Reflections on Leading Worship at Together for the Gospel

If you just read the comments on my last Together for the Gospel post, you might be tempted to think that things went flawlessly. Not the case. Practically every time I lead I learn something new about what I’m doing, even though I’ve been leading worship for over 30 years now. I pray that I’m always learning something.

Here are some of the things I learned, put into practice, or remembered this year.

You can experience and express strong emotions for God while singing hymns.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say that hymns are dry, academic, lyrically dense, and inappropriate for “passionate worship.” That may be true in some people’s experience, but it certainly wasn’t the case at T4G. The times of singing were characterized at various times by awe, gratitude, wonder, joy, sorrow, celebration, and bold faith. I was filled with tearful amazement when we sang Isaac Watts’ “How Sweet and Aweful.” Definitely no connection between hymns and a lack of emotion.

The ideal congregational vocal range (at least when it’s mostly men) is about from an A to a D.
When I was preparing for the conference, I noticed that a number of the hymns were pitched in keys that were higher than I normally use. Melodies frequently got up around E and F. So I raised the keys of many of the songs. The first night we sang All Hail the Power in the key of G, which put the high note at a sustained E. After straining my voice and hearing a lot of guys drop to the lower octave, I went back to my original keys. Higher notes do make you sing with more passion, but when they’re too high, it’s just painful.

You don’t have to sing a lot of songs in a row to engage with God while singing.
Worship leaders sometimes say that you can’t really “worship” unless you’ve sung for at least twenty minutes. Nonsense. We didn’t have any problem engaging with God at the conference even though we never sang more than two songs in a row. It did help that some of the songs had six or seven verses.

Even hymns have complicated melodies.
More than once people have criticized modern worship songs for being too complicated. Hymns can be difficult to learn, too. “My Song is Love Unknown,” is a beautiful hymn, but very hard to pick up, even though I sang one verse by myself and the song has eight verses. “And Can it Be” is another challenging song if you’re unfamiliar with it.

Christians of diverse backgrounds and preferences can sing God’s praise together, because their unity is in the Gospel.
I’m sure there were guys at the conference who would have preferred using additional instruments and vocalists. I know because I’m one of them. But when we gather to celebrate our unity in Christ, musical preference becomes a secondary issue. I’m happy to sing with anyone when we’re magnifying the greatness of the Savior.

It can be more challenging to lead worship with a single instrument than with a band.
When I lead with a band I don’t have to carry every song musically. That means that leading by yourself in a small group can be more difficult than leading in a large congregation. On the other hand, I loved being able to use alternative voicings and chords whenever I wanted to.

When lyrics are projected, the person running them is a crucial part of the team.
I forget this too often. A good projectionist has experience, reviews songs in advance, and has equipment that works. Although our lyric operator at T4G was new at the task, she did a great job. After the first session she learned to put up the words just slightly before we actually sang them. We also reviewed the lyrics before I led. A number of songs had wrong, missing, or additional lyrics. Unfortunately, the computer she was using wasn’t operating properly, which resulted in us having to sing the last song (Crown Him with Many Crowns) with no projected lyrics. Oh well…

Leading musically doesn’t mean I can’t direct people’s faith towards God’s Word.
Although I’m sitting at a piano when lead, I’m most conscious of wanting to direct people’s hearts and minds to the truths we’re singing. To help me remember that fact, I always have a Bible with me on stage when I lead. Whether or not I use it every time, it makes the statement that we value God’s Word more than musical experiences.

There are many benefits to planning songs with someone else.
Planning the songs with Mark Dever was a joy. We started with a list of songs to choose from. I submitted my thoughts for the songs we should sing and it took 4-5 email exchanges for us to come up with a final list of songs and tunes. At Mark’s urging I wrote a new ending for the 4th verse of Come Thou Fount, as well as an alternate chorus for Come Ye Sinners. I also learned a few new songs, including My Song is Love Unknown.

I’m sure the next time I lead worship I’ll have plenty to learn again.

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28 Responses to Reflections on Leading Worship at Together for the Gospel

  1. Matt Freeman April 25, 2008 at 5:05 PM #

    Great feedback from the conference, and although I was not able to attend, the pastors in my church had great things to say about the teaching and times of worship. I think that hymns are an asset to a congregation’s worship, whether in a church or conference, and I thank God that you decided to showcase the solid lyrics and writers that God led to write.

    I will say that as a 24 year-old, I started out thinking the exact same thing about hymns: boring, old white guys, outdated, too many words, complex melodies. BUT, I have come to the gracious realization that hymns are a drink of cold water to a very thirsty generation, young and old. I’m blessed by songwriters, musicians and vocalists that have continued in the tradition of setting hymn texts to new music (i.e. Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, Matthew Smith, Brian Moss). I think combining lyrics that explore the entire spectrum of the Christian journey and music that is authentic and relevant to our age is an awesome way to “re-introduce” hymns in a sense, to the church and make us understand in a deep way that out faith has a history, and the gospel is still at work, 200-300 years after most of these hymns were penned.

    Bob, I’d encourage you as a worship leader to consider putting more hymns to new music, so that a “new song” is being sung, with words too good to miss out on. I want the same for my church.

  2. Joe Lee April 25, 2008 at 6:10 PM #

    bob, i definitely learned how powerful and passionate hymns are, not because of its musical intricacy but because of its central message of the Gospel from your leading during t4g. what was more impressive was the centrality of God’s Word in your leading worship – you recited the Scripture in the most of beginnings of your leading and that was powerful. thank you for igniting in me the passion and love for hymns. grace and peace. – an asian californian at t4g

  3. james April 25, 2008 at 6:55 PM #

    i like the new last verse of come thou fount and the new chorus of come ye sinners. have you heard the song thy mercies how tender by annie herring it is stunning. god bless

  4. -V- April 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM #

    Did you mean ‘How Sweet and AweSOME’? :-) Thanks for the great points here…

  5. Chris Anderson April 25, 2008 at 8:22 PM #

    Bob,

    I enjoyed the music very much. The selections were ideal, especially following and responding to the messages (e.g. “How Sweet” after the message on depravity, “All Hail” after the message on one race, etc.). They allowed us to respond to what we’d heard. I was blessed.

    I commented to a friend that those in attendance were like a knowledgeable sports crowd–one that knows when to cheer, when to hush, etc. The volume and energy would rise with the text (e.g. “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought” or “Finished the vict’ry cry!”).

    Thanks for your ministry.

  6. Sam Branchaw April 25, 2008 at 8:25 PM #

    I heartily agree about hymns. I tend to find them much more rewarding as worship songs as a general category, even having grown up in CovLife where modern worship songs are much more common (or at least have been in the past).

    I am curious about the need to rewrite the lyrics to Come Thou Fount. I have always particularly loved that hymn, and especially the last verse, and I don’t understand why it was necessary to change the last four lines. The new lyrics are fine, but I didn’t see quite enough of a difference to justify it. What exactly was the thinking behind rewriting it?

  7. Bob Kauflin April 25, 2008 at 9:19 PM #

    Sam,

    Thanks for asking about the last verse of Come Thou Fount. First, Mark thought the line “Take my ransomed soul away” could be misunderstood to mean, “Lord, get me out of here as soon as possible because nothing’s happening here.” Reformed Christians have been criticized for being so “other-worldly” that they’re no earthly good.

    But I’ve never really liked the last part of the original verse 4: “Send thine angels now to carry me to realms of endless day.” I just don’t think it’s a very strong way to end the hymn. So I tried to bring the focus around to God’s being faithful to his promises rather than introducing thoughts of angels.

    But in any case, I’m glad you’re thinking so much about what we sing, Sam!

  8. Bob Kauflin April 25, 2008 at 9:20 PM #

    -V-,

    No, I mean “How Sweet and AWEFUL.” The original was “awful,” but that means something different today. Some hymnals have changed it to “awesome” but we left it “aweful” because it’s a more unusual word and makes you more aware of what you’re singing. At least that’s the thought…

  9. Duane April 25, 2008 at 11:34 PM #

    Hi Bob. I was so blessed by the singing at T4G. The songs were so perfectly related to the messages that when we came to certain lines that spoke directly to the message we just heard I couldn’t wait to sing them! I wanted to shout them at the top of my lungs, and did in fact. I remember at T4G ’06 John MacArthur spoke of the importance of having our singing theologically informed. He was exactly right. Singing those songs was like putting the messages to music for me. In fact I downloaded the T4G messages to disc and purchased the songs from iTunes and placed them after the messages in the same order we sang them at the conference.

    One question. Why didn’t we sing more? Every time you told us to take our seats after singing all the guys around me said a collective “Oh man I wish we could keep singing.” Maybe a 20-30 minute span of time each day set aside just for singing. I felt like I was taking in all this great teaching from the Word but I wanted to exhale and let some of it out in song.

    Great job though. Thanks for your service. God bless.

  10. dave April 26, 2008 at 7:32 AM #

    Aweful was striking when we sang it. The way you’re modifying lyrics is great – I’d not noticed the change to Come Thou Fount, but really helpful clarification now I look back and see what you did!

    Great to see the thoughtfulness before, during and after the conference.

    A question I had at the end when we sang And Can It Be… in the UK we repeat the last two lines of each verse, but if I remember right at the conference we kept returning to the last two lines of the first verse – which was great, is that an American variation?

    Thanks for leading us to sing of the greatness of our God.

  11. Bob Kauflin April 26, 2008 at 9:11 AM #

    Duane,

    Sing more at T4G? I’d love to. I suggested your recommendation to CJ and they’ll discuss it for next time. Great idea to extend the singing for the evening meeting. Just so you know, Mark assigns me how many songs we’ll do in each session. I’m just following orders…

  12. Bob Kauflin April 26, 2008 at 9:13 AM #

    Dave,

    You’re right. When we sing And Can it Be in the U.S. we repeat the last two lines of the first verse. I had actually intended to do it the UK way, but the guys all sang it the way they knew it. Something else I learned – there are times when the best leadership is to follow the crowd.

  13. Scott Aniol April 26, 2008 at 8:43 PM #

    Bob,

    I love “My Song is Love Unknown” and especially that tune, but I agree that it’s a bit difficult for many congregations. Our church sings the text to ST. JOHN (CALKIN), which supports the text well and is much easier to sing.

    Does Mark’s church sing that version?

  14. Bob Kauflin April 26, 2008 at 10:42 PM #

    Scott,

    Great to hear from you! Capitol Hill only uses the John Ireland tune. I like the St. John tune as well and agree that it’s a little easier and still beautiful. If we learned it in our congregation, though, I’d probably take the time to use the Ireland melody. I think it’s stunning and with enough repetition it’s amazing what a congregation can learn to sing.

  15. don gale April 27, 2008 at 10:04 PM #

    Bob,
    Can I ask why the last verse of Come Thou Fount was changed? I like the alternate you wrote, I’m just curious why Mark “urged” you to change it.

  16. Bob Kauflin April 28, 2008 at 9:11 AM #

    Don,

    See my response to Sam’s question above. Better yet, just read it here:

    First, Mark thought the line “Take my ransomed soul away” could be misunderstood to mean, “Lord, get me out of here as soon as possible because nothing’s happening here.” Reformed Christians have been criticized for being so “other-worldly” that they’re no earthly good.

    But I’ve never really liked the last part of the original verse 4: “Send thine angels now to carry me to realms of endless day.” I just don’t think it’s a very strong way to end the hymn. So I tried to bring the focus around to God’s being faithful to his promises rather than introducing thoughts of angels.

  17. Drew April 28, 2008 at 1:41 PM #

    I agree that the Ireland tune for “My Song is Love Unknown” was both difficult and beautiful. I enjoyed hearing the guys in the room eventually grow into the tune.

    My favorite tune is Fernando Ortega’s version on the 2003 “Night of Your Return” album. That’s the version I’ll teach our congregation soon.

  18. Kyle April 28, 2008 at 11:53 PM #

    Bob,

    I was not familiar with “My Song is Love Unknown” until you linked to it here, and after watching several different performances of the piece on the wonder that is youtube, I have been singing it to myself all day. It’s haunting and beautiful and poignant.

    But, as I was singing it and reading through the lyrics this evening, something struck me: one verse speaks of the crowd who “sometimes… strew his way” and sang his praise, but then says of the same people “Then ‘Crucify!’ was all their breath, and for his death they thirst and cry.”

    I’m not sure this is biblically correct. I don’t think the people who sang Jesus’ praises when he entered Jerusalem were the same ones who demanded his death a week later. For a good summation of the argument, you can read this guest-blog post at Challies’ place: http://www.challies.com/archives/guest-bloggers/guest-blog-the-crowd-was-not-fickle.php

    So I guess my question is this: could such a biblical inaccuracy disqualify this otherwise worthwhile song? Are there ways to subtly re-write these lyrics to avoid speaking of the same group of people in each half of the verse, respectively? Or am I simply mis-reading the text, and Samuel Cross isn’t really talking about the same people at all?

  19. Scott Aniol April 29, 2008 at 10:01 AM #

    Bob, I agree that the Ireland tune is worth teaching. I was thrilled to hear it at T4G, although I think I was the only one in my section singing! Hopefully men will look it up and learn it. A pastor I was with asked me for details about it after the service, so hopefully others will do the same as well.

  20. Thom Inglin April 29, 2008 at 12:15 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank for sharing your thoughts with us! As always, this was a most informative and helpful post, bringing relevant instruction from your experience in the past and in the moment. I do have one question. You made the statement “Higher notes do make you sing with more passion” – do you really think that it is true that the pitch of the notes MAKE one sing with more passion? We have had more than one debate about key and vocal range on our team. Singing higher notes makes me FEEL like I’m singing more passionately, but is that real or just an illusion? I’d love to hear some further thoughts about this!

  21. Jim Pemberton April 29, 2008 at 1:43 PM #

    Great observations here!

    There is something about the older hymns we sing. Not too long ago I was in the Sunday lineup to sing in a trio. I could count on one hand the times I’ve sat in the congregation and watched the choir sing – I’m normally in the choir. However, it was logistically better for the three of us to sit on the front row and just come up instead of stepping over everyone in the choir. We sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” just before we went up. I’ve always been encouraged to see the congregation worship. I can see now why they are often so demonstrative. Watching God glorified in the worship choir was stirring and I found myself rather choked up as I thought of how God has been so faithful in my life. Then, as I stepped up I thought, “how can I sing after that?”

    I realized early on that a group of average men will sing better in lower keys. Providing music for Christian retreats, some of which are for men only, prompted me to create folders for the musicians that had lower keys for the men’s weekends. Especially early in the morning, nearly all men can be considered basses. There is a special glory to hearing a packed room full of men growling out “Our God Reigns” at full resonance.

    I especially appreciate your mention of keeping a Bible handy. Whenever I have the opportunity to lead, I love to verbally place the music in context, often calling to mind a particular experience in this world and using the meaning of the music to align our thinking scripturally and theologically to God.

    As for the learning of more challenging music, I’ve heard people from time to time complain about difficult music used for worship. While we don’t want the prevalence of such to be divisive, some measure of learning music is a discipline that is healthy for congregations to undertake. Worship itself is a discipline and the discipline of music can help a group of people focus on the goal, not of rehearsing merely music, but of rehearsing our praise to God in new and unifying ways.

  22. Philipp Keller May 1, 2008 at 8:40 AM #

    Hi Bob.

    About that projection problems: We’re a small congregation in Zurich, Switzerland. We use Powerpoint to project the songs but that program often overwhelms people (which sometimes are asked just 5 minutes before the service starts. And last sunday we had to sing the last 3 songs without any projection) and doesn’t leave room for spontanous songs.

    Do you have suggestions for better suited programs?

  23. Mike Otto May 2, 2008 at 10:26 PM #

    Sometimes it’s hard to think about all the elements and things that must come together on a sunday morning worship service. Even the way everything is lit can affect the mood and atmosphere of it all. These tips and advice were very useful probably for many worship leaders and even for those who lead every sunday in doing God’s work. In my opinion, the greatest truth that was spoken of was that of of course keeping the truth central to that of worship; its core. At times we can just go through the motions of planning services each week without keeping His word in the heart of it all, which in result leaves everything without support. It is something to definitely think on and reflect every time we lead and are in the congregation.

  24. David MacKenzie May 8, 2008 at 3:51 PM #

    Philipp, Covenant Life Church uses Sunday Plus to project lyrics and sermon quotes. We settled on it around 5 years ago. It’s what we used at T4G also. During the final T4G session we encountered a problem with a data file getting corrupt and crashing Sunday Plus when we opened it. At CLC we have a backup computer we can switch to at any time (though we almost never have problems with Sunday Plus there), but there wasn’t one ready and tested at T4G.

    At CLC we run the PC’s external monitor output into a 1×2 VGA distribution amplifier so we can preview what we’ll be sending to the projector on a second monitor. We didn’t have that set up at T4G either, which made last-minute edits difficult.

  25. Jay Turner September 3, 2008 at 3:11 PM #

    Bob:

    My pastor is doing a series on Restoration. The main idea is the work that God does to bring us back to himself. Can you give me some good song ideas to go along with this?

  26. Bob Kauflin September 3, 2008 at 4:12 PM #

    Jay,

    Thanks for asking. A few that come to mind:

    When Love Came Down to Earth – Stuart Townend
    Lost in Wonder – Martyn Layzell
    Here I Am to Worship – Tim Hughes (first verse)
    Alas and Did My Savior Bleed – Watts/Kauflin
    Great is Thy Faithfulness
    He’s Always Been Faithful – Sara Groves
    How Deep the Father’s Love – Townend
    You Led Me to the Cross – Redman

    Hope that helps.

  27. Chris @ Distribution amplifier December 31, 2009 at 12:02 AM #

    Nothing is more complex than the instrument which is the human voice. I also think it has limitless potential and is the most versatile of all instruments, so it takes enormous amounts of practice to get good at using it!

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