What should a worship leader work on?

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I’ve been asked a few times lately about what a new(ish) worship leader should work on – as in, what are the essentials? It didn’t take too long to come up with a short list. As with anything, there’s more one could say on any part of this post. But as I reflected back on almost twenty years of leading music in church, I really did think quickly of a few things that have proved pretty essential. All of this is also in hindsight, and all are things I continue to work hard to improve. So from one imperfect church musician to another…

  1. Listen widely. You won’t bring every style of music into church. But listening widely keeps you sane for one thing, as you listen to more music for enjoyment and not just to stuff for church. I’ve found that listening widely as a music appreciator keeps me from getting sick of any one song. But maybe you don’t burn out on music like I do at times. Listening widely also broadens the framework within which you can work musically. You might not bring a full orchestra into church too often, but listening to a ton of classical will help you hear things about music you wouldn’t otherwise hear, and will broaden the kinds of ideas you might have the tools to try in your arrangements. It will also help you skillfully talk music with musicians, and extend your musicianship into greater realms of discipleship, with music as a common interest between friends.
  2. Practice your instrument for the congregation. Make sure you improve in ways that make you effective at LEADING. It’s not crucial to learn every guitar lead part, but it’s important that you play skillfully and correctly all the way through every song (as much as you can help it). I made myself a goal in the early years, by God’s grace, that I was going to play every song correctly (no wrong chords), and that I was going to be spot-on with my timing. I still make plenty of flubs, BUT pushing toward those goals have proved super helpful. If your timing can be like a metronome, it helps everyone, AND makes you super effective when you have to lead solo. Good rhythm puts a congregation at ease with whatever you’re asking them to sing with you.
  3. Sing on-pitch. This sound obvious…but we all know what it feels like to think your voice is not so bad, and then to hear a recording of yourself that shatters that opinion. I’ve found listening to yourself often is actually very helpful, and beneficial in-that it does force you to be uncomfortable. That’s a good uncomfortable, that can really refine you. We’re our own worst critics naturally, so lean into that and listen to your own singing. A couple of us at church here have started recording ourselves singing in the car, to any song, totally acapella; then we listen back to that recording  and pick out where we sang flat, etc. Then we do it again, and again, until we improve that part. Sounds goofy, but it works. And you already sing in the car as it is…
  4. Deepen your theology. You might think this point should’ve been first. I agree that it actually should be, but I wanted to get the practical stuff outta the way. Before and after all of the above, you have to read and study your Bible. Read theology, both specifically about worship and general theology. Strengthen your grasp of the Gospel. Learn to see the whole council of God and the story in Scripture more clearly. All of this will be the roots of the tree that is your worship leading, and any other visible ministry you get to do. Make time to be with Jesus, and don’t settle for any cursory understanding of God’s Word. Love God, and then let that love overflow to the people you lead.

I hope that’s helpful. Anything else I’ve missed?? I’m writing this on a Friday – I hope Sunday is shaping up well for all of you, and that you have a sweet time in gathered worship with your churches.

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For your 2019 reading list.

I’m probably the least-qualified to write this post, because I haven’t read MOST of these books. But I compiled a list for our church blog of ten noteworthy new (ish) books to check out in 2019. Since I love to read, and am really looking forward to a great year of growing-through-reading, I’m excited to embark on some of these books along with our church family. Check ’em out here!

Worship Planning with a Long View

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One week ago our community was terribly shaken by the shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill. Then over the next two nights the Woolsey and Thousand Oaks fires sent many of our church families evacuating their homes, with the Malibu fire affecting many more. We went through (and honestly, are still going through) a time of uncertainty and wrestling with the problem of evil and assurance of God’s sovereign goodness. Which we’re thankful is preached and loved every week in our church.

I don’t want to dwell on the shooting or the fires in the fear of appearing to capitalize on those events to get a blog post written. I just have a church ministry thought connected to the week we’ve had, that I’d like to get down while it’s fresh.

On Sunday, we gathered to worship together as a church. A good number of our families were sleep-deprived and coming down from the stress of evacuating their homes while the fires burned through the past few nights. And many of us knew some of those killed in the shooting. And I was thankful to have a church family to gather with, and to know we WOULD gather, no matter what had inconvenienced or turned our world topsy-turvy the week before.

And as a worship planner, I was relieved and thankful for God’s grace to provide us with the right kind of songs to sing on a Sunday like this past one. This is the ministry thought that I’m hoping might be best-served fresh: continually be establishing a bank of songs to sing in your church that people know well, and that work on the toughest of Sundays.

This isn’t to say every song you teach your congregation has to be a lament in a minor key; but keep a core of songs rotating that will already be second nature to sing “when Death shows his face.”* Don’t make the mistake of keeping things light and happy all the time, because the real stuff of life in a sin-broken world, when it comes to bear, will require a weightier kind of song. Let those songs be ones your church already knows, so when the tragedy comes the verses they’ve sung often take on a whole new layer of depth.

I still remember the first time I sang “In Christ Alone” (after many, many times) and these lines in the first verse finally made sense to me: “This Cornerstone, this solid Ground/Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.” Some painful circumstances made those lines really matter.

Songs aren’t Scripture, to be sure. But God commands us to sing to one another as a means to get the Word of Christ to take root and live in us (Colossians 3:16). Be advised – sing the full spectrum of human experience in your worship, and get those songs in there now with a long view toward those future times when you and your church will be desperate for them.

*From the excellent tune “New Again” by Sojourn Music. We sing this one about once a month, and it has served our congregation super well.

“He is a very great man.”

The Hobbit is merely the adaptation to children of part of a huge private mythology of a most serious kind: the whole cosmic struggle as he sees it but mediated through an imaginary world. The Hobbit’s successor [The Lord of the Rings], which will soon be finished, will reveal this more clearly. Private worlds have hitherto been mainly the work of decadents or, at least, mere aesthetes. This is the private world of a Christian. He is a very great man. His published works (both imaginative & scholarly) ought to fill a shelf by now: but he’s one of those people who is never satisfied with a [manuscript]. The mere suggestion of publication provokes the reply ‘Yes, I’ll just look through it and give it a few finishing touches’ – wh. means that he really begins the whole thing over again.”

C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Charles A. Brady, October 29 1944.

On The Reformers

MartinLuther-2400pxI’m not a big Reformation nerd or anything; I don’t have a “Happy Reformation Day” t shirt, I’ve never dressed up as Martin Luther, and I haven’t read The Institutes. I’m like…the king of reading selections.

But I’ve read enough to be acquainted with these guys, and with what they did. For me, initially discovering and reading the Reformers came at a time when I really needed someone to speak to what they spoke to. So really, my love for the Reformers is largely an autobiographical thing, and I wanted to just pay a small tribute to how much they have helped and encouraged me. And whenever I recommend reading this stuff, it’s with a hope for this to happen to others.

I first started reading Luther and Calvin in about 2003, because I had started to wrestle with some deeper theological questions: the problem of evil, God’s sovereignty VS man’s will (and how “free” our will is), how does someone actually get saved from their sin…a lot of the typical toughies. And I was on a trajectory at the beginning of all this, toward a rejection of anything Reformed in nature, and to an embrace of an Arminian soteriology.

I had a good friend at the time, a newer believer, who had been wrestling with the same questions, and had been directed by someone else to read Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and some others (Van Til, Bahnsen…some of the newer guys too) right away. We worked together too at the time, and he started coming in, asking things like, “Have you read Luther?? He talks about this…” and he’d have a printout of the excerpt.*

So if it wasn’t for that friend, and if it wasn’t for the Reformers he brought in for us to read, I really don’t feel like I would’ve been able to answer those questions at that critical time. Luther, Calvin, and others came in at the clutch moment, with voices very much alive from five hundred years ago, to build on our faith. And they helped us see new depth in Scripture – that was the best thing. Truly, I think of Luther and Calvin and I think of what they point out in Scripture, not of what they themselves were all about.

And as I read these guys along with a freshly ignited study of Scripture in my college years, I loved the sense of theology happening  in the midst of, and as a necessary part of real life and real struggles. You read Luther’s Commentary on Galations or Calvin’s Institutes, and you have deep theological study that really, really matters to the lives of the writers. They have real stakes in the game. It’s not just heady scholasticism for them; they’re writing pastorally and with urgency, because their study of God and Scripture matter for everything. It’s life or death for them. And that helps me love studying God and Scripture too, because this study is always life or death.

Lastly, on an even more personal note. Luther and Calvin let me to read Knox, whose writing is aflame with Gospel-urgency and joy as much as the others. And these all brought me later to Spurgeon, who is probably the pastor/writer from the past who is most dear to me. We named our son Haddon, after Charles Haddon Spurgeon, which I hope stands as a testimony to the line of God’s good providence running through our family’s story. God has used these reformed writers to drive my wife and me to Scripture, and whom, in spite of prominent imperfections, edify in their example of adoring and trusting Christ. We talk about “always reforming,” or “semper Reformanda,” which, if done in a truly helpful way, simply means calling each other to return over and over again to the pure Gospel. The Reformers, read rightly, really only care about this.

But anyway, enough for now. Listen to Luther bringing us to Christ in his Galations commentary:

“On the question of justification we must remain adamant, or else we shall lose the truth of the Gospel. It is a matter of life and death. It involves the death of the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world. If we surrender faith in Christ, as the only thing that can justify us, the death and resurrection of Jesus are without meaning; that Christ is the Savior of the world would be a myth. God would be a liar, because He would not have fulfilled His promises. Our stubbornness is right, because we want to preserve the liberty which we have in Christ. Only by preserving our liberty shall we be able to retain the truth of the Gospel inviolate.

“Some will object that the Law is divine and holy. Let it be divine and holy. The Law has no right to tell me that I must be justified by it. The Law has the right to tell me that I should love God and my neighbor, that I should live in chastity, temperance, patience, etc. The Law has no right to tell me how I may be delivered from sin, death, and hell. It is the Gospel’s business to tell me that. I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me, not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done for me.”

 

*I have to credit Monergism.com here, without which in 2003 my buddy and I wouldn’t have had a place to find so many grand works from the Reformers all collected in one place. There will be a special reward in Heaven, I think, for whoever started that website.

More on “secular music” in church.

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Since I wrote a post back in June on using secular music in worship, I’ve read several more accounts of churches using radio hits and classic oldies as “openers” to their worship services, and I’ve seen folks asking questions about this whole thing on Twitter. It seems like a new enough trend in churches that we’re kind of just catching on that it’s happening. But it’s happening a lot.

Of all the goofy trends that cycle through Evangelical worship, this one gets a foot in the gray area a little more, and is a little easier to justify, I think, as a well-meaning strategy to connect with the unchurched. But again, however well-meaning, is it still a good decision? I did address the trend in more detail in that previous post, so here I just wanted to add a few clarifications.

  1. Secular music (and art in general) is not all evil. Sometimes folks jump to the conclusion when I mention using secular music in church is a bad idea, that I’m just not a fan of secular music as a whole. But this isn’t the case. To be honest, I probably listen to more “secular” music than “Christian,” once we factor in all the instrumental and classical stuff I’ll play throughout a given week. I love The Beatles and Radiohead, Chris Thile and Tom Petty, Bach and Debussy, and Switchfoot. And all, I think, with a good conscience.* But the point goes beyond any of us admitting what music we personally appreciate. Every single person, and therefore every artist, is still created in the image of God. So you’ll see fractured glimpses of truth, goodness, and beauty breaking through art created by unbelievers. Mozart was sort of a terrible person; but the beauty of his music is mostly unparallelled. And on the flip side, some art made by Christians is just kind of bad on its own merits, as I’m sure many of us will agree. Skill and competency, and operating in-touch with beauty does not necessarily correspond to one’s presence or maturity of faith.** Though sometimes it might. All this is to say, the question of whether secular music in church is helpful is NOT a question of whether secular music is BAD.
  2. The church makes unique demands of its gathered worship. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. The question again isn’t whether we find glimpses of God in secular art, that redeem its use in church. The question is, what does the church actually need; or rather, what does God want for His church? I think, ultimately, the inclusion of secular songs in church worship just stems from confusion over what the church of Jesus Christ is, and what Scripture says it should do when it gathers. The New Testament is actually pretty clear and specific about this, and avoidance of Scripture’s guidance will lead one to the “If it’s done for Jesus, and if it reaches people for Him then it’s fine!” mindset. But I’ll argue that it’s not all fine, or helpful. Read Hebrews 10:19-25, Ephesians 5:15-21, and Colossians 3:15-17 for three clear passages instructing what Christians should do when they meet. And secular music, used for whatever reasons, just doesn’t seem to fit with the important stuff: confessing the Gospel, and letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. The church’s days on this earth, as an outpost of Heaven, are numbered. And there’s so much Gospel treasure to give our people, in song, prayer, and preaching, let’s not settle for, or waste time in our gatherings with gimmickry, or just doing what we think might be fun. There are a lot of foolish ways to kinda’ sorta’ do what the New Testament tells churches to do. But the better ways are clear.
  3. Do people really want this stuff? I’ve become convinced that we Christians often get together and decide what unbelievers want to see and hear when they visit church…but it’s not really what they want. We also do this with youth, or singles, or married couples, or Millennials…one group deciding in sort of a vacuum what another group wants or needs. As I’ve talked to folks visiting our church the past couple of years, I’ve repeatedly heard a similar refrain – something like, “We’ve visited a few churches lately, and some were trying to do a rock concert, or copy songs we hear on the radio, or stuff we see on TV, and it just didn’t seem enough like church for us.” They were actually looking for a church experience – an engagement with God in a community of believers, through the teaching of God’s Word, singing sacred songs, without frills or gimmicks or spectacle. And the truly unchurched, at this cultural moment, haven’t had enough experience with traditional church to be tired of it. There’s value in a church discovering the core of what it’s supposed to be, and returning to it again and again.

Some people will get a kick out of hearing a Bon Jovi tune in worship, for sure. And we’ll always have some folks that wish we’d do something more exciting or outside-the-box to make our churches more impactful. But what finally needs to win us over is the confidence that God’s Word is infinitely exciting, and alive, and powerful – able to raise dead hearts to eternal life and joy in our good King. I want to read this Word, and hear it preached, and sing the truths in it every week until the King appears. Let this form our philosophy of corporate worship.

 

* The article “The Man and His Song” published at Desiring God by David Mathis, is a great recent example of a mature Christian, appreciating and paying tribute to an artist who by outward evidence was not a believer, but made beautiful stuff.

** The point is worth making again, that any work of art can cross a threshold where there’s more evil in it than good, and which may not be helpful for a Christian, or anyone, to look at or to listen. There are definitely certain songwriters who will probably only bring darkness into your imagination when you listen, and should be avoided. But for most cases this will still need to be a matter of believers’ individual consciences.