Urbana, 16,000, and Stage Nerves


During the weeks leading up to Urbana, I fielded a lot of questions about how I was feeling. I was feeling a lot of things, but for the majority of those conversations the number “16,000” was at the forefront of my mind:

  • 16,000 other people descending on the city of St. Louis for a week
  • 16,000 other people crammed into one (massive) building for most of the week
  • 16,000 other people experiencing the same growth and challenges
  • 16,000 voices singing the same songs of worship to the Lord

And, embarrassingly, the most present in my mind, 16,000 pairs of eyes watching the worship team on stage (or, hopefully, not watching). Ten times the size of the largest crowd I’d ever played in front of.

The camera doesn’t lie

Despite the fact that we added some new songs to our repertoire less than two months before Urbana, I wasn’t nervous about playing poorly. I wasn’t even as nervous as I expected about being on a stage in front of that many people. Once you have more than one or two thousand people, those in the back are so far away that adding more doesn’t add the immediate pressure of anyone else looking at you; they’re so far away you’re just a tiny figure in the distance anyway.

That is, until you bring in the cameras. And that’s where my greatest terror lay: camera operators zooming in on us when we’re unaware, catching missed notes, missed cues, and weird facial expressions, and broadcasting them to massive screens and recording them forever.

Slow outward breaths

On the first night I shared my fear with Shedrach, an experienced performer and worship leader who’s led his group in front of 30,000 people, and he gave me a few breathing exercises that he’s used in the past. On my way to dinner and then to the pre-session prayer I tried out the exercises and fought to talk myself down from my nerves.

But by the halfway point of the prayer time, my heart was in my throat and I was having trouble breathing. Nothing I could do, mentally or physically, would make it go away. I was frantic; if it kept up like this I’d pass out before I even reached the stage.

A different target

And then something happened. I realized–and by realized I mean “was suddenly, inexplicably struck by the clear fact” (a.k.a. “heard from the Lord”)–that I was nervous about playing the right notes and doing the right things. Maybe it was for the right reasons, but these were not the end goals I should focus on. And just like that, my vision was redirected to my actual task: to lead Urbana delegates (they call them delegates instead of participants) to worship, and to do so by modeling worship. This I could do! And even if I messed up a note, I didn’t need to be nervous about messing up worshiping.

The weight was lifted. I could breathe, and I felt peace where the tension had been before. The energy that had until then been choking me became a joyful energy, and I felt free and ready to join in worship.

That’s how I entered my first session, and most of the remaining sessions: free, at peace and full of joy, and ready to worship.

When I shared this with Tereva later in the day, she responded with joy: “That’s word-for-word what I was praying for you!” She knew even better than I did: playing in front of a crowd of 16,000 people is a chance for my ego to grow 16 sizes, or a chance for me to renew my focus, to see it become sharp and refined. Thank God for providing the second opportunity, because I have enough ego as it is.



  • Matt… This was a joy to read. It sounds like you made up your own ‘breathing’ exercise in the form of redirecting your focus on worshiping… something we all can do =)

    Good stuff!

  • Wow, Matt. This was almost exactly my experience leading worship with morning (except in front of 1% of your crowd–haha). I was meditating on some of what Sandra shared with us in her session, and it made all the difference for my first Sunday back at Church. Praise God, with a VERY grateful heart!

  • Thanks for sharing this. I was told that the task of the Leader is to lead, not to be perfect. We lead trusting that God will provide for both us and those following. Thank you for leading in the confidence of the Spirit. Plus it would have been really awkward if you passed out. #slaininthespirit

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