Leading Worship: Behind the Scenes

Monica Smith

Northland worship leader Kailey Simpson shares about worship in our daily lives

Most of us will never know what it feels like to stand before a congregation of thousands and lead them in worship. But for Kailey Simpson, who regularly can be found on stage at our Longwood campus, that’s just a small part of what it means to be a “worship leader.” We sat down with her to hear about what it looks like to worship in our daily lives, and learned more about her and how she prepares for the weekend services.

What brought you to Northland? What roles and opportunities have you had along the way?

My parents, John and Laurie, and I have been attending Northland since I was about five years old. We were “Lymanites”; our family attended services when we held concurrent worship down the street at Lyman High School.

But it wasn’t until sixth grade, when I started attending LUGrox – Northland’s middle school program – that I felt like this was “my” church, too. On that first night of LUGrox, I found a group of friends, and many of them are my best friends to this day.

Student Ministries was my home through high school and in many ways still is today. As a high schooler, I led a middle-school Bible study and continued for several years as a volunteer until I was hired on staff as a part-time worship leader. It has always been important to me to disciple younger people, and while it wasn’t technically in my job description, I formed a small group of students who were interested in worship leading. We spent a lot of time together talking about “what a worship leader looks like,” and how we are all worship leaders wherever we go.

It’s funny, because this investment in young people was what I had hoped to do after graduating, and while I had plans and dreams to work for a nonprofit, counseling trafficking victims through music therapy, God has graciously used that education and passion to help me train others to serve Him. I may only live seven miles from my childhood home and work in the church I grew up in, but God has shown me how He uniquely equips us to do what He has called us to do.    

On the weekends, you sing and play guitar. What is your musical training?

While I had a theatrical background and loved acting, music – and worship leadership, no less – wasn’t on my radar. I had never taken vocal lessons. I wanted to be able to be myself, and sing from my heart because that is so important as a worship leader. But, all I had previously done was play a character, so I had to learn to be comfortable being vulnerable, and that was, frankly, terrifying. But Pete Geiger, who at the time was on the worship staff, said that he saw something in me that he wanted to foster, and took me under his wing. As I continued to serve and lead worship in Student Ministries, it became clear that this was something that God was calling me to take seriously.

That’s such a reminder that sometimes God puts us in positions even when we are unsure of His calling on our lives. You took the next right step by continuing to serve while waiting for His clear direction.

Totally! I served as the high school minister for one year, and during that time, God revealed a few things to me. I began to feel God planting a calling on my heart, which has ultimately shaped my personal life vision statement: I am passionate about utilizing the arts to create an environment where people can engage with God in a fresh and deep way.

So how did you get from high school ministry to “big church?”

Well, that time as a high school minister also sparked in me a love of teaching. God builds worship leaders in different ways – some are structural, some are relational and some are pastoral. Over time and through the wisdom of others speaking into my life, it has been made clear to me that I am called to be a worship minister.

Through this process, I was asked to come over to “big church” in the worship department. At first, it was unclear what I would be doing and a huge leap of faith. You know, some ministers use student ministries or youth group in their churches as stepping stones, but I honestly saw myself as an 80-year-old woman one day hanging out with high schoolers! It was hard to leave the comfort of an environment I really loved. But over a few months of prayer and wise counsel, God made it painfully clear that I needed to follow Him.

Transitions can be hard, right?

Yes! One of my tattoos actually is inspired by this part of my journey. Learning that there are seasons that we go through – deserts, meadows, I’ve talked about this from stage before – we all have times when life seems stagnant, we’re exhausted. You have so much desire in your heart, but you don’t know where to go or what to do. And then there are others times that are like meadows, full of growth, and they are beautiful.

During this time of transition, I faced both of those seasons – desert and meadow – and if I am being very honest, that was hard. But in both of those places, the Lord has made clear that He is present and that He tends both of those environments. The promise of His presence is what sustains us.

Frederick Buechner says, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” That’s what I’m experiencing – I’m watching what the needs are around me and where the things God has gifted me with intersect. Leading worship, singing, helping us center in on what we are celebrating about Christ and laying everything before Him are all part of my new job description, and I am humbled to get to do this each week.

That’s such an awesome image of how Christ walks with us through whatever season we’re in now. And we are so glad to have you over here, creating an environment for us to worship each week. But, you’re still very involved with Student Ministries, right?

Yes, I am, which reinforces that God knew all along that what He had planned for me would still involve some of my deepest passions. I have eight apprentices who are interested in leading worship. We meet regularly to talk about skill development, worship leadership and what life should look like on and off the stage. And most importantly, my husband, Ryan, leads worship over there. {He is also worship leader at our Lake County campus.}

At the end of the day, worship is about where your life is pointed. We are all leading a life of worship every day. Pastor Vernon has said this before: that he’s the lead worshipper on some weekends, but that we are all worship leaders in our schools, places of work, in our families. If we view our lives that way, it  can be glorifying to God. So many people take “worship” out of context and align it to music instead of to what it really is: ascribing worth to God.

So, you mentioned one of your tattoos…

People either love them or hate them, but I have to tell you the truth: I have so many conversations with strangers about Christ because people don’t hesitate to come up and ask me about them. I’m able to talk with them about the story behind each one – because each is very meaningful to me and reflective of something that God has taught me – and share with them about what God is doing in my life. Some brush it off; others say, “You seem religious; I thought ‘religious people’ weren’t supposed to have tattoos?” But that’s the thing: God makes us all unique and wires us to have different passions when it comes to music, art, fashion – whatever your expression may be.

Thank you for sharing that, Kailey. You’ve been really open with us, and the same vulnerability with which you lead us before the throne is evident in how you tell your story. Would you share more with us about what God is doing in your heart right now?

Insecurity and self-doubt have had a hold on me since I was a kid, and part of my journey with the Lord has been day-by-day, piece by piece, two steps forward / one step back of Him releasing me from those strongholds. A lot of that comes from caring so much about what others think. Criticism is hard for everyone, but especially for those of us who just want approval from everyone – it is absolutely wrecking.

Where the Lord has me right now is learning to be fully who He has made me to be – without the arrogance of thinking that there is nothing left to learn, but with the confidence that His value of me far outweighs what others think.

So many of us say, “Just let me be me,” but there’s a balance there – a tension – that our confidence is in Christ. Realizing that broken is beautiful and living in the tension – that’s what it looks like to have God as the author of our story.

Some people may find it surprising to hear that someone who speaks in front of thousands struggles with confidence.

Being insecure to start with and then standing in one of the most vulnerable spots is part of how God is molding me to trust Him more. In so many ways, this position is a leap of faith. It’s amazing because when I think about where I have come from in terms of my lack of confidence, this could have sent me spiraling. But because of the community that the Lord has put around me, I run straight into His arms. I’m simply incapable of stepping onto that stage on my own.

Speaking of community, Pastor Matt has been encouraging us to connect with those around us – to make our big church feel smaller. Who is your community, and what does that look like for you?

Ryan and I have really good friends who have become family. Their kids call us “aunt” and “uncle,” and while we just met almost three years ago, we immediately became close because they provided a place for us to stay when Ryan would volunteer at Lake County.

So we lived life with them – literally – ate dinner, played lightsabers with their kids, went for walks together. I’m an only child, and so the wife has become like a sister. She allowed me into her life and spoke wisdom into mine. I always thought the sentiment of “friends who are like family” was sweet but unrealistic, but they absolutely have been that for us.

We also have another group of young adult friends who started out in a Bible study with us, but our friendships have evolved into “showing up” for each other – making meals when one has a baby, babysitting when another couple is in a pinch, or getting together to play board games or sing karaoke.

The point is, sometimes these relationships start as structured groups, and then mesh into caring for each other. Community building is awkward; it’s like dating – one person has to be willing to do the awkward thing of asking another to get together. But when we invite God to help us to create community with those around us, the upside is much greater than the discomfort we feel at the beginning.

When it comes to preparing for the weekend, what happens behind the scenes?

What most don’t see are the countless hours leading up to the services that our entire team pours into weekend. We share the responsibility of architecting the service. Picking out the songs seems like the most obvious task, but it’s more than that: We want to look at the service holistically and consider the underscoring story. Sometimes that story is really obvious to the congregation; other times it’s more of a rumbling underneath that evokes worship.

This really fits with your calling to create environments where people can engage with Christ. How do you personally prepare for worship?

I think of preparing for worship in three parts: the head, the heart and the hands.

The head: I read, have conversations with people who are wiser than I, like Pastor Vernon and my mentors. I try to dig into the knowledge of who God is. I’m actually in seminary right now. I am a total nerd and love it so much! But, it’s funny how God uses the content that I am studying there with what we are doing here at Northland. For instance, when my school work was about lament, Matt was preaching on disappointment. Don’t you love it when God gives us these little nudges, to show that we’re on the right path?

The heart: I often do Prayer of Examen, which looks back at the day or week and examines the ways that our heart has interacted with God – where we’ve lived our calling and where we missed the mark. I think about how the attribute of God that we are celebrating on the weekend has played out in my own life, making sure that my heart is soft toward Him.

The hands: This is the practical part – practicing the guitar, knowing my vocal part, warming up my voice.

I make a Spotify playlist of the songs we have scheduled and listen to it all week. It’s here that I hope to combine the three focal points and write out our call to worship and transitions, and prepare to communicate those well to the congregation. I try not to memorize it so that it remains from the heart, but I also have to be prepared!

What are you most excited about for Northland?

We are in such an interesting season of opportunity where there is a lot of space that we get to grow into. It’s like when you prune or trim back a plant – the root and the core are still there. It’s why I am here: The DNA of Northland is part of my DNA. It is my family and it has shaped how I view the world, and I know we are going to be faithful to the foundation. This pruning is part of God’s process for us to flourish. That doesn’t mean the old plant was bad, but God’s giving us room and opportunity to grow closer to Him.

And the best part of this is that there’s room for the congregation to step in and be part of this. We have so many opportunities to connect and serve with each other. There is fulfillment in community and space for us to do more of that.

Are there other worship leaders you admire and follow? Who are your musical inspirations?

As far as worship leaders, I really enjoy Brooke Fraser Ligertwood from Hillsong. {Our congregation will know her as the writer of “What a Beautiful Name” and Carrie Underwood’s hit “Something in the Water.”} She’s a phenomenal songwriter and spirit led. I believe her when she leads. I try not to elevate anyone or put them on a pedestal, because we are all human. But I appreciate her worship leadership.

I like intelligent music that makes you think but also connects to the heart. Surprisingly, perhaps, I grew up in the metal scene. People always say, “You work at a church and like metal?” There were a lot of great Christian metal bands – they have scripture in their lyrics. But there’s something authentic and raw, and this music evokes abandon for me.

One of the most worshipful experiences I’ve ever had was at a local Christian metal show. The lead vocalist stopped the music, spontaneously preached and dozens of kids came to Christ. I love the way that God works for different people. A lot of those kids who came to the show that night would never have stepped inside a church. God breaks down our barriers and comes to us wherever we are.

What’s your favorite worship song that we sing right now?

Reckless Love. That word – reckless – is rarely associated with God. But the psalmist often used extreme words to break us out of our religious slumber. It’s a form of artistry. It’s meant to evoke something for us: How amazing is it that God would die for people who betrayed Him and constantly turn our backs on him? Not only did He not give up on us, but He died for us.

There’s so much imagery in that song, too – how God chases us up mountains and kicks down walls to bring us back to Him. It fits with your connection to music that makes you think. What about an old favorite? Maybe a hymn?

Blessed Assurance. This was my grandmother’s favorite, too, and she just passed away in January. I adopted it because she loved it, but as I’ve matured, I now understand the depth of what it means to sing, “This is my story, this is my song; praising my savior, all the day long.

That’s the definition of a worship leader – every moment of your life pointing others toward the throne.

Last but certainly not least, tell us about your husband.

Ryan and I met in the Rink! His younger sister was one of my worship apprentices, and she invited him to help lead worship for a LUG lock in. Ryan and I became fast friends during that event, and eventually best friends that summer. Later on, we started to date and loved getting to lead worship together. Eventually, we knew that the Lord was calling us to a lifetime of ministry together, and we got married in the woods one rainy day in November. We miss being able to lead worship together now, but we are so glad that we get to serve congregations that we love!  

Any parting words for our readers?

It’s such a privilege to be involved with creating a space where our congregation can come into the sanctuary and lay their busyness, stress, pain and joy all before Christ. I would just encourage everyone to consider what it means to be a worship leader everywhere you go, every day of your life. It’s our biggest responsibility and privilege to lead a life of worship.