Thoughts from our 2015 WORSHIP WORKSHOP

Worship Workshop 2015

Last weekend about forty of us gathered for a worship workshop for our church team. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and it’s been one of the best things we do together, in my opinion. It’s the non-negotiable thing we have to do as a team each year, at least once.

I took a chunk of the time (which I haven’t done each year) to teach and discuss something pressing for us as a worship team. This year we talked through ways to fight our culture of distraction, and pour effort, time, and resources into serving our church family with our gifts. Here’s a list of what we discussed, and what we’re striving for in our church family, and specifically as part of the corporate worship and music leadership.

  1. Obedience to do what Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 AND Hebrews talk about what we’re to do when we gather. These are some of the significant places that talk about our corporate worship gatherings. Ultimately, these passages restate what Hebrews 12:1-2 says to do when we gather as Christians – look to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith!
  2. Faithfulness to be at church every week and keep doing it week-in and week-out. Show up. Whether you sing or not, or run PowerPoint or lights or not, whether it’s difficult or not, show up and be with the church, with the family of God.
  3. Orient your life around church, in a healthy way. What I mean by this is, don’t overbook your time, but consider the church in your decisions, and in how you use your time and resources. Ask yourself, will this build and encourage the rest of the church? Will this help me be a part of this church, for the good of my own relationship with God, for my family, etc?
  4. Don’t necessarily look for someone else to come along, some professional, to make things better. YOU do it. We’re the ones. One of my pet peeves is when I hear things like, “if only a pro sound engineer came, our band would finally sound halfway decent…” That may definitely be true. But If God hasn’t provided a professional sound tech, guitarist, or French horn player, or whatever, then that’s who God has ordained to have (or not to have) at your church at that particular time. He might be calling one of you (us) to step up and lean into that responsibility more, and to learn more, so we become that person.
  5. Improve. Commit and sacrifice to spend time getting better, to serve the church with your gifts. Take lessons, study songs, practice your instrument, start following helpful blogs or twitter accounts (churchsoundguy, etc). Spend time alone to do these things, if it helps make the time that you’re with the church better. Forgo distracting (fun) things for this.
  6. Be with God. Pursue your relationship with Him, and fight for your personal holiness and sanctification. Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” This is absolutely true of anyone on the worship team, serving at some level of leadership in your church. If the busyness and the “fun” stuff we’re all pursuing is not giving holiness to one another, it’s worthless and unhelpful.

Basically, the driving factor in all of this is, let your identity in Christ free you to give things up for the sake of His church, for His kingdom. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” Obedience and servanthood that is like Christ’s will take us to the cross, to lowliness, to sacrifice, for the sake of the most glorious things. We’re fighting at our church to sacrifice much effort and expend much energy to building up the body, and refining our various gifts to do this better and more.

 

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A Case for Reading Good Books and Singing Good Songs

Library.Stairs

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.

Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.

May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.

In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.

In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.

I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.

To play, or not to play (“Oceans”)?

Oceans

I’ve had a few good conversations this past week, with friends who plan and lead corporate worship, about evaluating the songs we choose to sing together in our churches. I think these conversations ultimately edified all parties involved, though not everyone ended up in mutual agreement. It all serves as a good reminder to me of some of the dividing lines right now in corporate worship, as well as a reminder of the reasons we pick the songs we do at our church. It might not be surprising that my conversations centered around the merits of Hillsong’s “Oceans” and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves,” and whether or not these (and songs like them) are good choices for gathered, corporate singing.

First of all, “Oceans” has proven much more popular than “How He Loves,” though both have been pretty huge the past few years. “Oceans” has really been the “silver bullet,” “hip new thing” of the past year, placing as one of the top 10 most-searched-for, and most-downloaded songs of 2014 from the CCLI database; and judging from what I read on The Worship Community and what I see and hear about from other local worship leaders and churches, this song has been played quite a bit the past year. It really resonates with lots of folks, and I’ve gotten quite a few suggestions for it too. But we don’t play it at our church for corporate worship. Here’s why. Please don’t write me off as a curmudgeon.

Just know at the outset that I really do love both “Oceans” and “How He Loves.” My heart has been drawn to worship Christ through listening to, and being led to sing along to these songs. I think they’re beautifully written, and pretty well-crafted in melody and in lyric. But these are two very current examples of a “type” of song that I find unhelpful to include too often in the gathered worship repertoire of a local church.

The problem I do have with these songs, is that they’re so heavy on metaphor and figurative language, that meaning is obscured. This is a problem in corporate worship. As a worship leader, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable leading songs  that don’t speak clearly enough for themselves, at face value, through their lyrics. The category lines are a little fuzzy here; but certain songs make me feel the need, if I’m the one leading the singing, to explain the meaning of the lyrics every time we include the song in a worship set. I think songs like this are potentially dangerous for Christians, in a corporate singing context, because the time will inevitably come when the worship leader decides not to, or forgets, to explain the lyrics. And I’ve learned that poetic metaphors are not, I repeat NOT always clear to everyone present. When the metaphors aren’t clear, our fallible human intellects and emotions are “prone to wander” and take our thoughts places the songwriter didn’t intend. Or, in a more worst-case scenario, we can erroneously fill a self-centered and/or heretical meaning into lyrics where the meaning is fuzzy or veiled to begin with.

Again, “Oceans” and “How He Loves” are two popular songs that aren’t wrong to sing and worship with. But I think there are definitely better songs to build into our churches’ regular rotations – songs that are clear, and where the Gospel truths are rock-solid and gloriously expressed. Like I said to a friend (who thankfully agreed with me!), I think “Oceans” is a song that might be best worshiped-with on an individual basis, at home or in your car, when you know exactly what you mean when you sing along – not in a corporate setting with a couple hundred people gathered and singing together. If you’re interested, Thabiti Anyabwile’s book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church has a super helpful chapter on evaluating the lyrical style and content of church music.

I don’t think that was too curmudgeonly. I hope not.

A church’s gathered corporate worship…

“[For many churches], Sunday Morning is a platform driven spectacle, led by mega-celebrities at mega-churches and would-be-celebrities and smaller churches. Rather than a challenging and diverse diet of milk and meat, celebration and lament, confession and assurance, we’re fed a pump-up-the-jams hype fest that culminates in a “You can do it!” sermon and a marketing pitch for membership. It’s an environment that feels hostile to doubt and suffering, unless your goal is to overwhelm them both with enthusiasm […]

“The solution isn’t trying harder to please religious consumers and church shoppers. Instead, we need to look to the old paths, where the good way is, and keep telling the only Story that gives us a sense of ultimate hope in this tragic and broken world.”

Mike Cosper

Playing and Singing Hymns

“I’ve heard hymns sound staunch, anachronistic, pharisaical, sappy, and above all comically glorious. In pop culture the singing of hymns represents a special brand of puritanical escapism and a retreat to “the good old days” of hard-headed faith.

I’ve also heard hymns sound sleazy, shallow, frivolously syncopated and sloppily paired with an alternative rock band (only churchgoers know this horrific reincarnation of the classics). Between these two evils, I choose the hard-headed version, as it is at least slightly dignified.

Mostly, I conclude that the hymn played and sung with subtlety and meekness of style is best of all. That way, no brazen human calculations drown out the sweet poetry and theology that I love, that feeds me.”

Brian James, from the JG Hymns project

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.

A Response To Tim Challies’ Post, About Churches Who Sing “Badly”

This past Monday, Tim Challies wrote a post that hit a little bit of a nerve (if one can judge this by blog comment threads). His post was entitled “I Love a Church That Sings Badly,” and basically made the case that of all the churches he gets to visit, it’s often the ones who sing somewhat “badly” together in corporate worship that stand out in a unique way. He says,

“I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well.”

Challies’ argument in summary is basically this: that often (not always), churches who sound great singing together do so because they don’t have a steady influx of new or spiritually young believers, who don’t know the ins and outs of the songs, the vocal parts, etc. And Challies argues the converse as well, that a church that does have a steady influx of new and untaught, and unpolished, believers tends to sound a little unpolished in their singing too, and that this is potentially a good thing.

I won’t quote any of the comments on Challies’ post. You can go read them for yourself if you want to get a sense of the controversy a post like this stirs up. I’ve brought these kinds of arguments on myself more frequently than you might think. As a church worship leader, or if you serve at all with the music of a local church, you’ll potentially hear comments like this anytime you say the outward product or polish of the worship service isn’t the most important thing. Like Challies argues here, a degree of roughness in a church’s singing is often (but not always) a sign of healthy discipleship in that church family. And what do you read in the resulting comments on his post? Arguments for good singing being more pleasing to God – that we want to sing well and have our church’s music sound good because anything less isn’t giving God our best.

This is tricky stuff, because this argument is, ultimately, true. We do want to always strive to give God our best at anything we do, agreed? Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to this exact thing. It’s biblical. But where this goes wrong when applied to singing is when we do the simple thing and equate the outward appearance (or sound) with what’s most pleasing to God and say things like, “How dare you imply we shouldn’t sound as good as possible?” or, “So you’re advocating laziness and poor quality?”

Which, again, isn’t what Tim Challies does. His point is effectively NOT that singing off-key, or not knowing the words to our worship songs is the way to go. His point is that there are important, glorious things happening in healthy churches that often connect to the quality of our singing, and make a roughness and tension in our singing OK. Here are a few reasons why I think Challies’ post should resonate in a good way with church folks:

1. Discipleship and evangelism will always cause us to hold “quality” in tension.

I’ll just basically restate Challies here, because he really said this so well. He uses the example of an unnamed church he visited “in the not-so-distant past,” saying,

“[T]he reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.”

We should always try for our best in whatever we do in our worship services, but I think I can argue biblically that producing external quality and doing our best don’t always look the same. And that’s often OK.

2. Avoiding “Heaven On Earth” syndrome.

I think what we often expect from our churches in gathered worship is an ideal, heavenly kind of worship, especially through singing, that might be unrealistic in our particular eschatological moment. We’re pilgrim people, looking forward to worship in the heavenly city, in a “better country” than this one. So we should resist the temptation to want a perfection in our church families that we just won’t have yet. Our churches should be made up of imperfect people, who are all being sanctified at different stages by the Holy Spirit, and who together make up a glorious, imperfect, already-but-not-yet redeemed family. Which, again, doesn’t absolve us from always doing our best with what we have. Which brings us to the next point…

3. Considering The Widow’s Two Mites.

In Luke 21:1-4 we see Jesus point out a widow, placing her only two coins in the temple’s offering box. We know that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), and that if we’ve seen Christ, we’ve seen the Father too. Here, we see God value the heart that gives everything it has in worship, which isn’t much for this woman, but is everything she has at that time. And it’s valued over and above what the rich can give, because even though their giving looks better, the widow’s worship runs deeper.

Again, this isn’t to be an extremist on this side of the whole argument about visible or audible quality. A rich person can give with just as much of a worshipful heart as the poor widow. But the point of Luke 21, and an underlying point of Tim Challies’ post, is that God looks at the heart. He always looks at the heart. And it’s often much easier to get the externals all polished up in a worship service, and miss the heart of the whole thing – the loving discipleship that marks a healthy church family. If having external quality in our church’s singing means a compromise of true discipleship, or a compromise of love for one another or love for unbelievers, or means that we look down on anyone who can’t sing as well as others, then we’ve missed the point of church. Jesus might as well have told the widow, “Don’t bother unless you can give a little more next time.”

Challies ends his post with this comment:

“There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing…I wonder if we have it all backwards.”