What Jason Bourne Taught Me About Leading Worship

One of my favorite scenes from the Bourne Identity takes place in the diner where Bourne is sharing with his new friend and hostage, Marie, his perplexity with his extraordinary situational awareness. You can view the clip here if you’d like.
He couldn’t understand how someone who didn’t know his own identity would know things like where all the diner exits were, the license plate numbers of all the cars parked outside and where the most likely place to find a gun was. This enhanced situational awareness was second nature to him.
Jason Bourne’s situational awareness inspires me as a worship leader. Specifically when it comes to navigating through a set list. Seriously, when I am leading a song I want to know what all my options are at any given moment without even having to think about it. Here’s why…
A lot has been said about excellence in worship and I’m a huge proponent of it when it comes to bringing our best in our service of God and others. However, I don’t  just want excellence, I want excellence that breathes.
Worship is a relationship so, in my opinion, it must be free to breathe. Like with any healthy relationship there needs to be space for spontaneity and flexibility. Excellence that doesn’t breathe can come across as plastic, disingenuous (that word would tank me in a spelling bee) and, at worse, lifeless.
However, I don’t value spontaneity and flexibility for the sake of spontaneity and flexibility. I value them inasmuch as they enable us to respond in the moment to the Lord or a congregation of worshipers.
Here are a few questions we can ask when preparing songs that will increase our “situational awareness.”
1. What’s the best “space vamp?”
The space vamp is the chord progression that will be played and repeated in the case you feel the need to create some, well, space within a song. There may be times when you sense a need to create space in order to pray, share something, or simply have room to breathe in what the Lord is saying or doing in a given moment. It’s important that everyone on the team knows what to vamp in these moments.
If the purpose of the space is to allow the congregation to pour out their hearts in spontaneous song, it might be a good idea to use a simple progression. A “one-four” progression, for example.
2. Where can we camp out?

In other words, what part(s) of the song is conducive to camping out and repeating? The most obvious answer would be the chorus but I’m more interested in the less obvious places.

For instance, in Leeland‘s song “Lion and the Lamb,” the bridge is an obvious place where you could camp out but a not so obvious place would be playing the IV and V chord and repeating the phrase from the chorus, “And every knee will bow before Him.”

There’s no telling what specific truth the Lord might highlight or the congregation might really latch ahold of within a specific song. My goal is to know how we could highlight that truth by camping out on a specific part of the song. It could even be a part of a verse that is repeated.
3. Is there another song that could be woven into this one?

Sometimes a song can be taken to a new level when a part of another song in the same key and similar tempo is interwoven seamlessly.

Something like this happened last Sunday in our worship time. At the end of the song “Resurrecting” by Elevation, we seamlessly added the bridge of Hillsong’s “Stronger” (“let your name be lifted higher”). It just happened in the moment and because it was the same key and similar theme, it fit really well.  It added something to the song.

Just because Jason Bourne knew the location of all of the exits in the diner didn’t mean he was going to use all of them. However, he could use any one of them if needed. Similarly, my goal is simply to know my options, not necessarily use all of them.
Knowing our options can help us respond in the moment to the Lord and the congregation. Worship is a relationship and relationships need room to breathe.

How to Know When You’ve Succeeded As a Worship Leader

I’m a fixer. I absolutely love to fix things. I also love clarity. The great thing about the business of “fixing things” is that it’s extremely clear when I’m successful and extremely clear when I’m not. Does the lawn mower cut grass after I’m done “fixing it?” Yes: Success! No: Fail! If only all of life’s endeavors communicated success this clearly.

I’m a worshiper. I absolutely love to worship and I absolutely love bringing others along with me. However, if I’m honest, the ambiguity of knowing whether or not I was successful at doing so has always been a challenge for me.

How do I measure my success as a worship leader? Do I place all of the praises and criticisms of my “performance” on the scale to determine which one wins out? Or, do I measure it based on the number of raised hands versus blank stares before me on a Sunday? Or worse yet, do I base it on how I felt?

Honestly, over the years I’ve used each one of these methods, and others, to measure my success as a worship leader. At the end of the day, I’ve found them to be unreliable.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying these things are completely useless when it comes to evaluating a worship service, just that I don’t believe that any one of them is fit to have the final say as to whether or not I was successful.

I wonder if Jesus has any light to shed on this topic. Hmm…

He does! According to John 17:4 Jesus considered Himself very successful: “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work You gave me to do.”

Somehow, the fact that the very ones He came to serve wanted to erase Him from the face of the earth didn’t tarnish His sense of success. Nor did He let the fact that the number of His followers dwindled down to almost nothing affect it.

So what gives? How did Jesus measure His success?

I believe His words in John 8:29 give us our answer: “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”

Lest we make this verse irrelevant to us by playing the “Well, He was Jesus” card, allow me to bring it down to our level.

Jesus’ personal sense of success did not come from external factors like how people responded to Him. His sense of success came from a clear conscience that resulted from the belief that, to the best of His knowledge, He was doing all that God had asked Him to do.

So, how does this apply to me as a worship leader? Well, ultimately, my sense of success is not determined by people’s response to my leadership. It is determined by a clear conscience that, to the best of my knowledge, I’m doing what I believe God has asked me to do as a worship leader.

(NOTE: If the whole congregation gets mad and throws rotten fruit at me every time I lead, then there is a problem that needs addressing but I hesitate to conclude that it’s because I am a failure.)

What has God asked me to do as a worship leader?

I believe He’s called me first and foremost to be a worshiper with my life, not only my vocal cords.

Next, out of this love relationship with Him, He’s called me to take on the mindset of a servant and assist others in encountering Him in worship.

He’s asked me to do this prayerfully and to do it using all of the gifts, natural and spiritual, He’s given me (not someone else). This includes my spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, experience, favorite color, nunchuck skills etc…

Last but not least, He’s asked me to trust Him to make clear to me the areas I need to grow in and choose not live in unhealthy introspection.

When I do these things, regardless of how people respond to my leadership, I can know that I am successful as a worship leader. When I do what pleases Him, I am successful.

“It is our constant ambition to be pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9 AMP).

4 Ways for Worship Leaders to Stay Inspired (and Not Become Expired)

One thing I’ve learned after 20 years of following Jesus and 15 years of worship ministry is that spiritual boredom is inevitable. It seems my heart naturally drifts towards a state of dullness if allowed to do so. Just as pulling weeds is an inevitable and recurring enterprise for anyone desiring a vibrant lawn in Austin, Texas, so is overcoming spiritual boredom for anyone desiring a vibrant heart and ministry.

If you’ve found this to be your experience too, take heart, we’re not alone. It seems the apostle Paul’s familiarity with this tendency in his own life gave him the wherewithal to exhort the Roman believers to “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11 NIV)

The literal translation for “spiritual fervor” here is “boiling over in spirit.” All believers are exhorted here to do whatever is necessary to have spirits that are boiling over towards the Lord and in our service to Him. But as someone who serves others by influencing them towards God in worship, I feel the need to take this exhortation all the more seriously.

I regularly experience the “drift towards dullness” in two primary areas. The first is in my relationship with God and the second is in the medium that I use to help others connect with God, namely, music. Here are 4 simple and practical ways I’ve learned to steer my heart away from the dullness in these two areas.

1. Get Up and Get Out. It may be necessary to mention that when I speak of being “bored with the Lord” I say so realizing fully that in my relationship with Him I’m actually the boring one. There’s absolutely nothing boring about God. If you have doubts about this read Revelation 4 and refamiliarize yourself with the energy, life, and excitement around His throne. Or, read the Gospels and observe how Jesus brought the party everywhere He went.  100% of the time I’m bored with God, the problem is on my end.

Having said that, there are many times my heart has grown dull from my inability to connect with the All-Exciting One. When this happens, and it’s inevitable that it will, I follow the example of the young bride in the Song of Solomon who when unable to find her lover in the “tried and true” places she got up and went to find him (SOS 3:1-4).

There are times when sitting on the couch with my Bible, journal, and cup of coffee just doesn’t do it for me. In these moments sometimes I may need to go for a walk, turn on some music, surround myself with nature etc… The goal here is to knock my heart out of autopilot.

Something else I’ve done is thought of areas of my life where I did feel excitement and I went to that “place” and brought God into it. Maybe your thing is art galleries. Go to the gallery and bring God into Your experience. Talk to Him about the art. Thank Him for it etc…  I’ve found that these types of things can “jump start” our hearts sometimes.

2. Get Some New Material. Often times my boredom is caused by the fact that I’m simply tired of talking about the same old things with God. In these instances, I find it helpful to listen to podcasts or teachings that aren’t from the same stream I’m used to drinking from. It could be a podcast, a book, a blog, a commentary or even a new Bible translation.

The point is to get some fresh input from outside sources that make you think. The more challenging the better. But don’t just take it into yourself, take it with you into your times with the Lord. Dialogue with Him about the content. Search Scripture to see if it’s actually true.

3. Make Like Taylor Swift and Cross Over. It would be safe to say that most of the worship music we lead in our churches are of a specific genre. Because of this, I as a musician can become very bored with music. It can all start to sound the same.

I’m not necessarily knocking western worship musicians because I “is” one. I’m also not necessarily suggesting you overturn your church’s worship culture by “crossing over” to a totally different genre of music. It’s likely that the church you serve connects with a specific genre of music and that’s ok.

However, what I would encourage you to do if you find yourself feeling uninspired musically is to cross over in regards to the music genres you listen to. Even genres you aren’t naturally drawn to. Listen to them and try to find things that you appreciate and could possibly use in your context.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM (electronic dance music). My goal isn’t to make Sunday morning a rave but it’s been very refreshing and even inspiring as a musician to think of how I can pull some of the EDM qualities I like into our worship.

4. Learn Some New Tricks. Chances are if you are bored with your instrument it’s because you are no longer being challenged. You may either need to learn a new instrument or figure out how to take your current skill to the next level.

I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for almost 20 years and don’t really have much to show for it. Last year I took an acoustic guitar course with Berklee Online and it stopped me from chopping my guitar up into firewood.

Learning alternate tunings beyond DADGAD was really refreshing. I was getting sounds out of my instrument that I had never heard before. It really saved me as a guitarist.

Take lessons, watch Youtube videos, learn a new piece etc… It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you’re being challenged.

One of the only ways I know how to not become expired as a leader, musician or worshiper is to stay inspired. How would you add to this list?

3 Ways for Worship Leaders to Let God Do the Heavy Lifting

A “can-do” attitude is something to be praised.  I, however, am often guilty of fraternizing with its less commendable cousin, the “must-do” attitude.  My “must-do” attitude is what convinced me the other day to carry a couch up the stairs to our bedroom all by myself.  It’s a symptom of not realizing that despite the fact I share a first name with Clark Kent, I am not Superman and I have limits.  My “must-do” attitude often leads to self-injury and wounded pride.

Unfortunately, I have been guilty over the years of bringing this attitude into worship leading and it too has resulted in a type of self-injury.  But, by God’s grace, He has lovingly taught me and is still teaching me, to acknowledge my limits and allow Him to do the “heavy lifting” involved in worship leading.  The following are three realizations that have helped me do this:

1. It’s Not My Job to Make People Worship.

I am blessed to be part of a church family that absolutely loves to worship.  Having said that, there are services where the congregation seems less engaged than others.

I used to measure my success as a worship leader by the level of engagement in the room.  Then I realized that it wasn’t my job to make people worship nor did I have the ability to do so even if it was.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe I have the ability to influence people towards engagement in worship but beyond that, it’s out of my control.  I’ll continue to pray, prepare, practice, get better etc… to increase that ability to influence but at the end of the day, I know that there is Someone else who is much better at moving hearts to worship.

There is no one more excited about influencing people to worship God than the Holy Spirit.  When we gather for worship He Himself is already drawing hearts.  He is stirring passion in people by revealing to them the beauty and irresistible goodness of God.

Consequently, I don’t need to cajole people when I’m leading worship.  I don’t need to command them to engage.  I can lead from a place of rest trusting that the Holy Spirit is doing the heavy lifting of wooing hearts to Jesus.

2. It’s Not My Job to Make God “Show Up.”

I used to believe that it was the worship teams job to “usher in” the presence of God.  I’m not saying there isn’t anything true about that idea, just that there are some whacky ideas that can spawn from such phrases.

I would find myself praying beforehand and during worship from a place of almost begging God to show up.  Prayers like, “please come Lord Jesus!”  I hate to say it but a part of me approached worship from the same mindset of the 450 prophets in 1 Kings 18 who thought they could summon their god by working themselves into a physical and emotional frenzy.  Yikes.

Then I came to realize that God was actually more excited about meeting with us then we could ever be about meeting with Him.  Matter of fact, Jesus is so crazy about being present with His people that in Matthew 18:20 He promised that whenever we would gather He would be present. And the “presence” Jesus promised wasn’t a “fly on the wall” type presence where He would simply stand in the corner and observe but a “moving, speaking, healing etc…” type presence in our midst.

Consequently, I don’t need to feel the heavy weight of somehow pulling God into the room.  I can lead worship from a place of faith that God is indeed present and we just need to acknowledge and open our hearts to Him.

3. There’s No Such Thing As the Perfect Set List.

When I first began leading worship the task of putting together a set list was a heavy task.  After all, there was a scroll in God’s right hand containing the set list for a specific worship time and it was my job to pray it (or pry it) out of His hands.  Right?

Then I heard Irish worship leader Kathryn Scott say something brilliant:  “A set list is like a car.  And it doesn’t matter what kind it is.  It will get you where you want to go as long as you drive it in the right direction.”

I’m all for asking God to guide the preparation process.  There are even times I believe He will lead me to include certain songs.  But in the grand scheme of things all we need is a few songs that are true and engaging and God will breathe on them because that’s what He does.

Consequently, I don’t feel like I need to pry the scroll out of His hands.  I can simply, yet prayerfully, select a few songs and rely on His ability and eagerness to use them to draw hearts to Himself.

Jesus said His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).  These words are to be more than just a warm and fuzzy idea.  I believe with all my heart they can be, and should be, our experience if we choose to let Him do all of the heavy lifting in worship leading.