As a worship leader, one of the best things you can do for yourself, your team and your congregation is to memorize your music. Here is a quick list (in no particular order) of reasons why:
- Memorizing a song forces you to learn it better. If you can rely on your music stand you will. No matter how well you think you know the song, you don’t know it fully until you can play it comfortably without the chord chart.
- Memorized music looks better. When you are in front of people, they will look at you. If you are watching your music stand the entire time, people notice. It’s not a good visual. You want to be free to move with the music.
- Memorized music frees you to close your eyes or make eye contact with the congregation. Both are important. Eye contact helps people engage who are otherwise disengaged. Closed eyes helps you focus. Having your eyes free also helps you discern what is going on in the room and communicate with your team.
- Memorized music frees your mind to think about other things while you lead. The less you have to think about the better. You have to focus on Jesus, the band, and the congregation. That’s enough to think about without adding paying attention to a music stand.
- Memorized music gives you confidence. You know the songs and you know that you know the songs. Confidence allows you to lead well. People don’t like following an unconfident leader. They will disengage quickly.
- Memorized music allows for spontaneity. You will never break into spontaneity as long as you are tied to a page. Memorizing is really the only way to get there.
So here’s how you do it. If you have never memorized a song before, go to your instrument right now and try playing anything that comes to mind. See how far you can get. Did you know all the words? Did you know all the chords? Could you tell when you were wrong?
Now, look at the music and see what you missed. Put the music away and try again. Try it with your eyes closed. Repeat it over and over until your confident. Work on it a little bit at a time every day. Doing something for a short amount of time every day has much longer lasting results than practicing for three hours once a week. Muscles have memory and practice makes permanent. So get to it!
A current trend for that last decade or so has been the constant clarification that music is not worship. In our culture, it is especially easy to refer to the worship time of our services as the singing time. But singing in and of itself, is no more worship than throwing a rock in a pond. Worship is the response of the human heart to God.
Now, having said that, let’s talk music! Even though music itself isn’t worship, music has a deeply powerful effect on the human body, soul and spirit. It’s not a coincidence. God created it that way. (It was an amazing day when I realized that God created music and art and color. You’re believing a lie if you think God is in anyway uncreative or boring. He’s the most magnificent, interesting and wonderful being in the universe.) God created music to be able to engage us in a different way. Different from pictures. Different from stories. Different from movement. Its not necessarily better than other ways. Just different.
There is a story of Elisha the prophet in the book of Kings. When asked to give the word of the Lord, Elisha first asks for a musician to play the harp. While the music was playing, God’s Spirit came on Elisha and he began to prophesy. Likewise, when King David established a tabernacle in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant, he ordered musical worship night and day and taught the musicians to prophesy on their instruments.
If we come to worship and think that an electric guitar solo or a drum solo is just about enjoying the music and having a good time, usually that’s all it will be. I’m proposing that, as worship leaders, we invite God to release His song through our instruments so that we begin to prophesy. I’m not asking you to be weird! Please don’t. I’m not suggesting that we manufacture something either. Other than being skillful on our instruments, the only thing we need to do is be open in our minds for God to move through the notes we play. The change in thinking and expectation is enough to bring it about.
We can also develop our ears by practicing simple chord progressions. Start with something easy and familiar. Play until you’re bored and then begin to listen for new melodies or different chord resolutions. Ask God to sing to you. Try it out. You’ll be surprised. It may take some time, but you can develop your relationship with the Lord and discover how He interacts with you in the music.
When you prophesy on your instrument in a worship service, you will know. Something will feel very fresh and new. Often, someone else will confirm it too by describing how God was ministering to them. If you truly prophesy with your guitar or keyboard, others will recognize and acknowledge God’s involvement.
Have you ever prophesied on your instrument before? I’d love to hear the story.
It sounds like an oxymoron, I know. Still, scheduling a time of spontaneity into the worship service is the best way to make sure it happens if you’re not accustomed to being spontaneous.
So, what do we plan? Certain songs are great launching points for times of free praise. Free praise or spontaneous singing are terms that mean everyone sings their own song to God with their own words at the same time. It can sound chaotic, but most often, it is simply wonderful. An example of a planned spontaneity could look like this:
- Sing to the King
- Sing My Love
- O Praise Him
- Free Praise – Chord progression same as O Praise Him chorus
- Agnes Dei
- Worthy is the Lamb
This way, everyone on the team knows when to expect the free praise and they will not be caught off guard. Eventually, when your team gets really comfortable with free praise, you can then take it out of the plan and just give a vocal cue in the moment whenever it seems timely. To cue, use phrases like “Lift your voice to the Lord”, “Sing with your own words” or “Sing the love song of your heart”.
Getting everyone on board can be a challenge at first, but with the right leadership, people become familiar with the idea and participate joyfully. The best way to lead free praise or spontaneous singing is by example. You as the worship leader and your vocalists should all sing very boldly. We can’t demonstrate timidly because that is what the congregation will do. Having multiple singers on stage actively engaging encourages people to engage also. If only one person is singing loudly, people will tend to listen to that one person.
Before you ever try it in a worship service, you should acclimate your team by practicing in a rehearsal. Find words that are easy to sing spontaneously. They can be simple phrases like “Jesus, we love you” or “Hallelujah”. Try spontaneous singing without instrumentation and with instrumentation. Practice for a really long time (10 minutes or more) until everyone is uncomfortable. The more you push the limits, the easier it becomes. Once the team is ready, then it will be much easier for the congregation to follow.
Do you incorporate free praise into your service? Is it planned or spontaneous?
Today, I want to share a simple way to introduce spontaneity into the worship service. Repetition. Since spontaneity tends to make people feel uncomfortable, we can bring it into the meeting wearing the cloak of repetition, which tends to be very comforting.
Being spontaneous means that you do something unplanned. Using repetition as our helper, this is as simple as repeating a chorus just because it’s going well. I usually operate from the premise that if it’s going well (or there’s “life” on it) keep doing it. Whether it’s the verse, chorus or bridge, get comfortable repeating them without a plan.
In order to do this well, you will need to communicate to your team and the congregation. If they are not used to anything but the plan, first talk about the idea of spontaneous repetition. Cast vision for it and demystify anything that causes concern or worry. Once the team is on board and you practice some spontaneous repetitions, you’ll be ready to use it in the worship service. If your band can’t follow you, it will most likely create confusion in the congregation.
The next place we can use repetition is with one line of a song. Now instead of repeating the entire verse or chorus, we just repeat one line of it. Which line? The one that the Holy Spirit highlights to you in the moment. For example, the song Tradin’ My Sorrows (I know it’s old, but it was the first example that came to mind) has a line which says, “I’m blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure.” That’s a great declaration, but in the song we breeze by very fast. It wouldn’t be fun to sing it slow either. So one day, I started repeating just this line. After five or six times, people are beginning to realize the truth they are declaring as it sinks in.
Life generally tells us that we’re not blessed. Well, life is wrong. God’s word says that He has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. Wow! That’s a lot of blessing. Every one. Being blessed beyond the curse means that my life is not defined by the curse of the law. My life is defined in Christ and I have become his righteousness. Coming to that understanding is all apart of having a renewed mind. I don’t know what it did for the entire congregation that day, but that little repetition has stuck with me all these years.
Help your congregation find meaning in the songs they are singing using this simple technique. Everyone wins, except possibly your video projector operator, but there are lots of good software options that make spontaneous decisions manageable.
What are some of your favorite worship lyrics to declare? Does the music allow for you to repeat that one line?
BGV stands for background vocal, and while it serves a very good purpose in defining roles for most of the music world, I believe we should to step away from that model in worship. Regarding someone as a BGV ignores the potential they have for helping to lead the worship service.
As worship leaders, it is too easy to miss the valuable resource God has given us in our singers. Singers are generally relegated to one of three categories: melody support, harmonies, occasional lead on a particular song. All those are great functions, but still there is more.
To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.”
Adopt a team ministry approach to leading worship. Empower the BGVs to step out from the back and release the song, prayer, scripture, or testimony that God gives them during worship. When the team is ministering in this way, we begin to get away from that “programmed” feeling kind of meeting and step into something more genuine and communal.
What about excellence? I know some worship leader right now is freaking out at the thought of turning their singers loose. Here’s the thing, incorporating a team approach to leading does not equal chaos or a lack of boundaries. Rather, clearly communicate expectations and the new boundaries/responsibilities your singers will have. Work on a communication system so that things can still flow smoothly.
In the early stages of transition, things may feel rocky. Don’t give up! Keep talking and working through the problems. Allow for input from your team and congregation. Be open to spontaneity in worship.
What do you think about a team ministry approach to worship leading?
Music theory, that is. While I am definitely not about putting the cart before the horse, I think every budding worship leader should learn music theory and teach it to their team. Increasing your knowledge and ability in this area will lead to your next breakthrough in excellence.
Right alongside music theory is ear training. The combination of these two elements is critical for skill development. Your ear is like the director for your hands and voice. Ear training is one of the practical sides of music theory. A highly developed ear provides great freedom while playing, singing and leading worship. Conversely, an underdeveloped ear will stunt your growth and keep you from your full potential as a musician.
So, where do we start? In the future, I plan on writing posts with theory lessons specific to worship leading, but for today, I thought I would introduce you to one of the most helpful resources on the web: Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net.
Adams has equipped the site with many lessons, exercises and tools (there’s even an app). Whether you are brand new to music or have a rudimentary understanding of theory, this website will bring the pieces together and provide a wonderfully easy way for you to develop your ear. Check it out!
Is music theory exciting for you or a complete headache? Are you a nerd or a free-spirit?
I find that worship is like surfing. Okay, I don’t really know the first thing about surfing, but I do know that surfers catch and ride waves. Not just one wave either. They do it over and over and over again. That’s what worship is like.
Many times, we settle for riding one wave. Yet, if there was room to wait a little, to linger on, we would surely find that another wave is already coming.
I co-led worship last night and our purpose for that meeting is to go deep and linger long. It’s great having that expectation, because without the unity, it can be hard to sustain lengthy times of corporate worship. We experienced many different waves throughout the night. Waves of great joy and laughter. Waves of dancing and excitement. Waves of passionate cries and yearning. Grace, mercy, healing. It was all flowing in such a powerful, tangible way.
One key to catching and riding the waves is to be free to improvise. It’s easy to plan the roadmap. I’m sure you’ve done that hundreds of times. It would be disheartening for me to say, “Worship went exactly like we practiced.” It can be scary to go off the beaten path, to sing a spontaneous song or release your team to be creative or “messy”. But the more you surrender, the harder it is to want to go back to the program. (It’s not that we don’t plan. We just hold the plan loosely.)
Take time to enjoy God. Don’t rush through the song list. Find out what He is saying in each moment.
Is this a new analogy for you? Or do you “ride the waves”?
God enjoys you.
This is the secret to enjoying God. This is what makes Him enjoyable. Similar to the verse saying, we love God because He first loved us.
Worship is a wonderfully raw and intimate place of enjoying God. Yet, without this foundational truth that God enjoys us, individually and corporately, we won’t experience enjoyment of Him.
I grew up a pastor’s kid. I like to say I was born in the church nursery (I wasn’t, but it’s nice metaphor). I came to know the Lord at a young age, and looking back on my life, I see Him all throughout. However, as much as I loved God and had passion for Him and ministry, I viewed Him as a disappointed piano teacher. I was always practicing, but no matter how much time I spent, I was never perfect. Even when playing my best, there were always a few mistakes.
I knew God loved me. The Bible told me so. I also knew that song well too, and there was a special verse my church used to sing:
Jesus loves me when I’m good
When I do the things I should
Jesus loves me when I’m bad
Though it makes Him very sad
He may not have been mad at me, but He was definitely sad or disappointed with me. My performance was something I had to keep on top of so that God would approve. So that He would be pleased. So He would be happy.
You can imagine my surprise and relief (perhaps a bit of shock too) when I found out that God wasn’t angry, upset, hurt, sad or disappointed with me. He actually liked me. I’ll get to the theological reasons in a second, but first, here’s my experience:
I was doing an internship at the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. We did the night-watch for the 24/7 prayer room. Live worship around the clock. It was the best place to be sold out for Jesus. Worship all the time! Finally, people who were like me. Spoke my language. Well, sort of.
Most of my life, I stood out from others because of my musical talents and anointed worship leading. At IHOP, I didn’t stand out at all. In some ways, I didn’t feel like I even got a chance. I was in a place where I was just one of the crowd. Not special. Anything I could do everyone else could do too, and better.
They taught fasting. So I fasted. And then I was hungry. I was losing weight and if you know me, there’s not much to lose. I was feeling depressed. From not eating. From not being special. From not fitting “in”. From being up at night instead of day. I was frustrated with God and my leaders and myself for having immature “unholy” emotional reactions.
But, inasmuch as I didn’t like being in that place, that is exactly where I saw God’s smile over my life. It wasn’t an open eye vision, but it was in my minds eye. A big grin telling me that God didn’t love or like me because I was a worship leader with great talent and anointing. He loved and liked me because I was His child. He had created me and my performance wasn’t part of that equation.
Now, I know my experience isn’t enough to solve the mystery for you. So, here is the theology: Grace. God, in His goodness, became one of us to pay a debt He didn’t owe so that we would receive what we did not deserve: His life and righteousness. Jesus made you righteous (right with God). Since God dealt with all of the sin there ever was and will be in Jesus’ one-time offering, He is no longer mad or sad or disappointed with you or me. Jesus “performance” was good enough. Now we are in Christ and God enjoys us.
“For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation.” (Ps. 149:4). This is what He has done. Meditate on it. Renew your mind to it. His salvation makes you beautiful.
When have you encountered God’s enjoyment? His kindness? His smile?
Flow. It’s an important thing every worship leader should know how to do. Yet, in my experience, flow isn’t usually something that’s taught. True, some things are easier “caught than taught”, but we still need to talk about it.
So, what is flow? Definitely not a technical term. Flow is the ability to transcend the plan/roadmap/agenda/itemized schedule and be free to adjust on the fly. Flow is what keeps the worship service from feeling stagnant or “going through the motions.” Flow provides momentum like an undercurrent that takes you faster than you can paddle. Flow keeps the worship team and the congregation together in a unified direction. Flow is the satisfying feeling of riding a bike downhill or canoeing downstream. Flow is like flying. When you don’t have it you feel grounded, tied down. Like you’re pulling a load of bricks in a wagon with no wheels (anybody else ever lead a set like that?).
Flow is a release of control. A following of the Spirit.
As with many things in life, flow is something you cultivate in your bedroom when no one is watching. Your personal interaction with the Lord in worship is the place to start. I don’t know anyone who plans a worship set for their personal worship time.
First I’m going to sing… followed by a cool key change… then I’ll wrap up with a remix version of my favorite hymn…
Who does that?
Since worship isn’t really about the songs, all we need to bring is our hearts. The adoration of God’s grace. The thankfulness for His mercy. The expectancy of our hope. Whether spoken, sung, laughed or cried, the movements of our hearts are what move His heart. God’s not impressed with your voice as an artist. It’s not the precise combination of pitch and rhythm that excite Him.
So at home, there’s no performance. Just you and God. Enjoying the presence and love of each other. From this place, what do you do? Maybe sing or say a prayer. What comes next? We have a dialogue. As we minister to God, He ministers to us. His word brings life. It awakens passion, desire or simply peace. Then we respond. And He responds. You get the idea.
Corporate worship can be the same. Should be the same. A wonderful dialogue (aka not a monologue) between God and His people. As the worship leader, we have the ability, even responsibility, to release God’s response for His people.
I should have titled this, “An Introduction to Flow.” I have way too much to say here and now. But let me encourage you to begin practicing flow. Do it at home by yourself. Practice with your friends or worship team. Let your worship become more of a release. Sing spontaneous songs. Be free.
Release your song.