I recently had the privilege of leading the worship in song for a number of sessions at The Shepherd’s Conference. Hosted by John MacArthur and Grace Community Church, this conference has been equipping and serving pastors for decades.
While there are some similarities to choosing and leading songs for my church, I think about conferences differently. Conferences are made up of people from various churches, most of whom don’t know each other. We’re only together for a few days and there are multiple teachings to take in and digest (at least at the conferences I’m at).
I thought it might be helpful to share some of the principles that guide how I think through the songs I lead at a conference and how I lead them. Of course, the points I’m about to make are only effective as God empowers them through his Spirit.
1. Sing familiar songs.
I can be tempted at conferences to feature the songs I’m most excited about, which are often new songs. That has its benefits (see point #2), but the downside is that people focus more on trying to learn songs and less on engaging with God through familiar lyrics and melodies. Singing well-known songs together is one manifestation of the unity God has brought to us through the gospel. Though we might hail from different denominations, localities, and theological perspectives, we can unite around the glorious gospel, even if it’s only for a few days.
2. Teach new songs.
But conferences aren’t just about doing what’s familiar. They’re an opportunity to sow new songs into churches that will enable the word of Christ to dwell in them richly. That might include songs with unique themes, such as “Not in Me,” a song confessing self-righteousness, or “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” a 5 verse meditation on the joy of knowing Christ in the midst of trials and suffering. Singing a new song together enables people to experience the intended effect of the song more than simply listening to it under headphones. Each time I lead a conference I’m looking for 2 to 4 songs I can introduce.
3. Build on the impact of the preached Word.
One of the benefits of a conference is that attendees have the opportunity to meditate on God’s Word multiple times a day. When I’m planning songs for a conference, I ask for the topic and text of each session. For the opening session, I’ll generally sing through the gospel, following a progression of adoration, confession, assurance of pardon, and response. After that, I choose songs that help us reflect on some aspect of the message we heard in the previous session, especially as it relates to the gospel. While it’s possible to build songs around the theme of the message that’s going to be preached, I’ve found it helpful to look back to the message we’ve already heard and make specific application from it. Apart from the obvious benefit of hearing God’s Word preached, that’s why I try to listen to every message and take good notes.
4. Use your Bible.
We often separate in our minds the preaching of the Word from the singing of the Word. We assume sermons are meant to affect our minds and singing songs is meant to affect our hearts. But singing is meant to flow from and be filled with the word of God and the word of Christ (Ps. 119:54; Col. 3:16). I find it helpful to open each session with a brief Scripture to remind us that our worship in song is a response to God’s revealing himself to us. I’ll often share another Scripture after one or two songs. As a side note, reading from a physical copy of a Bible rather than an iPhone or iPad visually communicates the weightiness of God’s Word over against the transience and distractedness of our culture.
5. Use songs to pastor souls.
I had the opportunity to teach on this topic at a lunch breakout at the Shepherd’s Conference. It’s an area that’s most relevant to a local church context, but it’s an important category at a conference as well. When I choose songs for a session, I’m asking questions like:
What truth from the last message we heard might God want us to meditate on or respond to?
Did the last message reveal struggles we need to see more in the light of God’s promises and the gospel?
What unique challenges might the people at this conference be facing that God can speak to in the songs we sing?
How does the gospel relate to the particular emphasis of the last message?
Seeking to pastor people as we sing is one of the reasons it can be helpful to insert spoken comments between songs, or even during songs. We’re not just singing good songs and enjoying the sound of a large group praising the Lord. We’re teaching and admonishing each other (Col. 3:16), pointing each other to who God is, what God has said, and what he has done for us, particularly in Christ’s atoning work. This has the potential of encouraging the downcast, strengthening the weary, convicting the sinner, comforting the suffering, confronting the self-sufficient, and making us all more aware of the greatness, glory, and goodness of the Savior. Pray to discern how God might want to use each song to minister to those you’re leading.
What does that look like? In a future post, I’ll list the songs I led at the Shepherd’s Conference, the Scriptures I used, and the reason behind my choices.