Worship Log: The Yuletide Disco Hurdle and Congregational Thermometer

Led worship two weeks ago, fun times. I had a keyboard player, so I could focus on my voice and vocal leadership. Here’s was the set:

  • O Come Let us Adore Him

  • O Come All Ye Faithful (Traditional)

  • My Life Belongs to You (Israel Houghton)

  • Que Todos Los Pueblos Te Alaben (Marco Barrientos)

  • Total Praise (Richard Smallwood, Fred Hammond arrangement)

  • O Come Let us Adore Him

  • Offertory: Light of the World (Matt Redman)

  • Response: Jesus Messiah (Chris Tomlin)

  • Exit: His Name is Jesus (Fred Hammond)

O Come Let us Adore Him

We kinda did it like the link above, but I think this is one of those choruses that’s good for any season… and its one of those song speak for itself. I said a few things about how we are welcome into the presence of God, but in hindsight, I wonder if I should have just shut up and SANG. Its a beautiful, timeless melody and lyrics that just say one simple, profound thought, “O Come let us adore HIM.” Slam dunk.

O Come All Ye Faithful

The perilous Christmas carol. I’ve been at numerous places of business (I’m thinking Starbucks, Cheesecake factory where pop arrangements of well-known Christmas hymns made me want to puke in my armpit and then eat it.) So every advent, while I’m excited to sing my favorite Christmas carols and lead others in adoring Christ through them, I also feel a little nervous, I don’t want our church to be LIGHT FM 93.9!

Prob the best way I could describe my arrangement was a feel similar to that of Matt Redman’s “Knocking on the Door of Heaven,” but faster. The verse had the same bass drum on two and four and a slight march feel, but not too rigid. Our drummer did a good job of keeping the feel light and bouncy. We didn’t mess with the chords too much except for the third verse, where we came out of an a cappella vocal section with a nice arrangement of suspended chords to lead into “O Come Let us Adore Him.”

Playing the hymn up beat makes some more sense out of the chorus, that I don’t think I captured when we took it slow and rubato. While the lyrics repeat, the melody line gets progressively higher and naturally builds. Thankfully I had a band that followed me and we really made the build dramatic from the first “O Come let us Adore Him” to the final run. And even if it were unusual beginning a chorus down, it works every time. I even would sing the last “O Come let us Adore Him, Christ the Lord” emphasizing each syllable… “O! Come! Let! Us! A! Dore! Hi..Im! Christ! The Lord!…. even if it is a little square, I think it works. Crisis averted.

Bonus for ya: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3rT9pmNFaE

My Life Belongs to You

We do a short version of the hymn and transition right in to Israel’s “My Life Belongs to You,” an infectious Gospel-Calypso declaration that I’ve always thought is an awesome congregational worship song:

  1. Catchy groove
  2. Singable melody
  3. Simple but not cliche lyrics with a focused theme

I thought the band rocked, we even eked out a few key changes. It was in this song, where I noticed that our congregation, wasn’t exactly singing along like I’m used to. I scanned the crowd, didn’t see any frowns, but also not many smiles. Were they engaging with the Lord? Did the song we were singing not represent where they were at spiritually? Were they not ready yet to sing “My Life Belongs to You?” Were they just tired or cold?

That’s one of the challenges about being a worship leader that desires to pastor a congregation of 500 in musical worship. I used to just close my eyes and just focus on singing the melody clearly and just expecting people to follow along, but not anymore. I don’t see myself as just a lead vocalist, I see myself as someone who’s leading people in worship. I’m not EXACTLY sure what the entails, but for right now, I think it consists of a handful of things:

  • Scanning the congregation to see how they are responding in worship.
  • Praying for folks as I see them.
  • Asking the Holy Spirit for guidance through the song in specific and the set in general. Do I keep going forward with the plan, do I change things? What do I feel?
  • Decide when to speak and when not to speak, when to sing and when not to sing.
  • Being cognizant of my non-verbals (facial expression, body language, hand gestures, eyes) and how it may affect a congregation.

I’ve had to very quickly dismiss the notion I grew up with that a worship leader is supposed to be invisible, that is neither realistic nor in my mind biblical. Unless I have the Harry Potter cloak, I’m not invisible. I think the term insivible shoudl be unerstood figuratively — we should not seek to draw attention to ourselves, glorify our own talents, but rather all we do should focus on Jesus and the worship of His name. But saying we should be invisible should not preclude us from thinking about some basic aspects of good musicality and performance. Just like the preacher shoudl seek to be figuratively invisible, but not ignore basic public speaking techniques.

Anyways, too often I’ve been to churches where the worship leader out of fear, nervousness, inability or genuine good intentions, buries his/her head in the music or closes their eyes for 30 minutes and is in la-la land, completely oblivious of the congregation they’ve been called to lead.

I digress. We’re singing “My Life Belongs to You” and I do notice that folks aren’t responding to that song in the ways I’m used to and in the manner that the lyrics suggest we should:


Not sure what to do at this point, I’m just chugging through the song and moving onto the next.

Que Todos Los Pueblos Te Alaben

Our next song was the rock-disco powerhouse, “Que Todos” by Marco Barrientos. This song meets all those same criteria above, catchy, simple, clear… and I love that it has a global perspective: Que Todos Los Pueblos Te Alaben (literally: that all the villages/towns/ethnic groups would worship YOU).

And even though its in spanish, its really simple. Especially the Chorus which is a call-and-response, TU ERES REY (you are King). We did this at a conference a few months ago and it was a hit, I figured it would be great for our church.

But no deal, this is where I think it became quite clear that our congregation was not following us. I had a lot of blank stares through the verses and the wonderful, anthemic chorus. And maybe if I had wits about me, we wouldn’t have descended into a mutl-chorus electric guitar chorus… but I guess I thought, what the hey, let’s just do it.

And that’s a WHOLE other topic, solo’s in worship. While this seems to be a pretty normal thing in the Gospel genre, its pretty foreign to the chirstian contemporary world. There may be an instrumental section, but that’s not what I Think about solo. My idea of a solo is this:

A solo in worship is when a musician or vocalist ad libs or performs music that is not meant for the congregation to take part in directly, but rather to worship the Lord through the LISTENING of music.

Note this is not BACKGROUND music, people may choose to pray or worship on their own during these sections. But it is meant for an individual to offer their gifts at the feet of the Lord in front of the whole community. Not sure if this works, but the Biblical precedent I think is of the sinful woman offering her alabaster jar at the feet of our Lord in the presence of the community. Some people would have said to her, “What a show off you are! Show some restraint, defference and fall into the ranks of the group.” But no, that’s not what happened, it was a radical demonstration of beauty, love and sacrifice. Maybe that’s what a solo is?

What do you do during an instrumental solo in worship? Do you size up the musician to see if she’s playing good licks? Do you see what other people are doing? Do you twiddle your thumbs awkwardly waiting for the chance to open your mouth again? Or are you caught up in the glory (whatever that means) of our Lord and the music rises like incense to the heavens as a sweet offering of praise?

Hahaha… the later definitely did not happen. Mostly blank stares. So I’m not sure what to do. But we trudged forward anyways.

Total Praise

This is originally an elaborate choral piece done by the great Richard Smallwood, but in interest of convenience and given our musical and cultural resources, we opted to do this less intimidating Fred Hammond arrangement which consists of just two chords G/B and Am. And to quote a great Kazakh philosopher, “NIIIICE!”

This is a great song because it has TONS of Gospel potential but also is manageable for your average contemporary Christian rhythm  section. But I should add that it can be challenging to keep the tempo from rushing, especially during the big sections.

I’m running a little long here, but suffice it to say that the song is a great song of adoration that is definitely a keeper, but without solid vocal shaping, can fall flat. That’s something I know I need to work on. And I need to get Fred Hammond’s burly upper register… towards the end of teh song he’s hanging out in the G/A/B range and it still sounds HUSKY. Holy Crap!

But I must say that here is where the congregation seemed to snap out of its funk. Especially at teh 9am service, where there are more regulars and less visitors… this song is where I had a sense people were set free to worship. Don’t ask me how I know that or even I have an accurate sense. Its very intuitive and subjective, I know. Some of it is superficial observations of the congregations– body language (hands raised, etc), facial expressions (eyes closed, mouth movements). Some of it is hearing the congregational singing volume… when people are singing lustily, that isn’t a guarantee of a spirit of worship, but definitely can serve as a clue. Some of it is just my personal emotions– am I into this? And the other I think is a gut feeling, is there a sense of momentum. I don’t know.

O Come let us Adore Him (reprise)

We ended the first set with a few choruses of the line, “For you alone are worthy.” That worked well coming right out of “I lift my hands in total praise to You…” I think one way of knowing that the congregation is following along is that when you make a rapid transition from idea to idea, song to song. If your band can make the music transition seemlessly, you can audibly hear the entire congregation follow you. For the 9am service, that was true… beause technically you aren’t supposed to expect the end of”Total Praise” to quickly morph into “For You Alone Are Worthy.”… and if people are just singing mindlessly, they will be momentarily disoriented, but in the 9am service it was like the PUNCHLINE of the set. As if I told a funny joke exactly at the right time, and I felt the congregation unify the two ideas:

I lift my hands in total praise to You For You alone are worthy.

Everything else – conclusion!

I wrote a few paragraphs above that I was runing a bit long, but came across a good idea, so kept writing. Verbal Diharrea, 1. Andy, zero. Two quick words about the last two songs:

  • Light of the Word” is NOT NOT “Here I am to Worship”… it is track 2 from Matt Redman’s The Father Song… that whole CD has tons of awesome worship songs that have been overlooked, probably because it was released in the glut of the initial passion craze…. people were saying, woa, Americans are playing all the best British and Australian worship songs from the past ten years, CRAZY. And forgetting where they got it all from. You shoudl CHECK this song out.
  • Jesus Messiah – What can I say, Chris Tomlin has another hit. Its a great song. Kudos to you, Chrissy T. But I do have a question, is this song better mid-up tempo or slow?

Anyways, that was another fruitful worship experience… and as always, I’m left with a glut of questions:

  • What makes a good solo in worship?
  • How can a worship leader help a seemingly dead congregation? Does she have any influence? How does the Holy Spirit use her in that role?
  • How can we assess how engaged a congregation is in worship?

Music to walk out to

“His Name is Jesus” by Fred Hammond

A modern day Gospel Carol… listen to it, OK?


3 thoughts on “Worship Log: The Yuletide Disco Hurdle and Congregational Thermometer

  1. Hey Andy,

    My name is Jamaal and I had the pleasure of singing on your worship team at IV’s CFW last year. It was a pleasurable experience and I was truly blessed and inspired by your worship leading. By chance I stumbled across your blog and I’ve spent the better have of my night going through your blog and reading all that you have to say on worship. Its very interesting some of the stuff that you have to say. Since I’ve read all your worship blogs tonight my response may turn out to be a bit lengthy so forgive me. Also my thoughts may be out of place and jumbly.

    If you don’t remember who I am, I’m an African American male who has been in IV at U of I (Champaign-Urbana) for the last three and a half years, completing four in may. I’m a singer on the worship team there and most times I am the lead singer for worship. This semester at the U of I, IV has the honor of leading All Campus Worship (gathering of all the Christian organizations on campus for one night of praise and worship and a sermon). I don’t remember what I was on the internet searching for but i found your blog and it seemed right in the nick of time. I will be meeting with the other two leaders of the worship team for ACW soon and we’ll be putting together the set for ACW.

    Anyways some of my anxieties I’ve been having is an inferiority complex. I think that leading in IV urbana has been a wonderful experience and in that context i have been stretched in musicality and in worship. The thing is that even though I’m stretched in those specific places, I’ve been comfortable there, and the thought of being a music leader for THE ENTIRE CAMPUS, is a bit intimidating. I question if I’m good enough if i can lead a crowd of that size? I’ve never been in a situation like this before so its kind of scary. But some of the things in your blog have been encouraging and have definitely opened my eyes.

    Now I’m only gonna talk (briefly) about two things that you mentioned in your blogs (they were all good and entertaining). In one particular blog ( august 26, 08) you talk about “selling each worship song”. I’ve had a few discussions about this with other worship leaders on my team, but I haven’t been able to voice it quiet like you have. Two questions for you. 1) Often in discussions the idea of worshiping vs. performing comes up. Its obvious what the difference is but most time i try to get people to see that presentation and quality are key also. where does “selling the song” fit in the discussion of Worshiping vs. Performing? 2) Sometimes I don’t have control over the songs that are sung at large groups. maybe i couldn’t make it or whatever. Sometimes these songs are just plain way out of my comfort zone. I realize sometimes i need to be stretch but sometimes its like wow. But still I try to “sell the song” by getting into the song, focusing on the lyrics or what have you. By doing these things I try to get the congregation into the song and feeling it. Sometimes we sing songs that are just groovin and on point, and i try to get the congregation into it by my excitement and rejoicing. being from an black background i love to just be worship in song and Dance and Jumping and Waving hands and so on. but looking back into the crowd I to get just a lot of blank stares. Sometimes I feel like pulling a James Brown and just stopping the music and going when we say rejoice in the lord we mean rejoice. lol. (you may not know that reference but just check out a concert and you’ll see what i mean) anyways in the multi-culture context that is our IV I feel like selling the song is a bit difficult when trying to sell it to everyone. Having had some time to “experiment” with different methods of “selling the song” what have you found works best with a multi-ethnic church such as yours?

    Another thing you talked about was lyrical content. I agree with a lot of what you said. A lot of times the songs are just the same song. I’ve spent the last month or so reading through Psalms and it’s a really good read a musician and a writer. Reading through there i realize that so many worship songs are right out of this book. Anyways my personal feeling is that there is a lack of creativity and originality. I feel this way towards most music CCM, and Secular. I kind of feel like I’ve heard it all before. CCM with the same chords and Secular with the heavy sampling of oldies. It’s just the same thing over and over. I am a real fan of neo soul music and singers and neo jazz music.What is in your ipod right now?

    Thanks for the blogs,
    keep em coming

  2. Hey Jamal, thanks so much for your comment. It was awesome serving with you at CFW. It was a really memorable time for me! I haven’t checked my blog in eons, so sorry for taking a while to respond.

    I can’t say I’m an expert at “selling a song,” esp. a song that’s clearly outside of my comfort zone, but I can tell you my process and where I’m at now. I’ll use Gospel music as the example.

    Stage 1: Completely disengaged.

    Coming from a Christian contemporary tradition and a culture that says the worship leader should be invisible, I was clueless how to be a strong vocal leader in Gospel music. I would never even make eye contact with the congregation, but just bury my head in the stand (even tho I usually don’t need music, esp. gospel songs).

    Stage 2: Haphazard Attempts to Engage Congregation

    MY next step was realizing that Gospel WLs are active, vocally, physically. I didn’t necessarily understand Gospel music, but just was loud and preachy… kind of like my version of a stereotype or caricature of Gospel music. I tried that on Fred Hammond’s “Blessed” at church and I try to give an exhortation/testimony, and the feedback I got was that I was shrill and campy. I experienced failure and was really insecure and almost quit, but thankfully i learned from the experience and had people to encourage me forward. I’ve also experienced a lot of grace from black folk in our congregation who, while never pulling punches or telling me what they think, would also be quick to encourage me.

    Stage 3: Basic Understanding of Genre

    I think the next step was to have a more specific and concrete understanding of a WL in gospel music… in otherwords, to put some meat on the bones of my caricature. To not just lump all Gospel music together, but start to apprecaite the uniqueness of specific artists and how they use their talent to lead a congregation. What Donnie McClurkin does or Kirk Franklin, and how I can apply that. It was at this time where I had to make connections, for me it was helpful to think of the worship leader as almost doing drum fills to “set up” the congregation in singing. Fred Hammond does that well, where he sings a counter melody riff but also sets up the melody line. So with a basic understanding, I could start making some progress in my WL.

    3b: Current stage: Getting things to slow down

    While I can’t say I’ve nailed down Gospel worship leading, I can say in the past year or so, I’ve noticed that when I lead worship its less frantic and I can be more intentional about the things I chose to do and not to do. I can actually say, here’s what I want to sing at this point of the song instead of my mind racing at 150 MPH and just shooting from the hip. Now I can actually practice certain elements of my worship leading and get feedback: did that work when I did that? Did that help you in your worhsip or distract?

    I think I’m also at a point where I know I’ll never be black and can’t and shouldn’t try to make my race and culture disappear, as a worship leader, I’ll always be ME and I Can’t try to “sell” a song pretending to be someone I’m not. I can learn all the skills and my craft, but that’s it. And I’ve found that though I may never be an “authentic” Gospel worship leader and often fall very short, I think I’ve experienced God working through me and MY specific personality to bless people and lead them into God’s presence.

    I think the learning curve of “Selling worship songs” is definitely steeper when I’m moving cross-culturally, but I think you might be alluding to this, but it also varies song by song. So for CCM, I think “Everlasting God” and “Blessed be Your Name” are both congregationally friends songs, but I think they demand a slightly different approach by the worship leader to “sell” the song to the congregation, esp. because of the differences in form and melody.

    So yea, man, I dun think that answered your questions, but that’s where I’m at in my worship leading. I prob could write more, but that’s never the problem. hahaha.

    and in terms of song writing. I’m totally with you, brother. We need creativity and to focus on a diversity of themes. I think theres a particular lack of songs dealing with justice, mission and identity… issues that are so important for our generation.

    But I also realzied that when I listen to music casually, the first thing I listen to is the groove and harmony, then the melody, then lyrics last. I can appreciate solid lyrics, but gravitate towards music.

    On my iPod? Kanye West, Randy Newman, Adele, Fleet Foxes, Jonathan Butler and Fernando Ortega. Its random I know.

    Let me know how ACW goes, brother! Shoot me an email or something. I’d love to hear from you!!

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