I began leading worship on the front end of what is now the modern worship movement. I was the first “contemporary” worship leader in more than one church. I had a hand in introducing congregations to Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Charlie Hall, Third Day and many still industry stalwarts to this day. I’m dating myself, but I remember where I was when I heard “Here I Am to Worship” on a sampler CD given away at my local Christian bookstore.
My point is that I’m old. My second point is that I came up in a time when the internet was just starting to become a thing and the idea of there being tons and tons of worship resources available to us worship leaders just wasn’t a reality. I jokingly used to say I got all my lyrics from worshiptogether.com, but the reality was that in 2001, that website had very little on it, and even if it did, my dialup internet would take too long to get to it for my ADHD mind to be willing to wait for.
I truly wish I had someone who’d gone before me, taken the hits and learned the lessons so I didn’t have to make the same mistakes. So, today, I’m writing to me at 23, 16 years ago. And maybe I’m writing to you.
Here are the 7 things I needed to know about being a worship leader:
1. Study More
If you do worship because you’re a right brained creative and nothing else makes sense, awesome. I am in your boat. I love Jesus. I love music. How awesome I get to combine the two!
But… if you’ve heard me talk about worship the last few years, you’ve heard me talk about the importance of knowledge.
Part of knowledge is knowing how to do your job well. A great part of knowledge is the idea that theology is vital to stepping into the anointing and calling that is leading worship. I think desire is a great place to start as a worship leader. But if that is the sole leading of your ministry, you’ll soon find it’s empty.
I did. And I wish someone had told me how important it is for us as worship leaders to be theologians. Study the Word. Know why we do music in church and why we lead how we lead. Know who you are to God, and who God is to you.
I could write and entire blog post on this (and likely will), but for the sake of brevity, A) buy the book Doxology & Theology by Matt Boswell (and others), consume it and then read it again taking notes, and B) trust me that theology – i.e, the study of God – will revolutionize how you lead people into worship.
2. People Are the Thing
For far too long I lived with the idea that excellence was the thing. And I was undeniably good at getting results that were excellent. The problem was that along the journey of getting to excellence, I left a trail of a whole lot of broken hearts and hurting people. I was wrong for that, and will spend the rest of my life living with the reality that people are the thing.
Or as I like to say it: the pursuit of excellence is not a fruit of the Spirit.
We are called to love. Lead with love. Choose people over results and – if your experience is anything like mine – your mind will be blown at how the results come.
Here’s a great metaphor my counselor shared with me and it revolutionized my thinking.
When I am dressing my kid (when they’re young), I have 2 choices: 1) I can just force my kid to get dressed. I force his arms through his shirt. I pick him up and just put his legs through the pants. I stand him up and get him dressed quickly. But if he wasn’t in the mood for getting dressed, he likely is unhappy. So I then have to soothe him. Or 2) I can play with him a bit, tickle him then – boop! – I put the shirt over his head. I play with him, tickle him and – boop! – arms through the shirt. And so on and so forth. And in the end, it takes longer to get the result of MY KID IS DRESSED… but if you take into consideration the time it takes to sooth my kid with option 1, ultimately it is far quicker – and peaceful – to simply slip in and out of the agenda (to get him dressed) while playing with him all along.
This is a biological truth: we cannot be in connection with someone when we have an agenda for them. So if our agenda is excellence, and we are working to make people better and to head towards a vision, then if we live in that agenda space, we are unavailable for connection and ultimately – even if we get the results we want – we will leave a trail of broken hearts and hurting people. Like I did.
But when we instead pop in and out of the agenda, allowing ourselves the ability to connect while achieving the goal, we can achieve our goals AND meet the needs of people.
And that is how we bend the results to make people more important. It’s about connection. And the connection is THE thing. Not whatever subjective result we have imposed on ourselves (or has been imposed upon us).
Care about people first and I promise you the results will come. Another good illustration of this is Maxwell’s leadership pyramid.
3. Being Cool Doesn’t Matter
I tried for too long to be cool. Don’t be like me. Because here’s the truth: the Gospel isn’t cool and neither is worship music. What it is, is vital.
Colossians 3 tells us that corporate worship is a part of the sanctification process (I even wrote a BLOG about that). So that means that our responsibility as worship leaders is engaging people in something vital. There is a gravity and responsibility, a weight to what we do. That weight of responsibility does not make us more important – and I think that this is where cool slips in, because if we’re important we have to somehow outwards exude that importance and ‘cool’ is a clear way to do that – but that weight means there should be a sobriety to how we approach leading others. Sobriety is rarely cool.
Be sober, not cool.
Oh, and when you’re on stage, let your sobriety become freedom and joy!
4. Performance is Unimportant – Passion is Everything
Speaking of freedom and joy… I work with a lot of church worship teams, helping them take next steps on whatever their journey might be (SEE ABOUT THAT HERE). When I talk about performance, for years people looked at me with what felt like disgust. How can we perform worship?! And I get it. Performance in worship feels kind of gross. And honestly, it is.
Worship should be moments of freedom, of sheer expression of gratitude and praise and joy towards what God has done and is doing. Performance is a façade we put up to attempt to tell a story. Passion say, “I am passionate about what I am singing, and I will show it with my bodily expression.” But not only that… passion says, “While leading, HOW I express my worship – my passion for what God is doing and has done – is an invitation for others to join me in freedom and joy. If I look bored or disinterested or unjoyful, I am not expressing what is in my heart and communicate something different than what is true.”
Performance is unimportant – expression of passion is everything.
5. Live in Curiosity
I have come to understand (what I believe is) a truth that has revolutionized my life: outside of the less than 1% of the world who are sociopaths and psychopaths, I believe people are basically good and want to do good things and please others at some level. If they are acting differently than that – if they are acting in some negative fashion, then I believe that nearly 100% of the time, it comes from a place of hurt or fear. (And I should likely clarify that I am not talking about our sin nature, but beyond that original fall we want to do good, usually).
If I believe that to be true, then when someone reacts with anger or depression or – name your negative emotion – then it likely came from a space where they were scared or hurt. Or both. And because there is a biological truth that we are, in every moment, in every choice, reacting not just to this moment but every single that that has ever happened to us, then likely that hurt or fear has nothing to do with me.
And so that allows me to be curious. When I see someone act in a way that could be perceived as negative – they lash out at a coworker, they puff up with pride, they seem depressed – I find myself more and more being curious about why that would be. And it causes me to ask questions and listen and find the thing underneath it all that is the originator – at least the relayer – of that hurt or fear.
Another biological truth: it is impossible to be angry/depressed/name your negative emotion while also being curious. In ministry – as in life – you will see people react from that hurt or fear. YOU will react from a place of hurt or fear. When it happens, react with curiosity (even to yourself) and wonder, Hmmm, I wonder why that person (or myself) is acting that way. They must really be having a big feeling. I wonder what that’s about. Ask questions. Dig deeper.
I think you’ll find very quickly how often you A) realize the thing they’re dealing with his little to do with you and B) how often that pulls you into deeper trust and connection with the person you are interacting with. I know I have, and the more I'm able to live in curiosity, the more I am able to live out the fruit of the Spirit. I think you'll find the same thing to be true.
Judgment – like agenda – moves us out of connection. Connection is the thing that allows people to be The Thing.
6. Mentors Are More Important Than You Think
I wish I had met DR Dickey when I was 23 instead of 35. My ministry would have been better, I would have been a better leader and a more compassionate leader, husband and man. As a mentor, DR was for me a revolution. Our trips to eat Texas BBQ, riding in the car and talking about life and ministry helped me realize how little my ministry resembled Christ’s ministry. And DR never told me that. He simply believed in me and loved me and lovingly cajoled me when I needed it.
While I’m no longer working day in and day out with DR, his affect on my life will go on forever.
Find your DR. I probably had met those guys when I was 23… and 24, and 25 and 26 and so on… but I just didn’t know how important they were. Now I do. And I am telling you, find that person who can make you better and learn everything you can from them. But buy them Texas BBQ as often as possible to make up for what they’re giving you, so it’s not so one-sided.
7. Honor Is More Important Than You Think, Too
This was perhaps the hardest lesson for me and the one that took the longest. To be perfectly honest, much of the other 6 of these lessons here would have been remedied with this simple one: people are better when they live in honor. Not because of what they give you, but because of what is inside of you.
There’s a story – that I won’t go into here, but I do talk about HERE – where the power of Jesus is muted because of a lack of honor. If you truly desire to see the people around you – your leaders, your team, your volunteers – flourish, then heap honor upon honor. Encourage them. Lift them up in prayer and honor. Brag on them privately and publicly.
I am still learning this lesson, but I can tell you hands down it’s the most important one.
So – what would you tell your younger self? What would you tell younger leaders?