December 29, 2014

Intentionality Helps People Sing on Sunday (Part 5)

Reality check: none of this matters in a cosmic sense.

If we make these things that what makes-or-breaks us, we become consumers who instead of worshippers. Let me restate: the first church had none of this to worry about; they met in catacombs (translation: underground graveyards) amidst a huge persecution and weren’t overly worried about their perception by others. They were far more concerned with the fact that God was DOING something and how they were going to be a part of it. They didn’t care about growth or numbers and were openly persecuted by the government and established religious sects, yet they added to their numbers (daily!). Let me re-restate: if you “can’t worship” because of any or all of these things, you may need to rethink your motivations. Worship is, after all, still a choice, still a response to God’s offered mercy, and so singing as worship must be no less. 

However, just as God used the circumstances of the ancient church to speak to their culture, so too does He use our circumstances to speak to OUR culture. These things DO matter, but in a “here’s how we can help people focus” sort of way, a “here’s how to remove distractions” way, rather than a “this is necessary or else we can’t engage God” sort of way. Many of these can apply regardless of budget; these are to degrees, not to some absolute standard. 

They influence, they do not mandate.

They are also not really “rules” so much as they are “principles.” Rules are situation-specific; principles are cross-cultural, and will apply in every culture but will apply differently. Some are extremely practical, while others are more “vision-based.” For the next two posts, I’ll write a slightly exhausting (but not exhaustive) list of what helps people sing in church on Sunday … or whenever. We’ll start with the first of the two biggies.


There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it - having a plan always helps people sing.  I know that, in some cultures, the plan is “we sing stuff we always sing so we don’t have to plan,” but that doesn’t usually work in most western contexts (and it's still a plan). We should always plan that something will go differently than planned - because something almost always does. But if we plan ahead, fewer things will be able to phase us; instead of having to deal with crisis AND come up with a plan in the moment, having a plan means that shifting gears to accommodate new developments can happen more smoothly. There’s a notion among some clergy that the only time the Spirit of God works is “in the moment” but I would suggest that the Spirit of God more often helps us develop plans for gathering rather than interrupt them. Or, perhaps you could say yes, the Spirit always works in the moment - but there are a lot more moments ahead of the service or gathering than in it, and the Spirit works in those moments too (and perhaps we should listen).

A great example of this is jazz music. Jazz is often seen as a very loose, un-planned kind of music because of the high number of improvisational solos found in almost every piece. What seems as unplanned melody, however, is actually extremely strategic. The basis for good improv is a good chord progression that, I assure you, was carefully created by the author of the piece. What makes it seem effortless, however, is that each musician that is part of a good jazz ensemble has spent years (usually decades) perfecting their skills. The reason a jazz musician can “make up” a solo on the spot is because they’ve done it a thousand times already. They’ve played thousands of chord progressions similar to the one to which you’re listening, experimented and failed in many of them, and gradually perfected their own personal style. What an audience hears in any good improv solo sounds off-the-cuff, effortless, unplanned, but in reality is the product of hours upon hours of practice and careful planning by a whole community of people. 

If we’re doing what we’re doing on purpose and seeking to partner with what God is doing already, then the big-picture plan is already in place and we simply need to spend the time to learn what God’s got in mind (to say nothing of the fact that God actively invites us to use the creativity with which he created us - this is a partnership, by His choice). If you don’t spend time in advance to find out what God is doing, then don’t be surprised if people have a harder time engaging with God that day, particularly in something as personal as song. Yes, there will be times when things have to change at the last minute, but if this is your rule rather than the exception, you’ve created a last-minute culture and will not only burn out your ministry staff (volunteer AND paid), but you’ll also be ignoring rather than imitating the character of God, who spent all that time between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1 tilling the cultural soil for Jesus’ birth.

Furthermore, songs that are chosen on purpose for a gathering will allow the message of the morning to more fully penetrate the minds and hearts of those who have come to participate. This doesn’t mean, for example, that if the theme is “God’s Faithfulness” every song has to have the word “faithful” in it; the process can and should be a lot more subtle and story-driven than that. But it does mean that we must consider every piece of the gathering and how they relate to one another.

One might even say that everything that follows this element depends upon accepting it: planning matters.

Next Time: the other biggie that helps people sing on Sunday …

December 28, 2014

The Way of the Kingdom

I got to preach again today. It was a hard message to prepare, but I'm satisfied that God did what He needed to, at least, in me ...

December 22, 2014

Spread the Light

We'll return to our series on "What Helps People Sing on Sunday" next week. For now, it's almost Christmas again, and I thought I'd offer some reflections.

As with every family here in America, advent was a chaotic time for me growing up. There were always school productions to be rehearsed, concerts to be performed, presents to be bought. But my favorite part of advent was the tree. As a kid, it was a family affair. Dad and Mom would take my sister and me out to the local tree farm and we’d hunt down a good, solid white spruce, cut it down, and then wrestle it home into our living room. And because the season was as busy as it was, between church and shopping and school events, we almost never got our tree decorated until the week of Christmas, and sometimes even only on Christmas Eve.

There was lots of waiting at Christmas. Busy waiting, but waiting nonetheless.

Later, when I was a boy scout, our troop’s big fundraiser was selling Christmas trees. On one weekend in November, we’d trudge out to one of several tree farms and we’d cut down all sorts of trees - douglass firs, pine, and maybe even some spruce. Then, we’d get five or six volunteers from the national guard to drive out some large cargo trucks and help us get them back to our tree lot on main street, and each would get a tree for their help. And then came the long nights of volunteering in the little trailer on the tree lot. Mom would pack me a thermos of hot chocolate and some snacks, and two or three of us would huddle in the trailer with our dads waiting for customers to come in so we could dazzle them with our knowledge of the trees we were about to sell them.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of waiting.

Oh, everyone wanted a weekend shift - lots of customers kept us busy on Fridays and Saturdays, even on Sundays. And everyone usually GOT a weekend shift, because there were so many people out then that we needed extra help. But the rest of the week, those nights were fairly uneventful, and everyone got at least a few of those. But the unfortunate few, of which I was often a part, would get more than a few night shifts. We’d sit in the trailer on milk crates telling bad jokes and lamenting the cold, wondering when our replacement shift would show up so we could go home and thaw our cold hands and feet and frozen bottoms.

The waiting was busy, but it was still waiting.

And then suddenly it was Christmas and the waiting was over and the lot was closed and there was a tree up in our living room and it was time to decorate. I remember one year, a guy from church, who happened to be the volunteer fire chief of our village in upstate NY, came to my parents and offered to park a firetruck outside our house during the holidays. He was only half joking. My parents politely declined, and, after church, went home and set up our newly-cut White Spruce. My father would grumble at the tree as he wrestled the strands of lights into a very prickly set of strong branches. Then, as she did every year, my mother carefully added candles.

This was my Grandfather's tree last Christmas
It’s an old tradition for the Swiss side of my family, and one of which I’m very fond. Christmas Eve would start at church, of course, but then we’d come home and sit in our living room while mom lit the candles on the tree and then dad turned the switch off for every light in the house - including the tree lights - and we would read the Christmas Story out of Luke by candlelight. On the best Christmases, we travelled to visit my grandparents and our cousins and aunts and uncles. After dinner, we’d move into the living room where the tree was set up, full of old ornaments, each with a story, and of candles, their soft glow reflecting off the bay windows. There, my grandmother would read us the Christmas Story before we’d open presents. Inevitably, my grandfather would tell us stories of doing the same thing when he was a kid in Switzerland, and of even finding creative ways to string candles together and light them in sequence with one match.

For me, advent is a story of generations; each generation slowly, carefully passing the light on to the next. To pass the light of the candles means to pass on hope; hope of salvation, hope of redemption, hope of a Kingdom come to earth. Hope that the waiting will end soon, but with the knowledge that eventually, it will end. God came as one of us, bringing His light into a world that had forgotten they were even waiting, save for a few carefully holding onto a weak, flickering candle. But then the light spread, and has been spreading for centuries. It’s a light of redemption, of restoration, of re-creation. 

Waiting did end. Advent did turn to Christmas. The Kingdom has come, and now, that day will never end! The mission of God is something we can join with confidence because the end has already been won; in the incarnation, Peace became tangible; Joy overflowed; Hope was fulfilled; the light of the world has begun to spread. But it’s an ongoing project - the Kingdom is a gift that our world is unwrapping very, very slowly. And so it takes you. It takes me. Our advent world only feels that way because the gift is only open a little. But Christmas has come. God is on the move, and the invitation is open: here’s a candle. Join the movement. 

Spread the light.

December 20, 2014

Above the Clouds

My latest post on the ECC Worship Connect Blog is up, I'd be grateful if you'd pop over and join the conversation in the comments section!

"The view from 30,000 feet puts things in perspective."

December 15, 2014

What Style People Sing on Sunday (Part 4)

I felt like this one deserved its own post (even a short one) because, at its core, the debate about style lies at the heart of the so-called “worship wars.” 

Style, believe it or not, is only a secondary influence to engagement; its influence depends more on the culture in which the style is placed. It’s not a “neutral” like theology generally is, but we must also be careful not to overstate its influence by equating it with “excellence” or “planning.” Like I said before, if you like the music, if it strikes a chord within your soul, you will probably sing. If you chose a church, chances are you chose it, in part, because of the style you like anyway. Put another way: the style you choose will make singing more NATURAL (or if you prefer, comfortable). 

But as time rolls on, style matters less and less to, for example, millennials, who instead value the authenticity or the excellence in which it is led. Translation: they prefer a church where they perceive that the worship team or choir or leaders a) like what they’re doing and love the people they’re serving (authenticity), and b) know how to do what they’re doing and care about doing it well (excellence and intentionality). They don’t especially care (as a group) what the tunes themselves are; diversity of expression matters to them.

However, even if you value, say, traditional music more than contemporary or hip hop or whatever (whichever is your “soul language”), that doesn’t prevent you from singing it when it’s presented in your worship gathering. Style is an expression OUT of culture, rather than a requirement for singing, but while it helps us to sing what we love, it also will help us when we sing what OTHERS love. In other words, the wars have never been about worship. It’s such a terrible name. Maybe “style wars” or “preference wars” or even “culture wars” - maybe - but “worship wars” they are not. A “worship war” is an oxymoron; love of neighbor implies the ability to love one another in spite of preferences or styles, and true love of another often means learning to sing their songs. If you are warring about worship style, you are not responding to God’s mercy, which means it is not worship (Rom 12:1); you are instead responding to your own baggage. 

The worship wars still exist because young and old alike still say that the style of the song is more important to them than the people who are singing it.

It’s not like this everywhere. I know lots of people who prefer traditional music, but who champion the contemporary music though it’s not their preference. I also know plenty of other people who love modern music, but also have learned already to value the old hymns. 

If you find yourself in a church “at war” over music style, you are responsible for starting the healing process. If you’re all about contemporary music, learn some old hymns alongside those who love them (go to the traditional service sometimes). Learn the stories behind them from those who have been singing them all their lives. Ask about Wesley and Sandell and Luther and why they wrote what they did. Ask those beside you which hymn is their favorite and why. ... OR ... If you’re all about traditional hymns, the same is true; learn the contemporary music alongside those who love it (go to the contemporary or modern service). Sing some Houghton and Crowder and Jobe and Fraser and Gungor and All Sons & Daughters. Ask them why this music speaks so strongly to them. Listen to their stories. Sing with them.

You have no idea what a gift this will be.

For them. For you. For your community.

Next time: what actually does help people sing …

December 8, 2014

What Doesn’t Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 3)

We’ve talked about why people do sing.

We’ve talked about why people don’t.

But for a worship pastor, most of these reasons are not within the realm of control (since that IS what this whole conversation is about, right?). Our job is not to give people a reason to sing; our job (or at least, a fairly substantial part of our job) is to enable and facilitate singing for those who have that reason already. We create and curate the environment; they participate with us. We pick the songs and set the sliders and write the transitions; they sing with us.  We can set the table and cook the food with the best nutrition and flavor we can, but they have to pick up the fork or spoon or chopsticks (or whatever) and choose to eat it. Worship is a freely-chosen response to what God has done (I’ll never get tired of Romans 12:1), and music is one of its forms. Forced participation is called “abuse” and is definitely not what God had in mind for the worship of His people. We cannot choose to worship FOR someone …

We can woo. We can encourage.

We can also distract and interfere.

Oddly enough, the theology of the music does not seem to make much difference as to whether or not most people choose to engage the music. There are, of course, exceptions to this - those ├╝ber theological types who are fresh out of seminary, for example, seem awful keen on “perfect theology” if they’re to sing along. There are also plenty of us pastoral types who get over-focused on the details and can’t see the forest for the trees (and I’ll confess to plenty of moments of this, especially around Christmas or Easter when I’m stressed out). For the most part, however, I’ve noticed that there isn’t much about the theology of a song that helps the average Christian engage it or not. We’ll get to it later, but things like poetry help people engage; melodies and dynamics and performance practice … but not theology. 

While this might seem to be a bit of a shame, it’s actually kind of the point: music is a medium through which the theology may be communicated. If a song has bad theology, it’s a tragedy to be sure, but that won’t stop people from singing. In fact, the tragedy is worse when the song itself is engaging, if it sets up its point in an easily-remembered and catchy sort of way, to say nothing of the worship team who leads it well and brings people along with them for the ride.

Don’t believe me?

When was the last time you sang the popular “Mighty to Save”? It’s a well-known piece by Hillsong in Australia, and it’s been up on the top of the charts for a long time. In verse 2, however, we get this little gem: “I give my life to follow / everything I believe in”. Have you ever stopped to wonder what on earth that means? While not especially theologically inaccurate, it’s also not especially … anything. The lyric means basically nothing; everyone gives their lives to follow what they believe in. So while this isn’t necessarily some sort of heresy, we sing it with such fervor, such passion. Buried in what otherwise is a pretty decent piece of musical theology is this poetic oddity. But gosh, it’s so darn catchy! The theology isn’t especially unsound, but in song it sounds so good!

The conversation on music is so important is because people remember ideas better in song than they ever will from spoken words (sorry, preachers). By extension, music with bad theology generates bad practice. I will admit that this is a bit simplistic in the grand scheme of causality (because practicing good theology also helps us believe good theology), but it’s a useful simplification: we become what we sing. And there is very little point to theology if we do not act upon it.

Next time: so … what about style?

December 1, 2014

Why People Don't Sing on Sunday (Part 2)

Last time we talked about why people sing in church. But some of what the articles say is true, there are plenty of times people don’t sing with those leading worship. And yes, we worship pastors occasionally make mistakes in the way we arrange, prepare, or lead some of our music. Some of us do it consistently. We really don’t mean to, but it happens.

But there are lots of other reasons people don’t sing.

For example …

Most of us can agree that there are some underlaying assumptions about worship through song that might be cause for people to sing or not. As in, if you aren't a Christian, you probably won't sing in church. Maybe this one is too obvious, but if you’ve never encountered Jesus, if you don’t yet agree with the lyrics of the song or have never heard it before, chances are you’re not going to want to worship Him through song. Of all those people who aren’t singing, is it possible some have never encountered Jesus? Is it possible they’ve never been in a church before, or for very long? Might they be seeking but unsure of what is True? Yes. Yes. Yes. And let’s be clear: THIS. IS. AWESOME! It means that we must be doing something right! It means that people have come to our worship gatherings because they sense something different and want to know what it is. And THAT means those people in our churches are surrounded by other people who love Jesus and DO have a relationship with Him, are providing an example of worship and discipleship. Hopefully, that’s going to rub off; eventually, those people will sing. They'll sing their freakin' lungs out, and it will be epic.

Other people are sitting next to them in the pew, but entirely self-obsessed. They think they're too good for the music that's been chosen. They think the theology of this one isn’t quite right; the drums were too loud on this one; the organ too soft on this one. And they could never sing music that wasn’t reflective of God’s perfect Truth, or deserving of God’s perfect favor, could they? Unfortunately, such people will never be happy because God’s favor is not something that really concerns them, and it is not actually possible to satisfy them; they have not come to church to engage God. Instead, many other reasons bring them; loyalty, duty, power ... anything aside from the pursuit of a relationship with a redemptive God. Many are either unaware of their own shortcomings or too ashamed of them to allow their carefully placed masks to slip. Their posture often (but not always) gives them away - closed arms, bent head, a slight frown: judgmental (maybe planning to blog about what the pastor's doing wrong). I must confess that have been here; self-righteousness was an easy habit to gain and remains a hard one to break. Only time and God’s patient prodding helped me to let go of my own aims and sing again.

Another reason some people don’t sing is that they’ve been caught up in the music in another way: they’re listening. Absorbing. Experiencing. Sometimes we sing at the top of our lungs and surf the wave of the music all the way to the shoreline. But sometimes we get overwhelmed by the ride and let the wave wash over us, and instead of surfing, we go swimming. When God speaks through music, it’s not always because our mouths are moving - in fact, often, God speaks through quiet, hushed spirits. Sometimes our singing can be about busywork, keeping our minds or bodies distracted from the quiet, still voice of the Spirit. I’ve had times when, in the middle of a song, I suddenly feel the need to stop and listen, and God says something to me that messes with me, be it through lyric, through melody, through an instrumental piece … if my mind does not quiet down (usually starting with my mouth), I miss what God is saying to me.

Some people don't sing because they are self-conscious. They know that there are lots of people out there - maybe (likely?) next to them in the pew - just waiting to judge them for their voice, the way they dress, and/or their commitment to God. So they don't sing; because, you know, why should I draw unnecessary attention to myself? I’ve been this person many times, worried what others around me would think if I tried a harmony from the pew and failed. And so I will say again what I said before: the haters aren’t worth your anxiety. For everyone else, only time and excellent hospitality will draw a song from their lips; when they realize that their pew-neighbors love them (maybe because of OR in spite of their voices; musical talent has very little to do with it), the masks will start to come away and the authentic self will start to emerge in the midst of the melodies.

Related to this: some choose not to sing out of guilt. Just as some choose to sing because others guilt them into it, others choose not to sing because they don't feel worthy of the words. They feel that they don't deserve to participate, either from the shame of ongoing sin or because of the pressure of the community around them to look perfect. But if there's anything we've seen so far, it is that nobody is perfect; everyone chooses to sing or not sing out of reasons related to their imperfect circumstances. In our singing, we have a chance to sing our way to a new way of living, and so if you find yourself caught up in guilt for something, singing will only help you move away from it. If anyone tells you you are not worthy of the music, they are lying to you; God loves you as you are and it is in the act of surrender that He begins to transform you - it won't happen without your permission. We are transformed because of God's love, not to earn it.

Some people don’t sing is because they’re in pain. For most of us who have gone through something hard, singing is suddenly not at the top of our lists. Many songs we choose to use in Church gatherings (regardless of style) focus on joy, happiness, the wonderful things that God has done. Rightfully so. But think for a moment; what music do YOU listen to when life is suffocating you? I know that “And Can it Be” and “One Thing Remains” (two of my favorites) are not on my list … I usually grab some John Mayer or Linkin Park or Evanescence … angry music. Music that expresses the dark insides of my current thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, people don’t sing because they just. can’t. do it.

It's hard to sing when you're holding back tears.

The lament is a lost art to the western mind; it doesn’t fit our cultural masks very well. When somebody says “hey, how are you?” our first reaction is always “great, how are you?” That should tell us something; it means we don’t like to look sad, or to be vulnerable. But when our emotions take such a beating that the mask starts to fail, with them, so will our voices. Which means that the rest of us need to sing all the louder for them, to lament on their behalf when words fail them, to surround them with the prayer of lyric and melody.

Let’s not give into the peer pressure to sing every note. It’s ok to not sing for a lot of reasons. Music is so powerful, don’t dishonor what God does through it. If God uses music to open your mouth in praise, sing with all your might. But if God uses music to shut your mouth to listen, don’t dishonor Him by opening it again anyway. Give grace to those around you who are not singing, remembering the times you too have been in their shoes. And sing all the louder, because somebody worked really hard to give you space to hear from God that morning.

Next time: what will help or hinder people to sing with those of us who lead?