It was almost 20 years ago now. We sat around a stack of pizza boxes, yellow legal pads and number number two pencils in hand, and we agonized over language that would clarify our purpose and our values as a Worship Ministry team at a church in Bloomington, MN. It was painful.
But it was fruitful. This was the brotherhood. My team of Levites. Worship leaders and lead worshipers and partners and my best friends. We wrangled and argued and refined and prayed and read the Bible and fought to find the words that would guide us in worship ministry over the next decade and a half. Further, it would come to be the guiding document for the worship ministry in a new church plant that I would join a few years later. We have co-opted these words and leaned on them as a guiding path for ministry in several capacities since, including the worship and arts ministry of the church I am serving as Pastor as of this year, St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Though I am a lead Pastor now, the first 20 years of my ministry life were spent leading worship ministry teams.
When I speak to churches about worship ministry, I strongly advocate entering into the process of developing and clarifying a team-wide biblical ministry purpose, and values that reflect the overall mission and values of your congregation. Clarifying words give the ministry team a TARGET. It’s hard to measure whether or not your ministry is accomplishing it’s goal if the ministry has no clear idea what that goal is. But the process of writing our purposes, mission statements, values… ouch. You sweat blood. So I’m not talking about banging this out in a couple hours over some delicious Papa John’s on a Friday night. Nope. It will probably take you months. And lots of frustration. And a few blessed light-bulb moments. And prayer.
But then, when you get to the end of the process, and the whole Team is on board and committed… the synergy and the unity and the depth of fellowship in that ministry is hard to put into words.
For more than 15 years I haven’t changed a word from what we started with in those pizza box sessions in Bloomington. Not a single word. Because I BELIEVED in them, and I believed God had granted us clarity, blessing, and direction. I still believe that.
However, purpose statements are only valuable to the degree that they point you to a biblical target that reflects the heart of God and is rooted in the truth. Purpose statements ought to be developed CAREFULLY, and PRAYERFULLY, so that they coalesce a ministry Team around a clear and truly God-honoring rallying cry. To the degree they reflect scripture, they will be helpful. To the degree that they misdirect away from scripture, they will be harmful.
So here we are. More than 15 years later. And we needed to make a change.
I guess this was born out of a season of looking at our theological positions under a microscope. Having just launched a new website for St. Olaf Lutheran Church, our deacons and I have been dissecting and finessing the wording on our site in the “who we are” and “what we believe” sections. As I went to post our Worship and Arts Ministry Purpose and Values, I realized something that flew under the radar for all these years.
Our original purpose for worship ministry looked like this:
“We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that result in transformed lives.”
My focal points in this statement have always been on (1) both modeling AND facilitating worship, and (2) transformed lives. In other words, we don’t just lead worship, we model it. And secondly, we expect God the transformer to change people into His image if His Spirit is moving as we worship.
But we need clarity when we express theological positions. And here’s the rub… I realized that in these words we had actually taken on responsibility here as a Team that we were never intended to carry. Because worship is always RESPONSE to God the initiator, “worship expressions” don’t RESULT in transformed lives at all. That is assigning power to the act of worship that it does not and can not hold.
So, lo these 15+ years hence, I have made a change. Our purpose statement now reads, “We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that REFLECT transformed lives.”
BOOM. The power of the GOSPEL changes people. Worship is the response.
It was like a bomb hit my office. Both scary and exhilarating.
And I know that those of you who visited my office 15 years ago at Emmaus Lutheran Church are certain I’m talking about my decorating style, what with my, um… free-form approach to filing sheet music and whatnot. But that’s not it at all.
A hundred loose threads of theological string running through my brain were suddenly were drawn tight, snapping into place to form a perfect, beautiful knot. Right then, with trembling hands and tears running down my face, I knew what I was for.
I called Amy. Which is the thing you do when your whole life has suddenly changed direction. You call your spouse.
Before I wander farther into the woods here, let’s step back and take a clear look again at the trees. I’m in the midst of a series of posts here about the foundation of Biblical beliefs that fuel my life and undergird my calling as a Pastor and proclaimer of the Gospel, and I’m categorizing all of them under the rubric “PURSUE JOY.” So far I have posted an introductory column (read it here), and have expanded upon the first two of five Biblical propositions in the series. Click on either one below to read those posts:
So far I’ve attempted to make a clear Biblical case for the fact that God’s highest purpose and most profound desire is for the ever-increasing praise of His glory. The Bible is FULL of this truth from cover to cover, but many Christians have mistakenly fallen into the misconception that what matters most to God is US. That Jesus came to earth primarily to rescue US, because of His profound love for US and His desire to bless US. While it is true that we are deeply loved and exceptionally valuable in His eyes, the Bible makes it clear that we have been called as a people of God for His glory (Isaiah 43:6-7) and that Jesus ULTIMATELY went to the cross not simply for our sake, but for the glory of His Father and His name (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1, for example, and what John has to say about our forgiveness in 1 John 2:12).
Then I explain from a Biblical platform why this is in no way some kind of grandiose ego-trip. Instead the God-centeredness of God stands as the most extravagantly loving basis possible for our relationship with God. As God is our heavenly Father, he seeks to give us the best possible gift (see our relationship to God clarified in Romans 8:14-17, and God’s Father heart to us in Matthew 7:11). The best, highest, most valuable gift to us in all of the universe and beyond the bounds of time is GOD HIMSELF. And so, in His supreme love, He gives us Himself to marvel at and adore for eternity – the highest and best for us is to not focus on us at all, but to fix our attention and lavish our affection on the ONE object of supreme and unfailing worth. That is why Our deepest satisfaction comes in the fulfillment of our God-wired need to WORSHIP, and when the object of our worship is God Himself, we are satisfied, and God is glorified, and the union of the two is a consummation of such beautiful genius that there are not words for it. That is why in my last post I wrote, “In praising that which is MOST praiseworthy are we most DEEPLY satisfied, and the genius of this design is that the expressing of this praise brings us the most soul-satisfying PLEASURE in the universe. In fact, the joy that both awakens and satisfies our most primal need in life finds its voice in our fervent worship of the ONE who is worthy of it.”
To pursue JOY is to WORSHIP God.
The irony is that most people pursue happiness while running away from God. Colder… colder…
Now, back into the woods…
I was there in my messy office at Emmaus, stuck somewhere between the staff meeting that had just wrapped up in Mavis’ office and getting to work on the upcoming Sunday service plans. I had been hired as a Worship Pastor, of sorts, albeit under the title of “Minister of Celebration.” So I was the Music and Arts guy on campus, with traditional and contemporary services to plan, choirs to direct, Children’s Musicals to arrange the music for, and leadership in the Worship Services. There was a lot of “stuff” to do related to my music degree – the one I was finishing up at Northwestern College with a career track in kind that would move through High School Choir directorship and on to College-level (or higher) conducting in a choral program some day.
But the “stuff” was not the “heart” of my job. I had come into this leadership role not too far outside of high-school. I had two years of Bible School under my belt, sure, and I had just a touch of worship leading experience as a drummer for the AFLC Youth FLY Convention in 1993 and again in 1995, but suddenly I was being paid to LEAD PEOPLE in worship, and I figured I better get a handle on what that meant… I mean beyond the laundry list of things that bugged me about other worship leaders.
In studying what it meant to lead worship, I learned that worship is an act of the heart… and my job was not to create an experience for people in the pews every week. It was to create “worshippers.” My job at its heart was literally to help the people of our congregation love God more deeply, more fervently, more honestly. Music and the arts were great tools for inspiring God thoughts, but they were simply a means to a greater end. The end was WORSHIP. Worship was the goal.
With my mind and heart full, on a day when I was particularly grateful that God had allowed me, for this season of my life, to enjoy such a rich job description, I pulled the Missions magazine out of my staff mailbox, along with a reminder of an upcoming deadline for my church newsletter article and a copy of the council report from last week’s meeting. Missions. Ugh.
If ever there was a reminder of my mediocrity as a follower of Jesus, the monthly “Missions” magazine that got dropped into my box was it. There they were – the REAL Christians – out there among the bush people and the teeming hordes in India and the orphans left to fend for themselves on the street in Brazil. There they were. They stood as an example of my weakness and selfishness.
I did not want to be a missionary. I knew that this meant I was not a fully mature Christian. Not a REAL disciple of Jesus. Sure, my heart beat fast when I would think of ways for our church to grow deeper in love with God. I mean, I wanted to take the church by the collar and give ’em a good shake, and with a smile in my eyes, shout about how awesome our God is, and why He’s worth our abandoned, unreserved, unselfconscious adoration. But I didn’t want to go to Ecuador. Second class. Second rate. Second choice. The missionaries… they were God’s first choice. They were the truly selfless ones.
But this looked… interesting. What is this? The monthly Missions publication was focused on… worship. Worship in the field. Worship in evangelism. Worship styles that incorporate other culture’s musical traditions. Worship, worship, worship…
Despite the innate sense of guilt that I felt even holding this magazine in my hands, I turned the cover. Within one minute, the bomb went off. I read these words, and my world changed…
This is what I’m for. This is what I’m for. To help people everywhere understand that they have been created to worship, and they’ll never be deeply fully completely satisfied until they embrace the truth… we are created to be worshippers. Tears. My career path has changed. I’m not in ministry part time as I prepare for a career in music performance. I’m not in ministry part time at all. This is what I’m for.
Missions exists because worship doesn’t.
“I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations… to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.” (Isaiah 66:19)
We aren’t merely in the business of selling fire insurance to people all over the globe. We are in the business of helping every soul on the planet understand what they are for. Because if people don’t know Jesus, how can they worship Him? And if they can’t worship Him, how can they find true and lasting joy? And most important of all, how will God receive the GLORY He is due through their life? This is what the Church is FOR…
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging toGod, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
That was the day my life changed direction forever. Flashes of light. The scripture alive in me. My course was set. For the rest of my life, Lord, I want to spend the rest of my days helping people love you. I can do that in suburban America, or rural America, or even a wildly different culture like Canada… I want what you want – for you to receive ever increasing praise and honor. I understand. It is what we are ALL for in the first place.
That brings us out of the woods to look at our next tree in the “Pursue Joy” series. These are the truths that my life is now built upon…
(3) BECAUSE God is so passionately God-focused, He has made us and redeems us in order that we might find our ultimate fulfillment in the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and throughout eternity.
Whether I am playing drums, or at the piano, or in the pulpit, I will always be a worship leader. My pastoral ministry in caring for people and in counseling people will be a ministry of the GOSPEL… that more souls will be set free to worship. My preaching will be full of the GOSPEL… that the house of God rings with His praise more and more until Christ returns.
When I think of parsing the world into categories, I remember the words of Bob Wiley: “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”
Here I nod my head in affirmation. Hard to be on the fence about Neil Diamond.
But there is a deeper division yet to be found among us – a starkly contrasted gulf separating one side from the other. Beyond politics. Beyond our opinions of Country Western music or our positions on relative morality vs. absolute truth…
A friend of mine wears a P.E.T.A. hat with a camouflage background, and in small print, the words “People Eating Tasty Animals.” Thus the world is divided.
Meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.
To all of you vegans and tofurky lovers… You edamame snackers and soy milk chuggers… All of you sprout eating animal huggers… the culinary gap between you and me is so vast that I will probably need to consider this post cross-cultural missions. Even so, welcome.
To all of you bacon eating, brat grilling, pulled pork dipping, BBQ savoring, turkey roasting, elk hunting, jerkey gnawing, steak chewing meat eaters out there… welcome. We view the world through a similar lens, you and me. A lens through which Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is like a Mecca to which an annual pilgrimage seems the least we can do. We are kindred spirits.
My goal in this post is to be a peacemaker. To build bridges of understanding and unity between the “Good Earth” crowd and the “Famous Dave’s” Afficianodos. Like Jews and Gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, Red Vines chewers and the Twizzlers-Only crowd, I believe there is common ground to be found in Romans 14.
Often in ministry life, leaders run into situations where there is tension between divided camps. And often these tensions arise over issues of Christian freedom. This is nothing new. Paul experienced this from the very start of the church.
Romans 14 lays it out. Here we see two camps, clearly divided. The meat-eaters and the non-meat-eaters. But this divide wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice or a philosophical hang-up about the ethical treatment of animals. This divide was about religious freedom.
The pagan Roman culture surrounding the congregation in Rome was marked by excesses. Food and wine were habitual indulgences in the worship of Greek gods, and there were those in the church who thought Christ-followers should safeguard themselves from such sensual self-indulgence and maintain a more marked distinction from the culture around them. These were the non-meat-eaters and teetotalers. Paul refers to them as “the weaker brothers,” but not as a condemnation or repudiation. Rather, it was a statement of clarification – that some within the church felt it was dangerous to reflect the culture in any way, and therefore choose to self-sensor their culinary palate.
P.E.T.A. + religious conviction.
There were others, of course, who stood by the grill, aprons donned, ready for the next church BBQ. They claimed the freedom of 1 Timothy 4:4 (which hadn’t been written yet, but the principle was established…)
“Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”
And this is why I say “Thank you, Lord, for this tasty meat“ every time I sit down to partake in some succulent grilled beast.
But I’m off point. The basic gist of the situation here was this: There were some in the church in Rome who felt it was perfectly acceptable to eat meat and drink wine (not to excess, of course), and there were others who did not feel that church people should eat meat and drink wine. Paul calls the meat-eaters more free, and the non-meat-eaters less free. And then he speaks to both camps…
Now, I don’t know about you, but it has been a long long time since I remember a bruhaha erupting over the lack of tofurky at our church BBQs. So vegans and grillmasters alike, we can breathe a sigh of relief here, to this degree… I’m not making a case for the ingestion of meat or for the merits of upping your salad intake. Since the meat we carnivores pick up from the butcher in Cub Foods hasn’t been sacrificed to idols – as far as we know – this post and Paul’s metaphor will be equally valid to the carnivores and herbivores alike!
Common ground! A small victory.
So if “to meat or not to meat” isn’t the question, what’s the point of Paul’s story here? What’s it got to do with church now? Here? Today?
I’ll give you a real life example. I’m a Lutheran drummer. (There are only five or six of us, but we are mighty. Parum-pa-pum-pum.) When I took my first ministry job as a worship leader, I served a church with multiple service styles, and a diverse congregation. Equal parts wee children and white hair. This was the early nineties, and our conservative Association of congregations was not particularly quick to embrace contemporary worship styles. There was a concern that the popular sound and instrumentation would become more a reflection of the popular culture than a tool in the hands of the Spirit. There was a strong feeling among some that drums should have no place in church. These were the non-meat eaters. The weaker brothers – not in the validity of their faith, mind you. This is no accusation and no condemnation. Simply put, they did not feel the freedom to incorporate “rock and roll music” into a worship setting.
Then there were those in the congregation who were eager to worship in freedom – not just freedom of the heart, but in style as well. The contemporary sound was to many a “new song,” a fresh expression, new life. These were the meat eaters. The stronger brothers. Not better than, not more spiritual. Simply comfortable with a higher degree of freedom.
So what does Paul say here? God wrote this, of course, so it is alive and brilliant and wise… worthy of much study and a long exposition. But for this forum, I’ll pull out six key thoughts in the “meat-eater vs. vegetarian” debates we find ourselves in with the church.
When there is a conflict in the church regarding Christian freedom:
(1) Don’t judge each other. Verse 3 of Romans 14 says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats…” There is room for God-honoring differences of opinion in the Church. Respect each other, keep the Gospel central, and allow for some of those differences in your church family. We sharpen each other.
(2) It’s OK to have conviction. Paul reminds us in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” When we are dealing with the things of God, fence sitting is a cop out, and it dishonors the Lord. Search the scriptures. Pray. Make a decision that you belive is God honoring. And then hold to it HUMBLY. Christian unity does not mean a lack of disagreement or differences in our convictions.
(3) It’s not about you, it’s about US. We die to self. We live to serve. Strong convictions do not override our call to love one another. Verse 7 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” For me, a carnivorous drummer in a church with a lot of white-haired saints, that meant truly caring for those friends of mine who felt the drums were abrasive – and sometimes painful in their hearing aids. That meant limiting my volume, and bringing percussion and contemporary praise only with great sensitivity into the traditional service.
(4) Love trumps our preferences. If at any point our preferences or personal convictions cause spiritual distress or turmoil in the congregation… to the degree that spiritual harm is being done, it’s time to put down the steak knife and A1. Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” Meat eaters – those who feel the greater degree of freedom – the responsibility for unity in the Body rests with you. Are you willing to forgo the fillet mignon wrapped in bacon for a torfurky burger, if only for a season, for the sake of love?
(5) Words matter. Spiritualizing our preferences is sin. And so is allowing people in the church family to cast strong moral judgment in areas that are clearly matters of Christian freedom and personal conviction without humble but firm pressback. Verse 16 says this: “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” There shall be no vegetarian bashing here! Nor shall there be any finger pointing at the wiener roasters! In my early days, when I led worship in a contemporary form, I had absolutely NO PROBLEM with people expressing their opinions about the style, or the volume, of their preference for the great hymns of the faith over what they saw as the repetitive and shallow praise choruses we were using. I had many great discussions about worship – and about the difference between form and essence. But I drew the line when people spoke of the drums and contemporary worship forms as “worldly” or “carnal” or even “evil.” No sir. What about the loud clashing cymbals God asks us to praise Him with?? There is a stronger Biblical case to be made for playing drums unto God than for the necessity of Euro-centric muscial forms to be accompanied only by an organ or piano (strings and brass are allowed for special occasions or when played by Middle School students). Convictions are welcome. But pronouncements of one camp being the “God Team” and the other being “of the devil” are strictly verboten.
(6) I have no chapter and verse to back this up, but for the love of everything holy, Tofurky is gross. If I hadn’t just written #5 above I might even say it was of the devil. I just might. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. (See #2…)
“I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may believe in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
Should the culture around our church influence the culture inside our church? And if so, how much is too much?
The late, great Robert E. Webber, in his book Ancient-Future Worship, says the following:
Anyone who travels and visits churches will see that “program,” “theme,” and “creative” are the most dominant words of worship planning that force leaders toward designing culturally driven worship. My concern is that culturally driven worship will nurture a culturally formed spiritual life.
Whoa doggie. That right there is loaded. I agree with Robert Webber.And I don’t. Let me es’splain…
Culturally driven worship? What does that mean?
This reminds me of the false dichotomy that has often been leveled against “seeker sensitive” churches that are simply trying to remove unnecessary “churchy” barriers for people who don’t usually attend church. Calling those churches “seeker-driven” ministries insinuates that thinking about how an outsider might feel coming into church equates to making the comfort and retention of the non-church-goer the HIGHEST priority. Perhaps Dr. Webber intended to word this as strongly as he did, but I think describing the approach of most contemporary evangelical churches as “culturally sensitive” worship may be closer to the mark.
While I wouldn’t ever condone a ministry model that put people-pleasing above Biblical truth, I think the criticism of “seeker-sensitivity” often is unfair and counterproductive. In its truest sense, I believe EVERY SINGE CHURCH should be “seeker-sensitive,” or in Webberian terminology, “culturally sensitive,” to the degree that we make our churches a place that welcomes sinners to hear the whole truth of God’s Word. (1) God loves us and He created us to enjoy relationship with Him. (2) Our sin has broken that relationship and we deserve eternal punishment and separation from Him. (3) Jesus died on the cross to pay our penalty so that we could enjoy that redeemed relationship with God He created us for in the first place. And (4) He’s coming again in victory to judge all of mankind and establish a new heaven and a new earth. All to His glory.
I want people – anybody – who is willing to walk through the doors of our church to hear that message. I don’t want unnecessary churchiness to shot block the Gospel. I’ll encourage every church I serve to be unashamedly “culturally sensitive…” But that isn’t what Webber is warning us of. He’s warning of a worship ministry model that is “culturally driven.”
Dr. Webber says that a focus on program (service planning), theme (communication strategy) and creativity (artistic storytelling and response) will inevitably lead to “culturally driven worship.” And that in turn, our worship services/experiences will inevitably lead to a “culturally driven spiritual life.”
Robert Webber is wise. There is great danger in letting the culture drive worship service planning (i.e. “programming”) to the degree that we out-plan the Holy Spirit or creatively mask the simple and pure teaching of the Word of God with creative storytelling and culturally relevant analogies.
To that degree, I agree with Dr. Webber. It is possible for contemporary churches to reflect our culture to the degree that there is hardly any difference between a “church event” and any given Thursday night at Buffalo Wild Wings. Maybe less swearing…
If the contemporary church leans into contemporary communication models and reflects cultural trends totheneglect of clear preaching of the Word of God and the traditional pillars of the local church (prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, reverence, etc.), people’s spiritual lives WILL be shaped in the image of the culture, where religion is personal and relative, compartmentalized, comfortable.
Not with a fox… One example: Some contemporary ministries seem to have been called to reach out to the “hot young and trendy” mission field. Sunday morning and evening worship events are led by Ambercrombie and Fitch. And I understand that the 20-something hottiesneed to hear the Gospel, too, so we ought to present a foxy female vocalist and guitar playing Zac Efron with skinny jeans to reach them. Makes sense. But what if someone came in to our church dirty, broken and smelling bad? How quick would we be – any of us – to befriend them and warmly welcome them to come again… or to come over for dinner? Culture is about image. The Church is about love.
Not wearing sox… I remember the day one of my great friends and fellow worship team members came to the evening service at our national youth convention to play guitar wearing a t-shirt sporting the old-timey image of a service attendant holding a fuel spout with a smile and a dialogue bubble proudly displaying the words, “I’ve got gas!” While his choice of apparel certainly reflected the Junior High culture we were steeped in that week, it was perhaps not the best choice to promote the deep reverence we hoped to model as we led the students into the throne room of the King of Angels. My point has little to do with fashion. It’s about reverence. Depending on your culture, worship leading in shorts, flip-flops and print T’s may fit like a glove. But remember that what we do is a high and holy calling. We usher the local body of Christ into His presence, to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and to interact with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Word. Too many casual references to pop culture, edgy jokes, coarse language (and yes, some ministries use off-color language to reflect their “authenticity” and “cultural relevance”), movie clips, or fill-in-the-blank can keep people comfortably “stuck” in the cultural paradigm they walked out of when they entered our church. Culture is about looking like we fit in. Church is about becoming set apart.
Not in a box… Some churches are admittedly “variety junkies” when it comes to worship programming. As they run with a theme each week, they pour their best creative juice into the planning bucket and mix it up until something attention-grabbing, something arresting, something MEMORABLE rises to the top. I’ll admit… I love it. In my perfect ministry world, I would forever work with a team of creative programmers who would craft memorable, God-honoring worship-inspiring moments that teach God’s truth and allow room for the church to respond. This leaves a congregation with a “what will church be like THIS week?” intrigue, and if it is handled well – and led by the Spirit – this can help keep people from “rote religious hoop jumping.”
The down-side, or danger, of a free-flowing “out of the box” worship planning paradigm is that congregations lose the many benefits of liturgy and the life-grounding repetition of the truth communicated through the corporate worship structure. Important traditional elements of the service, such as corporate confession of faith or time for personal confession, can get lost in the creative flow. Variety for entertainment’s sake has limited value. We mustn’t sacrifice age-old core functions of God’s church in our thirst to do something new. Culture is all about variety for the sake of entertainment. When the Church embraces variety, it must be for the sake of more potent communication (or celebration) of God’s truth.
So should I worry that so many churches want to program their services creatively around a theme… or not?
Again, I agree with Robert Webber… and I don’t. Look at his quote again. In his estimation, the words “programming,” “theme,” and “creative” were the most dominant words in worship planning for many churches. In a ministry where that is truly the case, I may agree with him. There is danger in that ministry stepping past cultural sensitivity into culture-driven worship models… and that does run the grave danger of promoting spiritual life shaped more by cultural norms than by the transforming power of the counter-cultural Word of God.
Perhaps the most dominant words shaping our local church worship experiences ought to be JESUS, love, sin, forgiveness, brokenness, healing, wrath, grace, truth, and surrender. It is the SUBSTANCE of our worship that must be dominant, not the METHOD. It is the essence, not the form.
However, this is a babies and bathwater situation. I plead with the Church to THINK as they program services. To communicate truth with a thought-through focus that will resonate after the benediction. To unleash their deepest and most beautiful creative efforts to speak the truth and celebrate the story of God.
Let’s look at the culture, but not look like it. Let’s invite the culture in and redeem it. Let’s creatively program services around a theme in a culturally sensitive paradigm that is driven not by cultural trends, but by the call of Jesus to go and make disciples… led by the Word and the Spirit.
Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers. That close to home.
The truth is… church music is terrible. And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring. But often… it’s kinda… bad. Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music. It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior. These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church. Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.
But great music might help.
As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all. I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field. Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art. Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful. I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.” I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team. I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.
And yet my ears are tired.
I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community. He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches. I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.
It was interesting. And kind of sad. I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again. I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song. I still wonder that today. And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.
Are God’s ears tired?
This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se. I just hunger for something fresh in church music that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time. And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either. Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me. Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy. It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?
I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3
“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”
I see three important elements here. Freshness. Skill. And Fervor.
Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship? If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…” You’d be almost right.
Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command. God wrote it. He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”
He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”
But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King. God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked. He wants us to play skillfully. When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about. Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.” In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One. Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.
And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord. YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God. But we are also exhorted to shout. LOUDLY. Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well. But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in? How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith? God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him. As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.
Freshness. Skill. Fervor.
The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.
I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful. I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting. And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations. Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor. Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands. Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare. And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can you relate?
If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.
But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude. Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.
It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.
The trump card. The non-negotiable. The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus. And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.
I’ll end this with a story.
One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church. He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key. Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.
Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock. How would he feel in front of 300 more? Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus. One hurdle at a time, I told him. Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front. We prayed together. And Stan sang.
With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling. “I come to the garden alone…”
My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar. It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember. Stan sang an old song badly. But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.
Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish. More than art.
So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations. I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.
But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus. Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing. Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.
The Gospel is the seed. Their heart is the soil. A congregation openly adoring God with freedom… that’s the heat lamp.
There is a discussion going on in the Church about the “power of worship.” Some churches staunchly stand on the preaching of the Word of God being the central focal point of every worship service. Other churches believe that it is often in times of corporate worship when God moves among His people most visibly in supernatural power. Some churches intentionally pull back from much corporate worship in a setting where evangelism is the goal. But the idea that worship is isolating or alienating for the unbeliever is being reexamined… and reexamined again.
My good friend Dallas Jenkins (Film-maker, director of Midnight Clear, and more recently, What If) recently produced a video story for Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, where Andi Rozier is an Associate Pastor of Worship. If you’ve got eight minutes, this is a powerful example of worship and the Gospel at work together to change a life. Depending on your theological background, that statement could fall anywhere on the scale from “obviously true” to “dangerously misguided.” Watch this, and I’ll follow up with a few thoughts…
(1) I believe in “Worship Evangelism.” In a nutshell, it is a belief that as unbelievers encounter and experience worshippers of Jesus Christ adoring Him with honesty and freedom, they will see and experience the nearness of God, alive and interacting with His people. If you really want to flesh this idea out and explore it deeply, I’d encourage you to find and read “Worship Evangelism”(1995) by Sally Morgenthaler. Although Jesus makes it clear in John 4 that unbelievers aren’t even able to worship God, I fully believe that when God’s people worship, they interact with the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Word, and the beauty of that honest interaction draws unbelievers toward God.
(2) Worship doesn’t save people. Jesus alone saves people. And Romans 10:13, 14 and 17 make it clear that salvation comes by hearing the Word of God, which contains the Gospel in all of its power and purity. So yes, I think God moves in power and interacts with us when we worship Him. And yes, I believe that being in the midst of a worshipping congregation can move the hearts of unbelievers to want to know more – to look more deeply into the message of God. But we must not trip over that line… we must not ascribe some supernatural power to the worship experience itself, or we are creating an elevated “theology of worship” that equates our experience with the power and holy authority of the Word of God.
(3) Life-change takes time. In a discussion with Dallas about this piece, he mentioned something that the Worship Pastor, Andi, said that didn’t end up in the final video. “We’re about life change, and worship leaders need to remember that it’s not always something that happens over 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 30 months, or even 30 years.”
Great perspective. God can blow the doors off of someone’s heart in an instant if He so chooses. But often, people who really, REALLY experience God’s power in a life-changing way are led through a PROCESS, not simply brought to an instant that changes everything. Process… investment… relationships… and the truth. People are stubborn, and me more than most. We shouldn’t expect “our ministry” to change a soul in one hour-long moment. God is the heart-breaker and restorer, and He often chooses to plant the truth like a seed, and over time, allow the truth to take root.
When I lead worship, it is an honor to help that seed along with a little toasty goodness from the heat lamp…
As a Worship Leader, I am quick to say HE is the seed planter, and His Word is the seed carrier, and His Spirit is the seed deliverer. My job is to give the congregation of believers in our church an opportunity to respond to God with adoration and honest thanksgiving for His love and grace and unchanging character. Because the Gospel is the seed. Their heart is the soil. And I’m just flipping the ON switch…
When you watch Rob’s story, or when you read the ideas presented here, what do you think?
I basically have one goal at weddings. Nope, two. OK… three.
In order of increasing importance they are: (1) Get to the church before the wedding begins. (We walked in just in time for “You may kiss the bride” once. Awkward.) This is a good goal. (2) Eat cake. It wasn’t really a wedding if I don’t eat cake. And (3) get OUT before the DJ fires up the “Chicken Dance” song.
Color me a type-A individual, but just because you do something ridiculous and humiliating in a group does not make it any less ridiculous or humiliating. For this reason, I’d rather whack my knee with a hammer – by myself – than go somewhere with a group of people and sing karaoke. For this reason, I remain seated at the ball park when “the wave” inflicts its guilt-trip fueled, herd-mentality, peer-pressure laden “fun” upon us. (Sure I wave my arms. I’m not a total loser. But I wave while seated, thank you very much.) For this reason, it is hard to supress my laughter when syncronized swimming is treated like an actual sport.
I guess there is a part of me that resists following the leader. Getting in a multi-generational conga line and flapping my arms in sync with a line leader… doesn’t make my bucket list. A few years ago I remember being at a wedding reception of some good friends from our church. We’d been there awhile. Cake had been eaten. Hanging out with punch and bell-shaped play-dough mints and mixed nuts… check. Guestbook signed. All good. And I could feel it coming. A rising dread that would not be ignored. Grabbing Amy by the hand, I said “Babe… we gotta go. NOW. We gotta jet right now. Trust me on this…”
As Amy pulled her coat on with one arm, and I pulled her out the door by the other, I could just hear that obnoxious staccatto sax melody fire up as the door to the reception hall swung shut behind us. CHICKEN DANCE. We just made it out, baby. I think of that moment of victory fondly and often. No “follow the leader” for me, boy. I am my own man. And Amy’s man, yes. But the point is, I enjoy my individuality…
Spiritual application: If Jesus is the leader of my proverbial conga line, is it OK to just wave my arms… in my heart?
I love Francis Chan.
My stubborn, self-protecting, individual, type-A personality has a dark side. PRIDE. Makes it hard to “follow the leader…” Even when my leader is Jesus Himself. Maybe especially then.
Sometimes I’d rather get lost in the Christian carpool lane than follow Jesus on the narrow way, the radical fringe path Jesus is calling me to. It feels exposed to be willing to listen to the Spirit, read the Word, and do what it says. It’s easier to study the leader than follow Him, to teach about the leader than follow Him, to wave my arms… in my heart.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22)
Can you relate?
*BTW, many thanks to my friend Scott Smith for the Francis Chan video find. Please follow him, because he’s thoughtful, provocative, and funny. And he’ll give me $12 for everyone I can get to read his blog. …
As a Worship Pastor, when I hear that, I feel two things simultaneously… a sudden urge to give someone a hug, and a sudden urge to throw up in my mouth a little bit.
I know… people are out to encourage the worship guy. And they probably did have a genuinely inspiring time connecting with God. I get it.As the encouragee, that’s the part of me that wants to embrace my encourager with an “I love you, man” back slap.
Truth is, I get a little bit uncomfortable rating worship on a scale of “horrible” to “awesome sauce.” Truth be told, if we are “rating” our worship experience, we don’t really understand worship, right? Now, I’m not an idiot. (Some of you may want to chime in here, but we’re moving on…) I do understand that this may be a matter of semantics to some degree.
But words matter.
Precise language matters. Sometimes you can accidentally communicate all kinds of things you never meant to say, simply with careless word choices. So, as a Worship Pastor, I’m careful about this stuff.
Worship doesn’t = music. You probably came to that conclusion years ago. But what is it again exactly? Worship is our response to God for who He is, for what He has said, for what He has done, and for what He is going to do. We love God because He loved us. Worship at it’s core is a response of love and gratitude expressed to God because of the gospel. Music works great to help that happen, when a whole group of people are in the same space for the purpose of worshipping God. That’s why churches use it. Music helps focus many individual hearts on some aspect of God, so that we might respond with love… or examine our hearts and humbly confess our need for God… our brokenness. Our sin. But the response – whatever God prompts – that response is the worship.
If we keep that in mind, how strange to rate our worship experience on a quality scale, right? But we do.
At Living Hope Church, I love it when people talk to me about the music AND their worship experience – as two separate thoughts. It shows me that they get it… The quality of their WORSHIP response to God has much more to do with their view of GOD then it does with the quality of the MUSIC we lead.
This stuff has been rattling around in my brain these last few days since a friend of mine posted a thought on Facebook about excellence in church production…
I don’t mean “effective” as in just “good enough for church.” I’ll even take “inspiring.” Good times. But my ministry PURPOSE must help clarify my methods. As a worship leader and service planner, my purpose is to help clearly communicate the hard truth that we are all depraved sinners, dead in our sin, needing rescue and resuscitation… and the AMAZING true love story that Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead for us, to restore us to life and meaning and joy again. Our purpose is to provide space and opportunity for people to respond to that truth week after week. That’s it. The heart of it.
Therefore, if our music and lighting and production becomes SO “excellent” that it begins to draw attention to itself… then it is no longer “excellent.” Because it is no longer effective. Because then the production is drawing attention AWAY from the Lord. In fact, that’s not just a little bit of a focus problem… that is the polar opposite of the ministry purpose.
So, can BAD musicianship / drama / art / lighting / production hinder worship? Absolutely. And can AMAZING musicianship / art / drama / lighting / production hinder worship. Absolutely. Non-distracting + inspiring + authentic + humble = thumbs up. Amazing showmanship with extra flash sauce = thumbs down.
So if you’re in the habit of giving your worship leader at church a high five after a particularly rippin’ guitar solo and telling him “The worship was AWESOME today!” you might want to take a step back… Ask yourself if you gave yourself to Jesus again today, fully surrendered, as a walking THANK YOU to God for who He is and what He’s done in your life. If so, worship WAS awesome today. Even if the Praise Team played with the sensitivity and musical agility of a pregnant yak. Doesn’t matter. What matters is what was going on in your heart, and how you responded to God’s love today.
If you’re a worship leader who is in the habit of rating your church’s worship experience based on the quality of the music you produce, you are giving yourself too much credit. Worship isn’t “better” if you sing like Tomlin, play like Brewster, and your light system looks like a Pink Floyd retrospective. Remember that the music, the art, the production is the TOOL.
Personally, I prefer a sloppy wet kiss to an unforeseen one.
I could just let that stand as my entire blog post, and I’d probably field a slew of comments… albeit far ranging in subject matter and context.
But if you have lead worship in a church with any contemporary leanings in the last six months, I’d bet you a ham sandwich that you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. I am referring, of course, to that great declaration of the love of God in the epic ballad “How He Loves,” by John Mark McMillan (or “JMM” as the church creative community calls him these days.)
I knew this song was a big deal. I knew it the first time I heard it. And then a couple weeks ago uber-blogger Carlos Whittaker posted a question on his blog (ragamuffinsoul.com) about what songs really seem to be powerfully impacting local churches across the country right now. Hundreds of worship leaders, pastors, and lay people commented and left their lists of what God seems to be blessing and using right now to speak to his church. At the top of the list? Yep. “How He Loves.”
The crux of the issue of discussion comes in verse three. Listen to these two brief examples, first in the original format, the way John wrote and recorded it, and then the updated version, as recorded by David Crowder:
>> Original (via JMM): Heaven meets earth like a SLOPPY WET kiss…
>> Updated (via Crowder): Heaven meets earth like an UNFORESEEN kiss…
If you’re a worship leader, you have most likely already come down on one side or the other of this debate. It has been interesting to watch. Now the debate rolls on, as various congregations and artists consider the ramifications of rewriting someone else’s poetry to edit out the distracting (or offensive) phrases. How does John Mark McMillan feel about all of the hubbub? You can read his excellent response here. In a nut shell, he has no problem with David Crowder recording his song with the new text… on the other hand, he’s asking why the Church can’t handle singing about God stuff using the phrase “sloppy wet kiss.” “Are we in Kindergarten?” he asks.
And to be clear, John wasn’t EVER intending to say that somehow God interacts with us, His children, through a “sloppy wet kiss.” The lyrics are “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.” It is the messy, beautiful mingling of the divine and the natural realm through Jesus’ condescension – most specifically at the cross – that John is marvelling at here. “But,” he says, “Heaven meets earth like a ‘gory mess’ didn’t have the same ring to it.”
Right. Here’s the thing…
When it comes to the corporate worship setting, we as worship leaders are called to model authentic worship and lead in such a way that people can focus on and respond to God in an intimate way. Free of distractions.
And THAT is the issue for me. Like I said at the top of the post, I prefer sloppy wet kisses to unforeseen kisses. The artist in me revels in the beauty of that poetic idea. Just a few well chosen words convey so much depth and emotion. So if I am singing this in my car, or in the shower, or in my prayer closet… I’m all about those sloppy wet kisses.
But when I lead this song at Living Hope Church, I know… because they have told me so… that a number of people in our congregation just get weebed out singing that phrase. It’s not that we’re not mature enough somehow to sing “sloppy wet kisses” without blushing. It’s simply that the phrase is awkward. It is arresting, because it is so vivid a metaphor. And the fact that it is arresting makes the phrase both powerful (in an artistic sense) and ineffective (in our church) as a worship tool. So what could be a POWERFUL reminder and declaration of God’s love for us runs the danger of becoming… that “sloppy wet kiss” song.
One little change of wording, and the whole song works – powerfully – free of distraction, and full passion.
Yep, I’ve done this song both ways. On one occasion, when I failed to communicate clearly with our vocalists on the Worship Team, we did it both ways at the same time. I don’t recommend that.
But from this point on, I’ve choose to lead with “unforeseen kiss.” At the end of the day, it is NOT about my preference. It is NOT about singing the better poetry. In the end, when I lead worship I want to help our people throw themselves deeper into their love response to God – and that means removing distractions as we lead them. That means that our purpose trumps our preferences every time.
How about your church? Are you all down with your bad selves and rockin’ that sloppy wet kiss? Or are you surrendering to the less provocative unforeseen kiss? And more to the point… why?