Archive for December 2010

After the Program

December 22, 2010

You who lead worship music ministry in your churches have been pretty well consumed in recent weeks with preparations for the “big event” or for many of you “big events” (plural) of the Christmas season.  Changes in weather and other inevitable obstacles have made this year’s work challenging in different ways.  As one who this year saw our biggest Youth Choir event canceled due to weather and a Chorale concert and retreat canceled due to personal health issues, I can relate.  So much goes into the preparation and execution of those presentations!  I recall well from my days of serving where you are in local church music ministry, that when the dust settled from the big Christmas program I had a sense of relief.  Remaining worship gatherings for the church were usually more relaxed and simple in timbre, and in expectation (healthy for leaders and church family).  I always looked forward to the time I could spend with family and friends when I was not responsible for a presentation, but could just spend time being together.  I find in my own journey that refreshment sometimes comes in the midst of those family gatherings as I am made aware of God’s unique blessings of grace, whether looking on my heritage or considering the future hope being voiced through children squealing with excitement.  The power of laughter and expressions of love among family for me are often rich with a sense of spiritual awareness that two or three are gathered together and indeed, Jesus is in our midst (Incarnation).  We may not be huddled in assigned prayer groups, but somewhere in the laughing, telling of stories, and even review of old family videos I find Jesus to be very much alive and well.  As a worship leader it is important for me to offer recognition that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shift shadows.” (James 1:17)  It is a great privilege at Christmas to declare: the love we share among family and friends is only possible because the Lord who made us knew exactly what we needed and what we need in our present day.

Out of those experiences of my own I find myself praying for each of you during this season that you will have that time and opportunity to be refreshed in the presence of family.  I also pray that you will be refreshed spiritually through the presence of the Spirit in those gatherings as well as in some needed personal time of worship with the Gift-giving God.

D.A. Carson reminds us of our needs:

1.     We need to be reconciled to God.

2.     We need to be morally transformed, or else we will just keep on rebelling again and again.

3.     We need all the effects of sin somehow to be reversed and overcome.  That includes not only our relationships with one another but death itself.  Otherwise death just keeps on winning.  This is still a decaying universe.  There is still betrayal, disappointment, pain, sorrow, and death.

(D.A. Carson The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story) 123

Thanks be to God!  Unto us a child is born.  Unto us a son is given.  What a gift!  I pray that in your heart and home you can join the song of the angels:

Hail, the heav’n born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings,

Ris’n with healing in His wings.

Mild He lays His glory by,

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.

Hark! The herald angels sing,

“Glory to the newborn King!”

–Charles Wesley



Practicing Joy

December 13, 2010

Many churches that observed the third Sunday of Advent last Sunday celebrated joy.  It is a turning point in this season of anticipation.  The more solemn first two Sundays of the season focus more on prophecies and preparation and even the need of a Savior.  The third Sunday begins to turn toward the actual celebration of Christmas itself.  Advent wreaths surround a central white candle known as the Christ candle.  In the circular wreath are embedded three purple candles, a more penitent dark color, and one pink candle that is seen as brighter and more hopeful.  That pink candle represents joy.  The church with whom I  worshiped Sunday observed the day by lighting the third candle of the Advent wreath, gathering children for a “Ministry Moment” in the service that was planned just for them, and by listening to a special presentation of music and recitations by the church choir, chamber orchestra, and a group of children.

Worship leaders are sometimes confronted with a bit of consternation when challenged to stir up a spirit of joy in worship.  Such a challenge is not limited to the season of Advent as such pressure may be brought to us by pastors desiring a celebrative atmosphere that will attract outsiders, or by church members who simply want church to be happy.  There is tension in most of us over a need to be authentic about the actual emotional state of worshipers including our own state of mind and heart on one hand; and the need to present the joyous truth of Christ’s birth and all that means on the other hand.  Try as we may to be forthright about our feelings, the fact is sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down.  It may feel hypocritical to seek to stir an atmosphere of joyous praise when we feel “down in the dumps.”  The fact is that our affections are certainly engaged and involved in our worship practice, but maintaining focus as to the object of our affections is an important aspect of what worship is all about.  As James K.A. Smith says, in worship we aim our love and the consistent practice of aiming love results in actions that are in keeping with that love.

Two thoughts come to mind to help us through such tensions in seasons when we are called upon to be joyous, but find our feelings conflicted.

#1 It does not hurt us to practice the liturgy of joy.  By that I mean that going through the motions of joy is not a bad thing, even if we do not “feel” so joyous at the outset.  While the objective of our worship should never be a mood, we may nevertheless find quite often that a byproduct of our worship may be a joyous spirit.  And this joy, not a sanguine melodramatic kind of schmaltz, but a discovered joy rooted in the truth of God’s Word, the fellowship of the church, or the sense of purpose serving His Kingdom, which is so much larger than serving our personal desires.  In worship we read joyous psalms, sing joyous songs of Gospel truth, and encourage the joy of believers’ fellowship as the body of Christ.  The psalmist reminds us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37:4)  Most of us have heard many sermons on this passage reminding us that when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our hearts change.  As a worshiper and worship leader, please note that there is an action of affection on the front side of this premise.  Part of our responsibility as worship leaders is to remind worshipers of the goodness of God, the reasons why we might find such delight in Him.  Ultimately, this is not just so that we might give it consideration as we would negotiating a consumer item, but rather so that we might affix our very affection toward Him.  Delight yourself in Him.

#2  Be certain our joy is truly in Christ and not just in feelin’ good for its own sake.  Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”[1]  One of the reasons we walk away from one service of worship feelin’ good, and from another not so much, is that our hearts may still be restless as our joy may be seeking itself as an end in itself.  Worship is formative.  One of the reasons I appreciate what I call “slow burner” forms of worship expression (you can quote me), is that longer trajectories of worship expression may form us more fully, engaging our whole person; mind, body, and soul.  Let me further explain; an inspirational thrill is momentary.  As a musician I recognize that muscle memorization takes place over a longer period of time.  What might be difficult, even frustrating, at first may slowly become richly satisfying.  Musically, something gets “in us” along the way of that learning.  We find a deeper joy of making music, hearing it when someone else makes it, and all that allows us to experience it at a different level.  Worship has some of those same tenets.  Memorizing a psalm may stretch us at first, then find its way into our minds where it resides for our meditation, perhaps serving as a ready tool for the Holy Spirit to bring to conscious thought as needed for our living.  Even if we think at times that we (or our churches) are “just going through the motions,” it is important to continue going through those motions and holding high the Word of God as unchanging truth.  Singing that has lost some of its joy will only rediscover the real joy when it once again remembers that the joy is seated in the Christ of whom we sing!

Last Sunday the pastor at the church I attended asked us all to tell one another, “Joy to the world!”  We also sang that carol.  I had several people speak to me after the service who shared a perfunctory “Joy to the world.”  One child said it with eyes to the ground as mom looked on.  It was obvious momma made her do it.  Nevertheless, in each instance the repetition seemed to break the ice to a longer conversation available to us.  Even the little girl ended up laughing out loud as I kidded her about swallowing her smile.  We laughed together when I challenged her to say it with me; “Joy to the world!”  I told her we should both keep practicing.  Indeed, we should.

            Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns;

            Let men their songs employ;

            While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

            Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy

            Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!

                                                –Isaac Watts



[1] Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1

Dress Rehearsal

December 9, 2010

Though a few of ambitious music ministry leaders have already had their major Christmas music presentation, most are probably coming up on that final run-through known as dress rehearsal this week or next.  I never was completely sure exactly what dress rehearsal meant.  In college and seminary performances we never actually wore our tuxedos or other concert attire for the “dress rehearsal.”  On the other hand, dress rehearsal for operas and staged dramas that involved more technical aspects than music recitals were characterized by actors and actresses showing up on stage in costume. Those of you who are staging singing Christmas trees, Christmas dinner theaters, or staged Christmas pageants are probably set to conduct very involved dress rehearsals complete with lighting, sound, and possibly even some costuming.  All the work of building sets and rigging technical equipment comes to bear on these last days of preparation.  Selecting and learning music is a slow process that has to be executed over weeks and weeks of rehearsals, listening sessions (in cars and homes as well as at church).  As the time for the main presentation draws nearer, so do the butterflies.  Will we be ready?  Will we recall the right things at the right times?  Will we convey the very spirit of the music and message itself?

All of those questions funnel into one really big question, Are We Ready? Bring on the dress rehearsal.  This is the one where we go through everything with nearly all the potential distractions at work. As directors, this is the one we try our best not to jump in to fix some little thing that doesn’t go exactly as planned.  Sometimes dress rehearsals can be messy, but they are usually necessary just the same.  I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-meaning staff member or choir singer said to me, “You know when the dress rehearsal goes badly that means the performance is going to be great.” (Oh, how comforting).

What is worship if not a drama in which the Lord declares Himself present through our acts of obedience in gathering in response to His call (ekklesia), in listening and hearing His Word, in responding with thankful hearts, and through departing as those sent to reconcile the world to Him. I have heard those who say that life on earth for Christians is a rehearsal for the eternal worship yet to come.  The Webster definition of “rehearsal” is connected to the word “repeat.”  We are reviewing God’s story over and over again.  We are living in the cycles of repeated refrains of celebrations and laments.  Like our choir rehearsals, sometimes things seem messy.  In our rehearsals we need to capture some of the true spirit of worship, and not get caught focusing on the technical aspects.  Who knows when we may be participating in the final “dress rehearsal?”  Help your people to be ready!  Not just for the Christmas program, but for eternal worship of the living God!  How?  One way is to follow the admonition of the carol:

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns;

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy

Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!

–Isaac Watts

Dr. Chris Alford, former Tennessee Baptist music minister and current pastor of Epiclesis Ancient-Future Faith Community in suburban Sacramento, California, recently wrote a blog article in which he states, “We belong to a Kingdom that can’t be seen but is Real. The entertainment business has a kingdom that can be seen but is false.” (



Time of Preparation

December 1, 2010

Worship Music Leaders are busy folks right now!  I know you guys and gals are engulfed in preparations for Christmas music presentations as well you should be.  Tis the season!  Whether singing Christmas trees, Christmas dinner theaters, children’s programs, or services of lessons and all takes lots of time to prepare; selection, planning, enlistment, rehearsal, staging, etc., etc.  While preparing for what’s next, don’t miss what’s now.


Sunday was the beginning of the season of Advent (Adventus which means “coming”). Many worshiping churches are recognizing this season as part of and/or preparation for the celebration of Christmas.  While some church leaders are unable to see past previous associations of Roman Catholic associations, I find more and more Baptists reclaiming Advent as part of their worship in the weeks preceding December 25.  As with any worship practice, I would pray that we worship leaders would be diligent to explore the rich meaning of Advent so as to observe it as disciples and disciple-makers.


Having just completed the Thanksgiving season, I have been reminded how much we reminisce during our preparation for a holiday.  Ebbie fixes food items that have been on the family Thanksgiving menu for many years.  We have incorporated some from her family and some from mine and now even some from our children’s spouses’ families. We even have recipes that have been handwritten by our parents and grandparents.  Ebbie has recipes that call for “a pat of butter the size of a hen’s egg.”  We laugh every year at that recipe from her “Meemaw.”  Preparing those dishes stirs up memories that bring us joy, laughter, and longing for loved ones.  When we set the table we recall where those who are no longer with us would have set had they still been living on earth.  We make comments that we credit to remarks that those loved ones would have made were they still with us.  Such memory recall is part of the feast, but also part of the preparation and anticipation of when we will gather with family and recount days gone by while dreaming about days to come when the grandchildren will be teenagers (yikes!) and when visions will be realized.


Advent helps remind us that God is the Creator of time, stepped into time, and that our pattern of singing, preaching, worshiping and witnessing all take place in the time He has given to us in which we live.  Advent is a wonderful opportunity to help your congregation remember that which has been, while keeping in tension that which is to come.  As we repeat seasonal practices our reminders will include the significance of memories rooted in those practices themselves, but we must always keep in perspective  “the reason for the season” as we say.  Granted, that phrase has become cliché yet it is true.  We need to recount the prophesies and help the church regain perspective of a hunger for the Messiah.  As part of this recollection, Advent can help draw the church’s attention to the act of preparation itself as  a broader application.  For instance, themes such as the certainty of death, judgment, heaven and hell can be applied.  Preparation must be made in life for these realities.  Such somber reminders can enhance the sense of true joy at Christmastime when we celebrate that a Savior has come to the world in Jesus, Emmanuel, born in a manger.


Advent is also a time of the “not yet,” as we focus on the assurance of His coming again. In the face of atheists’ emphasis that the Nativity is myth, we must boldly proclaim the Truth of Gospel and demonstrate our full-hearted belief that Christ has come.  That belief can be richly expressed in song!  Numerous indicators declare that people hear more Christian lyric during the season leading to Christmas than any other time of the year.  Evangelistic effort lies at your doorstep, worship music leader.  But faith declaration does not end with our claim that we believe that a historical even occurred in Bethlehem.  Advent worship must also declare boldly that we live as those in whom “Christ is born, Emmanuel.”  The full truth of Gospel worship goes on to tell the full story that not only do we trust Him for past and present, but that we wholeheartedly believe that He will return!  A Methodist theologian says “If the Creator’s saving purpose accommodates itself to time and history in these ways, it is entirely appropriate to commemorate, celebrate, and anticipate it in the temporal symbolism that the church’s calendar represents.”


Worship music leaders, for us this likely primarily means that we select and order music in such a manner as to retell the story, call attention to His active presence, and encourage faith for the certainty of His return. I encourage you to practice your craft, noting lyrical and musical means by which composers and authors have expressed Advent Truth for years and years, and still do so today.  In fact, if you will look closely in much Christmas music you will see these elements included.  Consider the plaintive melodies to which some Advent texts have been assigned.  Consider the joyous play of Christmas carols that not only declare His praise, but hold faith in His return.  As worship leader you have golden opportunity to bring them into focus for your people as they hear them, sing them, faith them.  You have opportunity to partner with your pastor to call them to his attention as well and encourage their repetition in his worship leading as well.  It will take a little work in research and preparation, but isn’t that, after all, worship as well?


By Thine own eternal Spirit

Rule in all our hearts alone;

By Thine all sufficient merit,

Raise us to Thy glorious throne

-Charles Wesley




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