Archive for March 2010

Time for the Holy

March 29, 2010

I don’t have to tell you that this is a very busy time for worship leaders.  Some of you finished your Easter season presentation last Sunday night, and you are plowing on toward Easter Sunday’s anthems and presentations.  Still others are working toward a presentation for later in the Spring.  I want to challenge all of us not to miss the significance of this week, and to pause for personal reflection within the “big picture” of God’s story of salvation.  There is something crucially important about sensitizing your own heart to the greatness of God’s salvation, the impact of his last meal with his disciples, the dark days of his betrayal, the juxtaposed grotesqueness and glory of his crucifixion, and the triumphant power of his resurrection.  You and I must not be so caught up in trying to dramatize the story that we lose sight that we are in it just as much as any other sinner to whom we proclaim its message.  I am convinced we are unfit to address such a presentation through music unless we have been humbled anew at the profound truth that applies this blood and resurrection power to our own lives.  Dr. Robert Webber would call it, “living in our baptism.”  I think that is a great way to see it, as we recall being buried with Christ, raised to walk in newness of life.  Personally absorbing and reflecting upon the events of this week, Holy Week, are a part of that walk of newness.  Leaders, please take pause to feed your own soul in the glorious truth of the Gospel story. 

As a busy, busy musician you may ask, “Why now?  Can’t we do this at any time?”  Well, yes, but…

For Christians this is a very special time of the year.  While the majority of Baptist churches have not embraced the tradition of observing the full cycle of the Christian year that is practiced in many other Christian faith communities, even so, Baptists have joined most all Christians in placing special emphasis on two periods of the year: Christmas and Easter.  Even though some may restrict your observance to these two highest festivals of the Christian calendar, in doing so you join all in the Christian faith proclaiming the central figure of all time, Jesus Christ.  Christmas marks the entrance of God into the world in the form of a baby (incarnation), and Easter marks the day that death is overcome in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  Sunday worship finds its origin in the remembrance and celebration of the resurrection of Christ.  The Bible tells us that the church met on the first day of the week.  It was important to them to mark the time of this significant event, and subsequently the time itself became set apart.  Sunday, the first day of the week, became a Holy day.  The Bible indicates the Lord desires certain days to be set aside.  Old Testament observances of the feasts and fasts have New Testament implications in the fulfillment of time.  I really believe Sunday to be our new Sabbath, or at the very least to have Sabbath significance for us as we celebrate its meaning.  The Lord does special things on Sundays.  In fact, it was during one of these Sunday gatherings that the Holy Spirit first came to believers.  We continue meeting on the first day, Sunday. During the days leading up to Easter many Christians observe the events in Christ’s life during those same days and reflect on their meaning in God’s provision of salvation and in our own spiritual journey.

Time is a gift to us.  How we receive that gift reflects something of how we feel about the Giver as well as our level of gratitude for the gift itself.  Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt 6:27)  Many of us can recall a particular Christmas or Easter when family members were present who are no longer with us, or when children were much smaller than they are now.  These seasons and events tend to serve as markers for our lives.  As we mature in our faith we come to recognize not only the central day of these seasons, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, but we recognize the historic events that preceded the big day and consider things that occurred as a result.  For many of us, Advent and Holy Week have grown to have special spiritual significance as we contemplate the story of our Lord in these seasons and reflect on the happenings of those days in time.  Easter’s message for the Church obviously does not end on Easter Sunday, but moves forward toward Pentecost and right into the chapter of history in which we currently live as bride of Christ preparing for His return!



A Flat Moment in Worship?

March 22, 2010

For me one of the most difficult moments in worship leadership occurs when I am proclaiming some profound Gospel truth either through speaking, singing, or buildup to singing as a response to a great truth, and the disposition evident on faces and body language of the congregation is just flat.  Whether my exuberance over the truth first occurred in the praying-study-planning aspect of my own worship (the usual “hallelujah!” time for me), or whether it has overwhelmed me in the actual moment of corporate worship leadership, it is hard to understand how certain themes float by without outbursts of shared excitement and celebration.  I will share why this is difficult for me in hopes that many of you can relate at least from periodic if not regular occurrences in your own experience.  The bottom line of my sharing I hope would be a shared prayer among us for one another and for the congregations that we lead – that the Holy Spirit would be free to renew His people in worship in a manner that frees them to edify one another through their response to the Gospel.  As stated repeatedly in my Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing conferences, “worship renewal is not something we can achieve, or even something for which we strive, but rather a gift for which we pray, as any renewal comes from the Spirit to the glory of God.”

The difficulty of this scenario where there is a seeming lack of appropriate congregational response runs the gamut in my head.  On one hand is a temptation to scold the people, and point to their spiritual slackness in missing the joy of the Gospel truth proclaimed.  “Don’t they get it?  How could they just sit or stand there with a deadpan look on their face and ignore the grandness of the truth?  C’mon, people!”  Those  kinds of thoughts make up one set in the kind of thinking that takes place in that difficult moment.  Of course, those thoughts are tempered immediately by the realization that something about a scolding attitude on my part seems to run diametrically opposed to the very sense of joy and celebration I long to encourage.  It is kinda like when people scream at their crying toddler, “calm down!”  Just doesn’t fit, and sure does not likely have the desired effect.  In fact, removed from the moment of platform leadership, in a time of prayerful reflection and even fasting I confess to the Lord a deep desire to reflect the Truth of Gospel in my spirit and demeanor at all times of leading, and never to be in the way of anyone seeing Jesus.  A harsh or elitist attitude would surely be in the way.  I pray to be hidden in Christ.

In that moment of apparent non-response, or flat response another thought sometimes shows its face.  It  is a temptation to defer to total superficiality.  I have seen this done, especially in days of yesteryear.  This is the “you all look like your family pet died this morning.  Don’t be so gloomy!  C’mon turn to someone and give them a big smile” approach to lightening up the atmosphere.  Blasphemous is a heavy indictment, but I think it may apply here.  How dare us ever revert to drawing attention away from Christ as if he was not enough to elicit our response, and asking people to engage in a sophomoric self-awareness activity that creates a laughable short burst of crowd energy that fades as quickly as it arose.

After the self-induced “don’t just stand there, do something” phase of thinking escapes this torturous moment of non-response, often follows the wave of self-doubting conclusions; “I have lost my appeal to these people as a leader.  Why would anyone want to follow me anyway?  I must have misunderstood the Lord’s direction in my planning for this service.”  This is usually the phase of the said moment when I second guess the connection of a given music style, proper instrumentation, etc.  In a follow up personal evaluation time it is far too easy to get stuck in this mode, which is just another reason why style and ambiance so often become the sum total of conversations about worship renewal.

To further convolute the thinking process in the moment when response seems less than what I would hope for, Will Willimon writes about all response in worship, including evident lack of response, being response.  Did you stay with me on that?  In other words, when someone in a worship service evidences apathy, that is a response.  When someone evidences anger, frustration, or blatant non-participation, that is a response.  Willimon’s reflections are contained in his book, Worship As Pastoral Care.  It provides important reflection on the personal interaction between the worshiper and the Lord in the pew during corporate worship, and challenges our conventional thinking of wysiwyg (what you see is what you get).  How often might a worshiper appear to us to be resistant when they are in fact struggling with the Lord, dealing with deep conviction, or finding a lack of freedom to deal with life issues?

When leading in worship, the moment of what may feel like non-response, or at best less than appropriate response in worship, can be uncomfortable or even foreboding.  Musically it may feel a bit like what Joseph Martin describes as “pushing string uphill,” frustrating the musician in us and others who are trying to encourage participation among the congregants.  Emotionally it may leave us feeling as flat as the response that fell so short of the emotive mark we had anticipated.  Spiritually it may serve as a sad indicator of the apathy it seems to reflect, or a deep need for renewal that we might suspect.  Physically it may have the effect of a three hundred pound weight strung around your neck as you try to find the energy to move on in the worship service to admonish with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs while sensing such resistance.  Ecclesiologically it may seem to thwart the New Testament exhortation to spur one another on to good works.

Worship leader, In a moment during worship like that described above, what will you do?  From biblical mandate and personal experience I encourage you to stay the course; hold the sail, lift up Christ and Him crucified; be neither dismayed nor drawn to offer lesser gifts.  Where there is a battle, the battle is the Lord’s.  The truth of the Gospel remains true and magnificent beyond words!  This does not mean we have no concern for one another’s burdens, or the condition of their spirit – to the contrary, we should seek the edification of our brothers and sisters.  In fact, I think that some of our lack of response stems from our over-emphasis on personal relationship to the exclusion of understanding the disciple’s responsibility to the faith community.  Each member is a part of the whole, and is to participate in the edification process, which may well include (and I believe does include) the manner of our singing.  Leaders need to spend less time perfecting our own performance skills and spend more time discovering how we might foster the making of music in the pews, from which according to biblical instruction, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are to emanate anyway.

I encourage you who lead in worship to pray for one another that we may all be strong in the Lord remaining faithful to lift Him up in worship.

“Let the cross be our glory and the Lord be our song;

By mercy made holy, by the Spirit made strong.” (Steve Fry, Let It Be Said of Us,  Maranatha! 1996)  (more…)

Media Ecology

March 16, 2010

For a number of years I have contemplated on how our worship has been effected by the invasion of technology.  There is a difference in the experience of worship in an environment driven by technology, and that which finds aid from physical properties and aesthetics of the room in which worship occurs.  My consideration of such matters in earlier days of music ministry leadership were focused on the acoustical setting and influence of platform dominance in worship, whether from guitars and microphones or pipe organs, as contrasted with listening for the sounds of singing that comes from people in the pew, acoustically developed in a given room built for such purposes.  As more technology has entered the sanctuary there is more to consider in the area of vision as well as sound.  How might our worship be effected by a speaker or singer standing on the platform verses how they appear sixteen feet tall projected on a large screen.  For some time I have wished that someone would research the difference in reading from a screen where words are projected and illuminated, verses reading from the printed page, where words can be touched so to speak.  I knew from personal experience that reading from the printed page seems to have better staying power for me, either by virtue of the ability to review the words, or simply by virtue of the fact that screen texts come in six to eight word increments and are gone before they soak in.  In the case of worship, I have no control to be able to re-read a lyric, or scripture, since the A/V guy is running the computer.  I also heard Marva Dawn once speak about the tactile experience of her grandmother’s finger pointing out the text of the hymn as the they were sung pointing word by word for Marva to follow.  She spoke of its effect on her at the time, and even later as she reflected on worship that took place standing alongside family.

I have recently come to find out there is an area of study called media ecology.  I sure wish I had stumbled into this academic arena several months ago as it would have been helpful in writing assignments.  The essence of the field is to study how media and media developments and usage effects our environments.  In the case of worship this is right down the pipe of what I have been wondering about for some time.  For some people such research is in itself a waste of time – the folks I know of this ilk have long since drunk the koolaid that celebrates all things media and technological, usually with little consideration of its impact beyond the immediate intention.  Sociological study of these things helps us understand that the introduction of any “change” in culture always introduces a domino effect of other changes, whether reasoned or intended or not (usually not).  The introduction of the telephone, for instance, allowed voice to voice conversations over long distances in “real time,” but it also reduced the amount of letter-writing, which in time actually reduced the number of adjectives in use for everyday speech.  If you don’t believe this, go and look up an obituary from the 18th or early 19th Century, and note the string of descriptors used to draw a word picture for readers.  Fast forward to our day, where we baby boomers are still writing those paragraph long emails (how antiquated), whereas our kids and grandkids are bored to tears by anything longer than a three to six word text message.  There is a subsequent whole new vocabulary.  While I understand what “LOL, and OMG” stand for I have a more and more difficult time sensing any nuance whatsoever in their brevity.

To bring this discussion to bear more directly on the worship environment, I wonder how WORD based we really are in our worship, and how long it might be before we de-word that space and sound chamber as well.  You may wonder if I am just an old fuddy duddy who is anti-technology, or stuck in the 60’s mentality of worship environment.  I sure hope not!  I pray instead that my concern is for our careful design of the worship environment and materials that we might move to make changes judiciously and cautiously, seeking to enhance the clarity of the message of Christ.  I pray our over-riding concern is to make Christ known, hide ourselves in Him, and to worship Him on His terms through the means He has provided.

Celebrating Grace

March 10, 2010

Monday I attended the premiere of a new hymnal, Celebrating Grace Hymnal.  I drove to Atlanta Sunday after leading worship music at First Baptist Church Lawrenceburg in order to attend the Monday events surrounding the release of this new compilation.  I was present for a couple of music reading sessions that included anthems created as companion support material for the hymnal.  I was also able to attend a session where co-authors discussed philosophy and usage of an online support tool they are calling “the worship matrix.”  The day ended with a two-hour-long hymn sing/recognition service.  It was a day of conflicting and contradictory emotions.  The famous Dickens quote from Tale of Two Cities came to mind, “they were the best of times, they were the worst of times.”  I need to explain, and I am trusting that you will be able to understand my ramblings enough to at least see my own catharsis of the day, but I hope you might also gain some insight, however negligible, related to your own church’s worship influences.

I would hasten to offer kudos to the framers, artistic and editing talent, and visionary business entrepreneurs behind the Celebrating Grace Hymnal project.  Tom McAfee is a sharp business mind, a deeply committed Christian, and a young man wise beyond his years.  One of the smartest things Tom did, proving his business acumen and knowledge of Baptist music, was to recruit Mark Edwards to be involved in the project and eventually to be the face associated with its development.  As the project development progressed the list of Baptist Church Music heroes lengthened.  Though scattered to places not associated with their names in days of their earlier Baptist prominence, the pending impact of such a grouping of Baptist musicians was unmistakable just the same.  There was Terry York, who had been a primary player in the ’91 version of Baptist Hymnal, and whose word skills are matched only by the level of reflective thinking behind them.  There were names of educational prominence like David Music, Milburn Price, Paul Richardson, and others who had been monumental voices in the lives of countless music ministers trained at the seminaries where they had once served.  There were composer/arrangers well-known for quality musical treatments through anthems and instrumental writing, now tending to enhance the materials available for this new work.  The likes of David Schwoebel, Joseph Martin, Benji Harlan, Ralph Manuel, Ron Boud, Sharon Lyon, and Stan Pethel were on the list providing strong indication as to the level of artistry likely to result.  From what I saw and heard on Monday the resultant product is all you would expect from such a list and more.  The Monday night hymn-sing was a glorious festival that accomplished the task of demonstrating the material of the hymnal and its companion products, but also proved to be a celebration of worship singing by choirs, children, and congregation.   Each attendee having received a copy of the hymnal, the hymn-singing rang full in the resonant sanctuary of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Standing in the balcony between two of my brothers in ministry, Tennessee music ministers, Phil Lundy and Richard Dickerson, I felt almost as if a part of the “great cloud of witnesses” at times.  I was in a position to observe participation, but could not, nor would not resist participating in the singing as an act of Christian worship.

You may be asking, “so where’s this conflict of emotions?”  As an apologist for congregational singing looks like after such a day and evening I would simply declare, “all is well” and move on.  As wonderful as the music and fellowship experiences of the day were, they brought to mind unresolved conflict that lives in Baptist life whether we admit it, or not.  So many of the musicians involved either in the compilation of the Celebrating Grace Hymnal and/or its support materials, are somewhat estranged from present day Southern Baptist life in the main, either by their own choice, by exclusion, or through a chasm rooted in differences of artistic, stylistic, or theological origin.  While the later is obviously the most weighty of these, it occurs to me that to my knowledge such has never been discussed openly among the musicians themselves who tend to be the heard voices within camps that are heading in different directions.  Those riding down either of these paths wearing blinders will likely say, “Paul, you are just in your own crisis of indecision, or inability to reconcile your thinking.”  Believe me, such possibility is often considered.  That consideration, however, tends to wind up back on a divided highway where tension is the norm, and any attempt to dismiss one road or the other seems less appropriate for faith communion than living smack dab in the middle of the tension created by convergence of both roads.  That spot is not between the roads, but rather seems a point of merging, where a way learned as “right” seeks to make room for a way being practiced by many thought to have its own way of being quality, spiritually expressive, and to have a kind of correctness of its own.    

I congratulate those who took part in giving us Celebrating Grace Hymnal.  It now joins the Baptist Hymnal as a possible choice as the primary corpus of a church’s worship.  Like the Baptist Hymnal it also becomes an outstanding resource as supplemental material for choirs, instrumentalists, and congregations who select the other hymnal as their primary book from which to sing God’s praise.  While the “tale of two hymnals” bothers my spirit, I join the prayer of Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace,” a song in both books.

Personal health issues prevented my experiencing the rollout event for the official Baptist Hymnal that bears that name, but I have participated in numerous other events associated with its release.  Each of the two books tells something of its own story, which will likely mark Baptist worship for some time.  While each contains significant amounts of diverse material, historic and new, each one reaches toward very different eras and authors from which to pluck the bulk of its fruit.  If you consider the whole of Baptist history these books participate in some interesting streams.  The General – Particular Baptist divide, and the Sandy Creek – Charleston Tradition split of Baptist worship have representative material that finds its way into both of these latest Baptist generated worship songbooks.  No one ever declared truce in either of those struggles, nor the worship war cries of the last 25 years, but there is some synthesis of those stripes in the new compilations of songs that will cross the lips and help form the faith of Baptists in worship for the near future at least.  Some evidence exists through the two hymnals, including the very fact of their dual existence, of new separations that bypass a group of 20th Century hymnological and church music giants on the one hand, and minimize a body of southern gospel and Christian pop genre on the other.  As one deeply influenced by all these stripes I lament the quick dismissal of any.  They are woven into my (our) fabric to some degree or another.  They play a part in our spiritual formation as individuals, as a denomination, and among the vast array of Baptist churches.

Room does not allow for the full-on discussion that needs to occur to carefully examine value systems that may underlie either the “need” of two hymnals, or the production of the same.  I am purposefully avoiding the political – theological SBC divide of the 80’s that no doubt plays a big part in all of these things.  Suffice it to say for now that neither a hot pursuit of “soul-stirring” effect that seeks to attract people, nor the pursuit of musical excellence for its own sake which displays fine art and displays “the best” is adequate to serve as controlling point for singing in worship.  Neither of these can ever substitute for the mystery of theocentric worship that depends wholly on Christ, is scripted by the Spirit through the Word, and reaches the Father on His own terms as acceptable worship.  Perhaps for now we need only to take pause, and simply note the tension of convergence that perhaps we might worship with awareness that our world is broken, and in need of reconciliation.  We need a Savior in whom all things are held together.  Perhaps He will surprise us and be found in our singing.  If and when so, it will certainly be a miraculous act of His grace, and nothing less.  And when such happens, whether as a tiny incremental turning, or a monumental leap, I pray we will be faithful in celebrating grace.

May we celebrate God’s grace such that its salvation of our own soul effects us to allow grace itself to characterize our attitude toward one another.

Celebrating Grace,


Delighted in Ministry

March 2, 2010

As I write this I am sitting in a conference hotel room on the campus of one of my alma maters, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  I am here to speak to a class tomorrow, to visit with worship ministry students, and to visit with Dr. Greg Brewton, Coordinator of Worship & Music Studies in the newly reorganized School of Church Ministries at the seminary.

Having completed my Masters in Church Music here at Southern in 1985, I have not been on campus in some time.  A lot has changed since my days here, and yet I have had flashbacks all day walking around the campus, remembering people, sounds, and experiences that range from great celebration to deep lament.  I especially recall how formative my time here was for my ministry.  I am not just referring to my classwork, though that was certainly part of the story, but today’s experiences have once again been further interpreted by reading from the Word.  The lectionary reading for this day in Lent includes 1 Thess 2:2-12.  I trust my sharing is not just a catharsis for my journey today, but that it might serve to speak especially to those of you who are, like me, called into ministry, for this scripture speaks to our motivation for our service.

The passage of 1 Thessalonians references Paul’s ministry; his message of God’s gospel, his motive, which was neither impurity (v.3), nor pleasing people (v.4), nor greed (v.5), nor seeking praise from people (v.6), but rather pleasing God (v.4).  He was not tricking them, or just flattering them (v.5), but with courage (v.2), gentleness (v.7), love (v.8), and holiness (v.10) he worked among them (v.9).  The biggest “punchline” for me comes in verse 8, where Paul tells the people, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”  I have known that love in my ministry as well.  In every church I was privileged to serve God placed a love in my heart that gave delight in sharing of self.  Even during interim and short term ministries I have known the Lord to stir that deep love that only He can give.  I can recall numerous times when I was aware that I was not only sharing the Gospel, but was honestly sharing myself, and found deep delight in doing so.  Today’s Anglican lectionary includes thanksgiving for St. David of Wales, which serves as reminder of the unspeakable joy of sharing ministry with our Tennessee Men’s Chorale in that country.  Our gift to them was not only the Gospel shared in our song and testimony, but was also ourselves in visiting the shops, talking on the streets or in the rehearsal hall, or spending time late at night back at the hotel with singers from the Welsh choirs.  They became dear to us.

Today on Southern Seminary’s campus I revisited spiritual confrontations I so readily recall that haunted me during my seminary journey as I struggled with motives that could so easily drift away from the call to serve in Christ’s Name, and move instead toward a means of securing the world’s comforts.  I am sad to say I have had times when I have succumbed to the AmericI suppose that anytime we are advancing our skills there is a temptation to feel we deserve human acclaim, or advanced remuneration.  Walking across the campus again has allowed me to reminisce not only about my days as a student here, but to reflect upon the richest blessings that have come following my time of preparation through seminary education, as God has graced ministry with His very presence, the power of the Holy Spirit demonstrated so many times in both large and subtle ways.  The “delight” that the Apostle refers to as he thinks about his work with the people of Thessalonica is an emotion with which I can related when I think of the sacred gift of ministering among His people. 

The other lectionary reading today is a glorious release of praise that befits such reflections on the delight of ministry!  It is Psalm 16:5-11, and Psalm 96:1-7.

            Lord, you are my portion and my cup;

            You have made my lot secure.

            The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places

            Surely I have a delightful inheritance….(16:5-6)


            You have made known to me the path of life;

            You will fill me with joy in your presence

            With eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (16:11)


            Sing to the Lord a new song;

            Sing to the Lord all the earth


            Sing to the Lord, praise His Name;

            Proclaim his salvation day after day….(96:1-2)


            Splendor and majesty are before him;

            Strength and glory are in his sanctuary. (96:6)


            Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness;

            Tremble before him, all the earth. (96:9)

God, give us proper perspective to trust the spiritual battle to You, and to find the sweet delight in serving and loving people.


Note: I have written a guest article “From One Generation to Another” for Jonathan Riggs’ blog at lifewayworship blog (see links)

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