Four Ways Gigging Made Me a Better Worship Leader / Church Musician

One of my favorite quotes is in the movie Rocknrolla: 

There ain’t no school like the old school and I’m the #@$%@#$% headmaster.

When I started playing guitar, playing in church was not an option. Our church was a piano/organ place, and we only did acoustic guitar on a very, very rare occasion.

In fact, as crazy as this may seem, I never heard real electric guitar—not the heavily compressed, chorused, thin sound—in church until I was probably 30 years old.

So, musically, all my formative years weren’t spent in a youth band; they were spent in clubs.

This is what I think I learned:

  1. Be excellent, quickly.My first gigs were in a cover band. Two hundred dollars for a night (for the whole band). Two 60-90 minute sets. You were paid to be the entertainment. If you couldn’t grab the crowd’s attention, than you (a) were going to have a boring night and (b) weren’t going to be invited back. You had to get their attention, and then hold it. Probably the most extreme situations were when we’d play for a group of bikers; the pressure to entertain and “be cool” was definitely heightened. You had to be on your game.By contrast, church is mostly a captive audience. They’ll tolerate mistakes and give you second chances. However, just because the congregation lets you get away with a bad note doesn’t mean you should let yourself get away with it.
  2. Have your gear together. Even in the era of Guitar Center, you still couldn’t find a place to buy a cable at ten o’clock at night (maybe you still can’t). I remember driving 3 hours to a gig where the drummer forgot his hi hat stand. Outcome: gig with no hi hat. You had to double-check your stuff, and be prepared. Churches today come stocked with complete drum kits, miles of cabling, and usually a tuner (or 4) lying around. It’s nice to have a backup plan, but it’s also unprofessional to show up without a guitar strap. It assumes that someone will take care of you.
  3. Expect the worst. I remember playing a gig in this big wooden room that was essentially tuned to Ab. Every time we hit that note (which we did a lot, because we tuned 1/2 step down), the whole place would erupt with Ab feedback. It made for an interesting set. I also never knew that multiple monitor mixes were even possible until I was probably 25; my first 10 years of playing were spent learning to hear my voice—and the other instrumentalists—in one mix (that was usually too quiet).These days—if I can sound a bit crusty—a church is considered a bit lacking if the Aviom mix isn’t in stereo. Listening—and thus true interactive musicianship—isn’t based on the quality of your monitor mix; it’s based on the discipline of working to hear everyone on the stage, and to be aware of what they’re playing and how it impacts what you’re playing.
  4. God is everywhere. Though I wasn’t always firmly rooted spiritually, I learned that beautiful music can be made in the dirtiest places. On my final (probably) jaunt around the country, I was playing a gig in Lawrence, Kansas. The band I was in “gave in” to the crowd and played a (somewhat ironic) version of “Freebird.” As I played that ridiculous slide part, I practically heard God speak to me, “Do not think for one minute that I’m not hear in this bar. Do not think that you cannot send these notes to Me as worship—as thanks—right here in this moment and in this place. I am here.” 

    Though the church as a body is sacred and essential, God is also everywhere. When you only play music on Sunday morning, or only for your youth group, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that God is only in the church, or that He is only “listening” to corporate worship music (that is often too safe). Playing music in so many environments helped me understand that God is out there, always moving, sometimes even moreso than what we see on Sunday.

Anyway, that’s it. I’m old school, but I think we do well to make sure our church musicians are seasoned and prepared, and have as wide a view as possible of God’s activity in the world.

Worship “Satisfaction”

I read this post last week…

At first—because I’m slightly neurotic—I was really convicted by it, if for no other reason than I, um, often play guitar solos during worship songs.

Forgive me.

But the more I read it, I actually got a little tweaked (full disclosure: if it’s not obvious already, I’m a worship pastor, so as my southern friends would say, I have at least a few “dogs in this hunt”).

As usual, I think of reality more in terms of a tension to be lived in, between the truth of what Bill says and another perspective.

Here are some thoughts from another perspective. Warning: possible frumpiness to follow.

  • I love me some hymns. Love ’em. Believe in them. But the church I serve in is not a hymn-heavy church. We do 3 or 4 a month. There are hymn-heavy churches in town, however, and there are also churches who worship through liturgy, through silence, through choirs.The point is practically all of our churches exist in the flow of a tradition, and this is a good thing. My non-denominational, evangelical church is not going to become high church Anglican. We will not become full gospel AME. While we do our best to learn from other traditions and to give people a wide(r) glimpse of the church, I think that when we constantly question our own tradition we cultivate a sort of eccesiological multiple personality disorder.

    I think there’s a certain amount of wisdom to looking at your church tradition and culture and acknowledging the truth of where it’s been and what it is. Now culture isn’t frozen; we are meant to grow and change, but God created culture. It is a gift, at least a partial recognition that humanity is so diverse. There’s no point in freezing or elevating one form of worship culture and saying, this is what we need to do. 

  • Sometimes, worship participation is simply a matter of discipleship, of the heart.There I said it.

    Now, I realize that I may need to cut my guitar solos short. I accept that chastisement. But I think responsibility needs to be spread evenly. If an individual isn’t willing to sing, “Holy is the Lord,” then I really can’t make them. Ultimately, I am not the worship leader, the Holy Spirit is, and if a person is unwilling to follow the Spirit to God, then so be it. It’s a reality of my call, but I accept it.

    A word about “seekers” (whoever they are): I once heard Erwin McManus say, “if your church doesn’t have problems of heresy and immorality, than you’re probably not missional enough.”

    If we are engaging the world, there will be a certain percentage of people who simply “aren’t there yet.” As I just mentioned, I acknowledge that’s a reality of my job. There will be people in our gathering space who actually don’t have a clue who Jesus is, much less what worship is, and I need to respect their journey.

    But for those of us who are “in the know,” I think there comes a time when we have to simply say, “I’m here to meet with God; I will open my mouth and worship—not only to remind myself of who He is and what He has done, but so that I can be an example to other folks who are at a different part of their journey.” My church is primarily young people: young(ish) families and some post-college and college kids. But we have some older folks as well. One day, an older gentleman (in his 70s) said to me, “You know, I really don’t like the music at all. But God is at work here, so I’m just happy to be here and be a part of something.”

  • Which leads me to my last point…It’s not about you.

    I once led worship in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church; our Sunday set lists included modern gospel, songs in spanish, rock stuff (and an occasional hymn lol). Our pastor once said, “Hey guess what you guys: no one here is going to be completely satisfied with worship. THAT’S NOT THE POINT. We don’t come here to just get. We come here to give.” Because that church was clearly diverse, it was easy to grasp the idea that we all need to give up something to worship cross-culturally, but I think the principal holds true for us in mono-cultural worship settings as well:

    worship is first for God, then for us. Worship often overflows into love back from Him to us, but that’s not the point.

    We worship first because of who He is and what He has done for us, not because of what we may get out of it right now.

When I have the rare opportunity to sit under someone else’s leadership, I have the same feelings:

  • “Man, I don’t like this song…”
  • “She’s repeating that chorus too many times…”
  • “The mix is HORRIBLE…”
  • “He’s going to kick that water bottle over…”

In other words, I’m not immune. But I remind myself in those times that this moment is what I’ve been given, and it’s up to me to direct my heart, soul, mind, and strength towards my Creator and Savior.

It’s my choice.

In closing, I’d say this: you don’t sing at my church because you don’t want to sing at my church. It’s really that simple. In a sense that’s okay. And also, I hear the corrections—I don’t want to be a rock star worship leader—and I realize that we need to create an environment that facilitates people meeting with God and tells the story of our faith.

But it’s never gonna be perfect.

Take it away, Mick…

Worship Leader as Designer

Sorry I missed posting on Tuesday. I was catching up after a weekend away…

My wife and I bought our first house 2 years ago. In the months leading up to closing, we were virtually addicted to HGTV’s plethora of design shows (Splash of Color and Divine Design in particular). There was always a moment where the designer dramatically pulls out a painting, sculpture, or carpet swatch and declares, “This is what I’m basing the design of this room on.” Everything else would flow out of, and around, that inspirational piece.

A few months ago, I was talking to some worship leaders from my church, and I suddenly realized that—while I generally follow a linear flow of worship—I occasionally craft worship orders from a “design/inspirational” point of view. What I mean is that there is some central theme, or song, or concept, that serves as the centerpiece (obviously, God, Jesus, and the Cross are our spiritual centerpieces; I’m speaking here from a creative/inspirational perspective). Everything then flows out of—and around—that centerpiece.

The song, or thought, or concept serves to anchor the worship order (creatively), and gives purpose to it. It may be the first song, last song, or the middle. It may be a transition; or a scripture thought.

Again, while I think we should definitely tether ourselves to a worship flow that takes people on a journey from the “street to the altar” (and then out again), I think occasionally engaging in this “design-inspired” worship planning can introduce some holistic creativity to our efforts.

Up next… Thoughts on The National Anthem and Evangelism

Remember

Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. (Deuteronomy 8:2)

I used to read about how worship was about “remembering”.

I disagreed.

I didn’t like that language. To me, at the time, worship was about passion, intensity… Tears, repentance, joy.

The list went on and on; I preferred words like that over “flat-line” words like “remember.”

I mean, I remember to get milk from the store; I remember to pick up a pen before I leave for work (no really, I do).

I wanted worship to be more about “remembering.” I wanted it to be like … well…

A Rage Against the Machine Concert…

… Or … what was that band from Ireland?

THAT was what I wanted worship to feel like.

(and yes, EVERY Sunday)

But this weekend I reconsidered.

To put it bluntly, worship is absolutely based on remembrance: of our salvation, of the things God has done for us.

If it’s not, it’s idolatry.

Harsh, I know, but if worship isn’t grounded in the acts of God, than we are either making up things up or worshiping “worship.”

And that adds up to idolatry.

It’s easy to sing songs; it’s not too difficult to get people to sing with you  (well, some Sundays it is).

But that’s not the point.

Over and over, God tells people to “remember” how He set them free from slavery, and brought them through the wilderness to the land that He promised them. He could’ve put on an amazing light show; he could’ve parted the sea (again)…

… He probably could even have played “Fix You” (just to get ’em all crying and to show how relevant He is).

But He didn’t. He just said, “Remember that I’ve done this thing for you and for my mission in the world. That tells you everything you need to know about me.

The point is to get people to remember their salvation, and to thank God for it, and to remind themselves what He is capable of, what His character is.

That’s a bit harder.

 

“MoFo.”

This is a bit of rant…

I was on my favorite gear discussion board today, when I noticed a few posts with similar titles: “Post your favorite U2/Praise and Worship Pedalboards”; “Favorite Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedals”; and so on…

<sigh>

Church, what have we become? Where has our creativity, our imagination, our artistry gone?

In 1998, “The dotted 8th” (let the musician understand) was a revelation. It was new, it was majestic and ambient, rhythmic and interesting, and could lay down tremendous beds of comforting sound around a band and worship leader.

That was 13 years ago now, folks. We were absorbed in the sound of U2 because, well, that sound was cresting and peaking. Now, the culture has moved on. U2 is still selling out stadiums, but Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and The National are making exciting music now. Why won’t we embrace them as “temple musicians”? Why have we stopped growing?

Yes, U2 is an amazing, even anointed band. Yes, Coldplay is their scrappy sonic younger brother. But we’ve all missed the point, and by missing the point we’ve cheapened U2/Edge’s sonic tapestry as well as the creative element in worship music.

Because what we should really be interested in, musicians, is the way Edge thinks. Not how to rip off his delay tone.

He said once in an interview, “I’m interested in abusing technology.”

Where’s that attitude and approach in our efforts? Have we settled?

We pick and choose the safest parts — we love “Where the Streets Have No Name” (c’mon, I know it makes you cry; I’ll confess: me too!), but we shy away from “Mo Fo” sonically as well as lyrically (even though I’d say that the latter is about an overtly spiritual song as you could find, if you, um, cared to read the lyrics). Feed 3 or 4 fuzz pedals into a Whammy Pedal and hit “Go” … because that type of thinking is where all of this tapestry came from!

But we’d rather figure out how to find the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal”.

You know what the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal” is?

The one you can afford. The one you’re stepping on right now.

Because worship music is about incarnation. Which means it’s about God’s intersection with you. With your experiences, your gear, your creativity, with your imagination.

Worship guitarists out there — what are you afraid of? Ry Cooder once said, “Go where it’s dangerous and say, ‘Yes.'”

Go ahead. Step on the pedal; the one that’s “NSFW” (“Not Safe For Worship”). It will be okay (though I didn’t say it would be easy)… Edge would be proud.

And the church, in the long run, will be edified…

Because we still need imagination. Maybe now more than ever.