Easter Sunday, often called the Super Bowl of the church by many, happens but once a year. In other words, we put a lot of our eggs in the basket of Easter–more than we might be willing to admit at times. (Yes, forgive the intended pun.) Not too many years ago, I recalled one such game day. Easter Sunday services kicked off and ended with a booming playlist of radio pop music accompanied with beach balls, balloons, and fun. Of course, people were having a blast and the desired “feels” brought pats on the back and “attaboys” from church leaders for the service programming. What is wrong with feeling great, anyway? After all, people in our culture feel defeated and stressed by our lifestyle. Our emotions matter, too. We have to be willing to have empathy and even plan our worship around real people and where their lives are lived. Being in a bubble is a failure for a leader. The heart of the planning was to relate to such felt needs. This is what Jesus himself often did.
As a child, I remember church being a place that looked very different from any other. Pews, pulpits, choir robes, and music that sounded unlike anything on the radio. The tones of an organ humming and sound of people singing embedded a distinct set of memories. From the moralistic Sunday school lessons to the rancorous church business meetings, my church was perhaps not unlike yours. The endless casserole spread at church potlucks meant “church growth” happened on a weekly basis–just not always the kind some hoped for. Your Evangelical tradition may have been far different from mine. If you grew up Catholic, you might have sung liturgy and recall the first taste of communion wine when you were confirmed. Every tradition has clergy fashion statements, with collars or, in my case, those funny wide ties that never reached the belt. Flipping through a hymnbook on a Sunday night service was accompanied by childish games of renaming the titles of hymns or reworking the lyrics to the point of sacrilege. If you grew up with traditional church, you might be too familiar with it to savor the richness of it. At least, I can relate to that experience. We make fun of it, even if we still appreciate our upbringing, but many of us abandoned church as soon as we left for college. Worship has changed over the years–much in reaction to this exodus. There was a need for a revolution in the last decades of the 20th Century. The way church was done did not work for so many. Today, we may be in the same boat.
You all face this question in whatever church ministry you lead. How do we recruit and keep committed people volunteering in our church? Our culture of mobility and distraction means church attendance for even the most adherent is likely to be about twice per month. You have ministries that require deliverables on a 52-week basis. The train doesn’t seem to stop for long at each week. Music, altar, childcare, youth, refreshments, and even parking in some cases all need attention. Beyond these, there are mid-week charity projects and special events around the church calendar. How are your Easter and Christmas seasons treating you lately? All of our plans succeed only by having people in place, trained, and committed. These activities all are applied almost as a template on the scattered lives of our people who schedule soccer games, family crisis, and work commutes before we can even open the church calendar. Our culture says that we then should be more efficient. Some refuse this for old-fashioned we’ve-always-done-it-this-way squabbling. But, what if we see that people are the product as well as the process. Shouldn’t we find a system to solve our dilemma of recruitment?
Nightmarish scenarios will rule the day when we least expect it. Worship teams, as a visible face of the church, will walk amongst landmines when a church splits, a pastor transitions, or major events like moving into a new church building. Yes, even good news can rock the world of your worship team. In one case, I met with my pastor about some conflict about music on the worship team. He had his opinion, and it happened to be the same as mine. But, his wife’s opinion lead the opposing thought. His wife happened to be on the team and he gingerly shrugged his shoulders as to how we were to move forward–talk about being caught in a “no-win” situation! One morning I walked into the pastor’s office only to find out there were two ladies there with papers in hand. The body language foreshadowed tsunami level waves of critique about the worship ministry that would be read from that sheet of paper in hand. An example of the fun was that one of them took the encouragement I gave to smile at people as saying she was unattractive. Things can get worse. That was not as bad as the time a worship team member accused me of being too attracted to her as a reason for not choosing her for our worship team.
I used to lead all worship music from my seat at the piano which included a choir, rhythm section, and, at times, horns or a small orchestra. I turned my head and body away from my vocal microphone to see what was going on with our teams and to give needed cues as the worship leader to the congregation. All of this turning, caused me to miss that sweet spot on my vocal microphone, besides causing back strain. The audio tech nearly faced-palmed each time this happened–likely when I was speaking or singing a vital part. Of course, I thought there must be ways to solve this problem. How about a head-worn microphone? Would that work?
What is an artist? Is being artsy actually a good thing for worship leadership? Many parents might panic at hearing their son tell them of his dreams of being a dancer, or their daughter a master painter. How will you pay off that student loan? Get a real job. The liberal arts and the fine arts seem second class in a society built on industry and execution. The problem is that we need artists! And, we need the church to allow their worship leaders to be artists. Like any trade, the arts are part of how we build a great society with products and tools people use. One might build a house. Another person might design how that house feels, as well as functions. Lighting from windows, heights of ceilings, or placement of doors are some of the items that bring a home together. The artist describes how it should feel and look. The engineer makes sure it can withstand the wind and rain. The business manager gets it built on time and within budget. Basically, artists design–everything from what we sit on to the fonts we read on our computers. They create. In the case of worship leadership, a service is designed, and music, readings, and visuals are created. There is a side of it, like the businessman or engineer, that makes it happen 52 weeks a year. There is also another side that employs empathy, vision, and creativity in the design of a worship service. Do we give enough appreciation to the artistic side of worship leadership?
Several years ago, a young man came to me with a sincere question. “Rich, why do I feel closer to God at a Coldplay concert than I do at church on Sundays?” The spirituality of his experience echoes in the throngs of Millennial young adults who have not returned to church, some losing their faith entirely. There are deeper issues than space available to address them here. As far as serving my friend as his worship leader, I had to ponder his question. Was he asking, “Why do we feel like we have to put on a different self at church?” Going to a rock concert means I can be my real self. At least, this is what I think my young friend was teaching me. The environment of a local church is far different than a concert, however. You have people of all generations, not a single demographic. Most are not coming to hear the music and band. Yet, we try to mimic the energy and excitement of a rock concert with all the gear and a band that plays concert-level music. What is sold to our people is that perhaps we can feel something similar at church as a rock concert, but with Jesus as the focus. However, have we put music at the center of our worship service?
A new year brings new opportunities! But, what about those things best left behind? What if the New Year requires clearing off the table a bit to give room for the new? Worship Leaders and their teams engage in a very important task each weekend. It would then be, at best, unwise to forget to evaluate problematic trends and, at worst, negligent. Yes, adopt the new in the coming year 2017 as you hold on to the best of practices. But, do this with wisdom. A mistake I know I have made is to try to improve without thinking about what is actually in the way. Often leadership is best defined as removing barriers rather than making something happen.
It just might be timely for some practical tips on planning music for your Christmas service. The turkey has been carved, and Christmas services are quickly arriving. With the final song selections being put into place, we created a list of Christmas songs for you with our very own Christmas mix-tape or Christmas worship medley. In addition, it is not just about choosing Christmas songs, but how do you create an environment that feels like Christmas, but still flows with modern worship? You can sandwich songs, combine songs, and more. Our mix-and-match medleys will take some of those songs and give you ideas of how to incorporate them into your service. Finally, how about some ideas to mix it up a bit?
Our houses of worship often host special services. My local church has one the Sunday night before the Thanksgiving holiday. Most churches that I know will celebrate this incredible theme, on point with millions together in our nation. We truly are a blessed nation and blessed to live here in America! It is a special opportunity to pray and sing this month with Thanksgiving on our lips and in our hearts.