Leading Surrender

WorshipBackground

A good friend of mine, who is a pastor, mentioned a phrase to me recently that really got me thinking.  He said, “Excellence and humility is what we are called to in worship.”

Let’s think about that for a minute.  Humility?  Absolutely.  Look at the meaning of the word worship from John 4 in Strong’s Concordance.  That’s certainly a picture of humility before the Lord.  Excellence?  Hmmm…I don’t know about that.  That is a potentially dangerous word when spoken to musicians.  The “E” word can translate as “you must be perfect.”  Musicians train from a young age striving for the perfect performance.  Failure to execute perfectly translates into not being good enough.  And in the church, that can mean the musician is left feeling that missing that one note has caused the Holy Spirit to flee somehow.  When I began worship leading 15 years ago, I heard that word used a lot to describe what worship ministries are called to.  It was common at that time to hear conference speakers or other notable leaders to say boldly, “God calls us to excellence in worship.”  I must admit, I went along with the idea.  I mean, it sounds good, doesn’t it?

The whole idea of striving for excellence in worship began to unravel for me a couple of years ago.  I heard a well-respected clinician at the National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC) say, “Perfectionism is an idol.”  That made my ears (and everyone elses in the room) perk up.  At the same time, I see an ever-increasing pressure to take worship team performance to the next level.  (For more on that, read my posts Down To The Next Level Part 1 and Part 2.)  I have another dear, respected friend who has led many terrific, mostly volunteer music ministries for many churches.  He acknowledges that the pursuit of “excellence” is causing his current church to hire an increasing number of professional musicians resulting in the removal of less talented volunteers.  Oh, and did I mention the $15k for the new stage lighting system?

In the church I serve, I’ve been the worship director since its beginning as a church plant in 2003.  I remember our church plant coach warning me specifically that if I sought only pro players for the worship band, I could expect that no one from the congregation would be interested in trying out for the worship team.  They’re unable to see themselves as being good enough.

I see in scripture where musicians should be “skilled” and “trained” – so there’s certainly biblical underpinning.  In fact, I frequently preach Psalms 33:3 and 1 Chronicles 25:6-7 to my worship teams.  (I first learned those scriptures from Paul Baloche.  Check out Paul’s thoughts on Performance vs. Worship Leading.)  Scripture shows us that our offering of worship should cost us something (1 Chronicles 21:24) and that we should hold nothing back. (Romans 12:1)

Holding up “excellence” as THE standard for the worship musician presents an overwhelming task, particularly for anyone early in their musical and spiritual development.  Shouldn’t we be meeting folks where they’re at and then equipping them for ministry?  I think we would see far more spiritual growth, musical skill, and creative freedom if we, as worship leaders, sought to inspire our worship teams to make incremental steps to grow all the talents that God has given them.

God gives us talent – practice turns talent into skill – and skill is an offering to the Lord.  (Psalms 33:3)  I try to instill this idea into worship teams – that practice is an offering – growing in your skill is an offering – rehearsals are offerings to the Lord.  Preparation and planning are offerings to the Lord.  Seeing the entire process of the musician’s preparation for Sunday morning as worship takes the focus off of the Sunday morning performance and places it where it belongs – in our every day life with God!

In worship, I don’t think excellence is the goal.  I think the offering of our whole selves to God in complete surrender is the goal.  Don’t seek excellence, seek God.  Excellence means you “excel” at something – at a high level.  Should we be known as churches that excel at execution of Sunday morning worship or as churches that excel at whole-hearted surrender to God?

I continued to dialogue with my pastor friend about this.  As we exchanged emails, he was able to further clarify what he was trying to say – God calls us to surrender so that He can mold us into something excellent for Him!  A heart, soul, mind, and spirit in total surrender to God (Spirit and Truth Worship) is excellent!  It excels!  That kind of worship is our “highest” praise.  That kind of excellence comes not by leading in excellence, but by leading in surrender, humility, leading a life with the forehead on the floor.  Another way to say it might be…”surrender leads to excellence.”   Leading in excellence is just me trying to be good enough.  Leading in surrender is something that allows God to make me into something excellent for Him.  God calls us to surrender, then He makes us excellent for Him.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Auto Pilot

I have a bass student that’s in the 9th grade. He recently asked me, “How do you get good enough to play on the stage in the worship band at Acquire The Fire?” (He had just been to one of their conferences.) I told him to Google this question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The answer is the same. Practice.

This morning, I was going through my journal from last years National Worship Leader Conference. I came across the notes I had taken at one of Norm Stockton workshops. I remember Norm talking about how to play on auto pilot. That’s when you know your instrument so well that you can play with freedom and precision. When I meet with a guitar student for their first lesson, I always stress this point: You will make faster progress if you practice at least 15 minutes a day than if you practice for 1 hour, once a week. Norm would call the benefit of a daily practice regimen is that ability to go on auto pilot.

I’ve written these Norm-nuggets down from my journal here below. They are tried and true for any musician, not just bassists. Please share this with your worship teams. I give all the credit to Mr. Stockton.

  • Diligently invest in the gifts God has given you.
  • Consistent practice every day.
  • Auto pilot happens with 15 minutes a day, not 4 hours every other Saturday
  • Bass = Infrastructure
  • Don’t conflict with the groove
  • Groove = Feeling of consistent/reliable forward motion in music
  • Pursue a passion for the groove
  • In the band, everybody’s responsible for the groove.
  • Groovicidal = not grooving
  • Playing with a Click = Eating your veggies part of music
  • Your internal sense of time is not calibrated.
  • Woodshed with a Click. Period.
  • The 100% Rule – If you play in a quartet, that 100% is divided by 4
  • If your part sounds like 100% of the music, you’re playing too much.
  • Dynamic contrasts make the music say something.
  • Avoid musical schizophrenia.
  • Emotive playing!
  • To avoid “groovicidal tendencies” – the bass player and drummer need to play together. Practice grooving together!
  • Play with intensity at a low dynamic level.

A note to worship leaders, music directors, and pastors… send your bass players to Norm Stockton’s new bass teaching website, Art of Groove. Subscribers can have unlimited access to all of Norm’s teaching, including his 60-lesson bass curriculum all for $10 a month! That’s ridiculous! Makes me want to quit playing guitar and grab my bass!

Deep Impact

Have you ever wondered if your music ministry is having any lasting impact?  My friend, Bill Stai, called me recently to tell me about a music ministry he’d started and how it might have more impact.  I was so inspired by what Bill was up to that I couldn’t wait to share it with you here on worshipBOOST.

Bill and I share a love for music and ministry.  He’s been both a pastor and a musician.  (Do you ever really retire from either one?  I don’t think so!)  We also share a heart for prison ministry.  He’s skilled in carpentry and musical instrument building.  (Bill used to make instruments for Musicmakers in Stillwater, MN.)  In fact, he built a mountain dulcimer a couple of years ago with an idea in mind that he would learn how to play the old hymns on it and perform them at Three Links Care Center.  He developed a unique modal tuning for his dulcimer and learned all the chord shapes that would allow him to play both the melody and chord accompaniment.  Over the months that followed, he taught himself how to play about 30 hymn favorites by heart.  Which brings me back to Bill’s phone call…

As the his church’s worship director, Bill wanted me to know that he was regularly visiting Three Links Care Center to play hymns and to share his faith in Christ.  He wondered if I would accompany him on one of his “gigs” so that I could see what he was doing.  It was important to him to make the connection between his music ministry at the care center and our church’s music ministry.  Bill sees what he’s doing as an extension of our church in the community.  Before the phone call ended, he asked if I might have any ideas about how he could have more impact.  I readily agreed to join him at the next opportunity.

A couple of weeks later, we met at the care center.  As we walked in, I quickly realized that Bill had developed friendships with staff and residents alike.  He knew many by their first names and they knew his.  At our first stop, Bill set down his instrument case and opened the latches.  He opened the case revealing his beautiful hand-made mountain dulcimer.  It’s a lovely instrument and larger than I had imagined.  He sat down in a chair with the instrument on his lap.  Connected to the dulcimer was a small hand-made strap that went around his waist to make sure it stayed on his lap.  He placed a plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks on his right hand and began to play.

What happened next was remarkable.  There was a resident that was sitting with her back to Bill.  As he began to play, she turned her head towards the music and said, “That’s so beautiful.  May dad plays that song all the time.  I can hear him singing.”

I accompanied Bill to another location at the care center.  When we arrived, again he was greeted warmly by the staff and residents.  There were just 3 people in the living room when he began to play, but soon the sounds of Bill’s mountain dulcimer had the room filled.  I watched an amazing transformation take place on the faces of seemingly inattentive residents as they heard the familiar melodies.  Eyes opened and sparkled.  Some began to sing.  At one point, Bill paused and shared his faith.  He asked the question, “Why was Jesus so scared (to the point of sweating blood) in the Garden of Gethsemane.”  [See Luke 22:44]  Bill reminded us that Jesus felt completely abandoned as the sin of the world was placed upon him and was separated from his father in heaven.  He shared how Jesus experienced complete abandonment and loneliness.  (A concept that his audience is altogether too familiar with.)  Then Bill shared the hope that faith in Jesus and his saving work on the cross can give us complete assurance that we will never, ever be abandoned by God.  And then Bill resumed playing hymns like The Wonderful Cross, Amazing Grace, and Beautiful Savior.

As I walked back to my car, I couldn’t help feeling my heart lifted along with the residents of Three Links that were touched by Bill’s visit.  I was drawn by the simplicity of his music.  I was impressed by the relationships that he had built with so many staff and residents.  I was encouraged as he shared his faith with authenticity.  As a musician, I respected Bill for the amount of effort he put into preparing himself – building his own instrument, figuring out an altered tuning, learning all the chord shapes and memorizing the music – I was so inspired by his humble offering.

Remember how Bill asked me to give him suggestions on how to give his ministry more impact?  Bill, my friend, you’re doing just fine.  Actually, I think I learned a few things from you.