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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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.

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.

On Christ’s Active Obedience

“…the Lord Christ fulfilled the whole law for us; He did not only undergo the penalty of it due unto our sins, but also yielded that perfect obedience which it did require… Christ’s fulfilling of the law, in obedience unto its commands, is no less imputed unto us for our justification than His undergoing the penalty of it is.”

John Owen (from a list of quotes on the subject of Christ’s active obedience as part of the Gospel)

Critiquing The “Worship Experience”

I’d like to come alongside another author here. Jared Wilson wrote a post today entitled “What’s Wrong With Producing a Worship Experience?” This is an important question, since the American “Evangelical” church is plagued with an incorrect mindset about gathered, visible worship of a church. We hear the lingo all the time, about producing, staging, or aiding a worship “experience” in our church gatherings; but much (though not all) of what churches and worship leaders have said on the subject is unbiblical and unhelpful.

Wilson’s post quotes a conversation reproduced in another book, about the consumerism pervasive in Western churches. At one point the conversation says this, which sums up the critique here, of staging an experience for someone to “meet God” in worship: “When the church gets into the business of staging experiences, that quickly becomes idolatry.”

The other party in the conversation replies, “I’m stunned. So you don’t encourage churches to use your elements of marketable experiences to create attractive experiences for their attenders?” to which the original speaker rejoins, “No. The organized church should never try to stage a God experience.”

I absolutely agree, though agreeing with this critique is very unpopular much of the time.

So here’s my “coming alongside” of Wilson’s post, with a couple of extra thoughts about why churches should care about more than providing personal worship experiences.

We Have Perfect Access To God Already

Much of the “worship experience” mentality is based on the idea that something happens with God in a church gathering that can’t happen elsewhere. Now I do think something is very unique to the gathering of a local church. But it’s not the “God experience” many have turned it into. We need to understand that, positionally, we’re there now as worshipers, and nothing extra happens between us and God when the awesome light show starts and we start singing (if your church rolls the way of the awesome light show).

Here’s the thing: we have the fullest possible access to God now, because Christ stands in the presence of God as our perfect Priest. Jesus is offering worship, standing in that place for us now. Right now. When we gather together, we do it to remind ourselves again of the God we have full access to, through Jesus. In his excellent book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper says, “God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian,” and, “When a Christian shows up, God shows up. We are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). When the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. God is with us, and the gathered Church becomes ‘an outpost of hope in a dying world'”

But often I think we’re looking for a little something in addition to the perfect access to God that Jesus provides. And then we often become discontent or upset with a church that can’t provide a powerful enough “experience,” and get us to God in an experiential way on Sunday morning. If we’re chasing a sensory overload of God-experience in our church gatherings, very few churches will ever be able to satisfy that craving. And ponder this: do you think the church gatherings we read about in the book of Acts produced anything like the experiences churches try to facilitate today? I think not. There was something else to it.

So what do we meet for then? We meet, not to have some crazy experience with God, but to remind ourselves and one another of the great, strong, gracious, saving God who has made us alive together with Christ. We remind ourselves and one another of the Gospel, and, as Hebrews 12 tells us, to run the race of faith with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin, always looking to Jesus. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, in every way.

This is where we find endurance for the race, and this is how we get to God. Not through a carefully orchestrated theatrical God-experience, but through Jesus. The question for our church gatherings then, is, are we providing ways for people to muster lots of willpower and personal worship from within themselves (through vague, self-centered song lyrics, super dark concert-type environments, etc.)? Or are we presenting a rock-solid picture of Jesus and of the Gospel every Sunday in our singing, prayers, readings of Scripture, and preaching? We should want to stop trying to muster up emotional attitudes of worship from within, and run to our Savior again this Sunday. Let’s help one another do that, and know that right now we are God’s. As the conversation on Wilson’s blog reminds us, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” Let’s be content and overjoyed in this reality, and be content and overjoyed with our local churches if they faithfully bring us to our Savior each week and not to a mere fleeting experience.

Summary of Edwards’ View Of The Trinity

Here’s John Piper’s summary of Jonathan Edwards’ view of the Trinity, that Piper says was revolutionary for him when he first started to read Edwards. It also blew my mind when I read this for the first time a few years back. This quote is taken from Jonathan Edwards On The Good Life, by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney.

“In brief, there is God the Father, the fountain of being, who from all eternity has had a perfectly clear and distinct image and idea of himself; and this image is the eternally begotten Son. Between this Son and Father there flows a stream of infinitely vigorous love and perfectly holy communion; and this is God the Spirit. God’s image of God and God’s Love of God are so full of God that they are fully divine Persons, and not less.”

Hymnology: “He Rescued Me”

Some of the following I was only able to find via Wikipedia (sigh), so please correct me if any of it’s wrong. I’d love to gather all the right info on this hymn.

Originally titled “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus,” this hymn apparently originated in the 1800s in North-East India, where a man was pressed by the village chief to renounce his new Christian faith. He refused, saying “I have decided to follow Jesus,” and was executed singing “The cross before me, the world behind me.”

The arrangement many of us know today was composed by an American hymn editor, William Jensen Reynolds, and included in a 1959 hymnbook.

Its lyrics, though so appropriate given their origin, might mean something different to many who would sing them today. In the context of martyrdom and persecution, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back” is a Holy Spirit-enabled response in the face of such trials. But many have excluded this hymn from their churches because of the “human ability to choose God” theology that it so easily supports if removed from its context.

All that to say, that’s why I love this arrangement by Red Mountain Church, with a rewrite to the lyrics. One comment on the song’s YouTube post says it perfect, actually:

“[This arrangement is] shocking in stark contrast to the original words of this song. It’s offensive … it’s perfect … it’s Gospel.”

The Red Mountain Church lyrics say the following:

I never wanted to follow Jesus

I never wanted to follow Jesus

I never wanted to follow Jesus

He rescued me, He rescued me

No turning back, No turning back

This rewrite is so much more suited to congregational singing, and adoption into the regular singing of local churches. It echos the glory of Scripture passages like Ephesians 2:1-9, which says,

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

A Christian didn’t all of a sudden “decide to follow Jesus.” We were “dead in our trespasses and sins in which we once walked,” and God “made us alive.” He raised us from the dead, in Christ, and united us to Him. And it’s all a gift of God’s grace, to have faith in Christ and to be raised from our spiritual deadness. So God rescued us when we never wanted Him to. Praise God for His glorious grace in the Gospel.

Here’s the Red Mountain Church version (sorry about the lame slide show accompaniment):