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Planning Worship

There are so many methods out there for planning a good worship service, but unfortunately there are no 5 easy steps to getting it just right every time.  I’m not going to pretend to offer you any secrets, or any sure-fire method to creating the perfect worship set, but hopefully these tips will help you and encourage you as you discover your own method.

Be Yourself

One of the biggest tragedies and pitfalls to a good worship experience is when the leaders are trying to be someone they’re not.  Not only can this be offensive to God (because you cannot bring him anyone else’s worship but your own, and He loves the way He created you worship), but it is often very apparent to the congregation and serves as a distraction for everyone in the room.  Foremost, your efforts to play or sing or lead just like your favorite worship leader will distract you from your true purpose of demonstrating and leading others in true, God-focused, responsive, holy-of-holies, immersed-in-the-presence-of-God worship.

I’ve seen too many worship teams who are more concerned with getting the notes just like the recording, or trying to change their style or play something that’s not natural to them, than they are with touching the heart of God.  Their concentration pulls you in, and suddenly you realize that you’re more focused on how constipated they look than on the move of the Holy Spirit, and you begin compassionately praying that they nail the next guitar solo better than the last.

But how do you fix that?  First and foremost, you have to learn to be comfortable with being yourself. 

What do you worship to when you’re by yourself?  What draws you into God’s presence?  What do you sing to Him when you’re overcome by His beauty, His majesty, His mercy?  What do you sing to Him when you’re broken, hungry, or lost?  What do you sing in the sweet moments when you feel like a child in your Father’s lap?

While it’s not all about you, these are the songs that will allow you to demonstrate the most genuine worship to your team and to your congregation.  Ask these same questions of your team, too.  Find out what they worship to, and invite them to lead (or help lead, according to their ability) the songs that are most special to them.

When it comes to style, it’s ok to stretch from time to time, especially for one of those songs that you can’t help worshiping to, but be careful of mimicking someone else or playing in a style that you’re not skilled or accustomed to.  Trying to play in a style that is unnatural or uncomfortable to you becomes far more of a distraction than a worshipful experience.  But consider taking the song and making it your own. 

I love to worship to gospel-style music (among other styles), but for a white boy like me, trying to mimic most gospel artists turns into a complete and udder failure (and embarrassment).  Yet I’ve learned to take those songs that are dear to me and make them my own, and in doing so, I find them even more meaningful, powerful, and transformational for me and the people I lead.

So, if it’s the message or the melody that grabs you, take those things and bring it into your own style.  If your style is gospel, leave the banjo and the mandolin at home.  If you’re group has more of a country twang, please, please leave the spontaneous rap interlude at the door.  Your worship comes from who God created you to be, and it hardly ever works out to try and be someone else in your worship.

Granted, if you want to work at a style and become good at it; if it becomes easy enough for you that you can focus on God and not just the music; if it fits the culture of your congregation; and most importantly, if it sounds good, go for it!  Stretching yourself as a musician is important.  And so is learning the culture of your congregation.  If you’re a classical artist in a Pop/R&B kind of church, for example, you may need to stretch your style a little bit to be effective where God has placed you.

And just like style, be careful to play to your own skill level, too.  If you aren’t comfortable with the guitar solo, stick to strumming chords.  If you aren’t comfortable singing harmony yet, sing the melody.  It’s better and more worshipful to play the music according to your ability and the gifts God has given you than to make something far more complicated sound not-half-bad. 

Keep working on your skill.  Practice, practice, practice, and someday you’ll be able to add those things in, but don’t be in a hurry to be better than you are.  God has called you to lead worship where you are and who you are, knowing full well what your skill level is.  He knew exactly what He was doing and what your team and congregation needed when He called you.  Don’t feel bad, embarrassed, or apologetic for using and growing in your talents.  Just be you.

Old VS New

There’s a great wave of artists today who are rediscovering the old hymns and transforming them with modern style.  I love that.  There is power in the old hymns, and it is typically where I find myself in my deepest worship.  But while the old pipe organ may be great in some church cultures, the majority have found that a more modern style reaches their communities better and is more comfortable and relatable to their congregations. 

One thing Jesus demonstrated over and over and over again, is that the Church should meet people in their culture first and draw them to new life.  That is why he spent so much time at parties with tax collectors, prostitutes, religious hypocrites, and other sinners (just like you and me).  He didn’t wait for people to assimilate to His culture before He built a relationship with them, and He accepted all their worship, in all their unique expressions, even when it offended the other believers (see Matthew 26:6-13)

But whether you go old-school or you go with the latest hits, if you use an ancient hymn or you write your own original pieces, the important thing is to make sure your focus and the focus of your congregation is in the right place.  We should never pick music to get the response, “oh, I LOVE that song!”  But we should always pick music that gets the response, “wow, I encountered GOD in that song!”

That means you have to be careful in planning your sets, to make sure songs are God-focused (as opposed to us-focused, or others focused [that is, putting God in the third person]).  It also means providing some familiarity in your songs to help people be comfortable and stay focused. 

Use songs that people know and love, mixed with your newer picks that will stretch and help your people grow.  However, be careful not to use too many unfamiliar pieces in one set.  New music makes for a great concert of sorts, and people can surely encounter God by listening.  But make sure there are opportunities for people to directly engage in worship, where they don’t have to spend the first 5 minutes learning the song or trying to figure out new words or melodies.

On the other side of that spectrum, however, be watchful of pieces that become too familiar.  Sometimes, we (as congregations, and especially worship leaders) become so used to a song – we know it so well – that we get from start to finish and don’t even realize we sang it.  It no longer has meaning.  Find your balance, and most-importantly, keep God at the forefront of your experience.

Recreating Great Worship

“Man, that worship conference was epic!”  “I’ve never felt so close to God!”  “Did you hear that set they put together at the end?”  “I want to do that at my church!”

It’s no wonder that we try to recreate a great experience.  We find God in a song, which perhaps speaks deeply to a particular moment or struggle we’re going through.  We attend an event or service with great transitions, great song choices, a strong congregational response, and even a personal touch from God that makes you tingle with excitement for days.  So why wouldn’t we want to recreate it?

But how often does that actually work? 

The problem with recreating an experience is that it turns God into a system instead of a relationship.  Yes, it can be done with the right heart, and sometimes it does turn out spectacular.  But God is after a personal and intimate relationship with His worshipers, and that’s not something you can boil down to 8 easy steps, or 2 fast and 3 slow songs with some masterful key changes and pre-fabricated, hyper-spiritual prayers placed in between.

It’s good to always be watching and learning and growing in your worship, and attending other services and events is a great way to do it.  I encourage you to pay close attention to other leaders and other teams.  Learn all the details of their success.  But rather than trying to be just like them, discover the foundational principals that make their worship meaningful and personal.  Find out what they do behind the scenes to prepare.  Discover their approach to see why they put certain songs together, why they add prayers or testimonies or spoken encouragement when they do, or why they move and express themselves a certain way. Watch their approach to God.

Be mindful of the environment, the spiritual atmosphere, and the expectation of the team and the crowd.  For example, a worship conference on a Friday night is typically full of people who are hungry for God and willing to go out of their way to change their schedule, travel, and sometimes pay money to seek God in a certain environment.  This creates a passion and excitement and response that you may not find on a Sunday morning with a congregation that is mostly fulfilling an obligation or tradition, or who hasn’t been brought up in a culture of worship.

Try hard not to be discouraged by that.  I know how difficult it is to be the one person entering into worship in front of a sea of blank faces.  It’s tough!  But when you and your team can model a genuine faith, expectation, hunger, and excitement in your worship, it won’t be too long before it begins to catch on.  If you or your team (or your Lead Pastor) are not smiling or raising your hands, or singing out or kneeling, or expressing your worship deeply in some way, don’t expect anyone else to.  You create the environment.  You model the encounter.  You show people “how great is our God,” who in turn calls them to their knees, crying “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!”

You don’t have to follow a script for this.  Remember, God is not a system.  But discover what makes a great worship experience for you, and be the one who models that to your team and to your church.  God called you, with all of your unique gifts, talents, styles, and even your fears and shortcomings, to lead others in worship.  Trust that call.  Trust what God has put in you, and let God do the rest

Responsive Leadership

Finally, as you prepare your set, as you create an atmosphere, as you model what it means to truly worship God, be alert.  Watch your congregation.  See where God is moving.  See where people are responding.

If a song doesn’t fly with your church or group, you’ll know it by watching.  If a style doesn’t seem to flow well, you’ll see it on people’s faces as they try to follow awkwardly along.  If the transition to the next song seems to cause you to have to start all over with people, you’ll see it and know it.  If a chorus is leading people to the holy of holies and producing an atmosphere for healing and deliverance, you’ll see it plain as day when you open your eyes and look around.

It’s this watching that gives you an opportunity to respond, to change and to grow.  Sometimes, you can respond immediately, like repeating a chorus or bridge a few extra times when you can see the Holy Spirit at work, or perhaps ending a song early that just isn’t mixing with the moment.  Other times, you may have to work on something for a while, like practicing your harmonies a little more throughout the week, or building better transitions between songs and choruses.

But watching is the best way to know where your strengths and weaknesses are as a worshiping congregation; to see where you need to focus more, where you need to provide more leadership, and where you need to back off a little.  It gives you a chance to step back and see your leadership from a different angle – how does God see it?  How does your team see it?  How does your congregation see it?  How does your Lead Pastor see it?

And as you watch, be sure to watch God as well.  He’s the one this is all about, after all.  Is God smiling?  Is He moving in the midst of your worship?  Is He being honored and glorified?

In this relationship of responsive worship, learn what makes God happy.  Learn what things create an atmosphere for Him to move and breathe and have His way.  Find out what He likes, and go there and do that.  But again, be careful not to treat the relationship like a system.

I know my wife loves flowers, but I also know that they don’t fix everything.  If I brought her flowers every day, they might be overwhelming (we’d quickly run out of places to put them), or they might lose their meaning and become commonplace, or they might become something I use to cover up my shortcomings, rather than being a special way to say “I love you” that truly touches her heart.  As it is, I get her flowers a couple of times a month, and she loves it!  But I know if I’ve screwed up, flowers aren’t going to replace an apology.  When she’s worn out, tired, and sore, flowers are a far cry from a massage or a pedicure or a special outing with her friends.

And with God, just one method isn’t going touch His heart every time either.  God wants to be sought, not bought, after all.  Learn what He loves and how to touch His heart, and you can forget everything else about leading worship.  Flowers don’t always lead to intimacy, but showing that you know what is important to Him will go a long way to finding the relationship (both personally and corporately) that you’re looking for.

Sometimes, this means planning for a service with extra prayer and private worship.  Sometimes this means repeating a chorus or bridge a few extra times when you see God moving.  Sometimes this means stopping the music and listening for His voice.  Sometimes this means praise.  Sometimes this means reverence.  Sometimes it’s loud.  Sometimes it’s soft.  Sometimes it’s skipping the teaching.  Sometimes it’s skipping the music.  Sometimes it comes with a prayer.  Sometimes it comes with a key change.

Watch, listen, wait, and learn what touches God’s heart and what is happening in your congregation as you worship.  Let the Spirit lead you, and give yourself grace as you grow, as you lead, and more importantly, as you follow.

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