Archive for October 2011

Leading with Heart and Voice

October 26, 2011

The longer I serve in my role working with worship pastors across our state the more aware I have become of leaders who struggle with vocal problems.  I can sympathize with these folks having had a bout or two during my own career with my voice.  I don’t pretend to be a therapist, though I have taken to heart most all the helpful instruction I have received from the likes of Dr. Tom Cleveland and others at the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic.  As far as I am concerned they are the best there is when it comes to voice therapy and dealing with vocal faults.  For anyone having problems I highly recommend getting professional help sooner rather than later as negligence can further risk long term damage.


Vocal problems can be caused by a variety of issues, some of which are unrelated to how we use our voice when singing and/or when leading others in singing.  Physical causes may include acid reflux that damages the vocal folds, poor muscle use, bad posture, or just plain old fatigue.  Problems can also be caused by over-singing, extended singing in the outer extremes of the singer’s natural range, and more.  Worry over continued viability and related psychological impact can just add more stress to an already stressful scenario, which doesn’t help matters.  My experience has been that tension as it relates to singing technique works against the singer, and I have heard that “song” from a therapist on more than one occasion..”relax..relax.”  In a worship leading process, relaxing is hard to do when most of the tension is coming from my racing mind that has me thinking about musical things, personnel things, “what’s next” things, etc., etc.


I trust that many of you can relate when I say that on many occasions I have left a worship environment thinking, “has it come to this?”  “Is all that really necessary?”  I have had the brutally honest moments when I evaluated everything taking place in worship that brings about tension and realized that I planned most of it, and much of it I planned with little more purpose than an emotional kick in the pants, or even a cheap thrill as its intended end.  Yes, I wanted to emphasize the text of a song, or to make sure worshipers got the message, but hard analysis has sometimes led me to believe I am not expecting or asking much on the part of the worshiper.  At times that is probably an insult to the intelligience of those gathered.  It is also probably a means of forming lazy worshipers, prolonging the problem.


A couple of weeks ago I lost my voice due to a respiratory infection.  Sunday came anyway.  I had to just tell folks, “this is called congregational singing.  Since you are the congregation you will need to sing, especially since I cannot.”  It was a fresh reminder to me that I cannot sing “for them” anyway.  I am convicted that much of our on microphone worship leadership that cranks our voice above the congregation is detrimental to congregational singing in worship.  It is unhealthy for the worship leader vocally and unhealthy for the congregation spiritually as they depend upon the platform for the sounds of praise.  When your people think in their mind’s ear of worship singing in your church do they hear a sound of a committed congregation lifting their collective voice to make His praise glorious, or do they hear a worship band, orchestra, or pipe organ just under the decibel level of the voice of the worship leader?  Such a scenario places the worship leader in a posture to sing every word of every verse (adding some shouts and jumping up and down in the more charismatic environments).  It also releases the congregation to simply mumble along and sing out the parts they either know or like best rather than doing the work of singing as a congregation admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.


So, how can we lead without holding responsibility for carrying the proverbial ball throughout the song service?  How can we support worship singing and encourage it without trying to dominate with our own voice.  One of your most important leadership qualities during congregational worship is your spirit.  Your visible, physical reflection of song lyrics, offering demonstration of meaning and significance, go a long way toward helping people move through songs with a sense of what they are saying in their singing.  Obviously their eye contact will be more focused during the most familiar phrases when they are not having to watch every word in the book or on the screen, but even through peripheral vision they usually have a sense of the timbre on the platform among band, choir, praise team, and/or other leaders including the primary leader.


Another very important quality that is most difficult to change if you are use to leading with your own voice is to actually expect more from the congregation and knock the props out to a sufficient point that you can hear what the congregation is, or is not, doing in their song and singing.  If this is a transition for you and them, then introduce the atmosphere with a phrase, or very familiar verse first.  As is appropriate call the worshipers’ attention to the sounds of their own collective voice.  One body, many members (and voices) joined in song.  Sometimes congregations need help interpreting the song so that they might sing with mind and spirit (1 Cor 14:15).  Worship Leader, rather than just singing it for them (or worse, over them), why not help teach them, encourage/admonish them, and then free them to sing worship.  While doing so, you might just save your own voice and add years to your own ministry of singing, while leading with your spirit of worship.  I challenge you to consider these techniques and let me know how they work for you and for your congregation if you do try them.


For the long haul!


Here and Gone

October 19, 2011
 I was in my office busily working on a September day when a gentleman I did not recognize came to my door and asked, “Where’s the printer?”  He had some papers in his hand.  His light Hispanic accent was somehow engaging, but no more so than his winsome personality.  As often happens, Charlotte overheard the question and jumped up to the rescue.  Off they went to the end of the hall where the printer/copier for our side of the floor is located.  I assumed the man to be a guest in the building, perhaps working with others in the language ministries department.  Before he headed back across the hall I introduced myself and shook his hand.  He told me his name, but it would take me two more times running into him to find out that he was new to our staff, a specialist in Hispanic missions and church planting.  I was glad to hear it as he seemed full of life, and had that fun twinkle in his eye.
Jess Fairbanks was formally introduced as a new member of our state convention staff following one of our weekly chapel services.  After that chapel I went to him to express my embarrassment for the previous misunderstanding about who he was.  Not only was he dismissive about my self shame, but he really wanted to talk more about the songs I choose for chapel services.  He said the hymns were like welcome friends to him.  We entered a meaningful discussion about worship through repeated meaningful expressions, many of which are familiar.  His face lit up as he named a long list of familiar songs that he loved.  He even asked if we could sing, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” a lively gospel hymn with a robust chorus that features men singing the melody.  A couple of weeks later we sang it in chapel and he seemed elated.  It was not just a “favorites” thing with Jess.  Following the chapel we talked a few moments about the gift of grace given by our Savior.  Later that day I called Jess to ask if he would speak at a weekly chapel about his life and ministry.  He took that assignment quite seriously and we scheduled a date, October 19.
On Thursday, October 13, I was attending one of our worship pastor roundtables in Chattanooga.  My phone buzzed a few times (not unusual) and as soon as we broke for lunch I started to return calls but saw I had a text message from the office: 
“Jess Fairbanks died suddenly a few hours ago.  No more info.  He was at while at an SBC meeting.” 
I was stunned.  To my knowledge none of the worship pastors knew Jess, and with his short tenure at TBC I was unsure what to say.  I asked for prayer and we completed our luncheon before friend, worship pastor, and songwriter Jeff Bourque and I packed the car and headed homeward.  When I had returned I checked my calendar knowing there would be a service to attend.  When I opened it, three words jumped out at me.  They were located in the box marked Wednesday, October 19, 2011, “Jess Fairbanks – chapel.”  Those three words hit me like a ton of bricks.  It caused a rapid flashback of the conversations with Jess about hymns, worship, the Lord’s guidance in bringing him to the TBC.  Wednesday’s chapel is going to be a time of reflection on Jess’s life. Though his memorial service is today (Tuesday), it seems appropriate to share prayer, remembrances, scripture,and a hymn or two to in honor of his life and as worship of the One Who holds life in His hand.  Jess’s time with us was so short, though rich.  At 59, he seemed young in spirit and full of life.  I would like to have known him longer, but thank God for the brief encounter of life’s journey.  One impact he had on me was to refresh my commitment to sing familiar songs that help the family of faith express their worship and praise and to be reminded of the path the Lord has allowed us to travel.  Most importantly, to give voice to our voicing the Gospel that we might worship and proclaim the “Wonderful Grace of Jesus! Praise His Name!  Thank you, Jess.
            Blessed are those who die in the Lord.  Let them rest from their labors for their works follow them.
                                                                                                                        -Rev 14:13
O that with yonder sacred throng we at His feet may fall!

Busy About What?

October 4, 2011

Is it just me or does it seem that every season of the year now is busy, busy, busy?  I vaguely remember when music ministry had a certain rhythm that included seasons of busy – ness and other seasons of a more routine, if not laid back pace.  I would reminisce about those “good ol’ days, but I don’t have time now.  There are probably numerous reasons for our accelerated stride, and matching reasons that our crowded calendars remain unrelenting throughout the entire year.  Anyone who knows my schedule knows I cannot write this article as one who practices a really healthy balanced lifestyle in terms of time management.  I can, however, write as one who is both a careful observer of worship pastors/music leaders and as a fellow struggler who is trying to find that path to being a less frantic follower of the Prince of Peace.


One of my earliest remembrances of really connecting with what a youth leader was saying was when a discipleship-training leader talked about the difference in our efforts as Christians to “do” as compared to our willingness to “be.”  The discussion was related to what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.  I can recall an unusual sense of comfort stirred in my spirit through that emphasis of being over doing.  It has stuck with me all these years and has been amplified many times over through experiences of life and ministry.  To this day I find myself troubled by preaching and teaching that overemphasizes something we are to do, especially when it is stretched to the point of leaving an impression that our means of attracting God’s attention and favor is some heroic effort on our part.  Commonly called a “works” salvation, such teaching when applied to worship, develops an unhealthy, if not blasphemous, atmosphere in corporate or private worship.  Lest you misunderstand, I am certainly not implying that there is not “doing” in Christian life and worship.  To the contrary, all we do in life becomes our worship as we offer our bodies to be living sacrifies. (Rom 12:1)  It may be better stated to say that what we do grows out of who we are in Christ.  Worship leaders are in position to model an ordering of these two dynamics of “doing” and “being.”  In worship planning, and material selection, we have opportunity to encourage worshipers to remember and give thanks for what God has done in Christ.  Our calling in worship is to lift up Christ!  I sometimes would hope that pastors and worship leaders would ask themselves following a worship service, “Is is likely that people left concerned about what they need to do,” or “humbled and full of gratitude for what Christ has already done?”  Oh that we would recognize the sole source of the power to live as devoted followers of Jesus, and convey the message clearly to worshipers, thus edifying the body.


We would do well to read carefully the Great Commandment and Great Commission in light of this tension of “doing” and “being.”  Loving the Lord with all of our heart, all our soul and with all of our mind (Matt 22:37) seems best centered in a relationship with the Lord, in which we turn all of our mind’s attention and all of our heart’s affection toward Him.  Loving our neighbor as our self seems best practiced by being the disciple whose nature has changed from self-serving to daily cross-bearing.  In the case of the Great Commission, worship leaders do well to remember that the commission was given in a setting “when they saw Him, they worshiped Him.”  Some doubted Him, but Jesus did not say, “you are going to need to try really hard to achieve this next part.”  Instead, he simply reminded them of His potency as one who had “all authority in heaven and earth.  We know that He called upon them and us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things He has commanded. (Matt 28:19-20)  Brothers and sisters, we dare not miss the last phrase of this commission, which is the sole source of empowerment for this commissioned journey, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20)


Being with Him, in Him, and He in us, living life in response to what He has done….our spiritual act of worship.  Thanks be to God!


So as you peruse your responsibility-riddled calendar, and contemplate the paces needed to arrive at the big Christmas program, plan choir calendars, order music and materials, design sets, formulate budgets, listen to new songs, etc, etc, let me encourage you to join me in prayer that we might become more like Jesus and allow His way of abundant life to be lived out more fully in who we are becoming.  Let’s pray to be better models of worship rooted in spirit (Holy Spirit) and truth (Word who became flesh) as we trust our Lord who said:


Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. You have heard Me tell you, ‘I am going away and I am coming to you.  If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.


John 14:27-28


God’s peace be with you,


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