Leading Worship In A New Church Plant
Cake? Is a birthday cake at the end of worship the right way to celebrate your first year as a new church plant? I didn't know I would ever have to make that decision. For the first time in my career I am helping to plant a new church. In the last 18 months we have traveled from three guys dreaming around a coffee shop table to "Launch Sunday" and now through our first anniversary as a new church plant. When I told fellow worship leaders and pastors what we were attempting to accomplish in rural, suburban Nashville, I received some great counsel. I realize every church faces its own set of unique challenges but here are a few bits of advice from others that have helped me survive this first year.
Be Who You Are
There is always pressure early on to pretend to be MORE than you are as a church because you believe it will draw people. It's the "fake it till you make it" principle and it is fundamentally contrary to the gospel. I wrestled with this pressure daily as we moved toward our "Launch Sunday."
The worship experiences that have impacted me the deepest were media-rich, band-driven experiences with professional audio, video, and light rigs in a dark room packed full of expressive worshippers. The first time I visited the elementary school cafetorium where we would gather for worship at our launch, I was crestfallen. "How can I build atmosphere in THIS?" Another wise church planter reminded me, "Be who you are. Build the church from a place of gospel-centered authenticity and let the people who want a good show go somewhere else." This has been a hard pill to swallow.
Every week and with every aesthetic decision, we are reaching for excellence while at the same time trying to stay true to who we really are in these early days. That means our musicians, the gear we can afford, and a set-up that we can easily move in and out of a trailer every week. This even applies to song selection. Sometimes a song that feels great when a 12 person Jesus Culture team leads it in an arena full of passionate worshippers can feel awkward when you lead it alone from a guitar and cajon in a school cafeteria with 60 self-conscious strangers. In this church planting season we ask, "What songs will work with a simple arrangement as we seek to make the Kingdom tangible and the gospel clear this week in worship?"
Value People Over Performance
We have planted a new church in an area that is teaming with talented musicians, songwriters, and music industry executives. I expected that to mean the talent pool I could draw from would be much broader and more diverse. It also came to mean a constant battle with the pressure to elevate the "performance level" of our Sunday morning worship gathering in an unhealthy way. Choosing a lower quality player that is committed to the vision of your church should always win out over paying a more-skilled outsider to come into your new church plant.
I know this cannot be a blanket statement for every church, but in this first critical year we needed to build some ownership of the worship ministry among our core people. It will always take less time and effort to pay a handful of highly skilled people to help with music in your church. Recruiting, training, and discipling volunteers is messy, frustrating, and infinitely time-consuming. However, it is the Kingdom Way. Multiply the vision of your new church plant by choosing to value people over performance.
Lead To Give
Much of my worship leadership over the past 20 years has been in the context of conferences, events, and retreats. A wise worship leader who has walked a similar path to mine reminded me that, "Conference worship can be led to get. In a new church plant you must lead to give." Allow me a moment of confession - As a touring worship leader, I have often planned set lists based on what we sounded the best leading or playing as a band. I was always careful to strategically use my own songs to push people to the merchandise table to buy a CD. I would set songs in whatever key suited my voice the best. As much as I hate to admit it, this is leading to get.
Leading worship to give means I must start from the place of serving the people God has placed under my leadership. What is their identity as a worshipping people? What do they need to bring to God in worship this week? Most of my people come from a more traditional worship background than I do. Leading to give means I'm not trying to force them into my worship preferences. Instead, I am learning to honor their background as we build a new worship ethos together. It has meant setting songs in a lower key signature than I would sing them to make the melody more accessible to a wider range of voices.
In my context, it has also meant finding some fresh ways to approach some traditional hymns. I have spent this first year building from a repertoire of songs that were already familiar to our core team. It has meant scaling back the amount of new content I introduce while we form a unified identity as a worshipping body. It has also meant writing new material that fits who we are as a people.
Leading to give means that instead of having your church's worship reflect your identity as a worship leader, they reflect your corporate identity as a family of faith. This "Lead to Give" mentality reflects the heart and leadership of Jesus. Plus it means rather than building the church around the identity of a few charismatic church leaders, you are building the identity of your church plant around a gospel-centered, kingdom-focused vision.
This first year has been more difficult and more rewarding than I ever expected. I am ever grateful that we worship a God who meets all of my selfish choices with fresh mercies, and every failed attempt with a chance to stand up and begin again.
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