Archive for August 2010

GPS or Map for Worship?

August 30, 2010

As much as I travel by car I often use a GPS to help me find my way to a church I have not previously visited, or to locate lodging for a night on the road.  Since my wife is a realtor and often needs the GPS to locate properties, I leave the device in Franklin for her to use.  We share one GPS between us (I guess I am too conservative to buy two).  The GPS is a pretty cool device.  I set mine to use the British female voice.  Brits just sound smart and make me feel like she knows where I should be going.  I have named her Margaret after Margaret Thatcher and enjoy the way she pronounces some of the street names.

When Margaret is with me and giving turn by turn instructions I usually arrive at the correct destination with few glitches.  She even tells me what time I will arrive, so I can know if I am going to be on time or not and pace the trip accordingly.  My wife and I were meeting to try out a new restaurant for dinner the other night and she called to ask me how to get to the place (I had the GPS in my car). 

“Uh… well…uh.I think.”

I had no idea.  I had been following Margaret’s direction, probably talking on the phone, and paying no attention where I was or where I was going except to do what comes next, responding to commands like,  “in point two miles turn left.”   That was fine except I did not have much perspective about where I was or where I had been – how I had gotten there – and thus I stuttered to try and give directions to someone else, in this case my wife. 

On occasion I will download directions somewhere from Mapquest and find that to be a less dependable means of instruction.  On a recent trip when I had several stops to make within a 200 mile radius and I did not have the GPS with me, I decided to stop and invest $7.95 in an old fashioned map (I almost forgot you can get those).  It was $7.95 because it was an “easy fold” map.  I like it.  I found reviewing it thoroughly gave me a renewed sense of where I was throughout the trip, as well as perspective of where I was going directionally to get to each location.  I had to estimate my arrival times and had some choices to make at times about which road to take, which was nice to consider speed and convenience verses scenery or, in one case, opportunity to pass by a historic landmark.  Pretty cool.

As we guide people through experiences of gathered worship we have ways to give them turn by turn instruction on the spot as we move through a service of worship.  Projection screens allow us to accomplish those turns with little spoken verbiage.  I have been in (and even designed some) services where the element of surprise was highly valued.  Utilization of musical transitions, underscore, visual aids, and props can assist the journey through a worship service.  Many churches have done away with printed worship guides, often with this very intention on the mind of the designer/planners.

In designing and planning for gathered worship experiences it is crucial to understand that decisions we make have consequences of exclusion as well as inclusion.  That is to say,for example, when we decide to use this song in this slot it means we cannot use that song in the time frame.  When we decide not to give worship guides or bulletins because we want to surprise people, we take away the ability to let worshipers view the perspective, not unlike the GPS verses map situation for travel.  In such cases we are placing a higher value on “surprise” and our control of moving step by step through worship than on the larger picture perspective.  It is possible that in trying to “freshen” the experience for someone who won’t know what’s coming next, we will dumb down their grasp of the larger framework of worship.  I hesitate to say, but call to your attention in love, that the larger framework of many services of worship are suspect as to their structure.  In many instances I think this comes from a sincere desire by worship planners to be “fresh” and “unpredictable.”  If we are not careful our value and trust may be placed in our ability to engineer an experience of emotional ebb and flow, rather than trusting in the ever-living One to be at work in our midst to present His story of good news applied to each life and to the collective body. 

A huge part of our opportunity and awesome responsibility is to present HIS STORY every week in worship.  Worship repositions us to know that HE IS GOD, and we are not!  It recalls the big picture of salvation’s story and not just the turn coming in point two miles!  God is eternal; here before time began; created all that is; chose a people to call His own; delivered and protected those people that He might send His Son to take away the sins of the world.  Jesus was born of a virgin; knew life in the flesh and was tempted at all points as we are tempted; was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead; was transfigured and ascended to heaven; will return for His body, the Church, and will reign forever.  Worship places us in the big picture!  Perhaps the printed guide can also help to keep before us the revelation and response rhythm of worship; can help us see the Gathering, Word, Table, Sending pattern that extends past our gathered worship and forms a structure for individual and family worship as well.

This is not a campaign for paper bulletins by any means.  There are numerous ways to go about maintaining the framework perspective of worship.  I do want to remind us of the opportunity and, I believe, responsibility we have to help develop the worship life of our congregations by giving perspective, both through our placement of this Sunday’s worship into the whole of God’s story, and through provision of instruction (spoken, sung, and printed) that reveals the framework of our communion/converstion/engagement with God in Christ.

Look forward to seeing you along the road!


What are we talking about?

August 27, 2010

Football (high school, college, or professional – aka Rebels, Volunteers, or Titans), weather, politics, the economy, school starts, and grandchildren – these are all topics of conversation one can hear in any given public place (ok, some of the football teams may include other mascot names).  I had the privilege of flying to Arizona and back this past weekend to teach a group of worship music ministry leaders.  On the flight West I ended up sitting next to a Southern Baptist evangelist and his wife from Kentucky.  I always pray to be sensitive to what God might be saying to me and what I need to say to someone else when flying (preparing to be moving at 500 miles an hour at 39,000 feet includes talking to God about all aspects of the trip).  I wasn’t sure about the direction of conversation with an evangelist.  As it turned out, I did not need to worry about it much as he chatted freely much of the trip.  I had my copy of Connie Cherry’s book, The Worship Architect, which ushered us into a conversation that probably scared everyone within four rows of our seats.  After the flight we exchanged cards and pleasantries and moved on our way.

The return flight was also highlighted by a listening posture, though from a very different perspective.  The gentleman I sat next to grunted a “hello” as I climbed over him to get to the window seat, fell asleep almost immediately, and remained in that condition for 90% of the flight home.  The row in front of me, however, was actively engaged in conversation the entire three hours.  A young married couple (nurse and a doctor) were moving to Tennessee and discovered that the elderly lady they were seated next to was enroute to Jackson, Tennessee to visit an ailing sister.  Of course my ears perked up at all of this and it was very tempting to interrupt at some points to announce my Tennessee connections and especially the Jackson strings.  I knew it would be awkward to be speaking back and forth through the seats, so I kept quiet and listened as the young wife was rather boisterous and freely shared information which ran the gamut from colloquial predictions about southerners that were blatantly misinformed (we do too wear shoes and brush our teeth!) to personal relationship matters that were frankly just T.M.I. to be blabbing to anyone in public, much less a total stranger.  As the conversation turned to discussion of the medical condition of the elderly lady’s ailing sister, the nurse wife was quite willing to diagnose condition and give prognosis with the occasional response from her husband.  It went something like, “Isn’t that right?” to which he responded, “yes, – what?”  I thought, “I hope this will not be how he runs his practice in Southeast Tennessee upon arrival.”

As the flight continued so did the conversation that included much more talk about the couple’s plans for housing, parenting approach, and even their sex life.  I was shocked and more than a little amused when the elderly woman was free to respond to all of those topics with enthusiasm.  This was all interesting enough to totally distract me from reading any of the John Grisham book of short stories I picked up at the airport.  But it also stirred me to pray when the chit-chat turned deeper as the prediction of the sick sister’s demise turned to the afterlife.  The all-knowing nurse proclaimed her interpretation of “good news,” which included some very vague notions about “whatever path she is on” and some para-psychology babble accompanied by a little dose of reincarnation that had a strange slant that mused about the possibility of a heaven in another dimension among us. 

In the midst of trying to keep up with the drifting synchronism that was being spun I could not help but reflect back on my “discussion” with the evangelist on the flight just three days earlier.  I thought about all the stories I heard from a well-intentioned man about his trailer full of props used to share the Gospel, and his rehearsal of some illustrations.  I was no more witness to those around us as I responded to his questions about worship (most of which had to do with questions of style – ugh) with terminology and rhetoric that would have been appropriate in a seminary class, but was likely ill-conceived for an airline trip.  As I continued to hear the nurse in front of me blaring on about everybody having their own way to peace, etc., etc. I was deeply saddened by my own previous inattention to those around me.  I did some confessing and prayed for the Holy Spirit to help me be more attuned to my surroundings and to His leadership to guide my conversations.

In between those two events (flight out and flight back) were some meaningful encounters in which I was aware of God’s presence and work.  Ruth Lewis, Music Associate at North Phoenix Baptist Church, who had issued the invitation for me to come to Phoenix and teach worship music leaders for the Arizona Church Equipping conference, was her usual gracious and encouraging self.  Ruth’s demeanor with all music leaders from all sizes and shapes of Arizona churches as well as her hospitality with me was a reminder of gentle compassion.  It was very Christlike – a real joy.  Seeing John Shillington, Associate Pastor of Worship, Music, and Prayer, at North Phoenix was an encouragement.  John was serving at Two Rivers here in Nashville when I began my fulltime ministry at Parkway Baptist Church in Goodlettsville.  We have some common friends and acquaintances over the years.  Our short visit was a reminder of God’s guidance through our lives and the joy of being in ministry with colleagues and friends who help you enjoy the journey.  Following each of the teaching sessions there were numerous opportunities to visit with committed servants who were eager to grow in their responsibilities and ministries.  That God would use me to aid those journeys is an ever-overwhelming point of astonishment for me.  It stirs my heart to praise Him who called me into such a work.  In visiting with a young high school student who is in a praise band I was aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit with us and wondered aloud if the Lord might be calling this young man into vocational ministry.  It was precious privilege to pray with him for God’s direction at the right time.  Sunday morning was a joyous day of worship with North Phoenix led with pastoral musicianship by John Shillington and the choir and instruments, then a message that convicted me deeply and became a central part of the whole experience spiritually, as Pastor Dan Yeary preached on the Good Samaritan and asked the tough question again, “Who is my neighbor?”  The message was integral to the church’s missional direction for immediate future, but it was very personal to me as well as I assessed and confessed the times I have missed out on neighboring.  It is, after all, the second part of the Great Commandment.  Powerful message from a powerful preacher, whose power resounds from his transparent gentle spirit that allowed us to hear the powerful Holy Spirit.

On that trip home I prayed to be a more Christlike neighbor with recognition that my neighbors do not all live in my subdivision.  Some are moving to Tennessee from Arizona or on their way to visit their dying sister.  I also prayed to be more diligent to engage in conversations that reveal Jesus.  Those conversations must take place in gathered worship and in our singing in order to be on our hearts and minds to be rehearsed on airplanes, whether with evangelists or confused life travelers.  Lord, help me to be renewed to be a living neighbor.

That the light of Christ may be seen today!


Where a Book Goes

August 17, 2010

The day I hit “send” on the email to the publisher, Crossbooks, with my edited manuscript attached, I was both excited and relieved.  There was a drive to complete that task and a passion to share a message that was burning in me born out of a sincere concern that churches are not engaging fully in singing as worship.  I felt that my concerns were broad spread, if not universal, based primarily on my personal observation in many Tennessee Baptist churches as well as my discussions with church leaders from all over the U.S.  The concern was certainly not limited to Baptists for as part of my research I had spoken at length with members of several other denominations and some from so-called “non-denominations.”  Organizing and publishing some of my thoughts, theological and practical reflections, and solution suggestions was somewhat therapeutic, but more pointedly it was a way of attempting to make a contribution to something I felt very passionately about.

I was ill-prepared for the breadth of what would happen and is happening as result of having a book published.  In my immediate network (TBC churches) I am trying to find ways to disseminate the book in hopes that pastors and worship music leaders might become attuned to the message contained in those pages.  I see it as a definite part of my ministry.  I gave away a good number of copies on our recent cross-state tour (those who took my class received a copy).  Charlotte sold some copies to interested participants who saw or had heard about the book, some of whom indicated they would be delivering the book to their pastors ( largely lay leaders concerned about their church’s worship).  I have some strategies for further disseminating the book and getting word out to others.  To be honest, I am not good at this marketing part of the process at all.  My wife says I will give away the vast majority of the books rather than sell them.  She may be right.

While I have been somewhat engrossed in the cross-Tennessee distribution plan I was less focused on the fact that the book was available through and, making it accessible to anyone anywhere. It was a bit novel to see the book cover’s image on those websites.  But the real shocker for me has been the interaction with Christians and even non-Christians from a variety of backgrounds and interests all because of the book.  I received two phone calls from worship pastors in Oregon just last week.  I spoke with a Methodist pastor in Louisiana who chased my contact information down through a fellow graduate of the Institute for Worship Studies.  I have had email from people in several states across our country, and even the U.K.  It is a bit surprising, humbling, and yet it also rekindles the fire over the issue of worship renewal through congregational singing.  I have been interested that it seems the problematic issues in Tennessee Baptist churches seem common to those from other regions and denominations.  My unction to address the subject and to take a biblical theological approach to it in the first place has been confirmed through these interactions.  While I have written about a subject I pray will strengthen and encourage you and perhaps enlighten your pastors and people, you are placing song on hearts, minds, and lips of people such that will continue to form them as it lives on in their minds long after the last note has sounded of a Sunday service.  The interactions I have had with those who have read pages from my book have inspired me that much more.  They remind me that what you and I are involved in goes far beyond how good our church members feel about last Sunday’s songlist or how it was presented.  We are strategically involved in a process that helps place the praise of our God upon the lips of His people.  We are serving as voices who begin singing the song of salvation when the faithful gather and enjoin them to lift the proclamation of witness and Word.  I want to do all I can to encourage you who lead out in “the everlasting song” to lead boldly, to assess thoroughly, to choose wisely, and to minister with grace.  While there are those who would diminish your position to something of a resident minstrel, I want to build you up to recognize your place in God’s Kingdom’s work.  You are the ones who remind the church:

            Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise!

                                                                        (Robert Robinson – Come, Thou Fount)

He keeps me singing,


The Shape of Worship

August 9, 2010

In the ten years I have served as Director of Worship & Music Ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention I have had numerous opportunities to consult with churches in the area of evaluating worship environments and developing steps toward adjusting the worship design for their worship services.  In fact, I tried to figure an estimate the other day and concluded that I have probably worked with about 100 churches a year on average.  That is a lot of churches, and includes many communications – phone calls, visits, church services attended and assessed, and emails.  In some form or another this is probably what I do as much or more than anything else in my role at the TBC, week in and week out.

I regret to say that far too often the conversation centers around secondary issues, especially style.  In my book on worship renewal I point to Robert Webber’s emphasis that the priority issue of worship is first and foremost a question of content or substance.  Indeed, any discussion of worship must begin and find a constant analysis rooted in being certain that the substance, the content of worship (subject and object) is God in Christ.  This theme is so central to any discussion of worship that I am convinced any discussion that does not begin with such a foundation is illegitimatized by its absence.  Some pastors and other church leaders may want to presume this foundation in worship discussion, but such omission leaves participants open to wandering further and further away from the very core value upon which all of worship rests.  I recently participated in a church discussion regarding the worship life of a church in which the pastor stated that he did not want to get into theology.  The declaration left me in such a state of disbelief that I found myself speechless, which may have been just as well under the circumstances.  In fact, if any discussion of worship is not rooted in biblical authority and saturated with theological foundation, then it runs the risk of following our culture’s drift to root everything in personal authentication.  The danger here is masked relativism – sometimes without much of a mask.  It leaves us to what I sometimes call “Burger King worship” – aka “Have it your way.”  Such a spirit is contrary to the humble spirit called for in scripturally sound worship.

Webber notes the second tier of consideration in worship design concerns form.  The form of our worship is shaped by the content or substance of worship.  Bryan Chappell helps us understand a Gospel-shaped liturgy form in his book, Christ-Centered Worship.  Designing congregational worship around the Gospel provides a sound format for interaction (communion/engagement) with God.  Beginning worship with a recognition of God’s character, His invitation, and the very Presence of the Risen Lord, sets worshipers on solid ground to experience worship as response to something God has done and is providing, as opposed to something they just decide to do on their own.  God’s presence demands a confession of our human condition and character, which would make it impossible to come into the presence of a Holy God were it not for the provision He has made for us, a provision of grace.  Through assurance of His grace and pardon worshipers are moved to respond in faith to such a gracious God who has provided means of meeting with Him.  Through the Word instruction is given to move worshipers toward obedience with accompanying covenant for blessing.  Worshipers’ response to God occurs in the worship gathering itself, but extends as they are sent into the world to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” serving so as to bring God glory.

The question of style is best fleshed out when seeking to serve God in the substance and form of worship liturgy.  Addressing style as a first order priority causes us to plan worship gatherings based on what attendees like above that which reflects the character of God and serves to facilitate our communion with Him.  The question, “How can we please God in our worship?” is replaced with “What do we want from our worship?” or in the case of those seeking to “attract people” through their worship, the question may be “Who do we want to attend our worship?”  These value systems are contrary to Christ-centered worship and deserve to be pointed out and addressed.

Gospel-shaped worship interacts with God at His initiation, responds with appropriateness at each step of revelation, and results in life service to His glory.  The style of worship music and even environment is likely to be different from place to place, but in Gospel-shaped worship there should be no doubt as to the substance of worship, nor should there be confusion as to the flow of worship conversation/communion with the God of all grace and hope!

Here are a couple of blical examples of Gospel-shaped worship: 

Isaiah’s Gospel Worship (Is 6)

God’s character recognized (vv 1-4)

Human character confessed (v. 5)

God’s grace exhibited (vv. 6-7)

Response of thankful devotion (v. 8)

Instruction for obedience (vv. 9-12)

Promise of covenant blessing (v. 13)

Spiritual Worship (Romans 11-15)

Recognition of God’s Character (Rom 11:33-26)

Acknowledgment of Our Need of Mercy (Rom 12:1)

Assurance of Mercy (Rom 12:1)

Thankful Response (Rom 12:2)

Instruction in New Obedience (Rom 12:3-1:14)

Communal Care for One Another (Rom 14:1-15:12)

Charge and Benediction (Rom 15:13)

Trusting the God of Grace and glory,


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