Apr 12 2021

Worship Leader Ageism: Stick the Landing!

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Ageism has impacted most of us serving in worship leadership. Churches seem to be on the lookout for a younger platform presence or fresher image from those who lead. Forced termination or demotion as a result of the ageism epidemic reminds us that where we serve is not always ours to control. What we can control, however, is that we are prepared to continue to serve somewhere. What we once learned is not enough to sustain us through our entire ministry. So, what can we do that will allow us to continue?

A gymnastic competition can be won or lost in the landing. Even if you flip, vault, tuck, and twist well during the routine, it isn’t a success unless you also stick the landing. Halftime is over and some of us are well into the last quarter of our worship-leading career. We’ve accumulated decades of knowledge, experience, and practical application so we know how to work smarter. But just working smarter isn’t helping some of us finish well. How can we stay viable, battle ageism, and keep from coasting in order to stick the landing?

  • Learn a new language.

Even though we might be fluent in previous worship languages, we also need to learn the musical and technological vernacular of newer worship languages and what might follow them. When we lose the resolve to learn, we lose the resolve to lead. It’s never too soon or too late to learn something new. The end of learning new is the beginning of leading old.

  • Force quit.

Computer programs sometimes become unresponsive. Selecting Force Quit reboots and reinstates the original well-functioning settings. Quitting doesn’t mean we stop doing worship ministry or have to leave our present position. It just means rebooting for a fresh start where we are now.

  • Extend your shelf-life.

Shelf life is the length of time items are given before they are unsuitable for use. It is the time in which the defined quality remains fresh, acceptable, viable, usable, and effective under normal circumstances. Increasing our shelf life encourages us to recalibrate or fine-tune for the potential of a new reality.

  • Get another job.

Agreeing that worship leader ageism is unjust or theologically suspect doesn’t change its reality. We can choose to live in a constant state of fear in the last quarter, or we can proactively prepare in case ageism does occur. Learning additional marketable skills doesn’t compromise our calling; it actually enhances that calling beyond choirs and chord charts. Retooling could help us stick the landing where we are now or maybe where God will call us next.

Some of us enjoy running, cycling, or other exercises to help us extend our shelf life physically and to relieve stress as we age. A few years ago, I ran the Kansas City Marathon with my daughter. Leg cramps at mile twenty-one seemed to seize up every muscle in my legs. Marathon runners call this “hitting the wall” or “bonking.” If I hadn’t trained and fueled properly before the race, I would not have been able to complete it. After massaging those muscles and walking some I was able to continue the race with the help of my daughter’s encouragement. Even though my time was not as good as I had hoped it would be, I was still able to cross the finish line.

Distance runners have to push themselves beyond their level of comfort to log the miles necessary to compete. If they haven’t done the roadwork ahead of time, the minute the pace quickens, the incline increases, or the terrain gets treacherous, they will be tempted to quit.

Many of the stressors of ministry have little to do with our lack of skill, but instead result from a lack of preparation. Scripture challenges us to stick the landing this way, “No discipline is fun while it lasts, but it seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it. So, strengthen your drooping hands and weak knees! Make straight paths for your feet so that if any part is lame, it will be healed rather than injured more seriously” (Heb 12:11-13).

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Mar 15 2021

Playing Hurt: Pastoring Through Pain

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Shake it off. Take one for the team. Those are adages we often hear from sports coaches and fans. Publicly acknowledging injuries can sideline players and even threaten their future with the team. So, those players play through their pain knowing that it’s often easier for a team to replace rather than rehabilitate them. This same pattern of expendability is also evident in church cultures. Pastors often sense a profound pressure to perform even when they might not feel like it. To secure their positions, they often play hurt.

Serving as a pastor doesn’t mean you are immune from the personal struggles of life, such as depression, anxiety, physical health issues, marital conflict, or financial strain. Most congregations don’t fully realize the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual demands required to serve as a pastor. Individuals are often aware of the investments their pastors have made in their own life and the lives of their family members. What they don’t often calculate, however, is the cumulative time and energy those investments require when multiplied by the entire membership population of a congregation.

Pastors are often seen as personal counselors, mentors, leaders, friends, and spiritual advisors. When families are in crisis, their pastors are expected to referee, repair, and reclaim. At the same time, they are required to challenge their congregation with stellar sermons and songs every Sunday. If all congregants have the same expectation that their pastors will willingly respond to every need, then how can we not expect the stress of that responsibility to eventually take its toll? 

The term belaying refers to a variety of techniques used in climbing to exert friction on a climbing rope so that a falling climber does not fall very far. A belayer is a climbing partner who secures the lead climber at the end of a rope and belays out rope as needed. When a lead climber loses his or her footing, the belayer secures the rope, allowing the climber to regain a secure foothold to continue the climb.

The reality is many pastors are so talented that they can fake it in spite of their pain and succeed without others holding their rope for a time. But, the reality is also that their talent will only take them so far, and the time will come when the inherent risks of trying to lead through pain on their own will cause them to fall alone. If their congregation is not willing to put safeguards or belayers in place to secure and invest in their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health as pastors, then maybe it is time for them to consider another congregation that will. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes said it a little more tactfully: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their hard work. If either should fall, one can pick up the other. But how miserable are those who fall and don’t have a companion to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they can stay warm. But how can anyone stay warm alone? Also, one can be overpowered, but two together can put up resistance. A three-ply cord doesn’t easily snap” (Eccl 4:9-12).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Why have churches created a culture that requires its pastors to fake it when they are wrestling with some of the normal struggles of life?
  • What processes should we put in place to rehabilitate leaders instead of replacing them?
  • How will we know if someone is ready to serve again?
  • How might our congregations be healthier if pastors could openly model leading through pain?
  • If we haven’t put safeguards in place to offer physical, emotional, and spiritual healing and hope for our pastors, then who will?

The above post is adapted from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Feb 24 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 22 2021

When Worship Ministry Is Hard

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Many of us just completed another designated Sabbath, or day of rest, which included numerous online and in-person worship services, virtual meetings, leadership responsibilities, and rehearsals only to be reminded on Monday morning that Sunday comes again this week. Spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical resources are again completely depleted. And this last year of strange ministry hasn’t made it any easier as most would probably agree it has been their hardest season of ministry ever. Someone once said that leading worship is like having a baby on Sunday only to realize you are pregnant again Monday morning.

If your worship-leading schedule constantly feels like being caught in the force of a riptide that pulls you away from the safety of the shore; if the swift current regularly drags you under, rolls you on the sandy bottom, scratches up your elbows and knees, and fills your swim trunks with sand; if it seems to take longer each time for the current to lose its strength, release you, and allow you to swim to shore, then you’d better look for restful waters to restore your soul before you no longer have the resolve to kick to the surface and gasp for air (Ps 23:2).

Leading worship every Sunday can sanctify busyness rather than free us from it. Our church culture often values motion as a sign of significance, believing our efforts are essential to God’s success in his mission to the world. The stress of preparing multiple services each week and the demands of congregants, teams, and staff constantly vying for our time and attention may be exhausting our reserves. If this is true for you and your team, how can you expect to lead others to a place you no longer have the strength to go yourselves?

In his book Leading on Empty, Wayne Cordeiro uses surfing to illustrate how ministry longevity is possible. He writes, “Veteran surfers possess an uncanny sense of the ocean’s currents and how waves behave. Their intuition tells them which ones to catch and which ones to let pass. They seem to discern which waves will carry them in and which waves will do them in! But one of the true marks of a veteran is not how he catches a wave, but whether he knows when and how to get off the wave.”[1]

  • When worship ministry feels like being caught in that riptide, remember that God reaches down from on high, grabs you, and takes you out of that water (Ps 18:16).
  • When you worry if your children will even like church when they are no longer required to attend, remember that Jesus loves your children, too, and wants them to inherit God’s kingdom (Luke 18:15-17).
  • When your worship leadership shelf life seems to be moving quickly toward the expiration date, remember to run this ministry endurance race by keeping your eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:1-2).
  • When congregants target your family because they are upset with you, remember God is your refuge and strength in times of great trouble (Ps 46:1).
  • When you are tempted to quit every Monday morning, remember to be strong and don’t lose heart, because your work will be rewarded (2 Chron 15:7).
  • When you have to schedule your family vacation after the youth mission trip, children’s camp, and vacation Bible school, but before the fall kickoff, remember to learn from Jesus’ example of rest by putting on his yoke, not your own (Matt 11:28-30).
  • When the senior adult potluck dinner is the only date night with your spouse, remember that New Testament church leaders were required to first demonstrate faithfulness at home before being considered for ministry (1 Tim 3:1-13).
  • When you are the latest forced termination victim, remember to be brave and strong since God is with you wherever you go (Josh 1:9).
  • When it seems like no one is holding your rope, standing in the gap, or watching your back, remember you have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding you (Heb 12:1).
  • When you are always the first one to arrive and last one to leave, remember you are doing it in his power, not your own (Isa 40:29).
  • When your creativity has been exhausted and burnout is causing you to coast, remember that the Lord is the potter and you are the clay so it’s the work of his hands, not yours (Isa 64:8).
  • When you are attacked for initiating much-needed change, remember the Lord hates those who cause conflict in the community (Prov 6:16-19).
  • When you don’t have the resolve to take care of yourself spiritually, physically, and emotionally, remember the Lord gives you power when you’re tired, revives you when you’re exhausted, and increases your drive when reserves are depleted (Isa 40:29-31).

Remember, we should throw off any extra baggage and the sin that usually trips us. We can run with endurance this race that is laid out in front of us by focusing on Jesus. He endured for the sake of the joy out in front of him and modeled what it means not to grow weary and lose heart (Heb 12:1-3).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Are we as leaders modeling a healthy balance of ministry responsibilities, or are we sanctifying busyness?
  • How can we make sure our worship-team members aren’t sacrificing their families because they are too busy with ministry responsibilities?
  • How can we know if a team member might be close to burnout and needs a break?
  • What spiritual practices are we exercising together so that we aren’t trying to do this on our own and are fixing our eyes on Jesus?

[1] Wayne Cordeiro, Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 28.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Feb 17 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 8 2021

Worship That Crosses the Rubicon

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Instead of fulfilling the Great Commission by tapping into the unlimited creativity available from the creator, some of us continue trying to reach the culture by offering a mediocre musical imitation of what that culture already has. We play it safe by impersonating the language, structure, dress, and music, usually a few notches below in quality or a few steps after culture has moved on to something new. Offering a weak impersonation of the practices of a culture that doesn’t know what it needs to try to reach a culture that doesn’t know what it needs can’t be the best we have to offer. Maybe it’s time for our churches to cross the Rubicon.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar led a single legion of troops across the Rubicon river on the way to Rome. This bold move was considered an act of insurrection, since Roman generals were prohibited from bringing troops into the home territory of the Republic. If Caesar and his men failed to triumph, they would all be executed. But they determined that this point of no return was worth the risk. Their boldness ultimately protected Rome from civil war and also ensured the punishment for their actions would never be necessary.[1] The idiom “crossing the Rubicon” now refers to an individual or group willing to radically commit to a revolutionary and sometimes-risky course of action when playing it safe will no longer suffice.

When king David and his men brought the ark of the covenant back to Jerusalem, he was so focused on responding to God’s blessings that he danced right out of his robes. With complete disregard for previous worship practices or what others might think, David danced with all his strength in complete humility before the Lord (2 Sam 6:14). David’s wife and Saul’s daughter, Michal, was not nearly as enthusiastic about his new worship practices. In fact, scripture says, “Michal was watching from a window. She saw King David jumping and dancing before the Lord, and she lost all respect for him” (2 Sam 6:16). Michal’s traditionalism caused her to miss participating in a profound response to God’s revelation. Her primary focus was on how David worshipped.

David admonished Michal that it wasn’t for her or her father that he danced. Instead, he was celebrating before the Lord, who chose him over her father and his entire family (2 Sam 6:21). His primary focus was on why he worshipped. He was willing to cross the Rubicon because of the why even though it meant changing the how. Crossing the Rubicon should never cause a church to compromise biblically, theologically, or doctrinally but will often require it to make worship adjustments in order to accommodate culturally, contextually, and systematically. The conviction to fulfill the Great Commission and the collaboration to do it together are the unifying factors that inspire leaders and congregants to go all in and refuse to retreat. A unified commitment can give us all the resolve to cross the Rubicon even when the end result is uncertain.

Leaving here to cross over there means churches can’t continue to dance to the same tune of what they prefer. They can’t stay here when they are called to go there, even when here is more certain and comfortable. It will certainly require entrepreneurial innovation instead of routinized imitation, or becoming artisans instead of assembly-line workers. But being willing to cross that Rubicon may also then mean that our churches will “speak to and among the surrounding culture in a voice so unique, authentic, and unified that it turns heads: ‘what was that? It sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I’ve never heard anything like that around here.’ Even though those responses from the culture will often come as ridicule, they might just as often come as inquiry. Either way . . . the church will be influencing culture instead of just reflecting it.”[2]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How might our worship look different if we tried to impact the culture instead of just imitating it?
  • What is the worship Rubicon our church needs to cross but hasn’t because of the fear of conflict?
  • How can we know when it’s time to actually cross our Rubicon?
  • What processes might help us mitigate the inevitable pain of leaving here when we are called to move there?

_____________________

[1] Fernando Lillo Redonet, “How Julius Caesar Started a Big War by Crossing a Small Stream,” History Magazine, National Geographic, March/April 2017, https:// www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/03-04/julius-caesar-crossing-rubicon-rome/.

[2] Terry W. York and C. David Bolin, The Voice of Our Congregation: Seeking and Celebrating God’s Song for Us (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 39.

 

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jan 27 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 6 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 4 2021

Leading Worship in 2021: More Questions than Answers

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Those who lead and plan corporate worship each week are entering 2021 with mixed emotions of both hope and apprehension. Most of their churches are offering a hybrid approach of both gathered and virtual services that will continue well into the new year and beyond.

When those churches had to meet completely virtually for a season it required some radical adjustments to how they planned and led worship each week. As a result, most have realized that how they will lead worship in the future will never again be exactly how they led it in the past.

Having to learn new and shelve old worship concepts and delivery platforms surfaced numerous questions that will need to be answered as churches consider their corporate worship in the future. Many of those questions don’t yet have answers. So, if those churches are going to continue leading worship well in 2021 and beyond, they have to be ready to ask and answer hard questions while still considering the uniqueness of their individual church contexts and cultures.

Questions to Consider

  • If worship should be participative instead of passive, then how can we encourage and measure virtual worship participation?
  • Intergenerational worship occurred spontaneously when we worshiped from home. How do we leverage what happened at home to continue intergenerational worship at church?
  • Since prayer is foundational to worship, how do we keep people from checking out during service prayer times when worshiping virtually.
  • Worship actions that seem natural in person often feel contrived or conspicuous from home. How do we help those worshiping from home to feel more comfortable participating in those worship actions?
  • How can we incorporate worship arts beyond music that will communicate in both physical and virtual locations?
  • Virtual worship caused us to revert back to a few leading while the rest of us watched. So, how can we involve virtual worshipers as more than bystanders?
  • Is there a biblical and practical way to observe Communion both physically and virtually?
  • Should congregations wait until they are able to meet without distancing to baptize? How do we better engage online worshipers in that ordinance?
  • How can we emphasize the offering as a sacred action of worship if all gifts are given electronically?
  • Is it possible to employ all five senses in virtual worship?
  • How can we encourage our congregation to connect with each other during worship when they aren’t in the same room?
  • Worship distractions can be managed easier in the worship center than from home. So, how can we help virtual participants manage those distractions?
  • Worship space elements such as icons, art, colors, and lights can contribute symbolically to our physical worship. Is there also a way they can contribute symbolically virtually?
  • Is it possible for guests to feel welcomed as a part of this community when they have no physical connection to it?
  • Most churches realized that it was necessary for online worship to be simpler and less contrived, so how do we keep from falling back into our previous practices of over-innovating and over-stimulating in the future?
  • Some of those previous worship service elements we thought we couldn’t live without, we did. So, how do we determine what we should or shouldn’t reintegrate again in the future?
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Dec 30 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 16 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 14 2020

Awful Worship

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Awful [aw – fuh’l] – 1. solemnly impressive; exceedingly
great; inspiring awe. 2. full of awe; reverential.[1]

Awe is the act of worship in response to the mystery of God. It causes us to respond with, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces” (Isa 6:5). Moses understood awful worship when he was instructed to take off his sandals as he was on holy ground, causing him to hide his face because he was afraid to look at God (Exod 3:5-6).

God is transcendent, both unknown and unknowable. He is beyond, above, other than, and distinct from all. Isaiah prophesied, “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans” (Isa 55:8-9). Consequently, a faith such as ours rooted in the infinite cannot be contained in our finite understanding. The paradox, however, is that this transcendent, unknown, and unknowable God is constantly revealing himself to us and seeking our worship. The unknown seeks to be known and acknowledged. There is certainly something awful about that.

Our culture, however, has responded by demanding the reduction of God’s mystery to something we can explain. We have transformed our response to the awe, mystery, and transcendence of God into a scheduled event. When we take surprise out of worship, we are left with dry and dead religion; when we take away mystery, we are left with frozen or petrified dogma; when we script awe, we are left with an impotent deity; and when we abandon astonishment, we are left with meaningless piety.[2]

A.W. Tozer wrote, “We cover our deep ignorance with words, but we are ashamed to wonder, we are afraid to whisper ‘mystery.’”[3] But then Scripture again reminds us of his mystery, “God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths! Who has known the Lord’s mind? Or who has been his mentor? Or who has given him a gift and has been paid back by him? All things are from him and through him and for him. May the glory be to him forever. Amen” (Rom 11:33-36).

My doctoral thesis advisor wrote, “The teacups of our thinking and language have not yet approached the capacity of holding the ocean of divine truth.”[4]

So, mystery is not just our limited capacity to understand and explain the entirety of God’s story; it is also the incomprehensible awe and wonder at being included in that story. That can’t always be scripted. If the awe and wonder of God can be contained in and explained in our limited understanding and expressions of worship, then he is a god who does not deserve that worship.

Michael Yaconelli wrote, “The critical issues today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment.”[5] He continued by stating, “The greatest enemy of Christianity may be people who say they believe in Jesus but who are no longer astonished and amazed. Jesus Christ came to rescue us from listlessness as well as lostness; He came to save us from flat souls as well as corrupted souls.”[6]

Contemplating the depth of God must include the mystery of God creating, the mystery of God incarnate, the mystery of the cross and empty tomb, the mystery of God’s presence in the church, and the mystery of Christ’s return to claim lordship over creation.[7] If the gravity of that mystery doesn’t continually inspire us with awful wide-eyed wonder, then no songs we select ever will.

Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place
till we cast our crowns before Thee
lost in wonder, love and praise.[8]

 TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How is it evident in our sermons and songs that we aren’t comfortable with mystery?
  • How do we keep from scripting awe out of our worship?
  • When was the last time our congregation was lost in wonder, love, and praise?
  • What should we be doing differently to make sure our worship services are well planned while still leaving room to be surprised by God?

 

[1] “Awful,” Dictionary.com, accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/awful?s=t

[2] Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998), 28.

[3] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper Collins, 1961), 18.

[4] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12-21, The New American Commentary. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 104.

[5] Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder, 23.

[6] Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder, 24.

[7] Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 87.

[8] Charles Wesley, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling,” Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ (London, 1747).

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Dec 9 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 7 2020

Worship Farm Teams

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Congregations tend to plan and implement in the moment since Sunday comes every single week. So, thinking about keeping younger players or finding future players, singers, or even a primary worship leader is rarely a consideration until a vacancy occurs.

“Player development” is what Major League Baseball calls the grooming of younger, less advanced players in their minor league system. The so-called farm teams provide mentoring, training, coaching, and practical experience for younger players with the expectation that as those players mature, they will advance to a higher level of play and responsibility.

The genius of the farm system is that players get better by playing regularly in smaller venues instead of just waiting for an opening to play in the major leagues. Teams are intentionally investing in younger players for the future. A major-league team with a weak farm system may have success for a time but will rarely carry that success into the future.

The value of worship player development is realized when a congregation attempts to fill a vacancy in their worship-leading team. What most find is that the pool of potential replacements out there is often very shallow. Those who are available are sometimes unknown and don’t always resonate with the culture of the searching congregation.

Implementing a farm-team model of grooming or developing younger, less advanced players from in here can offer a trusted and familiar resource pool for future players, singers, or primary leaders. Investing in those who already understand the culture, personality, worship language, and mission of your church has a far greater potential for future success.

Our success in worship ministry will be judged not just on how well we did it ourselves each Sunday, but on how well we helped train others to do it too. If churches want great worship leaders in the future, they must invest in not-yet-great worship leaders in the present.

Imagine then, one of those congregations so effectively implementing this player-development model that they are able to groom more worship leaders than they actually have places for them to serve. Then imagine the kingdom value of that congregation getting to farm-out those trained leaders to other congregations who were not as prepared to fill their own vacancies.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What system do we presently have in place to secure players, singers, and tech substitutes when team members are absent?
  • How are we encouraging younger artists to develop their skills for potential worship leadership in the future?
  • Within the limitations of our budget, leadership, and facilities, how can we implement a formal or informal training process for younger worship leaders?
  • What opportunities do we have or can we create for younger leaders to use their gifts publicly before they are ready to lead in the primary worship services?

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Dec 2 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 25 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 23 2020

Worship Leader: Throw Your Cap Over the Wall

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Our calling to lead others in worship during this strange season of ministry hasn’t changed even though how it had to be manifested has. Now that some of those worship leading strengths or sweet-spots we so depended on and were revered for may no longer be available in the near future, how are we going to continue to lead? Maybe it’s time for us to throw our cap over the wall.

In his 1961 autobiography, Irish author, Frank O’Connor gives an account of his childhood when he and his friends were out in the Irish countryside. They would come to an orchard wall that seemed too high and difficult to climb, especially if it was one they hadn’t attempted to climb before. So, to continue on their journey, they would take off their caps and throw them over the wall. Since their caps were valuable they had no choice but to follow them.

In an address in San Antonio on the day before he was assassinated, John F. Kennedy referred to this same story before declaring, “This nation has thrown its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.”

Throwing our cap over the wall during this season meant that some of us had to learn new skills to help us fulfill our calling. It meant that what we once learned in college or seminary was no longer enough to sustain our ministries. Throwing our cap over the wall meant we couldn’t be ones who shrink back and are destroyed…but those who are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we can’t see (Heb. 10:39-11:1).

Throwing our cap over the wall as uncertainty continues in the future may require us to take risks, not biblically or theologically but certainly systematically. It will require us to be entrepreneurs and innovators instead imitators. And it will mean we have to become artisans instead of assembly line workers.

We don’t know how or when this difficult season of leading worship might end. We would all love for God to allow us again to lead from those sweet-spots of ministry. But if he doesn’t, we need to continue throwing our cap over the wall even when what’s on the other side is uncertain. Uncertainty doesn’t change our call to worship and lead others in worship. How it occurs may continue to change…that it occurs shouldn’t.

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Nov 16 2020

Restarting Ministries? Don’t Overdrive Your Headlights.

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Overdriving your headlights is when you are driving so fast that the stopping distance is farther than you can see down the road with your headlights. Moving faster than you can see can also cause you to miss or misread important road signs.

Some churches are moving quickly to determine when they might fire up all of those pre-pandemic ministries again without slowing down long enough to ask if they should. They’ve realized during this season that those ministry programs they previously thought they couldn’t live without, they actually could. So, before restarting all of those ministries, maybe they should first reevaluate to potentially repurpose them.

Reevaluate
Reevaluating is the contemplation or examination of something again in order to adjust or form new opinions about it. Reevaluating helps us audit what we did in the past while considering the circumstances of our present for potential adjustments in the future. Reevaluation reinvestigates and revisits.

So, before moving too quickly ahead with a ministry, we should first ask if it is going to help us fulfill our new mission. If the answer is yes, then we should proceed at a safe speed. If the answer is no, then we should ask if it could help us fulfill our new mission if we were able reevaluate and repurpose it. If the answer to that second question is no, then why would we consider starting it again.

Repurpose
It is popular to reclaim and repurpose old wood for new building projects. Reclaimed wood has a rich history and character that newer wood products haven’t yet earned. The beauty of its durability and seasoned strength tells a story that only time can replicate. Using reclaimed wood keeps the past alive even when rebuilding in the present is necessary.

As churches are considering the future in light of our strange present, they will inevitably need to renew and reimagine the past. In doing so, the assumption is that it will require incorporating something completely new. But it is possible by reclaiming and repurposing what we were already doing that the only new necessary will be to do what we were already doing better.

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Nov 11 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 26 2020

But Even if He Doesn’t

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Because of the pandemic we have been in an unusual and unpredictable season of trying to figure out how to continue leading music and worship well. We’ve had to make some difficult and not always popular decisions. And for the foreseeable future we’ve had to cancel or at least suspend some of those music and worship ministries that may have taken decades to build.

For months we have been praying for, hoping for, and believing that God will deliver us soon from these circumstances that have handcuffed so many of our ministries. We’ve implored God to return things to normal or at least some kind of normal in which our ministries can thrive again. But even if he doesn’t, what must we do?

In the third chapter of Daniel, it is recorded that King Nebuchadnezzar commanded the people of every nation and language to bow down and worship a golden statue. The penalty for not worshiping this created idol and continuing to worship God was certain death in a furnace of blazing fire.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to choose between bowing down to a false god and living or bowing down to the one true God and dying. They responded to the king, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to and we believe will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. But even if he doesn’t, we will continue worshiping the creator and not the idol you have created.

We don’t know when or how this difficult season will end. We would all love for God to again allow us to lead from our sweet-spots of worship and music ministry. He is able and we believe he will at some point. But even if he doesn’t, we are still called to worship and lead others to worship. How it occurs may continue to change…that it occurs shouldn’t.

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Oct 7 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 5 2020

Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

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golf

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

When facing difficulties in life, some of us are able to adapt and others get stuck or give up completely. Resilience is that ability to make adjustments when things don’t go the way we hoped they would or planned. Those of us with resilience have the ability to amend our agendas, dreams, and desires by creating a new plan. Resilience doesn’t mean we don’t still feel the weight of our situation. It just means we look for available opportunities to make the best of it so we can continue to move forward. What a great challenge for us during this season of uncertainty and rapid change in worship preparation and implementation.

Resilience is also a great characteristic for worship leaders to learn and develop. It encourages recovery with grace instead of overreaction in anger when the service doesn’t go as intended. Resilience averts relational catastrophes when people don’t react as we hoped they would react or when plans don’t go as well as we prayed they would go. Even though worship leaders have the responsibility to prepare with excellence they must also learn how to present with pliability, since the outcome of the service is not really theirs to control.

Thomas Merton wrote, “When humility delivers a man from attachment to his own works and his own reputation, he discovers that perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves. And it is only when we pay no more attention to our own deeds and our own reputation and our own excellence that we are at last completely free to serve God in perfection for his sake alone.”[1]

When the British colonized India they introduced the game of golf. After the first course was built in Calcutta, the monkeys in the surrounding trees would drop down, snag the golf balls from the fairways or roughs, and drop them in other locations. Golfers quickly learned that if they wanted to play on this course they couldn’t always control the outcome of the game. Resilience finally helped the officials and golfers come up with a solution. They added a new rule to their golf games at this course in Calcutta: play the ball where the monkey drops it.[2]

None of us individually has enough creativity, insight, or endurance to plan, prepare, rehearse, and lead intergenerational, multisensory, and intercultural worship services in multiple styles week after week, year after year without making some mistakes. The psalmist wrote, “Sing to him a new song! Play your best with joyful shouts” (Ps 33:3)! We are indeed charged with playing and singing with skill and excellence. But excellence never means that we should leave relationships in our wake while moving toward the end result. The process with people is just as important as the destination.

So, the next time the organist and pianist begin playing a song in different keys, the next time the guitarist forgets to move his capo, the next time the tech team doesn’t turn on your microphone or forward the text to the next slide, the next time the soprano section comes in too soon, the next time your bass player misses the first service because he forgot to set his alarm, just play the ball where the monkey drops it.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What is the difference between a culture of rigidness and one of resilience? Where does our team usually land?
  • How do we encourage resilience without sliding into the acceptance of mediocrity?
  • How is it possible to strive for excellence without leaving relationships in our wake?
  • In what ways can we involve the entire team in evaluating a healthy balance of expecting excellence but also offering grace?

 

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Haven: Abbey of Gethsemani, 1961), 58.

[2] Tara Branch, “It’s Not What’s Happening, It’s How You Respond,” Life. Huff- Post Plus, May 3, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/acceptance_b_3211053.

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Sep 30 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 28 2020

How to Help Our Pastors in This Hard Season of Ministry

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Many pastors would agree that the last 6 months of ministry have been the hardest of their entire ministry career. Oh, it wasn’t the nightmare of having to do church online or balancing a hybrid of online and in-person ministry that made this season the most difficult. In fact, most of those pastors stepped up to and handled those logistical and technological crises like the pros they are.

Instead, what made this season the most challenging for them was trying to figure out how to respond to the selfish demands of us as church members without completely derailing the mission of our church. Even when those pastors prayed faithfully and sought wise counsel regularly, they still got beat-up from one side or the other and sometimes even both sides at the same time.

Pastors are and should be held accountable to God and their churches for decisions they make and initiatives they propose. So, wouldn’t it seem only right and fair that we as church members should also be held accountable for how we respond(ed) to those decisions and initiatives? Maybe some of the following suggestions could help us help our pastors as we all continue trying to figure out how to do ministry in this hard season.

  • Before labeling every decision our pastors made or will make as nefarious or politically motivated we should pray through those decisions as diligently as they did.
  • We should stop expecting our pastors to preach our politics. When we mix politics with preaching, we get politics.
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt. We seem to have forgotten that these are the same pastors we previously trusted to bless our marriages, baptize our children, and bury our parents.
  • Give them a break. They’ve been busier this season than ever before so we need to make it easier for them to get out of town.
  • We should pray for and defend our pastors even though we might not agree with every decision they made or will make.
  • Seminary didn’t prepare them for this kind of ministry. So, we need to give them grace when they don’t get it right every time.
  • Pastors need adequate study and preparation time to accurately present the Word of God each week. If we are filling their time trying to mollify us, then how can we not expect their sermon preparation and presentation to suffer?
  • If we do have valid concerns with their decisions or directions, then we should talk to our pastors instead of about them.
  • Our pastors have faithfully offered emotional, spiritual, and relational encouragement to us through this difficult season. Have we offered the same to them? If we haven’t, then who will?

Phillip Yancey wrote, I wonder how much more effective our churches would be if we made the pastors spiritual health, not their efficiency our number one priority?

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Sep 9 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 31 2020

Bandwagon Effect

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released in a couple of weeks on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available now for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

During the nineteenth century, an entertainer named Dan Rice traveled the country campaigning for President Zachary Taylor. Rice’s bandwagon was the centerpiece of his campaign events, and he encouraged those in the crowd to “jump on the bandwagon” and support Taylor. The campaign was so successful that Taylor was elected president, prompting future politicians to employ bandwagons in their campaigns in hopes of similar results.[1]

The idiom “jumping on the bandwagon” suggests following the crowd for the excitement of the event rather than any firm conviction in its direction or truthfulness. In other words, jumping on without considering all of the contexts, circumstances, or consequences. The bandwagon effect occurs when the application of beliefs, ideas, fads, or trends increases the more others have already adopted them. Churches even have the tendency to espouse certain behaviors, styles, or attitudes just because it seems like everyone else has. The implication being that since it is right for so many others, it must also be right for us.

Jumping on the bandwagon explains why there are fashion trends. During sports championships it is evident in the increase of fans. In health it shows up in the latest diet or fitness craze. In social media it is obvious in the number of app or platform downloads. In music it is measured by online rankings. And in worship it is usually apparent in the song set. The theological implication of a church that jumps on the latest worship bandwagon is that it sometimes ignores or overrides its own beliefs, cultures, or contexts just because others are doing it.

It is true that congregations often need to make and should be making regular worship adjustments, including the latest songs, styles, or technological tools. But instead of always being early adopters and jumping without considering circumstances and the potential consequences, those congregations should instead be discerning and determining their worship practices by praying together, reading Scripture together, coming to the Lord’s Table together, mourning together, rejoicing together, sharing ministry together, playing together, and then finally singing their song sets together.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How do we determine when and how often to try new things in our worship context?
  • What filters can we put in place to ensure we aren’t just jumping on the latest worship trend?
  • How can we determine if what is popular in other churches is appropriate for our church?
  • Is there a way for our team to consider all the circumstances or potential consequences before we actually jump into something new?

 

[1] Adapted from Michael Gearon, “Cognitive Biases—The Bandwagon Effect,” Medium, September 9, 2018, https://medium.com/@michaelgearon/cognitive-biases- social-proof-the-bandwagon-effect-42aa07781fcc.

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Aug 24 2020

Decentralized Worship

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Worship isn’t just our response to God’s revelation through the songs we sing on Sunday, it’s also our response through the rhythms and harmonies of life on Monday. So, if we learned anything through this season of scattered and regathered worship it was the necessity of focusing more on decentralizing our worship.

In business, decentralization is when the activities or actions of an organization are distributed and delegated away from a single administrative center to other locations. Decentralization grants some degree of autonomy and even authority but it also requires a high level of trust since those activities and actions are more difficult to control.

Centralized worship often relies on one or a select few to plan, prepare, and implement the worship systems of a congregation. So, decisions and processes are determined hierarchically and disseminated corporately. Most churches members and leaders found this type of worship planning and implementation much more difficult while worshiping online.

Centralization can hold a congregation captive to style, tradition, form, and structure. It has the tendency to direct, regulate, contain, moderate, and restrain. Centralized worship is indeed cleaner since it retains the power to hold things in check. But that also means it requires a gatekeeper(s).

Decentralizing worship can’t and shouldn’t take the place of a congregation gathering together to respond to God’s revelation in one voice. But if our only voice is that one hour on Sunday, then what are we doing the other 167 hours of the week?

Some church families have those moving stories of multiple generations singing and even dancing together while watching their recorded and/or streamed services throughout the week. Family worship conversations that rarely seemed to occur previously in response to centralized worship often surfaced in response to the spontaneity of decentralized worship.

When it was necessary to decentralize many congregants realized, perhaps for the first time, that the worship gate is always open. It helped them discover their worship didn’t have to be contained in a single location, context, culture, style, artistic expression, or vehicle of communication. Many of those congregants also realized during this season that decentralized worship can be messy so most had to learn how to live with the mess.

Hopefully, what we learned through this season won’t be lost when things get back to normal, whatever normal will be. And hopefully, even though decentralization was not a choice during this season, we have realized worship is not just something we do on Sunday but also who we are during the week.

Centralized and decentralized worship are both biblical and necessary if we are to faithfully love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One can’t survive without the other. So as good as our worship might have gotten in here before the shutdown, we were forced to acknowledge during the shutdown that it was incomplete until it also included how we worshiped out there.

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Aug 12 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 21 2020

Better Sundays Begin on Monday: Book Excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Breaking down game film is a discipline sports teams often incorporate after each game. They review and discuss game videos in order to identify mistakes, make adjustments, consider radical changes, and highlight successes. The ultimate goal of this type of analysis is to facilitate individual and team improvements that will positively affect subsequent games.

The fundamental reason why a team needs adjustments is not always evident in the middle of the game. Breaking down or evaluating all of the important elements after a game gives coaches and players the opportunity to isolate and assess individual plays and players in a more relaxed setting, away from the time constraints and pressures of the game.

So why aren’t individual pastors, worship leaders, and even worship leading teams regularly incorporating similar evaluative practices? One of the primary reasons is that implementing an individual or collaborative process of analyzing worship services or planning for upcoming services requires a deep level of humility, trust, and shared accountability. It also requires selfless leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own ideas, preferences, and interests for the greater worshipping good of the congregation.

Initiating a similar approach to worship evaluation can be summative in that a congregation can learn from its previous worship failures and successes. But it can also be formative since it occurs during the development and conceptual worship service stages. Both outcomes will help you or your team first determine why you worship before ever considering how you worship.

Worship renewal must be determined first by standardizing worship principles before ever considering worship practices. The reality is that worship service evaluation is already occurring in the hallways, parking lots, and at lunch tables after our services. So why wouldn’t we want to preempt those conversations with an intentional evaluative process?

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Jul 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 22 2020

Worship and the Racial Divide

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Imagine your church filled with people of multiple colors, nationalities, economic levels, and political beliefs all worshiping God together. The problem with that scenario is that most of us imagined how great it could be as long as they made the needed changes to worship the same way we do.

Not in my style may really and truly mean not my kind of people, except when it comes time for the yearly youth group trip to Mexico. Why are we willing to go outside the church to diversify when we are failing to do so within?[1] 

The multitude of God’s people are standing before the throne of God sheltered by His presence in chapter 7 of John’s Revelation. His vision of every tribe and tongue together as one is a heavenly model of intercultural worship.

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen’” (Revelation 7:9-12)! So if we are not meant to be segregated as we worship in Heaven, then why are we so segregated as we worship here on earth? 

Harold Best wrote, “It is a spiritually connected culture that takes cultural differences, works through the tensions that they may create and comes to the blessed condition of mixing and reconciling them and of stewarding their increase and growth.”[2] Maybe if we could first learn to love, respect, understand, and defer to each other outside of the worship service it could impact our worship inside the service as well.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this nation.” Not much has changed since his original statement 50 years ago so maybe it’s time for us to try something new.

Worship and the Racial Divide is the title of a breakout I will be teaching for the Resourcing Worship Virtual Conference, August 1. The main sessions speakers and worship leaders include: Keith Getty, Matt Redman, Shelly Johnson, Mike Harland, Matt Boswell, and Veritas. Over 60 breakouts are scheduled for all areas of music and worship ministry. Registration cost is only $15 per person and if you register 5 or more the cost is $10 per person. Registration cost also includes a 90 days all-access pass for you to continue viewing the virtual breakouts and main sessions. Click the link in this paragraph to register.

 


[1] Harold Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 181.

[2] Ibid.

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Jun 17 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 10 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 8 2020

Singing in Regathered Worship: Want or Need?

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Want is something we desire, hope for, or wish for. Need is something essential to survive. We want to sing both congregationally and chorally in our worship services as we regather but we don’t need to sing for worship to occur. So even if we want to sing and can’t or can’t as much, we still need to find other ways to worship. 

Singing is an expression given to us so that we might offer it as a gift to God in worship but it certainly isn’t the only expression. So considering additional worship responses could alleviate the pressure on singing to serve as the primary driver of regathered worship.

Clayton Schmit wrote, “In most traditions, music holds the central place as, to use Luther’s term, the ‘handmaid of the Gospel.’ Whether Christians sing hymns, settings of the psalms, spiritual songs, anthems, or praise choruses, music is the principle artistic form that shapes Christian worship. But, many others are involved. We gather in architectural structures, we enter rooms sunlit cobalt and ruby through stained-glass filtered light, we sit in well-fashioned furniture, we listen to literature of the Scriptures, we hear aesthetically crafted messages, we move in processions, and we view images of the symbols and historic figures associated with our faith. When we gather for worship art is all around us, and even within us.”[1]

Because of limited space and congregational demographics, however, some churches will determine it is best not to sing chorally or maybe even congregationally for a while. Worship leaders in those churches will, consequently, have to educate, reeducate, enlighten, and exhort their congregations that worship without singing doesn’t have to be inferior, it just has to be different. 

Robin M. Jensen said, too often other worship expressions are perceived as a kind of extra offering, meant for those of us who can appreciate them or want to be involved in them, rather than something essential to the shaping of faith and religious experience.[2] So when introducing those new worship expressions beyond singing, leaders will need to take risks through Holy Spirit inspired entrepreneurial innovation instead of routinized imitation. They’ll need to become worship artisans instead of assembly line workers.

If your church can’t sing or can’t sing as much for a season, then consider expanding some of these responses: Scripture, prayer, drama, painting, sculpting, drawing, dance, mime, poetry, prose, monologues or dramatic readings, photography, film, technology, computer graphics, architecture, sound, lighting, staging and props, and many others.

Harold Best offers this challenge that can serve as a reminder of our responsibilities as leaders in this new season of regathering, “It is the solemn obligation of every artistic leader to become the lead mentor, the lead shepherd, living a life in quest of the full richness of artistic action. The art of our worship must thus point beyond itself. It must freely and strongly say, ‘There is more, far more.’ Be hungry. Be thirsty. Be curious. Be unsatisfied. Go deep. Engage your whole being. Live in the first days of creation when nothing had precedent; when everything was a surprise; when shattering reality, not sameness, ruled the day; when bafflement and surprise danced the dance. Go to the empty tomb and find out what resurrection means to the shriveled mind and the uncurious heart. Go to Pentecost and learn of a new, ingathering strangeness, a purification of Babel and a highway to glory: spiritual glory, societal glory, artistic glory. Seek and find; knock and it will be opened.”[3]

 

[1] Schmit, Clayton J., “Art for Faith’s Sake,” in Theology, News, and Notes, Fall 2001.

[2] Jensen, Robin, M., The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 2.

[3] Best, Harold M., “Authentic Worship and Artistic Action,” an address to the Calvin Institute of Worship, 2005.

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Jun 1 2020

How Can Social Distanced Worship Be Good?

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Even before the COVID-19 physical shutdown of gathered worship services, congregations were constantly trying to discover and create good worship. So, they expanded their song catalogs and adjusted their presentation methods in an effort to find a formula to help them accomplish that goal. Some just bypassed the heavy lifting altogether by imitating the worship practices of other congregations and called it good.

But as congregations are starting to regather with new limitation guidelines, those conversation of “what is good worship” in this new reality have radically changed. Social distancing, masks while singing, a smaller critical mass of gathered congregants, and the potential absence of choral and instrumental music has moved the conversation way beyond song catalogs and presentation methods.

If we begin with Scripture, however, to figure out what good worship is we are always returned to those worship principles that should be framing our worship practices. The principles haven’t changed even when our practices have. So as long as we begin with those principles, then our distanced, masked, and choirless worship practices can still be considered good.

Scripture speaks to the issue of worship that is or isn’t good on several occasions. The book of Isaiah outlined worship God doesn’t like when the author wrote, “The Lord said: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service, yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me” (Isa. 29:13).

Amos criticized worship that is ego driven when he wrote, “I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

The minor prophet Micah faced similar challenges as he responded to the shallow worship practices evident in the lives of the religious leaders of his day. He vigorously condemned the dishonest, corrupt and meaningless worship prevalent in Judah and Israel. According to Micah, outward appearances indicated they thought their worship was good. But their worship character wasn’t consistent with what God calls good. So, Micah wrote, “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).

Discovering good worship in this new reality means we will have to lay aside the unflappable pursuit of our own satisfaction, entertainment, pleasure, or routine in order to pursue God and ask him to reorder our priorities and passions. It’s going to be a new and different process than we have been used to and it will require us all to be stimulated by God’s grace and imagination.[1]

So what we once considered good worship may no longer be feasible for a season as our congregations gather again. But just because it is no longer the same doesn’t necessarily mean it can no longer be good.

 

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Books, 2007), 170-71.

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May 27 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 18 2020

Regathered Worship: Laying Down Self

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Most churches are trying to figure out how to safely gather in person again after a couple of months of online services. Leaders and congregants are realizing how they gather, how many they gather with and what they offer as they gather won’t look the same as it did before. What they will also soon realize is that everyone will be asked to sacrifice something if this new normal is to succeed.

Terry York and David Bolin wrote, “We have forgotten that what worship costs is more important than how worship comforts us or how it serves our agendas. We should not lift up to God worship or any other offering that costs us nothing. If worship costs us nothing but is fashioned to comfort our needs and preferences, it may not be worship at all.”[1]

Worship that costs us something will require sacrifice or the willingness to surrender for the sake of something or someone else. Sacrifice is the act of giving up, offering up or letting go. A bunt in baseball is designated as a sacrifice for the purpose of advancing another runner. Executing this sacrifice is called laying down a bunt. What an interesting word picture for the church as it regathers in this season of uncertainty.

Laying down our selfishness and sacrificially offering our bodies as a spiritual act of worship may cost us wearing a mask during gathered worship even though we think it is unnecessary. Sacrificial worship means we are willing to do so because we love those with whom we worship more than we love our own convenience.

The cost of laying down our selfishness may also mean that because of our age or compromised health we will continue to watch the services from home so that the gathering guidelines for others won’t need to be quite as stringent. Sacrificial worship means we are willing to do so because we love those with whom we worship more than we love our own convenience. How we worship may have to change as our churches regather, but whom we worship never will.

When Jesus engaged the Samaritan woman at the well the conversation moved from the physical…thirst, to the spiritual…living water. She attempted to change the subject back to the physical of the where and how of worship, but Jesus turned the conversation again to her spiritual condition and the who of worship. “God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

This divine encounter with Jesus inspired her to sacrifice the self-serving agenda that originally brought her to that place. She left her water pot and went into the city and said to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all the things I have done” (v. 28-29). Gathering together again will also require the same of us. Mitch Albom wrote, “Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.”[2]

 

[1] Terry W. York and C. David Bolin, The Voice of Our Congregation: Seeking and Celebrating God’s Song for Us (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 112.

[2] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (New York: Hyperion, 2003).

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May 13 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 8 2020

If We Can’t Sing

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Most of us have seen the articles, blog posts and videos this last week indicating the potential for a higher level of asymptomatic spread and aerosolization of COVID-19 through choral and congregational singing. The emotional responses from music and worship leaders run the gamut of fear and grief to outright denial.

It is obviously still too early to be certain how these theories will play out and influence our musical worship in the future. What is certain, however, is that even if our congregations and choirs can’t sing together for a season, worship can and will still occur. It may look different but it most certainly won’t disappear.

An older member of one of my previous congregations was a fine vocalist and instrumentalist when he was younger. But because of laryngeal cancer surgery, he could no longer sing and even had to learn a new way to talk. One Sunday while leading congregational singing I observed this gentleman whistling the songs as other congregants sang. Just because he was physically unable to sing didn’t keep him from actively participating in worship. He just had to figure out a new way to do it.

Worship leaders, if our congregants and choirs aren’t able to worship through singing, then it will be our responsibility and calling, by the way, to help them figure out a new way to do it. Our methods might have to change but our calling to lead and their calling to respond certainly hasn’t changed.

This conversation is not that different than the conversations we had a couple of decades ago when worship styles and methods changed. As leaders, we often encouraged and even admonished our congregations that even though “we’ve never done it like this before” it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or couldn’t. Some of us as worship leaders need to have that same conversation with ourselves as we lead through this uncertain future.

Oh, if we can’t worship through congregational and choral singing for a season we will definitely need to spend some time lamenting what we no longer have. But once we’ve had that opportunity to ask God why we have to walk through this desert, we’ll need to move pretty quickly from those complaints to “but I trust in You, O Lord.” Then we’ll need to figure out a new way to do it because our congregations will need it and our God will expect it.

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May 4 2020

5 Unintended Consequences of Worshiping from Home

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Unintended consequences can be positive or negative outcomes in response to unforeseen or unplanned events or experiences. We certainly didn’t choose this season of worshiping from home. But most of us have unintentionally learned some valuable lessons that should influence how we do gathered worship on the other side of this crisis. Here are five unintended consequences of worship from home:

  • Sermons are shorter, yet more profound

Most pastors have realized that attention spans online are much shorter so they have intentionally left more of their sermon notes on the cutting room floor. What they have discovered is that a succinct, refined, and consolidated message offers their congregations less information to synthesize but more spiritual truths that can actually be internalized. Preparing and presenting messages with an economy of words is a practice that should continue since attention spans are probably not that much longer in person.

  • Worship is simpler and less contrived

Most worship leaders have realized when trying to program a remote worship service that less is always more. Before this season of dispersed worship, it seemed like many of us had fallen into the unhealthy habit of trying to surpass the creativity of the previous week. So, we over innovated, over stimulated, and over imitated. Hopefully we’ve learned how unnecessary and unhealthy that practice can be and we’ll spend more of our time in the future focusing on the creator rather than on our own creativity.

  • Intergenerational worship is foundational instead of optional

Many of us have looked for ways but have often found it difficult to encourage our congregations to move away from worship services separated by generations. And even though intergenerational togetherness was forced during this season, we figured out how to do it because everyone cared more about protecting their families than protecting their preferences. We certainly shouldn’t waste what we learned in this time as everyone was willing to sacrifice some for the good of all. So how can we leverage that deference for continuing intergenerational worship when we again have the opportunity to gather?

  • Off-limits music programs are now on the table

Some of those music ministry programs we thought we couldn’t possibly live without, we could. So instead of thinking about when we might start them back up, we should be asking if we should. This season has forced us to initiate music and worship ministry audits that we should have already been implementing regularly anyway. So maybe before firing up all those music ministry programs again, we should first ask if they are going to help us fulfill our mission. If they aren’t, then why would we do them?

  • Church size isn’t determining worship quality

The quality of worship should never be determined by the quantity of worship leaders and worshipers. But that hasn’t stopped those previous comparisons of bigger being better because larger churches have more resources, personnel, and talent. During this season, however, the perceptual playing field has been leveled as all churches were limited to the same number of worship leaders, the same resources for technology, and the same platforms for streaming. Hopefully this online leveling will continue to remind us when we gather again that a comparison according to size is always unhealthy. Every church should be developing distinctly and becoming uniquely the congregation God has called them to be where they are with what they have. The commitment to that calling instead of comparison is what sets the bar for worship quality.

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Apr 29 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 20 2020

Worship in the Meantime

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The meantime we now find ourselves in can certainly be a season of doubt, fear and instability. But it can also be a time of hope, expectation and unity. Most of us have realized that gathered worship on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis probably won’t look the same as it did before the crisis. But what comes next could be a time of worship renewal if we embrace this meantime season as developmental rather than wasted time. This time will have been squandered, however, if we reject it solely because it isn’t taking us in the same direction we were going before.

Meantime is the interim period between two events. It is an intermediate time while waiting for something else to happen. Victor Turner referred to the meantime as a separation from what was known to a transitional, in-between or liminal stage.[1] Liminal originated from the Latin word, limins, meaning threshold.[2]

In his book on worship transformation, Timothy Carson wrote, liminal reality is the time that has broken with a previous structure, whatever that structure may have been. And precisely because it is positioned between the previous structure and the unknown structure that is coming, it holds power for future transformation.[3]

Turner referred to a special camaraderie of communitas that can develop among those sharing a meantime season.[4] The spirit expressed in this Latin noun is the harmony within a community based on its common purpose and even shared uncertainty. Encouraging this spirit of communitas in the meantime of dispersed worship allows us to share in a community of the in-between. So even though we are worshiping in the uncertainty, we are worshiping in the uncertainty together.

Paul wrote the church at Philippi from the meantime of house arrest. He fondly remembered the partnership previously experienced with that church. But even though their circumstances were no longer and never would be the same, he was confident that the God who started their previous ministry together would also complete it in the new reality in which they found themselves.

Trying to figure out how to worship corporately while separated physically has required biblical understanding, prayer, sensitivity, discernment and even sacrifice. And we obviously don’t want to miss preparing for what healthy worship might look like when we reach the other side. But it is also essential that we don’t spend so much time lamenting what we no longer have or dreaming about what we could have that we miss transformational worship opportunities in the meantime. The journey is no less worshipful than the destination.

 

[1] Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between,” quoted in Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 100.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship, (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 60.

[4] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine, 1969); as referenced in Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 101.

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Apr 13 2020

Was Easter Sunday a Waste of Time?

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The Easter Acclamation, “He is risen,” “He is risen indeed” was not only true as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it is also true as we work online from home today. The celebration of Easter is not just a one-day event, it is a daily remembrance of who we are in the risen Christ. As Christ followers we are Easter people so instead of immediately pivoting to the next sermon series or Sunday service calendar emphasis, shouldn’t our celebration of the resurrection continue?

The observance of Easter in the early church was more than just a one-day annual event. Celebrating the Paschal mystery was not only to remember that Christ was crucified and rose again, but also to remember that He appeared following His resurrection, that He ascended, that the Holy Spirit descended and that our Savior promised to return again.

Because of their great joy, early Christians began the celebration and remembrance with Easter and continued for fifty days until Pentecost. Revisiting the mystery and expanding the understanding of the resurrection could assist in worship renewal through the theological realization that this celebration of redemption, sanctification, salvation and victory can’t be limited to a single day.

Some congregations and even entire denominations have not traditionally embraced the sacred time of the Great Fifty Days of Easter and other dates of the Christian calendar primarily out of a concern for rigidity, conformity, loss of autonomy or a fear of appearing too “Catholic.”

Some worship leaders and worshipers believe that spending too much time in those extended seasonal celebrations of the Church can promote sameness. But Timothy Carson wrote, “Exactly the opposite may be true. Because it has stood the test of time, it may be sufficiently deep to allow me to swim more deeply in it. Because it is repeated, I have another chance, today, to go where I could not go yesterday.”[1]

Even as congregations avoid the Christian calendar, they are at the same time affirming annual observances of cultural and denominational days whose foundations are not always biblically grounded.[2] And isn’t it ironic that in the development of those denominational and cultural calendars we have in fact created our own liturgies in our efforts to be non-liturgical?

To avoid Christian calendar days that are celebrated during the same time of the year as the cultural, denominational and civic days is to ignore the very foundation of the Church. So isn’t it possible to converge holidays significant to our cultural and denominational calendar with the Christian holidays significant to the Kingdom?

Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday and Memorial Day in the same season as Ascension Day and Pentecost? For this shift to occur, however, we must understand the significance of expanding our Easter remembrances. Laurence Hull Stookey wrote, “The explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.”[3]

Extending our Easter recognition is based on a deeper understanding of the calendar as an ideal starting point for structuring seasonal worship. The theme of the fifty days of Easter as one single celebration provides a connection with Christians of the past Church and unifies Christians of the present Church in a continuous ecumenical relationship.

Observing Easter for fifty days could help congregations “recover the transforming news that Jesus’ past resurrection dramatically transforms present and future reality.”[4] Additionally, it will help them delight in the knowledge that Jesus’ death and resurrection is stamped on their spiritual biographies.[5]

Expanding your observance of Easter and celebrating other aspects of the Christian year might be a stretch for your congregation. But please make those decisions about this sacred time from a deeper biblical, theological and historical foundation instead of solely on the traditionalism of what your individual congregation or denomination has done in the past.

 


[1] Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship, (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 57.

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church,  (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 53.

[4] John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 290.

[5] Ibid.

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Apr 6 2020

Worship Leaders… HOLD FAST!

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Eighteenth and Nineteenth century sailors superstitiously believed that certain tattoos brought good luck and somehow averted disaster. The H-O-L-D F-A-S-T tattoo with one letter tattooed on each finger was originally derived from the Dutch phrase “Houd” (hold) “Vast” (fast). The tattoo was believed to protect a sailor whose life depended on holding fast to a rope on the ships deck or while working aloft in the ships rigging.

The writer of the book of Hebrews wrote the same words not as superstition but with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:22-23).

So worship leaders, as you try to figure out how to lead worship in the new reality of online services, focus on this exhortation instead of agonizing over what you can’t do remotely. Hold Fast…the God who called you to lead worship will sustain you. Hold Fast…in full assurance that He knows where you are and what you are going through.

Hold Fast…confident that you are presentable inside and out. Keep a firm grip on His promises that keep you going. See how inventive you can be by encouraging love and spurring others on to worshiping together even though separated (Heb. 10:19-25). Hold Fast…your worshiping congregation is depending on it.

Hold Fast – Mercy Me

VERSE 1
To everyone who’s hurting
To those who’ve had enough
To all the undeserving
That should cover all of us
Please do not let go
I promise there is hope

CHORUS
Hold fast help is on the way
Hold fast He’s come to save the day
What I’ve learned in my life
One thing greater than my strife
Is His grasp so hold fast

VERSE 2
Will this season ever pass
Can we stop this ride
Will we see the sun at last
Or could this be our lot in life
Please do not let go
I promise you there’s hope

CHORUS
Hold fast help is on the way
Hold fast He’s come to save the day
What I’ve learned in my life
One thing greater than my strife
Is His grasp so hold fast

©2006 Simpleville Music, Wet As A Fish Music, Barry Graul, Bart Millard, Jim Bryson, Mike Scheuchzer, Nathan Cochran, Robby Shaffer.

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Apr 1 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 23 2020

Gathered Worship: A Hard Habit to Break

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For many of us gathered worship has always been a pretty comfortable habit. And even though that habit has sometimes stretched us stylistically through the years, it has rarely stretched us physically…until now.

A habit is a recurrent, often unconscious behavioral pattern acquired through repetition. It is something we do or have done so often that we are able to perform it without having to think about it.

We all have those daily activities or behaviors that we no longer have to think about in order to participate in or accomplish such as brushing our teeth, tying our shoes or even driving to work. Habits such as these have become so routine that they no longer require our emotions to accomplish them.

For some, gathering for Sunday worship had become one of those habits. But the safeguards put in place this last week to protect us from COVID-19 obviously derailed that habit.

Gathering for Sunday worship seemed like a good habit to develop since we are called to worship continuously in spirit and truth. The sticking point, however, is the second part of the definition that a habit is often an unconscious behavioral pattern.

Going to worship, being a worshiper or participating in worship are all good habits to develop. But since the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and his mercies are new every morning, our responses to that love and mercy must also be new every morning.

So maybe one of the many lessons we’ll need to learn during this season of dispersed worship is how to break that pattern of unconsciously gathering for worship. Then when we are actually able to gather again physically we’ll better engage with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

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Mar 16 2020

Worship Has Left the Building

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As churches made the difficult decision to meet online instead of in person this weekend we were all reminded that worship couldn’t be contained in a building, location, context or vehicle of communication.

Our worship leadership has sometimes given the impression that we alone have the ability and even right to be the sole instigators of worship in our context. So we’ve often led like worship starts when we start it and ends when we end it. Consequently, we have often expended all of our resources and energy preparing for and leading a single gathered hour on Sunday.

But the unprecedented circumstances of the last couple of weeks have forced us to remember again that worship can occur without us and even in spite of us. As many of us observed thousands of services streaming or pre-recorded on social media it again challenged us that worship happens not only when our congregations gather in our buildings but also when they scatter to their homes.

Harold Best wrote, “If those of us who lead gathered worship are not careful, our actions can imply that time and place worship is the primary, if not only venue for worship, while the remainder of our life falls into another category.”[1]

So as we continue to move forward through the uncertain future of corporate worship, we as worship leaders must lead, model and empower our congregants to not only worship when we are again able to gather but also continue to worship as we have to disperse. Helping them understand how to worship at home continues to fulfill our worship leadership calling and responsibilities just as profoundly as leading a song set does. 

 

[1] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 9.

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Feb 5 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 27 2020

Drink More Coffee with Senior Adults

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Charlie was one of those senior adults who loved to drink coffee and talk about life. He always seemed to show up on Wednesday afternoon when I still had four hours of rehearsal preparation left and only two hours to complete it. As a young worship leader I sometimes saw those visits as a distraction, now I realize how much they were a divine appointment.

Charlie loved the Lord but he also loved me. So even if he didn’t always resonate with the new initiatives I was suggesting or songs I was leading, he was often willing to endorse them publicly and finance them privately because he cared more about our relationship and the health of our church than his own preferences.

When churches consider worship or programming changes without consulting senior adults like Charlie it can often cause unnecessary transitional pain. Taking the time to collaborate with them helps us recognize and remember those existing elements that could still hold value as foundational building materials in new structures.

Drinking coffee with senior adults can help us discover that most of them are not as averse to changes as much as they are to feeling marginalized through those changes. It often seems to them that their opinions are no longer considered and their convictions are antiquated. So the sacrifice of their blood, sweat, tears and tithes is now being used to build a wall that sidelines or keeps them out completely.

Change is inevitable as a church considers the culture and context of those present and those not present yet. But in an effort to initiate those changes, some of us are willing to do anything different than what was done in the past without first considering the wisdom of those still present from that past. Sharing a few cups of coffee with those senior adults may indeed help to bring some of them on board with our proposed changes, but just as often it can thankfully protect us from our own stupidity.

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