before DURING after

Last time we looked at BEFORE, this week DURING, or what I like to call: 

‘the privileged, joy-filled, sweat fest of musical averageness, singing with church family, who love me and love Jesus even more’

Me, leading at the Bristol Men’s Convention on Saturday – very averagely!


When you get to the start line, what follows is always dependent on your preparation. Many years ago I ran a marathon and I was very fit at the time, so I arrogantly stood on the start line thinking this would be a breeze. Once the race was over I then had to get myself to the train station to go home. The station was less than a mile from the finishing line but my legs were shot. They were continuously cramping; consequently I missed my train and could be seen for about an hour, very slowly walking and even crawling along a pavement in agony and desperation.

I was fit, but my prep for the race was completely inappropriate. When Sunday morning comes and you pick up your instrument, or approach the microphone, the prep you have done will be noticeable – what we do BEFORE matters. 

Have we prepared to lead or perform? As the introduction to the first song looms on the horizon (the start line), our prep and how we view the present matters. “What are we there to do?” Are we there to lead or perform? 

Leading vs performing 

We all know the right answer, but everyone of us in different ways and at different times will struggle with the tension. But what is the distinction? There could be numerous ways to define both leading and performing and I don’t think they are actually mutually exclusive. Anyway, for this blog let me propose a simple distinction that I hope will be helpful for those of us who do lead. 

  • The central aim of LEADING is to have all eyes, all hearts, all minds on our Saviour as we sing his praises.  
  • The central aim of PERFORMING is to have all eyes, all hearts, all minds on the performer and the music they are performing. 

Before we all kick ourselves too much, please recognise that there is an element of giftedness  and musicality that no one should be ashamed of. Playing skilfully is instructed in Psalm 33:3 and in many other bible passages, but ‘playing skilfully’ is ultimately defined both by the aim of the playing and the context in which you are playing (perhaps there is another BLOG needed just for this?!)

So the first song is about to be introduced, our aim is to ‘play skilfully’ to lead others to sing God’s praise. With that aim fixed, lets once again dig into that from 3 perspectives:

Ourselves – looking at what is going on in our heads and hearts. 

Our skills   thinking about our musical gifts.

Our influence -recognising that how we do things as ‘leaders’ matters.



Playing skilfully takes brain bandwidth, for some of us that can be overwhelming, but for others simple church music can lead to disengagement and even frustration. Wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of musical giftedness; there are challenges. 

We all know we are to praise God as we lead, but we all struggle to avoid sliding down the slippery slope toward performance, even if that looks different in each of us. 

If leading is a challenge musically, you will likely stress about getting every chord / note, rightly played at the right time. Ironically, in an attempt to sacrificially serve we can inadvertently become just a musician, as our heads become fixated on the music. If that is you, practice helps, because it lift our eyes from the F#m7’s, to the enthroned Lord Jesus. ‘Fix your eyes on Him’ (Hebrews 12:2). 

If we are musically gifted and playing another melodically simple song with 4 chords makes us shiver with dread, be careful you play with the appropriate reverence and fear. What do I mean by that? Songs at church maybe musically simple, even dull, but Jesus is both watching and wanting. He is the enthroned sovereign, so he is watching your disengaged heart and lacklustre affections for him and He is wanting those he has saved, to sing out praise, sorrowful lament and deep confession. Musically you may be bored, but your disengagement is nothing but shameful self-absorption – you are a performer, not a leader. 

Imagine a concert pianist on a Friday night performing a wonderfully complicated concerto and receiving applause and a standing ovation – rightly so! The following morning that same concert pianist sits on the piano stool with their young child leading them to play ‘chopsticks’. The context is different, the direction of applause will be different, but the delight in the heart of that pianist ought to be the same. How much more should we delight when we lead others to sing praises to God where all the ‘applause’ goes to Him? ‘Is he worthy?’ 

– WARNING: If you think you can get away with disengaged song leading – you can’t! You are on a dangerous motorway of inauthenticity, leading to hard-heartedness.

– Any church would be better served by a capo-dependent average guitarist who lovingly, sacrificially and humbly leads, who makes some mistakes, but allows all the praise and attention to go to Jesus. 

– A note to any non-musical church family, be kind and prayerful. Musicians can so often get caught in the headlights of impending criticism or praise, especially when they make mistakes. Pray first and be kind. 

– Reality check – leading music, even in front of church family is a place of vulnerability. We are going to get things wrong, we are wretched sinners and none of us deserve to be playing, none of us deserve the gifts that God has given…but we are there on the start line. Authentically and with great humility, sing and play, lovingly lead God’s people to lift their voices to their Saviour and King. 

Our skills

I led the music at a mens convention last weekend, I think my chord accuracy rating was somewhere between 60-70%, it wasn’t a great day musically, but it was a cracking day for all the right reasons. Along with the small band assembled we kept those mens singing together in tune and in time doing all we could to lovingly lead them. It wasn’t perfect, but we did what  we could lead with ‘undistracting excellence’ as John Piper calls it. (Full article here)

We can be a distraction in so many ways:

  • Playing so badly that all eyes are on us and not Jesus.
  • Playing too fast or too slow (context dependent) such that the music and the band leading gets attention. 
  • Playing ‘frilly licks’ (a technical term!) so attention is drawn from the singing of God’s Word to the musical accompaniment. That is performing, not leading. 

You maybe a concert pianist which is a wonderful gift, but much of what makes you great as a concert pianist will undermine your role as a servant leader, be careful you can make that transition so all eyes and hearts are focussed on Jesus and not you. It doesn’t mean everything needs to be simple and dull, but be careful. A preacher will teach a passage simply and carefully to convey the truths of God’s Word, but they will illustrate and apply, they may even include a few lighter moments in a sermon. What that looks like musically is worth considering and talking through with your church leader to see how you can best serve.

But whatever your musical skill level, ‘playing skilfully’ is to lead God’s gathered people to sing His Word, in time and in tune (with one another). With ‘undistracting excellence’ which John Piper describes like this…

‘Undistracting excellence – We will try to sing and play and pray and preach in such a way that people’s attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry nor by excessive finesse, elegance, or refinement. Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and beauty of God shine through. We will invest in equipment good enough to be undistracting in transmitting heartfelt truth.’

Amen to that!

Our influence

You may think you are playing simply and carefully making sure you aren’t a distraction, but you and I have no clue as to the influence we have on others.  DURING the church service, are we leading or performing? Self-analysis is important, but so too is the viewpoint of others. If you are feeling brave enough why not ask someone from your church family:

  • Do you think I lead well? 
  • Is there anything that I do that looks like ‘performance’? 
  • Is there anything which makes people look at me, rather than fixing their eyes on Jesus? 
  • Was I undistractingly excellent this morning?!

I’m a very average guitarist and very average singer. Leading God’s people to sing His praise is, as I said at the beginning…

‘the privileged, joy-filled, sweat fest of musical averageness, singing with church family, who love me and love Jesus even more’

If church is a performance and unhelpfully skewed toward bringing in the ‘outsider’, everything for the musician is exponentially more difficult. But the reason a church can be led to sing God’s praises by someone like me is because they my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ, they love me and most importantly they love Jesus. They pray for me when I make mistakes and put up with my averageness and encourage me to strive for undistracting excellence.  

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