The Sermons that Keep on Preaching


“It’s not about the music, just the words”

“We’re just singing”

“We need to be careful about emotion in worship. It is the flesh and must be suppressed”

All of these christianese expressions are well-meaning, but discouraging and naïve. In many places, singing is not really treated with regard or used as a teaching tool. In fact, singing is often just something that aimlessly happens in between the elements of worship. Why do we need hymns to teach when we have sermons, devotionals, Bible classes, and readings to do this? I don’t know, but if the Spirit commanded through Paul to teach through song, it must be important (Ephesians 5.15-21; Colossians 3.12-17). Could we be designed to learn through song and be powerfully moved by it? Unquestionably, yes!

A good hymn is a fascinating thing. Not only is the music stirring, but the message teaches us more about God and His truths. After all, what use is a hymn if it doesn’t have any spiritual content? How much content it should have is a matter of judgment, and more is not necessarily better. You may be thinking about some of those five verse 2-pagers, which could really stand to have an intermission for a small meal. A good hymn uses just enough content to make its point, which may look like a half pager or a 2-pager.

A skilled composer doesn’t just write a tune that works, but one that helps us connect with the message and remember it long after singing it. It could be said that a tune actually illustrates the lyrics brilliantly, and evokes powerful emotion. Some of the very best hymns have a way of transporting us to a land and time far away, and choking us up at the climax. However, a captivating tune alone doesn’t make a great hymn. Biblically rich lyrics with music that compels people to sing–these are the core elements of a good hymn.

For fear of some sort of an emotion-based faith, some run to a stoic extreme that tries to suppress all emotion, making worship a purely intellectual exercise. Allegedly, emotion is “the flesh”, and though great hymns stir up the heart, this is somehow temptation and weakness, and must be avoided at all cost. It’s no wonder that where this type of thinking thrives, souls are not thriving. The singing is unsurprisingly lifeless and these churches are dying on the vine. What a shame!

The other extreme finds an obsession with music to the neglect of content, and this equates to worship music that is junk food. It doesn’t draw people to God, just to the music, which usually isn’t very participatory in nature. Sadly, these groups are also declining, losing their youth and millennials to trendy mega churches that take them even farther from God. Experiential worship is an idol and is equally unhelpful.

Why must we be such creatures of extreme? And yet, we are. Emotion is not a bad thing. Not at all! We were created with it. Jesus Himself said that the first and greatest command is that we love the Lord with all of our being, including our heart, soul, and mind. This means the emotion, the intellect, and our volition, and none of them are to be kept from God. Good hymns appeal to all of these, for just as good music evokes powerful emotion, rich lyrics do too. When we experience the combination in a way that causes us to connect with them, the result is life changing. After all, good music softens the heart and opens it to be nourished by the Bread of life. The resulting emotion is the remorse for sin, the regret of the cross, the joy of the resurrection, and the hope of Heaven. If we discourage and suppress emotion in worship, we have none of those things. What DO we have? Certainly not motivation or change. Our hearts become cold and hard.

A good hymn preaches a sermon and a half in just a few short words. Consider the lyrics of the timeless piece, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

In just 110 words, Isaac Watts spoke countless volumes. Considering that a good sermon is usually 2,500-3,000 words, each verse had to be skillfully authored and meticulously pithy to achieve a similar effect. Good hymns are homiletic–they make great sermons and vice versa. Each verse could be a bullet point in a 4-point sermon.

Verse 1 – When I reflect upon the cross, I can’t help but be crushed and humbled by it, despite even the greatest of accomplishments. I am nothing.
Verse 2 – How can I boast in anything but Christ? All my goodness was learned from His perfect and humble example. Material things may try to reign in my life, but I sacrifice them to my God through Christ who strengthens me. My life belongs to him.
Verse 3 – The scene of the cross is vividly played and replayed in my mind. It is shockingly bittersweet. While on the one hand, I see blood, sweat, and tears, yet on the other I also see the sorrow and love beautifully manifested.
Verse 4 – Were I to inherit the entire world and all of its riches and attempt to repay the Father for His mercy, it would be paltry and even insulting. No, the only response that will do is devoting my whole life to Him and His service.

This kind of message is the kind of sermon we could spend our lives applying, and it is packed into 110 short words. Fascinatingly, we can memorize this entire sermon and play it back in our heads over and over again. I’m not aware of another sermon quite so pithy, save for the Sermon on the Mount, and even it is a few more words than that.  Music has a way of sticking with us. God designed us this way. Sometimes, obnoxious music bounces around in our heads like a broken record, but if we are feeding ourselves rich spiritual hymns and songs, these earworms can be tremendous in dwelling on things above.

Hymns are the sermons that keep on preaching. Treat them with regard. Choose GOOD hymns. Get them singing. Witness the change that ensues.

“If you’re not changing, you’re not worshiping.” – John Kilgore

5 Steps to Better Singing

Singing Photos

No, I’m not talking about making your church sound like a trained chorus, though that is a blessing wherever it’s found! I’m talking about getting them singing—getting 100% participation, and getting each singer to give a little (or a lot) more.

Before we get there, it’s important to talk about why we would even need to do that to begin with. Some of you may be asking why that is a need and not a want. I don’t think anybody would wonder why we would want to improve singing, because we all enjoy good singing. But do we need good singing? In a word, “unquestionably”.

God doesn’t need good singing. Paul taught in Acts 17.24-25 that God doesn’t need our worship at all. He wants it. It is the sacrifice of the Christian (Hebrews 13.15), and we learned a thing or two about God’s expectation for sacrifice through the early Genesis narrative of Cain and Abel, the Israelite narrative throughout the Old Testament, and note specifically Malachi 1 to see what God thinks about careless and half-hearted worship. The God who loves us, who became one of us, who bore our sin and died for us….he wants and deserves our thoughtful best.

Our congregational worship doesn’t only work vertically, from worshiper to Creator, but also horizontally, from heart to heart. Spirited singing to one another teaches, exhorts, and stirs the brethren up to go out in the world and represent Jesus through charity and love (Hebrews 10.24-25, Colossians 3.16). This means that our singing has to be convincing enough to help the brethren actually change. It’s not optional. It means that singing needs to be the best it can be, and it doesn’t happen by accident, but through intentionality and a desire to offer God and the brethren something beautiful and heartfelt.

With that in mind, here are 5 easy ways to dramatically improve worship. In my travels across the US, many churches are doing some of these things, but a shocking amount of them were doing none of the above. None of these things take much skill or training, but rather, a little forethought. They will make a BIG difference in the singing!
  1. Use a pitching device to get the song in a comfortable range
    • Very few things kill beautiful singing like the wrong key, especially too low a key (and we usually err flat, not sharp)
    • Our goal is for the brethren to feel compelled to join in and sing, and uncomfortable pitch is a discouragement and a distraction
    • Pitch pipes are cheap. Use a C to C, and you can find them on Amazon, at Guitar Center (and just about any band supply), and there are even free cell phone apps! Song leaders have no excuse not to use a pitch pipe or pitch device! (With the exception of Christians in 3rd world countries)
    • I personally prefer the Farley’s Pocket Tones as it has a power switch and a volume adjustment, so you can make pitching very subtle
    • By the way, congregational song can often get a little muddy. If the sopranos and/or tenors are not already hitting E anywhere in the piece, consider pitching the song a half step or even a step high. This makes the singers work just a little harder, which GREATLY reduces flatting and brightens the sound.
      • If a song is in Eb, pitch it in E natural!
      • It is amazing how well this works. I raise the pitch on numerous songs. Unless you’re leading at a nursing home or congregation of all older voices, never EVER lower a song pitch. Not ever
  2. Sing familiar, accessible songs at the right time
    • Don’t begin and end on unfamiliar songs. Just the opposite!
    • Accessible songs are usually lighter in content, informal, light-hearted, and easily enjoyed by everybody
    • I prefer opening and closing hymns to be very accessible
    • On a midweek assembly, keep the material lighter and more accessible. People’s minds are on work, school, etc. They will not plug in on Wednesday quite like they will on Sunday, so keep that in mind with song selection
    • On a Wednesday, long, wordy 2-page hymns should be kept to a minimum. Opt for only a couple of verses and maybe squeezing in a short and sweet piece, perhaps even as a medley
    • Sundays afford more time to go deeper with worship, so heavier, thicker (theologically) material works better on these days, but “bookend” these sets with lighter material
  3. Note what songs get your church really singing and use at least 1-2 of those songs every Sunday
    • If you haven’t already paid attention to this, do so now. It’s a really neat and remarkable thing to observe a congregation really get into a song
    • These are the kinds of songs that start at a low energy and have a powerful climax, or are high energy all the way through
    • See which songs double in volume, about halfway through, without any verbal instructions or music notation asking them to do it. This marks an emotional peak, and these peaks mean the congregation is engaged.
    • See which songs get the kids participating. Their voices are important too! We often talk about them being the future of the Church, but they’re also a critical part of the Church today, and we want to hear their voices
    • Here are a few go-to titles we sing at the Downtown church of Christ in Granbury:
      • In Christ Alone
      • Speak, O Lord
      • O Church, Arise
      • Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer
      • Before the Throne of God Above
      • Teach Me, Lord, to Wait
      • It Is Well
      • Our God, He Is Alive
      • Here We Are but Straying Pilgrims
      • Jesus Paid It All
      • I Surrender All
      • God Is Love
      • I Am Coming, Lord
      • The Lord’s My Shepherd (ORLINGTON)
      • Nothing But the Blood
      • The Battle Belongs to the Lord
      • Holy to the Lord
      • I Will Wake the Dawn with Praises
      • Lift Your Voice in Praise
      • Dare to Stand Like Joshua
      • Magnify, O Magnify
      • Lord, I Lay My Life at Your Feet
      • Soldiers of Christ, Arise
      • The Solid Rock
      • Just As I Am
    • Whatever list you make up, just don’t wear them out. Try not to sing a song more than once every 6-8 weeks, if you can help it. Some churches have a broader repertoire than others, so tailor this to your group
    • While you can plan a song set chock full of killer classic hymns, you can quickly use them up and run out of good material. Remember that planning worship also involves didactic song selections, which means sometimes compromising a little bit on song quality in favor of an important message you want to bring to the brethren
  4. Consider the mood when planning a song set
    • Every song has a mood, and they are all different.
    • Lead upbeat songs more often than slower, meditative songs.
    • Part of getting them singing means getting them thinking about the words. The words to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” practically demand a soft volume and a slower pace. The last verse is great for a louder, faster contrast (cut time). It is a natural response to the first 3 verses. By the way, this works wherever I’ve led it like this, and I’ve never given verbal instructions to do that. It just works….
    • If you rated the energy level of all your songs on a scale of 1-10, 1 being low energy or meditative, and 10 being high energy, then drew a graph, what shape would you create? The shape of that chart is a solid representation of the worship experience.
    • Varying up the mood is important, but try to transition from one song to the next smoothly, without a major contrast in tempo and dynamic, or else you’ll end up with what Bob Kauflin calls “The iPod Shuffle Effect”.
    • Communion themed songs are naturally more meditative than traditional “invitation” hymns. Not all Communion songs are dark narratives of the Cross, and not all good invitation hymns are upbeat, resolute songs from the gospel era.
    • Consider whether the mood of the songs will put people in the right frame of mind to participate in every aspect of worship.
  5. Get the church to stand
    • Everybody breathes better when they stand. Good breathing is important for good singing. It makes it far more effortless, and we want singers to focus on the message, not on the difficulty of singing.
    • Many churches have the tradition of standing before the sermon, which is effective (I wouldn’t make this the climax of the service though)
    • I prefer for the high point on a Sunday to be the closer, which we do after the closing prayer. This touch, coupled with standing, leaves people on a super high note
    • By the way, did you know it’s possible to ask the church to stand without saying “If you find it convenient….”? In fact, a simple smile, nod, and upward motion with both hands usually does the trick
If you haven’t tried one or more of these techniques, or haven’t used them consistently, I encourage you to give them a chance. You might be surprised how well they work! I pray your congregation is blessed by these tools and bid you Godspeed in your journey to facilitating God-pleasing and life-changing worship!

Ten Habits of Highly Effective Worship Leaders

Gloria Dei

We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning, worship starts in 5 minutes, and the song leader is frantically flipping through the book trying to find that invitation song he always leads. It’s no surprise when the worship isn’t very edifying and engaging, when preparation was an afterthought. (I used to be that guy, so I’m stepping on my own toes here).

We’ve probably also experienced the other extreme—a silky smooth assembly with seamless transitions, everything is thoughtfully done, and we’re left extremely encouraged. We may not even know exactly why, just that there were song lyrics, scriptures, and ideas that stuck with us well into the week. This doesn’t happen by accident!

I’ve tried to capture 10 ways that leaders plan this seamless, God glorifying worship that really changes and affects people. This is by no means a comprehensive list, or even a top ten list. You may think of ten more important attributes, and please don’t hesitate to share them with me!

A highly effective worship leader….

  1. Plans and leads worship with the goal of 100% participation from the congregation.
    • Doesn’t overwhelm the congregation with too much new music or bore them with the same 5 songs repeatedly  (this varies from group to group….some congregations enjoy learning lots of new music)
    • Plans song sets that play to the congregation’s ability and strengths. Congregations with weak part singing don’t do well with call and response songs, for instance.
    • When everybody sings, it sounds great. Even when there is a mix of good, average, and great voices, when everybody is engaged, worship sounds so much better, and this means more people are speaking and meditating on the Word. This is essential!
  2. Leads at a “thinking pace”, not too fast, hindering focus during worship, or so slow that singers have to breathe mid-phrase; Just the right pace.
    • Many leaders are often way too fast or way too slow, as if there is a total disconnect between leader and music.
    • This is likely because singing with feeling (expressive singing) is a learned skill, like riding a bike.
    • It seems that those with a band background tend to rush songs more, but this is not a scientific observation. Perhaps it is because much of that music is completely instrumental, rather than participatory singing by non-musicians. These are two completely different styles of music.
    • The mood of the song dictates the tempo, and the mood may even vary from verse to verse. Mood cannot really be notated, but effective worship leaders learn to sense the mood by studying the text.
    • This means that effective leaders don’t lead lyrics they don’t understand.
  3. Leads with lots of feeling, especially on songs that call for a lot of sensitivity and feeling.
    • This is very subjective and looks different with different people. As an example, a very animated person should be similarly animated and passionate in their worship leading, or it seems rather disingenuous. An introverted leader will lead in an introverted way, and this is okay too.
    • If you can help it, try not to lead with a poker face. Smile! Be natural and it will make a big difference.
  4. Exudes positive energy, causing others to pay attention and want to join in.
    • If you have a message you are passionate about bringing, you are far more likely to draw others in with your message than if you are very indifferent about it hat you have to say, and so it is true with messages in song.
    • Even when you’ve had a bad week, put on a smile anyway. When you put a smile on somebody else’s face, you will naturally be beaming anyway.
  5. Plans worship set days or even weeks in advance, except for emergencies.
    • Spends at least 4-6 hours planning worship, and coordinates with the speakers that day to reinforce or complement their message.
    • This gives more time for prayer, deeper song selection, and also comparing the song set to what has been recently sung already.
    • Leaders who thoughtfully plan will always grow stronger as a result, and will connect with hymns on a much deeper level, having meditated on lyrics for much more time than the congregation does during worship.
  6. Plans a balance of didactic (teaching) hymns and praise/response hymns.
    • Good leaders meditate on the Word and share them with the brethren.
    • Leaders that plan didactic song sets (themes) tend to be much more thoughtful, and therefore effective. Leaders that don’t thinking about the message often choose songs that have a good theme, but are, perhaps, delivered in a trite and ineffective way.
    • It’s almost like we were designed to do this… Colossians 3.16
  7. Uses an appropriate balance of verbal (vocal) and non-verbal direction, including conducting, posture, and visage (facial expression).
    • Unless the group is only 5-10 people (in which case, leading with your voice is usually sufficient), always conduct with clear, simple beat patterns. How much conducting depends on the articulation, the size of the group, and the size and shape of the room.
    • Smiles during joyful and upbeat songs
    • Doesn’t give out long lists of verbal instruction on the song.
    • In fact, most effective leaders give NO verbal instruction as it’s not necessary. Trying to remember long, complicated instructions during a song is a distraction, and is completely unnecessary. Tell them nonverbally as you go, add concise notes to slides if you must, or maybe don’t get too elaborate with interpretation.
  8. Uses mechanics and music theory as a means to an end (spirited worship), not the end itself (an idol).
    • ALWAYS use a pitch pipe or pitching device. No exceptions, except for emergency and impromptu singings (midnight baptisms, for instance)
    • The key indicated in the hymnal is selected not only by the composer, but possibly tweaked by the hymnal editorial committee so that parts are comfortable for all participants, whether they sing the melody (soprano), the inner voices (alto and tenor), or bass.
    • Some leaders ignore the indicated key, and, most of the time, remember a pitch that is 1, 2, even 3 steps flat. I don’t know why, but it is a natural tendency to remember a key that is much flatter than the actual key. Use a pitching device!
    • Remember that mechanics are tools—ingredients—to make worship an engaging experience, nothing more.
  9. Regularly asks himself, “What is best for my congregation?”, and plans and leads accordingly.
    • He coordinates with other leaders and they all agree on one arrangement of a given song, rather than each leading their favorite (confusing)
    • It might make or break whether or not the church sings a particular song that offends somebody or is too difficult.
    • Might mean I don’t do this “one cool thing”, even though it’s different or trendy.
    • Ask ourselves, “is this song or arrangement edifying, or will this just confuse or offend people?” It may be that people get offended, even when there’s nothing wrong with a song. Perhaps they misunderstand its meaning or don’t understand the concept of poetic license. Remember what Paul said in Romans 14. Don’t be a stumbling block. There are hundreds of other songs to choose from.
  10. Never stops learning.
    • He never “arrives” or graduates.
    • A teacher in song is no different from any other teacher, and the journey is lifelong.
    • He reads the Word more often than books about the Word.
    • He reads music and worship books with a view of growing as a sacred musician and as a strong spiritual leader
    • He joins Facebook groups like “Church of Christ Hymnody” and “Church of Christ Song Worship Leaders” to find a virtual support group of peers who can share feedback and best practices
    • He attends singing schools and worship workshops whenever possible, like the RJ Stevens Singing School (every leader should go to that at least once!)

Note that none of these 10 habits pertain to the quality of the leader’s voice. A really good voice is a wonderful quality of an effective leader, and if you have a great voice, use it for God! However, for those with average vocal ability, it’s important to know that they can still be highly effective, because it’s how that voice is used that particularly makes the leader effective.

Some of the best worship leaders don’t have a voice like Josh Groban. No matter your vocal ability, reverently guide singers to the Throne, facilitate thoughtful horizontal exhortation, exude positivity, and get them singing. Leave them wishing for one more song!