Archive for July 2013


July 29, 2013

Cardinals I had a short window for a couple of days away with my wife this past week, and took opportunity to run up to St. Louis to see a professional baseball game.  When I was growing up I lived in Oklahoma and Tennessee, and back then the Cardinals were the team that most all radio and television stations covered.  Plus, my grandparents lived in Jefferson City, Missouri, so I was a Red Birds fan from the time I was old enough to care.  We lived in the St. Louis area in the late 70’s when I served a church in the suburbs, so I am pretty much a diehard fan.  Walking from our parking spot to Busch Stadium I reminisced to Ebbie about my first time to come to a pro game at Sportsman’s Park back then.  I recounted other visits to the old circular version of Busch stadium that preceded this present-day ballpark.  Ebbie noted that with my bright red Cardinals-logo shirt and my St. Louis-isignia baseball cap on my head I looked like I had not changed much over the years.  I had to admit, that coming to the stadium there was certainly a twinge of that same excitement I felt each time I was able to come.  The smell of hot dogs, jalapeno nachos, and beer added to the memories.

A better than average middle school band played God Bless America, and I began to sing, though I quickly noticed I was pretty much solo.  Although the words were scrolling across the jumbotron screen, I looked around and neither saw nor heard any other singers.  They introduced a singer from a Broadway show cast from the Muny who would be singing the National Anthem.  I placed my hat over my heart, and thought surely now the stadium would ring with strains of our Star Spangled Banner.  Wrong!  One problem was that the accappella singing left the tenor to pitch the anthem where he wanted, and like many worship band singers, he sang where he felt it showed off his own voice best.  Not a good key for most humans.  Embellishments were not as flamboyant as many that I hear, though those he did use may have discouraged others from singing, but overall, it just seemed to me that everyone was happy to just stand there, as if their maximum expected participation was just that, they made the effort to stand instead of sit.  I continued to sing, although it drew enough stares from others that made my wife uncomfortable (not the only time I have evoked that response in public).

Granted, I am generally one of those patriotic, U.S.A.-loving proud Americans.  I fly the flag in front of my house on 4th of July.  I say the pledge, sing the songs, take off the hat and place my hand over my heart as homage to the homeland I love at opportunities like this, and think everyone feels the same way.  I found myself disturbed through the opening innings of the game, still thinking about what had happened – a singer unconcerned with pitching the song in a key such that discouraged participation, and a gathering of 44,000 American citizens unmoved by the opportunity to join in singing of the land of the free and home of the brave.

This experience at the ballpark reminded me of a similar experience in many gathered worship settings where people stand and stair while the band plays on.  Singers crooning on a microphone seem oblivious to the disinterested spirit that far too often permeates sanctuaries.  Leaders often end the songs with big power chords followed by predictable mantras, like “Give the Lord some praise!” which too often feels to me like, “clap your hands so it feels a lot like applause for our band.”

I recognize we desire people to voluntarily offer participation in both these settings.  I am convicted, however, of a very real difference.  The ballpark is an entertainment venue of professional sports.  The worship service is calling for response to the living God.  What’s more, scripture instructs our environment, and reminds us to be “admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 3:16)  I fear that our years of seeking to mirror the culture in which we live has brought along with it just that – imitating the non-participation spirit that engages in what I want when I want, with the center of all actions focused on me.

Perhaps if Christians faithfully engaged in worship singing as a matter of natural response to being gathered, we might also be leaders in public settings like ballgames, graduations, and other public settings when opportunity for group singing comes.  Perhaps we could once again serve as leaders in our communities.  Just know that if we do, for awhile we will get some surprised, “Who is that singing?” looks from the crowd.


July 23, 2013

busy Our American culture places a high value on being busy.  If at any moment you actually are not busy, you may sense the need to look busy.  Have you ever faked a cellphone call while walking to your car, or sitting in a parking lot?  Have you stood in the grocery store aisle and pretended to check messages on your smartphone, when in reality the last message received was six hours ago?  When a luncheon conversation with a colleague grows the slightest bit monotonous, does your smartphone burn a proverbial hole in your pocket?  In fact, did you know that a recent article indicates the U.S. is the 28th country in the world in regard to “work life balance?”  That is only slightly better than Mexico, and is only nine steps away from being worst in the world.  The June 1 Atlantic Monthly article by Derek Thompson inquires, “If we are so rich, then why are we working so hard that we do not have time to cherish the fruits of our prosperity?”  We are busy people!  We are often busy at being busy, or even just looking busy.

An obsessively busy culture infects those serving as ministry staff, and through busy pastors and people sadly find its ways into the worship environment of our churches.  Worship leaders, consider the apprehension brought about by the mere thought of a twenty-second period of silence.  Many a music leader knows the prospective scorn of a nervous senior pastor or parishioner confronted with that moment of quiet in a worship service where they are not sure what you want them to “do.”  Reactions and sensibilities of this sort are likely a direct result of this “Gotta be busy” mentality that has danced its way into the life of congregations across our land.  Such an ethos is a far cry from “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

We have re-labeled places and things in a way that implies more action.  So we no longer construct sanctuaries.  We build worship centers.  Rather than creating space that calls worshipers to a sense of something larger than themselves, we convert rooms into theatrical venues and hang motorized lighting to resemble those settings with which people are familiar in the entertainment world, and try and convince them this is for them.  Rather than surrounding worshipers with stained glass, giving them time to study and soak in scenes from old and new covenants, we flash images in milliseconds to impress religious perception in hopes some of the impressions will somehow stick.

I know….I know….the world has changed.  Indeed it has!  An ever-present struggle of discipleship is measuring how much and in what ways we are to adapt to the world in order to communicate the Gospel into current reality.  Or, on the other hand, the question is how firmly we are to remain rooted in historical foundation, reflecting an unchanging Gospel that is secure as evidenced in its transformative power through all time.

The truth is that in our busy culture, worship planners – leaders – pastors are going to be busy about something.  The question is whether we will be busy about that which God intends, or busy about those things that reflect busy-ness.  In our context, it may be difficult to know the difference.  Here are some cautions to watch out for, some adapted from items listed by Josh Reich, Pastor of Preaching & Vision at Revolution Church in Tuscon, AZ, in his cautions about being a “celebrity pastor.”

Signs you may be about the wrong busy-ness

  • Worship planning is dominated by production issues – tech, performance, personnel, music and visual presentation
  • You are afraid to be away from your church in fear worshipers will like the way the sub leads worship better than when you lead
  • The primary comments you pay attention to regarding Sunday worship is whether or not you were good
  • Conferences you attend are mostly about new songs, new gadgets, or new gimmicks
  • You can’t turn your phone off at night.
  • You worry what people say about you, your songs, or your church on Facebook. You also feel the need to comment on everything or want to know how many likes your last status update got
  • You have to be at every rehearsal or tech meeting and be part of every decision that is made regarding worship
  • You don’t take time off.
  • When you become aware that one of your musicians is engaged in sinful actions, you do not challenge their sin for fear you will hurt their feelings and/or lose their participation
  • You are the bottleneck for all decisions related to worship; they must run through your office. By doing this, you say that you are keeping everyone on the same page, but really it is because you don’t trust that the culture and DNA of your church has spread, which says more about your leadership than your followers
  • You spend more hours and effort planning worship than worshiping
  • You have trouble quieting your spirit for worship in solitude because every scripture or song draws you back to think how it might be effective in the gathered setting
  • You seldom engage in settings where others are leading worship, or place yourself in a support role such as choir singer, worship band player, or other instrumentalist

Steps to regain direction for your sense of calling

  • Pray with an open heart and mind that your spirit would be restored in the joy of God’s salvation by His grace
  • Revisit your spiritual landmarks and ask the Spirit to guide your journey
  • Confess and celebrate your limitations, recognizing that your humanity is a gift of God; ask the Lord to help keep you mindful of these that you might more quickly recognize His Spirit at work
  • Engage in an honest evaluation of all aspects of your ministry and processes, especially those involving worship planning & leadership
  • Invite spiritual partners and leaders to pray for and with you regarding your sense of calling
  • Get your senior pastor or other leadership’s permission to unplug the worship environment for a period of time allowing healthy reflection for you and those you lead
  • Get involved in networks with fellow worship leaders with resolve to avoid a competitive spirit
  • Engage in periodic rest, retreat, and spiritually refreshing worship in settings other than the one in which you hold primary responsibilities


July 15, 2013

Saturday I attended the memorial service celebrating the life of music minister, songwriter, Bill George.  I did not know Bill well, having assisted him on a couple of occasions when he was considering church changes, and having talked at length with him through periods of worship environment transitions in churches where he was serving.  I wish I had known him better.  He certainly had a strong reputation of effective ministry through music in the churches he served.  Through the memorial service Bill’s family and their churches bore faithful witness in the time of loss and separation that occurs in the death of a loved one whose passing comes unexpectedly.  The need for Christian community is perhaps most strongly recognized and expressed in such times of sorrow and struggle to understand.

I believe that each of the pastors who officiated or spoke mentioned the music of this service, given that the deceased was a music minister.  I believe one of the officiants described the service as being walled in by these songs of faith and ministry.  Indeed, there were deeply touching moments in songs sung, several of which that were written, or co-written by Bill George himself.  By inclusion of songs left with us from his pen, we were perhaps reminded that there is a sense in which he continues to participate in singing worship with us.  Worshipers were ministered to through yielded artistry turned ministry of the musicians.  Of particular effect for me were two songs shared by the two singers I knew personally, Karla Worley, and our dear fellow minister musician, Jim Murray.  Karla sang lyrics she had written for which Bill wrote the music, We Need the Lord.  So apropos in this setting of sadness and struggle were Karla’s lines,

           We need His light to see

            What is eternity

            In ordinary daily things

            We need the Lord

            We need to cling to Him

            When we have reached the end

            Of all our earthly hopes and dreams

Jim Murray’s sweet spirit exuded through his moving rendition of the assuring, It Is Well with My Soul.  The choral music I will note more fully, but must say it was outstanding. My understanding is that the choir was comprised of members of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville’s choir augmented by singers from churches Bill had served as music minister and others who wanted to sing.  The church’s resonant acoustics aided the effect of the music’s ministry.

The service was a refreshing reminder to me of the power of worship as ministry.  That is to say, worship plays a powerful role as a means of pastoral care, edifying fellowship, maturing discipleship, humbling confession, and profound witness .  The worshiping church ministers through and in its worship.  As mentioned before, this particular worship was peppered with ministry songs that expressed cries of the heart recognizing our confessed need and God’s sole sufficiency to provide.  We were also privileged and further engaged as participants to sing Trinitarian praise in Holy, Holy, Holy, and Jim Murray invited us to join shared assurance by inviting us to join in on the refrain of It Is Well.  Given the memorial setting, our gathered singing connected us with the Church universal that sings, and reminded us that one day we will “join the everlasting song and crown Him Lord of All!”  The corporate prayers and recitation of The Apostles’ Creed joined us in shared humility, assurance, and proclamation of Gospel.  The musical exclamation points of overwhelming note in this service were the choral anthems.  It may be because I know the anthem so well, having led and/or sung it so many times, but the moment I was lost in abandon occurred in the ending expression of My Eternal King, as the choir swells to fortissimo and proclaims the 17th century text set by Jane Marshall,

Not for the hope of winning Heav’n or of escaping Hell

            Not for the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward

            But as Thyself has loved me, O Everloving Lord

            E’en so I love Thee, and will love, and in Thy praise will sing

            Solely because Thou art my God and King.

Followed by a corporate prayer for renewal, and then finally we stood to sing the Fred Pratt Green text, When in Our Music God is Glorified.  The sum total of worship’s point was made crystal clear.  God be glorified!  It is amazing how abandoning self in a community of selves to this higher call holds salvific power.

We sometimes forget that funerals, or memorial services honoring departed loved ones are to be first and foremost worship.  Church leaders have a serious responsibility to help families comprehend that funerals are not ultimately about the loved one being memorialized, but about the Christ whose death paid the price for our sins, and in whose resurrection lies life eternal.  While personal antidotes and warm expressions regarding the departed can be important aspects of personal ministry, they cannot become the essence of the purpose of our gathering.  Rather, as was so evident in the service mentioned above, the central theme of our worship is the core mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

Our Church is Different – Just Like Everybody Else

July 8, 2013

apple orange
Living in a suburban area that has seen enormous expansion over the past twenty years, we receive numerous mailings at our house, announcing new church starts, as well as announcing that churches that have been around awhile are changing or adding to their scheduled worship service offerings.  In most of these advertisements there is included a proclamation that what will take place in the “new” worship environment is different.  Of course the point is to entice us and our neighbors to come and try out the “different” church, or the “different” worship.  My own church and denomination (for which I work) are smack on the front line of new work strategy as well, so I proceed with some restraint in seeking to bring a word of caution that I trust is appropriate.  No doubt there is hope that people transitioning to new neighborhoods, new homes, attending new schools, and seeking to assimilate into a new community might be candidates for a church change, or better yet, for unbelievers, who might be open to conversion to Christian faith.  As Christ-followers/ambassadors this is, of course, our prayer.  We are on mission toward this very result.

The focus of these marketing campaigns usually is, “This Church Is Different!”  Some make the proclamation through a parodied slogan, like “This ain’t your daddy’s worship!” or “A church for people who don’t like church.” Both of these have made their way onto a slick postcard that has come through my mailbox, and I believe both are steeped with bad implications, and at some level reflect badly on the churches that sent them.  If your church has sent one of these or similar, I do not intend to offend, but do hope further reflection would give us all pause.  There are many more of these slogans that are devised for shock, and depending on the sensibility of the reader, they succeed. A quick Google search unearths the proverbial plethora of resultant slogans, including the lists of humorous misfires that end up on church signs making odd declarations to the world.  My experience has been that the whole marketing thing presents a myriad of problems for the church, and perhaps more often than not, may well represent a deeper issue within the soul of the church itself.  Could it be that in desperation we are wont to substitute commercial strategies for a spiritual ferver that is missing from our congregations?  Are we over-stimulating our experiences, while under-nourishing the souls of worshipers?

I am not at all seeking to “take on” the need or value of using all means possible to get the word out about our churches, the availability of ministry, service, and worship, or to promote through all means possible so that our neighbors will know about us and our desire to reach out to them.  Rather, I want to invite a more prayerful and careful process when deciding upon what will be pronounced through various media.  Even more, I want to advocate for a better sense of what is, or is not actually happening among our own people spiritually.  I would likewise encourage a more thoughtful consideration of how certain public pronouncements reflect on other churches in the area.  What’s more, I would ask whether our advertisements ultimately besmirch the larger body of Christ in our community.

In Franklin, Tennessee where I live there are more than 125 churches of all denominations, including those who declare no formal affiliation.  With the possible exception of the Orthodox Church I would venture to say that all of them have made significant changes over the years in their worship services.  Some have started additional worship ventures themselves, having done their own announcing of “something different.”

Most of those that have come on the scene in the past thirteen years since we have lived here worship in a very similar style.  By in large their music expressions would be called contemporary or at least contemporary-blended.  Those that have no denominational loyalty, for the most part, seem to follow the conventions of whatever church or para-church ministry from which their pastor received his training.   So, for a church to announce “Worship here is different?” we must ask, “Different from what?”

Most of these attempts seem to be fueled by efforts to let others know that they can feel comfortable in our setting.  I meet often with church staffs who are trying to figure out why church members no longer attend worship, and why their community is not beating down the door to their services of worship.  Most of the time these same churches have spent a number of years bending over backwards, so to speak, to accommodate what they thought would be conducive to attract outsiders.  Meanwhile, the churches seem to have largely lost their distinctives. What are we really running from?  In only a few short years many worship environments have escaped one tradition that they described as a rut, only to establish another tradition, entrenching them in another rut, albeit a “new” one.  The pronouncement, “We Are Different!” truly could be followed by the absurdity of “Just like everybody else.”  Lord, we need Your Spirit.

Encouragement for Worship Pastors – Be about these things

1.  Lift Up Jesus and trust Him to bring all unto Himself – this applies to our music as well as the preaching.

2.  Give good and consistent effort to helping the church know and sing its song wel– sink your teeth into this task and bring your musicians along with you.  Be not afraid of teaching theological depth along with artistic skill and develop musical sensitivity.

3.  Boldly bear the responsibility to discover and develop leaders and musicians –monitor opportunities to train people in your own setting and by sending them to other sound settings where they will be helped and encouraged.  This is a culture you nurture.  Do not be afraid to advocate publicly for music and musicians.

4.  Foster a healthy relationship with your senior pastor and make a point to converse regularly about the worship environment and participation of the congregation – sensitivity to congregational responsiveness may help avoid larger problems later, and may signal spiritual condition to your pastors ears and your own.

5.  Offer assistance in external communication and promotion efforts – musicians often have an eye for how things come across externally

6.  Purpose to know churches in your community and denomination and demonstrate a cooperative servant spirit and Kingdom mindset – our task is too big for any of us, and our competition is not with the church down the street or in the next town

7.  Connect to other worship leaders and pastors who encourage your spirit and help you grow

8.  Balance your research, making sure you are just as invested in discovering the gems of historic value and import as you are in the newest wave or technological advance.

9.  Feed your own soul through personal and public worship opportunities and through artistic involvements that may stretch you and nurture the artist’s heart

10. Pray fervently for wisdom, grace, and understanding for the life you are given to live, and art you have opportunity to express, and the calling to which you have been called

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)


July 1, 2013



July 1, 2013

Red Bull Have you ever tried a so-called “energy drink?”  A few years ago when guest conducting for a youth music camp I heard the announcement that energy drinks were not allowed.  Having never had one personally I inquired about the offense?  As a regular coffee drinker of many years I could not imagine the potency of these drinks.  A few weeks later a friend handed me a Red Bull, which I sipped awhile.  Initially I thought the drink paled in comparison to my morning cup of coffee, but by the time I got to the bottom of the can my friend laughed as he noticed I was talking faster, and was even enacting some comedy routines. I then noticed my hands had become jittery. Wooo!  I was ready to do something, anything.  The energy buzz was short lived, but I sure would not want to down one of those just before bedtime.  I have since had a doctor tell me the boost is somewhat artificial, and for a guy like me who has heart issues it is probably not a wise choice of refreshment.  No problem, Doc.  I didn’t like the taste much anyway.  Starbucks, you’re still my addiction.

Tools available to today’s worship leaders offer numerous technological and musical means by which external stimulants can be administered.  From pre-service soundtracks to video countdowns that lead participants to a “10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 -4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – LET’S WORSHIP!!!” approach, there is no doubt that it is possible to hike up the adrenaline of those gathered in church worship centers and other venues these days.  Those who fancy themselves sort of worship environment engineers know well that the ambiance emulates the entertainment environment.  Thoughtful worship leaders and media folks who operate in these settings purposefully connect the worship environment with the popular music concert, or other entertainment world scene.  This is not an indictment.  To the contrary, the stated motivation is almost always a desire to speak to the context of today’s culture.  Many would describe the worship with words like “relevant, “ and “missional.”  While we would applaud the mission-driven motive, we would also caution against losing an appreciation of heritage, downplaying the value of legacy, and misrepresenting rich tradition as rote traditionalism.  Indeed, the authentic genuineness so many seek in our day is inherent in historic liturgical patterns that beg our attention and inclusion.  It seems crucial that we remember that “con-temporary” means “with temporary.”  By its self-description, contemporary is tentative.  The relevancy issue is often much more about lack of creativity in the practitioner’s approach, or ignorance to the significance of historic forms than it is about true connectivity to present day culture.  I am often reminded of this when attending a symphony concert, or an art museum where a historic artist’s works are on display.   The need of the observer is to be aided in their understanding of what is to them mystery.  Likewise in gathered worship this is often the case.  Present day people often desire a connection to the richness of past forms, but need help comprehending its meaning and significance.  One of our jobs in worship leadership.

The “pump up the crowd” approach is really nothing new.  I remember traveling to a large city with a fellow music minister in the early 1980’s for a conference.  We arrived a day early in order to attend a mega church’s announced special service of musical praise.  The large choir and orchestra were hallmarks of the mega churches of the day.  We sat in the front row of the balcony.  About halfway through the service I felt as though I might just jump over the balcony as one song after another followed the same pattern in which the choir and orchestra built to a big crescendo ending, or led us to a clap-in-rhythm routine that was reminiscent of patriotic tune treatments.  While the presentation was of high quality, the sense of manipulative effect was thinly veiled.  Granted, the “average Joe” likely gave little thought to such matters, and instead just sensed the adrenaline rush per design, I think that may be precisely the point.  The question for us may need to be, “To what end is our environment leading?”  Of like importance is a study of how we arrived where we find ourselves in our common practices.  This may help us more clearly evaluate the effect of how we practice worship.

Given the evangelical church worship environment, we likely have evolved from our predecessors who served in preacher – singer teams with famous revivalists or evangelists.  We may consider ourselves in the lineage of Ira Sankey, the gospel singer for Dwight L. Moody, Homer Rhodehever, who was paired with Billy Sunday, or Bev Shea or Cliff Barrows, part of the Billy Graham Association.  These gospel music giants related musically and socially to their day.  A significant difference has to do with what “their day” included in terms of group participation.  Whereas people vocally participated in the ministry functions of each of these, given the contemporary culture of their day, we find the connection of our day to be one of passivity, even a kind of active non-participation.  This sort of non-participatory expectation can set up a dependency on external stimulation.

I would strongly encourage faithful honest evaluation of that which takes place in the church’s gathered worship environment.  Pastors and Worship Musicians must surely prayerfully consider whether they are providing an atmosphere conducive to participative community worship.  I trust that in our hearts we do not just desire to provide a kind of “Red Bull” hype.  My experience is that these may feel good for the moment, but tend to be short lived (and can make you jittery).

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