The first time I ever played drums at a church was when I was 12 years old. It was at Saddleback Church in our Jr. High Ministry, and I was scared out of my mind. Fast forward eight years and here I am today: 20 years old, finishing up my second year of college, leading a small group for 16 junior high boys of my own, and surprisingly, still playing drums. Over the years God has taken me to amazing places and introduced me to many new people through music. I have had the incredible opportunity to play at different churches all around southern California as well as many other states, and even a few different countries.
Perhaps the coolest thing about all this is that as a drummer, I have never exactly been the “worship leader.” This is actually a very good thing, as my singing voice is nothing short of dreadful. But being a drummer, I have had the opportunity to play for many different worship leaders, aging from 13 years old to those just barely hanging on. This experience has shown me many different styles of personality, leading, practicing, and preparing, giving me a unique perspective.
It would be great for worship leaders to be able to see how so many others do things, from preparing to practicing to performing, but situations rarely call for multiple worship leaders working together. Over the years I have begun to assemble the pieces in my head for what I feel works and doesn’t work in worship leading. I figured it was time to put these thoughts down on paper (and by paper, I mean digital paper—it’s 2008, baby). I would love to pass along just a few things I feel strongly about, and maybe even add more later. For now, here are just four of my somewhat organized, mostly jumbled drummer thoughts on worship leading:
1. Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics
I remember the first year that Saddleback Church hosted the Purpose Driven Worship Conference. One of the most impacting statements I heard that week came when Rick Warren said, “There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics.” I could take your favorite worship song and replace every word with “banana.” The rhythm and melody would be the same, but it definitely would not be a Christian song from my standpoint (and we would probably save a lot of time on our PowerPoint slides).
The point is this: If God has called us to lead others in worshiping Him through music, we must be focused on the elements of it that honor him.
For the past few months our college ministry worship leader, John, and I have been brainstorming and planning in hopes of recording a live album for our college group. One day we sat down to try and select songs for the project. We scribbled, crumpled, and argued for quite some time regarding what songs were “good” or “better.” The process has really helped me understand how I feel about song selection. I want to pick the best lyrics and make those the best songs. I don’t care if it doesn’t have a catchy guitar lick, a cool drumbeat, or has ever been recorded before. Pick lyrics that best reflect how incredible our God is and go from there. Let’s face it: Guitar players love drumbeats. Drummers love guitar licks. And bass players . . . well . . . bass players just like bass lines. Don’t convince yourself a song will work great in your congregation because you can’t stop playing the sweet jam to it.
2. You acknowledge your family at thanksgiving, why not on stage?
My family celebrated thanksgiving this year at my house. It was great because it meant that I held the remote for all the football games and I could put my feet up wherever I felt like it. I was watching football with my dad when the first guests began to arrive, and of course, I knew I should get up and greet them. It would be pretty awkward if I just continued to sit there, giving my relatives somewhat of a “Oh hey, the food is over there.” Yet sometimes I feel like this is what we do in our worship leading.
As a church family, God has gifted us with the ability to lead our family members in worship through music. This is a role He has placed in us AS A PART of the family. We are not outsiders in charge of putting on a show or doing a job. It just so happens that the way most American churches have it, our role in God’s family places us on stage with a microphone, a quarter inch cable, and (hopefully) a tuner. That is unless you play electric guitar, in which case you will also need some tasty Christian facial hair, preferably the soul patch.
The point is: Get comfortable, be real, and take as much time as you need to greet your family.
One of the best worship leaders at doing this by far is a guy I have had the chance to play with a lot recently, Tim Timmons. If you are going to play a service with Tim, you’d better be ready to play through the verse chords for a very long time. Because Tim will not play verse 2 without making you think about it first. He will read it to you, make you read it, make you ponder it, stop the band, whatever it takes. Awkward at first? Maybe. But aren’t all relatives awkward at thanksgiving?
3. Jamming is fun…for you
Obviously as a drummer this is difficult for me to say. But the fact is that we aren’t called to fun. We can’t put our desires ahead of God’s purposes. So when it comes to instrumental sections, jam riffs, solos, etc, don’t forget what you are called to do.
The point is: Don’t make the congregation feel like they are left out of something.
There are plenty of incredible ways to use instrumental parts. I think God moves just as much when we aren’t singing out to Him as when we are. But we need to be creative in the way we use instrumental parts. One of my favorite things is just filling space with media slides of verses for people to read and reflect. I am also a total sucker for piano, so anytime we have a great piano player who can carry a set, it’s great having them diddle around for a while, giving the congregation some time to meet with God in a different way.
This is not to say that jams are never okay. Often times, we need to just cut them in half. But then again I have played at a lot of summer camps and retreats over the years and you’d better believe we go crazy. But of course, students are singing, dancing, running around, and having a blast as well.
4. “Something like that” usually results in failure
Everyone should be familiar with this phrase, especially towards the end of rehearsal when every one is tired, hungry, antsy, and just wanting to be done. I am definitely not an advocate of extremely long practices or having to get everything just perfect (notice that I put that in bold), but there are certainly things we should focus on in practice that will help us when it comes service time.
The point is: Practice endings and transitions extra times.
We often have a tendency to want to practice the parts we love over and over, hoping that we don’t “screw it up” because we are so attached. I am so guilty of this that it’s not even funny. As a drummer, I of course love electric guitar leads. So whenever a lead guitar player isn’t nailing something I am attached to I want to practice that over and over until the little chump gets it right (righteous anger, people). But we must not neglect the value of smooth endings and transitions. I have probably experienced thousands of times in practice when we ended a song so brutally we would just laugh and say “Ha-ha, yea something like that.” Something like what? You just ended on three different chords, the lead guitar player was texting his girlfriend, the bass player was fiddling with his tone, and the drummer had already put his sticks down to grab a piece of pizza. So as long as you are okay with that being your “that”, then yes, you can move on.
Above all, I think the most important concept is that when it comes to worship leading, don’t think of it as “six songs” or “three songs and then a message and then two more songs.” It is simply a period of time that you are devoting to God being glorified. If you need to communicate something, do it. If you need to stop everything and let awkward silence fall over the room, do it. If you need to play a song or a chorus of a song again, do it. If you need to slow something down, have the rest of the band drop out, back off the microphone, and let the congregation take over, do it.
Since my first time playing drums in a church eight years ago, I have seen many amazing things happen among God’s family. Many of these things have happened through music. But there is no perfect formula for God to show up, there is no perfect set list, no perfect lyrics, no perfect singer or musician. So we should be grateful that God did not call us to be perfect singers or musicians or write perfect lyrics. God simply called us to show up, prepare, and step aside.
You can catch David on the SimplyYouthWorship podcast.