Archive for the ‘Choir Ministry’ category

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN? WHAT ABOUT WORSHIP?

October 5, 2015

nothing-new-hereThere’s nothing new under the sun. If so then why do so many churches talk about their worship and worship leader using terms they seem to think will give onlookers the impression that what happens in their worship is all about new? Lots of churches promote their worship using words like fresh, innovative, creative, unique, trailblazing, and unconventional. When it comes to “youth worship” some push the atmosphere of their particular worship “experience” using words like edgy, slammin’, natty, and raw. And honestly, is it really all that unique? Kinda reminds me of the gag motivational poster I once saw displaying lots of snowflakes that says, “You’re unique! Just like everybody else.” All that newness gets a little tiring afterwhile. One might say, “It gets old.” (You see what I did there?)

Speaking of old, when considering our worship should we not think of all time, past, present, and future? Robert Webber, strongly emphasized worship “doing God’s story,” as the heart of the content of worship, which surely indicates that looking to the past would embrace not only biblical times, but give consideration to the faith community through all time. Seems to me it could serve us well to contemplate ways God has been at work in the worshiping church throughout history. What about in the Age of Enlightenment, when faith and reason first seemed at odds? Where did we see God at work in those days? How did His people respond? What can we say about times of great calamity like the plagues, wars, cultural and civil unrest, or periods of political oppression? What’s more, what about our own churches’ past? Could our own worship and mission be served by revisiting the early days of our congregation’s existence? A pastor friend recently decided to read church minutes to check out some of what his older deacon leadership kept trying to tell him. He found a proverbial goal mine in what he read as he realized the visionary passion of the church’s early leaders. He even began to intersperse quotes from these pages into his sermons to help the church find its way toward embracing a stronger missional presence in their community.

A few years ago I assisted a church celebrating its 100th anniversary as a congregation. Old photos made into a digital display were used to backdrop the worship environment. People came to church dressed in the fashion of the early 1900’s. Hymns of the day were sung in a manner reminiscent of the period. Children and youth were purposefully included in worship participation. Pictures of former pastors were placed in prominent display and their tenure was reviewed in the morning service, recognizing a couple of them who were still living and present. Through the planning process I recall ongoing caution by some of the church leadership wanting to be sure the church did not slip back into “glorifying the past,” as they feared “getting stuck again” as they felt the church had become before the church’s current pastor had come to save the day. Certainly “getting stuck” can be a problem for any of us in our spiritual lives, and as a church. We all could probably give examples. It seems equally or I would say even more dysfunctional, however, to ignore or disconnect from our own past, and more importantly, disrupt God’s people from remembering how His Spirit has worked in the past to bring them where they are at present. Our need to remember is to see what the Lord has done, not to just become nostalgic. Some nostalgia can be positive if it is tempered by biblical truth and stirs true spiritual sentiment, but it can also be toxic if it fosters just staring at an older version of the root problem of all unworthy worship, which is self focus. In other words if we end up worshiping our past selves even as we are wont to do in our current culture to worship our “best selves, thinking that is our goal, then we are surely offending God with our worship. There is only One worthy of our worship, and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen. His story, His truth, His hand at work in all times must be themed in our worship. One of the many reasons I am a strong proponent of the use of hymns from all periods is that it holds prospect to bring to remembrance those tensions present in past times. Even through outdated imagery and language, guided by prudent leaders, hymns help speak the past into our present and provide hope for future certainties. Consider the tyranny of being slave to what I will call “nowness.” Worship songs selected only from a radio playlist, or created only by living artists in present day risks ignoring 1400 years of hymnody, which means neglecting centuries of God’s work among His people. Thankfully some modern songwriters like David Crowder are finding ways to integrate ancient hymns into their writing, and modern hymnwriters like Keith & Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend are carrying forward hymnwriting with great integrity and popular appeal.

Worship that truly does God’s story brings together past, present, and future. All time is under His Lordship. Remembering the past, anamnesis, and looking to the future, prolepsis are central to worshiping the Lord of all time and space. In so doing we offer our hearts, our “living bodies” (Rom 12:1) as our spiritual act of worship, and trust Him for eternal resolution. By His Spirit He is alive in and among us as we sing, pray, listen, read, partake, fellowship, and enact ministry and mission. The ancient church taught us lex orandi; lex credenda; est, Latin for “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” Another way Webber states it is “show me the way you worship and I’ll show you what you believe.”[1] Now is the time to rejoin the song that proclaims the “old, old story of Jesus and His love,” that hails the “Gladsome Light” (Phos Hilaron) and looks to a day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord!” as we sing around the throne, “Worthy is the Lamb!”

[1] Robert Webber Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Baker Books 2008) 104.

MANAGING WORSHIP

August 17, 2015

planning This is not a “how to manage your worship” article. Rather, it is a “if you are controlling it then is it really Christian worship?” article. One of the most fundamental issues at stake in Christian worship is the question of control. Our problem is that we want to manage worship when our need and the need of the whole world is for the essence of worship to manage us, and by extension bring us to recognize that God the Creator has ultimate control of the world. I am afraid that we who offer guidance for worshipers in the church far too often lose sight of our role in the process. What’s worse we may cause confusion and distract from the intended purposes of worship, particularly the intention to see God for Who He is. A central tenant of Christian worship is the reordering of our lives to God’s designs. This is why we rehearse His story, remember His works, celebrate and praise His characteristics, and express our faith in His promises. Worship repositions us to what the Lord requires, as we read in Micah 6:8, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Genuine worship reorders our reality to live in keeping with Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that we would be one (John 17), His Greatest Commandment that we love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength and neighbor as self, and His Great Commission that we make and baptize disciples in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So where have we strayed? How did we start managing worship rather than looking to worship to manage us? Did we lose our wonder by trying to create it? What is our only hope to come back to the heart of worship?

A Few Thoughts on How We May Have Strayed and How We Might Find the Way Back

Lost the wonder of worship. There is an appropriate tension in worship between the grandness of God and the intimacy of God. Seems to me we lose something of the awe and wonder of God when we begin to make it all manageable. The nature of awe in God’s presence is overpowering, overwhelming on its own. We do not have to manufacture anything, but rather seek to display God for Who He is. Biblical revelation, natural revelation, artistry that takes no credit save the true grace gift that comes from God in Christ – let our worship point with these along with a vibrant fellowship of believers who serve one another and the world to the Blessed Trinity. When our efforts in worship leadership become about engineering experience we are likely drifting. Strip away anything that clouds the reflection of the Lord Himself and the scandal of the Gospel. “Sir, we would see Jesus!” (John 12:21)

Made our songs too much about us. The tendency to sing too much about ourselves is not new. If you review hymns of the 19th Century you see many songs in the same trajectory. In the case of any era it is not that these songs are all bad, except where poor theology abounds, but it becomes a matter of balance and health. Singing our salvation is a powerful part of worship, but most important is the God-focused singing of Father, Creator, Almighty, and lifting up Christ in a biblical view of His finished work, as well as the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit. Singing worship develops us as worshipers to live out our worship in a world run amuck from God’s intentions with injustices, hunger, slavery, killing of the most innocent, and looking to false gods for answers. Prayerful song selection with counsel can help. Sing “that the light of Christ might be seen today” (Speak, O Lord)

Made worship into a performance that entertains or inspires worshipers rather than an engagement with God that repositions us to please Him and reflect His glory. In a lecture earlier this Summer at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies pastor/author Mark Labberton noted that giving glory to God is not just standing with arms open saying, “glory, glory, glory, glory.” He likened such to pointing at the sky and saying, “blue, blue, blue, blue.” Giving God glory means reflecting His likeness that others see Him. I have often said that to know we have truly worshiped Jesus means we become more like Him.

Thinking of performance in the worship setting as the point of worship rather than how we “perform” as Christians living in the world as a result of worship. This is closely related to the previous point. Worship is not about the Sunday “show” but instead, Sunday worship points us to how we live for God’s glory. “If we are coming to worship the Lord of all creation, the Savior of the world, then while we are setting up and checking the sound system or pondering prayers or sermons, we have to hold on to a wider vision of God’s love, a set of very different circumstances and an outcome of our worship that is meant to land us in places of need.”[1]

Seizing our position as worship leaders and pastors as a position of power rather than understanding our role as servants to the bride of Christ. While no church leader would admit to wanting notoriety, fame, or favor rooted in status, our methods too often bely a different trend. Celebrity envy is far too obvious in far too many settings. The accouterments are far too exposed for false humility to be believable in so many cases, and the detriment of the attitudes of those who fashion themselves to have arrived at celebrity status within their own locale is far too costly, namely a deaf ear by many to the gospel. The arresting of power for personal benefit, whether financial, emotional, or social smacks of insincerity that is usually plain for all to see. “Faithful worship helps us clarify and limit human power in our hearts and minds.”[2]

We got too good at the wrong things like high powered speaking, high powered music and media rather than investing deeply in prayer, confessional relationship, and disciple-making. As the organized church compartmentalized ministry, specialization trumped holistic discipleship and efficiency supplanted depth. No surprise that mass marketing techniques, scaled down scheduling for convenience sake, and dumbed down worship for popular appeal were in the mix. Author Frances Chan among others warns us of the danger that the church can conduct business as usual without Holy Spirit power. That should strike fear in our hearts.

Our answer? Surrender. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1) Coming back to the heart of worship is not just about making Sundays a great experience, it is about yielding our lives to Christ to live for His glory as we await His return. Singing, praying, preaching, hearing, confessing, communing, sending are all aspects of our joyful obedience.

[1] Mark Labberton The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (InterVarsity Press 2007) 33.

[2] Ibid. 36

LET’S BLOW UP WORSHIP

August 11, 2015

all-creation-sings2 Striving to give worship consumers what they want the American church has far too often continued down the pointless road of making worship more and more about us and less and less about God. Oh, no one would ever admit such a thing of course, but there are signs within the way we “do worship” and the materials we choose that I fear imply just that. Sensationalizing platform personalities is common and revealing. Careful assessment of many song lyrics reveals a telling tendency to circle the sentiment back to our self. Just because it is our worshiping self does not change the ethos that routinely wants the music that makes me feel the way I want to feel. So what do we need if not to draw attention to our selves? What is our proclamation if not to give people that which will make them feel great, find happiness, and just generally be better? Granted, some of these may be byproducts of regular worship, but they cannot overtake the primary point of Trinitarian worship. The desperate need in Christian worship is to see the Lord, high and lifted up. When we make worship about us we make it smaller. When we join the worship of heaven and pray “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” our worship is made bigger. The awe and wonder of the Holy Other is not always the ooh and ah of a beautiful blue sky with white puffy clouds that gives me goose bumps. It may well be the overwhelming, frightening storm that serves to display the power and character of God. And it is God that we need as revealed through His Word and illuminated by His Holy Spirit. We need the Triune God revealed in His splendor as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May our songs, prayers, readings, and actions of worship reveal, praise, honor, and glorify Him. He is the essence of worship, the subject and the object of worship. By His provision we are able to come before Him, but it is not about us.

Let’s face it! Everything around us in popular culture tells us, “It’s all about you!” Have what you want. Do what you want. Make yourself happy. Let others serve you. Is there any stronger evidence that our self-obsession has slipped over the edge than the selfie? And now we even have the selfie stick to get a more flattering angle as if someone else is . We have perfected the ability for self promotion, and we can choose what self it is we want to present. This is what we do in current culture. It is who we have become. So, shall we just succumb? Shall we give in and just agree? Is it really all about me?

Masquerading as a means of reaching our culture we have become self obsessed in worship. Some have said we worship our worship. Boil it down and isn’t that really just another way of saying we are worshiping ourselves? If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right when he says “what we are worshiping we are becoming” then doesn’t it follow that if we are worshiping ourselves, we are just becoming ourselves? Resultant attitudes toward marriage, divorce, race, and other issues would indicate we are just becoming more of ourselves. One of our most pronounced tendencies in worship is to bring it down to our size. When our primary objective is to bring worship down to our level, even with the best of intentions such as to reach others, we are nevertheless shrinking worship to a place where we have control. Have we so used the Old Testament as proof text that we have missed the prophetic message of its overarching story? Almighty God is always in control. He is working out His plan. The story is His story and He has graciously allowed us to be a part, even calling us His children, sons of Light.

So how can those who facilitate worship help to present worship as larger than the “all about me” method would dictate? As worship music ministry leaders we have opportunity to select songs that place larger and deeper thoughts about God on the lips of the people. Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a great place to start. Here we expose worshipers to historic praise in psalmnody (whatever the style), hymns that declare grand theological truth and reveal character of God, and spiritual songs that confess our need and His work in our lives in real time. What a challenge! Everything around us reinforces the lie that “it’s all about you.” Worship of the living God says instead, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:36-40) The Greatest Commandment leads to the Great Commission which reminds us that all power in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus, therefore we are to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them all things I have commanded you, and I am with you always.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The culture points us toward ourself, and worship points us outward. Genuine Christian worship results in us looking and acting more like Jesus. No wonder the whole creation groans in waiting as we see in Romans 8. Jesus said if we are silent the very rocks would cry out. Friend and composer/arranger, Mary McDonald recently noted regarding churches where the song seems to be muted, “I did not hear the rocks cry out, but I heard them clear their throats.”

Robert Webber summarized the act of worship as prayer in this way,

God, we are here to remember your story and to pray that the whole world, the entire cosmos, will be gathered in your Son and brought to the fulfillment of your purposes in Him!”[1]

[1] Robert Webber Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Baker Books 2008) 150.

SEVEN TRAITS OF WORSHIP SINGING IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH

July 27, 2015

Singing Worship What a profound privilege it is to join in singing worship with fellow believers! After several events where congregational song and singing were the focus of discussions, teaching, sermons, research, and small group consideration, I am reminded of the simple and yet astounding miracle of joining mind and spirit with other Christians in singing worship! I think and write about these things often, but the proverbial “proof is in the pudding.” That is to say, the spiritual engagement with the living God in Three Persons shared in the fellowship of saints forgiven by His grace and gathered in His Name through singing is almost beyond description, much less definition. Consider with me some of the dynamics of what is happening during such singing when such worship is genuinely “in spirit and truth:”

  • Walls of division are crumbled as the Gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrates its power to overcome divisions of race, gender, wealth, social status, intellect, talent, athleticism, or physical beauty. In genuine worship singing the church demonstrates an answer to Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 that we would be one, and is answering that prayer in real time and space.
  • God’s story is retold, and worshipers are invited in to find their place in the story. Biblical songs root worshipers in the stream of God’s praise, His deliverance, and His character. Poetic inferences of scriptural truth “strum the slumbering chords again” to bring worshipers to recount the acts of God and respond in celebration, or confession, or prayer, renewed covenant. In worship we remember “great things He has done,” and respond with “Praise the Lord!”
  • Mutual ministry is engaged as every singing worshiper edifies every other singing worshiper at the same time that the other worshiper edifies the first singer. That dynamic is multiplied across the room of singing worshipers exponentially as every one is ministering to every other one, and vice versa. Plus the composite ministry of the singing congregation ministers as a collective entity to every worshiper and to any outsiders who happen to hear.
  • Moments of significance are embraced and embedded in a congregation’s memory. Whether times of deep sadness and longing sorrow, or the most joyous of joys in times of happiness, those moments are stamped through the attachment of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that accompany and express the church’s response, whether praise, prayer, or sympathetic concern. Through these times a hymn or worship song becomes a signature of the congregation’s shared experience of faith, and when it is sung it serves not only in its intended meaning, but also as a reminder of its new significance. Often re-singing of the hymn or song will bring association with the emotions and ministry present in its previous singing. Indeed a hymn or worship song may become something of an Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7:12-13) reminding worshipers of the Lord’s help, provision, or other character trait. With such songs a congregation may find that each time it is sung the church reaches a more profound Alleluia!
  • The body of Christ is formed and strengthened as individual worshipers give themselves over to the corporate fellowship of saints, and love one another with brotherly affection, and try to outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10) In singing the many members are one body joining to sing one song of praise, walking together by faith and not by sight.
  • Faithful saints are sent out to make disciples, baptize believers, teaching and preaching the Word. The song and its singing inspire, encourage, and embolden the faithful to “take up their cross and follow Christ.” Empowerment may not occur in the singing itself, but certainly it is echoed and declared with fresh fire when sung invoking the Name of Jesus to Whom all authority in heaven and earth is given. It is in His Name we are sent because we have “a story to tell to the nations.”
  • A triumphant tone is sounded and flavors all Christian worship in light of the truth of the Gospel that “hails a new creation” and harkens us to sing the sweet song of salvation in full assurance of faith, knowing Christ is ultimate Victor and that our singing accompanies our “marching to Zion” right up to the day we join the sacred throng in the very presence of Jesus and fall at His feet to “crown Him Lord of all” and join the song we have been singing all along,

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

We will join with every creature in heaven and on earth in singing,

To Him Who sits on the throne and to the Lamb Be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! Amen  (Revelation 5:9-13)

Just in these past few days I have been part of singing that reveals these traits that are characteristic of worship in spirit and truth. It cannot help but fill the heart to overflowing. In familiar yet fresh ways it stirs the soul. Oh that we all might “join in a song with sweet accord.”

HOW WAS WORSHIP SUNDAY?

May 18, 2015

things go wrong  Me to Worship Leader on a Monday: “How was worship yesterday?”

Worship Leader: “It was ok, but attendance was down and my drummer was late ….again! The tech guys were not ready because we had a wedding Saturday and of course they did not put things back like we asked them to. On top of that I just feel like we have lots of people that are not really into the worship. We did a new Hillsong piece Sunday and with the drummer issues, plus the sound mix never felt right, we just never seemed to hit our stride. I am not looking forward to staff meeting cause the pastor does not like it if things do not go just right, plus when attendance is down he is always bummed. But I’m sure other people have it worse than I do, so I really should not complain.”

The feelings expressed above are real. I have had them myself. I do not want to ever cut off discussions about feelings related to responsibilities in worship leadership, but at the same time I am fearful that our bent toward performative understandings of the worship environment continues to undo us. Not only is it failing miserably, even at its intended purpose of getting more people into church and into the faith, but what is much worse, it smacks of serving directions diametrically opposed to the very heart of Christian worship itself. Namely, I refer to a grace-induced faith solidly rooted in an unfailing triumphant Christ, Who was, and is, and is to come! While we hunt for catchy new songs, the Spirit offers an ancient faith, a sure foundation. While we try to figure how we can do it better next time, He invites us to a work finished once and for all. While we strain trying to achieve the “next level,” He describes a certain eternity.

I have asked and have been asked the question many times, “How was worship?” The response in the first full paragraph above is not uncommon coming from the lips of any frustrated worship music leader. Asking a senior pastor the question may elicit similar response and focus. Problem is that our striving for some semblance of performative perfection tends to project the erroneous notion that we can pull off spiritual transformation ourselves. It implies we believe worship is up to us, and I am sadly convinced many practice just that. If we get the right song set, the most attractive worship singers, the hottest video shoots, field the most imaginative preacher, we will grow and turn people’s lives around. Mmmmmm…..really? Biblical witness and history beg to differ. The most foundational soteriology reveals the human condition and complete dependency upon God’s provision for salvation. The same is true regarding our access to commune with God in worship. In the so-called Roman Road we see the contrast between human effort and God’s provision in Jesus:

Romans 3:23 All come short of God’s glory (our effort)

Romans 3:10-18 none of us on his own does good (our attempts)

Romans 5:23 the gift of eternal life comes through Jesus Christ our Lord

Romans 5:8 God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us

Romans 10:9 “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Romans 10:13 “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved”

Romans 5:1 “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Romans 8:1 “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ.”

Romans 8:38-39 “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Through the entire history of Christian worship two facts are undeniable:

1. We have always been prone to wander. From Old Testament idol worship to first century believers who were confused and sidetracked by Gnosticism and other false doctrines that distorted truth, human tendencies have distracted worshipers and worship leadership throughout the history of Christian worship. Review worship practice at any point in history and somewhere you will find a human propensity for moving away from Christ-centered worship. It is as if we want to return to the garden and eat the fruit again rather than placing full trust in God’s provision. 2.  God has always been and ever shall be at work. He does not slumber nor sleep. He provides the full resource for renewal at any point in history. Through long stretches of history where the heavens seemed to be silent, God was at work. In long stretches of our own spiritual deserts, God is at work in the silence. I do not pretend to understand it, but I am not called to understand, but rather to trust. Jon Bloom says it well, “And when we feel forsaken by God we are not forsaken (Hebrews 13:5). We are simply called to trust the promise more than the perception.”[1]

Worshipers and Worship Leaders, take heart! Worship in which we are in Christ, and Christ is in us is never less than miraculous. It is never “unsuccessful,” but neither is worship’s “success” ever because we did everything right. It is not dependent upon a house full of people, or upon precision performance. Authentic worship cannot be proven or disproven by how we feel.  Like salvation, it is by grace through faith, and that is a gift.  It’s efficacy is in Christ alone! So, how was worship Sunday?

[1] Jon Bloom, Desiring God, July 19, 2014. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-god-seems-silent

ANEMIC WORSHIP SINGING – ARE YOU MISSING TWO BASIC INGREDIENTS?

April 13, 2015

empty-church Are any of you concerned as I am about the state of singing in corporate worship in many churches. As noted in my book, there are different gatherings for Christian worship besides the local congregation, but this address is aimed toward the local body and its weekly worship gatherings. I am old enough to call it congregational singing, and am concerned at what I see and hear in many church environments in relation to this foundational activity. I have been concerned for some time, and have attempted through numerous means to help bolster congregational singing as I believe it to be a critical aspect of worship renewal and also a reflection of the depth to which our worship has been and is being regularly refreshed. I have come to a conclusion, and I simply must share. It is profound.

Are you ready for this? I have concluded that there are at least two ingredients needed for congregational singing in worship and they are……(drumroll with crescendo, decrescendo, crescendo….. to extend the dramatic impact) as follows.

  1. First you need a congregation. That’s right, you need a congregation to have congregational singing in worship. Although it sounds ridiculously obvious to mention, the fact is that a lot of congregation’s have relinquished their responsibility in worship singing through various means starting with simply choosing to not be present for corporate worship. The New Testament Greek word for church is Part of what it means to be ekklesia, “the called out ones,” is to gather forming the worshiping body. Scholars tell us that, like the Hebrew word, quahal, that one of its clear meanings is assembly. Wayne Gruden says “We can understand the purposes of the church in terms of ministry to God, ministry to believers, and ministry to the world.”[1] Ministry to God includes singing to Him, for Him, and about Him. The Apostle Paul follows his admonition to “make the best use of the time” (Eph 5:16) with his exhortation to be filled with the Spirit and to be “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” (vs. 19) If you aren’t present as congregation you cannot add to the worship singing. Have you ever noticed that churches build worship spaces to seat about half of their church membership? What does that say? I recognize some growing congregations meet in multiple services to accommodate the worshiping crowd using the same space multiple times, but many more simply have no expectation that any more than half the congregation will be together on a given Sunday. I fear that our pragmatist marketing attempts to attract non-attenders and make worship all about them, coupled with the fierce individualism that is a hallmark of present day attitudes have served to make consumers of spiritual buzz, and not disciples of Jesus Christ. Scripture does not separate coming to Christ from becoming part of His Bride. Participation in the assembly as an act of our discipleship is a given. (Hebrews 10:25)
  1. The second ingredient needed is singing. A packed house is a packed house and it has the potential in and of itself to inspire leaders and members. If, however, the full room never translates into the sights and sounds of worshiping people engaged with head and heart in biblical worship singing, then what do we have but a crowd of spectators? Again, seems leaders may be getting what they expect. Now, on this point I have to agree wholeheartedly with several of my colleagues who have joined in addressing numerous issues that thwart singing participation by the congregation (see links below). I wonder, though, just how much leaders actually allow, indeed expect, members to hold up the sounds of singing. This is noted as well in some of the links, but I want to underscore the need. It is far too easy for Worship Music Leaders to just make the music for them (the congregation). It is much more comfortable than taking the risk of assured discomfort in the momentary anemic sound of people not doing what is asked of them. However, in order to call the congregation to its responsibility of admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, it is my contention, they simply must feel the weight of that responsibility. Dropping the props and handing them the proverbial ball actually works. I have tried this often. It is disturbingly uncomfortable and awkward – until, that is, members begin to feel that discomfort enough to fill in the void with their own vocalization. I can testify that this CAN be done. We did not lull them into a couch potato mindset overnight and they are not likely to bounce out of it in an instant either, but give patient but firm and steady leadership and you may once again hear the pews alive with sounds of singing. Consider:

Do you and your people even know what it sounds like for them to be fully invested in singing?

Do they know what it feels like to sing in such a way that they sense their individual voice within the whole composite sound of corporate singing done by their own congregation?

In other words, do they know what we are aiming toward? Hopefully leaders know what you want your choir, band, or praise group to sound like musically. What about your congregation? Do you know? Do they know? Do all members of your choir, band, praise group, sound man, and/or senior pastor know what sound we are listening for when the congregation is singing? *This, I believe to be a starting point in the matrix of change toward giving the congregation back its song. A first clue for me is when platform players and singers want more of themselves in the monitor. Wha????? We need less of me and more of us!

If your worship singing needs a tuneup, how about starting by evaluating the two most basic ingredients needed for congregational singing? A gathered congregation, and participatory singing.

Links mentioned above:

They Are Not Singing Anymore by Mike Harland

Is Your Church Singing? Send in a Canary! By David Manner

Nine Reasons Your Congregation Won’t Sing by Kenny Lamm

How Loud the Worship Team? By Bob Kauflin

[1] Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan 1994) 867.

THE FIRST WORD FROM THE CROSS

April 3, 2015

SVouet Having sung and directed The Seven Last Words, I have long found deeply moving the contemplation of all aspects of what takes place in this centerpiece of human history, when Jesus, the perfection of humanity, sheds His blood on a rugged cross to take away the sins of the world. The God – Man Who loves enough to set aside His own crown of glory to come into the world as a helpless babe in the first place lives out His last moments of full humanity in complete faithfulness atoning for our sin and making possible what we see so dramatically demonstrated in the curtain torn in two in the temple. The way is made open! How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be!!

While I recognize that the order of the seven last words are likely shaped by the traditions of liturgical practice, it is no less true that they come to us having been practiced in this way. It is beyond humbling to think that Jesus’ first utterance from this instrument of torture is “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus knew His mission and shows such compassion in the face of His own torment. God so loved the world. Overwhelming!

Prayer on the First Word from the Cross

Almighty God, to whom your crucified Son prayed for the forgiveness of those who did not know what they were doing, grant that we, too, may be included in that prayer. Whether we sin out of ignorance or intention, be merciful to us and grant us your acceptance and peace: in the name of Jesus Christ, our suffering Savior. Amen.[1]

So many hymns flood my mind and spirit on this Good Friday, and with them a spirit of personal worship that causes me to feel I should bow my face into the floor and pour out my heart in all humility, and yet this same realization of Jesus’ finished work on that cross floods my heart with joy, and my mind with memories of blessed moments of praise, singing the story and joy of salvation with brothers and sisters in so many settings from the days of my childhood in churches where my dad pastored all the way up to services just this past Sunday joining with fellow church members singing the Fred Mallory arrangement of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. This juxtaposition of emotional extremes also brings to mind the new hymn I have been singing throughout this Lenten season. It is a wonderful expression by our friends Keith & Kristyn Getty and Graham Kendrick, which proclaims,

 

Two wonders here that I confess, my worth and my unworthiness

My value fixed – my ransom paid At the cross.[2]

 

From pages that are much older, though similar in spirit, I find these words of John Newton and William Cowper that spring from their reflections on the First Word from the cross,

            “Father, forgive (the Savior said)

            They know not what they do:”

            His heart was moved when thus he prayed

            For me, my friends, and you.

 

            He saw that as the Jews abused

            And crucified His flesh

            So he, by us, would be refused

            And crucified afresh.

 

            Through love of sin, we long were prone

            To act as Satan bid;

            But now, with grief and shame we own,

            We knew not what we did.

 

            We know not the defect of sin,

            Nor whom we thus defied

            Nor where our guilty souls had been,

            If Jesus had not died.

 

            We knew not what a law we broke,

            How holy, just and pure!

            Nor what a God we dust provoke,

            But thought ourselves secure.

 

            But Jesus all our guilt foresaw,

            And shed his precious blood

            To satisfy the holy law

            And make our peace with God.

 

            My sin, dear Savior, made thee bleed,

            Yet didst thou pray for me!

            I know not what I did, indeed,

            When ignorant of thee.[3]

[1] Norman D Palsma “A Combined Tenebrae and Seven Last Words Service” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship, pg. 356.

[2] My Worth Is Not in What I Own, www.gettymusic.com

[3] Father, Forgive Them from Olney Hymns, Book I.

SING THE DRAMA!

March 30, 2015

Tenebrae Candles I have a favorite saying when I am in my music leader/director mode, and it is simply this, “Music is drama!” Sometimes when church choirs have worked hard to master notes, rhythms, vocal technique, blend and balance, they forget the dramatic impact intended by the use of music. Thus my little saying. I sometimes follow it with a reminder that if the words were enough on their own we might just speak the message. All this is an attempt to prompt singers and players to connect to the drama of a song and its music. For music to express something, there is drama. The most fundamental aspects of the musical art, like tension and release, discord and consonance, suspension and resolution, soft and loud, rhythmic synchronization, and effective melodic line, all serve to highlight the drama that is music. This is all strong reason as to why music is such an effective tool in expressing the marvels of the Gospel. Like music itself, the Gospel message is characterized by drastic shift from discontinuity to resolution. Jesus has given to His disciples (us) the ministry of reconciliation.

Sunday evening I was able to slip in for our church’s Palm Sunday musical presentation that was titled, “Into the Darkness.” The theme helped to mark the beginning of Holy Week, although the musical service itself embraced many aspects of the whole story, including reflections on the cross, the resolution brought about by resurrection power, and even the anticipation of the Lord’s return. In fact, an emotional highlight, no doubt, was the final stanza of the last hymn sung in the service, Horatio Spafford’s It Is Well with My Soul, as we sang our heart’s desire,

And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be made sight!

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll.

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend

Even so, it is well with my soul.

This hymn seems to always pack a powerful punch for worshiping communities, but perhaps never more so than following a lengthy contemplation of the depth of human sin, the desperation of the human condition, and reflection on the cost of our salvation. In a service where each song is followed by the extinguishing of another candle there is a growing sense of that darkness, as well as a deepening hunger for light, for resolution. The hymn provides some sense of build up within its own verses, when “sea billows roll,” “Satan buffets,” and “my sin” provides the very need for Christ to regard my “helpless estate,” and to shed His own blood. This service of worship, however, went beyond the four verses of the hymn, drawing our penitence into focus over most of the service. Certainly beautiful music permeated the whole service, but without morbidity a strong sense of our need for salvation set the tone of much of the service, adding to the welcoming thought of our Lord’s return as sung by congregation in It Is Well.

I recall one of my first Tenebrae services that I led when serving as Music Minister. Most of that service was predominated by minor keys, and participants departed the dimly lit sanctuary in silence. I received complaint notes from a few church members. For a long time I kept one note scribbled on a bulletin that simply said, “I do not come to church to feel bad.” I guess the wait between that Good Friday service and the coming Resurrection Sunday was more delayed gratification than some were prepared to accept. We Baptists are less conditioned to such expectations than some of our more formal liturgy friends. Regardless, the season of Lent and Easter provides grand opportunity for worship to profoundly proclaim its central feature, the Gospel. Placing the truth of this gospel on the lips of worshipers provides opportunity for powerful worship that not only proclaims this good news to all who hear and expresses praise to the One we worship, but it also helps to form those worshipers into Gospel people. Effective corporate worship singing aids our fulfillments of Christian living, loving God, loving people, going and telling this good news in the power of the Christ Who is with us always. Sing the drama!

THE WONDER OF SUNDAY MORNING

March 24, 2015

Every Sunday, a deacon unlocks the door, an usher picks up a stack of bulletins, a pastor kneels in the study, and they wait. Soon, the parking lot fills, and people from all walks of life stream into the building for weekly worship.

They are not paid to be here. They are not forced to be here. Yet they come and serve in beautiful ways.

In the nursery, volunteers change diapers without complaint, step in to mediate the toddlers’ dispute over sippy cups, and dole out a weekly supply of animal crackers.

Down the hall, men and women open their Bibles and discuss the meaning and application of God’s inspired Word. A doctor with more than a decade of education in medicine takes notes as a construction worker who never went to college exercises his gift in teaching the Scriptures. The small groups then rearrange their classroom space in preparation for the homeless women they will shelter during the week.

The choir and praise team are warming up and running through the songs they will lead in the upcoming service. The hallways are buzzing. Greeters seek out newcomers, teenagers gather near the front of the sanctuary, and the anticipation builds: the worship is about to begin.

This is a place of music, where hundreds of voices soar to the ceilings and the echo of praise hovers over the people. A man who can’t carry a tune lifts his kid up on the pew in front of him and sings along anyway. Some raise their hands. Some kneel. Some close their eyes. Some look to heaven. Various postures, all united in worship.

Then they pray — for the lost, the sick, the hurting in their community. In this moment, the people’s concern for their city is like the ocean tide gathering up its waves of compassion into this place of prayer before rolling their acts of mercy into the city throughout the week.

The pastor opens the Bible. The sermon exalts the Savior and exhorts the saints. Yes, they are saints. All of them, even with their ongoing sins and struggles, their failures and flaws — they are washed in the blood of a spotless Lamb. Forgiven, adopted, and made new. This is not a crowd; it’s a church – a people who have been called out of the world and changed by grace.

From the feast of God’s Word to the feast of the Lord’s Table: now they eat and drink to the glory of God. Christ’s body broken for them. Christ’s blood shed for them. Time stands still, for in this moment, these people are carried back to their Savior’s cross and ushered forward to His return.

The dawn of resurrection morning has given way to the sunlight of noonday. Energized and equipped, the blood-bought saints go out. It may seem like the service is over, but the truth is, their service is just beginning.

JESUS CALLED – HE WANTS HIS BODY BACK

March 2, 2015

Body of Christ This may sound overly blunt, and some may think does not even need to be said, but under an unction to do so, I need to posit that the church’s worship is not a proving ground for trying out a song, seeing how people react to new lighting effects, a cool video clip illustration, or a hymn arrangement. I am certainly not proposing that none of these innovations be used in worship. I am cautioning that one of the many ways Christian worship is stolen away from its sacred purpose is when it becomes utility experiment with the means rather than unadulterated focus on the ends. We are not gathered to market a worship product to consumers we dub “worshipers.” We are engaged in eternal sacred practice with the Bride of Christ to the glory of God.

 

The church is a body. It is not just a compilation of individual worshipers, but rather, She is a local expression of Christ Himself. The picture is pretty clear in the New Testament. See Romans 12:3-8 where the church is identified as “many members, but one body, and individual members one of another.”(vs 6) We are the Body of Christ joined to Christ in salvation. (Ephesians 4:15-16) We are “one body for we all partake of one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17) We are one body and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27) Shall I go on? There are plenty more where those came from. Just Google something like “the church as body of Christ,” or similar, and read awhile. What’s more, the Head of the Church is Jesus. She is His Bride in preparation for the Great Wedding Feast (Revelation 19:7-9, 21:1-2). And the Bible teaches that the Groom is divinely jealous (2 Corinthians 11:2).

So let’s think about the atmosphere of our worship environments. More pointedly, for those of us who design and lead in aspects of worship, let’s evaluate our theology and ecclesiology compared to our practice. Is it clear that what we are doing is in no way focused on platform personalities? Is there an understanding and fleshing out of our oneness as many members, one body? Are there ways we help to make Christ’s Presence known from the very beginning of worship, and continue through to the last note and beyond even to the sending out? How much of our worship genuinely engages persons, and invites participation of the whole person – mind, body, spirit? Are we careful not to over-associate body participation (clapping, raising hands) with those things that draw obvious acclaim for platform personalities? The atmosphere, attitudes, spirit of our songs, and attitudes of those who preach and lead in worship shape much (probably far too much) of the ethos of worship which shapes us into the kinds of believers we become. So let us think about how our worship prompting helps to shape our worshiping body into one faithful Bride adorned for Her Husband. Are we helping the many members – one body – to engage in a collective spirit of worship that will please our Lord?

In Music Making

I have been re-reading research on ways music-making affects us. Studies showing that music elicits response of the emotion and intellect are a plenty. Even further indication is given that those who make music are more affected than those who simply hear it. It is of little wonder as to why music and singing are addressed and commanded more in scripture by far than any other art form. Put simply, singing in worship is a big deal! The strongest encouragement for individual worshipers to participate is for others to be participating. In our corporate worship singing we must foster a culture of singing. Fostering such is not likely done by projecting 100+ decibels from the platform, but rather by methods that build an expectation that everyone in worship sings as integral part of worship engagement. Let the congregation hear the congregation! You know – admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Body Movements and Facial Expressions

The old adage of “monkey see monkey do” has some application here. Neurologists have discovered the process by which our brains recognize a person’s body language and facial expressions. It seems we have mirror neurons in our brains. Our brains see someone engaged in action and expression and we begin to sense the related emotions. We mentally imitate the muscle movements of others and sense the related emotions. “Some of our motor neurons mirror another’s actions, as well and prompt us to perform our own actions.” If, for example, we see someone raising hands as part of their worship and we sense genuine expression it is likely that we will sense the emotions that accompany that expression. The result may be either to encourage us to join in the raising of hands as expression, or to sense the emotions connected to that act. The same is true of facial expressions. Smiles elicit smiles. Sadness elicits sadness. Older theories implied that such reflection of others was rooted in rational, conscious processes. New research shows a more involuntary subconscious imitation that draws us toward mirrored response. As the many members-one body gathers to worship our individual body language affects one another, and thus the collective environment may well message an atmosphere of freedom and hospitality.

Marva Dawn reminds us, “We don’t go to church, we are the church and go to worship to learn how to be the church.”[1] Brian Wren says, “In the act of singing, the members not only support one another, but proclaim a community of faith reaching beyond the congregation that sings.[2] This is the body of Christ at worship.

[1] Marva Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 256-257.

[2] Brian Wren, Praying Twice, 93.


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