Archives For excellence

Christian hair has taken on new meaning. What follows is an honest, amused ramble through a minefield of questions I have about the current state of worship leading and those who lead worship in our contemporary Christian churches in America.  For full disclosure:  I am one.

I actually grew up using the term “Christian hair” as a somewhat deragatory, yet playful descriptive term for the over-eager bouffant coiffure of the professionally religious.  Think Benny Hinn meets Roy Orbison meets an oscilating fan and a gallon of Aqua Net.  On steroids.  Bingo!  Christian hair.

Now the scene has changed.  And while the aforementioned variety of Christian hair can still be spotted occasionally in the seventy+ crowd at Denny’s and on TBN, there’s a new ‘do taking the hip church scene by storm.  It’s equal parts, “heck yeah!” and “did you mean to do that?”  I affectionately call it “The Pete Wilson.  For full disclosure:  I totally love Pete Wilson.  His blog is fantastic.  His ministry is biblical, powerful, and Spirit-led.  And his hair does things my thinning mane of glory dreams about as I sleep.  Further, he’s a Senior Pastor – not a worship leader – so he’s out of bounds for this discussion.  And yet…

Fellow Lead Worshippers, help me understand…  What’s with the hair? I’m not talking about simple personal style choices here.  You can effectively lead worship with almost any kind of hair… spanning the panoply of the style choice rainbow.  From the sleek simplicity of  Carlos Whittaker to the crazed fro-tee combo of David Crowder.  And yet…

I’m in a minefield here.  I can feel it.  I’m asking deeper questions about heart conditions and motivations which are not so deftly disguised as style questions.  Skipping stones off the surface to see what lies beneath.  Fellow Lead Worshippers, help me understand…  Without an accusing tone – without any self-righteous pride – and without a sense of smug superiority masquerading as humble opinion – some of what’s happening in our contemporary churches makes me go, “hmmm.”

Several years ago I was asked to be the Worship Coordinator for the national youth convention of a conservative church association.  As our Board discussed some of the feedback that had come back from the previous convention, we were literally asked to consider hiding the worship team behind a screen, so the focus could remain on the Lord during worship.  We politely declined the request – but the fact that it was suggested I think establishes a POINT A for the extreme conservative position when it comes to contemporary worship leading:  We would prefer no contemporary leader at all (“After all, there’s no ‘Worship Leader’ position in the New Testament…”), but if you must be up there, please lead quietly… and off to the side.

POINT Z on the style scale is usually found in the “Seeker Sensitive-ist” of contemporary churches.  And I don’t use that term with even a hint of negativity.  Rather, as a means of identification.  These are churches who have invested a healthy sum of resources into a projection system and theater lighting that rivals even the hippest of pop-culture bands touring today.  Here’s an excercise for you.  Look at the picture at the top of this post for 10 seconds and see if you can positively ID the scene as a Country Music concert or a high-tech contemporary worship setting.  Go!

It wasn’t until I spotted the bouncers in the front of the stage that I was sure this was an entertainment venue and not a contemporary worship setting.  Although, if Tomlin was leading, the bouncers MIGHT be necessary, so…  Well, point made.

On the style scale between the ultra-conservative POINT A and the hippest of techno-pop POINT Z churches, our church is probably at about the QRS level.  A mix of hymns and choruses and creeds and prayers, both loud and quiet, both tender and rocked out.  No suit coats.  No designer jeans.  No Christian hair… and no Christian hair.  We sometimes wear Levi’s.  We like to dim the lights when we use video clips.  But no lasers.  No fog machines.  No flashpots or strobes.  We are trying to be authentic in our worship, honest and complete in our presentation of Biblical truth, and welcoming to both the seasoned church attender and the non-church types who are simply curious about Jesus.  We think this neighborhood will connect best to about a QRS on the hipness scale.

And I guess there’s my question for those of you farther down the alphabet.  For you XYZ types.  Are we trying to inspire the Church to focus their attention on the Lord?  And if we are, how exactly does the hip hair and the designer jeans and the breathtaking lightshow NOT distract the worshippers?  It’s an honest question.

Before I became a worship leader by occupation, I attended an amazing church – a large church with several thousand attending each weekend.  Their ministry had a HUGE impact on me as a worship leader, not because it was flashy, but specifically because it was not.  It was authentic.  It was excellent musically.  And it was SIMPLE in it’s presentation.  Lights down before the service.  Lights fade up as the service begins.  Simple wash of the platform.  And then worship happened with deep reverence and genuine humility.  And just regular guy hair.

I don’t claim to have a corner on the market of what is the BEST way to lead worship.  I’m just a dude leading a group of Jesus-loving artists who lead a Jesus-loving congregation.  And I always watch what other leaders are up to.  I learn from you.  Constantly.  But I wonder sometimes why you do the things you do.  If you saw me, you’d have a pile of questions, too, I’m sure.  So from one brother to another – from one Levite to the rest a y’all with a ton of grace- help me understand the grandiosity and the flash.

Where does your ministry fall on the style alphabet?  And more importantly… WHY?

 

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“leading worship with awesome hair :: God, humility… and lasers” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Franz Liszt is the man.

If I just lost you, because you get emotionally involved in American Idol, but you couldn’t tell the difference between Brahms, Beethoven and Bach to save your life… hang with me for just a bit longer.  Most people approach music believing they already know what they love… The truth is, when it comes to art, people often love what they know.

So here’s a little nugget from the classical music realm.  Or romantic, technically…  somewhere in there.

Franz Liszt may be the greatest piano player of all time.  (I know.  I can just hear Kanye West getting all up in the grill of Sergei Rachmaninoff, mid-Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30… “Yo, Sergei… Imma let you finish…”)

Liszt was also a great composer, teacher, lecturer, and he made a mean quiche. (I made that up).  But I’m really grateful to him for his contributions in the world of CONDUCTING technique.  As a musician, I’ve sung and played under many, many conductors.  Some great.  Some clumsy.  Some effective.  Some frustrating.  And a few have been absolute MAGIC.  The best of the best have a way of making an ensemble gel together, breathe together… and disappear into the beauty.  It is transcendent for the performers… and that magic is not lost on the audience.

This is a fascinating picture of leadership.  Conductors make no sound.  Yet they wield tremendous, nuanced leadership that crafts a team of individuals into one coalesced organism generating a musical tapestry greater than the sum of its parts.  On one end of the style spectrum, conducting control freaks frustrate musicians who want to interpret and create.  The flip-side – the hyper-expressive sound-scapers (just made that up, too, but it works…) – likewise frustrate musicians with vague cues that leave the team on edge, unsure of when to come in or end a phrase.

Franz Liszt was, by all accounts, a tremendously expressive conductor, painting the sound with his hands… all between clear cues for his musicians.  As an artist, I want to go back in time and give Franz a high five for his influence on the conductors I have so loved to play and sing for.  As a leader, I want to go back in time and pick his brain.  Ask him about WHY he conducts the way he does.  How he views his role is as a LEADER in front of the ensemble.

In the end, there are a number of lessons – LEADERSHIP lessons – to be learned from great conductors.  As a performer, and as a music lover, here are my top three:

(1)  Great conductors (and great leaders) know how to cue (guide) their ensemble (team) without being too heavy handed (micromanaging). A great conductor sets the musicians at ease, because they know that when they really need it (entrances and exits), cues will be clear.  In order for any team to function at its highest level, the team leader must communicate key information clearly, so that expectations are unambiguous.  But those leaders must also trust their team to create their own path to the desired result.  Clarity lowers the team’s blood pressure.  Trust inspires the teams creativity.  Better results + more team ownership.  And musicians (team members) get to be artists (creators), not just cogs in the conductor’s (leader’s) machine.

(2) Great conductors (and great leaders) are more committed to creating something together than receiving credit as an individual. Because great teams produce end results GREATER than the sum of its parts.  Greater music.  Greater ideas.  Greater art.  Greater results.  Team synergy produces exponentially more passion for the product – in art, in business, and in ministry.  Truly great conductors (leaders) facilitate the highest performance level of the ensemble (team), and EVERYONE shares in the joy of the process.  In business, in sports, in art there is plenty of credit to go around.  In ministry, we all truly have only ONE to direct our attention and lavish our thanks on, anyway.  And that ONE isn’t any of us.  As J.S. Bach penned on every piece of music he wrote, Soli Deo Gloria.  To God alone be the glory.

(3)  Great conductors (leaders) require and give much in the practice room (board room), so that their leadership can take a back seat to the Ensemble (Team) on performance day. My favorite conductor joke ever (yes we have them… every field has their own jokes, right?) is about the much beloved and equally feared Robert Berglund, who served as director of the Bethel College Choir (now Bethel University in St. Paul, MN) from 1959 to 1995.  He built a renowned Choral Music program – and while his choirs sang with great freedom and beauty, he had a reputation for strict discipline in rehearsal.  So… a Bethel College Choir alumn dies and meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates for a tour (Pardon the suspect theology here.)  As they’re touring the wonders of heaven, they come around a cloud bank, and there is a choir of the heavenly host, singing the most beautiful music… and on a small cloud out in front of them is a figure in a white tailed tuxedo, slightly balding with a white ring of hair above the ears.  The Choir member blinks twice and asks St. Peter in amazement, “Is that… is that Bob Berglund?!”  St. Peter replies, “No.  That’s God.  He just THINKS he’s Bob Berglund.”

I’ve never had the privilege to sing under Dr. Berglund’s direction, but I wish I could have.  And I’m not advocating leadership with a God complex here.  Dr. Berglund is well loved and respected – and, at the same time, it was clear that he had high expectations in the rehearsal room.  Effective leaders often do their hardest work behind closed doors.  Rooting out problems.  Fixing, guiding, directing, crafting with their teams out of the public eye.

Perhaps the best bow I could ever put on all this comes in the following video – a leadership discussion from Israel’s beloved conductor Itay Talgam, culminating in some wonderful footage of the great Leonard Berstein.  Watch and enjoy…

NOTE:  Special thanks to TWITTER, without which I would have never met @JesusNeedsNewPR, without whom I would have never fallen in love with the sound of @ImogenHeap, without whom I would have never seen the above video from TED.com – without which I would have never begun to reminisce about my fascination with Franz Liszt, without whom many of my favorite conductors may not have developed their style, without which this blog post would not exist.  So… thanks.

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“liszt, bernstein, and a guy named itay :: three leadership principles of great conductors” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Happy New Year everyone!  Let’s start the New Year thinking about new beginnings.  Here’s PIXAR’s latest short, “Partly Cloudy.”  Enjoy…

That’s great art.  It makes me think.  And I can’t miss an opportunity to highlight a few bullet points this brings to mind for the coming year:

(1)  A new year means the birth of new ideas, dreams, and new ventures.  I’m hatching some new dreams of my own this year.  It’s going to be our best year yet!

(2)  Loyalty between friends stirs emotion.  Because it matters.  I want to be a better friend to those I love this year.

(3)  Great storytelling communicates TRUTH in a BEAUTIFUL way.  I hope God stirs new creativity in me as a storyteller this year.

(4)  Excellent art inspires.  It’s more than entertaining.  It stirs thinking people to wonder and process and respond.  I want to become a better artist this year.

Here’s hoping and praying that all of you have a great start – a FRESH start – today and in the year ahead!  God bless!


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“welcome to 2010 :: new beginnings :: pixar’s partly cloudy” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Sunday morning December 20, 2009 was an epic day at Living HopeSara Renner and the Elements joined us for our Christmas Celebration.  And it was a party.  But it was also fascinating to watch as a ministry leader.  This was powerful, and I don’t want to miss the take-aways for us in ministry.

Sara is a working musician here in the Twin Cities with national range.  Hockey fans may recognize her.  She was chosen to sing the national anthem at the Excel Energy Center before every home game for the Wild last year.  But her real passion is WORSHIP and praise of Jesus Christ.  The Elements are a team of hand picked musicians who share her love for God and excel in their craft.  Sara and her team of friends truly make up some of the best musicians the Twin Cities has to offer.

 

In Sara’s words,

“Music can move you… but it can’t change you.  It can’t heal you.  It can’t set you free.  Only God can do those things.  All of the things that we rehearse, all of our gifts and our talents are meaningless without the anointing of God.  And so, in our lives we try to reflect a real faith in Christ, and in our music we try to be excellent, but more than anything, we pray that God’s Spirit comes and changes people through what we do.”

Sara brings a level of excellence that communicates fearlessness and humility at the same time.  Mix that with spiritual maturity, deep joy, and a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and the results are exuberant.  It’s a contagious faith on display.

You can hear freedom in the keyboard solo by Billy Steele.  Fearlessness.  Joy.  It’s more than skill.  It is true spiritual freedom for Billy and for Sara.  I want to be a better musician, so I can be a more fearless leader, so I can communicate joy with greater freedom.  And if the focus remains on Jesus, He gets the credit.  He gets all the glory.

Sara Renner and the Elements performing live in concert at Living hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN. December 20, 2009.  This was the end of the closing song in the concert. A great end to our Living Hope Christmas Celebration.

Outstanding musicianship and authentic joy in Jesus.  Humility and fearlessness.  Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.  And always – always – always keeping the focus on Jesus Christ.  Those were my take-aways.  Those are ministry markers I will strive for.

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“sara renner and the elements live at living hope :: fearless joy” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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Our worship ministry team at Living Hope Church is AWESOME.

Now, don’t misread my enthusiasm for pride.  We’re not the most gifted musicians, and we are certainly not mighty in number or prolific as songwriters, influencing the global Church for Jesus.  There are better sounding teams, bigger teams, better-known teams.  But you’d be hard pressed to find a TEAM with as much love for each other and sense of SHARED PURPOSE.  I love these people like family, and I trust them.  We depend on each other, and I believe we are living out Philippians 2…

…make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose…

When I reflect on why this bunch of friends works and ministers together so well, I think it has much to do with that Philippians 2 spirit.  We know what we are called to do.  Everyone is on the same page.  We don’t wrestle with multiple philosophies and competing values, because we have spelled out our purpose and our values explicitly, and we agree on them as a Team.  It’s true that we value excellence in our music and our art, but more importantly, we are all focused on the same audience of One when we lead together.

Here’s a question for those of you in Worship Ministry:  Has your team written down your core values and your purpose as a team?  If not, why not?

Carefully crafting a clear purpose statement and core values has some MAJOR LEAGUE advantages:

(1)  Unified language brings clarity to vision.  When leaders do the hard work of carefully word-smithing a purpose statement that is both clear and simple, the whole organization can align themselves with that vision much more efficiently.  Greater alignment to the vision means more synergy, and the team is able to be more effective. (Insert standard disclaimer here about the reality that God alone is responsible for any lasting change in a person’s spiritual condition…)

(2)  Shared expectations leads to greater accountability.  My greatest sin as a leader is my adrenaline addiction.  It leads me to rush everywhere and show up a few minutes late to everything.  Rehearsals included.  I don’t let myself off the hook for it.  I choose the uncomfortable tension of constantly restating the standard and apologizing to the team every time I am late, rather than accepting a “well, it doesn’t really matter – that’s just the way we operate” mentality that would allow me to comfortably continue to waste my friends’ valuable time.  And here’s the beauty of shared expectations… NO ONE has to be the bad guy.  No one on the team has to pull me aside and give me the talk about how I need to shape up.  I know I need to be on time.  The team knows we all need to be on time.  We value each other and respect each other.  And the VALUES we have agreed upon speak for themselves. 

Leaders, when you have a team member who is not consistently living out your Team’s values, it is a huge advantage to have looked at those values together before they serve.  That way, your correction (as you speak the truth in love) to them does not need to come from you personally, so much as it is a discussion about the VALUES you share as Teammates.  This has been a monumentally effective tool for me as a leader over the years.

3) Simplicity = Unity.  Simplifying your purpose and values leads to greater clarity, which leads to greater understanding, which leads to greater unity.  Distilling what really matters most down to bite-sized bullet points for your Team CLARIFIES and HIGHLIGHTS the Biblical principles that undergird what you do.  While God says that ALL scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, it is obviously not possible (or necessary) to remember ALL scripture at ALL times.  Bullet points are memorable.  Bullet points bring focus.  At Living Hope, all of our core values are derived from Scripture, and we have tied one verse to each value.  Our purpose statement is one sentence.  Simple.  Memorable.  Unifying.

I’ve listed three advantages of taking the time to write out and agree upon your Team’s purpose core values, but there are many more.  If you haven’t started the hard work of crafting these together as a Team, I encourage you to start.  It will take time.  Maybe months.  That’s OK – the results are worth it.  So order some pizza and have a good time with it.  Bring your Bibles and your white boards and your yellow legal pads.  YOU will need to work these out for your own team, because your church environment, your goals as a team, and your leadership style are unique to you.  Below you’ll see our purpose and core values, but it is worth it to craft your own.  Do the hard work.

 

As an example, here are the Living Hope Worship and Arts Ministry purpose and core values:

 

Ministry Purpose (why we exist) >> To model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that result in transformed lives.

 

Ministry Values (what guides us) >>

1.  We value GOD’S REPUTATION above everything else.

            “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  – I Corinthians 10:31

 2.  We value FREEDOM in expressing our love to God.

            “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”  – II Corinthians 3:17

 3.  We value the authority and power of BIBLICAL TRUTH to change lives.

                “…true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth…”  – John 4:23

 4.  We value AUTHENTICITY, HUMILITY, and INTEGRITY as reflections of spiritual maturity.

                “…offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God…”  –  Romans 12:1

 5.  We value honest RELATIONSHIPS within the community, the church, and the Team.

                “…being like minded… one in spirit and purpose.”  –  Philippians 2:2

 6.  We value artistic EXCELLENCE for the glory of God.

          “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”  – Colossians 3:23

 

Does your Worship Ministry Team have a clear purpose and clearly stated values?  Has it made a difference in the way your Team serves the church?

 

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“worship ministry team values :: we’ve got spirit, yes we do” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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“RE-DEEM”:  to restore the honor, worth, or reputation of…

As an artist, and as a Levite, I have clarified my mission at the intersection of church life and art.  Our God is a Redeemer, and He uses His people – sometimes His artists – to bring about the work of redemption.

My mission:  to REDEEM the phrase “good enough for church.”

I used to cringe every time I heard that phrase…  “Well, I know she’s not that great a singer.  But she loves Jesus, and she wants to sing.  I mean, it’s good enough for church.”  Ouch.  “We’re not a publishing company.  We have limited resources.  Our newsletter can’t look like a magazine, or what does that say about our priorities?  This is good enough for church.”  Whack!  “Bobby’s just learning the guitar and he wants to be on the Worship Team.  He’ll make some mistakes, but he’ll learn as he goes.  I’m sure he’s good enough for church…”  *sigh*

Seems like the only time I heard that phrase, for many years, it was being used as an excuse for mediocrity.  That somehow, because the local church is a family, full of grace with each other, half-baked (or downright bad) art is not only acceptable, in some cases it is seen as a more humble and, therefore, better offering than truly excellent art.  The excellent offering of an artist who has invested heart and soul into creating something deeply beautiful has been written off as prideful indulgence.  After all, art that is “too good” glorifies the artist.  It smacks of pride.  It is distracting.  It is idolatrous.  All we really need art to be is… right.  “Good enough for church.”

This is a lie, and it has been bought and propagated by many well-meaning Christ followers.  Art, after all, falls into the “whatever you do” category…

“Whatever you do, work at it WITH ALL YOUR HEART, as working for the Lord and not for men.”  (Colossians 3:23)

God made artists.  Kingdom artists reflect HIS creativity, and they point people God-ward.  Let them make great art for Him.  Let artists serve with excellence.  And let them set the bar HIGH.  I honestly believe that CHURCHES ought to be the pace-setters in the art world.  If ever there was a place for deep expression, purpose-driven creation, and joyful play, the CHURCH ought to be a support community for art like no other.  And the church should expect the BEST possible work from their artists.

The Old Testament affirms this value.  Read Moses’ account of the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 26-40 with a highlighter in hand.  Notice how many times the phrases “skilled craftsmen” or “skillfully made” or “finely woven” are used.  Similar adulatory commendations are used throughout the book to command creation of the accoutrements of worship for the tabernacle – always with the highest regard for artistic excellence.  It’s in there.  God wrote it.

And who does God pick to lead the artistic design ministry for the tabernacle?  See Chapter 35, starting in verse 30…

“See the Lord has chosen Bezalel… and He has filled Him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts… in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship.  And He has given both him and Oholiab… the ability to teach others.  He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers… all of them master craftsmen and designers.”

And, by the way, this God-infused passion for excellence and beauty and “master-craftsmanship” doesn’t just apply to visual arts.  Look at the account of the Levite musicians who were set apart by God for the “church music” of the day.  Who was chosen to be the head of the tabernacle choir?

“Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing;  that was His responsibility because he was skillful at it.”  (I Chronicles 15:22)

I love that God wrote that little sidebar after the semicolon.  Do you suppose He foresaw some of our churches filling the choir director slot with the pastor’s wife because, well, that’s how we’ve always done it… and she can play the piano a little bit… and it’ll be good enough for church.

God is worthy of excellent art.  Nothing less.  Can you see the obvious connection with design?

The DESIGN elements used in your church most often provide the “first impression” of the heart of your church to the surrounding community.  They are a tool that can either further your goal or hinder your ministry.  So we take design seriously at Living Hope Church.

And the REASON that we care how things look and feel is NOT that we prioritize style over content.  On the contrary.  The CONTENT of our vision and values DRIVES style, determines visual direction, and (we hope) reflects our belief that excellence honors God and inspires people.  We have the greatest and most important message to share in all of recorded history.  Shouldn’t that inspire our deepest creative efforts?  The best possible art?  Inspiring,  excellent, high-quality design work?

Recalibrating your excellence meter is a long, slow process.  It takes grace, patience, humility – but it also takes conviction and intentional direction setting.  The next time you produce a bulletin or newspaper ad or banner for your ministry, think twice before tagging on that circa 1978 clip art cross or cartoon easter lily with a bow on it.  And no doves, please.  Take a look around at the stores, the advertising, the well-crafted marketing campaigns that vie for the attention of every soul that lives within driving distance of your church.

Then ask yourself, “what would it take to get MY attention – to make me look twice.”  Work hard.  Find a team of artists who love God and are skilled in their field.  Design with the understanding that eternal souls are on the line – as working for the Lord and not for men.  And then with fear and trembling, ask yourself again…  “Is THIS good enough for church?”

How can your church take one step forward in making your design work reflect God-honoring, attention grabbing excellence?

>> Note:  read “designing ministry, part one” HERE.

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“designing ministry, part two :: good enough for church” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.