Are you looking for insights into how to keep your faith growing and your creativity stoked? Do you wonder how to maintain the heart of a worshiper while maintaining the mind of a thoughtful worship leader?
I’ve decided to start interviewing worship leader friends who have been faithfully leading congregations for ten years or longer to answer some of these questions.
This week I’m talking with West Breedlove. West is the worship director for Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN. The church has around 3500 in worship weekly. West and I served a church together while in seminary at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
Q: West, how do you personally prepare for worship?
A: For me it’s important to maintain a steady diet of scripture and prayer. I use Professor Horner’s bible reading system for daily devotions. I also think it’ important to live a lifestyle of repentance. In my case, I find myself needing to repent particularly of a fear of man. Like in most churches, I guess, there are people in my church who intimidate me. When I’m planning worship, I think (in an unhealthy, man-pleasing way) “I wonder what ‘Mr. Smith’ will think of this song done in this way.” I have to repent and ask God to not only deliver me from this fear of man, but also to miraculously exchange it with his own divine love for that person or group.
My pastor and I also spend time in regular prayer—not just dutiful prayer, but beseeching prayer, knowing that unless God meets us our worship will be in vain. Prayer must be habitual.
Q: How do you prepare your congregation for worship?
A: I’d say mostly by example. My pastor sets the tone excellently. He welcomes everyone, then sits down and prays while the organ plays the prelude. I find the prelude music makes a big difference. We are committed to using soft, reflective, contemplative music to give people a chance to quiet their hearts and minds in preparation for worship. This reflects our theology of worship, that we are approaching and meeting a holy God.
There are a few intentional things I do. I always make sure to prepare my corporate prayers. Bob Kauflin has been a faithful friend over the years, and i’ve learned from him the importance of preparation, and the pastoral implications it carries. I have found this to be profoundly helpful.
It’s also important for me to maintain a pastoral heart and a humble spirit, depending on the Spirit of God throughout our worship. My buddy Brandon once told me, “Music is part of it, but it’s not the heart of it.” This means being willing to teach the congregation (i.e., what Ebeneezer means) and to pray for the congregation, not just get through a song. As one pastor told me recently, “Musicians are a dime a dozen. I want a pastor leading us.”
Lastly, I think one of the main parts of the calling of the worship leader is to get rid of distractions in worship. When it comes to music in worship, John Piper calls for “undistracting excellence.” I like that idea and pursue it. Whatever it takes for the gathered church to more easily express their Godward affections is what we’re after. They already have enough distraction from their own mental noise from the week, from family affairs, deaths, economy, the ride to church. They need to meet with God, and I want to get myself and whatever else I can out of the way.
Q: What books have you been reading lately that have had a big impact on you?
A: All Quiet on the Western Front has had a surprising impact on me. Most people in our generation have not lived through an all-consuming war like WWI or WWII. This book takes you to the front lines. I love how it mixes elements of beauty with darkness all through bold poetic story-telling. I definitely recommend it.
Another helpful book in my marriage and for staff relations has been Strengths Finder 2.0. It’s been the most revealing book as it relates to understanding the different ways we’re wired for work.
Of course, Cry of the Soul by Allender and Longman has been working renewed affections for the Lord in my heart as it shows me some great insight into why I get so angry, or feel such shame or fear. It’s a very helpful book.
Aside from those, Grudem’s Systematic Theology is open beside my man chair in the living room. So is The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts which I sing through sometimes.
Q: What are two songs that you’ve recently discovered that have benefitted you and/or your congregation?
A: I love Matt Redman‘s new album 10,000 Reasons. I plan to introduce several songs from that project. It seems to me this may be some of his best theological writing to date.
I’m slow to introduce new songs, so these aren’t necessarily the most cutting-edge, but they are cutting-edge theologically and they cut to the heart of worshippers.
My favorite is All I Have is Christ from Sovereign Grace.
Bob Kauflin’s version of O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus is really nice, too.
Another is Beautiful Saviour by Stuart Townend. It just doesn’t get old. Of course, I’ve written violin, flute, oboe and harp parts for this and numbers of other songs. So they have a freshness to them. Along those lines, I also have had the organ introduce Indescribable. That’s a cool way of changing things! That pedal tone with the riff played above it really sounds cool on a pipe organ!
Q: I know you write a lot of songs. What have you been writing recently?
A: The last song I wrote was I See the Cross, which was a co-writing project with my buddy Brandon Wells. But I’ve actually been doing a lot more arranging and orchestration writing recently. One of the highlights of working at Cedar Springs is their commitment to see everyone working at peak performance within their gifting. So as part of my professional development they have allowed me to get weekly mentoring from the film composer Alain Mayrand. We meet on Skype and work on whatever arranging project I have for that week. Though I majored in music at university, it’s been very refreshing, and is making me a much more thoughtful, intelligent writer.
Q: If someone wants to check out your music, where should they go?
A: I sometimes post things on my blog.
West is a thoughtful worship leader, who carefully crafts worship services that glorify God and fit his congregational setting. He models a trifecta of worship planning that Prof. John Frame taught me: Worship should be Biblically thoughtful, musically excellent, and spiritually passionate. I know West seeks to bring those elements into every service he plans.
What questions do you have for West?
Add your questions in the comment section below and West or I will answer them.
What are some specific examples of the distractions to the congregation that you seek to remove? Are there distractions that you have not been very successful at removing? What are the non-negotiable, foundational principles that guide your leading in worship?
Great questions. I’ve asked West to come over and reply. Here are some of my thoughts.
Some distractions are obvious and easily (or in some cases not so easy) removed: 1) poor intonation; 2) wrong notes and chords; 3) weak musicianship; 4) flashy musicianship (someone who is drawing attention to themselves through their playing); 5) theologically incorrect or disturbing statements or lyrics; 6) unnecessary repetition of lyrics; 7) immodest clothing; 8) poorly chosen readings; 9) unprepared prayers; etc…
Musicianship is a challenging issue. I’ve advocated using only semi-professional and professionals in the name of excellence, but then you enter two other dangers: 1) having young Christians or even non-Christians in positions of leadership in the church; 2) you rob other Christians of the chance to use and develop their gifts. There is a healthy balance here. Church is not like a civic orchestra where we come expecting the best in our city. Church is a community of believers living life together with each believer exercising his or her gifts in the context of worship and community.
Non-negotiables in worship for me: 1) Christ-centered – if our service doesn’t reflect in some way on Christ and the Gospel message, it’s not Christian; 2) Bible-saturated – the lyrics we sing, the prayers we utter, and the service itself should be full of Scripture and informed by Scripture; 3) community-based – if you’re living in Knoxville, TN your worship will sound and feel different than if you were in NYC, Nairobi, Kenya or New Orleans. Likewise, the worship at Cedar Springs will sound and feel different than Bible Fellowship or any other church because of the community God has gathered. This may sound relativistic, but it’s not. The sounds and culture will change over time, but the commitment to being “of the people” is constant.
I’ll let West and others chime in here…
West Breedlove says
I’ve read Phil’s reply, and think it’s right on. But I would add a few things.
The first is the “Members Only” atmosphere that can unintentionally permeate our churches. I would say that the larger the church, the easier this vibe intrudes unknowingly. And it is a big distraction to visitors looking to experience God’s love through a word, a touch, a smile. We’ve really got to train our people to make it a point to greet and get to know unfamiliar people around them. Worship is not true worship without this horizontal aspect. “This one thing I have against you…” I hear the Lord saying to the church.
I’d also say (in agreement with PM) that worship and music in worship is contextual. For Cedar Springs, this means for the season we’re in (and we’ve been through a lot of seasons in our 200+ year history!) electric guitar solos aren’t beneficial. Having an instrumental break on the violin or flute, however, is much more digestible and edifying. So removing distractions at a musical level often means reinterpreting the songs – both modern and traditional. What’s funny is that not only are there traditional musical purists, but there are contemporary musical purists, too!
It’s important to find the musical center in your church; the musical DNA. Every church has it. For us, it is a very broad and blended center. Like I said in the post, I’ll arrange a modern song for chamber orchestra or string quintet or organ or whatever, but I’ll also do hymns with full-on band arrangements. For instance, I’ll have the pipe organ introduce and take us through the first verse of A Might Fortress, then have the band come in. Or like last Sunday, when we were finishing Communion and singing Getty’s Townend’s Behold the Lamb, the band led the song. But the organ and timpani played the last verse with us really big. We just have so many musical resources at hand that I want to incorporate them as much and as seamless as possible, and I think that reflects our musical center.
Another distraction is leadership. It’s more felt than seen. But a team has to be on the same page theologically and philosophically when it comes to worship and music. If there’s a disconnect, the congregation will feel it.
Also musicians – it’s important to use musicians that have a natural know-how for certain musical styles. It’s kind of distracting to hear a classical or a traditional hymn accompanist playing piano in a band.
Dan, you ask if there are any I haven’t been able to remove. The answer is, thankfully, no – not really. But a lot of that is because of my relationship with my pastor and the team I have around me. I love my pastor, and respond to his leadership and authority in my life and in our worship. So if he says something about worship that was distracting I get right on it. And because it usually has something to do with people that work on my team or are a volunteer in the band, I can go straight to them.
Interestingly, there have been distracting things that we have fought to KEEP. My young friend, Parke Cottrell, is a great guitarist. We’ve played together for years. Well, the passage in Scripture where God tells Moses to remove his shoes because he was on holy ground made a significant impact on Parke. So he takes his shoes off when standing in the back of our band during worship. It got a few people disgruntled (and were vocal about it). But my pastor, in what I think was righteous anger, brought it up in worship one morning. And with fire in his belly he told those who were ticked that there are plenty of churches in town that will be sure not to do anything to offend them – and that they are welcome to go – but he will not ask our young friend to change his biblical convictions to keep from offending their cultural taboos and social customs.
Non-negotiable/foundational? What comes to mind might be helpful. I wrote a kind of purpose statement for our worship team that goes something like: “In the power of the Holy Spirit to humbly and joyfully assist the gathered church in Godward affection.” That pretty much surmises my non-negotiables. If the Spirit of Jesus is not empowering us with the same power that raised him from the dead, if we are not humbled and joyful, if we are not serving, and if we are not loving God with all our heart, soul, mind & strength, it’s not worship.
Thanks!!! Sorry it was too long!
That’s a new post in itself, West! Thanks for taking the time! 🙂