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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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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Feb 22 2021

When Worship Ministry Is Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

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

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

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Feb 17 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 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 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 20 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 6 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 4 2021

Leading Worship in 2021: More Questions than Answers

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

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

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

Questions to Consider

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

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 16 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 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 11 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 28 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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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 7 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 5 2020

Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

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golf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

 

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

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

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Sep 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 21 2020

Cheap Worship

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

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

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

Once the woman encountered and acknowledged Jesus, she joined his conversation instead of expecting him to join hers. This divine encounter inspired her to sacrifice the self-serving agenda that originally brought her to that place. She left her water pot and went into the city and said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ” (John 4:29)?

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

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

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

Sacrificing our preferences often requires us to adjust generationally and relationally. Terry York and David Bolin wrote, “We have forgotten that what worship costs is more important than how worship comforts us or how it serves our agendas. If worship costs us nothing but is fashioned to comfort our needs and preferences, it may not be worship at all.”[1]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

 

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

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Sep 14 2020

Worship Experience…An Oxymoron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 2 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 31 2020

Bandwagon Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

 

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

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Aug 24 2020

Decentralized Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug 19 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 17 2020

Worship Cause and Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug 12 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 24 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 17 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 10 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 8 2020

Singing in Regathered Worship: Want or Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Jun 3 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 1 2020

How Can Social Distanced Worship Be Good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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May 27 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 20 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 18 2020

Regathered Worship: Laying Down Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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May 13 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 8 2020

If We Can’t Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 6 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 4 2020

5 Unintended Consequences of Worshiping from Home

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

  • Sermons are shorter, yet more profound

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

  • Worship is simpler and less contrived

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

  • Intergenerational worship is foundational instead of optional

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

  • Off-limits music programs are now on the table

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

  • Church size isn’t determining worship quality

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

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Apr 29 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 22 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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