“Secular” Music in Worship

StockSnap_7OC4YX7S20

I want to get a few thoughts up here about using secular songs in church worship. I’ve had some opinions about this for quite a while, but lately as I’ve seen more churches revisit this trend, I’ve been revisiting my stance on the whole thing.

There’s definitely some pressure to consider including secular music in a purposeful way, especially as some high-production, “popular” churches are including recent pop songs, or playing “oldies but goodies” in themed worship services (maybe you’ve seen examples of this at North Point Community Church in GA, who have done a “Beatles Sunday” and some 90s themed weeks of music where their worship band has covered *NSYNC and other 90s pop stuff). First, to be fair, I don’t think any one of the churches I’ve seen doing this chooses a whole set of secular music; they’ll have one or two songs with a transition into two or three worship tunes. But I’ve been seeing this happen more and more in quite a few churches, and I’ve really been trying to figure out what motivations are behind this trend that recurs every five to ten years. I’m not totally sure since I can’t find many pastors, worship leaders, or churches saying much in writing about why they’re choosing to include secular popular music in their worship setlists. So my goal here is not to judge motivations, per se, since I do think some of the folks making this decision are well-meaning in their desire to use music to reach out, and build community and engagement. And obviously, I can’t see their heart either way. If you’d like to check my opinions with someone else’s, read this critique from piratechristian.com which, though it may seem harsh, is intensely biblical and, I think, justified in its evaluation. In-fact, I’d highly recommend that post as well, as it exposes the connection to wider trends of silliness in the Bible-believing church.

But what I’d like to do here, as a worship leader and pastor, is address the decision of whether or not to include secular music in our worship gatherings, which I think can be done totally independent of a critique of anyone’s motives. The plain question is, should we do it?

And my short answer is, emphatically, no we shouldn’t. Now here are a few key reasons why I say this.

  1. The commands of Scripture are limiting, in a good way. Study what your Bible says about music, and its role in the church, and you’ll find some specific commands and exhortations that keep us, if obeyed, from singing secular music in church. The Old Testament is key, especially the composition of the Psalms, as we see content and form really married together. And actually, God has given us the words to the Psalms, and not the sheet music; so really, content plays the greater role. Everything related to the worship of Israel in the OT, including worship at the temple, is taken very seriously, and is all explicitly done for God, and speaks of Him. I can’t imagine the Levite priests including a Justin Timberlake tune as part the worship at the Temple (though I really do like JT’s stuff). This isn’t just because the style obviously wouldn’t translate in any way to ancient Israel, but because the content, or really the whole package, taken together, would be an affront to the purpose of worship. Jump ahead to the church age, and read the commands for us today in the New Testament, telling us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). My question here is, how can singing as a congregation, or listening to the worship band perform a pop song from secular radio, help the word of Christ live in our hearts and minds? Even if the song connects to the theme of a message or preaching series, we have to ask ourselves as we plan worship, does this song teach and admonish and encourage a Christian to know and walk with Christ? Does it build Godward thankfulness into our hearts as we sing or hear it? Maybe…depending on the song choice. Which leads me to the next point.
  2. We only have so much time in a worship gathering. On average, a worship leader gets the majority of their church people once a week in a corporate worship setting. And that’s probably an hour, to an hour and a half, with around thirty minutes of music. Many churches that provide more than two services work with even less time, and will have an average of three to four songs per service. Working with that short amount of time, I ask you, worship leader, would choosing to play “Can’t Stop the Feeling” make the wisest use of that time? Maybe you have some real thoughtful reasons behind playing a secular song. But are you maximizing your opportunity to do what Scripture says is most helpful to the souls gathered in your church, to play a song they could have heard twice on the radio on the drive there? Is that song helping the word of Christ dwell in the hearts of your people – you included – as well as a song written for this purpose? There has been such a resurgence in the past few years of skillfully-written, doctrinally rich worship music, I really believe there’s no excuse for not packing your worship setlist with as much Gospel treasure as possible, to send your people into their week fully armed and encouraged with the glories of Christ. Don’t waste time in your worship gatherings.
  3. The church should, purposefully, offer its people something different. In our culture, our church folks are bombarded by messages, arguments, and temptations from a fallen world. Especially with our widespread pseudo-community spread across social media, communication is lightning-fast, and often counter to the message of the Gospel. I hear the argument often that, since our people see live music produced on stage at concerts, and on shows like The Voice, we should attempt it in church because it’s what people like and want. But I don’t buy that. I think we should be skillful at always communicating and presenting the Gospel as attractively as possible, and adorn this beautiful message as beautifully as we can; but this does not equal providing what people see and hear in the rest of the culture. In-fact, I would argue that since culture bombards us the way it does with so much content, it’s best for all of our hearts if the church is different, both in the kind of content speaks into our lives, but also often in how it’s presented. If our people watch The Voice every week, with all of its audio production and pro lighting, it may be best to purposefully provide a little less in worship, to allow for contemplation of what we’re singing. If people are hearing hedonistic song lyrics about sexual revolution on the radio and on their Spotify playlists six days a week, is it really helpful to choose one more song from that catalogue for our worship gathering? Again, I ask, is picking music like this really helpful? Or as helpful as it could be? Some people…a lot of people…might like it. But are they really being built up in the faith, and given weight and substance to keep them treasuring Christ until the next Sunday, and to help them through their next trial?

As ministers of the Gospel, and of the word of Christ, let’s be purposeful, and really help our people. Give them real Gospel glory every week. Let’s not miss the brief chance we have each week to really provide life to our gathered church.

Songwriting, curating, collecting…

StockSnap_19S71S3CN5

I’ve tried my best to accurately transcribe the following quote from an episode of the new For The Church podcast. There’s some really good inspiration here for church songwriters. You should definitely go and listen to the whole episode and others here.

In this episode, Jared Wilson asks Matt Boswell, “What is your personal songwriting process like, whether with a collaborator or by yourself?” Here’s a chunk of Matt’s answer:

“My process of writing songs is, I’m a curator and a collector first. So in every theological book that I’m reading, I’m collecting words…just specific words. I remember reading Jim Hamilton’s biblical theology, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement, and in it he just uses the word “unassailable” six, seven times; and so I just thought that was a beautiful word to write in a hymn. So I just kind of put it in my back pocket, and then when it seems appropriate, throw it in a hymn. And so in all reading I’m collecting words.

“And then, even through sermon outlines, seeing how a preacher is moving systematically through a text or through a subject, and allowing some of those things to help shape how I would write a hymn in response to that. 

“And so I’m always on the lookout for what would be good kindling for a hymn to be written.”

Again, the above quote is from Matt Boswell, in an interview on the For The Church podcast. Subscribe to this one for sure. It’s new, and already super helpful. You can also check out more resources from Matt Boswell and pick up books he has contributed to, at his website Doxology and Theology. If you’re a worship leader or worship musician, you should check there often.

What only Jesus can do.

faithmapping“We treat our worship leaders as priests, expecting them to lead us into God’s presence in a way that is inaccessible apart from their charisma, emotion, and music. Every time we credit a worship leader with ‘leading us into God’s presence,’ we are anointing them as priests, and crediting them with doing something that only Jesus can do.” (emphasis added)

Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, from their book Faithmapping (highly recommended book on the church!)

Neil Postman, prophet.

StockSnap_E5XKV8B7TJ.jpg

“At different times in our history, different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Boston was the center of a political radicalism that ignited a shot heard round the world – a shot that could not have been fired any other place but the suburbs of Boston. At its report, all Americans, including Virginians, became Bostonians at heart. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York became the symbol of the idea of a melting-pot America – or at least a non-English one – as the wretched refuse from all over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread over the land their strange languages and even stranger ways. In the early twentieth century, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America. If there is a statue of a hog butcher somewhere in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of the time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial adventures. If there is no such statue, there ought to be, just as there is a statue of a Minute Man to recall the Age of Boston, as the Statue of Liberty recalls the Age of New York.

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

From Amusing Ourselves to Deathby Neil Postman (written in 1985)

On Creativity: An Interview with Chris Thile on Minnesota Public Radio

Thile.jpgThis past week we were given a great interview from MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), with Chris Thile about his transition with Garrison Keillor for the job of full-time host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. If you’re not sure who Thile is, he is one-third of the progressive folk band Nickel Creek, one-fifth  of the band Punch Brothers, and an accomplished composer and songwriter on his own and in other small collaborative projects. Thile is one of my personal heroes – has been for quite some time now – and it’s super exciting to know he’ll take over creative control and hosting duties on PHC this coming October.

You can read more elsewhere about Garrison Keillor handing the show off to Thile, but please listen to this interview. There’s lots of good stuff here about music, and about creativity in general. I connected with a lot specifically because I’m a worship pastor in a church, and a few things Thile says here are very helpful if you’re involved in the week-to-week corporate worship and music planning aspects of ministry.

Listen A conversation with Chris Thile Apr 9, 2016 8min 44sec 

Again, give the interview a listen; but here are a few of those extra helpful points I mentioned, for musicians and for church worship leaders in particular.

  1. The joy of creating something new for people every week. Thile talks in the beginning of the interview about the joy and excitement he has, as an artist, to get to create every week for the joy of others. A responsibility like this can be either a privilege or a burden; for a vocational artist, especially one who is saved and serving a local church, this should be exciting as we plan services and liturgies, arrange, even write, and lead in the song and prayer of our churches. As Thile said in another interview published only yesterday, “The prospect of getting to make things for people on a weekly basis … is beyond compare. It’s what I love to do.”
  2. Practice your craft. A lot. Thile says he practices between three and five hours of mandolin every day. It’s that important to his life and work, and he does it because he wants to. Those hours aren’t wasted, but a necessary and good part of his vocation and “calling” (can I say calling here?) as an artist. And we wonder how someone like Thile gets so good at what he does… He puts the time in. Quality takes time and discipline, and it’s worth the effort.
  3. Don’t let your instrument “go to sleep.” Thile answers some questions about bringing his mandolins out of a “sleep,” which happens to the wood of a mandolin, or a guitar, or a violin too, the longer it sits without being played. Especially when a newer wood instrument sits, and the wood dries, if you don’t play good sound into it the wood won’t open up to the sound waves. Not many people know about this aspect of stringed instruments, but it’s super intriguing. Play your guitar, or whatever you play, often so that it stays responsive and produces all the tone that it can. Listen to the interview, because Chris Thile can talk more eloquently about this point than I can.

So there you have it! And there’s lots more in the eight minutes of that interview that’s worth your time. And check out A Prairie Home Companion if you’ve never listened.

 

Nothing of these cynical utopianisms…

On reading Augustine, Russell Moore says,

“Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.

How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?

“Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.”

Russell Moore, in a longer post on The Gospel Coalition here.

Worship Leaders Must Read

VL01D336R8.jpgTwo weeks ago my fellow church staff guys and I got to attend the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. There’s always so much I could say about this week each year, but right now I’ll limit it just to books. One of the benefits of going to conferences for pastors is the exposure to resources. At the Shepherds’ Conference they set up a huge circus-size tent, which becomes the conference bookstore. And one of the best things about these three days is having a bunch of chances between sessions to walk the book tent.

I got to thinking this week about my role as corporate worship director at my church, and how necessary it’s been for me to keep reading, even during the extra busy times of the year. For pastors (and I think for professionals in general), you’ve got to keep a regimen of regular reading, to immerse yourself in ideas and encouragements. It will fuel your spiritual health, and your practical creativity and productivity. You may only rarely, if ever, find the one book that totally changes your mindset about something, or gives you the practical tip to solve some ridiculous problem; but you’ll probably see fruit steadily over time, as your maturity and your creative chops refine.

It’s been a lotta work over the years to find the best books specifically written for worship leaders. So I thought I’d list a few of my top picks, for books that have been extra helpful and encouraging, and give you a few short reasons why.

DISCLAIMER: People who love books, and especially Christians who love books, talk all the time about “must-reads.” I often have to keep in mind that there are seriously important books out there that’ll absolutely benefit you as a Christian, and that you really should read. BUT, the only real “must-read” is the Bible, so don’t let anything take you away from time spent with God there.

So here goes with an uber-limited, non-inclusive list of some top picks:

  1. Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin. This book was the first really solid, biblical treatment of worship that I came across, and would still be the first one I’d recommend to a worship leader looking for books. It’s excellent, well-rounded, readable, clarifying, and includes both a general biblical theology of worship, and a great discussion of the role of a worship leader.
  2. Doxology and Theology by Matt Boswell (and other contributors). In my opinion, this one goes to the next layer of depth after Worship Matters. Boswell provides some helpful, practical stuff, in some areas that Worship Matters doesn’t get to. Each chapter hits a different topic, and is written by a different worship pastor; the whole book is worth it just for the first of these, by Boswell. He clarifies the job and role of worship and music leaders in the church perhaps better than I’ve read anywhere else.
  3. Engaging With God by David Peterson. This is the “deep end of the theological pool” book every worship leader should aspire to read at some point. And lots of church folks (leaders and otherwise) would benefit from it too. I was at a conference a few years ago where Bob Kauflin mentioned this book in one of his talks. He asked how many of us had read it, and challenged the over half of us who hadn’t, to read it by that time next year – that we really HAD to get to it. And after reading it, I knew why he loves it and has been helped by it so much. For what is, essentially, a shorter version of this book, check out True Worship by Vaughan Roberts. We sell it at our church book counter, and it’s a GREAT little primer on theology of worship in general, and in the gathered church.
  4. Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper. This book is really one of those rare game-changers, in my opinion. Another book that’s great for church leaders (not just the worship/music leaders), and also for any church member or attender. Cosper clarifies the purpose of the church worship gathering, and gives some invaluable practical advice for how it should be done according to Scripture’s principles.
  5. The Art of Worship by Greg Scheer. This is probably the best practical manual I’ve seen for worship leading, that’s also written from a great theological foundation. Here you’ll find commentary on worship trends, and practical tips for singing, arranging vocals and instruments, band dynamics, managing teams, running rehearsals, and lots of other good stuff. This will help you develop your skill set as a music and worship director, without getting gooey and weird, or unbiblical. Which is sometimes hard to find when you’re looking for practical tips.

So there you have it. I’ve left out a few, so maybe I’ll include a PART 2 post for some more in the near future. What did I leave off? Any “must-reads” you wish were mentioned above??