Sep 20 2021

8 Reasons to Stop Attending Ministry Conferences

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  • If envy is the first emotion you experience when encountering other ministry leaders…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If contempt for the accomplishments of others causes you to publicly claim their success must only have been possible through stylistic superficiality or theological compromise…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If your post conference pattern is to imitate and implement everything you see without considering how or if it might fit in the culture or context of your own congregation…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If congregants dread your return home after a conference since it always means you are going to immediately change something or start something new…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If you are critical of your ministry volunteers when they can’t imitate what you observed and experienced at the conference…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If you always return home disappointed in the place God has called you now and long for the place He will call you next…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If you question your calling because it seems like everyone there was younger, more recognized, more gregarious, and well-spoken…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

  • If you are constantly looking to the left or right to see how you measure up instead of fixing your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith…you should stop attending ministry conferences.

If, however, you can attend those conferences and filter the valuable insights through the context of your own uniquely positioned and distinctly designed congregation; if you implement what you observe out there only after determining how it might complement the gifts of those you already have in here; and if reevaluation instead of revolution and contentment instead of covetousness are your post-conference defaults; then by all means attend as many of those ministry conferences as your budget and calendar will allow.

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Sep 15 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 7 2021

Maybe Worship Needs Less Passion and More Purpose

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Passion is caused by intense excitement from the outside, purpose is caused by convictions from the inside. Purpose is intentional, passion is situational. Passion occurs when we feel good, purpose occurs even when we don’t. Passion focuses on what we do, purpose focuses on why we do it. Passion is fleeting, purpose is continuous. So, maybe our worship needs a little less passion and a lot more purpose.

Worship based on passion waits for feelings to be stirred externally. So, if those feelings are not stirred because congregants don’t know or particularly like the songs, they can even leave the worship service believing worship couldn’t and didn’t occur.

When passion is foundational to our worship, we are tempted to re-create divine moments, events, or even complete seasons based almost completely on the feelings originally stirred so we can elicit or feel that passion again.

Worship based on purpose, however, responds to a relationship that already exists internally. So, we respond not because of what our songs do to us, but instead, because of what Christ has already done in us.

So, worshiping with purpose means it occurs from the inside out, not the outside in. Thomas a Kempis said it this way, “A good devout person first arranges inwardly the things to be done outwardly.”

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Sep 1 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 25 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 23 2021

Congregational Lament

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The language of lament is found in more than half of the psalms but is largely absent in much of the Protestant culture. Lament is that healthy, open expression of pain, complaint, sorrow, anger, frustration, and grief directed to a God who understands. If congregations are to experience renewal of the biblical understanding of lament and its appropriateness in their worship culture, they must consider how to implement this communal response as a regular part of their liturgy. The following list is not an exhaustive one but is a place to begin the conversation.

  • Leaders must model lament.

Modeling will require leaders not just to preach, teach, and sing about the psalms of lament, but also to live them with their congregation. In response, congregants must allow their leaders the freedom to express their own vulnerabilities without fear of reprisal. When leaders introduce lament to a worshiping community through the articulation of common experience, the sorrow worshipers and leaders share validates those expressions.

  • Read all of the Psalms.

It is ironic that our worship culture so rabidly defends the Word as foundational to our faith and practice, yet limits its use only to palatable text that does not offend. John Witvliet reminds us that “when faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.”[1]

  • Pray the Psalms.

A meaningful approach is to pray a lament psalm corporately in response to a specific lamentable situation. Psalm praying gives voice to the timid and unity to the lamenting body. Praying psalms of lament can take us deeper much quicker than we are often able or comfortable going on our own. Eugene Peterson in Answering God reminds us that, “left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us . . . the Psalms train us in that conversation.”[2]

  • Incorporate lament beyond contrition.

If we have participated at all in lament in our public and private worship practices, it has been as a response to sorrow and despair over our sinful nature. We are often more comfortable with contrition, since we can admit that our struggle is something we caused and there is no one to blame but ourselves. This alleviates our discomfort and fear of the appearance of faithlessness by questioning God in our lament language. Contrition in response to our sinful nature is indeed a necessity. But we must also admit that lament in response to circumstances beyond our control is also necessary.

  • Sing songs of lament.

Until recently, the writers and composers of hymns and modern worship songs were not publishing many songs to help a congregation express the language of lament. Even those texts that leaned toward lament were often set to catchy tunes in major keys. Since the ongoing tragedies of life cannot be ignored, however, more composers and lyricists are offering song selections to help congregations express words of pain, grief, sorrow, and even anger.

  • If not here, then where?

If our churches are not a safe place to express despair, pain, grief, and anger, then where is a safe place? Since this language is so prevalent in the lives of our congregants, we must offer them a venue to express those emotions or they will look for another place more excepting of that kind of language. Walter Brueggemann suggests that “in a society that is increasingly shut down in terms of public speech, the church in all of its pastoral practices may be the community where the silenced are authorized to voice.”[3]

 

[1] John D. Witvliet, “A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis,” Reformed Worship 44 (June 1997): 22.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 3.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Voice as Counter to Violence,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (April 2001): 25.

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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Aug 9 2021

Want Healthier Worship on Sunday? Gotta Serve Somebody on Monday!

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Sunday worship is both the culmination and commencement of the worship week. Commencement means a beginning or a start and culmination means an end or an arrival at a final stage. When considering these definitions with regard to Sunday worship, what seems mutually exclusive is actually collectively exhaustive. Is the Sunday worship service the commencement of the worship week? Yes! Is the Sunday worship service the culmination of the worship week? Yes!

As a commencement, the Sunday service sings our congregations out. The worship when we gather may be great, but until it impacts those we come into contact with when we disperse, it’s incomplete. As a culmination, the Sunday service sings our congregations in. Gathered worship is then a continuation and celebration of the worship that has already been occurring during the week through sacrificial acts of service. So, Sunday is the day we both gather them for worship and disperse them to worship.

A couple of decades ago I was conducting the last Saturday morning rehearsal before our choir and orchestra presented their Christmas music the next day in our services. We needed six hours of rehearsal but only had three, so the stress was high and levity low. Right in the middle of rehearsing one of the songs, a man entered the worship center behind me, distracting the players and singers. I stopped the song to address the interruption and regain control of rehearsal.

It was obvious from his appearance that this man’s needs were benevolent ones. He was there to request help with food for his family, fuel for their car, and firewood to heat their home. Since he had recently lost his job, he was also hoping our church could help with Christmas gifts for his children. I responded to his request by saying, “We’re in the middle of preparing for a special Christmas worship service tomorrow at church, so we won’t have time to help you right now. But if you’ll come by our offices on Monday, we’ll see if we can get you some assistance.” He never returned.

Mark Labberton wrote, “Worship can name a Sunday gathering of God’s people, but it also includes how we treat those around us, how we spend our money, and how we care for the lost and the oppressed. Worship can encompass every dimension of our lives.”[1] I often wonder how much more impactful our Christmas worship services on that Sunday evening might have been if I had taken a few moments to serve as an act of worship on that Saturday morning.

We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs as an expression of our desire to know Jesus, but the Jesus we want to know is the sanitized Jesus who looks a lot like us. Despite God’s word to the contrary, we think that we can say we love God yet hate our neighbor, neglect the widow, forget the orphan, fail to visit the prisoner, ignore the oppressed. When we do this, our worship becomes a lie to God.[2]

Serving others reminds us that the sermons we have prepared and songs we have selected may not be the most important act of worship this week. Serving others is one of those actions we take to ensure that worship continues when we leave our services. We spend so much time leading church services as an act of worship that we often neglect to lead the church in service as an act of worship too. Worship as service will never be completely realized until we can say every Sunday, “Worship has left the building.” God is looking for a worship lifestyle that rights wrongs, cares for the poor, rejects injustice, and embraces generosity. Worship that comes from a community that doesn’t model those characteristics turns the beautiful melodies we’ve just sung into something discordant.[3]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What could occur as we lead gathered worship on Sunday if we have served together as a team during the week?
  • How can we better balance our time between our worship services and worship as service?
  • In what ways can we ensure the songs we sing on Sunday are also evident in the lives we lead the rest of the week?
  • What service ministry might we adopt together as a team?

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 13.

[2] Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship, 71.

[3] David Ruis, The Justice God Is Seeking: Responding to the Heart of God through Compassionate Worship (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2006), 29.

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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Jul 14 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 12 2021

Is Hallmark Planning Your Worship Services?

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Some congregations and even entire denominations have not embraced the Christian calendar as foundational to their worship planning and implementation out of concern that it is too rigid, routine, or orthodox. In their desire to be non-liturgical, however, some have in fact created their own liturgy framed by Hallmark or denominational and civic calendars.

The desire for worship creativity has caused some congregations to look elsewhere, believing annual celebrations promote monotony and conformity. 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]

In the Middle Ages the church calendar was filled with such a multitude of saints’ days that the value of festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost was lost. In response, some of the Reformers eliminated the entire church year. Other Protestants responded similarly, and in the sixteenth century the Puritans rejected even Christmas as a festival day.[2]

As Protestant congregations started again to commemorate special days, they focused on cultural and denominational calendars instead of on the Christian calendar. As the antitheses to what was considered Catholic, these civic days were given as much or more credibility as the days of the Christian calendar. But some congregations who avoided the Christian calendar were affirming annual observances whose foundations were not biblically grounded.[3]

I love, appreciate, and revere my family. I am grateful I get to be their husband and dad. I think about them often and can’t imagine life without them. Our story is something I enjoy celebrating and telling others about every chance I get. As a result of that gratitude, what if I used the worship service this Sunday just to exalt my family? Instead of worshipping God that day, what if I planned the entire service to celebrate and sing the praises of my family?

If idolatry is extreme devotion to anyone or anything that isn’t God, then replacing the cross with our mothers, fathers, graduates, or the flag as the primary symbol of our worship on any given Sunday could cause us to stray into idol territory. God’s story and our response to that story transcend cultural and denominational calendars.

Harold Best wrote, “There is one fundamental fact about worship: at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ.”[4] Best continued with, “All worship outside the worship of God through Christ Jesus is idolatrous.”[5]

God has placed each one of our congregations in a unique cultural and national context. Worshipping while giving consideration to those contexts is one of the exciting challenges for a modern church. As long as Christian worship is our starting point it will provide us with the opportunity to take up that challenge without compromising our biblical and theological foundations.[6]  Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday, and Memorial Day in the same seasons as Ascension Day and Pentecost? Without ignoring one or the other, it is possible to converge holidays significant to our civic and denominational calendars with those Christian holidays significant to the kingdom.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What days or seasons in the Christian calendar haven’t we been observing that we could add to our worship calendar?
  • How can we incorporate cultural, denominational, and Christian calendar observances within our worship service?
  • How can we move away from observing holidays that are causing us to take our focus from the worship of God, while still being sensitive to the emotional connection those days have for our congregation?

 

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

[2] Barry Liesch, People in the Presence of God: Models and Directions for Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 223.

[3] Carson, Transforming Worship, 56.

[4] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 17.

[5] Best, Unceasing Worship, 163.

[6] Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 5, The Services of the Christian Year (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 82–83.

 

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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Jun 23 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 21 2021

Worship Leader: You’re an Usher, Not the Bride

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Most Protestant churches have rejected the old covenant practice of recognizing priests as a special class of religious hierarchy. Even though some congregations have retained the title, their priestly function is often a pastoral role as ministers rather than as interceders. The belief that someone else must mediate our relationship with God for us or dispense God’s grace to us was set aside through the foundational doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

If worship leadership is always done by a select few, then we may be continuing to feed that priestly misconception. Those who lead worship should instead take on that responsibility like an usher in a wedding. The duty of a wedding usher is to help others find their place in the wedding ceremony. They accomplish this task without coercion or force by offering their arm as an encouragement for participants to accompany them.

Ushers always move at an appropriate pace as they guide and exhort friends and family to their proper locations. It is often necessary for ushers to arrive early and stay late since they have just as much responsibility before and after the ceremony as during it. And the best ushers are those who are friendly, genuine, and welcoming without needing to be acknowledged, honored, or credited.

Even though ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony, they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Leading worship like an usher with an attitude of humility is one of the most difficult qualities for a worship leader to embrace and sustain. In the name of a higher calling we are often unwilling to take a secondary and supportive role.

Scripture offers Jesus as “a priest in the holy place, which is the true meeting tent that God, not any human being, set up” (Heb 8:2). In this place of ministry, Jesus became our liturgist and serves as our mediator. As the tabernacle and its elements are described, the author of Hebrews points out that the old covenant limited access to God. Only the high priest was allowed into the holy of holies one time a year with a blood offering (Heb 9:3, 6-7). The place where God’s presence was most realized was not available except through the high priest and only at certain times of the year.

In the new covenant, however, Jesus became the mediator and serves as the intercessor for the people of God. An earthly priest was no longer required; the sacrifice was complete; Jesus’s blood was offered; the veil was torn in half; and the way was now open for all to worship God without an earthly mediator. Most churches embrace that shift theologically and doctrinally but sometimes continue to function with leaders who are still serving as earthly high priests.

Worship leaders’ calling is to invest in, not intercede for, our congregations. That responsibility is Jesus’s alone, not ours. The death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us that all may enter into the presence of God with boldness not available in the restrictions of the old covenant. Our responsibility is to serve our congregations like an usher by exhorting them to an understanding that “we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, and we have a great high priest over God’s house” (Heb 10:19-21).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How might our worship-leadership habits be causing us to appear as the bride instead of an usher?
  • What would leading like an usher look like each Sunday in the worship culture of our congregation?
  • How can we hold one another accountable if we are to start moving toward leading worship on behalf of instead of with our congregation?
  • If we only have a limited pool of qualified worship leaders, then how do we keep from giving the impression that worship can only be led by a select few?

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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Jun 7 2021

The Anxiety of Ministry on the Other Side of a Pandemic

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Those of us who plan and lead church ministries each week entered 2021 with mixed emotions of both hope and apprehension. We were hopeful that we might again fire up our favorite ministries but apprehensive about which ones actually survived the hiatus.

This last year required us all to make some radical adjustments to how we planned and led ministry each week. As a result, most have realized that how we will lead those ministries in the future will never again be exactly how we led them before the pandemic, and probably shouldn’t be.

So, like the Israelites, we are getting ready to cross our own Jordan River to a place of uncertainty and anxiety. As we consider the comfort on this side of the river and anxiety on that side of the river we need to be reminded that ministry principles on both sides are the same even though our practices on one side or the other might vary. Practices change. Principles don’t.

If God has called us to our present places of ministry, then he has called us to such a time and place as this…even when we aren’t certain what this is. So, like Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan River, we too need to be strong and courageous for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go (Josh 1:1-9).

The Israelites didn’t have any idea what might await them on the other side of the Jordan, nor do we. So, even if our favorite ministry practices aren’t firing back up quickly enough…be strong and courageous. If after crossing the Jordan we no longer recognize the ministry territory…be strong and courageous. If crossing the Jordan requires adding new leaders to help us move forward…be strong and courageous. If crossing the Jordan requires us to lay all those previous ministry practices on the table to determine which ones are still viable on the other side…be strong and courageous.

Joshua told the Israelites to consecrate themselves because the Lord was about to do amazing things among them (Joshua 3:5). He didn’t show them what those amazing things were until they were willing to prepare themselves spiritually, break camp here, and then cross over there (Josh 3:14). Our initial response to something new and uncertain that requires us to leave here and cross over there is usually, “But I like it here. So, I’m going to try everything I can to keep us here or get us back to the way things were here.”

Some of us have been camped here for so long we are even willing to say, “I don’t care if God is leading us there, I am staying here.” But staying here when God has called us there may cause us to miss some amazing things. So, as painful as it might be to no longer get to lead from some of those previous sweet-spots of ministry, wouldn’t it be worth it to experience amazing things on the other side of the river and no longer wander around in the wilderness?

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May 17 2021

The Narcissism of Worship My Way

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We are created in God’s image, not God in ours. When we worship we must acknowledge that we aren’t starting the conversation. Instead, God began the dialogue and is inviting us to join it.

Our worship proclaims, enacts, and sings God’s story.[1] If our worship is truly in spirit and truth, then it must reflect who God is, not necessarily just what we want. When we focus on what we need, deserve, and prefer, the attention of our worship is always on us. But when we focus on what God desires, the attention of our worship is on him.

Conversational narcissism is what sociologist Charles Derber calls the constant shifting of the conversation away from others and back to us. Derber wrote, “One conversationalist transforms another’s topic into one pertaining to himself through the persistent use of the shift-response.”[2] Shift-response is taking the topic of conversation initiated by another and shifting its focus to our own selfish interests. We’ve all been involved in those conversations that have been hijacked by someone who makes their own story seem more dramatic, humorous, or emotional than all others. A conversation that originally began with others ends up being focused on them.

Conversational narcissism is manifested in worship when we take the topic and shift its focus to a topic of our own choosing. Instead of worship focused on God and God’s story, it is focused on me and my story.[3] Shifting the topic of our worship can also shift the object of our worship. When those shifts occur, the conversation is no longer initiated by or focused on the worshipped but instead on the worshipper. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis illustrated the difference between just seeing something as an outsider and actually seeing or looking along something as an insider:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.[4]

When we stand outside of the beam and expect it to move where we are, the god we worship looks like us. We believe that the beam is there for our sake instead of our being there for its sake. Then the object of our worship (God and God’s story) is transferred to an object of our own choosing (us and our story). Harold Best wrote, “Idolatry is the difference between walking in the light and creating our own light to walk in.”[5] But when we step into the beam and look along that beam, we don’t just see God, we also see what God wants us to see. Then our worship is no longer shaped by what we want or feel like we’ve earned, but instead is shaped by who God is and what he has done.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we help our congregation step into God’s story instead of expecting God to step into ours?
  • Since we get to select what occurs in worship each week, how can we make sure we aren’t selecting worship elements just to accommodate our own needs?
  • Are there any recent examples where it seems like we asked God to move the beam where we are?
  • What worship elements could we introduce to help our congregants transform from selfish to selfless worshippers?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 39.

[2] Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979), 26–27.

[3] Robert Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 231.

[4] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212.

[5] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 165–66.

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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May 12 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 10 2021

Worship Leader…When Is Your Sabbath?

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The following is an excerpt from my upcoming article in the June 2021 edition of Reformed Worship. David W. Manner, “Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath; We Aren’t: Helping Worship Leaders Find Rest,” Reformed Worship, June 2021, 46-48. Reprint by permission from Reformed Worship © 2021 Worship Ministries.

Congregations should put guardrails in place to invest more deeply and meaningfully in the lives and future ministry of their worship leaders. One way to encourage and refresh leaders is by offering an extended period of rest through sabbaticals. Sustained time away every few years beyond their vacation weeks allows worship leaders to step aside completely from their daily responsibilities to renew their bodies, refresh their souls, and reaffirm their calling to God and their church.

Those ministry sabbaticals can give worship leaders permission to rest, heal, and recharge without carrying the weight of the preparation and accountability for those weekly rehearsals, meetings, and services. Offering worship ministry sabbaticals can give a congregation the unique opportunity to practice stewardship of those leaders God has entrusted to them. Sabbaticals are a great investment in the health and future of worship leaders. But churches will also be the beneficiaries of new ideas, challenges, and vision from worship leaders recharged and refreshed for the next season of ministry.

Even if a congregation doesn’t provide an extended time away for rest, worship leaders are called individually to observe a sabbath. The rest Jesus refers to in Matthew 11 can be translated as “refreshment.” To refresh means to renew, revive, or reinvigorate. Refreshment is not idleness. It isn’t an escape from responsibilities, or laziness, or a free pass. It is instead an intentional, deeply calming physical and spiritual peace or time of respite in the midst of one’s responsibilities.[1]

But how can worship leaders begin to observe a sabbath when it hasn’t previously been part of their weekly rhythm of life? As with any new exercise, it might require adding elements incrementally before committing completely. Sabbath is acquired. It must be learned or developed over time in order for it to become a practice. Just a few sabbath moments throughout the day can remind leaders that worship is a response to God’s revelation, not a generator of it. Expanding those moments to a sabbath hour or a portion of a day each week will require more intentionality. Setting aside an hour at the beginning of the day could preempt some of those worship-leading stressors that threaten to derail ministry during the day. Scheduling an hour of rest at the end of the work day could protect worship leaders from taking some of those ministry frustrations home.

Taking a sabbath from social media sites and worship technology platforms by occasionally turning off devices can say to leaders and those they lead: please, rest. A constant social media presence shows little sign of practicing God’s rest.[2] Worship leaders could also learn from observant Jewish people, who believe Sabbath begins at sundown the evening before gathering for worship. The activities and things with which worship leaders fill their time the night before worship could better refresh and prepare their physical, emotional, and spiritual dispositions during worship.

Worship ministry is never complete. So, it tends to sanctify busyness rather than free us from it. We often value motion and noise as a sign of significance, believing our efforts indicate our level of worship relevance. And even if worship leaders have a scheduled day off each week, they often hold that day in reserve to complete the list of things that didn’t get done during the week. Consequently, worship leaders’ tanks are constantly drained with no opportunities to refill them, especially during busy seasons of the church year. Expanding to a full day of sabbath rest won’t occur until it is not only scheduled, but also protected.

Jesus says in Matthew 12 that he is Lord of the Sabbath. We aren’t. So, observing sabbath rest and taking sabbaticals every few years can offer worship leaders intentional margins for recovery that will encourage them to take up Jesus’ yoke instead of constantly bearing those stressful burdens of leadership, sometimes even of their own making.[3]

 

[1] David W. Manner, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020), 130. ©2020 Abingdon Press Used by Permissions. All rights reserved.

[2] Adapted from Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 11-12.

[3] Manner, Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 130.

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May 3 2021

Creating Worship Tourists

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tourist photo

In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard wrote, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen and noting weather reports radioed from shore. No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things.”[1]

If we never involve our congregants as more than casual bystanders while we read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition, and exhort, then how can we expect them to transform from passive spectators to active participators? Aren’t we really creating worship tourists who select their destination based solely on their impression of the platform tour guide and excursion offered rather than worship travelers on a continuous journey?

Tourists, on the one hand, sample other cultures as long as they aren’t too different from their own. They expect others to adjust to them. Inconvenience for a tourist is always inconvenient because it discourages pleasure and preference. Tourists only scratch the surface and ask what, when, and how much. They only go where the map takes them, are there to experience the sites, aren’t willing to stray away from their native language, and always ask, “What’s in it for me.” Worship tourists are onlookers or observers, much like they would watch an event or game. They are audience members or spectators who might be a fan or foe depending on who is playing and what is being played. And they think they are in the game because they are in the stands.

Travelers, on the other hand, willingly immerse themselves in cultures even when they might be radically different from their own. They adjust instead of expecting others to adjust to them. Inconvenience for a traveler is never inconvenient because it encourages discovery. Travelers always dig deep and ask who and why. They go where the road takes them, are there to understand the sites, attempt to learn new languages, and always ask, “What’s in it of me.” Travelers are involved in the game because they are contributing to it. They relate to what is going on because it is larger than them. As participants they are engaged and involved in the game because they are actually on the field and not in the stands.

Leaders facilitate participative worship not by just depending on their own strengths and abilities but also by investing in the strengths and abilities of other congregants who are willing to subordinate their individual interests to the corporate concerns of the entire congregation. The leader who promotes participative worship taps into the collective resources and talents of others by affirming their value to worship health.

Participative worship is intentionally collaborative and is not guarded, territorial, or defensive. It trusts the creative abilities and resources of the whole in the planning, preparation, and implementation. Consequently, participatory leaders are not threatened when someone else gets their way or gets the credit. Participatory worship is a culture, not a one-time event.

Will Willimon wrote, “Many of the Sunday orders of worship consist of the pastor speaking, the pastor praying, the pastor reading, and the choir singing, with little opportunity for the congregation to do anything but sit and listen. When the Sunday service is simply a time to sit quietly, hear some good music and a good sermon, sing a hymn and then go home to eat dinner, no wonder many of our people get confused into thinking that Christ only wants passive admirers rather than active followers.”[2]

The ultimate destination for worship tourists and travelers may be exactly the same. But the connection for the tourist is usually shallow and fleeting. The connection for the traveler, however, is always deep and continuous. The worship tourist endures the journey in order to reach the destination, while the traveler values the journey as part of the destination.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we move our congregants from passive spectators to active participators?
  • What are we presently doing that may be discouraging or encouraging participative worship?
  • What are some of those worship-leadership elements we should be asking congregants to do so our leaders aren’t doing everything for them?
  • How will we know if we are accomplishing our goal of more congregational worship participation?

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 52.

[2] William H. Willimon, Preaching and Leading Worship (Philadelphia: West- minster, 1984), 20.

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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Apr 26 2021

20 Blessings for Continuous 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. Worshiping as we gather here and scatter there 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 actions might have been as we gathered in here, they are incomplete until they also include how we continue to worship out there. Blessings like the ones below can send your congregation out with scriptural texts in their hearts and on their lips for continuing worship out there.

Romans 15:13
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Numbers 6:24-26
May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you; may the Lord look with favor on you and give you peace.

1 Corinthians 15:58
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.

Romans 8:38-39
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Psalm 121:1-2
I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Romans 15:5-6
Now may the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, according to Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice.

Ephesians 3:20-21
Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

2 Peter 1:2-3
May grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Romans 16:25-27
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ—to him be the glory forever! Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21
Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus—the great Shepherd of the sheep—through the blood of the everlasting covenant, equip you with everything good to do his will, working in us what is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36
Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
And who has ever given to God, that he should be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.

Jude 24-25
Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen.

2 Corinthians 13:11; 13
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Become mature, be encouraged, be of the same mind, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Ephesians 3:16-19
I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Philippians 4:5-7
Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:12-17
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.

2 Peter 3:17-18
Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stable position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.

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Apr 21 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 19 2021

10 Worship Leading Fails

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failureWorship-leading novices and aging veterans have all looked back at certain Sundays with a deep longing for another chance to do or handle things differently. It would be impossible to go back and make corrections to many of those leadership and relationship failures. We do, however, have the opportunity for another chance to get it right this Sunday. One way to learn from the past in order to influence the future is to anticipate and head-off some of the following mistakes before they are made.

 

  1. Trying to fix relationships with music

Leading music doesn’t necessarily equate to leading people. We’ll never be able to teach enough new songs to make up for leadership and relationship failures. What will our congregations remember most about our worship leadership…how we led them musically while on the platform or how we ministered to them off the platform? Musical talent and platform presence may help us secure a worship leading position but developing relationship skills will help us keep it.

  1. Flying Solo

Most of us have enough musical talent to succeed alone for a while. The time will come, however, when the inherent risks of trying to do it alone will cause us to fail, also alone. So if we try to receive all the credit when something works, we’ll also receive all the credit when something doesn’t. If we never involve our congregants as more than casual bystanders while we read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition and exhort, then how can we expect them to transform from passive spectators to active participators?

  1. Singing too much

Music is an expression given to us so that we might offer it to God in worship. But it is not the only expression or even the primary expression. Considering Scripture, Prayer and the Lord’s Supper as foundational instead of supplemental worship elements could alleviate the pressure on music to serve as the primary driver of worship renewal and consequently diminish its solitary blame for worship conflict.

  1. Trying to be the bride

Ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony but they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Like ushers, worship leaders must be willing to take a secondary role in order to help others find their place in the service without coercion or force but instead by humbly encouraging participants to accompany them.

  1. Inviting God to show up

Worship isn’t our attempt to be with the Father, it is our response to having been with the Father. We often take credit for instigating God’s presence by what we sing or how we sing it. But He started the conversation, was present long before we arrived, and has been waiting patiently for us to acknowledge Him. So, worship doesn’t invite God’s presence, it acknowledges it.

  1. Leading by comparison

The potential for worship leading envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find other leaders who are younger, play guitar better, sing with more passion or have a better platform presence. Contentment is leading the ministry God has given you. Comparison is envying the ministry you wish He had given you. It is tempting to look to the left or right to see how we measure up. Instead, we must run this race by keeping our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

  1. Talking too much

Worship service elements and song sets often require meaningful verbal transitions and yet, we rarely prepare for or even think about those transitions until it is time to make them. The result is often a long-winded holding pattern of circular discourse including clichés, detours, and verbosity. Successful worship verbal communicators know the flight plan and how to land the plane before leaving the runway.

  1. Confusing calling and convenience

If we are leading worship every Sunday just because we love to play and sing, because we need to supplement our income, because we enjoy being up-front, or because we are not trained to do anything else, then our worship leading compulsion might be out of convenience instead of calling. A calling is a personal invitation from God to carry out a unique task. And it is not always convenient. Convenience says, “This is what I was trained to do.”  Calling says, “This is what I was created to do.”

  1. Segregating grandparents and grandchildren

We often divide our congregations along age and affinity lines in an effort to appease multiple generations and minimize conflict. Except in rare cases, it appears that the worshiping community suffers and all generations lose. It is beneficial for all generations when grandparents and grandchildren get to worship together. But it’s only possible when battle lines are drawn over who can offer or give the most instead of who deserves or demands the most.

  1. Leading worship as an event

If our worship leadership conveys that worship starts when we start it and ends when we end it; if we expend all resources and energy preparing for and leading a single hour on Sunday and have nothing left to encourage worship the other hours of the week; if we aren’t exhorting our congregations and modeling for them how to worship not only when we gather but also when we disperse; then we are leading worship as an event. Worship is a daily process, not a weekly event. What occurs on Sunday should be an overflow of what has already occurred during the week.

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Apr 12 2021

Worship Leader Ageism: Stick the Landing!

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

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

  • Learn a new language.

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

  • Force quit.

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

  • Extend your shelf-life.

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

  • Get another job.

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

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

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

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

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

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Apr 5 2021

Is Your Worship Out of Tune?

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Being unified is the state of being united, linked, or joined together as one in spite of diversities and differences. Uniformity, however, is the state or quality of being the same. A healthy worshipping congregation and the worship team that leads it require unity but not necessarily uniformity.

A tuning fork is a u-shaped acoustic resonator made from an elastic metal. Its tines vibrate at a constant pitch by striking them against a hard surface. Once struck, a tuning fork emits a pure musical tone that is used as a standard to tune a variety of instruments.

A standard is the basis or model to which something else should be compared. It is determined by those in authority as a rule for measuring the quality or value of something.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow.[1] What is the standard to which your worship is tuned?

Your worship is out of tune . . .

  • If what’s in it for me is your standard.
  • If coat and tie or untucked shirt and jeans is your standard.
  • If hymns or modern worship songs are your standard.
  • If the styles of another congregation or artist are your standard.
  • If musical excellence alone is your standard.
  • If worship band, orchestra, choir, or worship team is your standard.
  • If when and where you worship is your standard.
  • If fixed or free liturgy is your standard.
  • If the creativity of novelty or the comfort of nostalgia is your standard.

But if your standard is instead who, why, and in what power we worship—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then your worship will always be perfectly tuned.[2] According to Paul, being unified is living together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel (Phil 1:27). We can exercise a variety of different worship gifts, callings, and styles and still be unified as long as our root solidarity is not our worship expressions but the gospel.

Art professor Sam Van Aken combined art and farming to develop an incredible Tree of 40 Fruit. He bought an orchard that was about to be shut down and spent several years chip grafting a variety of trees onto a single fruit tree. In the spring, Van Aken’s tree is a stunning patchwork of multicolored blossoms, producing fruit such as plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and almonds. The roots of each of these trees are united even though the fruit or outward expressions are diverse. Each tree offers just the right amount of each of forty varieties.[3]

The Apostle Paul said it this way to the church at Corinth, “Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many” (1 Cor 12:12). “Certainly, the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,’ does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,’ does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like God wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body” (1 Cor 12:14-20).

 

[1] A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Vancouver, BC: Eremitical Press, 2009), 90.

[2] Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 90.

[3] Science Alert Staff, “This Magical Tree Produces 40 Different Types of Fruit,” ScienceAlert, June 22, 2018, https://www.sciencealert.com/40-types-of-fruit-tree-artwork-van-aken-2018.

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

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Mar 24 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 22 2021

Pulpit Envy

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No matter how large or small, every church should be developing distinctly and becoming uniquely the congregation God has called them to be. Loving the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves are never contingent on congregational size or abilities. It is instead our offering of all we have at that time and all we are in that moment.[1]

The potential for ministry envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find another church with larger ministries, more celebrity, an edgier band, or a pastor with better communication skills and platform presence than ours. Ministry envy is irrational and covetous discontent as the result of another’s perceived superior qualities, advantages, achievements, and successes. So, instead of being willing to champion the ministry successes of our colleagues in other churches, we assume and even publicly claim that those successes must only have been possible through stylistic superficialities, biblical shallowness, or theological compromise.

When we pastor from an attitude of envy our churches will never measure up because of what we are trying every Sunday to measure up to. To measure up means to be as good as, to have the same qualifications as, to reach a certain standard as, to be of high enough quality for, or to compare with something or someone else. Trying to measure up to the ministries of another congregation can be like running on a treadmill. As long as we keep our eyes focused ahead, we can log miles safely. But when we look to the left or right to see  how we measure up, our feet follow our eyes and cause us to veer off course or even wipeout. The writer of Hebrews said it this way: let’s run the race that is laid out in front of us and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter (Heb 12:1-2).

Comparing the ministries of our church to that of another congregation means we are trying to measure up to a standard God has called them to, not the one he has called us to. And God obviously sees the value of our calling even in those seasons when we don’t. Keeping our eyes on Jesus instead of others means we lead with contentment, not comparison. It’s a discipline that is not always fun and even seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those of us trained by it (Heb 12:11).

We could learn a lot from MacGyver, the main character in an action-adventure television series that ran for several seasons in the 1980s. The show followed secret agent Angus MacGyver as he solved complex situations with everyday materials. Using common items on hand, MacGyver was able to find clever and often unbelievable solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems.

Offering what we have is not settling for mediocrity, nor is it a license for laziness. We still need to pray that God would send more people, stronger leaders, a stellar worship band, and greater opportunities to influence our community and the world. But like MacGyver, we can’t wait until all of the people and pieces are in place to respond to our calling. Instead, we have to create something unbelievable with what God has made available.

 

[1] David Manner, “Small Church MacGyvers,” Worshipleader: Pursuing the Mission of God in Worship, July/August 2015, 14–16. Portions of this article first appeared in this magazine article.

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

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Mar 15 2021

Playing Hurt: Pastoring Through Pain

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

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

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Mar 8 2021

Stop Singing

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Our worship actions can drown out the distinct voice of God that is often only discernible in the silence. In the midst of our self-generated noise, we can miss healing, comforting, and encouraging words of hope such as “I am with you,” “Well done,” “You are forgiven,” and “I am weeping with you.” 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” (Eccl 5:2). There’s “a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking” (Eccl 3:7).

Gary Furr and Milburn Price wrote, “In the drama of the Christian life, worship may be thought of as the script through which the Author of us all calls forth and responds to the deepest and most important longings in us.”[1] Until we stop to listen, how will we hear that call?

A rest is a musical notation that indicates the absence of sound but not the end of music. 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]

Musical rests add depth and emotion to a musical score through the use of silence. They both create and relieve tension. They allow the players and singers to take a breath before the next difficult musical passage. Rests create a deliberate pause or temporary break in the action and keep the notes from being strung together in breathless chaos. Playing music without rests is like driving a car without brakes.

Worship is a conversation that requires not only speaking and singing but also hearing and listening. The noise of our sermons and songs as our only act of worship can create monological worship. Our offering of one-sided worship sound can monopolize the conversation, potentially causing us to miss the voice of God. The foundation of a meaningful worship is instead dialogical. It 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 in it, our worship could then be enhanced and renewed when we stop trying to monopolize the conversation with our responsive noise only.

We rely on the words of our sermons and 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 sing things our way. We evaluate, judge, condemn, and devour congregants with our words. Silence—as one of the deepest spiritual disciplines—puts a stop to that.[3] 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).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we incorporate silence as a part of our services when it hasn’t been part of our worship culture?
  • What are we presently doing that is contributing to worship noise?
  • How is our worship encouraging our congregation to not only hear but also listen?
  • What can we do differently to give time for the various worship elements to breathe without interrupting our worship flow?

[1] Gary A. Furr and Milburn Price, The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), 90.

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

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

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

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Mar 1 2021

Measure Twice, Cut Once

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Baseball utility players are prized for their versatility even though they don’t have enough talent to crack the starting lineup. They are usually excellent players but not quite good enough to help carry the team from a starting position. A utility player is more supplemental than foundational to the success of each game. He waits on the bench until the manager needs him to fill any of a variety of positions in the lineup.

Prayer has been relegated to the role of a worship service utility player. It is often plugged into worship service holes when the starters (songs and sermons) need a break. Instead of a foundational conversation with God as an act of worship, prayer is often a supplemental extra used to fill in, transition, or connect. Prayer has been demoted to the role of a worship-service starter, stuffer, and stopper, or jack-of-all-trades service element. It serves as the seventh inning stretch before the sermon; it breaks up the song sets when keys aren’t relative; it moves the worship band on the platform; and it allows the pastor to discreetly make his way up the aisle to shake hands after the service.

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because our prayers during the worship service are not that deep. Song texts have been parsed, prayed over, and practiced, while our prayers are often played by ear. Our spontaneous prayers may be sincere, but they’re often not very profound. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought. Public praying needs to be supported by private praying. Those who publicly lead in prayer must be well experienced in prayer. It is difficult to lead others where you haven’t been yourself. Spontaneity has to arise from a profound experience of prayer.[1]

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because prayer is such an easy language to fake. We can, in fact, pretend to pray, use the words of prayer, practice forms of prayer, assume postures of prayer, acquire a reputation for prayer and never pray.[2] “Measure twice, cut once” is a woodworking idiom that encourages us to plan and prepare for something of value in a careful and thorough manner be- fore acting. In other words, think before you speak; don’t shoot from the hip; set a guard over my mouth; keep watch over the door that is our lips (Ps 141:3).

The result of ill-prepared praying is often a long-winded circular discourse. Those with prayer responsibilities could learn a valuable lesson from microblogging sites such as Twitter whose success is based on succinct but also persuasive information. Character limitations force users to formulate a mental outline of what is essential to say and how it needs to be said. They measure twice before cutting once.

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because we actually require our soloists, choirs, orchestras, worship teams, and bands to rehearse ahead of time, but most of the offerings from our prayers are casual, impromptu, spontaneous, and sometimes even shallow. Hughes Oliphant Old wrote, “For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not very profound.”[3] If worship-service prayer preparations were as stringent as those for our musical offerings, then maybe we would consider singing less in order to pray more. Then maybe our worship service prayers would again be considered foundational instead of supplemental.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we transform our worship service prayers from starters, stuffers, and stoppers to a divine conversation with God?
  • What training could we initiate to better prepare those who lead our worship service prayers?
  • If we are asking the same few people to lead our prayers, then how can we expand that list to include multiple generations, genders, and cultures?
  • How do we ensure prayer is foundational instead of supplemental to our worship services?
  • What can we do to expand a healthier culture of prayer outside our services so it might impact the worship inside our services?

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 5.

[2] Harold M. Best, Dumbfounded Praying (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), xii.

[3] Old, Leading in Prayer, 5.

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

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Feb 15 2021

A Letter to the Younger Worship Leading Me

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Dear Younger Worship Leading Me,

In a few decades you are going to look back at your years of worship ministry with a desire for a second chance to handle some things differently. You will think about certain services, special events, entire seasons of ministry, or strained relationships and long for another opportunity to make some adjustments.

The reality is that it will be impossible for you to go back and make corrections to most of those situations. But with a little humility, resilience, and resolve now, you have an opportunity to get some of them right the first time. So here are a few things you are going to learn.

Surround yourself with those people who will stretch your thinking and actions but also hold you accountable. Taking necessary risks might cause you to make some mistakes, but the discernment of others will help protect you from your own stupidity. It might be exhilarating when you succeed alone, but it won’t be when you fail alone. And you will sometimes fail.

People will always remember how you treat them when you’re off the platform more than how you lead them on the platform, so learn more people’s names than new songs. Consider interruptions as divine appointments instead of distractions. Drink more coffee with senior adults and ask their opinions before initiating change. Be more patient with needy people and chronic takers. And remember to thank those who make sacrifices to invest in you, your family, and your ministry.

Be on the front end of learning new musical and technological languages. But don’t assume it’s always appropriate to be an early adopter of them. Being conversant in a language doesn’t mean it should be used when it doesn’t fit the voice of your congregation. Learn more theology than musicology, and practice leadership development more than you practice your guitar.

Always ask how something might impact your family before asking how it might impact your worship leading. Leave more things at the office when you go home, and be home when you are home. Taking a Sabbath each week will not only help your spiritual and physical health but also help the relational health of your family.

Stay longer instead of bailing for a new place of ministry every couple of years. If your ministry frequently moves your children away from their friends and foundations, then how can you expect them to like church when they are no longer required to attend?

What you know about worship leading now won’t be enough to sustain you through your entire ministry. Read more, study more, and ask more questions. Be a lifelong learner who understands it is never too soon or too late to learn something new.

Finally, I know it is sometimes overwhelming to balance the stresses of ministry and family. When leading worship is discouraging, when it seems like no generation is ever completely happy, when you can’t sing too many or too few hymns or modern worship songs, and when you wake up on Monday morning and wonder if this is really worth it, you can rest assured that you’ll also be able to look back at those decades of ministry and acknowledge with certainty that it was.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What worship-leading situation or relationship failure that occurred in the past would we handle differently if we had the chance?
  • What safeguards could we put in place to make sure the same situation doesn’t occur again?
  • How successful are we at stretching one another’s thinking and holding one another accountable?
  • With our limited time together to get ready for Sunday, how can we continue to learn new worship principles and practices in addition to new songs?

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

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Feb 10 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 8 2021

Worship That Crosses the Rubicon

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

_____________________

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

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

 

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

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Jan 27 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 25 2021

Sing Me Into Heaven

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The purpose of our worship-service music isn’t to prepare our hearts for something else. It doesn’t just set the table for the sermon. Paul exhorted the saints at Ephesus to be filled with the Spirit by speaking to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). It doesn’t sound like Paul thought worship music was only a supporting role.

Teaching proclaims or makes something known by precept, example, and experience. It exhorts, instructs, exposits, and applies. And it communicates to us and through us.

Admonition urges us not just to hear but to do. It reproves, advises, and counsels in order to correct our thinking. It encourages us to right what is wrong in order to redirect our attitudes and motives.

Our worship songs won’t be seen as just service starters 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] The theology we sing is not just an appetizer before the main course when it teaches and admonishes us to be doers and not just hearers.

Several years ago I attended a memorial service for a godly friend and former volunteer music minister. “Sing me into heaven” was his final request as his musical family gathered around his hospital bed in his last hours of life. That grieving family honored his wishes by recalling and singing every sacred song they could remember. What a comforting way to enter into eternity.

Hope can be found when we realize we are never singing those sacred songs alone. The prophet Zephaniah wrote, “The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph 3:17). And Scripture tells us that Jesus as our high priest is seated at the right side of the throne of majesty and is interceding for us (Heb 8:1-2; 2:12). So, even when our songs are choked with emotion God is singing over us and Jesus is interceding for us.

Darryl Tippen wrote, “Without music we are left with talk. The trouble with talk is that it tends to position the speaker in a place of power. It puts one in charge, which can border on a dangerous conceit when it comes to reporting on the Almighty. A different, humbler posture of spirit emerges in worship and song. When we are singing, there is a sense that we are not in charge.”[2]

Singing is a language that allows us to embody our love for our creator. It is a means God has given us to communicate our deepest affections, to have our thoughts exquisitely shaped, and to have our spirits braced for the boldest of obedience.[3]

Our bodies, emotions, and intellect are mysteriously connected when we sing. Christian songs are effective because they implant the truths of the faith in our hearts, not just in our heads. They rehearse the stories of Scripture. In word and sound we experience Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection. We remember our sinfulness, our need for redemption, our duty to our neighbor, and the promise of eternal life.[4]

With that understanding, “sing me into heaven” becomes not only a final request but also an ongoing challenge for worship leaders and congregants each time they align their spirits and voices in congregational song.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What can we do differently in our worship services to help our congregation understand music as more than an appetizer before the sermon?
  • According to Scripture, who is actually our worship leader?
  • How do we evaluate our songs to ensure they are faithfully rehearsing the stories of Scripture?
  • How can we move our song sets from just communicating to us to also communicating through us?

[1] William Temple, “Temple on the Definition of Worship,” The Institute for Biblical Worship, December 28, 2016, http://biblicalworship.com/wqotw/2016/12/28/ temple-on-the-definition-of-worship.
[2] Darryl Tippen, Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life (Abilene: Leaf- wood, 2006), 148.
[3] Reggie M. Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 14.
[4] Tippen, Pilgrim Heart, 150.

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 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 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 16 2020

Restarting Ministries? Don’t Overdrive Your Headlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nov 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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Nov 2 2020

Worship Is a Conversation…So, When Do We Shut Up and Listen?

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listenOur worship actions in any audible form can mute the voice of God sometimes only detected in the silence. In doing so, 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.”

Worship is a dialogue or conversation between God and his people. God initiates that conversation and we respond to it. So, worship requires not only speaking and singing as a response but also listening and hearing as a response. The noise of our worship actions can create monological instead of dialogical worship. In other words, offering one-sided worship sound can monopolize the conversation, potentially causing us to miss hearing the voice of God.

A healthy conversation includes a balance of listening as well as speaking. Gary Furr and Milburn Price wrote, “In the drama of the Christian life, worship may be thought of as the script through which the author of us all calls forth and responds to the deepest and most important longings in us.”[1] So, until we occasionally shut up and listen, how can we hear that call?

God’s revelation occurs when he offers us a glimpse of his activity, his will, and his attributes. Our response is the sometimes spontaneous and sometimes premeditated reply to that call…worship. But we can miss his activity, will, and attributes if we monopolize the conversation by filling our worship with responsive noise only.

Richard Foster wrote, “Silence frees us from the need to control others. One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others. A frantic stream of words flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence is one of the deepest spiritual disciplines simply because it puts the stopper on that.”[2]

Since God began the conversation and graciously invited us to join Him in it, our worship then could be enhanced when we stop making so much noise. In order to listen again to his side of the conversation, maybe we should concur with Samuel when he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:8).


[1]Gary A. Furr and Milburn Price, The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), 90.

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

Some of 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 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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