The Divine Orchestra

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The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ – the Apostle Paul to the Greeks (Acts 17:24-28)

 

From this passage we find a number of God’s attributes. We read that he is Creator, the maker of all things.

We read that he is self-sustaining, not dependent on any of his creation for anything.

We read that he is in fact the Sustainer of all that he has created, giving “all men life and breath and everything else.”

We read that he is Sovereign, determining who will live where and when.

We read that he desires intimacy with humanity and is, in fact, intimately close to us all. That he created us that we might “reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” 

And we read that he is a God who offers freedom to his creation to either choose him or not. We know that only an authentic love can be known when there is a choice to love or not to love. And he offers us, his creation, this choice.

In this one compacted message to the Greek philosophers in Athens, we are challenged with a massive and wonderful idea of what God is like. That he is infinitely bigger, wiser, greater, and more powerful than any one or thing else we could imagine. Who else could craft the universe from nothing? It is staggering to imagine the power and wisdom that could set into motion and foresee the stories of billions of human lives over several millennia. What keeps each heart beating? What is the central force of all life as we know it? We find the answer to be found within the person, the power, the life of the Creator himself.

And most wonderful of all, we discover in this passage that though the Creator is infinitely beyond us, he is intimately close. That his intention in choosing to create men, women, and children, and all of the universe, is that we and all things would be united to him. 

God can be trusted because he is both all-powerful and the author of love and goodness. 

Whatever we face, there is rest in the knowledge that Creator, the Sustainer, the sovereign God has set our lives into motion. That his design is that we would run to him, and find life and rest in him. We can view the workings of our life as intimately connected with God and his sovereignty – that what may seem random, man-made, and normal, may in fact be orchestrated by God. All of life is sacred under the God who has made all things for his purposes. He has set it all in motion, and his purposes will be accomplished for all who reach out to him in repentance and worship.

God is great – reach out to him. Trust in him. Worship him!

 

 

Songs That Teach The Whole Story

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Today I heard from one of our pastors about a group of new Christians in our church who, eager to learn more about God, spend time researching phrases from the songs we sing. Because they didn’t grow up hearing Christian or Biblical lingo, some of the lyrics we sing don’t make sense to them. So, they will spend time finding out what it means if something is confusing or foreign. All of a sudden, something became glaringly apparent to me.

The songs we sing at church are what many church-goers largely build their theology and ideas about following Jesus on.

While this is true for all of us, this is especially true for new believers and young people. I remember as a young person singing a song that said, “This is holy ground/ We’re standing on holy ground/ For the Lord is present/ And where He is is holy”. While based on the historical encounter Moses had with God in the burning bush, there is trouble with the inference it makes. This song kind of led me to think that God was more present in that church service than He was anywhere else. Therefore, church was holy ground. School, not so much. This created a false dichotomy for me between what was sacred and what was secular, minimizing my expectation of God’s activity and presence in not-so-churchy people and places. Meanwhile, I’m thankful the church I grew up attending was singing many other songs that shaped and informed my understanding of God in more positive and accurate ways. 

I recently heard of a method of songwriting some worship songwriters employ in order to complete their albums for sale and distribution. (I hope it isn’t a full picture of what happens behind the scenes of our favourite worship albums.) Apparently at times many writers collaborate over songs in order to create the best songs possible, and perhaps in a quicker time frame. This makes a lot of sense and isn’t really news to many of us. However, the troubling part I heard was that often the songwriters are not themselves followers of Jesus. They are skilled writers who have learned how to write for the “worship genre”, putting together phrases and words that “work” in the Christian market. While the words used may be true, they lack a sense of cohesion with the full story of God and tend to appeal more to sentimentality and emotion. If this is in fact true, this would explain why many of our songs refer only to God’s love, rather than any of his other attributes such as his justice, holiness, etc. We may be losing the full story of God in the songs we sing unless we begin to work at recovering it, and quickly.

We who decide on what songs will be sung in our churches week to week, need to take seriously the task we have in the discipleship of those who are present in our gatherings. What kinds of ideas about God will the children who are growing up in our churches have  based on the songs we are singing? With a steady diet of the songs we are choosing (and writing), what kind of disciples are we making? 

In order to make good decisions in this area it means our worship leaders and songwriters need to consider themselves theologians to some extent, and to aspire to grow in their Biblical literacy. Taking some Bible College courses, reading and studying theological works, learning how to read the Bible in its context, etc. can help worship leaders make informed decisions on the songs that our congregations sing. 

Seasoned worship leaders can and should mentor young musicians and worship leaders in their discipleship and Biblical understanding. We who have been doing this for some time are responsible to the Church to help build into young leaders who will lead well when we are done, and pass on the full story of God to the next generation in the songs we sing.

While our songs don’t carry the full weight of responsibility over the theology of our people, they definitely contribute to the whole. Let’s lead well. 

 

GIve Honour Where Honour Is Due

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Lately I’ve been reminded how the basic posture of worship is one of honour. 

Honour in the sense of elevating the Other – their wishes, their worth, their achievements. This is an acknowledgement of the Other, a recognition of them and a devotion to be about them.

Husbands and wives are to love their spouses this way, workers are to respect their employers this way, and children are to obey their parents this way. The apostle Paul writes about how all types of relationships are to be marked by this posture when he wrote to the Ephesians, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21-69)

And so our honouring of one another comes from the command to honour God. God is honoured in many ways, and I would venture to say that in any way that it is possible for us to honour God, these are the ways in which we are able to worship God. 

Worship starts with a recognition and acknowledgement of God. It begins with a vision, a revelation, of something of His nature. Perhaps it is something He has done. It may be the beauty of creation, or the sense of his law written on our hearts over what is right and wrong. And then true God-pleasing worship moves into the realm of honouring Him, in light of what we’ve seen and know of Him. 

For example, I may come to the realization that all of life is a gift from God. I cannot sustain my own breath or heartbeat. I did not fashion myself in the womb or have the ability to make something from nothing. This is the revelation that God is our Creator, and He is the sustainer of all things. I then, in light of this understanding, can choose to honour God with what I’ve been given. My body – I can choose to be healthy as an act of worship, by exercising, resting, and eating well. (Conversely I can choose to be healthy as an act of self-worship, in an attempt to gain honour for myself.) My abilities – I can choose to use my mind, voice and hands to do what I’m able to do with excellence, to give honour to the One who gave them to me. (Again, conversely, I can use my abilities to gain honour for myself). 

When we gauge our corporate expressions of worship, and how to lead our churches and congregations in times of God-pleasing worship, perhaps we could use the measuring stick of how well our practices lead us into honouring God.

Is there emphasis put on the worth of God? 
Is there a recognition of the achievements of God? 
Do we elevate Him above all else?
Do we encourage our personal expressions to flow out of a posture of honour?
Do we cultivate an atmosphere of reverence for God? (reverence may not necessarily mean quiet, subdued, and somber!)

This atmosphere of honouring Him can help diffuse some of the trouble-spots we run into as worship leaders. Self-focused worship can be nipped in the bud when Jesus and his work on behalf of the world is central. Life-less worship can be energized when we passionately celebrate the infinite worth of God! Performance-driven worship seems silly in light of the true centre of the stage, Jesus. 

God is worth infinitely more than anyone or anything, and the life and expression of worship finds its home in giving him the honour that he is due! 

 

What Will You Leave Behind?

Dear [insert name here],

What will you leave behind?

If you died or left what you are doing today, would it be possible for someone or some others to carry it on? 

Would it be worth carrying on? 

Could you define what it is that you hope would carry on?

How can you lead today in a way that allows others to own the task at hand?

Or is the task at hand wrapped up in your personality and ability, destined to fail as soon as you aren’t at the helm? 

Is it your story or is it a more universal story that you are building on?

Who have you given your best to in order that they would multiply the work beyond you?

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

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The Point Of It

I’ll often hear a common lament that church music isn’t very good. I try not to take it personally as a worship pastor who leads a lot of music in the church, but inside I weep. 😉

I admit I’ve pondered this question and felt frustration along with my indie-rock friends and among my classic rock friends. And I suppose if I take a close look at it too, it’s not hard to notice a glaring lack interesting music in the church. Growing up we used to have “special music” in church services, a number meant to inspire and take in, as opposed to participate along with. But usually it was a similar type of music as the rest of the participatory songs.

I recently went to a large concert where one of my favorite bands were doing a North American tour. It was nuts. There were gadgets, there were LED lights on everything in sync with the music, and there were cameras capturing everything and piling it into a multi-media frenzied experience. And then there was the music. These guys have it nailed down. My chest thumped with each bass kick. Each awesome part of each awesome song was dialed in until you just threw your fist in the air and jammed along as if you were a part of the band. In fact here’s a pic I took from the nose-bleeds: 
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So it was a pretty awesome experience.

I think the key is that the concert did what it was supposed to do. It entertained everybody. We paid our money. We got the spine-tingles and the feeling of cotton in our ears for a couple days after.

What is gathered worship meant to do?

Now, I don’t expect that we should settle into a rut in what the popular “worship genre” says that our gathered worship songs should sound like. (I also don’t think it serves the local church well to try to mimic and imitate what goes on at large stadium concerts, although it seems to be a growing trend). I love that there are pockets of people all over who are writing their own indigenous liturgies, songs, and expressions for their churches to sing. I’m one of them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d like to suggest gathered worship is definitely not mean to provide entertainment. If it’s not interesting musically it just may be because it’s accessible to your grandmother as well as your girlfriend. If it is only interesting then maybe the point of that thing is entertainment or thought provocation, which in its place, is quite good. But worship is not solely meant for thought provocation either.

It’s meant to shape us. It’s meant to form us through our actions, our responsiveness and participation in the story of God and creation. The words coming over our lips affect not only our minds but our desires and our love. The wine/juice and bread on our tongues trigger things within us that form us as kingdom of God people.

A quote from James B. Smith we’ve just looked at in our church:

“False narrative: Worship is meant to inspire the individual. True narrative: Worship is meant to instruct a people.”

The point of it all is that the gathered community would have access to life-forming and desire-shaping activities in gathered worship. If we can do this while making it creatively unique, interesting and beautiful, we definitely should. But never at the expense of your grandmother or your girlfriend.

Enjoying Worship Leading (And Looking Like It)

An important yet often understated element of great worship leadership is stage presence.

Our usual reservation with this area is that we are concerned with being showy, a performance, or distracting. And I admit I cringe when a worship leader is cheerleading the congregation, just short of choreographed dance moves.

But, I’d like to suggest we can at times also be distracting when we are weak in our stage presentation skills. If someone who is leading you looks like they don’t care to be there, you won’t be motivated to follow where they’re going.

It is not helpful (or spiritual) to be stiff, somber, and sad on stage.

We expect any teacher and presenter to develop their public speaking skills, both in the church and the marketplace. It’s an obvious requirement.

Why shouldn’t we strive as worship musicians and singers to develop our public delivery skills?

Here’s my list of some to-do’s in having better stage presence:

  1. Connect with the song
    This means knowing the message of the song and why it’s significant to you, and important for your church to be singing. This takes knowing the lyrics to the song even if you’re not responsible to lead the singing.
  2. Sing the song
     Even when you’re not in front of the mic, be singing. This is especially helpful for musicians who are tied to their instruments and can’t offer a wide range of physical leadership.
  3. Smile 🙂 
    An authentically cheerful demeanor is worth way more than a thousand awesome vocal runs and our best scrunched up eyes-closed worship face.
  4. Move around 
    Don’t be stiff. Be you, but be you with a little joint lubricant. Loosen up and let the music move your bones a bit. Have a good amount of bass/rhythm in your monitor mix so you’re able to “feel” it.
  5. Memorize
    Know your lyrics and chords by heart so you’re not tied to your charts. When our brain is focused on hitting the right notes or singing the right songs, we’re not able to engage with each other or the congregation well. This gives you a furrowed brow grumpy demeanor. Not what you want.
  6. Record yourself
    Watch a recording of your team taken during a worship gathering. This can be helpful in seeing where you need to change and grow.
  7. Vocalists use a mic stand
    Freeing up your arms to clap, raise your hands, etc. is super helpful as no one else in the band can do this from their instrument.
  8. Engage with each other
    Watching your team mates (only possible for some team members) and making eye contact, can create a lot of energy as a band. If you’re relaxed and enjoying yourselves, everyone in the congregation will feel the same way.
  9. Be real
    There’s a line between intentionally expressing what is real, and “doing the right things” in order to manipulate. It’s easy to spot someone who is just going through the motions.

There’s probably at least a couple of these things here that most of us can implement right away in order to grow in our stage presentation.

Cheers!

Singing And Discipleship

 Growing up I didn’t really like singing.

 I didn’t really have any reason not to like singing. My parents sang a lot together, my extended family sang together at various events, and I loved listening to music. I think I was just insecure about hearing myself sing, and about others hearing me sing.

But that changed.

I began to grow a very deep appreciation of singing, especially songs to and about God. And whether it was a result or a cause of this new appreciation, my faith in God began to deepen at around the same time. Now maybe there was no connection and it was merely a coincidence of timing, but maybe not.

Currently my life is quite focused on singing and leading other people in singing. I’m a worship pastor at a church and a college and there are weeks when I lead several hundreds of people in songs to and about God. It’s kind of become a big part of my life.

I think there is something significant about people singing together.

Frenzied soccer fans do it.
War-wearied soldiers do it.
Worshiping churches do it.
Wal-Mart employees do it (so I’ve been told).

It is special.

Why is it special for churches to sing? Isn’t worship a “lifestyle”? Can’t everything we do be worship, so why bother with all the music and metrosexual worship leaders?

There are many scriptural commands and instructions regarding sung worship. They alone are reason enough for the continued practice of singing to Jesus until he comes.

However, today I’d like to highlight 3 points I’ve taken from a great book I’ve recently read titled Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith.

1.) “Singing is a full-bodied action that activates the whole person” (Smith, pg. 170)

Smith points out that:

Singing requires us to call on parts of the body that might otherwise be rather dormant – stomach muscles and vocal chords, lungs and tongues. And since singing seems to tap into our joints and muscles, song often pulls us into dance or raising our hands in praise. Thus in song there is a performative affirmation of our embodiment.

The embodied practice of singing, moving, hearing others, and feeling the music is a forceful activity that embeds some kind of desire for some kind of vision of what is good and beautiful. This is true whether you are at a massive rock concert or a Christian cathedral.

Singing, moving, and hearing others sing songs affirming the goodness of God and his kingdom is a powerful internally shaping force for the church to practice.

2.) “Singing is a mode of expression that seems to reside in our imagination more than other forms of discourse” (Smith, pg. 171)

So basically, songs stick with us better than most means of communication.

We all know what is like to have a tune, lyric, or rhthym banging around in our head all day. We’d be foolish to think that those tunes and lyrics don’t have any affect on our conscious and subconscious as we hum and mumble the words to ourselves.

Smith points out the apostle Paul’s instruction to the Colossians to “… let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in your hearts to God.” (Col 3:16) Further instruction by Paul to the Ephesians relates singing to being filled with the Holy Spirit. (Eph 5:18-20)

Smith makes the point,

Perhaps it is by hymns, songs, and choruses that the word of Christ “dwells in us richly” and we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Singing seems to be a powerful Scripture-memorizational tool as well as a medium for the activity of the Spirit.

3.) The church’s music and songs constitute a “compacted theology” (Smith, pg. 172)

Somebody somewhere said, “Show me your hymnbook and I’ll show you your theology.”

When we sing in worship we affirm many things about what we believe to be true about who God is and how he relates to us – who we are as his worshiping people.

Smith points out that in our singing we, like Israel in exile, anticipate our true home and begin to sing the “new song” that we read about in Revelation, where every nation, tribe and tongue will gather in peace to worship God.

The practice of singing together in Christian worship – singing one song, with different parts, in harmony – is a small but significant performance of what we’re looking forward to in the kingdom.

What do you think? Is singing all that or is it over-emphasized in our worship practices? How do you think singing has shaped your faith?