November 30, 2015

Home

In the beginning, God created everything.

For a long time, all that existed was God. But then, God decided to make a place that was NOT God. But without God, the space that wasn’t God was formless, void; a deep, bottomless nothingness … chaos.

So Moses' account of creation says that God took this chaos and began to give it form, order, meaning. He created boundaries between sea and sky, planet and star and space, between light and dark. And then things were made to inhabit these places - plants and animals for the sky and water and land. And with everything in its proper place, God created humanity to maintain the order, to govern, to keep the peace - you might say, to keep chaos at bay. With the place that wasn’t God in order, God would walk in its gardens, visiting His creation.

But we know what happened next. A bad choice, and then another one, and the world began to slowly descend back into chaos.

For John, too, the world could not exist without God. In John’s gospel, we find that the voice God used to speak creation into order has a name: the Logos, the Word. This Word, John wrote, gives life its very essence. When the space that was made apart from God was chaos, God molded it into order and beauty through this Word. But then, those God had chosen to govern this newly-ordered creation allowed chaos back into this earthly realm because they believed they could take God’s place.

Yet instead of wiping away the place apart from God, God decided to once again infuse His presence into that place.

This is what we mean by the incarnation: that our world, given the gift of its own will and mind to govern itself, still cannot exist without its Creator giving it life; without God, our world becomes chaos. Our world still needs God. But the Creator, instead of again ordering the world from the outside, chose instead to re-create the world from within.

The true light that gives light to all humanity came into the world, John wrote. The Word became flesh and blood and made His dwelling among us; God moved into the neighborhood, into our zip codes and cultures and ethnicities and everything that makes us human. The wonder of this is that God was not corrupted by the chaos; rather, by taking on our humanity and cultures and ethnicities and everything that makes us human, all of that is now being redeemed from the inside out. The light is driving away the shadows. Chaos is becoming beauty.

Because Jesus is the Word made human.

And so Mary now consoles Eve, because Mary knows what Eve could not; that God is no longer a visitor who comes and goes in our world, but has become one of us and made the world His home.

There is, once again, no place without God.

November 16, 2015

Remember

One of the most important things I learned from the various times I’ve spent out of my home country - particularly in India, Mexico, and Haiti - was that the importance of any funding we brought with us paled in comparison to our presence. I know this because, no matter where I’ve been - no exception in any country, church, or ministry - one phrase has been universal upon leaving: 

“please don’t forget us.”

In light of this past week … in light of Paris, of Beirut, of Iran, of Japan, of Mexico, of Palestine, of Syria … let’s not forget that donating money isn’t really the solution. We Americans think that our money is what shows people we care, and that’s admirable, but in the rest of the world - and really, here too, even if we’ve a hard time showing it - money is of secondary importance to relationship.


I know we can get numb to the constant news of rockets finding their way into Palestine, or how easy can become to scroll past another story of drug violence in latin america, or to a car bomb in Lebanon. Places like South Sudan and Pakistan and Rwanda barely even make it on the journalistic map anymore unless it’s REALLY big. I know that sometimes it takes a tragedy in a place like Paris - a tragedy that’s everyday news in other parts of the world - to wake us up to the reality of the brokenness around us. It’s a cost that shouldn’t have to be paid for us to notice the injustice and oppression and violence in our world, a cost that shouldn’t be needed for us to desire peace or to pray for justice and mercy.

But at least now we’re paying attention.

Make it count. Pray. Love. Go.

Don’t forget.

October 20, 2015

Nostalgia


Every generation has its own media, its own celebrities, its own pop culture. And at some point, that media and those celebrities and that pop culture are replaced with new media and new celebrities and new pop culture. And at some point, those who came of age with that media and those celebrities and that pop culture will all look back and say “oh, remember that? That was the best! I wish it was still like that”

For my generation, this is currently taking the form of movies made from our childhood cartoons and comics (the Marvel movies, Transformers, and Ender’s Game, to name a few), an infinite number of movie sequels (why do it once when you can have many at many times the price?), reboots of old shows on Netflix (Gilmore girls, anyone?), and facebook quizzes set up to determine how much of the ’80’s or ’90’s we remember. It’s about getting “teh feels.”

But it’s not just us; every generation has its own brand of nostalgia.

In possibly unrelated news, finding images for this post was incredibly difficult, in that there were so many from which to choose.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Playing to the things of the past gives the player massive culture points - “you understand me!” the masses will say. It pokes at a certain set of emotions associated with the perceived prime of life for that generation. But nostalgia is entirely past- and self-focused; the desire to return to a time when things were different is actually a clever trick of a self-interested, consumer-driven world.

I once saw someone write that every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomers’ childhoods. I’ve referenced it before, because this is nostalgia at its finest - an entire cultural industry taking a single season of the year and playing it up because it pokes the feel-good bones of those who have the most money. It’s almost like - or maybe it simply IS - selling feelings. And so every year you hear the same songs on perpetual repeat from radio stations. You can even get internet radio year-round that does the same thing.

For a price.

Think about that: Christmas is now an INDUSTRY because of nostalgia.

Planning our worship gatherings CANNOT be driven by nostalgia, but must be driven by a desire to curate space for people to respond to their Creator together. While nostalgia is about evoking self-focused emotion, our corporate worship must give people space for self-abandoning responses to God's mercy. Nostalgia says "I remember how awesome I/we/the world used to be, I wish I/we/the world was still that awesome.” In good corporate worship gatherings, on the other hand, we tell stories of the past that help us remember what God has done, and then use them as a means to invite us to trust Him both now AND in the future. Nostalgia wishes to remain in a warm, fuzzy blanket of positive emotion in which we ignore the needs of others; good corporate worship sends us out to be agents of transformation in the world for the sake of the world.

September 14, 2015

Why Hire A Worship Pastor?

The two edges of church life that must always remain sharp are the worship gathering and the mission program. This is not to discount student ministries, adult ed, women ministries, or even children's ministries, but it is to say that the common denominator to all of the other programs - to the Mission God gave His Church - are the two things that God commanded us to do as a gathered body: to be a sent people (mission) and to respond to His mercy together (gathered/sacramental worship). The way you GATHER and the way that you SEND will posture your church to thrive. You can't have one without the other, for both are worship. And you can’t have healthy children’s or youth or adult ministries unless you have healthy gathering and sending practices. 

Regarding the gathering, there's a BIG difference between hiring gigging musicians and hiring a worship pastor. Most churches are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to pay for good music, but not good leadership. That's not to say you shouldn’t ever hire a band or an organist or an accompanist (there are many circumstances in which it’s a good idea), but it IS to say that it's important to have a person who understands WHY she’s on stage and is willing to do what helps the congregation respond to God (which includes during the week, not just the few hours on sunday). This this is VASTLY different than someone who is simply there for a paycheck or there to maintain the nostalgia of what we’ve always done. Worship pastors care for their congregations in very different ways than a lead pastor or youth pastor or children's pastor, and those who are good at their job do several things that the gigging musicians or the 5-hour-a-week-underpaid-college-kid-who-picks-the-songs can’t do:
Holistic Thinking 
A worship pastor plans the whole service, instead of simply picking some music to play with the band that sounds good. This gives the planning a new dimension; it means the music s/he does pick can tell a broader story that fits in with the sermon, the liturgy (also picked by the worship pastor), the offering, and even the announcements. Every piece of the service can have its place when it’s being cared for on a big-picture level. The worship pastor likewise brings a big-picture focus to planning services over the course of the liturgical year, rather than working from week-to-week (not that this doesn’t happen occasionally). Christmas? Easter? Festival bands? Five hours a week doesn’t cut it for this sort of planning. 
Additionally, the “pastor” part of “worship pastor” means that there’s somebody thinking through what we ought to do when something big happens that impacts our congregations. We recently had a tragedy in our community when a well-known pastor and his wife were killed suddenly. Many people in our church knew them well, and the shock was noticeable. Instead of going with “plan A” (which would have been easiest), we were able to modify the service to include a time of lament and grieving that ended up being a place the Spirit moved noticeably that weekend. Our services/gatherings cannot be planned in a vacuum, but must take our culture, our congregation, and our teams in mind.
Integration 
Tech ministries, worship teams, choirs, stage design teams … all of these need oversight, but will work better if they have someone who can help translate between them. When a person has the big picture (see point 1), a church can spend its time and resources more efficiently. Case in point, many churches have a properties team who makes decisions about facilities, and yet most of the time, their bandwidth for worship technology is fairly small. A worship pastor can guide decisions made by that team with the long-term picture in mind (for example, “this sound board is going to die sometime in the next five years, we should start saving now”). 
Vision 
The musical/artistic and theological training that a good worship pastor brings to the table helps bring vision to the multiple ministries under her charge. It means there’s somebody looking, not just at the state of what we have now, but the future of what is to come. Where are we going? What are we going to do when it gets here? What processes and mechanisms need to be put in place right now so that when “then” becomes “now”, the road might be a little less bumpy? In my context, I often ask the question, how can our modern people learn from our traditional people, and how can our traditional people learn from our modern people? In what ways can each encourage the other to grow, and in what ways can each encourage the other to remain faithful? Vision is about understanding the WHY of what we do (the PURPOSE behind gathering together) and then applying that truth to the ministries under our responsibility.
A worship pastor is meant to curate environments where a congregation can respond to God’s mercy together. I use the word “curate” here intentionally, adapted from Mark Pierson’s book “The Art of Curating Worship.” Museum curators don’t create exhibits to force change on people, but rather, to invite them to engage and experience the ideas. Curating is an ongoing art form - it does not cease when the glue on the exhibit dries, but is active, subject to change as new minds seek to better experience what the exhibit has to offer. Likewise, worship pastors do not worship FOR the people, and they cannot FORCE the people to worship (if it is coerced, it’s not worship). Instead, we create a space where we can invite people to engage God together and to become the sorts of people that He’s made them to be. The art, the music, the liturgy, the scripture, the message … all are crafted together as part of creating and curating a time in which people can choose to listen and respond to the Spirit in their midst.

Worship is so much bigger than an event, and a good worship pastor will know this. But this does not change the fact that we must still gather together. If worship is simply the act of responding to God’s mercy (Romans 12:1), then a well-curated worship gathering will be a place where God’s diverse, messy, multigenerational, weird-and-wonderful people can respond to that mercy together.

August 20, 2015

Lenses

I remember when I got my first pair of prescription glasses. I was in seventh grade, and my parents noticed that I’d been having a lot of headaches, that I’d had trouble paying attention in class, and that I was starting to squint a lot. We went to an optometrist, had my eyes checked out. He put me in a chair and had me read letters through a large contraption and sure enough, I had become near-sighted; I could read things close to me, but I couldn’t see things in the distance like chalkboards or conductors. So he showed me option #1, and then option #2, then option #1 again, then option #2 again, and so on about a hundred times until I could read the letters all the way down to the 20/15 row. I’ve worn glasses ever since.

My first set was a huge pair of mostly-circular lenses held together by a bronze frame (that’s right: NERD glasses). My parents actually talked me out of a bigger pair, but when I first put them on, and for the first few months, it was all I could do to keep from playing with them. Their weight on my nose irritated me, the way they constantly slipped down when my face got sweaty, the way that those persistent smudges forced me to clean them all the time (carefully, without scratching). Eventually, the small scratches started adding up and I had to get the lenses replaced; the frames wore out so I got a new and better (and smaller) set; the use of glasses relaxed my eyes, which then caused my eyes to change again and I needed a new prescription. After a while, this became second nature, a constant process of refining my vision as my eyes changed, and in response to the world changing around me. Eventually, I didn’t notice them sitting there; I learned how to keep from getting so many smudges on them; they were adjusted to keep them from sliding so much.

There’s a lot we can learn from glasses.

Our experiences, our culture, our personalities, and our preferences all contribute to the way we perceive the world, like a pair of glasses that we slip between ourselves and reality. Like their optical counterparts, these worldviews guide our experiences in life, help us navigate the world, and to some degree, will change how we experience the events that happen to us. When we use our worldview, it actually influences our worldview to change, to grow in one direction or another like a plant towards sunlight. Or when the world changes around us and smudges or scratches our lenses, we often need to upgrade our worldview to adapt to new situations and new ideas we’d never encountered before. And like glasses, the worldview we choose will tell reality something about us too - many glasses look great, but it’s the lenses that matter, and some help better than others.

But I’ve also learned that our worldviews come at a cost. You can tint, cloud, warp, flip, or otherwise alter a lens, but doing so only changes that which you see, not the world you look at. How often do we go through hard situations to come out on the other side angry and jaded, determined to never let that happen again? We circle the wagons and hunker down, but the reality of the world is that we cannot keep bad things from happening; to think we can control the world otherwise is to warp our lenses and in doing so, we deceive only ourselves.

Furthermore, we wear glasses in the first place because it is our eyes that have trouble making sense of reality. The making of a good prescription requires external help; an optometrist, who already sees reality as it is, writes us a prescription to make our lenses. Likewise with our worldviews, an external voice that can perceive reality as it really is will be the best reference point as we grow, as the world shifts, as our lenses need upgrading. The one whom we choose as our optometrist (reference point) will determine what sort of world we see, and the only way to be sure it’s working out is through time and experience. Don’t be afraid to go through that process of constant evaluation to make sure the lenses are the right ones. As with glasses, your life can depend on it. 

Choose wisely.

May 12, 2015

Grounded


Worship pastors, nobody in your church will have the big picture the same way that you do. And that’s ok, because it’s your job to coordinate all the things that go on for Sunday - music selection, stage design, service order, tech tools, volunteers, timing of each element, keys and arrangements, etc. But as a result, your role will be under constant criticism because nobody will quite know all the things that you take care of throughout the week, since three-quarters of what we do go unnoticed (at least, until those things get dropped). To the average attender, your role is to pick out a few songs and then play them with a few other musicians … which clearly anybody should be able to do, right?


So don’t  be surprised when most people think that they could probably do your job; after all, they don’t necessarily know that your choice of songs is made by anything other than your preferences. That’s not necessarily their fault - it’s an innocent enough mistake - it’s just that they have no other point of reference. With the easy availability of so much music these days, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Don’t be surprised when people wonder what you do with all your time; most people don’t know how long the creative process can be, how long research takes, nor do they have any idea how many different things you do (remember how hard it was the last time you tried to compile the whole list?). Don’t be surprised when you get questions that start with that awful phrase, “why can’t you just …” because nobody there but you knows the complexity of service design or video creation or even the creative process. Don’t be surprised when you get a bunch of anonymous notes criticizing a simple change; change is hard for most people, it pushes them outside of their comfort zone, and let’s face it, nobody likes to be uncomfortable. So don’t be surprised when you feel like a lightning rod in your role, because as the one who facilitates all things artistic, you ARE the lightning rod of your church. You work with, manipulate, mold, and curate the most sensitive expressions of identity there are - the arts - and when unspoken expectations are not met, it will be your hide on the line.

So stay grounded.

(also pastors)
Staying grounded means recognizing your humanity, that you are in fact fallible and will make mistakes, and that this is ok. But staying grounded also means being humble and vulnerable enough to admit these mistakes and apologize for them, learn from them, and move on without dwelling in them. Staying grounded means being accountable to a community others, especially your lead pastor and lay leadership, so that your decisions are not made in isolation; when lightning strikes, you want to make sure the charge gets dispersed, and the bigger the community, the less you yourself will feel it. Staying grounded means learning new things, keeping your mind flexible and your heart open to the incredible possibilities that come when we allow experience and wisdom to align with creativity and innovation. 

Staying grounded means taking a vacation occasionally - actually leaving your work behind (the world will not end without you) - and releasing your stress. Staying grounded means being aware of your personality and your tendencies and your coping mechanisms so that they don’t get the best of you during hard times. Staying grounded means saturating yourself in the story of the scriptures, in prayer, in times of quiet, for it is in these times that God will take what you’ve learned and mold you further. Staying grounded means keeping your eyes focused on the reason that you do what you do - you have been called by God to curate space each week so that your church community can respond to God’s mercy together.

Staying grounded is an ongoing discipline, but it’s worth it. It means you’ll serve your church community better. It means you’ll be available to your family (whatever that looks like). It means you yourself will grow more into the image of Jesus. It means that, instead of being a liability, you’ll be part of advancing the Kingdom of God.

April 2, 2015

In Which I Avoid Sleeping Through Holy Week

“This week is kind of like your superbowl, right?”



A friend said this to me the other day after she’d asked about what my week is like this week. I’m a worship pastor, and this is Holy Week, the busiest time of the year for me. But the metaphor felt funny, like someone handing me a gardening glove when I’m about to get a chicken out of the oven. I’m not a sports guy, for one, but aside from that, the goal of this week isn’t about a competition; the “win” is providing space for people to engage the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, Son of God. The goal is giving God space to give new life to our congregation.

But how many of us begin this week already tired? I know I did. There are so many things to do this week - multiple rehearsals, arranging parts, finishing tasks I’d forgotten about or that had gotten buried, planning for things that come AFTER Easter, extra worship gatherings … there are so many things. And in the midst of it all, normal life stuff with family, finances, and maybe, just maybe, eeking out some time for myself so that I don’t go completely insane from stress.

And in the midst of all of the tasks, the stress, the WORK, it’s easy to get caught sleeping. Oh I don’t mean that I’m actually asleep - though I could stand for a few more hours of rest every night - but the tasks and the stress themselves can be like sleeping on the job for a pastor. It’s easy to forget - especially in this season - that I am first and foremost a child of God. While my responsibilities include creating space for other people to engage the story of God, to find their place in it, to worship together, what often happens is that I forget to create space for myself to do the same. 

It’s a bit like a restless, fitful, tense sleep from which I wake up more tired than before. When we fail to create that space in weeks like this - especially in weeks like this - we are very much the worse for wear, and our leadership reflects that. When we do not take the time to wrestle with the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection - in this week, of all weeks - we do ourselves and our congregations a disservice.

This time, of all times, can provide evidence of just that: incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. It starts out so innocently, a job for which we were built and which we love - an incarnation. But then the tasks start piling up - the extra hours away from our families and extra services and the anxiety of wanting to get it just right for our guests and church families - and we end up drained, lifeless, entombed … crucified. Our resurrection might come a little too late, after Easter’s already come and gone, and our families or churches have to slap a little life back into our drained, listless forms.


Or.

We take the time now to die to ourselves and let God breathe life anew.

I’ve been reading the book of Ezekiel every morning. I don’t know why I chose it, other than the fact that I wanted to read something I’d not read much before, and I’d remembered some pretty interesting imagery about spinning wheels and angels with four faces. When I got around to chapter 37, this (slightly) more familiar story popped up:
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’” 
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet — a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Maybe this week your bones are dry and weary, your hope feels dead and buried. Maybe there’s more going on in your life than just the exhaustion of holy week and all that it can bring. Maybe this week you identify a little too much with the valley of dry bones, or with Jesus being whipped by the cat of nine-tails or hanging on the cross. Maybe all you want is to lay in a tomb so that it’ll all just be over. If that’s the case, it’s time for you to put down the to-do lists, the meetings, the tasks, the rehearsals, the work, even your bible for just a few minutes. Take some time to

pause

and

just 

breathe.

God’s got this. Let Him breathe new life into your dry bones, and wake you up before this season is over. May your resurrection come now, that God may do through you amazing things in all of the events and the people you lead.

March 24, 2015

The Transient Home

One of the things I’ve learned about ministry in the last year is that all ministry is transitional; every position is temporary; all jobs are for a time;

every Call will end.

A little over a year ago, I left my job of a little over 3 years. It wasn’t something I wanted or would have chosen for myself, but nonetheless, it happened. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the change over this last year, asking why, asking what next, asking what wasn’t my fault, asking what I could have done better … asking how to make the hard stuff never happen again. And through my ponderings, the words of a friend and colleague have rung true: all ministry is transitional. It wasn’t just THAT job, and it wasn’t just the transitional role I currently occupy; we’re all preparing our ministry for the next person to lead it. Nothing is permanent; even if your stay in your role for 25 years, eventually somebody else will take your place to work with whatever you’ve left behind; and you won’t know it will last 25 years until you’ve been there that long.

You can imagine how this has messed with me, especially since my dream right now is to have a job that’s not interim/transitional/transient. Having moved fourteen times in the last ten years, my family and I desperately want to live somewhere - *really live there* - for a long time. We have all sorts of ideas about what “ideal” might look like, but beyond all the little preferences, we want to be able to invest in the community and put down roots. We want the safety and relative security of a house. We want to get to know our kids’ school principle and teachers, to get to know neighbors. We want our kids to have friends to play with next door, a yard to call their own.

But the transience of our culture and of employment these days feels like it doesn’t allow for that. Transience means that at some point - whenever that might be - we’ll have to leave, and so instead of investing in the people around us, instead of allowing them into our hearts and lives, it feels far, far safer to have superficial surface-ish flat relationships, to do a job, to check the boxes on a list and move on. Investing in a community in a transient world means that eventually, it will be torn, ripped, wrenched away. Investment eventually will mean suffering and pain and loss; at some point, we will be taken away from familiarity, from things we have grown to love - friends, a house, schools, a favorite restaurant, even family.

It feels easier to just avoid the whole thing.

Introverted though I am, I crave a solid community, one that cares deeply for its members and for the world in which it finds itself. It turns out that I’m really just like everyone else - we all want that. It might look different for different people, but deep down what every person wants is a place to belong and a people to call their own. Though accepting the reality of this might be difficult, what I’ve come to realize is that the transient nature of our world doesn’t mean we can’t have those things.

What it means is that we must accept that those things, being so desirable, will cause us pain.

A great existential crisis grips my generation. We're masters of our electronics, but not of truth; priests of our own customized religions, but victims of our circumstances; over-educated and dangerously entitled. We're all Solomon, sitting in our palaces, surrounded by more than we could ever want (or afford), wondering why we're still so unhappy. And I think it’s because we’ve not yet learned how to handle pain. In fact, our whole first world economy is geared toward pain avoidance. That’s what it MEANS to have convenience - it means we can avoid all different kinds of pain;

The pain of doing something I don’t like …
The pain of waiting, of being alone with ourselves …
The pain of our bodies in injury or age and the realization of our own mortality …
The pain of wanting but not having …
The pain of not knowing something …
The pain of hunger or thirst …
The pain that comes from the consequences of our coping mechanisms in trying to deal with the other kinds pain …

Our economy and our culture say that we can buy our way to happiness, because to us, happiness means the state at which we are in the least amount of pain. Suffering from envy of your neighbor’s stuff? Take out a loan and buy that stuff yourself (no payments for a year)! Suffering from the pain of having to go to bed before the Oscars are over? Buy a DVR and cable and record it! Suffering from a growling stomach? Buy some drugs to stay thin AND full! Suffering from the pain of being left out? Buy a North Face jacket or an iPhone 6+ and feel included! Suffering from not knowing? Google is here for you!

But what if pain isn’t something to always avoid, but something to embrace? Pain leads to solidarity with others in pain; through that shared experience, a community can grow deeper, more aware, more willing to give of itself to others in pain. A community that doesn’t know pain will never empathize with the world around it because in the Kingdom of God, we’re not promised an irritant-free, pain-free, suffering-free life; we are promised that pain and suffering lead to something greater: 

resurrection.

We have a choice about how we will live. Home is, after all, what we make of it. So for me, home is where my wife and kids are, not where all my stuff is, not where I find myself with the least amount of pain. We may move to new jobs, change houses or apartments, move to new social circles, or lose family members. To really thrive, our safety and security - our faith - must be placed outside of our circumstances, beyond ourselves and our resources and our comfort zones. 

In the midst of good seasons, but especially in seasons of transience and pain and suffering, our faith should be put in the God who walks through the pain with us,

because our God is the God of the Resurrection.

March 17, 2015

Birds

I was on my way to work this morning when I noticed something curious as I was waiting at an intersection: birds kept landing in the middle of the road. And I kept thinking, “come on birds, get out of the way, some car is going to run you over!” But inevitably, at the last minute, they’d simply bounce into the air and avoid traffic. What struck me was how care-free they seemed. Nothing seemed to bother them as they pecked away at whatever interesting gunk they’d found glued to the pavement. I thought about how nice that might be, to not care about my own mortality, but to find sidewalk crap so interesting that I was oblivious to the dangers around me. I thought about how God takes care of the birds, how they don’t lack for food when they need it.
  
But then I thought no, some of them do die; some of them get hit by traffic; some of them starve; some of them get eaten by predators; some of them drown; some of them choke on sidewalk crap. And it suddenly felt cruel. But again, they never know the difference; they’re just birds, and their enviable oblivion of past or future has consequences too. 

It gives me a new appreciation for how I was created.
  
God loved us enough - He valued us so much - that He entrusted to us one of the very essences of His own character: choice. He didn’t make us automatons, because that would not be love. The very nature of choice requires an alternative, two options; if what existed in that space simply did as it was told without choice, it would be, in essence, simply an extension of God. To create us, God had to make a place that was NOT God - a huge act of humility, and if you think about it, a risk - so that something other than He could exist. Then, God created us with a say in the relationship, something He could not control.

In other words, the risk God took when creating us was rejection.

The question of evil is endlessly debated, about why God would permit so many horrible things to happen (to people). But I can’t help but wonder how many of the evils we blame on God are consequences of our choices. After all, one might reason that if it’s choice that causes bad things to happen - terrorism, murder, human trafficking, rape, abuse, etc. - then perhaps God ought not have created us with choice.

But therein lies the rub: choice, the very thing that has caused so many problems also gives us our ability to love God. Without the ability to choose, we cannot love, nor would we be able to do other things that make us uniquely human: discovery; creativity; innovation; recreation. It lets us love our spouse or kids or friends; it lets us love our neighbor, even our enemies.

We can choose life, too.

Choice places God at what is, essentially, a disadvantage. But that is part of what love is: the act of giving up control so that others may have the ability to flourish. Love is what it is precisely because of the risk involved. Instead of forcing Himself upon us, God invites us, persuades us, woos us, extends His hand to us, opens His arms to us, 

and we get to choose how we’ll answer.


March 9, 2015

Epilogue: Posture Helps Us Sing on Sunday (Part 9)

Other Things That Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)
Make Room for Singing on Sunday (Part 8)

I was stuck in traffic the other day and since left-turn arrows take FOREVER here in Omaha, I got to looking around me to see whatever there was to see. And the first thing I noticed was a huge argument going on in the car behind me.

How did I know?

Though I obviously couldn't hear anything, and though their eyes were obscured by sunglasses (seriously, what is with the ever-increasing size of women’s sunglasses?), body language told me a lot. She was extremely animated. Her arms flailed all over the place in large, exaggerated gestures, making herself bigger. The way her shoulders moved up and down in rhythm with her wide-open mouth made me think she was probably yelling. He, on the other hand, was quite obviously tense; his arms were crossed and he kept shifting in his seat while folding and re-folding a newspaper - anything to avoid her eye contact. If his mouth ever moved to say anything, I never noticed. She was angry. He was in trouble.

Our postures give us away.

When leading worship, I notice things like this too. I can tell when my congregation doesn't know a song (or doesn’t like it / resonate with it / understand it) by their posture: folded arms, eyes wandering the room, and oh yeah, closed mouths, usually with a slight (or not so slight) frown. Likewise, I can tell when they DO know a song and resonate with it: open postures (arms at their sides or raised), heads up, and open mouths - OR - bowed heads, the hint of a smile (if they’re not singing), and closed, slightly crinkled eyes. The posture of our congregations can be a strong indicator for us as worship leaders to know when things are going well (when people are able to use the environment we’re creating to respond to God), and when things aren’t (when they’re focused on us, for whatever reason).

The question is, are we paying attention?

The funny thing about posture is that it works the other way too. We all know that our physical posture reflects our mental posture, but our mental posture can also be influenced by our physical posture. The two can become a self-reinforcing loop, and while this can be problematic at times (like when we’re angry or upset), we can also use this to our advantage. Just like closed postures reinforce our anger, teaching your congregation to be intentionally open-postured can help them engage, whether in song, prayer, or silence.

January 19, 2015

Make Room for Singing on Sunday (Part 8)

Other Things That Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)

There’s one thing we started with that we should probably end with as well: people can sing on sunday and it may not be worship. People may not sing on Sunday and may be worshipping. The Spirit’s presence is not always felt by volume or visible or audible participation. But if your congregation doesn’t have time to sing, then your worship pastor and his or her volunteers can’t do what they’ve come to do.

Lead pastors, this one is for you. Music and the arts have their place within gathered worship, but so does the sermon … and the sermon’s place isn’t at the top. Let that sink in for a minute. The sermon - a performance art in and of itself, if I (and others) may say so - is not the top of the food chain when it comes to our time of gathered worship.

Don’t close your browser; hear me out. 

When we gather together, we come to engage God, to respond - as a group - to the mercy extended us. That happens in a lot of ways, but we must be very careful not to take each element out of its place. Your sermon, for all the time you put into preparing it, crafting every word, practicing … am I the only one who does that? … for all the effort and study and time you put into preparing your message, it is only PART of the story of the morning. It is not your words that drive the worship of your congregation - it is the Living Word who extended them mercy. It ALWAYS starts with God. What that means is that the Living Word must come first, then the written word, then everything else; message, music, announcements, slides, sketches, painting, stage design, environment, etc. What I’m saying is this:

The music and message only play supporting roles in the rest of what’s happening.

Our primary purpose is to gather together in God's presence.

Not to sing. Not to listen to a sermon. Not to give money. Not to announce that pot luck coming in a few weeks. These things aid that purpose, but as we said many times earlier, that purpose only requires two things: God and His People.

Like the scriptures say, don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought. You and I know all too well that we can all get pretty big heads about our crafts. But our words or melodies are not what change lives; only God does that. Yes, He does that through what we sing, through what we preach, through our careful crafting of a gathering and the story we tell. But He can do that without those things too, if He chose to. We’re fortunate that He DOES choose to use those. That’s the kind of God He is - He invites our participation in redemption. He doesn’t do it alone, though He could. We’re always invited to be part of the means. Oh, and what’s cool is that our willingness is a visible expression of redemption in progress.

It’s beautiful.

Furthermore, do not forget that the time of gathered worship is only one time on one day of a whole week. God doesn’t simply stop working when we finish the benediction. In fact, many times, when our congregations are SENT into the world, that is when the real work of being the church - of transformation - begins. While we gather in the name of Jesus, we must also be SENT in His name or our gatherings are all for nothing. Without our good works, without actually participating in the mission of God to redeem our world (you know, the one you just preached about), our faith is basically dead.

Like I said last week, leaders must participate if they expect their congregation to follow.

Make sure you make time for singing and don’t crowd out the music with too many extra words. The average attention span for spoken word of your congregation is shrinking anyway; make every word count. Don’t dishonor the word you’ve been given by beating it to death or adding extra, and in so doing crowding music and the arts right out of your gathering time. Let the music help you tell the story and let it help to begin to cement the principles on which you teach in the minds and hearts of your congregation.

And then send them out to cement it in practice ...

Next time: I have no idea, what questions do you have? Did I miss anything?

January 12, 2015

Other Things that Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)


We talked last time about how choosing music designed specifically for congregational singing is important for helping our congregations engage on a Sunday morning. But there are many other things that help, so here’s a few more:

The Sound of Others Singing

We feel like singing more often when others are singing with us. This is true for the congregation that loves to hear the intricacies of congregational voice (usually traditionally-styled churches), but also for the congregation who prefer to hear, not themselves sing, but others with more professional voices, so they pump the worship team above the congregation. In both cases, other people’s voices aid the experience of engaging. What this means is that a critical mass of other worshippers is helpful, as is your sound system. Many things I’ve read say you need at least 50-70% of your space occupied to have a critical mass. If your space (sanctuary, gym, auditorium, movie theater, whatever) is mostly empty (twenty people in a room meant for a thousand), people are going to have a hard time engaging. But a small chapel meant for 50 that’s filled with 40 can be an incredible experience, in the same way that 8,000 worshippers singing in a room for 9,000 can. It’s not the size of the space; it’s how you use it. Likewise, your sound system should be appropriate for the size of your space; if your subwoofers are too small, you won't be able to hear the bass or kick drum in the back of the room, nor will you accurately represent the lower ranges of male singing or the piano. If your sound system is too big, you probably paid too much and may inadvertently re-part the hair of your congregation ... and then they'll never hear the band.

Ambient Environment

Our five physical senses matter in worship. Remember that one time you walked into the sanctuary to the smell of dead mouse? Yes. Yes you do. What about the other time you were singing and all you could hear was that weird buzzing sound every time one of the instruments was turned on? Remember when you were so sweltering hot that you felt as if you’d faint? How about the time when somebody left all the halogen work lights on? What about when the communion wafers were stale? The smells, tastes, sounds, temperatures, lighting, and many other small details matter to helping people sing. You don’t feel like engaging if you keep smelling something foul; likewise, it can be very helpful to singing if there are pleasant odors in the room. The slide backgrounds we choose (video or still) matter because they can either enhance or distract us from the words we’re singing; likewise, harsh lighting in a room (especially halogen or blue-tinged CFL bulbs) can give people headaches, making them irritable without knowing quite why they feel that way. Think of the ambient environment as the canvas upon which you design the painting of your gathering - don’t start with a dirty palette, but also don’t overfill it. Simple is usually better, but that will depend on the story you’re trying to tell and the audience to which you are telling it.

Readability of Lyrics

It’s hard to sing if you can’t see the words you’re supposed to be singing. Sometimes, words are hard to read because they’re small. Others, the words don’t have enough contrast with the background, be it video or still (think of the difference between reading gray words on a gray background, vs. white words on a dark background). Projected lyrics that appear late may as well not appear at all; you couldn’t read them when you needed them. Projectors that aren’t bright enough or are washed out by badly-placed sanctuary lighting, hymnals that make their font size too small, or even trying to use words on a screen for an illiterate congregation (like kids below second grade) are all distractions that essentially encourage passivity during a gathering. A caveat here: while we might not like to talk about it, age can be a factor in the choices you make. If your congregation is mostly young adults, you can get away with more subtlety in the color palette because younger eyes can usually distinguish the intricacies. However, if your congregation is mostly older (realizing that presbyopia starts setting in around 40 and only gets worse as we age), you need to take their eyesight into consideration and provide larger letters on a higher-contrast background. Default to the older congregation’s needs in this case; their participation is important to teaching younger generations what gathered worship can be like, but they can’t sing the words they can’t see.

Length of the Gathering

Yes, the rumors are true: if you preach or sing or announce too long, you will lose people. They may be physically present (for now), but their minds are on grocery lists, recipes, their aunt’s surgery … anything but what you’re talking or singing about. But remember, “too long” varies from culture to culture. Keep their attention by having culturally-appropriate gathering-lengths. Again, your mileage may vary: in some parts of Africa, a congregation will not blink at a four-hour gathering, but in parts (ok ok - most) of suburban America, one hour is pushing the attention span of the congregation. This is is not necessarily something to lament, it is simply a difference in culture that requires a difference in methods of communication and types of song. And it once again means that you need to plan carefully.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the worship leader who talks too much. Preaching pastors, I’ll let you deal with your own on this one, but worship leaders: you don’t need to re-preach the sermon at the end of the service before we sing. In fact, let the music speak for itself unless there is something so important to say that the song will be less without it. Get comfortable with intentional silence. Music is only useful in contrast to silence; if you’re filling up good, reflective silence with useless prattle, the congregation won’t engage with you because they’ll be too busy trying to figure out why you’re still talking and why it is that you think YOUR words are somehow better than the preacher who just stepped away from the platform. It doesn’t matter if it was the worst sermon ever; don’t do it.

Leaders Who Are Visibly Participating

In the same way that the worship team and especially the worship leader should be visibly present in the gathering to hear the message (to engage with the written word with the rest of their church family), so too should other leaders - lead pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, children’s pastor, missions pastor, executive pastor, church chairperson, etc. - be present in the midst of the singing on a regular basis, and be visibly participating. This is not to say that those people can’t have bad days or stop and reflect in the same way as any other person might need to. But if you are a leader, then for all the good reasons there are to sing, lead by example and sing your lungs out! If you, as a leader, have any influence at all, people will follow your vocal example. It helps them to know that their leadership actually likes what the volunteers and staff that he or she works with every week have put together, to the point that they can sing with it. In every church I’ve served, I’ve been fortunate that the arts were taken at least moderately seriously, and that the pastors loved to sing with those leading; I know from comments and conversations that the congregation felt the difference.

Next time: making room for singing on Sunday …

January 5, 2015

Singability Helps People Sing on Sunday (Part 6)


I read an article the other day about the rise of the “dones,” a generation of people who are, quite simply, “done” with gathered church. Which is a huge shame, but it’s entirely understandable. So many churches have lost the vision of what it means to BE the church gathered and sent. White, black, urban, suburban, rural, mainline, evangelical … it doesn’t seem to matter the ethnic or socioeconomic or denominational makeup of that church; many have lost the point of why we gather in the first place, and are paying for it as people give up on gathered communities entirely and simply leave.

Last time we talked about doing what we do on purpose, and that nearly everything else we’ll discuss follows from this premise. If you don’t know WHY you’re doing what you’re doing or can’t communicate the reasons for why you do what you do, you can’t expect those who follow you to buy into what you’re doing, even if you’re doing it with some semblance of excellence. Without vision (which is another, slightly ‘buzz-wordier’ way of saying “doing what we do with purpose”), your project (church / business / whatever) will die. It might die very, very slowly, but it will still die all the same.

Singing is clearly not the only thing we do when we gather, of course, but it’s a part of the MEANS of the main thing, and so it’s very important that we get it right (obviously that’s the reason I’m even writing this series in the first place). One of the biggest reasons for singing as a gathered body is participation; as I’ve said before, worship leaders are not here to sing FOR people, we’re here to help people sing WITH us. Which means the music we choose must be singable. But … what does that actually mean?

Singability

This one is a point of contention among many worship leaders. There’s a lot of music out there, which means there’s the potential for a lot of good music and a lot of bad music. Some music is really good for singing as a congregation - good theology, yes (which, as we’ve discussed, has nothing to do with whether people sing it or not), but also interesting (but not overly difficult) melody lines and rhythms, clever chord progressions and harmonies, poetry that challenges the congregation (but can still be understood), careful use of dynamics, and a compatibility between lyrics and melody, timbre, mode, and tempo. Worship leaders who choose music simply because it’s on the top 50 on whichever radio station they prefer are not only missing a TON of good (sometimes better) music found elsewhere, but also choose too much music that’s simply not meant for an entire congregation to sing.

One oft overlooked detail on singability is the relationship between the song itself and the worship team’s ability to actually sing it. A congregation can generally sing more difficult music if the worship team is able to lead it effectively. Since the worship team is tasked with helping the congregation engage, it’s important that the team itself is able to sing and play the music. Don’t pick music you can’t play or sing if you want people to sing with you. 

A caveat here, mostly for those in “modern/contemporary” cultural settings. I’m often told that it’s important to find a key in which the whole congregation can sing each song, but here’s the thing: I’ve yet to find this magical key. A congregation is usually made of at least four different voice type, but when you pick a key for a song, you automatically eliminate at least two of those voice types. No matter what you do, you won’t find a key in which everyone will sing comfortably. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t key your songs carefully, but instead of the worship leader struggling to find the elusive perfect key, it would be better to have multiple leaders who can lead songs for several different voice types throughout the worship set. This is about keeping a bigger picture when planning music for our gatherings; the music is part of a story that spans the entire service, and sometimes an entire series. If you think big-picture, your storyline isn’t just the arc of one song; it’s multiple songs and liturgical elements, from prelude/live-intro to benediction. You can pick a key for each song that targets different voice types, and as a bonus, spread out the leadership so no one person is “spot-lit.” Feature men, women, even (maybe especially) teenagers and children of different voice types - you'll show the whole family of God partnering together in leadership and in participation.

This won’t work in every church (not every worship team has all four voice types represented, let alone people who can lead from that voice type), but it’s something toward which to strive. No matter what your teams look like, when leaders lead with confidence, a congregation is more likely to try to sing along, even if it’s not an ideal key for their voice. Clear evidence of this is any concert you’ve ever attended: the audience is just as a congregation, and many of them who know the music will sing along … despite the fact that the band never consulted the audience as to their preferred keys.

Which points us to another part of singability: the congregation has to know the song. By no means does this mean we should never introduce anything new (the scriptures themselves argue the contrary) but it does mean we have to be careful to teach the song to our brothers and sisters if we expect them to join us. Different communities will take different amounts of time to learn new music, so don’t be discouraged if, on the first week you choose to lead a new song, your congregation doesn’t join you. Some singers will learn it very quickly, but most will require some repetition. My personal guideline is to repeat the song for 2-3 weeks to get it in peoples’ heads, and so if I want them to know a new song for a specific service, I’ll try to introduce it a few weeks earlier so that they don’t have to think as hard about the melody. However, I’ve been in churches where it took longer, and I’ve been in churches where it took one week. Every congregation is different.

Lastly, consistency is extremely important for singability. Don’t do the same song five weeks in a row in five different ways; sing it the same way each time if you expect the congregation to sing with you. This doesn’t mean you have to do it the exact same way as the artists who wrote it do (within proper CCLI restrictions, of course), but it does mean that your version should be melodically consistent. If people constantly wonder what note is next, they’ll eventually stop singing and start listening, which in this case, is a problem. Chris Tomlin, for example, is not just a good worship leader because he writes a lot of good music; he is a good worship leader because when he leads, his voice is precise, predictable, and consistent. Every note he sings is easy to hear - you’re never left wondering what note he’s on or what he is going to sing next, because he sings it the same way every time. He is such a big part of the modern worship arts culture because he has written a lot of extremely singable music, and can do it well. This is not to say that we, as leaders, can’t take certain liberties with the music - ad libbing or improvisation - since "predictable" varies from culture to culture. It is to say that a worship leader’s first purpose is to lead the people in song, and leading the people means setting a followable example.