Archive for July 2010

Sing in the Face of Tragedy

July 26, 2010

I had the wonderful privilege last week to teach at “Church Music Georgia,” our southern neighbors’ rendition of our statewide Tennessee Music Ministry Leadership Conference.  I was teaching my final session on Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing when a knock came at our classroom door and a familiar lady stepped in and motioned for one of our participants to leave the class.  The gentleman being called out was a longtime friend, member of a former church that I served, and currently minister of music in a small Georgia town.  There was an urgency in her broken voice as she instructed him to bring all of his things.  He gathered music and satchel and left the classroom with a sense of abandon. 

After a momentary awkward pause another former church member who was attending the class said, “that did not look good.”  I was reminded that the familiar lady who had come was his wife, and another class member noted that she had tears in her eyes.  Left to wonder, we could only imagine what might have taken place. I felt an urge to call the class to prayer, which I did and we lifted up the family of this friend, all of whom I knew and cared about.  I voiced the prayer that primarily asked for God who knows all to intervene, be with them and meet their need.

Such a dramatic shift in the class environment was not easy to overcome.  We had begun the morning session singing a few familiar hymns and had addressed their potency to express our praise to God, our witness about God, and our ministry and admonition to one another.  Before being called out, my friend had expressed his affirmation of this singing with a characteristic motion of a clinched fist and a lightly voiced, “Amen!”  I had been speaking about the biblical reminders to sing to one another in our gatherings as a way to admonish each other with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” (Col 3:16)  We sang the refrain of “Have Faith in God,” as an example of a hymn that believers sing to encourage and strengthen one another.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that morning, given the sudden developments and what I know now about what had taken place in his life that he had no idea about at the moment we were singing those encouraging words,

“Have faith in God, He’s on His throne,

Have faith in God, He watches o’er His own

He cannot fail, He must prevail! (pumping the clinched fist)

Have faith in God! Have faith in God!

It was not until late that afternoon that I found out that my friend’s father had taken his own life.  His sweet, gentle mother had found her husband at home, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  My heart goes out to this close-knit Christian family who must have insurmountable questions about such a tragic event.  The father was a deacon, a former Sunday School teacher, and faithful choir member who was very open with his expression of love for his large family.

The son who had been in our class testified that after he received the tragic news in the church hallway outside our classroom, he drove to be with his mother and on the drive received “such peace.”  In the face of this tragedy it seems the Lord answered our prayer for his comfort, and used the echoing admonition that had been sung just moments before to have faith in God.

Every Sunday your church body has opportunity to sing ministry into the hearts and lives of those gathered for worship.  It is so important to make deposits in the repository of the minds and memories of those gathered.  You never know when a phone call or knock at the door may accompany tragic news such that a worshiper will rely upon the admonition and encouragement received as the church sang its song of faith, witness, admonition, worship, and/or praise.

Sing, congregation, sing!


Discipling Music Minsitry

July 19, 2010

In the last few years the focus of music ministry has been so closely associated with worship that in many circles the two monikers have become interchangeable.  If people (including many leaders) did not have such a truncated view of worship, misshapen by pragmatism and church marketing lingo, that might not be so bad.  Worship, after all, is all of life (Rom 12:1), and thus there is a sense in which all functions of the church are, in the end, worship.  Given that understanding then, discipleship is worship, service and ministry are worship, and so forth.  For a moment let’s think about music ministry from a specific involvement in the church and in the lives of the people who are involved in music ministry, both delivering and receiving its application. 

It is important for us to contemplate music ministry as it applies to discipleship and discipling.  Since what we sing has a way of forming us, then the music we select and sing certainly must be assessed for its capacity to teach us biblical truth and to shape us into Christ-like people.  The songs must not only be textually sound, but our way of making the music also has a way of maturing us.  This is a complex process that deserves extended contemplation by leaders and planners.  I am in constant consultation with churches driven to find music to “attract” people based on presumed style tastes.  If our music-making is to help make Christian (Christ-like) disciples, then it seems sensible that its character and origin would not conflict with attitudes that are compatible to a Christ-follower (disciple).  Maturation of believers should be part of our thinking-praying as we consider music we will select and music-making in which we will engage.  Do not read too much into that statement stylistically lest we end up with a “Western music is God’s standard of beauty” mentality that is ill conceived.  On the other hand, it seems grossly immature to simply take a pass when it comes to thinking about Imageo Dei and its implication to our art forms, our reverence for the one we purport to worship, and our attitude toward our fellow creatures – created and creating beings.

If you have led a choir for any length of time, I know you have heard the unavoidable whine at some point in your ministry.  Perhaps it was in a youth or senior adult group, or in the church choir.  You handed out the new anthem, read through it the first time, and someone felt self-appointed to state, “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” or the slightly more subtle, “Where did you get this?” (interpreted, “You wasted the church’s money on this music because I do not like it at first listen).  Many a music minister has paled in such a scenario and lost a golden opportunity to recognize the “teachable moment” presented.  Granted, we must resist the internal desire festering that wants to lash out at the sourpuss who dared to vent their opinion, and we must contain the temptation that may even be worse, to wait until rehearsal is over and then talk about the person’s attitude behind their back. For the pastoral musician, the opportunity presented when people openly express such an attitude, is to dig deeper into the music to help the choir member(s) better grasp how the music selected will move them toward maturity, and in a double dip bonus, show them how singing the music as ministry can speak to hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters in Christ who will experience the music through our singing ministry.  Spoken gently in a true spirit of love, such pastoral response can bear rich benefits as discipling ministry that helps develop Christ-like spirits and perceptions about our responsibility as music-making ministers (yes, choir members ARE ministers).

(see Gen 1:26-27; John 3:16-17; John 13:35)

Growing in the Knowledge and I pray in the Likeness of Him,


Gospel Music

July 12, 2010

Among the measuring sticks to be considered in assessing our worship plans should be included evaluation that a clear communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is included in worship.  When invited to evaluate and consult churches regarding their worship practices, I am highly attuned to whether or not there is a clear presentation and celebration of the Gospel that is central in the worship event.  The word Gospel, like many other sacred words, is too often tossed around as an adjective describing style or ambiance, rather than recognized as the center of God’s story that holds the power unto salvation.  People talk often about “Gospel Music,” referring to country-influenced upbeat songs whose message can be about anything from childhood memories to embellished descriptions of a place called heaven. While such a moniker has come to describe a genre of music that you can download from iTunes, it is no guarantee that the Good News of Jesus has been presented in a service of worship.  Neither am I speaking of an evangelistic service, which can also be more about ambiance than substance.  Gospel-centered worship can take place in “high church” or “low church” environments.  True Gospel music is centered in the truth of Jesus Christ, son of God, Redeemer, Savior, and ultimate Victor!

One of the limitations of language is that through common usage valued words and phrases can lose their original meaning and/or their potency.  When the Good News of the story of Christ permeates our worship planning and our spirit as we design a worship service or as we select material to be included in gathered worship of our congregations, it can guide our thought processes.  Such meditative posturing can also determine where worship “ends up,” so to speak.  When we understand worship to be an engagement with God in which we commune with Him on His terms and by means that only He can provide, it helps us remain dependent on Him through the planning and selecting.  The people who will join me in this engagement of worship, those for whom I am planning and selecting, need to hear the Lord’s truth from His word, and to know of His provision.  Those understandings do not only come through the sermon or the spoken invitation of a worship service; rather they are said and sung in congregational music, choir presentation, readings, spoken bridges, prayer, and even in instrumental presentations that include textual associations.  Certainly the environment of worship fosters and supports (or works against) the conveyance of message, but the centerpiece in our planning and in the worship activitity itself must be Christ!

Far too often I find worship services in evangelical churches keep coming back to be people-focused (most often “me” focused).  Having no set liturgy we may tend to design everything around our own experience.  Some pastors desire every service to be “celebrative.”  Consistent hype that may answer that desire often does not address Christ’s victory over that which is truly sad, hurtful, or impossible for the human sensitivity to comprehend.  Sudden and tragic loss of life, unchecked injustice, living in dire circumstance with thwarted plans for relief are likely not best met in worship with a kind of happy Jesus song that may come across trite and even completely insensitive.  Jesus, who was, after all, “tempted at all points as we are,” knows our every weakness and is ultimate Victor because He has absorbed the full weight of sin, sadness, the grave, and wrath.  It is important that we plead the Spirit to aid our worship planning that includes the full message of Gospel.  The application of that principal takes effect on every aspect and element of worship, which includes the music selected, and its means of presentation.  It is not style-specific.  There is meaningful Gospel presented in O Sacred Head Now Wounded just as there is in Nothing but the Blood. 

As we plan worship services for our churches who name the Name of Christ, let’s be certain that we are engaged in Gospel-presentation in which Christ is ultimate Victor over real issues of life; faith, culture, personal, church, community, world.  The victory we proclaim is not temporal, but eternal!  Let’s help worshipers to lift their eyes unto the hills from whence comes our help.  Whether we are singing to broken lives, broken homes, or broken communities, Christ is Victor!  When the oil is drifting up on the beach, or wars have no end in sight, Christ is Victor!  When jobs have been lost and all seems bad news, Christ is Victor!  When power-mongers seem in total control and out of control, Christ is Victor!  This is Gospel – Good News!  We are not proclaiming a walk on the bright side of life..We are proclaiming the ageless One who created all and in whom all things hold together!  We are proclaiming the Worthy Lamb who was and is and is to come!!!!

Sing the Gospel!


Blind Spots

July 7, 2010

In my earliest days of fulltime ministry I was serving a church with no paid accompanist.  I was working on a youth musical with the youth choir and one of our church secretaries (back then they did not think being called secretary was an insult) played piano for our rehearsals on Sunday afternoons.  I knew this dear lady could not participate in the traveling tour with us due to schedule conflict, so from the beginning we planned to use an accompaniment tape (yes, reel-to-reel) for the presentation of the musical.  We sang the musical on mission tour and then ended with a big home concert.  I designed a printed program with names of the kids, adult trip sponsors, soundmen, etc.  At our home concert I bragged on the same list of folks.  After the service I was busy receiving accolades when our secretary/accompanist stepped up to me.  I reached out to give her a hug.  Her response had a hesitance that implied some reluctance to me.  Fearing she might be ill, I asked if she was feeling ok.  Her response struck me like a bolt of lightning.  With an unmistakable anger she said, “in the future you might want to recognize the people who helped get you where you’re going.”  I was not completely sure what she meant until she waved the printed program in front of my face.  It hit me like a ton of bricks!  Not once had I mentioned her contribution to the process.  No amount of apologizing could compensate for this ridiculous oversight.  Even though it was an honest mistake I felt absolutely awful about it.  It had just been a blind spot.

You may have heard of an illustrative self-awareness diagram that originated in the 1950’s called the Johari Window, named after its inventors.  I first learned about it in a psychology class, and have had numerous applications in ministry.  If you are unfamiliar with the window it is worth a few minutes of googling.  The grid calls attention to what we know about ourselves and/or what others know about us.  One area is visible to others and known also to ourselves.  Another section includes what is not known by other people, but known to ourselves, called hidden.  The area that is unknown to others and unknown to  ourselves as well is simply called unknown.  Yet another segment notes things in our lives that are seen by others, but not known to ourselves.  This section is called by some a blind spot.  While the incident above was just that, a single incident, it caused me to reflect deeply upon my attitude of gratitude.  I questioned why or how I could overlook the contribution of someone doing something that meant so much to the accomplishment of ministry with those students.  I had to evaluate my motives and focus to be certain that I was truly grateful, and not just using a willing servant who was available and capable.  God forbid that such an attitude would be in me.  I surely cannot claim 100% success since that occurrence, but I can tell you that expressing gratitude is always on my radar.

All of us have blind spots.  Sometimes they are more blatant than others.  I have been to conferences where a leader calls attention to some deficit in church worship life and then demonstrates the same deficit in their presentation.  In a recent national conference a leader stated emphatically that our worship was not dependent on what kind of motions we made, such as hand-raising. Then as he led us in worship songs he proceeded to foster a sense of shame for those who would not lift or clap their hands in response to the music.  The atmosphere  became quite manipulative and, in my estimation, unhealthy.  I certainly do not think the leader was aware of the contradictory tone of his attitude.  Rather, I think it was a blind spot for him.

Because worship leaders stand in the public eye so often and speak or sing words about the holy, there are some inherent dangers for blind spots.  Many modern worship environments are modeled after the theater stage rather than church, per se.  The setting may have been designed to attract the unchurched, but may have the unintended consequence of turning worship leaders into performers (an ever-present temptation).  In fact, just worshiping in front people whom you are inviting to worship along with you brings a set of presumptions that, by extension, may create blind spots for us as we lead.  We may work at having an appearance of worship, attempting to demonstrate to others what worship looks like (as if that is really possible).  We sometimes say things like, “you cannot lead people where you have not been.”  If we are not careful we may develop an artificial need to appear that we have gone somewhere that we know not of.  I am convinced that many worship leaders have a blind spot regarding how well the congregation is participating, because sound and lights prevent them from seeing or hearing what is really taking place in the pew.

The good news about blind spots is that the Lord sees all.  As hard as we may try to be pure or to look good, God recognizes our ongoing need to rest in His unchanging grace.

            My hope is built on nothing less

            Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.


            .Dressed in His righteousness alone

            Faultless to stand before the throne.

Standing on the Solid Rock!


Memorable or Forgettable?

July 1, 2010

A central theme in worship is remembering.  Though Baptists do not typically observe the Lord’s Supper weekly, still the spirit of the table is a part of our worship, an act that Jesus taught us to do “In remembrance of me (Him).” (1 Cor 11:24 and following)  In worship we rehearse, or remember God’s story in creation, His selection and covenant with His people, His provision of salvation in Jesus.  By the very act of gathering on the first day of the week (Sunday) we engage in remembering His resurrection.  We remember the teachings in the New Testament for the Church and remember His promise to return for His own. Our remembering in worship should never become a sterile recitation of fact, but rather provide room to respond to the revelation God has given in His Word.

A very dear friend and fine young pastor has recently accepted the call to serve as senior pastor for First Baptist Church in Jackson.  He wrote a letter to the church as his first article in the church’s newsletter in which he announced to his new church flock “The Pastoral Priority of Reminding.”  The letter is an outstanding declaration rooted in 2 Peter.  My friend, Justin, references the Apostle Peter’s words as he (Justin) lets his new church family know that he, too, will be seeking to keep them from becoming “ineffective and unfruitful.”  Justin, like Peter, informs his people that he intends to “stir them up by way of reminder.”  It is clear that his intentions are to break the Word of Life through his preaching and ministry in worship.  There is clearly a covenantal relationship implied in which Justin will “remind” the church in order that they might “remember” the truth of God’s Word, and then “recall” that truth as they live their lives in order to flesh out the Gospel in daily living.  The reminding is not just a long series of sermons where the pastor tells (reminds) the people how they should live.  The reminding includes proclamation of the Gospel itself, reminding them of “so great a salvation!” (Heb 2:3)  The promises made by this young pastor as he begins his ministry with a new flock are powerful promises made by the one who will fulfill his own calling through preaching and pastoring this people.

Brothers and sisters who plan worship orders, select and prepare music, and lead your congregations in worship through music and singing, you bear a similar calling.  The music of worship is to remind those gathered for public worship of the work of Christ, the qualities and characteristics of His followers, which are to mirror His own.  Our music, presentational and congregational, must be memorable in order to remain in the mind and heart of the believers long enough to have effect.  Much of our spiritual formation takes place through gathered worship.  In Baptist life, much of that formation happens as we sing.  We must ask ourselves whether our music and singing helps us remember, clearly and effectively lifts up Christ, and will continue to aid us to recall truth as we live our lives as Christians (Christ-like).  This really begs the question, “Is what I am selecting memorable?”  We dare not confuse that question with being gimmicky, such as would be the case with a music jingle aimed at selling cars or soap. 

One of the reasons that I default to time-tested hymns for worship is that they are just that, “time-tested.” They have survived through usage in public worship and have been reviewed time and again by those selecting music for services of worship.  In most cases songs have been filtered through a hymnal editing process that likely included a theological review, and evaluation of musical quality.  That does not mean that every hymn that is “x” number of years old is good and useful for worship, but neither does a song fresh out of the studio deserve immediate entrance to the temple simply because it is “fresh” and/or from the hottest recording artist.  I tend to wait awhile after a new song is released before I infuse it in public worship.  I need time to thoroughly evaluate a piece’s effect and consider how it might best serve the church’s worship.  If a hymn or song is something I sense the church needs as part of its memorable repertoire, then I must give them time to ingest it through a systematic approach to its introduction.

Too many churches (at the insistent of church leaders) have been dooped into adopting the culture’s value system of aesthetic relativism and comtemporaneity.  I have heard pastors and others indicate that their chief concern in finding a new worship leader was “to give us a fresh look.”  The same leaders have assumed that the trend of their churches to plateau or decline over the last thirty years have been due to their inability to change fast enough.  It is quite possible that the decline may have come due to the lack of application of theological rigor and spiritual filtering of the constant changes that have been taking place through that time period; one in which the very culture we keep imitating has become less and less influenced by the Church’s message.  I believe our artistic sensibilities have drifted right along with the rest of it, such that we have indeed “changed the scorecard” in how we assess artistic material.  We are more interested in something being “fresh” than memorable.

I was in a worship service very recently which included three songs I did not know.  Halfway through the second song I had the questioning thought come to mind, “What was the first song about?”  After the service I asked three friends if they knew the first song, which only one did.  None of us could recall anything more than a two word phrase that was repeated in the chorus; no one knew melody, word phrases, nothing.  Forgettable worship?

I admonish us all to practice our craft, including the hard work of careful evaluation of music selection, such that we might help the congregation remember.  Are we complicit in the process of impoverishing the human spirit even in our services of worship, or do we spend the time and effort needed to assure presentation of Gospel Truth in forms appropriate to the message?  Do our songs remind us how others have lived and worshiped before us who have kept the faith?  Does our music celebrate Christ as Victor over time? 

Help your congregation “join the everlasting song!”

Intended as reminder,


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