Recently, I had a conversation with a college student who was required to interview a worship ministry leader for one of his music ministry courses. Over the approximately 90 minutes that we talked, we had a great conversation but I was intrigued by one of the final questions he asked:

"I've noticed that sometimes when you lead worship, you lead from the piano but this past weekend you led with no instrument. Why?"

It was an astute observation and I think this student may have been surprised to learn about the intentionality with which I answered.

I don't play the guitar - I own one and I can play three chords but I've never invested the time to gain the skill I'd need to be comfortable using it to lead worship. I'm only an "okay" keys player and while I don't live my life with very many regrets, I would have focused more energy on my keyboard skills if I could turn back the clock. Over the years though, I've practiced a lot and know enough theory to chord well. Still, my primary instrument has always been my voice and one of my degrees is in vocal performance (the other is church music).

When I first joined the staff at Constance Evangelical Free Church in 2003, my senior pastor asked me to lead with a front-line vocal team (without an instrument). It wasn't a problem for me and at the time, it was where I was most comfortable. But a strange thing happened. Honest feedback (from people I trusted) started indicating that our worship experience (and probably my leadership) felt like a "performance" or "show" - two words that a worship leader never really wants to hear. So my wheels began turning.

The reality is that I'm exceptionally tall (6'5"), I'm a strong and confident leader, and I have a measure of talent. At the time, I was brand new to my church so those I was leading had no frame of reference to know anything about my character, personality, integrity, heart's desires, or passion for worship.

So I did an experiment. I began practicing keys diligently and made the decision to lead worship from behind the piano for (at least) a season to see if it would make a difference in the perception people had of our worship experience. It did. I also disbanded our front-line team and began staging our team in a way that made the vocalists look like part of the band. Those "performance" comments started trailing off quickly and our level of engagement went up significantly.

For roughly seven years or so, I led almost exclusively from keys. But during that time, something else was also happening - my church was getting to know me and I was settling into some effective years of ministry. Now (generally speaking, of course), the regular attenders of our church know what I'm about and understand that my motivations are purer than some once thought. It gives me the freedom to lead without an instrument from time to time and I'd venture to guess that I lead from keys about 60-70% of the time now.

At the time I was writing this post, I was preparing to lead worship for a special event with Lee Strobel at the University of Northwestern - St Paul and 99% of the people who attended didn't know me. How did I lead? At the piano. I wanted them to encounter Christ and not be distracted by me. You see, leading from an instrument wasn't just the "cool" thing for me to do when the modern worship revolution was happening. It was the outcome of my desire to be intentional and principled about every leadership decision I make.