I am full-time worship minister at a church and during this last weekends services, I was not on stage at all. I was not on vacation, I was not sick, I was not preaching, and I was not being reprimanded. I was in the building, in every single service for every single song, but never once did I step on the stage or grab an instrument or sing into a microphone. When I left the church building after the morning services I couldn’t help but feel that my strategy of not being on stage and visible as “the worship minister” was completely misunderstood. Let me explain:
As I do every week, I saw many of my friends and regular church attenders exiting their services or passing by in the lobby or halls . As many of them saw me and realized I was at church but not on stage, they all seemed to respond with the same sentiment. “Are you sick?” “Is something wrong?” “Why aren’t you on stage?” And without fail, after I explained that I was not infected with one of the one hundred viruses spreading through our city, all of them said the same thing; “I hope you enjoyed the week off.”
A quick disclaimer before I explain the misunderstanding. All of these people that approached me on Sunday, I know care deeply about me, and their comments were not condescending in the least. In fact most of them were excited that I was able to take a break. However, I want to make something clear, I did not take the week off and Sunday was not a break, it was a strategy.
As I said to start to this post, I am a worship minister. If I were to summarize the basic job description of a worship minister in one sentence, our role is to usher people into worship of our incredible God, in most cases through music. One of the biggest problems that I have found with worship music, and honestly worship ministers, is that far to often worship becomes incredibly personality driven. Whether you realize it or not, often the quality of worship at many churches is not determined by the quality of the atmosphere to worship, but by the presence of the worship minister.
Let me ask you a question: When the worship minister at your church is missing do you have a harder time worshiping God? One might blame a lack of musical or worshipful quality as the problem. However, I would say the real problem is the worship minister. Not that he was absent, but that he did not do his job, leading you into worship of an incredible God. When the worship at a church becomes contingent upon the presence of the worship minister, I would say the worship minister has failed.
I have found myself guilty of this at times during my ministry, leading in such a way that my leadership becomes the contingency for great worship. Over the past 2 years I have done my best to avoid this pitfall as a worship minister. On multiple occasions I have taken a back seat, spreading leadership of songs around to my team, sometimes not even singing, but just playing an instrument. Well, I have decided that this year, my goal is to take it one step further and get off of the stage all together. Not every week, but more than just the weeks I am on vacation or sick. As God has brought some incredible, competent leaders into my ministry, it is time that I let them lead. One might ask, “isn’t it your job to lead worship?” I would say that is exactly what I am doing, taking personalities out of the equation (mine in particular) so that worship happens if I am there or not.
So this last Sunday I was not on stage at all. I was not on vacation, I was not sick, I was not preaching, and I was not being reprimanded. I worked a very full week, was the first one the in the building Sunday morning, and attended every part of all four of our services. So trust me when I say, it is not a week off, it is a strategy.
Video Posted on Updated on
This last Wednesday, the Matt Estrin Collective had the opportunity to go into the studio and to record an EP. We were able to Track 5 songs: From the Inside Out, Beautiful Things, Like a Lion, Manifesto, and the Great I Am. Here is a video tour of the studio.
Here is my most recent message on Salt and Light at Journey Christian Church.
When did I become such a cynic? Or better yet, when did I lose my imagination? I have found myself asking these questions a lot lately. If you are parent than you can surely relate with my story. My daughter, Samantha, is reaching an age where her imagination is in full swing. A few weeks ago my wife convinced me to buy a small plastic play set with a slide for Samantha that she had found at a consignment sale for $4o. If I am being honest, I was not in favor of the purchase, not because I don’t love buying things for my daughter, but because I thought that spending $40 on something with four plastic walls and a slide that my daughter would not care about in less than year seemed like a waste of money. But, my wife understood something about my daughter that I have now come to realize: four walls and a slide is all Samantha needs to imagine she has a great castle.
We brought the play set home, and before I could even get it set up, Samantha was climbing, sliding and imagining. We spent hours in the backyard on that day and have spent hours in the backyard since because Samantha loves her four walls and slide. To her, it is not just four walls and a slide, it so much more. It has become her castle where she is a princes, where she can cook gourmet meals and go on treasure hunts. It has become the center place for all of her adventures. It is the first thing she shows all of her little friends when they come over. On occasion, it is even a pirate ship!
My daughter’s imagination amazes me! I don’t mean that in the sense that I think my daughter will be the next great inventor or imaginer of her time. What I mean is that, in a way, I am actually jealous of her having an imagination that has not been corrupted by growing up. When did I lose that? When did I stop seeing a castle and start seeing four walls and a slide that costs $40? When did I become such a cynic?
That question has taken me down somewhat of a strange yet thought provoking path, which I am not sure has a clear answer. How would life be different if I could see life the way my daughter sees life? I am not talking about living life in a world of pretend. I am talking about seeing life for what it could be, not what it is.
This last sunday at Journey I was struck with this thought once again. During our Tuesday morning staff meeting, collectively the staff came up with the idea to paint one of the main walls in our building with chalkboard paint and encourage people during Sunday service to write on the wall a “great work” they felt God was calling them to. Here is a picture of what transpired:
That is only about half of the wall. Who knew that so many people could feel called to do so many great things? My daughter would have known. She would have seen not just a room full of people, but the potential of that room full of people to change the world. To many times I see just a room full of people. Don’t get me wrong I desire to see the best in everyone and as a minister I do the best I can to encourage greatness in people, but to often the cynic in me defeats the imaginer in me. To often I see people for what they are not what they could be. And it’s not just people. The building I work in has some challenges. My car shakes when I get over 60 mph and pulls to the left. The town in live in smells like cow poop and has about a million less people than I would like. That is life as it is, or at least the way I see it. How much different would life be if I saw all of that the way my daughter does, not for what it is, but for what it could be?
I think one of the most underrated attributes of God’s character is his imagination. He looked at vast nothingness and created everything. People, life, mountains, oceans, rain, snow, sunshine, from nothing. And then there is redemption. How could God possibly be willing to give his one and only son for the sacrifice of the world without imagination, without seeing the world as it could be, free from sin? “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). There was no cynicism in God’s redemption, only imagination.
It is to that end that I see a dilemma. In our world, when a child stops imagining and becomes more cynical, we consider that part of the process of maturing. Why? If imagination is a key characteristic of God, than why would it be more mature to be more cynical? Jesus famously challenged his disciples and listeners to “become like a children”. Most preachers I know connect that analogy with faith and I think they are correct. But, what if it is more holistic than just faith? I cannot help but wonder if part of the challenge of Jesus is not only to have faith like a little child, but also to have an imagination like a child as well, to see life around as it could be, not as it is, the way God sees it.
So, again I ask the question; how would life be different if I saw life as my daughter does, or better yet, as God does? Would I wake up with a smile on my face everyday? Would I be a better minister or a better person? Would I make better decisions, be a better dad and husband? Would the world be changed? Maybe. I hope so. However, as I said before, I don’t know the answers because I don’t see the world the way my daughter does. But, I would like to, if for nothing else to justify buying my daughter even more toys!
Picking songs is important! As a “worship minister/leader” I am tasked with lots of important duties. On any given week it takes a lot to pull off our 1 hour and 15 minute service; lights, audio, video, presentation, band direction, skinny jeans, etc. However, through my years of leading worship I have found few tasks as important as song selection. Many worship leaders I know don’t share my same sentiments. Their song selection process is simple and involves little agony. Not me. Not simple. Lots of agony. I am not saying that they are wrong or that I am right. This is just they way I view worship leadership. As much as lights, video and sound quality can set an atmosphere of worship, so can song selection. In fact, I would go as far to say that song selection has more make-or-break power than musicianship, lighting or sound quality. You may disagree with me. This is just my opinion.
I have often thought that people who attend worship services that I plan and lead assume that I pick songs by throwing darts at music charts taped to a wall in my office. I don’t, though that would be very fun to try sometime! I put lots of thought, prayer and intentionality into every song set. So, here are my thoughts on song selection in no particular order:
1. Theme. What is the sermon about? This question generally drives the largest part of my song selection effort. I believe that when the music compliments the message it makes both elements more powerful.
Let me take a quick detour to help explain this thought. At Journey, the church I currently serve at, we do the majority of our music set after the message. This is counter to many churches I have visited. Most churches and worship leaders I know claim that the worship music opens people hearts to the message. I agree. However, have you ever thought of it the other way around, that the message also opens people hearts to worship? That is how I look at it. During a message you are RECEIVING God’s Word. During worship you are RESPONDING to God’s love. In general, response comes after reception. A batter swings the bat after receiving a pitch. A driver hits the gas after receiving a green light. A fight starts after receiving an insult. So, wouldn’t it make sense to respond (worship) after receiving (message)?
Back to this concept of theme. How much powerful then is a worship set when the response is related to the reception? How much more powerful is a worship set when, after receiving a message of God’s love, you respond by singing about God’s love? Or a message about endurance followed by a response singing about heaven? Matching a song set thematically to the message not only validates the message, but captures the momentum created by the message for the worship set. Never underestimate the power of thematic song selection!
Before I move on, I need to say something further regarding this point. It seems that consistently, anytime I bring up this concept of thematic song sets around other worship leaders the most common response is, “my lead minister is not into doing that, or wouldn’t do that.” I struggle with that response. I struggle because thematic song sets have nothing to do with the lead minister. You are not asking the preacher to pick your song set, you are just asking him to give you a theme. I generally do not know the extent of my preachers sermon until the 3 days before the service. However, when I select songs, he usually has at least a basic idea or scripture of what the sermon will be about. It doesn’t take more than a sentence, verse or even a simple word for a themed song set. Here is a test. I am going to give you a word and I want you to think about how many worship songs you know that revolve around or include that word. Surrender. Worship. Salvation. Holiness. Missional living. God’s Greatness. Hardship. Skinny Jeans. It is not as difficult as many make it out to be.
One more thing and then on to the next thought. Thematic song sets also may only include one songs that fits that theme or one line of a song that fits the theme. Anything, whether one line, one song, or a whole set that ties into the theme draws from the moment of that theme.
2. Resonance. A few weeks ago I was really struggling with putting a certain song in the song set. Looking for help I texted my friend Bob, a gentleman that serves on Journey’s worship team and has been involved in worship leading for over 20 years. I asked his thoughts on the song hoping for an enthusiastic yes or no. His response was exactly opposite of what I had hoped for, but completely full of wisdom. “Is the song resonating with you?” It wasn’t resonating with me at all. Sometimes songs resonate. Sometimes songs don’t. Resonance is a great filter for song selection.
3. Tempo. Though it is not always the case, in a five song set I try and have at least two songs that have a pretty fast tempo and high energy. Generally my first and last songs are the ones with a fast tempo and if it can match the theme, even better!
4. Personnel. I find it very important to pick a set around the musicians and singers that are surrounding me. On the weeks I have a less skilled band, I play simpler songs, trying to stay away from difficult beats and tricky chord progressions. On any given week I have great singers around me that are more than capable of leading songs. I often choose songs that fit their singing style and let them lead. I do the best I can to set my band and singers up for success, giving them songs that fit who they are and what they do. It is to this point that I assert that song selection has more make-or-break potential than musicianship. Picking difficult songs for a band or singers that cannot pull it off is a recipe for disaster and NOT an issue of musicianship.
5. I listen to people I trust. I trust my lead minister. I trust other people too, but we will use him as an example. Four to five times a year I can count on my lead minister giving me a song suggestion and I always play it. I play it because he knows exactly the type of worship leader I am and the type of songs that the people at Journey will love. I play it because, while he may love the song he is suggesting, he is suggesting it because he thinks Journey will love it more. This leads me to my next thought…
6. I keep my sets flexible. As much as my band and singers hate to hear this, my song list is never final until we show up on Sunday mornings to play. You cannot tell the Holy Spirit when the song set has to be ready. Sometimes the set looks good to me, but not to God. My lead minister has, on occasion, completely changed his message on a Friday or Saturday afternoon and even though he encourages me to not change my set, if the Holy Spirit is encouraging a change in his heart, I would be stupid to not follow that leading of Holy Spirit. Occasionally that change is in my heart. Either way, sometimes God prompts a late set change, so I will always keep my song set flexible.
7. Flow. I love speaking almost as much as I love leading worship. I have attended a number of speaking courses and seminars. One of the golden rules of public speaking is “use voice inflection.” Get louder when you want to drive home a point. Get quitter when you want to draw people in. Never ever ever be monotone. Worship should be the same way. Most set lists have a very specific flow. Songs that make you want to clap and dance leading into songs that make you want to raise your hands or fall on your knees back to clapping and dancing. 30 minutes of 120 bpm is leading worship in monotone.
8. New. I love new songs. I get bored easy. I probably buy at least one new worship CD a week. I never play more than one new song in any given set. But, I will always play new songs.
9. Who am I? I know exactly the type of worship leader I am. I know my vocal range. I know which artists I can emulate well and which styles and artists would sound like a dying cat if I tried singing them. I pick songs I know I can lead well and stay away from songs that have the potential for disaster.
10. God inspired. Earlier in this blog post I mentioned my friend Bob, the guy serving on the Journey worship team that has been leading worship for twenty-plus years. We have breakfast twice a month to talk through life and worship ministry. Recently we got on the subject of song sets and my friend reminded me of what is most important when it comes to song selection: God. That is true perspective. As much as I agonize over each song set, my efforts are in vain without the presence and the power that comes from God. My sets must be God inspired not Matt inspired.
That’s it. That’s my song selection thought process. If after all of this I still cannot pick a song set, I have the darts on standby!