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Three Truths About Small Church Worship

Three Truths About Small Church Worship

By Jon Nicol   |  January 8, 2013

What I would say now to my 23 year old self working in a 60-person church...

How to Be the Ideal Worship Leader...

How to Be the Ideal Worship Leader...

By Jon Nicol   |  January 7, 2013

Superman worship leaders and other lies we believe...

3 Great Reasons to Attend Worship424 (and one just OK reason)

3 Great Reasons to Attend Worship424 (and one just OK reason)

By Jon Nicol   |  January 3, 2013

A great event that won't kill your budget...

It's the End of the World (and Why That Matters For Your Worship)

It's the End of the World (and Why That Matters For Your Worship)

By Jon Nicol   |  December 21, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it,
It's the end of the world as we know it,
It's the end of the world as we know it,
and I feel fine.

When I was in college, a local popular hard rock/heavy metal station changed its format. It was the mid-90s and big hair and make-up (on guys) was giving way to flannel shirts and acoustic guitars. "Grunge" was the flavor du jour, and this station knew better than to go down with the glam-rock ship. As they made their switch to "Alternative" they played that R.E.M. song non-stop for several days.

Probably for many of their avid fans, it felt like that. Their music with the over-the-top-guitar solos, screaming vocals, and distortion-dripping power chords was being sacked in favor of this moody, mid-tempo, acoustic-based stuff. They probably did feel like they really were going off the rails on a crazy train.

A couple weeks ago, I had my worship team over for a Christmas party. We converted our 4-seaon room into the "music den" for the night. I set up a dozen folding chairs and threw in several acoustic instruments. Turns out, I couldn't even get a seat in there halfway through the night. At one point I jumped on an empty chair while someone was refilling their egg nog. I still had to wait a half hour before I could get a guitar in my hands.

One of our newer team members, an early/mid-20-something, started making fun of certain worship songs. Kinda like how I make fun of "Lord I Lift Your Name on High." Only, it wasn't "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" or anything close to that era. It was my music he was making fun of. Stuff that I didn't think was that old and still seemed relevant, in moderation.

It is the end of the world. As I know it.

I turned 39 today, coincendently on the day that the world's ending - 12/21/12. Fifteen years ago, 40 seemed like a step from death. But now that I'm 365 days from it, not so much. And as I've progressed into middle age (ugh), I've gain decidely more empathy for the generations above me (the Boomers and the Builders).

I'm now starting to taste a little of what it was to have their beloved songs cast aside. Or if not cast aside, butchered up with drums and electric guitars.

Because of that, on the last Sunday in December, I'm going to do something a little different. We're going to embrace the first half of the saying, "out with the old and in with the new."

So we're "going out" with songs that are at least 20 years old. Most much older. There'll be a set of bluegrass-styled hymns a la David Crowder. But we'll also be doing a set of 80s choruses.

And yes, "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" is in there.

I'm going to use it as a teaching moment for several generations. To the students and 20-somethings, I want to say this:

"Your" music stands on the shoulders of your parents' and grandparents' music. Had not Bill Gaither came along, we may not have the kind of modern worship we see now. And if those worship leaders, writers & musicians in the 80s and 90s hadn't "fought" the "worship wars," we wouldn't have the groundwork laid for of the modern worship music we now enjoy.

And to the Boomers & Builders I want to say this: 

Thank you. We don't say that enough. Your music does matter. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to give you as much of it as you want on Sunday mornings. Why? Because we really do need to make room for the stuff that will appeal to your kids and grandkids. If we don't connect with them in the context of their culture, we'll lose them.

Your sacrifice of not having the music the way that you want it is actually drawing your kids and grandkids closer to Jesus. I hope you don't mind that it's their turn now. And, someday, their music will give way to the generation below them.

And I'll be tempted to go on about how musical style is only a tool in worship. But I probably will save that for another day. The above will probably be enough for both sides to digest.

Question for discussion: So how do you help generations understand each other and come together in your church?

Six Ways to Recover From Christmas

Six Ways to Recover From Christmas

By Jon Nicol   |  December 19, 2012

An Open Letter to the Yule-Stressed Worship Leader

Dear Worship Leader,

It's almost Christmas. Which means it's almost time for you to relax. Almost.

Second only to Easter, you've likely had, or are about to have, your biggest service of the year. For you, that might be a cantata with a fourth of your church in the choir. Or a time-consuming dramatic production. Or a bunch of special testimonies that you coordinated. Or extra videos and graphics to go along with the message series that you produced.

Or all of the above.

And besides all the "special" and "extra" stuff, you had to do all things that no one realizes, but they all expect:

First there's the music...

You scoured to find arrangements that bring some freshness to the "heard-it-and-sung-it-a-million-times" music of the holiday. And when you couldn't, you created your own arrangement. And how many hours have you put in to get all the charts and recordings out to the team…only to hear complaints that it wasn't quick enough, or they don't like the arrangement.

And don't forget the added pressure to make sure everyone's favorite carol is covered at some point in December. I realized I failed to schedule "The First Noel" this year. I'll probably hear about that one.

Which one did you forget?

Then there are your team members' personal schedules to contend with...

Who's out of town on the 3rd weekend? Who's got an office party they can't miss on rehearsal night? Who "doesn't do" Christmas Eve services because of their long-standing traditions with their spouse's side of the family?

Add to all this your own crazy schedule...

Your kids' programs. Parties you need to hit. Presents you need to buy. Cards you need to send. Family gatherings you need to coordinate. It's the stuff everyone goes through. But not everyone is also a worship leader.

And they just don't get that when you try to explain.

You, my friend, deserve a week of Dec 26ths. It might be too late to arrange a few of these, but here are some ideas for decompressing after Christmas:

1. Take a Sunday off. Soon.
Even if your church has to worship with an iPhone as the band. And don't just "not lead."

Skip church, and not just your own. Don't. Go. Anywhere.

Worship leaders get over-churched and need a break. Besides, if you went somewhere else you'd just sit and analyze what they're doing. I'm right, or am I right?

Or even better...

2. Take a whole week off. Really soon.
There's nothing worse than pushing through a season like Christmas only to immediately re-enter the grind of weekly worship leading. Even though you're in it for the long haul, ministry isn't a marathon. It's a series of sprints and rests. Find the rhythm that allows you to do both well.

3. Do something utterly "selfish."

  • Get a massage or spend a day at the spa.
  • Spend a day locked away with a good book.
  • Rent 4 movies that you love and watch them all in one day. In your pajamas.
  • Go to an indoor golf center and hit some balls.
  • Take a long drive.
  • Get rid of the kids for a few hours and reintroduce yourself to your spouse. Make a little whoopy. (Yeah, I said it.)  

4. Embrace the simple for a few weeks/months.
Easter will be here before you know it. So keep things simple and allow the systems you've created to do the heavy lifting. I'm not suggesting you lead worship on auto-pilot. But don't feel the pressure that every service needs to "top" the last one.

5. Plan to say no.
Make a list of five common requests you wish you would've said no to this year. Spend a few minutes counting the cost of saying yes. Now spend more time imagining the freedom of politely declining these kinds of requests next year. Go and say yes no more.

6. Schedule an appointment with a counselor.
Was the holiday that bad that you need therapy? Maybe, but more likely you just need to have some guilt free unloading. $75 is a bargain to have a chance to verbally dump all your stuff out on someone who's not emotionally tied to you. Your spouse would probably be happy to pay for it.

So when the little white candles have all been collected after the Christmas Eve Service, and you've enjoyed the 25th with your family, take some time for yourself. It's not a matter of having to earn it or deserve it (although you have). It's a matter of needing it. And you, my worship leader friend, need it.

And just know that you have every right to see "self-care" as an option or a luxury. But you'll also have the "luxury" of burnout if you do.

Merry Christmas. And somewhere soon may you find the true comfort, joy, and peace which feeds your soul and revives your heart.

Your fellow worship leader,


An Untamed God - A Team Devotional

An Untamed God - A Team Devotional

By Jon Nicol   |  December 18, 2012

The gospel—the good news—of the Christmas story, isn’t JUST that God became man. But that he entered our mess. He waded and swam in the pool of our sin and our filth in order to rescue us, to pull us out of the mess that we’re in.

And thirty some years after this messy entrance into a messy world, Jesus hung on a cross and took upon him all that is wrong with us. He took our sin, our sickness, our filth, and paid the price that it required. He cleaned up our mess. He made us beautiful. If we should tame this holiday, if we should sanitize the story of His birth, we will miss whole point of Christmas.

Most Christmas messages preach “it’s better to give than receive.” And that’s true. But each Christmas, I think we’re asked to receive…

…the truth that God is wild and beyond anything we can imagine.

…the truth that he cannot be tamed, nor should His story be tamed.

And receive the truth that He is good. He calls to himself hurting people--people bruised by world, marginalized by society. He has no time for those who think they’ve got it all together. But He has time for smelly shepherds, for beggars, for prostitutes, for bastard children just like he was perceived to be. He has time for messy people who recognize their messiness. That’s what he came here for. That’s why the perfect and the holy entered into our grime and depravity.

Receive the truth that you are loved by a God who did not require you to pay for your mess. But He came Himself, in Jesus Christ, to clean the dirt and wipe the tears and lift you out of the mess and into His arms.

Don’t let that truth be tamed.

Read: Romans 5:6-8


Why is it so easy to forget that God is “wild and beyond anything we can imagine”?

“He has no time for those who think they have it all together.” What is it about our “independence” and “self-reliance” that moves us away from the rescuing arms of Jesus?

What are some actions in worship that move us away from “having it all together” to being people who “recognize our messiness”?

“While we were yet sinners” – we’ve heard that phrase over and over. What does it really mean, and why is it so amazing that God would “demonstrate his love” for us?

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 6

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 6

By Jon Nicol   |  December 17, 2012

What makes people want to sing a new worship song again?

Worship Leader: Does Your Noel Feel Like Hell?

Worship Leader: Does Your Noel Feel Like Hell?

By Jon Nicol   |  December 14, 2012

Sanity can be a scarce commodity for worship leaders as we trudge through Advent.

An Unsafe God - A Team Devotional

An Unsafe God - A Team Devotional

By Jon Nicol   |  December 12, 2012

The Mess of Christmas
Part 3: An Unsafe God

We sing about a lot of different characters at Christmas. But have you noticed we don’t sing sentimental songs of the jealous king who tried to connive the wise men into leading him to the young usurper?

He would have no competition. He would have no rival. He alone was great--Herod the Great. And to insure this, he ordered the execution of those guilty of being a boy under the age of two. He slaughtered toddlers to protect his throne.

No. No carols are sung of him. This part of the story doesn't make it into our songs or our annual recitation of the birth of Jesus. That would take away from the quiet and the sentiment that we like so much at Christmas.

And that’s what we want from our Baby Jesus. One that is cute. One that is sentimental. One that we can control, or at least forget about in our daily routine. Why do we want this image? Because we want a safe God. We want a God who isn't riddled with paradox. We want a God that we can figure out. We want a God who is neat, clean, and safe.

But God is not safe. And He cannot be figured out by formulas or unriddled by reason. Nor can His visible image, Jesus Christ.

[An excerpt from the ebook, The Taming of Christmas]

Read: Job 9:1-12

“We want a God who is neat, clean and safe?” In what ways does Christianity today reflect that statement? Do we see some of that in our own church?

In what ways do we try to “control” God?

What are some ways we can focus on the mystery and wildness of God in our corporate worship?

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 5

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 5

By Jon Nicol   |  December 10, 2012

We've been discussing "gift-giving" as a metaphor for introducing a new song. If you haven't read the previous posts in this series, you can find them on the "Planning Songs" resource page.

7. The Opening

The opening is simply the first time the congregation is invited to join in with the song.

You’ve done your best to create anticipation for a song. You’re team has prepared the content and wrapped it beautifully. You’ve presented it to the congregation in a way that helps them know it’s important and worth the investment to learn. But once you give it to them to open, it’s now up to them to make it their own.

Barring an outright rejection on first sight, what happens next in the gift-giving/recieving process is a “sampling.” And the sampling follows so closely with the opening that it makes sense to look at them together.

8. The Sampling

So what’s the sampling look like?

Let’s say you buy your grandpa a new sweater. The knitted kind with red reindeer and powder-blue snowflakes.

His favorite.

Grandpa holds it out to look at it. Then holds it in various angles so everyone in the room can ohh and ahh. Then he holds it up to himself to check the fit.

Then, if he really likes it (and I think he does), he takes off his Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt and tries it on. Hopefully he’s wearing something under the Hawks sweatshirt, or it’s a tad awkward for the rest of the family. Especially grandma.

He just sampled it.

This is where this gift metaphor breaks down. (Actually, it breaks down a lot, but you’ve been gracious enough to go this far with me.) Most people are concerned about the gift-giver’s feelings. The sampling is part of the ritual of gift-giving/receiving that says, “I like this so I will to try it on (turn it on, open the case, touch it, smell it, taste it, etc.).” It affirms the giver that she gave a good gift.

Your congregation, however, is likely not worried about your feelings when it comes to learning a new song.

It’s not that they’re bad people. They just aren’t out there thinking, “Oh geez, we better sing this song so Pastor Mike won’t get his feelings hurt.” (Unless you’ve demonstrated to them that you’re an emotionally needy person with a fragile ego. In that case, you should probably be reading a different book that could help you with that. Or finding a therapist.)

What does "the sampling" look like?
So the sampling by your congregation likely runs a wide spectrum. On one side, you have the arms-crossed, brow-furrowed guy studying the projected lyrics to ascertain whether this song is worthy of singing. You’re tempted to send your 4’ 9” spitfire soprano down to grab him by the collar, get in his face, and yell, “Just sing the song, dude!”

You know she’d do it, too.

On the other side, you have that one lady who sings super-loud to everything whether she knows the melody or not. She also has fourteen cats in her house. That she knows of.

Most people are in between, neither eliciting a beat-down from Kristin Chenoweth nor needing a cat-hording intervention.

The bottom-line with the opening and the sampling is this:

It’s now up to them.

People will respond differently. Just give them the time and space to learn the song. BUT, don’t overdo it the first time out.

Leave Them Wanting More
What do I mean by that?

Let’s say you give someone a box of chocolates. Chances are, she’ll eat one, maybe two, pieces. And of course, she’ll offer you a piece. (Let’s face it, that’s pretty much why we give people chocolate.)

What she won’t do is hork down the whole box right after opening it (unless she’s related to the cat-lady).

And what she doesn’t want is you hovering around, saying, “Oo! Try this one. That’s the caramel one. Oh, and this one has almonds. Here, eat it. And try the one that looks like a turtle. OMIGOSH – nougat! You’ve GOT to try the NOUGAT!”

But we as worship leaders tend to do that. We’re so excited about the new song, so we want everyone to experience the full depths of it right away. We try to cajole people into “singing out” and “entering in.”

But our congregation is just trying to match the words on the screen with the ones you’re singing. And we think we’re being helpful when repeat the song “a few more times.”

But let me encourage all of us worship leaders to adopt this philosophy when it comes to new songs: leave them wanting more.

Why? Because we want them to want to do it again. Which is the ninth component for introducing a new song. And we'll dive into that soon.

Free Christmas Song - MP3, chart, video lesson & how-to

Free Christmas Song - MP3, chart, video lesson & how-to

By Jon Nicol   |  December 7, 2012

Merry Christmas from Jon & WorshipTeamCoach.com!

If you want to take a few of your Christmas songs down a different route this Advent, consider using some jazz influenced arrangement. Or if you just want to learn some basic jazz guitar stuff, check this out.

The 18-minute lesson shows you how to play the changes to this jazz arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. To say Merry Christmas, to my blog readers, you can download the MP3 and chordchart/how-to-guide for FREE for a short-time.

And stop back frequently over the next couple weeks before Christmas. We'll be giving away more songs from the album.

And we're also running a big fat sale on the guitar book and MP3 album for Christmas if you want the whole enchilada. So don't miss that.

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 4

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 4

By Jon Nicol   |  December 6, 2012

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

6. The presentation

For my first vocational ministry experience, I was a youth and worship pastor in small church in a small town in Ohio. During that time, the acoustic guitar I had been playing since high school was slowly falling apart. One of the members of the church (we'll call him Rob, because that's his name) found out about it and secretly began a collection to buy me a new guitar.

The church, from what I was told, actually got really excited about it. How I didn’t find out about it is either a testament to their discretion or my obliviousness.

One Sunday when I was gone Rob gave a progress report. The amount they had raised was $666. Someone ran to the front with a dollar bill, not wanting any bad juju in the church. They eventually raised over a $1000 to give to me. For that church at that time, that was huge!

When the time came to give me the check, do you think Rob just mailed me a check and said, "A few of us chipped in. Here’s a grand for a new guitar."

No way.

The whole church wanted in on this. When I had finished leading worship one Sunday, Rob came up to the platform. He expressed how much they appreciated me and loved me and wanted me to put this money they had raised towards a new guitar.

There was clapping. And cheering. And hugging. And laughing at my gaped-mouth surprise.

The way they presented the gift made the content of the gift even more valuable.

We need to consider that as we introduce new songs. The way we present new songs matters. We add value to the song by presenting it well.

Here are just a few suggestions to do that:

1. Arrange.
Reshape both the instrumentation and form it to fit your church and team.

2. Prepare.
Know the song inside and out.

3. Internalize.

Get to know the lyrics that you’re singing, so you can reinforce with non-verbally expression what the song is saying. 

4. Introduce.
Why are you adding this song? Why does it matter.

5. Teach.
Respect people enough to bring them along. They will embrace the new song if given the chance to learn it, versus having it sprung on them.

You can get more ideas for presenting a song well in the series 5 ½ Tips for Teaching New Songs.


The Mess of Christmas - A Team Devotional

The Mess of Christmas - A Team Devotional

By Jon Nicol   |  December 5, 2012

A Christmas-themed devotional for your worship team...

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 3

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 3

By Jon Nicol   |  December 4, 2012

Read Part 1, Part 2

5. The Anticipation

Let me ask you this:

How excited is your congregation to learn a new song? 

If you and I gave our churches a list of 20 things that could occur on a Sunday and asked them to rank them in order from most favorite to least favorite, do you think “learning a new song” would land in the top 5?

Probably not.

Top 10? Still doubtful.

I’m not sure “learning a new song” has a decent shot at scoring higher than “announcements” in many of our churches.

Why is that? Why would people rather hear someone drone on about a bake sale fundraiser than learn a new song of worship? It’s almost as if new music is an anathema for many of our people.

I think there are three reasons:

1. People don't like change.

2. We don’t have a critical mass of true worshipers.

3. We haven’t taken the time to create a culture that loves learning new songs.


Unfortunately, dealing with these reasons indepth are beyond the scope of this post. But I think we need to consider a few things.

First, the whole "hate change" excuse. It's crap. If people didn't like new things movie theaters would still be showing Rebel Without a Cause and Top 40 Radio would still be spinning Love Me Do. So let's move on to the next two excuses. I think they're the real reasons.

You can address the third reason without dealing with the second one.

In other words, we can create a culture of people who LOVE to sing worship songs. That doesn’t make them people who are truly Christ-worshipers.

If you have true worshipers, it will be much easier to create a culture that anticipates new songs.

People who have an earnest hunger and thirst for Jesus will want to find more ways to express that love.

So where do we start building anticipation for a new song?

It starts with us - the leaders and the team. In fact, when it comes to giving a gift, often times the anticipation is greater for the giver than the receiver.

I could barely hold back from giving the iPad to Shannon. I was certainly more excited than she was (at least until she knew what she was opening).

Does your team get excited about a new song and look forward to presenting it to your church? If not, why would your congregation be excited? So that’s where you need to start. That kind of enthusiasm is contagious.

What else can we do to build anticipation among the congregation?

When I think about someone experiencing anticipation for a gift, I think of the kid looking at a pile of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. He’s about to wet his Avengers pajamas because the anticipation’s so great.

Can we really build anticipation for a new song in our worship gatherings (maybe without the bladder control issue)?  I think we can. And I’ll be talking more about this in the book working on - SongCycle: A System for Introducing, Rotating and Retiring Your Songs.*

And each time we build anticipation for one new song, we take another step towards becoming a church that values and expects new music.

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 2

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 2

By Jon Nicol   |  December 3, 2012

Last week we began a new series* looking at why introducing a new song to our congregation is like giving a gift. Here are two more components to introducing a new song.

3. The Box

All of our songs come in a box. The melody. The chord structure. The song form. The tempo. The key. It’s the tangible stuff that holds the contents and makes them more significant.

Too often, worship teams give little thought to the box. They go one of two ways:

One, they just throw the song out there in the box it came in, without regard for what kind of box their church needs.

For example, just because a good song from Jesus Culture came in a “9 minute” box, doesn’t mean you should give it to your church that way. Most of our churches, honestly, aren’t ready  for extended-length songs. They maybe can only handle the 3½ minute radio mix.

Another good example of this is the key. Too many worship leaders (usually us tenors), keep the song in the original key without regard for the congregation. It’s one thing for the recording artist to put it in that ideal, smoking high range. But your congregation will be unable to enjoy the contents if the box is unopenable.

The second way worship teams give little thought to the box is when they don’t settle on their defaults: default key, default arrangement, default form.

Every time the song is presented, it feels a different. Different form, different instrumentation. Different tempo.

Believe me, I'm a huge proponent of straying from the recording. But I've learned the power of a "default," especially during the learning phase. Keep the dimensions of the box the same. It helps the people know what they’re opening up.

Once a song is well-known, have some fun with it. Change it up. But until then, try to keep the variables to a minimum to help the learning process.

4. The Wrapping

According to one eco-site, consumers spend $2.6 billion annually on wrapping paper. The environmentally conscious among us see that as a huge waste of trees. (They’re probably right.) And the pragmatists among us just call it a waste of money. (They’re probably right, too.)

But still, there’s something to getting a gift that’s deliciously wrapped in beautiful, crisp paper and adorned with a bow, rather than the classified ads from the Sunday paper.

The added beauty and excellence we put into a worship song is partly like the wrapping paper - it attracts people to the “present” and leads them to experience the “contents” – the words of the song.

And I say “partly” because I believe adding excellence and beauty in our music goes deeper than that. It’s not just to draw people in like some shiny lure. I believe the artist endeavor to make beautiful music is in itself an act of worship (when done with the right heart).

We shouldn’t try to create excellent art just to attract people. I don't think that's the right motivation. God didn't speckled the sky with the Milky Way just hoping we'd like it, and then in turn like him. He was just creating beauty for his glory and enjoyment. And since we're created in his image, it does draw and attract us.

That’s what beauty and excellence does. (Phil 4) The beauty and excellence in our music needs to flow from a true desire to create good art. It will glorify God if done from that place. And it will also draw people.

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 1

Nine Key Components to Introduce a New Song, Part 1

By Jon Nicol   |  November 30, 2012

Last year, my wife’s laptop was pooping out. I decided to get her an iPad for Christmas. When it arrived, I didn’t just throw it into her lap and say, “Here. Merry Christmas.”

No way.

First of all, I was a tad giddy when I ordered it, because I knew she wanted one. (OK, I wanted one. But I knew she’d love it, too.) When it arrived, I took great care to hide it from her. And I knew better than even attempt to remove it from the packaging to "test" it. I wanted it to be perfect.

One day in mid-December, her computer was giving her fits. Knowing the iPad was in the other room, I had two choices. I desperately wanted to give it to her. But I knew it would have more impact on Christmas morning. So I opted for the latter and waited. And then did what any good husband would do:

I messed with her head.
“Shannon, I’m so sorry your computer’s not working. You know, we should probably budget some money to buy you a new one this next year. We could probably afford to get you something by this summer.”
I thought she might fling her lemon-of-a-Toshiba at my cranium.
A few days before Christmas I wrapped it. I even put it in a bigger box so she didn’t have a chance of guessing what it was, and I placed it under the tree. Christmas morning went by and she opened only a few presents. Finally when most of the kids’ stuff was opened, I grabbed it and said, “Here, open this one.” I had the video camera ready.

She cried.

Yes! (It was a good cry, mind you.)

All that preparation to give that gift was so worth it (even the head games). But why do I tell you this story?

Because I think we need to introduce our new songs like that. New songs are a gift that we give to the people in our churches to encourage them to worship God. The introduction to a new song needs to be as thoughtful and deliberate as giving that iPad to my wife. But maybe skip the head games.

Think about everything that's involved with giving a gift:

The Preparation.
The Contents.
The Box.
The Wrapping.
The Anticipation.
The Presentation.
The Opening.
The Sampling.
The Expectation of Enjoyment.

I know. I never really thought about how much went into a gift before that either. Let's look at preparation.

1. The Preparation
I would never put a half assembled bicycle with missing parts under the Christmas tree for my son. (OK, I would, because I'm inept at anything mechanical. But at some point, my wife would take over and I would assist her by handing her tools and making her cocoa.)

But the way we prepare to introduce new songs often resembles that half-finished bike. Too often, we have the mindset that the first few Sundays can be subpar till we "get to know the song" (see #3).

Here's something I need to hear as much or more than you: Prepare like you're presenting the song for a royalty. Because you are.

2. The Contents
In the fall of 2007, Mattel issued a recall on over 10 million toys that had been made in China. Why? They were possibly coated with lead paint, as well as a few other "minor issues” (that could cause death and permanent disfiguration).
Imagine a parent who had purchased some of those toys as Christmas gifts for their kids. After hearing of the recall, how many moms would have said, “Ah, my kid really wants this. He won’t know the difference.” Mom then wraps it up and sticks it under the tree.

Nope. Not happening. That talking "Mater the Tow Truck" went back to Toys R Us faster than it could say "git r done."

The content of the gift is really the song itself. We can have all the other components "right." But if it's not the right song, you're giving your congregation a lousy gift.

As the worship leader, you are the gatekeeper of songs in your church. It’s your job to make sure songs are life-giving to the church. Not just shiny and fun.
And you aren’t just on the look out for heretical stuff.  You want to make sure that your church is also getting the songs they need, not the just songs they want. For more on this, here are eight questions you can ask to help select the right new songs.  

Up next in part 2, The Box & the Wrapping.

An Interview with David Santistevan

An Interview with David Santistevan

By Jon Nicol   |  November 29, 2012

Ever wanted to record a live worship CD? Hear from one worship pastor who did, and lives to tell about it...

Top 10 (Worst) Ways to Introduce a New Song In Worship

Top 10 (Worst) Ways to Introduce a New Song In Worship

By Jon Nicol   |  November 27, 2012

I've been working on an expanded ebook of the SongCycle seminar. I started having some fun with the chapter on "introducing new songs" and this popped out. Love to have improvements to these and any new ones you might have. And of course you will get credit in the book if I use yours. Just be prepared for the fame and riches will likely follow...

Top 10 (Worst) Ways to Introduce a New Song In Worship

Before you begin the song:

Tell your congregation, “This is the best worship song EVER. Only a moron couldn’t worship to this.”

Spend 12-18 minutes analyzing the lyrics. Give personal, vividly-detailed testimony to back up each line.

Dedicate it to the memory of your favorite childhood pet, Rufus the Gerbil.

Point out the fact that the song has the same delayed-guitar riff and chord structure as U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”


Put it at the very beginning of the service with no mention that it’s new. Invite people to stand and sing along. Chide them midway through the second chorus for “not praising Jesus loud enough.”


Make sure you have thick 4-part harmony throughout the entire song. And while you’re at it, don’t tell the sound guy who’s singing the melody.

Use marionettes to teach the song. If they're fashioned to look like your senior pastor and his wife, even better.

Don’t practice the song. Then inform the congregation, “We’ll be learning this together,” as you strum what you think might be the introduction.

Create demonstrative motions for every phrase. Verbally shame people into participation.

Sell sponsorship for the song. “This new song is brought to you today by Jim’s Auto Part Palace and the good folks over at Ron and Edna’s School of Taxidermy.” Stop mid-song for a brief word from Edna.


The Reality of the Nativity

The Reality of the Nativity

By Jon Nicol   |  November 26, 2012

What follows is an segment from the ebook, The Taming of Christmas, with a short scripture reading and discussion questions added. It's designed to use as a team devotional with your worship team during the advent season. I'll post a new one each Monday for the next three weeks leading up to Christmas.

Why Do We Sing In Worship?

Why Do We Sing In Worship?

By Jon Nicol   |  November 21, 2012

To all my friends in the US: Happy Thanksgiving! This is last post I'll write for this week. So I thought I'd weave some thankfulness-stuff in. See you next week and have fun eating too much.

Why do we sing? We do it so often, but have you ever stopped to think why? Before I offer a small fraction of the answer, let me ask you a question.

Ever had your pastor stand up and give this announcement before the worship service began?

"Please refrain from getting wasted during worship."

That's essentially what Paul is telling the Ephesians 5. But that was part of their culture:

Gather. Drink. Sing songs to their gods. Drink more. Sing louder.

I think the closest modern equivalent in our culture to that is the karaoke bar. There's one thing you can plainly see at a karaoke bar:

Drunk people like to sing.

There's a fitting phrase to describe being drunk: under the influence.

Paul is telling the Ephesian Christ-followers to now be under the influence of the Holy Spirit - "be filled with the Spirit." And this is an ongoing action. A more precise reading would be "be being filled." Constant.

Did you notice that this is a command? But if you read this in some translations, it can seem like what follows is more of a suggestion. In the ESV, which is a more literal translation, the command, "be filled with the Spirit" is immediately followed by

addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It's all part of one command. And I don't think it's willy-nilly run-on sentence that Paul flippantly penned. There's something to this progression:

God's people gather under the guidance and influence of the Spirit Jesus promised. This infilling is an act of grace that allows us to live out what's next:

We can't help but sing songs of Jesus-centered, heart-geniune worship.

And out of that, thankfulness pours.

And then Paul tacks on this pesky little thing about mutual submission. But even that is part of worship - "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."

It's interesting that out of worshiping the Lord we find thankfulness. And out of thankfulness we find acts of unity and community.

And all that comes through Spirit-led people worshiping together.

I think that's a pretty good reason to sing.

Eight Reasons to Manage Your Songs Better

Eight Reasons to Manage Your Songs Better

By Jon Nicol   |  November 20, 2012

This is a draft of a chapter from a new book I'm working on called "SongCycle - Creating a System to Manage Your Music" (working title...don't hold me to it).

I'd love to get your constructive feedback on this in the comment section below.

If you want to learn more about this system before the book is released (late January, God willing), you can. It's based on my ebook What's In My Playlist and the SongCycle webinar. Both are free.

Five Actions to Prepare for Growth

Five Actions to Prepare for Growth

By Jon Nicol   |  November 19, 2012

Last week we started talking about how to get more musicians and, specifically, two huge factors that affected that:

  1. the size of your church - the larger your church, the more potential musicians you'll have
  2. the quality of your church music -  good musicianship attracts good musicians.

There are plenty of resources telling how you should take care of the first issue - growing your numbers, aka "church growth." If you can wade through the pond of shallow promises filled with magic bullets and quick fixes to find something that works for your church, great.

But as worship leaders and musicians, we're likely to be more effective growing a worship ministry if we focus on the second factor, good musicianship. There's a problem with this this concept that good musicianship attracts good musicians. It chases its own tail:

We need more (and better) musicians in order to attract more (and better) musicians. So to get more (and better) musicians, we'll need to find more (and better) musicians. So we need to find more (and better) musicians...

Let me first say this - this is not the ultimate key to landing more musicians. While it's a significant factor, ultimately God is the provider. He can work with or without these factors. But there always seems to be a pattern of preparation in scripture. And becoming a church with better musicianship is likely part of that pattern.*

I liken it to building a bigger bucket. Through God's strength and guidance, we build buckets. But it's up to God to fill those buckets.

If we all we build is a 5-gallon worship ministry bucket, then why would God fill it with 10 gallons of musicians? There is no way we could be good stewards of that.

So what are some ways to build a bigger bucket specifically in the area of musicianship? Here are five ideas, and I'd love to hear more:

1. Care and develop the ones you already have.

Why would anyone want to join a team who's leader doesn't invest in them. Again, it's a stewardship thing.

2. Create an administrative structure (bucket) that can handle more than you have right now.

There's more here than we can discuss today. But the structure it takes to manage a team of 10 will woefully fail when that teams grows to 20. So move to a structure that has room to grow.

Consider a service like PlanningCenterOnline. It can grow with you - and you could even start for free. Here's a post I wrote to learn more about PCO.

3. Cast vision for growth.

Keep your team looking outward and upward. Too many times teams put out an "us four and no more" vibe that turns potential musicians away. Help them to think like stewards and not kings and queens of tiny fiefdoms.

4. Increase expectations for preparation.

This doesn't necessarily mean practice more and rehearse longer. Raise the quality of your musicianship through the right kind of practice and rehearsals. Grow in your understanding of team musicianship. Develop some arranging skills.

And try stuff that you might fail. The fear of failing can be fresh motivation for musicians stuck in status quo chord-pounding. (And remember, teach your team that failure is acceptable as long as you learn from it.)

5. Look at what some the "next-size" churches are doing.

Look at how their worship leaders lead. Study at their administrative and communication structures. Talk to their musicians about how they prepare.

And the "next-sized" thing is important. If you're a church of 250, don't spend time looking at churches of 2000. You might learn a few things, but their structures and practices will probably be too big a leap from where you're at.

Instead, look at churches that have passed the very next growth barrier that your church will face. As a church of 250, check out churches between 500 to 700 attendees. You won't be able to do a lot of what they do, but you can start to cherry-pick those methods and principles that will help you grow your bucket.

What this is not...

I want to be clear. This bigger bucket thing really isn't about some "build it and they will come" version of the prosperity gospel. We can do all this activity of building a bigger bucket, and still never see musicians come in.

It's really about opening up our hands even wider and asking God for more. More for His glory. More for His Kingdom. Anything else, and we're just building buckets in vain.

Question: So there's five suggestions to prepare for growth - what would you suggest?

Worship Mixing: Guitars & Basses...

Worship Mixing: Guitars & Basses...

By Jon Nicol   |  November 16, 2012

A conversation between three worship/tech leaders about their experiences with the plugged in axes and the amps that power them...

Get More Musicians: Two Factors That Affect Growth

Get More Musicians: Two Factors That Affect Growth

By Jon Nicol   |  November 12, 2012

Every church has one of two problems.

First problem:
Finding enough musicians.

Second problem:
Choosing between too many musicians.

You're probably wondering where you can sign up for the second problem.

Since the majority of churches are dealing with the first problem, I'm beginning a series called "Get More Musicians."

For this first installment, let's talk about two huge factors that affect the number of musicians.

Pool of Eligibles
The first factor is your church's size.

The law of averages is at work here: the larger your church, the deeper the pool of eligible musicians.

In the average church of 150, the chance of finding 25 solid musicians is slim.

In a church of a 1500, chances are good that you'd find at least 25 solid musicians.

The second factor that affects growth is musicianship.

A talented musician began attending our church this year and recently joined the worship team. I wonder if he would have even attended our church four years ago. He certainly wouldn't have enjoyed being on the team at that point in our development. Our level of musicianship was sketchy.

It's shining example of a principle I learned years ago: Good musicianship attracts good musicians.

While I was serving as a guitarist and youth leader at a megachurch in Minneapolis, I was in awe of the caliber of musician that attended there. More poured in weekly. The leadership regularly turned away musicians that most churches would have been ecstatic to include.

Great musicianship drew great musicians. And 6000 people attending every weekend helped, too. (That's more like an ocean of eligibles versus a pool...)

In every church where I served on staff, my worship ministry was on the shallow end of these factors: the pool of eligibles and the musicianship were both ankle deep. At best.

Overcoming the Factors
At each church, I knew I couldn't change the "pool of eligibles" factor quickly or directly. So I ignored it. I looked outside my church for musicians. Some joined the team as "non-attending musicians" (you can read more about how I recruited off of Craigslist), or they just subbed once in a while as "guests."

I coupled that effort with significant investment in any willing musician I could find in those churches. Eventually I began to build a few decent teams.

In the first couple ministries I served in, my tenure was short because of financial restraints of employing a second pastor. But in my current situation, I've been here long enough (and I'm planning on staying, Lord willing) to begin to see those early efforts and investments payoff in something I haven't seen before: a momentum that's pushing us towards to the deep end.   

Good musicianship is begetting good musicians. And we're also in a season of new families coming to our church - so that means our pool of eligibles is deepening. Don't get me wrong, we're far from "arriving" - whatever that is. But for the first time, I'm beginning to see the those two factors work for us.

It's easy to hate these two factors. I know I have. But they are part of the growth process. And we have to wrestle with them if we want to grow our teams with solid musicians.

So every few weeks we'll keep returning to this subject of "Get More Musicians." I'd love to hear about how you grow the musicians (and musicianship) on your team.

Know When to Say Goodbye to a Worship Song

Know When to Say Goodbye to a Worship Song

By Jon Nicol   |  November 9, 2012

We're moving to a new house. At this new house we'll have 700% more storage space than we do now. I measured. Yet my wife is trying to make me get rid of a some of my CDs.

"Why don't you just get rid of one our kids?" I asked her. "We're about to have four of those things running around."

My logic doesn't really work so well. Apparently musical compact discs do NOT equal genetic offspring, no matter how abundant the latter.

She opened a box and pulled out Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. "When's the last time you listened to this?"

Oh, Miles, I've missed you.

I tried to take it from her, and she held it up in the air. I'm taller than her and outweigh her by a least a couple economy-size bags of Ol' Roy Dog Food. But something told me I shouldn't try to take it back.

It was time to use my intellect: "When's the last time YOU looked at one of YOUR little statue thingys in that glass cabinet thingy in the hallway?"

"You mean the figurines in the curio cabinet? Yesterday." So much for intellect.

She came at me again, "Seriously, why keep all these around?"

I reverted to wit this time. "Why keep your mom around?"

Apparently, "your mom" jokes should not be used on your pregnant wife during an argument. Or ever.

36 hours later, when she was speaking to me again, she resumed the line of questioning: "What about this one? The case is all cracked and the insert's ripped."

"That's the soundtrack to Braveheart," and I yelled out "Freeeedooomm!" with a loud, Scottish accent.

She shook her head and walked a way. Does that mean I win?

So have you strolled through your music collection lately? Or scrolled through your iTunes library? If you've got the space (and your wife agrees), there's nothing wrong with keeping your Chicago 17 cassette around. You never know when you want to get nostalgic for Hard Habit to Break.

But too often we worship leader's employ the same "vault mentality" to our church's worship songs. It's fine to have a "master list" somewhere of all the songs you've done since Bush Sr. was in office. But if you're mining for songs each week from a list of 390 "contemporary" choruses, most of which are older than half your worship team, there's a problem.

If you've been around here for a little while, you know I'm a strong proponent of limited song catalog for worship. You can learn more about that in the SongCycle seminar and "What's In My Playlist" ebook (both free). Depending on your church, you should probably only have 30 - 50 active songs.

Easier said than done, right? If you've ever tried to thin the herd, your songs start looking more like cherished lambs rather than old goats that are easily sacked.

10 Suggestions...
So I thought I'd give you some suggestions for which ones to throw away. Please understand that this isn't a mandate like the one from my wife to get rid of some CDs. It's just a few paired suggestions to know when to say goodbye:

  • If you haven't done it for 6 months - and don't see doing it within the next month - consider retiring it.
  • If you only do it every 6 months to please that one person, definitely retire it.
  • If it's an older chorus and you have plenty of other songs that cover the same theme, consider dropping it.
  • If it's an older chorus that sounds like it was performed by "Up With People" in 1983, definitely drop it.
  • If it's one that means a lot to you, but doesn't really seem to resonate with others, consider letting it go.
  • If your congregation audibly groans when the lyrics come up on the screen, let it go now.
  • If it's been so long that you can't remember which key you did it in, consider calling it quits.
  • If you have to ask "how does this one go again?" kill it.
  • If your wife comments that a certain song is getting kinda old, you should consider giving it a rest.
  • If K-LOVE has finally stopped playing it on their rotation, you know it's it's ready for the grave.

Question: So how about you - how do you know when it's time to put a song out to pasture.

When Life Goes Sideways

When Life Goes Sideways

By Jon Nicol   |  November 7, 2012

My world is sideways right now.

If you're a regular blog reader, you've noticed the "sideways" is affecting the frequency of my blog posts this last week or so. What caused the tilt?

We're in the process of moving to a new house.

And I'm prepping for a seminar the day after we actually move in.

And there's a building project at church that's dangerously close to the AV install stage.

And a Christmas season worth of worship planning that's still undone.

And a 13 month-old who's decided sleep is optional.

And a wife who's 7-months pregnant (and wondering if she'll ever have the option of sleeping again).

Oh, and I just changed a diaper that I'll be mailing to the people at Guinness Book. It's bound to set a record for both sheer mass and fragrance.

Don't get me wrong. Most of this is good stuff (the sleep deprivation and world-record poo not withstanding). And I'm sure there's a lot of you who'd be happy to trade lives with me right now because yours is more sideways than mine.

But it happens to all of us. So I was tempted to turn this into a redemptive, practical blog post, like "5 ways to emerge stronger" or "how to make lemonade out of lemons." But honestly, I'm too tired. And I have too many other demands.

So the point to this blog post is this: have grace for me, please. I'll get back on track to get the content flowing again soon. And have grace for others when they aren't measuring up. Chances are, their life is sideways too.

And lastly, have grace for yourself when your life tilts sharply to the left of normal. Give yourself permission to temporarily stop a few things, say no to a few things and focus on succeeding through the craziness.

The Problem With Young Worship Leaders...

The Problem With Young Worship Leaders...

By Jon Nicol   |  October 29, 2012

I see something in the young worship leaders I encounter. It's a youthful disconnect between them and the people they lead.

Do we chalk it up to naivety?

Or could it be the "twenty-something narcissism" that naturally flows out of the uber-late adolescence here in the West? (By the way, some experts now say that the end of adolescence doesn't arrive until the late 20s or even 30 now.)

I can see both the traits in my early worship leading days: I was naive and self-focused.

I was brought to reality when my senior pastor at that time said something that cut deep:

"It doesn't seem like you love the people of this church very much."

He was right. I invested in the music. In the sound system. In the songs. And the only investment I had made in the people of that church was to develop them to be better musicians. I treated them like "resources" and "assets."

Our people aren't assets. Or resources. They are not to be used or leveraged. They are to be loved and led as long as God has them in our sphere of influence. The more we love the people in our churches, the greater the influence we'll have with them. And the more influence we have with them, the better we can lead them.

On the far side of 35, I now get that. But 15 years ago when I was starting out, not a chance. I ran roughshod over people.

So do we ban young worship leaders from "big church" other than a youth service they lead twice a year?

No. We let them lead more.


More opportunities to grow. More teachable moments. More opportunities to speak truth into their lives.

The biggest problem with young worship leaders isn't their age. It's us GenX/Boomer worship leaders who aren't mentoring in them.

Question - What are some ways that you invest in the younger generation of worship leaders and musicians?

Slash Chords: Why Guitarists Should Play the Bass Note

Slash Chords: Why Guitarists Should Play the Bass Note

By Jon Nicol   |  October 25, 2012

It's time for guitarists to reclaim the bass note. Find out a little more why the note on the right of the slash matters...

The Biggest Wall in Worship

The Biggest Wall in Worship

By Jon Nicol   |  October 24, 2012

Did a lot of us worship leaders and musicians come from theater backgrounds? The reason I wonder is this: many of us have a tough time breaking the fourth wall.

If you don't know this term, the fourth wall is that imaginary boundary between the actors and the audience - whether on stage on on camera. To "break it" is to acknowledge the audience.

You see where I'm going with this…

There might be a slight acknowledgement of the congregation at the beginning. Or once between songs. Or at the end to tell them to sit.

But once the music starts, forget it. The wall goes up: eyes close, only to open if it's to peek at the music. Or cue the band. Or gaze at the ceiling.

You're not a performer for the passive entertainment of the congregation.

You're a host inviting them in.

A shepherd leading them forward.

A prophet telling them truth.

A friend on a journey.

All that is more effective if you engage.

Break the fourth wall.

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