May 27, 2014


"Sometimes we try too hard to manufacture something that is so much richer when we just let it happen."
A friend of mine wrote this the other day, and it resonated with me. Much proverbial ink has been spilt over the debate as to why so many people have stopped singing in church the last few years. As a worship pastor, I’m not entirely sure I agree that people have stopped singing, exactly, though I suppose I may just not be in the right churches to observe this behavior (rule #15: always question the question). Often, pastors are blamed for various infractions, including choosing music that’s too hard or too high or too loud or too … whatever, an over-emphasis on quality, the physical space set up to reinforce passive behaviors … the list goes on, and for the most part, it essentially can be summed up in one accusation: you, the leader, make it too hard for me, the follower, to participate.

Again, speaking as a worship pastor, I object to a lot of this language, not because we pastors aren’t ever guilty of one or more of the above (I’ve introduced songs that were too hard before, I admit it), but because of the passive-aggressive victim and consumer attitude behind it. So many of these articles read as if the leaders are entirely responsible for people not engaging in worship ("it's your fault we don't sing!"), as if worship wasn't primarily a choice of attitude on the part of the worshipper (which it is). If we, the pastors, ever taught you to think like a victim, or if we ever enabled you in consumer habits, I am so sorry. It's wrong, and so that part's on us. Can leaders do things that make corporate worship harder? Yes, and we should stop doing those things. Can we do things to make it easier? Yes, and it would be a good idea to keep those in mind as we plan.

But people are only dumb sheep if they choose to be; Paul commended the Bereans for fact-checking. You can't blame a leader for where you follow blindly, unwilling to ask questions. That's probably a subject for another post though.

Where a lot of pastors do tend to be guilty, I think, is when we want people to worship God through the music so badly, but instead of creating space for God to enter, we sometimes try to manufacture an experience LIKE one where God entered for us once (or, crazy idea, regularly), so people will like Him - even love Him - like we do. It's at once a phenomenal motivation and one that's completely misguided, caused by losing sight of the purpose, the vision behind what a gathering is for.

But that’s never found its way onto one of those lists.

I could go through every single one of the issues I’ve read and show you “secular” venues that have the same behaviors, but in which people sing at the top of their lungs. The space, for example - sure, everyone is standing in rows, and this can make it feel like the band is “performing for” the congregation, and maybe the music sounds too hard … but have you ever been to a Dave Matthews concert? His music is not easy (lots of songs with a range far beyond one octave), and yet almost everyone who goes knows it all from memory and belts it out without a self-conscious thought for their voice. Why? Because they listen to it all the time. Because they love it. Because these are their people. And so they sing.

To be fair, there's a unique difference between those venues and our churches in our diversity of taste. On a Sunday morning, you’ll have people who love hymns standing beside someone who loves the aforementioned DMB music, across the way from someone who won’t listen to anything but Justin Bieber (or as my daughter calls him, Justin Beaver; I like her version better). Modern venues are hard that way, and it’s only going to get harder.

Oh, and one other thing: guilt. Our church culture is saturated by guilt when it comes to church attendance in a way that a DMB concert is not. Can you imagine? "Dave worked really hard on this music, so you should come and be grateful for the chance." ... really? But then there's "Jesus died for you, so the least you can do is come once a week and sing these songs." I’ve heard about as many variants on that particular phrase as I think I could ever stand. Just stop it - Jesus was not about using guilt or manipulation to engage people; He loved them so much they couldn’t help but love Him back.

The truth is, as a worship pastor, I don’t want you to come because you’ve been guilted into coming. I don’t want you to come because our music is "better" than the church down the street or the DMB concert or whatever. I don’t want you to come because it’s a duty, an obligation, or a threat.

I want you to come because I want you to engage God, to hear from Him, to pray to Him, to sing about and to Him, and because when we gather together, that happens in a way that does not happen anywhere else. I want you to come because the writer of Hebrews advised the church not to stop meeting together regularly, but to eat together, sing together, hear the scriptures explained together, to encourage each other, to send each other. I want you to come because, deep down, YOU want to come. I want you to come because when we gather, we are better for it. When we sing, we remind our collective selves why we are who we are. When we hear the scriptures explained, we grow in understanding. When we break bread together, we remember that we are a family with an open table. When we baptize, we celebrate the new life that God is re-creating in the world. When we are sent, we remember that we are not here for ourselves, but for the world.

Worship Pastors, make sure you always keep in front of the people the vision of corporate worship. People need to have a compelling reason to want to be at a worship gathering, otherwise it’s just another activity on their schedule to be skipped when it’s inconvenient or a duty to be executed without passion.

And either way, the church will feel dead.

But if they’re there because they want to be, because they know what they’re about and how this will propel the Kingdom forward, you won’t need to worry about your numbers anymore, and you won’t need to manufacture an experience. You’ll need to be intentional, yes, taking care to provide space with purpose and creativity. Know your culture and how to speak their language. But ultimately, know that it is not you who makes it work.

It’s God.

May 23, 2014


A friend of mine posed this question on a forum of which we’re both a part: "post-Easter down time is a myth. Discuss."

While it would seem that the answer is in the question (at least, for his context), this is an issue I've run into on a fairly regular basis over the last six years in ministry: our churches are far too busy. If pastors - worship pastors, senior pastors, associate pastors, children's and youth pastors … those that are tasked with equipping the body for ministry (see Ephesians 4) - if we are too exhausted from doing ministry, we have on our hands a self-perpetuating problem. Pastors will never be able to find the time to equip churches for ministry if they’re too busy doing the ministry themselves, and if they never find the time to equip those same congregants for ministry, they’ll always have to do the ministry itself by themselves. Translation?

They’ll never actually lead people to do anything.

How often, in the name of “setting an example,” have pastors been over-worked to exhaustion and burnout?

Part of this is an expectations issue. Church culture can be one of the most brutal places to work because often, Christians in our country live by the expectations of the rest of our society: if you pay for something, you expect results. I pay a plumber to fix my pipes, I pay for my computer to work, I pay for good food at a restaurant, and I pay my pastors’ salaries (out of my generosity!) to do the work of ministry and make our church look good. They are the specialists; we pay them to be holy, to lead programs we like, to play the music that we like, to make us feel connected, to visit us and all of our extended family when we’re sick, to provide decent coffee on sundays, and if it’s not too much trouble, to do all of this on a salary that doesn’t require too much of a stretch on our church budget.

Yes, consumerism is a problem because our people buy into their culture instinctively - it confirms their deepest desires, that the universe culminates with their preferences and tastes; woe to the person who gets in their way. It’s all well and good to spend sermon time talking about how “the Kingdom is not about you” (and let’s be honest, we’ve all used that phrase at least a dozen times), but it’s quite another to put that philosophy into practice. People nod when you preach that, of course, assured they’re not part of THAT problem. But then, as soon as you ask them to sacrifice something in the name of Jesus for the sake of the church - a style of music they love, a sunday school program they’ve always attended, even a tradition in which they’ve never actually participated but has "always" been around - you’ll discover an entirely different congregation has been lurking beneath the surface.

Pastors, let's be totally honest: ultimately, this is at least partially our fault: we enable the dysfunction out of fear. We enable that consumerism by pandering to the fear that they will leave if we don’t do all of the things they expect of us, because if they all leave, we no longer have a salary. It’s a catch-22; we enable their consumerism by caving, but will probably be miserable, and yet chances are we may not have a job if we don’t. So we strive to maintain the “historic” programs (the ones that don’t really work but we do because we “have” to), but also recognize that as culture changes, we need to add new things to what we do, and so we’re stretched thinner and thinner and thinner. 

Remember, though: if you’re going somewhere and nobody’s following, you’re just taking a walk, but worse, if you’re an enabler, you’re really running to keep up with a herd of sheep going in the wrong direction. The idea of “leading by example” is a myth only insofar as somebody’s actually following. If nobody’s following, if you’re going in the wrong direction, it might be worthwhile to figure out why before you work yourself to a pile of bones. The movement away from consumerism is a slow, long, painful road, but if we’re honest, in the beginning the pain is mostly ours. 

But it’ll be worth it if that’s where God is going.

And we'll never know unless we withdraw from the culture and rest. We need a critical distance from the things that keep our laser focus week after week. So many of us say we're "30,000 feet" people, but in reality, we haven't had time to dream because of church budgets and counseling Mrs. Nesbit again and answering a thousand emails and worrying about that one anonymous letter and did I mention church budgets? There is so much noise in our lives; dreaming will never happen unless we actually get to sleep. And if we're really the leaders, we decide when that happens.

In order to break the cycle of consumerism, we must first choose to let it end in ourselves.

In order to do, we must first be.

Two resources for you related to this. I don't normally do this so bluntly, but frankly, this is a growing problem and it needs to be addressed, and these two authors have done so incredibly well. First, Facing Leviathan, by Mark Sayers, is a brilliant piece of writing and speaks strongly to the culture change that's currently in process regarding noise and consumerism in churches. Second, Mad Church Disease, by Anne Marie Miller, is a must-read and can be bought with the accompanying 30-day devotional Beating Burnout. Don't let this go any longer. You and your churches - and frankly, the Kingdom - deserve so much better than torched leaders pandering to consumerism. 

May 19, 2014


It’s a myth that leading requires being on stage all the time in the public eye. Some of the most important leadership goes on behind the scenes where almost nobody will ever notice it - unless, of course, it wasn’t there.

A church’s AVL volunteers are as much a part of leading the worship experience as any musician or preacher. But they're the only ones who get no credit if it goes well and a lot of blame if it goes badly. It's a thankless job, yet it's one of the most vital. They require some of the most training, yet I know so many pastors - even worship pastors - who never step back into the booth for a Sunday, thinking that it's more important that they be up front "leading."

Here's the thing. Most worship pastors could lead a set with no other volunteers. It might not be ideal, but they could do it. Likewise, most pastors think that they preach a sermon all by themselves. However, without a capable tech crew, the best band on earth would be incapable of leading, to say nothing of a pastor's sermon being heard clearly in a culture that relies so heavily on amplification. Without a capable office staff, no bulletins or graphics are made, the website stays out of date indefinitely, programmable doors don't open when they're supposed to, and your sermon doesn't get printed because there wasn't toner in the fancy printer.

Pastors, board members, lay leaders, here is some worthy advice: never value the (often anonymous) opinions of pew-sitting commentators over the relationship you have with your dedicated volunteers and staff, especially the ones who work quietly in the background. If someone complains about volume, you won't know how to reply unless you've walked in your audio volunteers' shoes (or perhaps, sat in their chairs). If someone complains about a spelling error, you can't reply with purpose if you've never set up a slide or written a bulletin, much less run a gathering. So go spend a week in the booth, or better yet, set aside one week of each month to take time back there (and if you think your church can't survive without you up front every week - even for one week - you might actually be part of perpetuating the problems you’ve been trying to solve but blaming on others).

So make the tech crew among your best friends. Spend time getting to know the office staff, learning how they do what they do, sitting with them and, instead of giving advice, learn why they do what they do (you might be surprised to realize they do what they do why they do it for a good reason). Watch a network administrator fix a server a few times. Aside from this being good practice as a leader, and aside from being just a good pastoral thing to do (they’re pretty awesome people back there if they’re willing to do this all every week without recognition), and aside from growing in appreciation of the many seemingly mundane tasks that it takes to make everything work ... 

... aside from all those things that it does for you, you will have recognized the hard work of people who make what you do work without you even knowing it. And that will pay your ministry back ten, fifty, a hundredfold because they will once again realize that they matter, that their hard work is valuable and irreplaceable, that they matter as people (not as resources), and that you, the one getting all the credit, know and appreciate them.

May 13, 2014

A Prayer

Lord, give us wisdom to know

   when to speak

      what to speak

         how to speak.

And give us the courage to be still.

May we not stifle the quiet voice of Your Spirit, but may our words and melodies ever draw Your people towards You. May our voices be Yours,

especially when you are silent.

May 7, 2014

Tool [Repost]

I'm at a conference this week with a bunch of artists, and as I listen, participate, contemplate, and try to absorb everything, this post from a month ago keeps resonating in my mind. I pray you who are artists find hope in this ...

"We do this every year so people will come to know Jesus."

I was in my first full-time pastorate, and had just been told that the church put on a musical every Easter. A community musical, that I would be supervising, down to costumes, animals, sets, and of course, volunteer actors and actresses.

It's not that what she said made me especially upset, more that something in the sentiment ... bothered me. While I knew her enough to know that her motivation was for the Glory of God, part of me wondered if putting on this huge production really made a difference in the community the way the church thought it did, if amateur theater was being presented in the name of Jesus so that they could add a few names to the rolls for the next few weeks before the newcomers went back to ... whatever they did before.

Sometimes, I don't think we understand how art fits into the world of the Church very well.

There are two mistakes often made regarding the theology of the Mission of the Church, and they both directly impact how churches understand art. The first is to begin our story from a place where humanity sinned and fell short of God's glory, i.e. starting in Genesis 3. The task then comes to fix the problem, to get the world to come back to Jesus. And it's an honest mistake, because it's easier to see the problems of the world all around us than anything else, and it would make sense from this perspective - with ample evidence - that we are fundamentally flawed, broken from the start. It's a story that's about how we need to stop doing certain things and the world will mysteriously be better. And to a degree, this is true; Jesus came into the world to save the world from sin. But sin management isn't the ultimate goal of the Mission; redemption, reconciliation, restoration to relationship with God is. We're not supposed to be living against something, we're supposed to be living FOR something bigger.

Which is why the second theological mishap is a reaction to the first; we start the story with the Mission itself. We go to Matthew 28 or even Genesis 12 and see how we've been called a sent people, and so we focus on the mission of reconciliation. And again, it's an honest mistake, because like I said, we are supposed to be living FOR something, not against something. But this version of the story still begins with a solution, which means it really begins by alluding to a problem. This is still a gospel that is about managing sin, despite the grander vision of working for a better world. 

It's not where the scriptures start. The scriptures are a story, and they start in the beginning, and they say that in the beginning, God created. 

Art is everywhere.

Because of God.

God is an artist.

The first thing God ever did was crack His knuckles (or at least, I imagine He did) and whip up existence. He made galaxies and platypus and grass and selenium and slime mold and giant squid and ice and all sorts of crazy other things. Like people. People are crazy things. But we're part of God's latest art project! In the beginning, the Creator took chaos and brought to it order.

And before anything bad happened, He called Creation GOOD. 

That should change how we see ourselves.

It should change how we see others.

It should change how we perceive our relationship with God.

It should even change how we see salvation.

The Mission of God is what God is up to in the world He created, not what we're up to. We don't have to get the world to come to Jesus, He is already wooing the world to himself ... sometimes through us. Yes, we are being reconciled to God, and yes, we are to participate (God acts, we join in), but ultimately re-creation happens because God is re-creating.

And that is why art belongs in the Church: it is not there so we might increase the roster, or to convince people of their sinfuless, or to get people to hear the gospel message, or so we get some fuzzy nostalgia or weepy emotional highs. Art is not a tool to be used for some other ends, though things like transformation, worship, and learning often happen because of and through the art. No, art IS an end, and it belongs in the Church because God is an artist, because the very heart of God beats for a new creation, a new work of art that's going to be even more amazing than the original.

To be artists is to imitate our Creator.
"We are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago." [Ephesians 2:10]

May 1, 2014

We All Bleed Scarlet

Punishment - in any form - should never be something we celebrate. At most, it should be something we carry out with heavy hearts that leaves a burden on our shoulders, whatever form it takes. Yet what I've observed, however, is anything but evidence of a burden in the last few days, but rather, a gleeful pursuit of alignment with the NBA's decision against Donald Sterling. Make no mistake: racism is a terrible problem in our world, one that is a product of history and of human fallibility. However, what I see are people gleefully rushing to say “see, we punished the racist! …

… that means we’re not racist!” 

It is a good thing to value human beings because they are created and loved by God, or, if you don’t believe, it is a good thing to support and celebrate your companions on this planet. That said, it is also popular to be SEEN by others as “not racist” (regardless of whether you are or are not).

The label of “racist” is a scarlet letter in our culture, and distancing ourselves from those with such a label is a way of putting ourselves in the in-crowd. By publicly setting ourselves against the damned, we can be popular by way of contrast. It’s all about holding a purported sinner at an arm’s length and telling everyone else how little like that man or woman I am. Racism can hide inside us so easily, so when someone is behaving in a very obviously racist way, it is so easy to point it out very quickly and then distance ourselves from that person as if to say “see, they’re racist, that’s what racism looks like, and I’d NEVER do that!” It’s a way of easing the pressure on our conscience from cognitive dissonance, of alleviating our own guilt.

It’s self-justification.

I’m not against the ruling, mostly because I have no idea what an appropriate punishment would be in this instance; I know almost nothing about the sport of basketball and even less about the industry. My understanding is that this fine is the largest possible fine and so it’s a statement of the NBA's intent, though for Mr. Sterling it’s a drop in a very large bucket. The real loss for him is the prestige of having a basketball team. I suppose that would feel like a blow, but I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been rich or owned a basketball team. Sympathy is hard for me to come by for Sterling, given that I know so little about him (though I don’t like getting punished either). Nor do I have any investment in the culture of basketball - I’m entirely non-athletic and in the worst way fit the cliche of “white guys can’t jump” (I can sort of hop when nobody's looking). But this post is not at all about whether he should have been punished or not. This post is about how people have handled the decision. What I see is a subculture damning someone - with a smile on their collective faces - for a thought-crime that is still very obviously present in the rest of us, to varying degrees. What I see is a culture happily pointing out a speck when the plank is still very much obscuring our vision. What I see is a culture trying to pretend that racism is over, as if they’ve not had a part in perpetuating the systemic problems we still face.

So let’s remind ourselves of how Jesus treated sinners and how Jesus handled conflict. And then, he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.