Jan 11 2021

Sunday Worship: Starting a Fire From Scratch

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In the 2000 movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks played Chuck Noland, the lone survivor of a plane crash on an uninhabited island. Early in the movie, Noland realized he couldn’t survive without fire and offered us a glimpse of his resolve, despair, anger, and even humor as he labored over trying to start a fire from scratch.

Worship leaders can experience similar emotions when they are expected to light a fire each Sunday with the opening song. And even though congregants might not have done anything to help stir those embers during the week themselves, how easily they can blame the music or musicians when the spark is not there.

Worship leaders and the songs they lead alone can’t light a fire in us or usher us into the presence of God; the death and resurrection of Jesus already has. When we ascribe that power to earthly leaders, we begin to see their leadership as something that is meritorious or efficacious, meaning their actions are praised for what they can produce.[1] Those worship actions can indeed prompt, exhort, encourage, and remind us of God’s presence, but they can’t create or lead us into it.

God’s presence isn’t a physical place we attend or an emotional plane we achieve; we don’t go to it, sing it into existence, light it, or usher people into it. Instead, we have confidence to enter that holy place only by the blood of Jesus. And as our mediator, Jesus is not only the object of our worship but also the facilitator of it.

If we 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.[2] Every Sunday can then end up being a frustrating exercise in trying to start a fire from scratch or usher congregants into the presence of God.

Because of the laborious task of fire-starting, ancient nomadic people began to use earthenware vessels called fire pots. They would carry embers or slow-burning fires in these pots with them as they traveled from one location to another. Just by adding small amounts of kindling for fuel, they could keep those mini fires alive, enabling them to quickly ignite larger fires when they united as a group for their evening camps.

John the Evangelist wrote, “This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: ‘God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.’ If we claim, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin” (1 John 1:5-7).

So, instead of seeing worship as a new fire to start each week, what if we saw it as a flame or light that can be taken with us? Then it could continue as we leave the service. It could happen in our homes, at our schools, through our work, and in our culture. It couldn’t be contained in a single location, context, culture, style, artistic expression, or vehicle of communication. Consequently, instead of depending on our worship leaders to start the fire from scratch when we gather each week, they could just help us fan those flames that already exist.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What changes must we make in how we lead if our congregation expects us to light a worship fire from scratch each week?
  • If continuous worship is our goal, then how do we train our congregation to take that worship spark with them when they leave?
  • What might our worship look like when we gather on Sunday if our congregants have been continuous worshippers during the week?
  • What language could we use to send worshippers out for continuous worship?

[1] D. A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 50.
[2] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the
Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 9.

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 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 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 30 2020

Scriptureless Worship

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A worship service without Scripture reading may not be worship at all.

By limiting Scripture to a single reading prior to the pastoral exhortation, we may be unwittingly implying that we are placing a higher level of credibility in the exhortation than in the Word itself. It may then convey a lack of trust in the very Word professed to be foundational to our faith, doctrines, and practices. If Scripture can’t stand on its own, then we can’t possibly prop it up with our own words.

Robert Webber in Ancient-Future Worship wrote, “We are nourished in worship by Jesus Christ, who is the living Word disclosed to us in the Scriptures, the written Word of God. In spite of all the emphasis we evangelicals have placed on the importance of the Bible, there seems to be a crisis of the Word among us.”[1]

Congregations continue to struggle in their understanding of spirit and truth worship by maximizing music and depending on it alone to encourage worship renewal. At the same time those congregations often minimize the very root from which our songs must spring. John Frame offers two truths that highlight the value of God’s word in our worship: “First, where God’s Word is, God is. We should never take God’s Word for granted. To hear the Word of God is to meet with God himself. Second, where God is, the Word is. We should not seek to have an experience with God which bypasses or transcends his Word.”[2]

The dialogue of worship is formed when God’s word is revealed. This revelation causes worshippers to respond through the prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-15; 1 Thess 1:5). The result is a vertical conversation with God and horizontal communion with others. This dialogue develops a community that congregations have been desperately trying to create and recreate through their songs alone.

Some of the crisis of the Word is a result of our standing over the Bible and reading God’s narrative from outside instead of standing within the narrative and reading Scripture from the inside.[3] Reading Scripture as insiders helps us realize the text is not just describing someone else’s story in history but also describing the story of my life, my hope, my joy, my sin, and my journey away from and to God.[4]

As an elementary school teacher, my wife often reads or tells stories to her students to enhance auditory learning, encourage creativity, promote informational development, and advance knowledge. With imagination beyond my comprehension she is able to create stories and insert the names of her classroom children into the narrative, considering the personality and nature of each child. This narrative approach to reading and telling moves the children beyond just hearing the words to actually living inside those words.

When Scripture is read, when it is illuminated in our preaching, when it is incorporated into our prayers of thanksgiving and lament, when it frames the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and when we sing its text in a unified voice, Scripture becomes a means by which we are gathered into the body of the living Lord.[5]

Scripture must be foundational to our songs, sermons, prayers, verbal transitions, and even ministry announcements. It must be frequently, variously, generationally, and culturally read and allowed to stand on its own. When that occurs, our congregations will leave in-here worship, with the text in their hearts and on their lips, for nonstop worship out there.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How often are we reading Scripture in our worship services beyond the text for pastoral exhortation?
  • How might we encourage our congregation to not only hear the words of Scripture but also live inside those words?
  • Who usually reads Scripture in our services? Are we enlisting multiple generations, genders, and cultures as readers?
  • What filters should we put in place to help us determine if Scripture is primary instead of secondary in our worship services?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 113.

[2] John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 90.

[3] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 113–14.

[4] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 130.

[5] John Burgess, “Why Scripture Matters: Reading the Bible in a Time of Church Conflict,” in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 66.

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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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 18 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 9 2020

Worship: An Easy Language to Fake

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The Star Wars movie franchise created and constructed several languages for the various alien races introduced in the movie series. Ewokese, the language first heard in Return of the Jedi was spoken by the small furry Ewok residents of the forested moon of Endor. It is a simple language to imitate since its vocabulary is limited. So, just by watching the movie several times it would also be an easy language to fake.

Our worship language can be just as shallow. We can attend its services, imitate its songs and actions, have the appearance of a worshiper, and never really worship. So, it too can be an easy language to imitate and, consequently, fake.

Richard Foster wrote, Worship is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Forms and rituals do not produce worship, nor does the disuse of forms and rituals. We can use all the right methods, we can have the best possible liturgy, but we have not worshiped the Lord until His Spirit touches our spirit.[1]

There is a profound difference between learning and using a language by observing or imitating it and actually acquiring or living in the spirit of that language. Infants and toddlers imitate or mimic sounds and actions in order to learn a language. But as those children mature, they actually transform from imitating to acquiring that language. Language acquisition is when we are able to perceive, comprehend, and internalize that language.

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us how foolish or maybe fake it is when we come to worship just to imitate. It is recorded at the beginning of chapter five that we should, guard our steps as we go to the house of God and listen instead of offering the sacrifice of fools who don’t even know they are being foolish (Eccl 5:1).

Authentic worship language begins from the inside out, not the outside in. It doesn’t begin by imitating songs and actions, it begins in the depth of our soul and is then manifested through those songs and actions. Our soul reflects and responds to our relationship with the Father through the Son. It is not just something we do, it is who we are in response to who God is and what he has already done. It is with the heart first that we believe and are justified, and it is then with the mouth we profess (Rom 10:10). That is certainly a language that can’t be faked.

 

[1] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978).

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Nov 4 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 28 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 21 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 19 2020

A Modern Parable for Worship Leaders

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matthewThe Master Worship Leader called three novices with various gifts, passions, and capabilities to lead worship in three churches with distinct characteristics and needs.

To the first novice worship leader the Master gave a worship band that included five stellar players on rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard.

To the second novice worship leader the Master gave an aging rockabilly guitarist and a high school cajon player.

And to the third novice worship leader the Master gave a long-retired kindergarten teacher to play hymns as long as they weren’t in sharps.

So the Master entrusted the three novices to fulfill their unique worship callings in equally unique and sometimes challenging church settings.

The first novice realized his church wouldn’t be able to begin more services or plant additional churches until new players were trained. He encouraged his original band members to give lessons to younger players so they’d be available for new plants and as substitute players throughout the year. He also began a school of the arts to cultivate younger players so his church could share some of those players with several smaller churches in their community.

The second novice quickly realized rockabilly didn’t fit the worship voice of his congregation so he used some of his worship budget to invest in more nuanced worship guitar lessons for his rockabilly guitarist and one of his rockabilly band associates. And since the high school cajon player would graduate in a year, he was asked to train a younger middle schooler to serve as his replacement upon graduation.

The third novice coasted, surfed ministry placement sites, went to conferences with his resume in hand, and waited for the Master to call him to a more favorable position.

The Master checked in with the three novices to see how they were responding to his unique call in their unique settings.

The novice with five players showed the Master how he had doubled the number of players originally entrusted to him. So the Master commended him: “Good work! It’s obvious you are not just a musician but also a leader of worship and worshipers. You are a worthy ministry servant that can be trusted with more.”

The novice with two players showed the Master how he had invested in the skills of existing players and trained younger players for the future. So the Master celebrated with him: “Great job! It’s obvious you aren’t doing this alone and value the calling and gifts of others. You are a model of servant leadership ready for additional responsibilities.”

The novice with one player said, “Master, I know you have high worship standards and are not pleased with poor musicianship. And since no other players here at my church can live up to those expectations, I have been doing it all myself. I’ve been waiting for you to call me to another church with more skilled players who appreciate my musical prowess.”

The Master was angry and disappointed at this response so he asked the third novice two final questions: “If you knew I was after high worship standards, then why haven’t you been trying to achieve them where I called you with what I gave you? And if you haven’t been giving your best to this place where I called you now and have been saving it for where you hope I will call you next, then why would I want to?”

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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Oct 12 2020

Worship Spectators or Participators

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When the Navy starting quarterback was injured in the first half of a 2016 game with Fordham, the coaches called freshman Malcolm Perry out of the stands and into the game. He was listed as the team’s number four quarterback. The number three quarterback had been suspended that week so, consequently, the number two quarterback was the only one left with no back-up if needed. Perry was actually dressed in his Navy uniform whites in the stands with the brigade of other student midshipmen.

The young quarterback didn’t even have his football uniform at the stadium so the coaches had to send someone to pick it up from the team locker room back at the Naval Academy. By the fourth quarter, he was on the field playing in the game. Perry certainly realized that day the difference between watching the game from the stands as a spectator and actually engaging in the game on the field as a participator.

A spectator is someone who attends or watches an event or game as an onlooker, observer, or member of an audience. A spectator could be a fan or foe depending on who is playing and what is being played. And spectators sometimes assume they are in the game just because they are in the stands.

A participator is someone who is engaged in, involved in, or contributing to an event or game. A participator is one who invests in, takes part in, or shares in. And participators are really in the game because they are actually on the field.

If those of us who lead worship want congregants to be participators rather than spectators, then we must facilitate worship not just depending on our own strengths and abilities. We must also invest in the strengths and abilities of those with whom we worship and engage them on the field rather than being satisfied with them observing from the stands.

When we always read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition, and exhort for them, how can we expect congregants to ever transform from passive worship spectators into active worship participators?

Participatory worship is intentionally collaborative and is not guarded, territorial, defensive, or competitive. It leverages and trusts the creative abilities and resources of the whole in planning, preparing, and implementing worship.

So, the leader that promotes participative worship taps into the collective resources and talents of others by affirming publicly and privately their value to worship health. Those leaders who encourage participatory worship are not threatened when someone else gets their way or gets the credit. And participatory worship is a culture, not a one-time event.

Participators actually engage in and influence the worship of a church, but spectators only stand by and watch.

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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 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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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Sep 2 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 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 12 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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 20 2020

Economize: Worship Service Verbal Transitions

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If churches have learned anything during these last few months of online worship services it is that words and music had to be synthesized. A succinct, refined, and consolidated economy of sermons and songs was necessary since the service time online was abbreviated and attention spans were diminished. Those lessons shouldn’t be lost as worship leaders plan and lead regathered worship services.

Worship leader verbal transitions that connect songs and other service elements are vital to achieving worship flow. And yet, some worship leaders prior to moving completely online rarely prepared or even thought about the words of those transitions until it was time to make them. The result was often a long-winded circular discourse of clichés and verbosity. Hopefully, the distillation of words they refined online can be transferred to those in-person verbal transitions too.

Scripture often reminds us how important our words are:

The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble. Proverbs 21:23

Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him. Proverbs 29:20

The one who guards his mouth protects his life; the one who opens his lips invites his own ruin. Proverbs 13:3

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom; his tongue speaks what is just. Psalm 37:30

Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Ecclesiastes 5:2

Lord, set up a guard for my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips. Psalm 141:3

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14

Worship leaders could learn a valuable lesson from microblogging sites such as Twitter. Its success is based on sharing succinct but also persuasive information posted by users who get in, get out, and get on with it. Character limitations on Twitter forces users to formulate a mental outline of what is essential to say and how they want to say it before they actually say it. The most successful accounts synthesize information based on what the audience needs to know most.

Meaningful worship service verbal transitions are marked by a clear, succinct economy of words. Concise verbal eloquence requires preparation and practice. So maybe if we spent as much time praying over and rehearsing our verbal transitions as we presently spend praying over and rehearsing our songs, those transitions could contribute to rather than detract from our worship.

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Jul 15 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 24 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 3 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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 20 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 6 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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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