Archive for September 2011

Healthy Leaders Healthy Churches

September 29, 2011

Over the past three weeks I have led two churches through aWorship Renewal through Congregational Singing weekend experience.  The times of studying, remembering, sharing, and of course, singing, were laced with sweet moments of fellowship, inspiration, discovery, and encouragement.  Some very practical realities were clear through these and all the experiences I have had sharing these conferences in churches. Stated simply; if the leadership is healthy and is prepared and deeply engaged, it seems the church most likely will respond positively and there seems to be a freedom for the Spirit to work among His people to renew worship through expressions in song and singing.  It is very important to me that you understand there is no “formula” here, I am just seeking to state my experience and to reflect on that to encourage your thinking toward principles that I believe are applicable out of that experience.

 

This is fresh on my mind and heart as I just returned from a church where I spent a weekend conducting sessions of such a conference. Without saying too much, I think it is fair to tell you that this church has seen difficult days in its very recent past. Combinations of factors contributed to the turmoil.  Past tensions over worship music styles took a toll as persons wanting something other than the church’s offerings left the congregation.  Declining attendance and membership over a number of years combined with tensions between leaders had the church on a trajectory of demise.  Through concentrated prayer, consultations with staff of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, associational leaders, and others the church sought an intentional interim pastor to lead them through a time of difficult transition.  A retired pastor came to assist the church, sought to love the people and preach the Bible, built a staff of likeminded colleagues, and established a spirit of prayerful openness in the congregation.  The Lord has blessed by giving a new direction, a clear sense of new life and a palpable sense of love and unity among these people.  In fact, the church called this man to remain as their permanent senior pastor to serve along with their student minister and their interim music minister, and has continued to watch growth occur that is only explainable by, as one choir member put it, “God is at work.  That’s all you can say, He’s doing this.”  Amen!  All of the staff members along with the church’s instrumentalists were great support and very hospitable through the whole experience.

 

Talk about a “perfect setup” for one of these worship renewal weekends!  When 75 – 100 leaders show up on a rainy Saturday morning for three hours of study on worship through congregational singing, you know these are faithful and committed folks.  The experiences of each session were rich for me, and the Lord blessed through conversations, communications (open and private), and added to His church through six commitments for baptism in the Sunday morning service.  Thanks be to God!  Two rows of middle and high schoolers populated the front two rows of Sunday services accompanied by their student minister and his family.  A good crowd returned for Sunday night’s congregational rehearsal despite pooring rain that continued all weekend.  Indeed, not only was grass watered, but the Lord’s church continued to experience showers of blessing.  Great is His faithfulness!

 

Some practical applications I want to share are these:

1.      Unified leadership focused together on building a healthy church of believers who love one another and seek to reach others for Christ fosters meaningful worship.

2.      One of the ways the pastor and staff encourages unity and healthy relationships in the church is by their own mutual respect and encouragement of each other.  Words of genuine affirmation abounded, especially in private conversations, among the staff as they commended each other’s work and shared ministry.

3.      Open expressions of positive expectations toward the behavior of fellow church members encourages self-fulfilling prophecy.  A departing soldier (a mom with two teenagers) was promised in the worship service that the church would pray for her and watch out for her teens while she was deployed in Afghanistan.  Staff and lay leadership affirmed to me the expectation of their people’s attendance and participation in the worship renewal weekend.  I heard it over and again, “Oh, they (the people) will be here.  They will do what you ask them to do.” (I asked people to move from their seats to populate the front pews – normally lonely spaces in a Baptist church – during the Sunday evening session).  The staff was right. They did whatever I asked.

4.      A prelude to any effort toward spiritual renewal must be a concert of prayer.  When we are seeking to see God at work among His people we must lead His people to seek Him beforehand so as to be watching and waiting.  Soli deo Gloria!

5.      One of the means of raising awareness to ways God is at work in the present is to remember ways and times He has worked in the past.  The focus in such activity must be on the dynamics of the Spirit’s work and movement, not a romantic nostalgia.  Our prayer is for the work of Him who “makes all things new.”

6.      Each church must be sensitive to the Lord’s provision for its ongoing deliverance and health, rather than just seeking to pattern itself after other churches.  In the case of the church where I served last weekend, the Lord brought a pastor out of retirement to steer the congregation toward renewed life in Christian community.  The church’s worship language and methodology flies in the face of philosophies that would imply a “latest and greatest only” mentality.

7.      Awareness that the Lord is at work in and through the church nurtures sensitivity to ways He might desire to work in individual lives and throughout the whole community.

 

There is nothing profound in these insights, but there is much profound that can be ingested when observing those environments where the Lord is at work among His leaders and His people.  There is a close connection between His working in the former and the later.

 

Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Cor 14:12)

 

Amazed in His Presence,

Paul

 

Epic Themes of Worship

September 26, 2011

In preparation for a weekend retreat involving our Tennessee Ladies Chorus and Tennessee Mens Chorale I have been listening to a new (yet to be released) recording of Christmas music by Keith & Kristyn Getty.  Keith slipped me a copy of the rough recording knowing that Kristyn and he would be joining us for a Friday evening rehearsal session readying us for a December concert of music, “An irish Christmas.”  It would be an understatement to say I am excited about having the choir singers I love and appreciate so much join the song-writing recording icons for a concert at the famed Schermerhorn Symphony Hall here in Nashville.  Before last Friday’s rehearsal I must have listened to that recording ten times thru.

My kid-like excitement for all of this stems largely from my deep appreciation of the integrity and character of the music given the Church by the Gettys.  Several years ago I was introduced to Getty songs by friend and fellow student of worship, the late Carl “Chip” Stam of Southern Seminary.  I often turn to Getty songs to serve as examples of music that can help a congregation pray in community through singing, or join in shared proclamation of faith.  Following the events leading up to and including last weekend’s time with the Gettys, I think I know better why their music so enraptures me and arrests my imagination.  It is an over arching theme that often points the listener/participant toward notions of epic proportions.

Lest you think this article is a push for using Getty music (a push I could certainly give), I want to quickly turn your attention to a larger consideration sparked once again in my mind by listening to the Christmas recording.  Christian worship has the capacity to offer the human imagination a view of what God is doing in the world and what He has been doing through all of time.  It helps remind worshipers of God’s place and power to do those things.  He is, after all, God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.  In the midst of a culture saturated with bad news, self-absorbed individualism, and a pessimistic view of future, worship encourages our vision of the Lamb upon His throne, He Who made all things and in all things hold together.  At the very same time Christian worship has capability to convey something of the measure of God’s goodness, longsuffering patience, and His merciful kindness.  In other words, biblical Christian worship reflects the character of God Himself.  Of course worship has capacity to draw us to consider ways the Lord may be at work in the most intimate details of our individual lives.  In fact, our sense of His work in our individual lives may be strengthened most by our understanding of God’s omnipresence and thus help us to watch more closely everywhere and at all times for ways His traits might be revealed.  I wonder at times, however, if our focus has not become so narrowly on how we feel and/or whether we “feel” Him at work meeting our individual needs that we might lose the larger objective of worship, God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.

If I was a parent with a sick child who seriously needed healing, there is no doubt I would cry out to God with my individual need.  It is quite possible that I might desire to hear words in worship that would speak to my individual need and bring me comfort.  I would likely benefit from knowing the story of others who had been down similar paths.  It would likely calm me for someone to assure me that my child’s physical needs would be met.  Realization that these and other needs are often (perhaps every week) represented in our worship gatherings make it all the more important for our worship to continue to evidence Who God is.  As a parent of a sick child it would be important for me to not only know God could heal my child according to His will , but to know something of the very character of God indicated in His word and through His people and His word.

I have had prayer requests expressed to me recently that place me at a complete loss for words.  The need is so great.  When needs expressed reveal the dark of lostness, or of mental and emotional confusion, or reveal life stumbles that are quite likely to destroy families and other relationships, I have no answers in and of myself.  Such inexpressible needs are all the more reason our worship must lift up the God Who is sovereign and Who has been tempted at all points as we have.  These kinds of situations are all the more reason we need to worship around those epic themes that remind us of ultimate triumph of our Lord.  One of the songs from Irish Christmas that I have played over and over has been the 6th Century hymn, O Savior of Our Fallen Race.  Its marvelous text includes these words that give a flavor of the hope and sense of right order of which I speak:

O Jesus, very Light of light

Our constant star in sin’s deep night

Now hear the prayers your people pray

Throughout the world this holy day

As you plan and lead worship for your church do not lose sight of the epic themes of good over evil, Christ’s Lordship and ultimate victory.  It is part of our welcome responsibility to help others discover “Joy to the world! Let heaven and nature sing.”  Perhaps we should pray with Tozer:

Rise, O Lord, into Thy proper place of honor,
above my ambitions,
above my likes and dislikes,
above my family,
my health and even my life itself.

Let me decrease that Thou mayest increase,
let me sink that Thou mayest rise above.

– A.W. Tozer

Humbled by His Greatness,

Paul

The Struggle Within

September 14, 2011

I had coffee and lunch last week with two of our fine young  worship pastors.  In each case we talked a good bit about the challenges of worship music ministry.  In one case we talked about the challenge of helping those in our worship ministries to develop as disciples of Christ, and not just as performers of music.  In the other discussion we addressed the personal struggle of performance excellence, and knowing when our focus on performing well becomes too central to our motivation.  In each case I think we concluded that there is always need to strike a healthy balance.  I think we also determined that today’s culture makes maintaining balance extra challenging.

 

At the core of both these discussions were tensions that we feel in worship music ministry.  On the one hand is our training as performers – musicians knowing what it means to “do well.”  On the other hand is a biblical teaching and spiritual reality that calls us to be humble, die to self, think of others as better than ourselves, and trust the Holy Spirit.  It seems to me this is a struggle within us, and if we worship music leaders were to be perfectly honest, it is a struggle that wars at times in us all.  The thing is that we can point to one side or the other of the tension and still come out “smellin’ like a rose.”  In other words, I can have a self-gratifying performance where people are applauding and affirming my presentation or that of my music group, and I can say, “well praise God!” even when I really mean, “man, I am good!   We have got it goin’ on!”  And I believe our performing groups somehow know what we really mean, and they pick up the same inclinations.  Or on the other hand, I could have a lack-luster performance where I am fully aware that either I did not do well and/or the people I lead did not perform well, and then I could deflect attention from our poor presentation by saying, “well, we just trust the Lord spoke to someone’s heart in these moments as we ministered.  After all, that’s what it’s all about anyway.”  Either of these situations can be a kind of spiritual smokescreen.  In the first scenario, on the inside anyway, I take credit as if my talent is something I have earned and therefore I deserve affirming applause.  In the situation where the performance was not up to par, I hope to divert attention from a poor presentation (and perhaps poor preparation) by presenting a spiritual facade.

 

Because ours is a ministry that includes performance we will likely continue to have the tensions within that struggle to keep our egos in check and to seek the ultimate glory of God above our own acclaim.  At some point in our lives we recognized that we had been given certain gifts to be used in Kingdom work.  As a result many of us sought to be trained and to hone our skills to do our best.  We must not lose sight of our need to practice spiritual discipline as we apply those talents and gifts God has given, even as we practice musical skills prayerful that the message will be meaningful and clear.  Transformation in people’s lives take place only as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. That is true for our musicians and for us just as it is for those for and to whom we minister.

 

            What is good and what does the Lord require of you:

            To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

          Micah 6:8

May God bless, convict, and guide us as we continue in the struggle.

 

Humbly,

Paul

 

Meaning and Significance in Worship Singing

September 5, 2011

On Sunday, September 16, 2001, I was serving as interim music minister in a church.  During my short tenure there I had been approached by persons on either side of a dispute over styles of music to be used in worship; one group wanting hymns and another wanting contemporary fare (sound familiar?).  The worship plan for that Sunday had been dramatically adjusted midweek after the events of September 11.  My worship planning was suddenly driven by the events of that Tuesday.  I was fully aware that there would be an overwhelming need for believers to be encouraged in our faith when we gathered for corporate worship, and there would be an equally intense opportunity to share faith with non-believers who might attend on the Sunday following that Tuesday that shook our basic way of living in America.  Adjusting my worship plan for that Sunday provided lasting conviction for me. You see, prior to the events of 9-1-1, I had planned for worship music that sought to appease and/or to not offend people on two sides of a self-absorbed battle over stylistic preferences.  Looking at the worship plan in light of what took place that week I wept.  My tears stemmed from the emotion of the need we all had to be reminded that God was still sovereign, and from an embarrassing sense that what I had planned as a worship service before the dramatic events of that Tuesday took place was a diplomatic effort of unworthiness.  I stared at a service designed to appease.  It turned my stomach.  I prayed for forgiveness, for wisdom and boldness as well as clear direction.  The anthem planned previously would work just fine, but all the congregational songs were changed to give a voice of faith expression to believers.  The songs were not songs about faith – they were clear expressions of faith in the eternal Almighty God, the One not shaken by events of that week.  They were songs that prayed faith in the God Who was with us and had been with us.  In fact, the song that still rings loud and strong in my memory from that Sunday was a scripture paraphrase from the pen of Isaac Watts; a hymn reportedly sung often during the days of the American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and proved a familiar friend on that Sunday after all of us had been inundated repeatedly with imagines of jetliners being flown into towers with the sole purpose of killing thousands.

I do not think I’ll ever forget the sense of unity and anticipation that Sunday when that congregation stood to resound the paraphrase of Psalm 90:

O God, our help in ages past

                  Our hope for years to come

                  Our shelter from the stormy blast

                  And our eternal home

Every phrase resounded with import, and the people of God sang with such boldness I thought surely they would raise the roof of that sanctuary.

Under the shadow of Thy throne

                  Thy saints have dwelt secure

                  Sufficient is Thine arm alone

                  And our defense is sure

 

And on we sang.  The way I remember it we finished the great hymn to simply stand silently for a moment and then burst into applause.  I remember praying concern that our expressions would not be as a people united to fight an enemy of country as much as a people truly united in faith in the eternal God Who was, and is, and is to come.  Time would tell.

One of the many lessons from that Sunday etched in memory was how people truly motivated in and by faith in God at a point of genuine need care little about style wars.  Rather, their overriding desire is to pray and declare faith in the One they worship.  On those Sundays when that kind of singing takes place, songs of meaning also become songs of significance.  That is, songs selected and sung to mean or “re-mean” the intended expression of the lyrics themselves become songs of worship that also obtain significance marked by worship that takes place at a point in time (like the Sunday after 9-11) in which the song is also attached to the worship expression of that day and thus in subsequent singings may recall those moments, that time, and happenings of the worship of that day.  In addition it may strike cords of emotional attachment to a people (church), memory of loved ones who have gone on to glory, and a kind of spiritual nearness to God mediated by the Holy Spirit – all appropriate within the economy of the worship of God in Christ.

 

Song selection for corporate worship is almost always driven by a variety of factors.  The worship music leader whose pastor offers up sermon titles, text, and/or application intentions days, weeks, or even months ahead is considered by most to be blessed.  When the worship planner sits down in front of a computer or legal pad to begin sculpting a Sunday worship gathering, he/she likely considers several things no matter how much sermon information they may or may not be privy to.  Hopefully the worship leader has a sensitivity to the heart and direction of the senior pastor and to the church.  I would pray that every worship leader has a strong grasp of the Gospel of Christ and plans worship with a constant eye of reference to the centerpiece that is the Gospel.  Similarly, I would surely hope that worship planners are saturating their minds and spirits in the Word and plan worship informed by its truths.  I would hope and expect that all worship planners consider their context and ask some basic questions – who are the worshipers and where are they spiritually?  For some worship planners added factors such as recurring form and/or systematic planning may offer direction to help guide the plan that will become corporate worship expression on a given Sunday.

Included in the matrix of planning for worship is an understanding of the meaning of the songs that become candidates for selection for a given Sunday worship gathering.  The studied worship music leader has a repository of information stored in mind and on shelves upon which he/she can call, especially in settings where there remains a healthy respect for time-honored hymns as well as a careful exposure to new songs crafted for congregational worship.  Well-chosen songs of rich meaning are ripe to also become songs of particular significance as people gathered for corporate worship face their own points of need, fulfill their desire individually and corporately to express unified faith, and to boldly bear witness of that faith to non-believers.  After all, isn’t this a major part of what corporate Christian worship is all about?  Lord, help us to find refreshing meaning and significance in our worship singing as we pray to You, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.

 

By faith secure,

Paul


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