10 Life Lessons That Leading Worship 600 Times Taught Me

It just sort of happened.

As a teenager growing up in an a cappella church with an a cappella youth group, I sang a lot. In a non-instrumental church, any guy who can loosely carry a tune will be asked to carry that tune. A lot. And so I was. Over and over. And over. No guitar skills necessary.

In college, our inter-denominational student ministry needed a band leader. I still lacked all guitar skills, but no matter, they tagged me and I became the de facto leader for our Thursday night gatherings.

And then I actually started working for a church, leading the youth and worship ministries. I led worship nearly every Sunday for about six years. And that’s how we get to 600 plus.

I recently sat down to ponder what life lessons those experiences taught me.

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1. It’s not about me.
Whether I’m standing before a group of 15 or 500, it’s not about me. It’s about the struggling mom of littles, the financially-strapped couple wondering how to make ends meet. It’s about the widower who feels his loneliness deep in his bones. It’s about the teen who’s trying to figure out who she is — and who God is.

Of course, it’s not about me.

And of course, it’s not primarily about them either. It’s about the Father who is longing to connect with his beloved people through moments of communion and community. It’s about the presence of the only One who is worthy; it’s about what the Spirit is saying to his Church.

 

2. Sometimes, you just have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it.
When you do anything over and over and over again, even if it’s a good thing, there will come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. Well, what’s a worship leader (or human) supposed to do? Is it inauthentic to stand before people when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep, or when you’re in the middle of a big fight with your wife, and pretend that things are OK?

I really had to wrestle with this. Every Sunday is not a glorious day, and there were many Sundays the last thing I wanted to do was go to church, much less lead people in worship.

Showing up and doing your job, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t inauthenticity. It’s actually maturity.

One question that continues to help me with this is, “Who is benefiting from my NOT revealing everything?” Am I hiding my true self from people in order to protect myself? In order to avoid intimacy? Or am I not revealing EVERY THING IN EVERY SINGLE MOMENT to get myself out of the way and help people meet with God? Is it for me or for them? If it’s for them, then it’s probably OK. (Of course, this assumes that at some point, and with some people, the leader will be authentic and vulnerable.)

God is worthy of worship whether I feel like it or not, and sometimes I need to stand before him and worship not because of my feelings, but in spite of my feelings. This is true about leading worship, and it’s true about leading life.

 

3. Smiling matters. A lot.
Effie Harnden was a kind old lady who became The Great Encourager of my 16-year-old self. When I was just starting out, someone told me, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.” I looked at Effie a lot.

It’s pretty good life advice too, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.”

 

4. Eye contact matters.
I’ve seen worship leaders who never look at a single person in the audience. That M.O. can look super-spiritual, and maybe it is. Maybe they’re lost in total adoration, caught up in the moment. Or maybe they’re just super disconnected from the people their leading.

In life too, I’ve seen people who never notice the people in front of them. So look at people, look at their eyes, wonder about their stories, ask about their stories. If you do, you will impact people very deeply; for when it comes down to it, we are all longing to be seen, even if we’re desperately afraid of it.

 

5. Church people are the worst.
Some people at some churches hated me. They disliked my style, my music, and maybe even my face. It’s just the way it is. Some people will not like you no matter what you do. That does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong or bad, but it does mean that you (and they) are humans.

 

6. Church people are the best.
It was church guys who painted our house when my mom was sick with terminal cancer.

It was the “casserole ladies” who fed us.

It was inter-generational trips and Bible studies that showed me how to be a Christian adult, not just a Christian teen.

It was a man, a leader in the church, who came to my side when I couldn’t finish leading God Moves In a Mysterious Way. The cancer-induced tears were drowning me. He stood with me, shoulder to shoulder. We were two men at the front of a church, one young and crying, unable to voice anything. The other, older, an elder, choking tears and singing through empathy.

I will never forget that moment, because in that moment, standing vulnerable before God and his people, I was not alone. I was joined by a man thirty years my senior, and I was saved.

 

7. Complainers complain.
It’s what they do. But it is possible, sometimes, to maintain a positive relationship with complainers. And when it’s possible, it’s also extremely valuable.

But sometimes complainers are just toxic and keeping relationship with them is inadvisable. One key difference? If the complainers really want what’s best for you and for the church, they just really disagree with you, it’s probably best to try to maintain a friendship. If they’re out to control and dominate, manipulating through pressure and threats, to meet their own twisted needs, yeah, run away.

 

8. Every minute leading people requires two minutes NOT leading people.
At least.

The times that you’re NOT leading are more important than the times when you are leading. It may not look related, but sabbath has a direct impact on Sunday.

 

9. Displaying authentic emotions, even tears, in front of people, may be the most “leaderish” thing you ever do.
We live in hard times, and my current job as a pastoral counselor has convinced me (again) that most people do not feel free to really feel their feelings. They feel societal, religious, familial pressure to “keep it all together,” whatever that means. By showing emotions, leaders can help change this. We must change this.

 

10. If at the end of the day, people only remember your skills (or skinny jeans), you’ve failed.
When it really matters, people won’t care about your vocal ability. People won’t care about your flashy .pptx or Prezi or Keynote. People won’t care about your hair style or flannel shirt. At the end of the day, people will ask, “Did he care about us? Did he care about the Church?”

Basically, what matters when the sun sets are these three things:

  • Was I a person of faith, even in my doubts?
  • Did I demonstrate hope, even through my despair?
  • And in a world gone mad, did I love like Christ?

May God help us all to live towards that.

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As I drafted this article, I wept.

I remembered my church, the Red Bridge church of Christ, and my breath caught.

You see, as I pondered, I realized something: I needed them way more than they needed me. That’s just the truth. I was in front of them, but they were leading me. I taught them new songs, but they taught me what Jesus looked like with skin on. I cried in front of them, and they joined their hearts with mine and embodied those beautiful people who mourn with. I got frustrated with them and I’m sure they got frustrated with me, and yet, we stayed friends. I’m so very glad we did, for those dear saints showed me what a “long obedience” could look like.

I’ll forever be grateful for the group of God’s people who invited a scrawny teenager with a pitch pipe to stand, to cry, to lead. They taught me so much, and I will never forget them.

 

*Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

 

10 Life Lessons that leading worship 600 times taught me

Let the River Run

by Elizabeth

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Only two songs have ever won all three major awards (Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy) while being composed, written, and performed by a single artist. Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” the theme from the 1988 film “Working Girl,” was the first to do so.

Now, a few others have received all three awards but were co-written. One of those songs was Howard Shore’s, Fran Walsh’s, and Annie Lennox’s “Into the West,” the final song of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and an absolute family favorite. “Into the West” speaks to something so deep and true, so simultaneously melancholic and hopeful, that it’s no wonder it won all three awards.

But anyway, back to “Let the River Run.” I first heard the song not from the movie, but from my junior high choir director Mrs. Chaney (whom you may remember from last week’s musical contemplations). Simon described her song as an “anthem with a jungle beat.” And indeed it was the sound that first drew me in, not the density of the lyrics — lyrics I could not possibly have comprehended fully at the time.

Even so, something in those words was stretching out and reaching for me. And I think it’s safe to say that, having won all those awards, the song spoke to deep, cracking places inside a lot of people. Of course there are layers of meaning here — some more material, some more spiritual.

And I’m still not sure I understand the song in its entirety, but I understand bits of it. I know it’s about dreams and desires. I know it’s about longing and risk. I know it’s about waking up and about waking up others. I don’t think you have to understand every part of the song anyway. It’s not necessarily for understanding but — like all art — for feeling.

Speaking of art, you all know I am no artist; I cannot even draw stick figures. But this semester I found myself teaching an art class in our home school coop. (In actuality, I’m substituting for the real art teacher until she gets back into town.) I love numbers, patterns, and designs, so I figured we could explore the intersection of math and art together.

In preparing for this class I used some old material but also sought out new material. One of the new art projects I stumbled upon was the Pi Sky Line. While the New York City skyline (complete with Twin Towers) is the setting for the song “Let the River Run,” the Pi Sky Line is a city skyline whose building heights are based on the first 30 digits of pi.

Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. And it’s an irrational number, which means its decimals go on and on forever, never terminating and never repeating. There are no patterns to its digits, and there is no end either: it is infinity captured in a single number.

After you create your sky line, you paint or draw a background for it. And bringing this conversation full circle here, I knew I could not draw any background but Van Gogh’s night sky: “The Starry Night.” It was a painting I first encountered in Mrs. Chaney’s class. And this photo is the finished product. For me it is the intersection of art, music, math, literature and, most importantly, my soul in motion.

Educational thinker Charlotte Mason said, “Education is the science of relations,” and each week Mrs. Chaney assigned us a “Connection” paper. We had to connect something in her class to something in the rest of our lives. Every week we did this. She may not have known of Charlotte Mason’s century-old philosophy, but she knew that brain science supported the idea of interdisciplinary studies. Maybe that’s why, all these years later, the soundtrack of her class is still playing in my life.

Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.

Silver cities rise,
The morning lights
The streets that meet them,
And sirens call them on
With a song.

It’s asking for the taking.
Trembling, shaking.
Oh, my heart is aching.

We’re coming to the edge,
Running on the water,
Coming through the fog,
Your sons and daughters.

We the great and small
Stand on a star
And blaze a trail of desire
Through the dark’ning dawn.

It’s asking for the taking.
Come run with me now,
The sky is the color of blue
You’ve never even seen
In the eyes of your lover.

the soundtrack of sorrow

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There’s a mysterious power in tones and rhythms; a sort of shortcut to the soul.

Sometimes, music can take us to places that words alone never could.

Often, I need a Soundtrack of Sorrow to more fully feel. Grief and loss can stay bound up behind to-dos and busyness and noise. But music suspends the shoulds and lets me grieve. It gives a whole rest.

The Bible itself contains these types of soundtracks: Psalms of Sorrow and expressive Laments. They are powerful, emotive, and not to be dismissed.

Mourning is a deeply human, soul-level response to The Fall and its repercussions: death, separation, loneliness. And sometimes, to deal with all that, I need music.

What’s on your Soundtrack of Sorrow? Here are a few of the tracks on mine…

These choices might  not make sense to you. That’s ok, ’cause they’re on my Soundtrack of Sorrow, not yours. These songs remind me of my mother, and when I listen to these tracks, I see her at the piano, or sitting on the couch with her worn-out guitar. I see her crying in the kitchen after the death of her third baby.

These tracks remind me of my dad. Of happy times long since gone, and lazy Saturdays with grass and baseball; they remind me of Casey’s cookies and how he always bought a Butterfinger and a Diet Coke.

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Over time, I’ve added songs to the list. Songs unknown to my parents but deeply known to me:

This last one was sort of my mom’s cancer anthem. As I drove her back and forth from oncology appointments, we listened to Fernando Ortega. My dying mother in the front seat next to me, my baby brother in his car seat in the back. Not your normal teen experience, but it was mine.

Do you have a Soundtrack of Sorrow? What’s on it?