so, i’m on the hunt – the job hunt! and i have actually considered a position as a worship/praise director at a church, a role that i have fulfilled a few times before, and i have some experience with. i have to admit that it will be strange to go from preaching every sunday to leading praise every sunday instead – i would love it if i could split those duties on a 3:1 ratio or something, as i enjoy doing both very much. but seeing that this is a possibility, i have been putting more thought into the ministry of praise.
but i think that over the course of the decade or so i have been in ministry, i have become very particular about praise and how it is pursued. part of this is because i have grown more particular (read “cranky”) with age. but part of this is because it seems that praise at church is done in largely an unthinking manner, and i use that word “unthinking” very specifically, not that praise doesn’t sound good, but that praise teams don’t put the forethought into what their praise accomplishes, or what it teaches. as a former/future praise leader, i know how hard it can be to put such forethought into a praise set, as it seems like we barely survive week to week. plus, everyone has particular affinities in praise that it is truly hard to please everyone. but i think a few important questions can, and should be asked by praise teams every week, and across traditions, to ensure that they are doing what they are truly called to do, which is facilitate the worship of God through praise music. some questions like…
“what do my words communicate?”
praise leaders are wonderful at arranging music, leading teams of musicians, singing, and playing guitar. but often, they are not good at public speaking in a worship setting. and who can blame them? it’s not easy to be a great praise leader and also a good presider at the same time, it’s not all that common. but at the same time, praise leaders often must serve in that capacity, leading the congregation in prayer or calling people to worship using not just their music, but their words.
and because of this, praise teams need to be more thoughtful about how they encourage people to praise, and what they say when they do so. too often i go to services where it’s clear that the praise leader put not even five minutes of forethought into how they were going to call people into worship, or what they were going to pray before or after the praise set. their thoughts are disjointed, or inconsistent, and sometimes a little off color. now, i know that there is a place for Spirit-led spontaneity, especially in some church traditions and denominations. but being Spirit-led does not mean “brain switched off”. a few moments of meditation and planning does not preclude the Spirit from using you, or saying something through you. no one accuses a pastor who works on a sermon for hours of stifling the Holy Spirit (unless you are from a very, very pentecostal tradition), so neither should you feel that way. God guides not just our words, but the thoughts we use to form those words.
so think about what you want to say, about what you want to pray, what songs mean to you, what God has done in your life, just for a few moments at least. and in both the freedom and the responsibility afforded to those who serve God, speak! but please don’t speak first and then think afterwards – that’s NEVER a good idea in any context, and especially in the context of church.
“what does my face communicate?”
i’m okay with sandals. i’m okay with t-shirts. i’m okay with mohawks. i’m okay with tattoos. some churches are not, but as long as it is consistent with the spirit of the church, it’s acceptable. but i’m not okay with slack-jawed, uninterested faces that do not seem the least bit engaged with the enormity of what is being communicated during praise. those kinds of expressions, when facing towards the congregation in a church service, are a magnet for people’s attention. it is okay (somewhat) for a congregation member to have that expression, but not okay for a praise team member to have the same, because everyone’s focus goes to that person, which again, is a violation of what praise is all about, which is for focus to go to God.
praise teams often are under the mistaken assumption that their only ministry is through music, through the playing and singing of notes. and if you are serving a ministry to the blind, they would be right. but the fact is that most people are not in that situation, and not only can people hear you… but they can see you too! and many praise teams are simply not realizing that the congregation is hearing beautiful music, but seeing flat and blank faces, which is a startling juxtaposition.
of course, there is the opposite problem, where praise team members look like they are constantly in a state of paroxysm, and again, the focus goes to them. but i am more okay with that situation because the questions that that situation begs are far different. for a person that is super-emotional and super-into praise, that begs the question, “why are they so passionate about what they are singing?”, which, when you think about it, is actually not a bad question to ask. but for a person that is blank and cold during praise, that begs the worse question, “why are they so dispassionate about what they are singing?” and the latter is far worse than the former.
so…smile! sing along even if you don’t have a mic! but be aware that your face, your expression, your demeanor are part of people see, and so are part of your ministry. and if you are in a state of heart or mind where you simply cannot smile or bring your face to reflect what the lyrics share, then you probably shouldn’t be up there that week anyway.
“can people sing this?”
okay, this is going to sound harsh, but this is my main pet peeve. far too often i go to churches where the leader (usually a man), chooses a song that is way too high for any woman to sing, but proceeds to sing it anyway in that key, even when specifically told by their female counterpart that she cannot sing it. there is absolutely no reason a praise team should play a song that half of the congregation cannot actually sing. it is not fair, and not consistent with the purpose of praise. and that means that praise leaders need to be far more aware of what key they are singing, taking effort to choose a key that is somewhat comfortable for both men and women (even if it is uncomfortable for themselves).
it does not do to assume that those who cannot hit those notes can sing lower harmonies instead. not all have that ability. it does not do to assume that they can sing an octave down – if you don’t like it, then neither will they. it is beholden on the praise leader to find the right key, however awkward it is to play, that allows the maximum number of people to sing praise to God, even if that key is B flat or F#. any decision otherwise reeks of a lack of sensitivity at best, or at worst…selfishness, a trait that is unacceptable for those who lead God’s people into worship.
i share this point most…directly… because it is such a violation of the spirit of praise leading. praise leaders are not leaders at all, but servants, as all “leaders” are. and the responsibility of a servant goes not to their own interests, their own comforts, their own ranges, but the comforts and ranges of those they serve. what good is it if a preacher speaks in a language that only he or she can understand? (as was the case for hundreds of years when the mass was conducted in latin, a language that no one understood) now, if musical performance and singing in a particular non-universal range is that important of a facet of your ministry, then it is probably better to create other environments in which to play songs that are more for performance than praise – coffee or cafe nights, outreaches, clubs, stuff like that. but please do not bring a self-centered attitude into church on sunday – no matter your tradition, that is not really acceptable.
now, probably a lot of you non-praise leaders are furiously nodding your head in agreement because you see the same things at your church, and are glad that someone said something. but you praise leaders are furiously scowling at me through your computer screen, asking, “who does this guy think he is? by what RIGHT does this guy have to say these kinds of things?” it’s a good question. and i do have that right. it’s called the “right of regret”, the fact that i myself have been guilty of all of the above, and regret it very much.
i have a higher range than most people, and have stubbornly refused to change a key because it was too low and uncomfortable for me. why did i do that? to make me feel comfortable, so i could sing more impressively. i was that praise leader. i have gone into praise sets with hours of musical preparation, and yet, not a minute of meditation or real prayer, calling the congregation into worship with words that were unedifying, generally negative, and anything but worshipful. i was that praise leader. i have been the joyful praise leader, with a passionate expression fixed on my face when i led… but when i was playing guitar, or bass, or shaker – i looked like i was on depressants. in fact, i WAS a depressant. i was that praise leader.
and i have to say, that those memories of what kind of praise leader i used to be make me cringe with regret. so often, praise was a thoughtless and selfish endeavor, when it could have been so much more. it could have brought people right into the presence of God, when instead it created the Cult of Peter. it could have prepared people for the Word of God, so that it could be planted deep and firmly and brought a great harvest, but instead, it divorced people from it, creating a type of rift between what happened in the first half of service, and what happened in the second. with just a little more thought, with just a little more selflessness, my ministry in praise for the last decade could have been so much richer, and i hate to see any other praise leaders walk that path that i have, especially when that path is so easy to avoid.
but honestly, i’d like to hear your thoughts – do you agree with these questions, or did i miss one? was i way off base on any of them? i’d like to know so that i can prepare myself if indeed i re-enter the wonderful world of praise ministry!