varying Roles

This is an idea I'm working on which bring together the chapter headings of Part II of my book. The final chapter in this section is on "The Worship Pastor as Liturgical Architect," and the hope is to bring home all the preceding chapters to this point. I began to see some corollaries of the way some of the Worship Pastor's roles are analogous to the three offices of Christ--prophet, priest, and king. So this serves as a kind of visual guide into Part II of my book. I want to stare at it a while to see what I think about it.

I'd be curious if either of these diagrams elicit thoughts, ideas, or comments. 


How Worship is the Most Important Form of Pastoral Care

I've been working on my book, The Worship Pastor (read about it here), and I came across this fabulous quote. Keep in mind that this is a Roman Catholic writer making these observations:

For centuries, the liturgy, actively celebrated, has been the most important form of pastoral care. This was especially true of those centuries in which the liturgy was being created. Unfavourable conditions brought it about that in the late Middle Ages, in spite of the liturgy being celebrated and developed in numerous churches with great fervour and magnificence by collegiate clergy and monastic communities, a veil became drawn between the liturgy and the people, a veil through which the faithful could only dimly see what was happening at the altar. Even in all this we can still see how pastoral concern led to the development and adaptation of the liturgy.*

I can't amen this enough. I've seen, time and again, that thoughtful, passionate, and intentional worship leadership yields pastoral care for the people of God. People can tell when you're caring for them. People can feel that you love them. And people can sense when a worship service creates a context of care.

We often think of pastoral care as an individualized enterprise outside worship: counseling sessions, hospital calls, in-home visits, praying for individuals’ needs, and presiding over funerals. These are all vital, indispensible care practices of any pastor. But the Church’s history offers a different paradigm for the center, the starting place, of all pastoral care. It tells a story of pastors who see the core of their ministry to sick, hurting, wounded sheep happening in the context of leading worship. Worship is the ground zero of pastoral care. It is the place where all pastoral care rightly begins, and without it, all other forms of pastoral care lose their meaning and power.

The people who darken our doors each Sunday come bruised and battered. They are exhausted by life's demands and their failure to meet them. They are beaten up by their sin and the effects of others' sin on them. They come in desperately needing a word of relief. Our worship services need to be so much more than motivational talks and pump-you-up sessions. We need so much more than good advice and a few inspiring songs. Maybe even more to the point, our worship services need to feel less like therapy and more like a heart transplant (Ezek 36:26). Only telling the story of sin and grace can do that. 

If this is true, then one of the best ways, week in and week out, that we can care for the people of God is to give them a worship service that walks them through the story of the Gospel, giving moments to highlight the glory of God (Call & Praise), the gravity of sin (Confession), and the grandeur of grace (Absolution & Assurance). In short, the Gospel is balm for the weak and weary, and worship is where God chooses to most liberally pour out that Word in song, sermon, and sacrament.

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). 

*J. A. Jungmann, Pastoral Liturgy (New York: Herder & Herder, 1962), 380.

Exciting New Projects for Coral Ridge Music

I want to share two things that we're doing with Coral Ridge Music that really light my fire. They are extensions and expressions of the way that we're trying to think pastorally about the way we write and produce music for our local church...with the hope that it will help some other churches out there, too.

A Kids' Worship EP

One of the things we felt burdened to do was to translate for kids some of the ways we're experiencing the Law and the Gospel in worship at Coral Ridge. We also want to be able to bless the young families that are a part of our community by giving them something to bump in their minivans and at home. So, we've tasked our summer interns (Scott Bajgrowicz, Dasia Canales, Caleb Koornneef, & DJ Vining) with recording a kids' EP of six songs. Some of them are simplified rewrites of previously recorded songs, like, "His Be the Victor's Name," and "Wake Up Sleeper." Others are fresh takes on some children's classics: "Jesus Loves Me" has some added verses that flesh out grace for our kids; "Father Abraham" (with a modified tune) weds some sweet covenant theology and Christological themes into a classic. Yet other songs are attempting to liturgically train our kids to experience the gospel narrative in worship, so we've written a confession song called, "I'm Sorry, God," that walks through in a simple way the "thought, word, and deed" of sin in our lives.  This is a blitz project and will be ready for our families and the broader public in the fall. Keep on the lookout for a Kickstarter campaign by our Terns! 

A "Feedback Panel" for Some New Worship Tunes

Julie Anne Vargas and I have been in the woodshed, working on new songs. I can honestly say that I've never worked so hard and put so much effort into crafting these texts and melodies. Many of these songs have been wrestled into submission. We're adding a layer, though, to the songwriting process. Tonight, we're bringing together a small swath of our congregation, along with some friends and local area worship leaders for a "Worship Night Song Panel," where we'll present these songs, talk about them, solicit feedback, and sing them together. Before we fully commit to these songs, we want to create a safe space for them to "hit" our congregation in order to see what sticks. We're anticipating that this night will give us some important insight on the traction that these songs will or will not have in our community. We'll go through six songs in a conversational, coffee house-style format and hopefully God will bless us with a rich sense of His presence among us. We want to worship our way through this experience.

These songs will travel through this process and then hopefully make it on to an EP or LP due out in February 2016.

If you all have done similar things in your churches, I'd be very curious how the process went for you...what it looked like, how successful it was, some do's and don't's you learned. Please comment!

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