Quick question: what is it about conferences like Passion, Catalyst and Bethel Conference, for instance, that make worship such a deep, spiritual experience?
Is it because the lights and the hazer and the loud volume set up some sort of extra-spiritual atmosphere? Doubt it. Is it because the people leading the conference have some sort of deep spiritual anointing reserved for an extremely small and lucky minority, a plurality of which also happens to be related to Bill Johnson? Seems like a stretch. Is it because you’re spending several days away from the world just to focus on God? Perhaps, but there’s distractions in our own church services as well, and most of them don’t come from the outside world.
I’d like to put out a thought that’s a bit too practical for people to think about in conjunction with worship: the people who are leading worship at these conferences are professionals.
When I say professionals, I don’t merely mean the fact that they are paid to lead worship. Lots of people who are paid to lead worship are completely unprofessional, and lots of people who aren’t paid to lead worship act more like a professional. It’s not about the money, it’s about the mindset.
The difference between these huge worship bands and the bands many of us hear on Sunday morning is primarily that the execution is flawless: everyone is playing their exact parts and playing them together, while the sound technician is mixing the instruments and vocals as if you’re listening to a studio recording. It’s clean, it’s together, and most importantly, it’s void of any distraction-causing mistakes.
Now, obviously, there can be a huge difference between the worship bands who play for thousands of people and can pick the best musicians in their city, and the small-town churches who have to take what they can get. There’s often a huge difference in talent as well as resources. But that doesn’t mean musical excellence isn’t possible.
Excellence actually glorifies God:
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
Psalm 33:1-5 (ESV)
Did you catch that command? “Play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts. For the work of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.” Playing skillfully – with excellence – is the sort of worship God deserves. God gave every instrumentalist their abilities. Why does He deserve anything less than our absolute best when we give it back to Him in musical worship?
You can tell when you attend a church that doesn’t make excellence a priority. Something isn’t quite together in the music. Everyone on the stage seem to be in a different place in worship. Sometimes you notice one or two instruments playing off-beat, or missing pitches, or vocalist forgetting their words or what melodies they’re supposed to sing. They’re staring at their lyrics and their chord charts as they play because they’ve done zero preparation.
There are a few simple, practical ways that church worship teams can ensure excellence from all their musicians and worship leaders, and therefore ensure a more pleasant and inviting atmosphere of worship.
1. Plan as far ahead as possible.
Sometimes this doesn’t work out, but in general, you should plan out your set lists as far in advance as possible. The earlier your musicians get the set, the earlier they can start preparing their parts, and the less work will need to be done during rehearsals. Getting your music to your musicians less than a week in advance will often result in sloppy playing. My general rule is this: the more musicians you have playing, the earlier you need to get your set to them. When it’s just me and my wife, I know I can be a bit more liberal on timing because we only have to sort things out between the two of us. When it’s a full band, I try to go as far out as a month, if not more, because that means more time in rehearsal has to be dedicated to getting all the instruments on the same page.
2. Coordinate with the Sermon
The more your worship set matches the sermon, the more it conveys that your church is unified, and that there’s one message to remember coming out of the service today. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, musical worship is as much about truth as it is about emotion. The lyrics should be biblical, and they should line up with the sermon to drive the point home. Remember, everything in the church service is designed to assist the preaching of the Word of God.
Of course, some preachers like to plan their sermon out less than a week in advance. In that case, I tend to prioritize getting a set list out at a reasonable time over coordination. Better for the set to sound good and not match than to contain distracting mistakes. Plus, if you spend time in prayer planning your set lists, I’ve found the Holy Spirit will guide you to a set that will end up working well with the sermon anyway.
3. Prepare at Home
Rehearsal is not the time to learn parts. Rehearsal is designed to get everyone on the same page and clear up any ticks. As I said earlier, the better the team knows their parts, the less work needs to be done in rehearsal. Everyone should come into rehearsal knowing their individual parts, and they should use rehearsal to figure out how to tweak what they’ve individually learned so they can come together as a team,which I’ll talk more about later.
4. Rehearse Twice
Some churches prefer to rehearse only on Sunday morning right before the service. I tend to have a problem with that: namely that if corrections need to be made during rehearsal, there’s no time for the musicians to practice that and get it in their heads before the service. If you rehearse on a Wednesday or Thursday night, you can tell your musicians what to work on before Sunday, and then rehearse it with the changes Sunday morning to make sure they’ve stuck. Hoping the musicians will remember to do what you asked them without any time to prepare it is never the best course of action. Plus, practice makes perfect, so the more practice, the better the band will be.
5. Be a Band, Not Musicians
During rehearsal, a worship leader should listen to make sure the band is playing together as a unit, not just individual parts. This is where it’s important for a worship leader to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of every instrument in the band. The number one issue that causes a band not to sound together is the percussive instruments playing different patterns. The drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and often the keys should be playing the same dynamics, playing the same rhythms and accenting the same beats. I tend to have the other instruments follow the drums on this, as it’s not as much of an ordeal to change your rhythm or accent on other instruments.
It’s also important that everyone singing harmony is together: stopping and starting at the same time, singing at the same meter, going up together and going down together (within the key of course). When a harmony is off, it becomes difficult to follow the melody, and it just sounds sloppy.
6. No Disruptive Surprises
Ad-libbing is written into the DNA of some churches. It’s considered an important part of Spirit-led worship, and I would never say you shouldn’t take the music somewhere the Holy Spirit is leading. But you have to careful about how you do it in most churches. The reason the team at Bethel can pretty much go into anything they want during worship is that their musicians are skilled enough to follow wherever the worship leader leads. If you don’t have that luxury, you may need to take some precautions. Plan to have certain instrumental stages where you may ad-lib on top of the same chords the band would already be playing. If you feel like going into another worship song during a song, either try to fit it over the chords that are already being played (you’d want to make it clear to them that this is a possibility and they can just keep on with what they’re playing so you don’t throw them off), or wait until the song drops out and you can just play what you’re feeling on your own. The last thing we want is for your musicians to be caught off guard and unsure of what to do next. I’ve seen that take the whole worship service apart before.
I hope you can see the important of excellence in worship. God absolutely deserves our best, so we need to constantly be thinking of ways we can give Him better. We’re never going to play for Him at the level He deserves, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better. Just something to think about.