Sep 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 21 2020

Cheap Worship

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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.

Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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 it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

Once the woman encountered and acknowledged Jesus, she joined his conversation instead of expecting him to join hers. This divine encounter 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 people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ” (John 4:29)?

The result of the Samaritan woman’s worship response was, “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’” (John 4:39).

In the book of Romans, Paul focused on the divisions by which we segregate ourselves. In the twelfth chapter he wrote, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Rom. 12:1). Sacrifice is surrendering for the sake of something or someone. It is the act of giving up, offering up, or letting go. A baseball bunt is a sacrifice for the sole purpose of advancing another runner. Executing this sacrifice is called laying down a bunt.

We go to great lengths and personal expense to make sure our children and grandchildren have the best clothes, schools, lessons, and coaches. We begin economizing and genericizing the moment they are born in order to save money and set it aside for the best of college educations. We surrender our own personal wants, preferences, and even needs so that they will have everything necessary for a successful future. In fact, most of us would literally give our own lives for our children and grandchildren because no sacrifice is too great—except maybe when we’re asked to sacrifice our worship music preferences.

Sacrificing our preferences often requires us to adjust generationally and relationally. 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. If worship costs us nothing but is fashioned to comfort our needs and preferences, it may not be worship at all.”[1]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What are we as worship leaders willing to sacrifice as our spiritual act of worship?
  • How might the way we select and lead songs be contributing to an attitude of worship comfort instead of cost?
  • How can we make sure we are not asking the same generations or cultures always to be the ones who sacrifice the most?
  • How do we keep the cultural attitude of entitlement out of our worship services?

 

[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.

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Sep 16 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 14 2020

Worship Experience…An Oxymoron

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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 tomorrow, September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Marketing is an intentional process of identifying who the consumer is, determining the wants and needs of that consumer, and offering a product that satisfies those wants and needs in order to secure their loyalty.

Marketers have realized that consumers no longer just want to buy a product; they also want to buy an experience with that product. In fact, sometimes the experience is much better than the product. Think about some of those pizza arcades where you celebrated your children’s birthday. Fortunately the experience was memorable; the pizza certainly wasn’t. Instead of just purchasing a cup of coffee, many of us also now want the experience of purchasing a cup of coffee. We are even willing to pay extra for the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience. It’s an added bonus to that experience when the barista knows your name.

Social media has contributed to an experiential consumerism marketing culture in which our posting experience is enhanced by the number of likes, shares, retweets, or comments. Those of us who are social media aficionados have learned how to market our posts to encourage a more favorable experience. Some of us plan and lead worship the same way.

In an effort to entice more participation, churches offer worship service preferential experiences to get consumers in the door, sometimes even at the expense of quality or honesty. These marketing headlines attract visitors with words such as traditional, contemporary, blended, friendly, family, fellowship, multisensory, relevant, modern, casual, classic, or even coffee. But when guests realize worship is something you give, not something you get, how will we encourage them to stay? If we market just by catering to experiential tastes, what will we offer when their tastes change?

We can experience a fine meal. We can experience a baseball game, concert, or amusement park. An experience is an event or occurrence. We even call what we do on Sunday a worship experience. But an experience is something that is done to us or for us. Worship is something we do.

We don’t experience worship . . . we experience God. Our response to that experience is worship. We can experience the many facets of God inside or outside a worship service, but the experience or encounter is not worship, our response is. A worship service built on an experience alone is incomplete if it never allows us an opportunity to respond.

Depending on worship as an experience can cause us to be satisfied with the sensations elicited by that experience. Consequently, we might select and sing certain songs or even styles of songs because of the experience and then never move beyond that experience to worship. Again, as with social media posts, there is a danger that we might select our songs and sermons in response to positive, negative, or no feedback. And if those songs and sermons don’t create and re-create that same experience each week, we can leave a worship service believing worship couldn’t and didn’t occur.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we offer creative worship opportunities without our services deteriorating into experiential consumerism?
  • What is the difference between experiencing worship and experiencing God?
  • How can we demonstrate to our congregation the difference between God’s revelation and our response?
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Sep 9 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 7 2020

Songs That Preach

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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 next week on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Preaching is the act of publicly proclaiming, teaching, or making something known. It exhorts, exposits, affirms, corrects, advocates, instructs, responds, and applies. The act of preaching communicates to us, for us, and through us.

A sermon is preached to address and expound on the biblical, theological, doctrinal, and moral issues that impact every generation of every congregation each and every day. And this connectional discourse is intended to challenge those congregants not only to embrace these truths individually but also corporately.

So if the worship songs we select aren’t complementing, resonating, and emulating these same characteristics, we probably need to select different songs. In other words, our songs must also preach.

The Preaching Characteristics of Our Songs

  • Our Songs must reflect and respond to biblical text.

Scripture must organically yield our songs instead of just fertilizing our own contrived language. We must constantly ask if our song text is theologically sound and if it affirms Scripture as central. Songs that do not provoke a response to the Word don’t preach.

  • Our Songs must connect the Word of God to the people of God.

The dialogue of worship through our songs is formed when God’s Word is revealed. This revelation causes the people of God to respond through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The result is a vertical conversation with God and horizontal communion with others. Our songs are the communally uttered words of God.

  • Our Songs must speak the Gospel.

Every song we sing must invite the congregation and guests to be a part of God’s story through Jesus Christ. Our songs should help us understand what God is up to in and through our lives in the name of Jesus. Those songs must sing of the ongoing and enduring work of God through his son, Jesus Christ. And they must constantly remind us that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

  • Our Songs must be easy to follow and understand.

If congregants can’t follow our songs, then they have difficulty finding value in those songs and consequently can’t be influenced and moved to respond to them and through them. Archaic or colloquial text should be filtered and melodies should be evaluated for singability. Songs that are difficult to follow contribute to ineffectual song sermons.

  • Our Songs must be sung with integrity.

Songs that preach communicate biblically, theologically, and doctrinally. Our songs must be sung with the integrity of adequate external preparation that springs forth from internal conviction. It must be evident that our songs reflect what we believe and practice. Lives must replicate the texts we sing even when we aren’t singing them. Songs sung with integrity engage and express biblical text with inspiration and conviction.

  • Our Songs must engage more than emotions.

Scripture encourages us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Songs that just stir the emotions are incomplete; Songs that do not begin from the depth of our soul are often trite; Songs that don’t require us to think are shallow; and Songs that don’t ask us to use our bodies as a living sacrifice in acts of service are selfish. So our songs must be sung from our entire being.

  • Our Songs must encourage action.

Songs must not only inspire us through our hearing but also challenge us in our doing. They must not only inform the congregation but also engage them. Singing our songs should cause us to ask what is going to change as a result of singing them. Singing in here is not enough until our songs also impact who we are out there. So the songs we sing in our worship service must lead us to acts of service as worship.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16

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Aug 17 2020

Worship Cause and 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 less than a month on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available now for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Worship doesn’t invite God’s presence; it acknowledges it. God has called us out of darkness into his amazing light that we may speak of his wonderful acts (1 Pet 2:9). The Father is looking for those who worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). God initiates, and we respond.

Cause and effect is a relationship in which a person, action, or thing makes another event, action, or thing occur. A cause must always precede an effect in order for that effect to occur. So the effect is then a consequence of the cause. A model for this cause-and-effect worship understanding is found in Isaiah 6:1-8. The holiness of God is revealed to the prophet Isaiah (cause), and his natural worship response is contrition (effect), “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” (Isa 6:5). God revealed his mercy (cause), and Isaiah’s worship response is service (effect), “I’m here; send me” (Isa 6:8). So if our worship responses are the effect, then it is not possible for those worship actions to also be the cause.

What we sing or how we sing it can’t cause a response because it is the response. God’s revelation can’t be generated by the effect since the effect is a response to the cause. As good as our various worship actions are, they still can’t cause worship to occur, because those worship actions are the effect. Our worship actions may prompt, remind, exhort, prod, or encourage more effect, but they can’t cause cause. We can celebrate the cause, but we can’t create it. God causes, and we effect.

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Aug 5 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 22 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 15 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 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 20 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 6 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 15 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 1 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 25 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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Feb 26 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 24 2020

How Can I Keep from Singing?

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Although worship can’t be contained in one expression such as music, it is evident from scripture that singing is a significant response to God’s revelation (Ps 63:5; Eph 5:19; Col 3:15-17). One of my former seminary professors once joked, “People who don’t sing should be sent to Sing-Sing until they do sing.”

Reggie Kidd wrote, “Think of singing as a language that allows us to embody our love for our Creator. Song is a means he has given us to communicate our deepest affections, to have our thoughts exquisitely shaped, and to have our spirits braced for the boldest of obediences. Through music, our God draws us deeper into a love affair with himself.”[1]

When writing about the future of Jerusalem, the minor prophet Zephaniah wrote, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph 3:17). So if the Father is singing over me, then how can I keep from singing?

When I can’t find adequate words to express my responses to God’s revelation, Jesus as my worship liturgist sings with me (Heb 8:1-2; 2:12). He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God interceding on my behalf. So if Jesus is singing with me, then how can I keep from singing?

John Wesley was a theologian, evangelist and leader of the revivalist movement known as Methodism. He said this about singing, “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he comes in the clouds of heaven.”

With biblical and practical instructions such as these, I should be joining in full-throated singing no matter how well or poorly I’m able to sing. Then my voice will be united with the voices of others in communal utterances of praise, thanksgiving, confession, dedication, commitment, lament and response. When that corporate singing occurs our songs will communicate vertically and horizontally in a unified voice so compelling that they can’t possibly be silenced (Ps 30:12). So how can I keep from Singing?

 

How Can I Keep from Singing

My life flows on in endless song; Amid earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn that hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?

 

What tho’ my joys and comforts die, the Lord my Helper liveth!

What tho’ the darkness gather round; songs in the night he giveth!

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging;

Since God is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?

 

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smooths since first I learned to love it,

The peace of God makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing;

All things are mine, since I am His – How can I keep from Singing?[2]

 

[1] Reggie M. Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 14.

[2] This hymn is Public Domain and was written by American Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry.

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Feb 19 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 12 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 5 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 29 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 20 2020

Is Your Church in Conflict? Come to the Table!

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communion

We often look for Chronos (man’s time) resources to resolve church conflicts. So we bring in mediators, read books together, plan conferences, schedule sermon series, and implement lists of best conflict resolution practices. What we often forget, however, is that Kairos (God’s time) resolution of conflict is already available at the Communion Table.

Paul spoke of Communion as the fellowship of sharing in the body and blood of Christ so it is something we do together (1 Cor. 10:16). And since the Table is the place for that kind of intimacy, it’s also the place where the absence of that intimacy is most painfully revealed.[1]

On the night of His betrayal and arrest Jesus prayed that all of us would be one just as He and the Father are one (John 17:1-2). The unity that Jesus spoke of is not only in our vertical relationship with him but also our horizontal relationship with each other.

The Corinthian Church was challenged to take a good, long look at what was going on in their hearts before participating in Communion. Paul wrote, “Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). So if we are preparing for and observing this ordinance regularly in a worthy manner based on those stipulations, then how could we possibly remain at odds with each other (1Cor. 11:27)?

Communion can remind us not only of what relational healing God offered in the past but what He promises to continue to offer in the future. Coming back to the Table more can encourage us to heal relationships this time when we might not have had the resolve to heal them last time. So if our church is in conflict, then why wouldn’t we want to come back there more often?

 

 

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994), 74-75.

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Jan 15 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 13 2020

Not All Those Who Wonder Are Lost

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Wonder: To question with a sense of doubt or uncertainty.

If doubters are expected to resolve their doubts outside of our worship services, then why would they want to connect with those worship services once those doubts are resolved. And if our public worship is not the place for that intimate soul transparency, then where is?

Three days after Jesus had been killed and buried, friends of the eleven disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. They encountered an angel who told them Jesus had been raised from the dead. The angel instructed them to meet Jesus in Galilee. So the disciples traveled to the mountain and when they saw Jesus, they worshiped, but some doubted (Matt 28:16-20).

The text doesn’t say, “some of them worshiped and others doubted.” They doubted even as they worshiped. And it was obvious that those doubts were not held in secret since Matthew recorded them. So their doubts didn’t preclude or exclude them from the public worship of Jesus.

So how did Jesus respond to their worship and doubts? The text says, “Jesus came near.” He didn’t just come near to those who had it figured out. He didn’t set aside the others until they got it figured out. He just came near. Then he commissioned them…all of them including the doubters to go and make disciples. And he ended his commission by reminding them that he would be with them, obviously with or without their doubts.

So if some of the disciples who physically walked with Jesus could worship the risen Lord face to face and still doubt, then why can’t we? Authentic worship must embrace and walk with those various seasons of people’s lives, including doubt. Jesus came near then and continues to now. And so must we.

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Kahlil Gibran

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Jan 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 6 2020

The Theology of Hymns Versus Modern Worship Songs

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Theology is those truths that are taught by God, truths that teach us of God, and truths that lead us to God. Our congregations sing that theology every week in a variety of languages, contexts, cultures, and styles.

So we should choose songs that helps us sing that theology by asking if they quicken the conscience through the holiness of God, feed the mind with the truth of God, purge the imagination by the beauty of God, open the heart to the love of God, and devote the will to the purpose of God.[1]

Those deeper foundational questions, though,  often take a back seat to our first asking how those songs make us feel. When we base our selections on feelings alone, then our emotional connection to a favorite genre arbitrarily sets the standard for the theological value of all genres. Consequently, we then automatically label all those other genres beyond our favorite as theologically sub-standard.

Hymns or modern worship songs are not innately more theological just because we have an emotional attachment to one or the other. Modern worship songs are not more theological because they sound better with a band and multitracks. And hymns are not more theological because we can recall their texts and tunes or sing them in four-part harmony. Both hymns and modern songs can be and are theological as long as they reflect and respond to biblical text; connect the word of God to the people of God; help us sing the gospel; can be sung with doctrinal integrity; and encourage us to be doers and not just hearers.

It is indeed true that our hearts can often be stirred or softened individually through one favorite genre of worship songs over another. Those favorites can cause us to remember significant events or spiritual seasons. And those connections seem to help us better form and frame a deeper understanding of who God is.

But we must be careful never to assume that the musical and emotional connection that solidifies a deeper theological understanding for us is the only tenable musical and emotional option that can possibly solidify a deeper theological understanding for all.

The theology in our hymns or modern worship songs isn’t mutually exclusive. So instead of propping up one by maligning the other, we should be praying that the peace of Christ would keep them and us in tune as worship allies instead of adversaries. 

 

[1] Adapted from a quote by William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44.

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Dec 16 2019

Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts by R.G. Huff

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If you are still looking for a unique Christmas gift for your family, small group or worship and music leaders let me recommend a new book written by my friend, R.G. Huff. As a prolific hymn writer and lyricist, R.G. has created a devotional book using hymn lines from some of the great hymns of various denominations.

Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts Based on Lines and Phrases from Great Hymns and Songs of the Christian Faith is a compilation of thoughts, personal stories and musings from R.G.’s blog: hymnlines.blogspot.com. After five years of posting over 500 hymn line devotionals, R.G. has selected 75 of those unique postings for his book that is now available on amazon by clicking the following link: Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts. You can also order Hymn Lines on R.G.’s website: worshiprx.com where he will even sign personal copies for you.

The featured hymn selections range from the very familiar to the more obscure. The foundation for each devotional is a line or phrase that when lifted from the larger poem seems to speak for itself. Each of these texts provides a devotional thought especially appropriate for those who love the theological depth of those great hymns of our Christian faith.

I have my copy and would encourage each of you to get yours too. And as we recall some old hymn lines and learn some new ones let’s remember the exhortation of Paul that the words of Christ would dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish each other through those psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19).

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Dec 11 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 2 2019

An Argument for Punctuation in Projected Song Lyrics

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Adding punctuation to our projected text offers road signs and symbols that help frame the rhythm, flow, and phrasing of the story or poem we are singing. Most of us learned and have followed these non-verbal cues since elementary school.

A comma can tell singers where to pause for emphasis, but also indicates when a statement or question is not yet complete. A period shows singers when a verse, chorus, or phrase has ended. Additional punctuation helps singers emphasize or deemphasize certain words that might elevate or minimize theological implications. Singers might miss some of those spiritual emphases without those markers. Consequently, how would they know if what they are singing is asking a theological question or answering a doctrinal statement?

Since many of us will be singing Advent and Christmas Carols in the coming weeks you’ll see below a couple of examples of how adding or deleting punctuation can change the theological understanding of familiar carols:

So bring Him incense gold and myrrh

Come peasant king to own Him

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come, peasant, king, to own Him;

Without punctuation we are left confused with the peasant king oxymoron. With punctuation we understand that Christ is available to all, including peasants and kings.

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Rest you merry was a Shakespearean idiom that expressed good cheer or peace. Without punctuation it appears that the gentlemen are already merry. But with the appropriate punctuation the plea is actually for God to bring the gentlemen peace so that nothing will dismay them.

The argument that many of our songs are poetry, and consequently shouldn’t be expected to follow the same strict punctuation guidelines as prose is a valid one. But poetry doesn’t usually eliminate punctuation altogether, it instead uses it artistically to highlight the text.

Some worship leaders might be able to direct us vocally and instrumentally when those road signs are missing, but not all possess those abilities. And if we are truly trying to lead our congregations into participative instead of passive worship, then wouldn’t it make sense for leaders not to do for congregants what they already learned to do for themselves at a young age?

It is certainly easier not to add punctuation when we are preparing song slides for our worship services. But is ease what we are called to when we’re trying to encourage our congregants to leave with those texts and tunes in their hearts and on their lips for continuous worship. Punctuation can help them take those formative lyrics home with biblical and theological accuracy.

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Nov 27 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 25 2019

Are You Called to Lead Worship?

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What is compelling you to be a worship leader? Are you leading because you love to play and sing; because it is a great way to supplement your income or provide for your family; because of the notoriety of being on the platform; because you have a music degree but don’t want to teach school; or because you don’t really know how to do anything else? If these are reasons why you are leading worship, then it’s possible your compulsion might be out of convenience instead of calling.

God’s call gives us a task that is more than a role. It involves our entire being, not just our musical talent in service to the Lord. So it is a call to being as well as doing.[1] None of us alone in our own talent can claim to possess such commitment to God and compassion to men; such knowledge of faith and the ability to impart it through our worship leading; such maturity in godliness and wisdom in guiding others. Only Jesus gives that Spirit in full measure to those who are called.[2]

We don’t even have a call to worship leadership that was not first a call to Christ.[3] Worship leadership is not given to us for our talent to be elevated. Our talent is given to us for our worship to be elevated.

Convenience may fit well with a person’s plans or abilities. It is comfortable and readily accessible. And it is suitable and favorable to one’s own needs so it can often be accomplished without divine assistance. Convenience is a vocation or occupation in the mean time.

Calling, on the other hand, is a personal invitation from God to carry out a unique task. It is a strong inner impulse prompted by a divine conviction that often requires sacrifice. Calling is a ministry or mission for a lifetime. Consequently, it’s not always convenient.

So again, what is compelling you to be a worship leader? Convenience responds to that question with, “This is what I was trained to do.” Calling responds with, “This is what I was created to do.”

 

[1] Edmund P. Clowney, Called to the Ministry (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1976), 10.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 5.

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Nov 20 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 18 2019

10 Things Our Worship Songs Can’t Do

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10 Things Our Worship Songs Can’t Do

  • They can’t cause or cure our church conflicts.
  • They can’t grow or kill our church.
  • They can’t be contained in one genre or style.
  • They can’t begin or end our worship.
  • They can’t take the place of worship service Scripture.
  • They can’t cause us to worship.
  • They can’t prop up our bad theology.
  • They can’t take the place of worship service prayer.
  • They can’t usher us into the presence of God.
  • They can’t be our only act of worship.
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Nov 6 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 4 2019

Urban Myth

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There is sometimes a perception that the worship of a larger urban church is better because its size and metro location allows for a deeper pool of musicians and a higher quality of musicianship. So smaller rural church worship is often seen as a mediocre representation or a couple of steps behind and a few notches below its urban counterparts.

Urban and rural worship comparisons such as these might actually be true if the only standard by which our worship is measured is the level of our musicianship and availability of capable players and singers.

A standard is the basis or model to which something else should be compared. It is something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, value or quality.

Scripture speaks to standards by which our worship should be measured on several occasions. The prophet Micah condemned Israel’s dishonest, corrupt, and meaningless worship by pointing out that God’s standard is doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly (Micah 6:8).

Jesus outlined the standard by commanding us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). And Paul wrote that the standard is offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

Meeting these and other biblical standards for good worship doesn’t mean we are willing to settle for musical mediocrity or a lack of preparation. All churches, in fact, urban or rural must constantly strive to create something unbelievable with the music and musicians they have available to them.

But according to Scripture the standard by which our worship is measured as good or better is not the quality of our music or availability of musicians. It is instead the condition of our hearts. So the quality of worship that is based on that standard can be met just as readily in smaller rural churches as it can in larger urban churches.

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Oct 28 2019

50 Worship Leader Self-Evaluation Questions

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As worship leaders we sometimes don’t consider evaluating our own leadership until we receive complaints about something we are or aren’t doing or singing. Consequently, when those criticisms occur our responses are usually defensive rather than corrective.

Self-evaluation is preventive and proactive rather than defensive and reactive. So in order to avert or deter an unfavorable assessment from others, we should first ask some hard questions of ourselves. The following list of self-evaluation questions is not an exhaustive one but hopefully a place to begin.

  1. Are the services I plan and lead usually easy to follow or are they more often disorganized and disjointed?
  1. Am I planning worship each week for the congregation I’ve been called to lead or one I wish I had been called to lead?
  1. Are my verbal instructions and transitions ad-libbed and verbose or prepared and succinct?
  1. Am I encouraging passive worshipers by leading worship for them instead of with them?
  1. Do the people I put on the platform adequately represent the cultural, generational and spiritual characteristics of our congregation?
  1. Is my primary consideration for selecting worship team members musical or spiritual?
  1. Are the songs I lead on the platform evident in the life I lead off the platform?
  1. Am I selecting or not selecting songs and styles just because I personally like or don’t like them?
  1. Do I select song keys to intentionally encourage congregational participation or just to complement my own vocal range?
  1. Are the songs I select theologically sound and biblically accurate?
  1. Are any of my artistic, visual, verbal or musical expressions contrived or distracting? 
  1. Do I convey that worship starts and stops with our opening and closing songs?
  1. Do I begin worship planning each week with song titles or Scripture and prayer?
  1. Besides the latest songs, am I learning anything new?
  1. Since Sunday isn’t usually a Sabbath for me, when am I taking one?
  1. Do I ask how something might impact my family before asking how it might impact my worship leading?
  1. Have I surrounded myself with those who can protect me from my own stupidity?
  1. Am I spending a lot of time worshiping privately before leading worship publicly?
  1. Does always highlighting my playing and singing sometimes imply I don’t really care whether the congregation is singing or not?
  1. Do I wake up every morning feeling unqualified in my own power to do what God has called me to do?
  1. Am I taking care of myself spiritually, emotionally, physically and relationally?
  1. Have I gotten in the habit of using worship service prayer as a segue for musical elements instead of a divine conversation?
  1. Do I ever welcome divine interruptions in my service planning and leading?
  1. Am I casting vision for the future without denigrating the past?
  1. Do I determine the worship language of my congregations based on how I might appear to my worship leading friends?
  1. Am I able to worship when I’m not the primary leader?
  1. Is worship leading a calling for me or just convenient?
  1. Am I leading worship just because I don’t know how to do anything else?
  1. Am I making a conscious effort to pour into younger leaders or am I just trying to protect my territory?
  1. Am I threatened when someone on the team plays or sings better than I do?
  1. Am I depending on my musical skills alone to do what it’s only possible for God to do?
  1. Do I act like a gatekeeper by holding my congregation captive to my favorite worship styles and musical preferences?
  1. Does it seem like the services I plan tend to place more focus on the creative or the Creator?
  1. Am I spending more of my time developing my musical skills or my relationship skills?
  1. Do I find myself coasting or faking it more and more often?
  1. Am I approachable, available and accountable?
  1. Am I more concerned with playing right notes than having right relationships?
  1. Does it seem like I’m more of a cheerleader than a worship leader?
  1. Is it evident from my worship responses that I’m no longer amazed by God’s revelation?
  1. Does my leading lean toward manipulation instead of exhortation?
  1. Do I always seem to disappear when it’s time to set up or tear down?
  1. Am I showing up to rehearsals unprepared?
  1. Do I treat the worship team like backup musicians?
  1. Do I ever use my artistry and busyness as an excuse for laziness and lateness?
  1. Am I coasting at the first of the week causing me to scramble at the end of the week?
  1. Is the worship I’m leading challenging our congregation to be doers or just hearers?
  1. Am I regularly praying for and with those I lead?
  1. Are the songs I’m selecting giving our congregation an opportunity for celebration and contemplation?
  1. Do I offer a healthy balance of both familiar and new songs?
  1. Is it evident to others that I’m as much of a worship leader on Monday as I was on Sunday?
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Oct 23 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 16 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 14 2019

Top 10 Worship Word Wednesday Quotes

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I have been posting a weekly Worship Word Wednesday for a year. These are stand-alone quotes taken from my weekly Worship Evaluation Blog or my teaching notes and other writing projects. The following are the top 10 quotes from this last year according to analytics, shares, comments, likes or reposts.

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Oct 9 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 7 2019

Give Music a Rest!

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Musical rests indicate the absence of sound but not the end of the music. Rests add depth and emotion to a musical score through the use of silence. They create and relieve tension. They allow the players and singers to pause and take a breath before the next difficult musical passage. The silence of a rest creates a temporary break in the action and keeps the notes from being strung together in breathless chaos. So playing music without rests is like driving a car without brakes.

We rely on the sound of our music and words of our songs to manage and control others. A frantic stream flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see and even sing things our way. We evaluate, judge, condemn and devour congregants with our notes. Silence as one of the deepest spiritual disciplines puts a stop to that.[1]

Scripture is certainly not silent on silence… “That’s enough! Now know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). “Don’t be quick with your mouth or say anything hastily before God, because God is in heaven, but you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few” (Eccles. 5:2). There’s “a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking” (Eccles. 3:7).

John Ruskin, a Victorian era English art critic said this of the silence of music and rests:

There is no music in a rest, but there is the making of music in it. In our whole life-melody the music is broken off here and there by rests, and we foolishly think we have come to the end of the tune. God sends a time of forced leisure, sickness, disappointed plans, frustrated efforts and makes a sudden pause in the choral hymn of our lives, and we lament that our voices must be silent, and our part missing in the music which ever goes up to the ear of the Creator. Not without design does God write the music of our lives. But be it ours to learn the tune, and not be dismayed at the rests. They are not to be slurred over nor to be omitted, nor to destroy the melody, nor to change the keynote. If we look up, God Himself will beat the time for us. With the eye on Him, we shall strike the next note full and clear.[2]

Worship is a divine conversation that requires not only the sound of our voices and instruments but also the silence of our hearing and listening. Our worship music noise can mute the distinct voice of God that is often only discernible in the silence. In the midst of our self-generated noise, we can miss his healing, comforting and encouraging words of hope such as “I am with you, well done, you are forgiven and I am weeping with you.”

Making noise as our only offering can create monological worship. One-sided sound can monopolize the conversation. But the foundation of meaningful worship is instead dialogical. Dialogue is an interactive exchange of two or more participants. Healthy conversations include a balance of discussion and response, listening as well as speaking.

Since God began the conversation and graciously invited us to join Him in it, our worship could then be enhanced and renewed when we stop trying to monopolize that conversation with our responsive noise only. So in order to again hear and listen to God’s side of the conversation, maybe it’s time to concur with Samuel in our services of worship, “Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).

 

[1] Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 68.

[2] E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1903), 247.

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Oct 2 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 25 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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