Archive for the ‘Hymnals’ category


November 17, 2014

HPIM1336.JPG Through more than forty years of ministry I have had occasion to share music in assisted living residences where some tenants had lost much of their mental acuity. In my early years I was uncertain as to the value of singing in such environments, but over time grew to realize that not only did music sometimes brighten an otherwise obscure existence for some, but that at times it would be a hymn or a tune that held the final connections to the real world for some participants. I remember a resident who could not recite her own name, but who joined me in singing five verses of Amazing Grace and never missed a word or note. For me it was a heartwarming reminder that the Lord has final victory, and this dear saint would someday soon join the song of paradise, and was well prepared. What a rich joy has been mine to have been singing from days of childhood, singing Jesus Loves Me This I Know to teen years singing a contemporized version of For the Beauty of the Earth to anxious parental moments clinging to the prayer, I Need Thee Every Hour, to the Sunday after September 11, 2001, joining with congregation to declare the Psalm 90 paraphrase O God Our Help in Ages Past, to the more recent joy of joining brothers and sisters victoriously singing In Christ Alone.

Think about the songs you currently sing in congregational worship. Do you anticipate singing those songs throughout your life? Do you, or will you teach them to your children and your children’s children? When we send children to worship in another location and in another way, a la “kid’s style,” are we abdicating our responsibility to demonstrate worship singing, and teaching them songs that are meaningful to us? In our rush to sing the latest tune from the radio, are we forfeiting passing along the songs of our lives? I understand the arguments for some of these methods of ministering with children, and the removal of “distraction” from parents and other adults. (Personal note: I sit with grandchildren when I can….I get it!) I know that mumbling along with words they do not understand or coloring while sounds fall around their ears may seem meritless to our over-utilitarian mindsets. Could we not admit, though that many of us have certainly sung hymns we did not fully comprehend at the time, but that we grew into understanding as faith took root and matured. In my experience the taking root has itself often served as evidence of the Spirit’s work in transforming and renewing of mind and soul. I have noticed that pastors who quote song lyrics as poetry, most frequently reference the texts of hymns they have known from childhood, or have learned along the way.

It was a great honor and privilege last week to be a part of hosting a Leadership Luncheon for worship leaders and pastors featuring our friend and modern hymn writer, Keith Getty. Keith offered a refreshing and convicting reminder of the high value of the role that singing plays in our lives, in the Church universal, and in the local church body. He did not mince words in the challenge he laid before those who choose and lead songs in worship. I will not attempt to rehearse his talk or the interaction that followed other than perhaps a very general outline. If you are a pastor or worship music leader I highly recommend you seek out an opportunity to encounter the material, or even attend a Leadership event offered through Getty Music should you have such an opportunity. Three primary areas that Keith spoke about included: 1. God’s people learn their faith in large part through song. 2. The holy act of congregational singing is just that, holy. 3. Songs need to stick with people.

Reflecting on some of the music and singing that I hear in churches, conferences, and events, I confess a real ache for leaders to give more substantive lyrics couched in singable and memorable melodies for congregations to sing in ways that advance acts of worship and encourage communion with the holy, living God, not only for the given moment, but songs that, in fact, stick with us through our lives. If worship in our churches is characterized by throw-away music and cycles through songlists every five to eight years, what will our children sing in years to come? Could our impatience to develop a richer palate of material possibly even have played into the exodus of so many young adults who have left the church once they left their youth group? Will words flashed on screens in eight-unit increments stand the test of time to reside in our minds and ignite our passion into our most senior years, even our last days?

I am grateful for writers who are crafting new hymns and worship songs of sufficient maturity in theology, music, and poetic interest to call us to feast in their riches for years and generations to come.


September 23, 2014

hugging-myself  You may have heard the old joke about the visiting preacher whose ego was as large as his boisterous personality. Following an evening preaching service the worship minister had the privilege (aka assignment) of taking the guest preacher out to eat. From the time the music guy picked him up at the door the preacher talked about himself non-stop. He went on and on about his sermon in that night’s service. He boasted about the evidence that everyone loved it, and how this was the response he received everywhere he preached. After the two had been seated at a table at the restaurant and had ordered their meal the music leader was hopeful the conversation might change directions. Sure enough, as soon as the waiter left the table the preacher looked at the musician and said, “well, enough about me. Let’s hear from you. How did you like my sermon tonight?”

The bloated egotism expressed by this preacher is easy for us to spot as self-absorption, and pretty easy to dismiss (although many of us have known characters similar to this one). We may be less able to identify some of the attitudes that creep into our own thinking as worshipers in search of a god that makes us feel good.


In thinking about worship we have often heard the reminder, “It’s not about you, or it’s not about me.” My observation is that even those of us who use this mantra may still struggle against the tendency to make worship very much about ourselves. Particularly in modern evangelical worship there is a strong inclination to elevate the subjective experience as the controlling factor in the approach to worship. We want to feel a certain way about God. Some popular worship music singers and songwriters use romantic terms to define relationship with God. Knowingly, or unknowingly, leaders of romanticized worship attempt to lead us toward “falling in love” with God, and experiencing worship in a certain way. “Worship guided by romanticism will eventually be divorced from its proper object, God, and become fixed on some subjective state of mind or heart.”[1]Thomas Long, among others, reminds us, ‘God does not always move us, and everything that moves us is not God.”[2] When we too closely associate spiritual worship of the living God with a particular feeling, then we naturally substitute searching out that feeling with seeking God. What’s more, we may attempt to hold others to a sort of feeling standard. We may expect others to either describe or express their worship with similar feeling terminology. Being in the presence of those who perceive worship in this way may leave us with a sense of condescension, as if that feeling is “real worship,” whereas an absence of such feeling means worship is somehow lacking. These implications may well lead us away from the biblical teaching of worship in spirit and truth.

We believe that in biblical worship our whole selves are engaged; mind, body, and spirit. We know that affections as well as thinking are to be engaged. It is for certain that worship may well stir our emotions. Yet even when emotions are stirred, the question remains – Is our worship about God or about us? What’s more, much of our contemporary worship music, as does some music of the Gospel genre, concerns itself only with worship at the level of individual self and God, seldom moving worship’s focal point to place worshipers as a unified body in worship, or joined with the Church universal. Lack of implication of Trinitarian activity in most modern worship music would bring into question the theological soundness and beg the question if the worship is centered in personal experience, even bringing participants to a point of worshiping worship.

Idolatrous worship takes on many forms, but perhaps no other controlling point for worship tempts us any more strongly than one which places us as the purpose for the worship. Biblical teaching is clear that nothing is to be enthroned in worship other than the living God. That certainly includes romanticism, which is worship where we have enthroned self.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
May I devote my life wholly to Thee:
Watch Thou my wayward feet,
Guide me with counsel sweet;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
Teach me to do Thy will most lovingly;
Be Thou my Friend and Guide,
Let me with Thee abide;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
Until Thy holy face one day I see:
Keep me from secret sin,
Reign Thou my soul within;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

–PURER IN HEART by Fannie E. Davidson (1877)


[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait Til Sunday: Leading Your Congregation Toward Authentic Worship. 59.

[2] Thomas Long Beyond Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Congregations. 48

Screens AND Hymnals

June 12, 2014

Screens and Hymnals

My good friend and colleague in worship ministry, Mark Edwards is the former Minister of Music of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee where he served for more than thirty years.  He was subsequently Vice President for Celebrating Grace Publishing.  He recently shared this article with me asking for my review of its content.  When I discovered he had no particular plans for its publishing at the time I asked permission to share it, as I believe it so well states a thoughtful approach to use of screens and hymnals in worship, just as the title suggests.  Mark’s discerning consideration here reflects the kind of thinking needed for any and all inventions we might bring to utilize in the gathered worship setting.

Screens AND Hymnals
By Mark Edwards

Many churches are using screens in worship to good advantage.  During the sermon, a well-chosen picture or graphic is worth a thousand words and judicious use of visual images communicates quickly and meaningfully.  They also provide textural variety to the fabric of the service.

The same is true of using screens for congregational singing.  Many hymns and songs have become part of a congregation’s memory bank, so lyrics on a screen serve a handy reminder of exact wording.  Those who like to sing harmony on these familiar favorites generally have the harmony line memorized.

One of the early and valid reasons church leaders gravitated to using screens was, that with the rapidly growing body of Christian song, hymnals were limiting. How shall we “sing unto the Lord a new song” if the new song was not in the congregation’s hymnal?  Good point.  It can be done, but it is a pretty slow process.

The flip side of that coin is that some are discovering that the exclusive use of screens for congregational singing is also limiting.  They are also becoming aware that it hints of elitism because:

    • it presupposes that everyone in the congregation is familiar with the song and thus need only minimal help;
    • it assumes that everyone in the congregation knows the melody and is able to sing it; enthusiastically like those around them.  (Someone jokingly suggested that, perhaps, the melody could be placed on the screen and let congregations guess what the words are.)

Never putting a hymn page in the hands of the congregation is a little insulting because it delivers a not-so-subtle message that:

    • people must be spoon-fed a line or two a time, that they can’t manage a “plate-full;”
    • people can’t read music well enough to know if a melody goes up or down (which eventually will be the case);
    • people prefer the experience and the sound of unison singing to the richness of harmony.

When, in the course of a sermon, the pastor asks the congregation to find and follow a passage in the Bible, a certain amount of “weight” is added to the passage itself and to what the preacher will say about it.  Many times the preacher will also draw attention to context of a passage – that which precedes and follows the actual passage.  For example, John 3:16 is a wonderful passage and encapsulates the gospel message in a few words., but that single verse takes on greater meaning when read in context of John 3.15 and John 3:17, all of John 3, John 2 and John 4.  Using a hymnal helps the worshiper catch context and greater meaning, because other stanzas are in full view and usually sung.

In congregational singing, some are finding that using both screens and hymnals – though not at the same time – offers the best of each.  If screens and hymnals are used at the same time, the vast majority of the congregation will opt for the easy way out – it is just human nature.  But the “easy way out” is not a particularly good posture for worship. Scripting moments in worship that necessitates hymnal use can offer a “new” texture and possibly deeper experience, especially if the leader is willing to approach worship leading as teacher of Christian song, half of which is its theology.



August 7, 2013

keith-kristyn-getty-eliza-joy  The recent flap over the Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee’s decision to omit what is arguably the most popular modern hymn of recent years, In Christ Alone, continues to rage on.  The blogosphere, in which I also strive to have a small voice, has been aflame with essays and responding comments by bloggers and readers.  The tension stems from the lyric line, “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”  Hymn-writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to grant permission to change that lyric to “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified,” as had been done without the authors’ permission in a previous hymnal publication.  That publisher is currently “taking steps to make the correction in all distributed copies of the song, including the Celebrating Grace Hymnal,” according to The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper.  The Celebrating Grace Hymnal comes from a group of Baptists and/or former Baptists with its own story.  For my initial reply as a fellow Baptist see:

The controversy has drawn attention from plenty of my fellow Baptists, including theologians of note, such as Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, publishing leaders such as Lifeway’s Thom Rainer, and denominational leaders including Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head, Russell Moore.  There are others, but this should suffice to get the point, which is that it matters.   Words matter.  As a theological lightweight by comparison, there is nothing I could or would add to this specific debate by parsing words, or speculating on theological intentions of Presbyterians, Baptists, or any other denominationally identified position for that matter.  Rather, I would utilize this moment to join Lifeway’s Mike Harland in first applauding the very discussion of sung lyrics that this controversy has evoked.  I would perhaps go a step further to call for an opportunistic pause in the proliferation of worship material as a genre.  I wonder if we do not need something of a selah (pause and listen).  Perhaps we should catch our breath to provide the mental, emotional, and spiritual space we need to more carefully evaluate whether our worship language and intention honestly serves to reveal God’s story (the Gospel), or if it too often relishes in our own experience.  While I realize this call for pause strays from the current debate over one of the most theologically rich, Gospel-conveying songs from the pen of some of the most theologically careful writers of our day, nevertheless, I wonder if we evangelicals have not become such worship music gluttons, demanding more music done the way we want, that we have completely lost any sense of balance.  Perhaps we should expand this discussion to include

In this quote from Russell Moore look, if you would, past the specific argument, but rather to the ethos reflected in the manner of worship singing he references:

As an evangelical, I would argue that it’s necessary to sing about the wrath of God because we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences. There’s a reason why evangelical congregations reach a kind of crescendo when they sing out that line in the Gettys’ song. It’s not because, per the caricature, we see ourselves as a “moral majority” affirming our righteousness over and against the “sinners” on the other side of the culture war.

Instead, it’s just the reverse. When Christians sing about the wrath of God, we are singing about ourselves. Our consciences point us to the truth that, left to ourselves, we are undone. We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else. And God would be just to turn us over to the path we would want to go—a path that leads to death. It is only because Jesus lived a life for us, and underwent the curse we deserve, that we stand before God. The grace of God we sing about is amazing precisely because God is just, and won’t, like a renegade judge, simply overlook evil. (Washington Post, July 30, 2013)

Note that he says, “we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences.”  The mention of “a kind of crescendo,” I believe indicates a head and heart connection, which is what the Apostle Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 14.  In Moore’s words I sense a kind of singing that reveals humility.  As he states, “We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else.”  Oh that our worship singing would move us toward and reflect a servant spirit, humbled by the truth that though we deserve God’s wrath, we have received mercy and grace that is amazing.  Indeed, our prideful spirit has sometimes resulted in a moralistic attitude.  Is such an attitude not really just another dirty sin, one of those included in the song’s phrase, “for every sin on Him was laid?”  In fact, when we are convinced that we are pretty darn good it can be difficult to think of others as better than ourselves. (Romans 12; Philippians 3)

As we continue this debate that helps us think more carefully about a word or phrase in this carefully crafted hymn, let us not stop there, but rather press on to once again consider every phrase of every song, and while we are at it, let’s engage again in meaningful conversation as to the appropriateness of our accompanying instrumentation, the benefit or detriment of our acoustical environments, and perhaps most importantly, the overall spiritual health implied by the active participation, or lack thereof, in worship singing by our congregations.  As for me and my house, and for whatever small measure of influence I might have, I will seek to champion singing that prioritizes the congregation and their collective voice, that holds to theological integrity and liturgical function keeping mindful of its doctrinal emphasis within the context of its singing, that seeks to engage worshipers in a larger voice of praise that includes not only those in the room at a given time, but stretches from shore to shore, and from eternity to eternity.  Recognizing our fallen nature and God’s grace provision, I will attempt to always recognize that singing, as all of our worship, “in spirit and truth” is possible for us “In Christ Alone.”


March 12, 2012

For the last twenty years when church leaders have thought about balance in a congregation’s worship music diet they have thought almost exclusively about the “contemporary” – “traditional” issue.  Style is certainly one contemplation, and not an unimportant one for the worship leader, but is far from the only one.


There are a myriad of considerations that enter in to selecting music materials for healthy Christian worship.  Notice I said “healthy” Christian worship.  There are many means of decision-making regarding this subject that can lead to unhealthy worship environments and practice.  I have a friend and colleague whose doctoral study centered in evaluating worship.  More specifically, it was a project in which he sought to aid churches in determining what variances exist between their embedded worship theology and their stated worship theology (written or otherwise voiced), assuming they had one (I fear many of our churches and leaders do not have a theology of worship at all, leaving them to drift by experiential practice or imitation of other churches).  My own work in the area of the dynamics and effect of congregational worship singing on worship renewal was always in tension with other questions regarding ecclesiology (theology of church) and with the repertoire being sung in churches.  No doubt all these issues and more form a matrix of critical concerns for the diligent worship ministry leader.  Questions can be overwhelming as can the proliferation of possible “answers” which are offered by a plethora of sources from the blogosphere, books, popular and noted worship leaders, etc., etc.  Gone, it seems, are the days of doing college, followed by seminary, and popping out the other side as a bona fide Minister of Music, ready to serve alongside a learned pastor with whom the struggle for answers could resume as a lifelong partnership and shared journey of learning.


Selection of healthy song material has always included serious consideration of text and tune match, a contemplation that has not gone away.  The burgeoning effects of cultural influence and charismatic movements within church cultures continue to present challenges to song selection that form worshipers into people of mission, ministry, and Kingdom citizenship, as well as people who love God and love people.  Lionel Adey divides hymns and worship songs into three categories; objective, subjective, and reflexive.  Objective texts state theological theme or biblical event; subjective include implications for the worshiper; and reflexive songs focus on the act of worship itself.  In truth there are balances to be achieved within each of these divisions, but for the sake of brevity and focus, let’s just consider balancing the three; objective, subjective, and reflexive.  As point of concern let’s especially consider the latter.  Peter Ward in his book, Selling Worship, says the following:


The emphasis upon encounter with God in the present has lead to songs that focus upon the worshipper and what is happening in the present moment.  The ‘now’ of the worship song indicates the extent to which attention is directed to the present intimacy between the worshipper and their Lord.


More traditional hymnody tends to offer a more objective emphasis on factual events in the life of Christ and the Gospel narratives as the focus for our worship and adoration.  More contemporary desire to sing songs “to” rather than “about” God has tended toward a lack of interest in the traditional theological content of hymnology, or, indeed, Psalms.  Ward goes on to  point out that the more reflexive hymn has always been a part of worship.  In its right place it offers a sense of urgency and significance to a worship service.  He further cautions, though, that a steady diet or overuse of reflexive songs present serious issues.  The most obvious is that reflexive song often substitutes gospel content for metaphors related to the intimacy of worship.


Historically a case can be made that imbalance in our diet of worship songs that tips one direction is often followed by a period of imbalance in another direction.  In either case the change does not usually occur overnight.  As worship ministers we are responsible to consider how our worship is helping to form worshippers over their lifetime.  Often it is those who are most in need of a balanced diet, who are in their growth spurts if you will, who become target of imbalance at their most vulnerable points.  We must comprehend what is going into the mind and heart of our children and teenagers as developing worshipers/disciples, and not give in to the shortcut of product-marketing schemes that seek to simply adapt Christianized products to fit cultural norms.  It seems imperative for us to know well that culture is never neutral and to serve as pastors to those we lead in Christian worship, giving prayerful consideration to how our congregation’s worship language is forming us into a Christlike people over weeks, months, years, and even our lifetime.





Hymn of Grateful Praise

November 24, 2011
An often-overlooked Thanksgiving hymn is For the Beauty of the Earth.  Perhaps it is passed over because the 19th Century text does not actually contain the word, “Thanks” in it anywhere.  Perhaps it is because the straightforward hymn is more closely associated with a standard Sunday morning hymn of praise.  Regardless, it is a song lyric that strikes me today as a great expression of personal and potentially corporate praise rooted in a deep sense of high praise, or praise rooted in a deep sense of thankfulness – works either way you look at it.  It speaks for me important words of worship today as I have been recounting blessings for which I am so very thankful, which causes my heart to burst into praise for the blessings of the Lord, and perhaps most importantly, for the Lord Himself (see stanza six).
A centerpiece of worship is remembering.  We do not gather, personally or corporately, to focus on our worship, or on how committed we are to worship. The core substance and content of Christian worship is found in Who we worship and what He has done – the Gospel of God in Christ.  One of the reasons our worship must be Word-driven is that the Bible tells us what God has done.  It tells us over and again.  Even the long genealogies of Matthew 1 reflect God’s sovereign hand at work to bring us Jesus.  Gospel – good news!  Remember.recount.rehearse.
These last few days Ebbie and I had an opportunity (aka “made” an opportunity) to be together in Florida – just to get away and reflect and enjoy some time.  Morning walks for me were times of recounting.rehearsing.remembering rich blessings.  The more I recall the more my heart sings.  “Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”  Of course walking along the Oceanside helps, even in the morning rain, to recount the beauty of the earth. It also brings floods of memories with children and grandchildren and offers hope for more thanks to the Lord’s healing hand.  “Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”  Healing and close calls bring to mind again the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night – every one a precious gift.  “Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”  Family . through all of life.what a gift!  The joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child.”Lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”  The church..the pangs of difficulties fade to black when recalling so many wonderful relationships, the priceless opportunity to be a part of peoples’ lives who are brothers and sisters in Christ.  The hope of eternity spent with the One body lifting holy hands above.  “Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”  O the joy of ear and eye, the heart and mind’s delight and this time of year especially for mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight.  My mind is full of flashes of memories of TLC and/or TMC singing ministry before Tennessee church bodies, before those in foreign lands, before brothers and sisters in other states.  It is gleeful to think of the sounds and songs being sung week after week led by the hearts, minds, and hands of you leaders.  “Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!”
I find that if I give thanks long enough there is an eruption of spirit that follows as naturally as exhaling follows inhailing.  It is an eruption of praise. The same is true when the body is gathered and we remember.recount.rehearse.  That praise is not only appropriate because of all the listed blessings, but also because the Giver is with us, Incarnate.  It is the remembrance that offers proper perspective to all remembrances.  It is the Gift that encompasses all gifts including the very spirit of giving itself.
            For Thyself, best Gift Divine! To our world so freely given
            For that great, great love of Thine, peace on earth, and joy in heaven:
            Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving recounting memories of blessings, life, regeneration, renewal, and relationship.  Please know that as our family gathers and recounts our blessings, I will be giving special thanks for you.

Giving thanks and praise,

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!

Worship Without Faith

May 10, 2011

“Worship experience.”  It is the announced objective of churches, concerts, youth and college group gatherings in all kinds of settings.  In most of the popular worship leadership and music producing publications it is highlighted as if it were the ultimate purpose of the same gatherings.  Indeed, in many, it is.  In the most misguided (one could even say blasphemous) overreach it is even announced as the foundational purpose of life itself.  People seeking out a worship experience are actually just consumers shopping for their chosen experience du jour.  As market driven church leaders adapt church lingo and programs to scratch this proverbial itch to find a satisfying worship experience I fear many have unintentionally led people far astray from the biblical foundation of worshiping in “spirit and truth,” (John 4:23-25)  Worship in spirit and truth calls for faith without which there is no spiritual life, and without which God cannot be pleased (Heb 11:6). There is no such thing as genuine Christian worship without faith. The miraculous truth is that Christ has become our High Priest and provided atonement (Heb 9).  Our faith is in Him completely.  Only in Him and through His provision can we rest that our worship will be acceptable.

Some may wonder why I am addressing this to the readers of my weekly epistles, which are mostly worship pastors and music leaders.  Two reasons: #1 – you are probably most tempted, or sadly in many cases expected (by pastor and people) to provide this experience-oriented direction.  After all, we musicians have been trained in capturing people’s attention, conveying art and aiming intensely at “the audience’s” emotions.  (Please do not stop reading here for this word of caution needs fuller explanation.)  #2 – I would hope you might be able to help your senior pastor and other church leaders to grasp a more sound practice, you are possibly in the best position (though uncomfortable) to help worshipers move from this culture-contrived line of selfish thinking. 

Let me hasten to say, worship IS life!  Worship IS our ultimate priority and intended eternal destiny.  Worship in the biblical sense, however, is a far cry from an inspiration buzz or moment of self-aggrandizement that is so often what is being sought out when looking for a worship experience.  At its root one (worship experience) emphasizes self and the other (true worship) is rooted in the Triune God Himself.  The best I can decipher is that our point of departure has been a slowly developed emphasis on personal experience, yea…on self, and such emphasis has resulted in a deflated posture of Christ in the “worship experience.”  God forbid.

Let me also hasten to say that resting faith wholly in Jesus Christ, and trusting Him to make our engagement/communion/worship with God worthy to be received by Him, often results in a glorious experience characterized sometimes by exuberant joy, sometimes by convicting tears, and always by humbling awe.  Whatever experience comes to us is secondary, his glory is primary.  The root problem is exacerbated when we chase after the experience rather than the exaltation of the Lord.

As we guide others in worship gatherings we take on the overwhelming challenge of lifting up Christ above all else.  We are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we select materials to be used in gathered worship we submit ourselves to the arresting discipline of biblical integrity.  We are bound and at once freed by faithful adherence to the Word.  Fellow leaders of gathered worship, join me in confronting the cultural spirit of division and offer the victorious power of the Gospel that overcomes sin and self. Style preferences disappear in the blazing radiance of Jesus. 

            Be still my soul! The Lord is on thy side

            Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.

            Leave to thy God to order and provide

            In every change He faithful will remain

            Be still my soul! They best, thy heavenly Friend

            Thro stormy ways leads to a joyful end.

                                                – Katherine von Schlegel

In Christ alone,



Memorable or Forgettable?

July 1, 2010

A central theme in worship is remembering.  Though Baptists do not typically observe the Lord’s Supper weekly, still the spirit of the table is a part of our worship, an act that Jesus taught us to do “In remembrance of me (Him).” (1 Cor 11:24 and following)  In worship we rehearse, or remember God’s story in creation, His selection and covenant with His people, His provision of salvation in Jesus.  By the very act of gathering on the first day of the week (Sunday) we engage in remembering His resurrection.  We remember the teachings in the New Testament for the Church and remember His promise to return for His own. Our remembering in worship should never become a sterile recitation of fact, but rather provide room to respond to the revelation God has given in His Word.

A very dear friend and fine young pastor has recently accepted the call to serve as senior pastor for First Baptist Church in Jackson.  He wrote a letter to the church as his first article in the church’s newsletter in which he announced to his new church flock “The Pastoral Priority of Reminding.”  The letter is an outstanding declaration rooted in 2 Peter.  My friend, Justin, references the Apostle Peter’s words as he (Justin) lets his new church family know that he, too, will be seeking to keep them from becoming “ineffective and unfruitful.”  Justin, like Peter, informs his people that he intends to “stir them up by way of reminder.”  It is clear that his intentions are to break the Word of Life through his preaching and ministry in worship.  There is clearly a covenantal relationship implied in which Justin will “remind” the church in order that they might “remember” the truth of God’s Word, and then “recall” that truth as they live their lives in order to flesh out the Gospel in daily living.  The reminding is not just a long series of sermons where the pastor tells (reminds) the people how they should live.  The reminding includes proclamation of the Gospel itself, reminding them of “so great a salvation!” (Heb 2:3)  The promises made by this young pastor as he begins his ministry with a new flock are powerful promises made by the one who will fulfill his own calling through preaching and pastoring this people.

Brothers and sisters who plan worship orders, select and prepare music, and lead your congregations in worship through music and singing, you bear a similar calling.  The music of worship is to remind those gathered for public worship of the work of Christ, the qualities and characteristics of His followers, which are to mirror His own.  Our music, presentational and congregational, must be memorable in order to remain in the mind and heart of the believers long enough to have effect.  Much of our spiritual formation takes place through gathered worship.  In Baptist life, much of that formation happens as we sing.  We must ask ourselves whether our music and singing helps us remember, clearly and effectively lifts up Christ, and will continue to aid us to recall truth as we live our lives as Christians (Christ-like).  This really begs the question, “Is what I am selecting memorable?”  We dare not confuse that question with being gimmicky, such as would be the case with a music jingle aimed at selling cars or soap. 

One of the reasons that I default to time-tested hymns for worship is that they are just that, “time-tested.” They have survived through usage in public worship and have been reviewed time and again by those selecting music for services of worship.  In most cases songs have been filtered through a hymnal editing process that likely included a theological review, and evaluation of musical quality.  That does not mean that every hymn that is “x” number of years old is good and useful for worship, but neither does a song fresh out of the studio deserve immediate entrance to the temple simply because it is “fresh” and/or from the hottest recording artist.  I tend to wait awhile after a new song is released before I infuse it in public worship.  I need time to thoroughly evaluate a piece’s effect and consider how it might best serve the church’s worship.  If a hymn or song is something I sense the church needs as part of its memorable repertoire, then I must give them time to ingest it through a systematic approach to its introduction.

Too many churches (at the insistent of church leaders) have been dooped into adopting the culture’s value system of aesthetic relativism and comtemporaneity.  I have heard pastors and others indicate that their chief concern in finding a new worship leader was “to give us a fresh look.”  The same leaders have assumed that the trend of their churches to plateau or decline over the last thirty years have been due to their inability to change fast enough.  It is quite possible that the decline may have come due to the lack of application of theological rigor and spiritual filtering of the constant changes that have been taking place through that time period; one in which the very culture we keep imitating has become less and less influenced by the Church’s message.  I believe our artistic sensibilities have drifted right along with the rest of it, such that we have indeed “changed the scorecard” in how we assess artistic material.  We are more interested in something being “fresh” than memorable.

I was in a worship service very recently which included three songs I did not know.  Halfway through the second song I had the questioning thought come to mind, “What was the first song about?”  After the service I asked three friends if they knew the first song, which only one did.  None of us could recall anything more than a two word phrase that was repeated in the chorus; no one knew melody, word phrases, nothing.  Forgettable worship?

I admonish us all to practice our craft, including the hard work of careful evaluation of music selection, such that we might help the congregation remember.  Are we complicit in the process of impoverishing the human spirit even in our services of worship, or do we spend the time and effort needed to assure presentation of Gospel Truth in forms appropriate to the message?  Do our songs remind us how others have lived and worshiped before us who have kept the faith?  Does our music celebrate Christ as Victor over time? 

Help your congregation “join the everlasting song!”

Intended as reminder,


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