Two of our primary “Foundations” as a worship ministry are Engagement and Excellence. We use these two Foundations (along with Togetherness, Development, and of course, the Word) as a means to help us understand our vision in leading others to exalt Christ in worship. This leads to many and varied reasons why we do or don’t do things in a practical sense. One of those things is the choice to not have any music stands on stage.
Now, by way of disclaimer, I understand that we may have certain values operating in a specific model that may not be applicable to your context, and that’s totally ok. I don’t intend to condemn anyone who would feel the need to use music stands onstage. If you’re a worship leader who is leading a large pool of volunteers who only play once every six weeks, it may be difficult to assume everyone can play without the music in front of them. If you are asked to play a brand new song this coming Sunday, it may be equally difficult. Additionally, I know that different types of music lend themselves to requiring sheet music. However, I want to propose that you work towards abandoning the music stand permanently, for a couple of reasons.
Engage Your People
We long to worship with our people in a way that separates the “stage” vs “audience” dynamic. It’s not “us” and “them;” it’s “we,” together. All together going after and worshiping Christ. Nothing drops a heavy wet blanket on the fight for unified engagement with our flock like not being able to look them in the face because we’re looking at a big, black metal object.
Nothing drops a heavy wet blanket on the fight for unified engagement with our flock like not being able to look them in the face because we’re looking at a big, black metal object.
Worship leaders, we depend on the Holy Spirit to prompt us with what our people need, where they need to be led, and how they’re responding, and that cannot be done effectively if we’re staring at a chord chart and not into their faces.
There are men and women who are entering our church buildings every week who feel beaten up, betrayed, weary and world-worn, and–whether they know it or not–are desperate for someone to engage them where they are. For someone to see them, to look at them, and care for them. One of the most subtle ways we see Christ lovingly engage people in the gospels is when He looks at them. He focuses His attention and His care on them—and only them—for that brief moment. In His interaction with the rich young ruler, Scripture tells us that “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21 ESV). Even when telling this rich young man something difficult, Jesus shows His care and concern for him when He looks at him. There is something incredibly engaging and intimate when we look at someone. Among other things, it says, “I’m with you.”
Simply put, we only have a short time on that platform to point our people towards Jesus, and if we don’t spend that time looking at our people, we’re not engaging them as well as we could. We’re not “with” them.
I’ll put it another way. The best concerts that you’ve been to are the ones where you feel connected with the band. Even though they may be up on a stage with lights pointed at them, good bands that connect with their audience create this palpable feeling of unity—that you’re all a part of this together. That you’re going after the same thing. No one is more important than anyone else. It takes every person there, band and audience, to make this thing happen.
Now imagine if you show up, expecting to be engaged with this band, and they come out and perform all their songs glued to music stands. Aside from the energy that is immediately taken out of the room (another point we could discuss!), there’s a nearly tangible barrier that is created: you versus them. Instead of participating together in something, you’re relegated to watching someone else do something. Your desire to be a part of this event diminishes.
If what we’re going after with our flock is the best thing of all, Jesus Christ Himself, shouldn’t we strive to engage our people in any possible way we can? We don’t want bystanders when it comes to corporate worship! We want men and women to be fully engaged in the worship of Christ as one body, without any distractions or barriers.
Serving With Excellence
We are called to be excellent at what we do when we lead others in worship of Jesus. One very simple way to be excellent is to be prepared. It’s not as if Sunday morning sneaks up on us! It arrives with surprisingly consistent accuracy every week. A week is plenty of time to prepare for a song by learning the chords and words. If you have a weekly rehearsal (whether on a day leading up to Sunday, or even Sunday morning itself before services), you and your band have time to study the chord chart as you rehearse and then it can be ditched once it’s learned. If your favorite band spends the whole show staring at music stands, other thoughts immediately spring to your mind: Do they not know the songs? Do they not care about us enough to do this work ahead of time? Are they not prepared?
If your favorite band spends the whole show staring at music stands, other thoughts immediately spring to your mind: Do they not know the songs? Do they not care about us enough to do this work ahead of time? Are they not prepared?
It challenges you and your band to become better, more excellent musicians when you don’t rely on a music stand to get through your set. Your mind is sharpened when you have to learn and memorize a song quickly. Band members: I believe you should be able to memorize the chords and arrangement of a modern worship song in no more than three passes. Memorizing the song frees you up to worship and play passionately when leading your congregation.
The question may be posed, “What if it’s a brand new song that we’ve only learned this week?” Fair question. But I may pose in return, If you’re not ready to lead the song without a music stand, perhaps you’re not ready to lead it at all. There are very few times–I can probably count them on one hand–where we’ve led a song on a Sunday that we only started working on the previous week. Sometimes it’s because it fits the sermon so well we can’t deny that we need to do it, and sometimes it’s because we feel that we picked it up quick enough to be comfortable. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we’re not playing the song to its full potential if we haven’t worked through it for several weeks before leading it.
But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we’re not playing the song to its full potential if we haven’t worked through it for several weeks before leading it.
Patience is key—excellence takes time. If you’re pushing your band to learn songs fully within one rehearsal to play the following Sunday, you’re perhaps pushing too fast. Another practical way to endorse excellence in your craft is to plan ahead. If you want to introduce a new song, start to work on that song a month in advance in rehearsals. Provide a chord chart and reference mp3 to your band to allow them time to listen to it. Work on the song at rehearsal several weeks in a row: perhaps the first week with your music stand in front of you, the second week with the music stand available only as a life-saver, and the third week without one completely.
Do Not Fear
Time for the honest truth. The result of being tethered to a music stand while you lead people in worship communicates things that an engaging and excellent leader does not want to communicate:
- It communicates that you aren’t prepared
- It communicates that your service is not worth preparing for
- It communicates that the song wasn’t good enough to learn by heart
- It communicates that you don’t desire to strive toward excellent musicianship
- It communicates that Jesus just isn’t worthy of the same excellence that secular bands put toward their songs
I believe that ultimately there is something deeper going on when we rely on music stands on stage with us: we’re afraid. We may be afraid of looking people in the eye. We may be afraid of our physical posture and outward passion in worship. We may be afraid of making a mistake and letting everyone know we aren’t perfect. We may simply be afraid of being in front of people, and we feel unworthy.
There are many reasons to be afraid when we lead people in worship, and relying on a music stand can be a crutch against actually doing the hard work of fighting that fear with the gospel. The gospel tells us that we should not be ashamed of the work of Jesus and what He’s done for us (Romans 1:16-17); therefore we can stand firm and look at someone, proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. The gospel tells us that Jesus loves us and cares for our fear (1 Peter 5:7); therefore we can cast our cares on Him and not falter under the weight of another’s approval of us (Galatians 1:10). The gospel tells us that we were called out by Him to proclaim His excellencies (1 Peter 2:9-10); therefore we can be confident that we are where He has us on purpose—He’s allowed us to serve where we are.
There are few things more beautiful than a group of broken men & women looking to Jesus together, engaged in pursuing His glory, unhindered by fear. Ditch that music stand, look your people in the eye, and go for it.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Hey guys, I wanted to come back and add this note after reading some of the comments to this post. Thanks to everyone for engaging and discussing this. There are some passionate responses to this concept–both for and against! And honestly, that’s great. We’re allowed to disagree, and I’m learning a lot about how to be a better, more comprehensive writer because of it. However, I do want to add a couple of clarifying notes here at the end, for what it’s worth. First, I want to reiterate and expand on something I mentioned at the beginning of the post: this is something that our team has come to a conclusion on after a long time of thinking through what works best in our culture and context. I don’t intend to imply that this is the ONLY way to do it, or indeed the RIGHT way to do it in your local context. If it’s not, that’s great. But I did intend to challenge us on the way we think about our individual ministries: it’s important as leaders (and musicians) to consider why we do the things we do, even in the small things. Which brings up the second point: this is a small thing. It’s a tiny thing in the grand scheme of things, of course. Our blog is aimed towards worship leaders and their bands. Sometimes that means discussing big, grand, theologically & philosophically deep concepts, and sometimes it means getting in the weeds for a while to discuss seemingly insignificant details that are almost painfully practical in nature. Both are necessary, and this is definitely one of the latter ones. Is it about music stands? No, of course not. It’s about always pushing yourself to engage your flock better, and finding new ways to continue to excel in the calling the Lord has given you.]