Building the Fire

I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid.

I might have burned several toys over the years. I may have used a lighter and hairspray as a makeshift flamethrower to kill bugs in our basement. I possibly was involved in dousing an indestructible metal Tonka truck in gasoline, but I’m pretty sure that was my brother’s idea.

I did set a dumpster on fire, but that was purely by accident.

But at camp I learned how to build and maintain a fire. Fires need three things: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Set up the fuel correctly, and you ensure that oxygen can flow through once you get the flames started. Set it up haphazard, and you potentially smother your fire. Most importantly, if you build it right, you can keep it going.

Worship ministry is similar. It starts with fuel, a foundation of technical expertise that gives us something to build on.

In 2nd Samuel 6, we see a few pictures of worship around the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. And the first is about this technical expertise.

Once King David secured his throne, he turned his attention to God’s presence. David wanted the Ark in Jerusalem, and went to retrieve it. He brought 30,000 men, all of them ready to praise their hearts out. They put the Ark on a new cart, and they started a celebratory procession to bring God’s presence back to the city of the King.

But the Law was clear about the way the Ark would be moved. It had poles fitted into rings on the corners (see Exodus 25) and had to be carried by the Levites (Deut. 10:8). The use of a cart was forbidden.

So the cart is jostled, and the Ark moves, and Uzzah, one of the guys walking along next to it, reaches up to make sure it doesn’t fall over. I mean, that would be pretty embarrassing, right? If the holy Ark fell in the dirt along the road?

Uzzah dies on the spot. The celebration stops. David says, “How can this Ark come to me?” and he sends the Ark off to a nearby house instead.

David had all the passion in the world, surrounded by a crowd praising their hearts out, and it wasn’t enough without the right structure.

Last Sunday, my wife and I were discussing worship. She noted how worship ministries often seem like a pendulum, swinging from emphasis on the right heart and attitude to emphasis on impeccable performance and musicianship. I’ve heard it said, “I’d rather have a struggling musician playing with a heart after God than have a concert-quality musician who’s in it for themselves.”

But we miss the point if we look at this as a dilemma, as though you can only have either technical expertise or passion for God, not both.

We can throw some folks together on stage and go after God with abandon, and it might be a powerful moment. But it’s not a sustainable model for a worship ministry.

I could set things on fire as a kid… but I didn’t know how to build a fire that could be kept burning.

The fuel for our worship “fire” is technical excellence. It’s the structure we set up, the way we arrange and organize all the parts of the ministry.

We can call it practice, musicianship, or competence. But it goes further than notes played on instruments or words sung by voices. The sound crew, the lighting manager, audio/visual technicians, administrators who organize songbooks or communicate schedule details – any group that plays a part in the technical details has to be involved in the overall development of skill for the team. They all have to be involved in this process of growth and maturation because any one of them can create a positive or negative impact during the ministry time.

For our church, this means changes like incorporating a click track to play in our earphones so that everyone can (hopefully) stay on tempo. It means getting the different instrumentalists and vocalists (and sound crew, and A/V crew, and lighting crew, etc) together to hone each other’s skills. It takes time and effort and commitment.

I used to think heart was all that mattered. I led worship based on feeling and a sense of what I hoped was the Spirit’s leading. We might practice a set on Thursday, but by Sunday morning, I would change the set because another song felt better. Or we’d practice a song in one key, and then I’d come in on Sunday and change keys so the songs would transition together better. We had a small team of adaptable and skilled musicians who would essentially shrug and say, “If you think so, sure.” Then they’d play so well it was like we planned it that way months in advance.

We had a trumpet player join. He warned me he was getting back into playing after years, but he would try his best. And I thought he did quite well, adding in here and there to complement the band.

I didn’t learn until weeks later that he was taking the music home Thursday and painstakingly transposing all the songs to the right key for his trumpet so he could spend hours practicing what we played. When I changed things on Sunday based on “heart,” I was essentially putting him on the bench for those songs. On top of that, I was disrespecting the hours he spent honing his craft every week to be able to participate.

I thought all the structure was stifling, and the refusal of organization liberating.

But the structure makes a ministry that can burn strong and keep on burning.

Take away one side of the fire triangle, and it goes out. Take away the technical excellence, allow it to atrophy, and the fire of worship ministry is extinguished.

Next, I’ll look at the other side of that pendulum – heart excellence, the “heat” to our fire.

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The X Factor

No, I’m not talking about Simon Cowell’s show.

I’m thinking, as usual, of worship. Specifically, I’m wondering about how we minister as lead worshipers, those folks up front in the church, playing and singing, and hopefully pointing the congregation to Jesus.

x fac·tor

Noun
  1. A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.
  2. A special talent or quality.

What is that “X Factor,” that special something that makes the difference between satisfactory and superb?

For one, the superb worship leader isn’t trying to be superb. It’s not about him or her. It’s about God, the team, and the people.

Part of that special quality is observing and responding to needs of others – making it about God and the congregation, ducking out of the way. Saying “Come along with me” and charging ahead while being aware enough to realize when no one’s coming. It’s easy to get caught up in powerful emotion, to be swept away in the worship. And sometimes we can feel like everyone’s there with us, when in fact, the folks in the congregation are looking at watches and reading bulletins. Of course we can’t please everyone, but we can go too far with what pleases us.

Communication is also a key part. We have to be aware of what’s going on, and a lot of that is what the leadership is sensing. Paying attention to non-verbal and verbal cues keeps the worship in proper order. Communicating vision and direction to the team keeps everyone going toward the same goal.

Beyond that direction, there’s an ebb and flow to the music, a crescendo here, and a fade there. Sensing the spiritual dynamics of the service can create space for free worship, the unstructured corporate response of individuals to the love of God. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the team ties in with this. We start to understand that certain members might be able to add to a specific song, or musicians playing less common instruments will better minister in a particular song. So once again, we build room into a set, we add flexibility to the rigid in order to create a better experience.

I think the X Factor comes down to a right understanding of availability and adequacy. Worship is a God-thing. We can’t even really do it without His help, because it’s a response to His revelation. It’s not possible for us, of our own willpower and skill, to make worship “adequate” enough. God brings the adequacy – He does the work. But we do have to be available; we do put all our skill and energy at His disposal, to glorify Him and minister to His people.

We put everything on the figurative altar of worship, and God turns it into something meaningful.

So ultimately, He’s the essential quality, the One who makes all the rest come together and matter.

Excellence

There’s always a debate in the worship music community, an either-or choice that every team faces to some extent:

Musicianship versus heart.

“Do we focus on a great musical performance, even if that makes the music seem stiff? Or do we focus on spiritual intimacy and a heart after God, even if our music ends up being less professional or skillful?”

Of course, a lot of the answer depends on the pastor(s) and the leadership of the team.

I’ve worked on teams led by high school band teachers. Not surprisingly, those teams are focused on getting the exact notes right, with every song planned out in advance. The whole team knows exactly who’s playing what at what time, and there’s nothing vague. I’ve had pastors who ensure song lists are planned out months in advance, every detail of the worship set laid out step by step before the service starts. “People come here expecting excellence,” one pastor told me. “So we would never deviate from the plan, because that invites disaster.”

However, it becomes easy for the worship to feel like a show, the congregation merely spectators. When we focus too much on musicianship and structure, there are no surprises… but then there are no surprises. We risk shutting out the very One we’re supposedly seeking. With too much structure, we can’t take note of how the congregation is reacting, or perhaps even where the Spirit is leading. A song might resonate with the Body, people might be responding to God moving in their midst… but we already planned that we would do verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, repeat chorus, four measure interlude, bridge, chorus twice, tag the last line twice, end.

Does that mean we should instead focus on the heart?

I’ve been on teams (and led teams) where structure took a back seat. “I’d rather have someone singing off-key on fire for God, than a talented singer who’s all about themselves.” It takes time and effort, but once a team gets to know each other, the members can usually follow the flow set by the leader, which provides flexibility in the service. If a song is clearly having a meaningful impact on the congregation, the team can hang out for a while. If God’s Spirit is moving in an unexpected way, or if there is a song that complements the message, the team can switch in the middle of the service, to make the most of the moment.

Sounds great! And yet this can also cause great tension and disarray. When things go wrong, it’s difficult to recover. I’ve seen worship leaders stop in the middle of a song and say, “All right, that’s not it, sorry, let’s get this right.” I’ve had pastors tell me after the service, “Whatever that was, don’t ever do that again.” I’ve seen frustration when the band has to flex to a different key or a new song we haven’t practiced. Some members of the team might be spending hours practicing in order to play the planned set – only to have their hard work go to waste when the set list suddenly changes.

Well-meaning worship leaders have aimed for the stars, hoping to create an awesome opportunity to encounter God… and yet the congregation seems unmoved, lost or left behind while we charge ahead in our drive for intimacy. When we focus too much on the heart, there can be very pleasant surprises… but then there are some train wrecks. We risk losing our connection to our fellow worshipers in the congregation, or even in the band.

So what should we do?

I believe we must aim for excellence, and excellence as a worship team means incorporating both skillful performance with sincerity of heart. The team members must cultivate the right attitude and stay tuned in to what God is doing in the service, but they also must practice and play with all the skill they possess. A sense of structure is necessary so that everyone knows what to expect, but a close relationship with the rest of the band provides opportunity to adapt in the middle of the set as the congregation responds to God.

There’s no reason to make a false dilemma out of this subject, as though we must trade one for the other. One might as well ask which leg one can do without.