Passively Engaging with God

One of the most difficult aspects for me during a worship service is to be actively engaged with what is happening. Someone moving down the row from me, or someone coming in late, or a child crying or a funny joke all distract me from the primary purpose I’m there: to commune with the family of God and to spend time in awe of who God is. It takes a concerted effort to be engaging with people and with everything that happens during the service. This is the difference between being an active participant and being a passive participant.

Being a passive participant means I expect everything to go my way, for the music to be my favorites that I enjoy, for the sermon to be perfectly applicable to me and relate to me. This leads to both an entertainment model of church and a me-centric model of church. Church is all about me and what I get and want from the weekly services.

Being an active participant means I look for opportunities to serve those around me. Instead of wanting the music to be my favorites, I look for the ways these songs can serve us as a whole. I actively listen to the sermon and think through ways I can encourage the pastor for being faithful to the Word, ways I can grow as a believer, and support those around me.

This is part of the reason I ask for people to stand when we sing. By standing people are forced to be more engaged in what they are doing. Not to mention, it’s much easier to sing with correct posture, like you have when you stand.

Instead of looking for ways that we can get something, I hope we as a church can look for ways that we can engage with the Word of God and allow that to change our lives and the ways we interact with each other.

Individual vs. Corporate

I get many e-mails and comments from people about songs they’ve heard on the radio or from friends that they love and really want to sing at church. I’ll listen to all of them, but very rarely have they been a song that will make it to the list of songs we sing at church. Often it’s not because they’re bad songs (although some are!), but it’s usually because they’re either lacking in clarity, difficult to learn to sing, or far too individualistic.

One of the primary things I look for in songs for the congregation to sing is that it speaks to a wide range of people. This is incredibly difficult to do well. With hundreds of people attending church in a weekend it’s impossible to do that every week, but if it’s something that can be easily universalized then I think it’s very helpful. This is where it’s incredibly important to note the difference between songs that are helpful for individuals verse songs that are helpful for congregations.

One of the most stark examples of a song I use for my own edification and personal worship is “When I Lose My Heart to You (Hallelujah)” by Hillsong United. The chorus would be incredibly difficult for most people to sing, but I love the message of the song and will often use it for me to sing praises to God.

The other component to think through in this is active verse passive engagement with songs, which I’ll address at some later point. But the goal of our time together on Sundays is active engagement with everything that happens. This means being actively engaged during the message, announcements and singing. Which also correlates to the songs that we’ll sing: hopefully they encourage active participation.

Worship in Adversity

We began a new series this week at Grace on the life of Elijah titled ‘Adversity.’ As I confessed during the beginning of the corporate singing, it was pretty tough to find songs that we know that deal with this important issue. This week I found a blog by a pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs who asked the question: how many minor keys are we singing at church? Looking at the 104 top CCLI songs from the past 25 years, there were 7.

Paul in Romans 12:15 tells believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In my experience, we tend to do a great job rejoicing with those who rejoice (at least outwardly, even if inwardly we’re jealous) while a poor job at mourning with those who are mourning. It seems that we want people to mourn for a short time and then move on to being happy. Instead of actually mourning we offer poor platitudes, while not actually relating to any seen or felt needs.

This is also true of some songs that deal with our response to difficult situations. In trying to find songs that related to this theme, one of the first that came to mind was Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’ He wrote that right after 9/11 when he realized that many of the songs the church sings don’t have any aspect to dealing with difficulties. Yet that song is still in a major key and resolves in a hopeful statement.

I introduced a new song to the church this week, ‘Give Me Faith’ by Elevation Worship that hopefully helps put words to how we as believers can deal with difficult situations that arise: through faith. Hebrews 11 talks about the faith that many people have demonstrated throughout history. My hope and prayer as we go through this sermon series is that we can  pray for the faith to trust God even when our lives feel like a mess.

Singing Through Generational Trends

One of the most difficult things of leading congregational worship through singing is the wide range of opinions people bring to church. Some listen to only top-40 radio, some blast KLOVE all day, others don’t listen to any music, and others only listen to classical. How do we bring all of those together on a Sunday morning? This is an area I have struggled to work through since I began serving in the church.

First, remember that no one will enjoy the same thing. The point and purpose of our corporate gatherings are not to appeal to the masses, but to encourage better pursuit of God. Every week it seems that there are some people that like every song I do, and other people that hate every song I do. And there’s weeks where I feel the same! Ultimately this isn’t about us, but about God.

Second, listen to various genres of music. All genres have some music merit that people can learn from. This is a great reminder that it isn’t just about an individuals preferences. God was a creative God who made things as seemingly mundane as ants all the way up to the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. If God finds pleasure in everything he made, I think we can find pleasure in various forms of music.

Third, learn to speak the language of difference generations. Many of the complaints lobbed at me about newer songs it that they “lack the depth of the old hymns.” I think this may have been true 10-15 years ago when “worship music” was just gaining traction, but I don’t think this same complaint hold weight today when there are such rich and deep songs that have been written over the past 5 years. At the same time, there is a rich history that is connected to the hymns of centuries ago, and refusing to do any hymns loses our sense of connectedness to our history. In my interactions with many people who prefer hymns, I ask them to think through the words we sing in the newer songs. Are any of them biblically erroneous or leading people to not think rightly of God? Or is it merely a preference for a specific style of music?

Fourth, have a long-term view and plan in mind. Looking at the day-to-day doesn’t give a good perspective of how people are growing. Instead of being discouraged, think of specific ways you can help the congregation to grow over the next month. We have eternity to look forward to getting this down right, so don’t be discouraged by what seems to be a lack of growth on earth.

Finally, love and pray for your congregation. You have been tasked with the great honor to point people to Christ through your singing. Do your best to be honoring and loving toward those who may malign you. And remember that the reason we gather together is for God, not for us.

 

Transitioning Out

Over the past month, I have been in the process of transitioning out of the current church I serve and preparing to move and begin a new season of ministry in Longmont, Colorado focusing exclusively on worship through music. This process began last fall when I was talking to the youth pastor at this new church who has been a friend for a few years, and told my that my name had been brought up when the church decided it was time to hire a worship pastor. I officially applied for the position this past February, candidated last month and got called to the position a week later. Thus I have been wrestling through how to transition out of one church and into another without (hopefully!) dropping the ball at either place. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past few weeks.

It’s going to be hard.

I should have known this from the beginning, but I didn’t expect it to be as emotional as it was. I’ve enjoyed serving here for almost 4 years and have grown close to many people in the church. It’s been a joy to serve and I’ve had many opportunities to serve in so many different areas than I expected and have grown in my ability to lead people through music, pouring everything I could into the ministry here. Thinking that I won’t get to serve with them anymore isn’t easy to think through!

-Make Instruction Books

I quickly realized that my weekly to do list is bigger than I realized! Not as far as time, but as far as the steps it takes to get the music “stuff” ready each week! I need to pick songs that correlate to the sermon, think through any special events that week (missions moments, special announcements), Scripture readings, getting all the computers ready with the loops, lyrics and other slides, and then making sure planning center is right and everyone has the music in the right keys! During my time here I didn’t think through any of these processes but just do them! I took screen shots of each step of the process and included instructions about how to use all the main programs (for us here it’s Proclaim, Planning Center and Mainstage).

-Think Through All Your Subscriptions

Most music related things today seem to be subscription based, like Planning Center. Everything we’ve done here is currently tied to my account and church credit card which will soon be deactivated! I think I’ve transitioned them all to a different person and card, but I’m really hoping I didn’t miss anything!

-Ministry Is Relationships

Make sure you spend time with the people you’ve invested in. If this means setting up a meal for the ministries you’ve been most involved in, get it done. I was able to have a reception in between services this past Sunday to connect with a number of people, but it was very quick and I only was able to talk to people briefly. I did a music team meal, and a youth leader meal as both a way to say thank you for our time together, but also to just hang out with those people I’ve gotten close to over my years here.

-The Ministry Is Not Yours

This time has been a good reminder to me that this church isn’t all about me. Sure, I’ve left my mark on the areas I’m involved in and (again, hopefully!) positively in people’s lives, but the ministry will go on without me. This is hard to admit and even now hard to see how sometimes, but I know that God is in control. I hope we all have a mindset similar to John the Baptist who viewed his ministry as one of preparation (Mark 1:7-8).

Missional Part 2

One of the “buzz” words in the church today is the term “Missional.'” It seems that an increasing number of people and churches want to be considered missional and will proudly tell others about the missional communities at their church. I got to spend some time this past semester looking at the missional movement in a little more depth and focus than I had before, and am still attempting to work through all the ramifications of it, but suffice it to say, I’m slowly being converted, with a caveat. In my Pastoral Theology class we read 2 books on the missional movement, The Missional Leader, and Church Unique. While I’d heard the term before, and even some explanation of it, I initially scoffed at it because it is the trendy thing to talk about right now (and because it also seemed to be very closely connected to the emergent church movement). Yet as I have thought through the ideas behind it and have seen the increasing ways Evangelical Christians are marginalized in American culture, I am beginning to see the merits of the missional movement and have begun thinking and praying through ways I can help lead the church I serve to become better equipped to be on mission to those around them. A large part of the change for me has taken place because of an opportunity I had to hear from Jeff Vandersteldt this summer at the EFCA National Conference, in addition to reading his book Saturate.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am converting with a caveat. My biggest hesitation with the missional movement is that it can sometimes diminish the role of the gathered church and make being a Christian all about being the church scattered. I was grateful to hear Jeff hold in high regard the local gathered church. So this month I decided to read through the book of Acts in my devotions to get a better idea about what the early church emphasized and encouraged, and came across Acts 5:42 which says,

Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (italics mine)

Teaching and preaching was an integral part of the early church, in addition to being the church scattered. We need the church to be the church both gathered and scattered, and must cling to both parts of the church to be effective in Christ’s command to make disciples. As I continue to explore what this means for the local church I’m sure I will be writing and sharing more thoughts about the missional movement. Has the church you attend joined in this thought process, and if not do you think they should?

Can We Swear in Church?

I’ve been a big fan of Hillsong United since 2007 when I was introduced to “Mighty to Save” at a youth missions trip. My influence from them grew even more when I went to college and it seemed like EVERYONE loved them and sang their songs. They’ve put out many songs I’ll sing at church often (Hosanna, Lead Me to the Cross, Search My Heart, the whole Zion album) and they recently came out with a new album called ‘Empires.’ I was once again looking forward to having many new songs to introduce at church at some point, but after listening to the album a couple times I’m a little disappointed with this album. Nothing stuck out right away as a song we should sing at church (as I quickly thought of “Oceans”). From following many of the members of the band, I understand that this album was born out of a period of immense suffering because one of the members’ baby sons had many complications and was in the hospital for an extended period of time. That suffering is most acutely felt on the song “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)” Thematically it’s very similar to something like “Blessed Be Your Name,” and I musically really enjoy it (as most previous albums have done, Hillsong United is able to blend modern music with worship in a beautiful way). The chorus says

Even when my strength is lost
I’ll praise You
Even when I have no song
I’ll praise You
Even when it’s hard to find the words
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

I would gladly sing that part of the song at church and fully embrace it. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s the second chorus that I have a problem with.

Even when the fight seems lost
I’ll praise You
Even when it hurts like hell
I’ll praise You
Even when it makes no sense to sing
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

Can we use a phrase “hurts like hell” in church? Is it ok to swear to God? Most often it depends on who you ask. Part of the reason Mark Driscoll got as popular as he did was because he was known as “the swearing pastor.” I remember one time when I was younger reading about John Piper swearing during a sermon (I looked it up and couldn’t find anything at this time). Piper said he could point to instances in the Bible where the writers used stronger language, but he still shouldn’t have done it in a sermon. This is one of those issues that Millennials have seemed to more often embrace. Swearing is fine because it’s funny! Or done to make a point. Anyone who says swearing is bad is a legalist! Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” I think it is important to separate our corporate times of worship with our personal times of worship in this issue. During a church service, I would not be comfortable singing something like that. Ever. Even when it’s done to make a point I think there are better words that can be used that are more conducive to building the body up toward Christ. At the same time, for my personal time of worship, if I was really struggling, I wouldn’t hesitate to use some strong language in my prayers. Jesus on the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thankfully I will never have to deal with the same kind of separation he experienced, but I don’t know what my future holds. I have two friends who have held their still-born children and have wrestled through intense periods of grief, and still came to the conclusion that God is still good and he cares for me. Even when my life hurts like hell I know it isn’t the end. Christ has defeated sin and death and will use everything in my life for good and his glory.

Using Music From People With Wack Theology

There have been a few articles I’ve read recently about why people will not sing songs at church from specific groups, the most often quoted are Hillsong, Elevation Worship, and Jesus Culture. They do not want to endorse any kind of theology that may be questionable or lead people to study more about specific churches. But what if the words of many of the songs they write are biblically true, or a resurrection of an old hymn? Personally, I have chosen to do songs from almost all these churches. They have written many songs that are very catchy, easy to sing (sometimes! if you lower it a lot!), memorable, and theologically rich. I’m grateful for these people who have been gifted with combining biblical truths with good music that won’t put me to sleep! The main reason I use music from these churches is because if we were going to ban music from anyone or any group with a questionable past or questionable theological bent, we wouldn’t sing any songs. Moses was a murderer, David was a murderer and an adulterer, Paul was a murderer (there was a lot of death in the Bible) and Jesus saved all of them, and used them for his good. The disciples even wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans, I think their theology was completely off at that point! I also know that at times my theology has been completely off. If I think I have it all figured out I’m still off! Thankfully God is still God and can and will work despite me and my completely wack theology. Yet in the midst of that, we will still do our best to worship God and equip the saints to better understand God through the gift of music.

Singing to Teach

Whenever I’m asked why we spend so much time singing during a church service, there are two passages I cite. The first is Ephesians 5:18-21 where Paul says,

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The second is also by Paul in Colossians 3:15-17 where he says,

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In the first passage, Paul writes about one of the purposes of singing “addressing one another.” He words it similarly in Colossians when he says, “teaching and admonishing one another.” That means that we need to spend time singing to each other, and also means that the congregation needs to be able to hear each other! Mike Cosper, a worship pastor in Louisville, KY says, “we sing so that we can teach and admonish one another.” (Rhythms of Grace, 156)  Harold Best, a music professor at Wheaton college, words this even more strongly in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith where he writes, “a congregation is just as responsible to sing the gospel as the preachers are to preach it.” (192)

The common thought among many Christians today is that the church is run by the pastors and leaders, which leads to a passive approach to church. People come to church to be fed instead of coming to serve those around them. This also is manifested when people refuse to sing during our corporate times of worship. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes that the job of the teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (4:12) This also applies to music as it is done to equip those in the church to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus. Therefore, singing plays an essential part to the ministry of the church. We must not neglect singing together, as some are in the habit of doing, instead let us continue to sing to build one another up and help teach each other the richness of the gospel message through the power of God to the ends of the earth.

Stop. And Think About It.

Selah.

Scattered throughout the Psalms there is that one word, repeated at seemingly random intervals. It breaks up the flow of thought and signifies a pause in the reading or singing of the Psalm. While these are often thought of as a musical interlude, it also is a time for one to pause and think about what was just said.

Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation.
Selah.

There is enough in those three lines for us to think about for eternity! What does it mean to bless the Lord? How does God daily bear us up? How has God been your salvation? Where do we turn for salvation? Our human nature and tendency is to throw out words like our daily garbage, without giving them a second thought. Words having meaning. Through words God spoke the world as we know into existence. Jesus was the revealed Word of God. James 3 addresses the importance of the words we use in our daily life. How often do you stop to think about the words you use?

What about the words we use to sing praises to God on Sunday? Do you stop to think about what you’re saying or who you’re saying it to?

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song

Once again there is a treasure to be mined in just those few phrases! But so often as soon as we’re done singing we’re done thinking about it. This is why I will often have musical interludes during a song. This could be the same chords repeated, a guitar solo, a piano solo, or the pads play in the background. These times give us space to reflect on the words we just sang and better contemplate the God we are worshipping. One of the most effective tools I use during this time is displaying Bible verses on the screen during these musical breaks that speak to the sermon that is going to be preached as well as the song that we’re singing. This past week, during an interlude on “Revelation Song” we projected the words from Revelation 5:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Not only does this help us to reflect on God’s goodness and the Lamb who was slain, but it also reveals why we sing that song: it takes the phrases from the Bible and puts them to music. This is one simple way we can continue to remain submitted to God’s Word during our worship services. If we truly say we are people of the Word, which I hope we would, I think we should give Scripture the prominent place in our worship services. How are some ways you have given prominence to God’s Word in your services?

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