One of the many things I love about sharing life and ministry with Tennessee Worship Pastors is when one of you shares a joy or affirmation from your own worship ministry. Tonight I opened an email from our dear brother, faithful TMC member, and longtime bivocational worship ministry leader at First Baptist Church Greenfield, Jackie Vaughan. Without breaking any confidences or embarrassing anyone I will just tell you that J.V. shared with me an email from someone in his music ministry for whom Jackie and Amy have been a very special blessing. As I read through what was shared I was reminded of some dynamics that are powerfully impactful in the course of life and ministry.
- In the midst of our ministry week in and week out more is taking place in the lives of those we serve than we ever know at the time. We ask someone to sing in the choir, join the instrumental ensemble, or take responsibility in a children’s music project at just the “right time” that they needed some encouragement to participate at a different level. Again, we may have no idea at the moment, but the way in which ask, the fact that we, as a leader, turned attention to them, demonstrates a caring that conveys encouragement beyond the fact of the request itself.
- The spiritual power of ministry in worship music is not confined to the music-making itself. While we certainly preach and teach of the effect of the music-making and foster understanding of how that art expression serves the liturgy of worship, proclaims the gospel, and ministers peace into the lives of people, still there is more taking place. The lives of individual choir members are being formed by the text and music. Relationships within the church family are growing deeper as emotive expressions are shared, harmonic balances grow to more than sound, and rhythmic vitality becomes a symbol for marching together on the journey of faith. In the midst of our teaching and interacting with text, music, and fellow music-makers, we discover healing in our own lives, deepened care for those around us, and strengthened resolve to proclaim truth.
- Affirming those who minister to us and with us and who have had an impact on our lives can be a powerful thing for both thankor and thankee. It was in the more careful study of worship at Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS) that I was confronted with living a eucharistic life. That is to say, a life of gratitude. A worshiping life is lived in that spirit. Certainly we praise the One who paid our debt, and give thanks, but we also can find the Lord’s giving through those who have authority over us, those who minister to our needs, and those who teach and disciple us in large or small ways.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thes 5:12-13)
Likewise, as the one on the receiving end of gratitude from time to time, such as was the case in the message Jackie shared with me, we are strengthened and emboldened by such encouragement. Hearing someone share what God has done through you is powerful to remind us that all we do matters, and more importantly, who we are matters.
A resonant spirit of gratitude among the body of Christ is a powerful dynamic that can fuel our worship, enliven our praise, and generally accomplish something of what is exhorted in Hebrews 10:24, “And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace,[d] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness,how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11)
OK, you who know me are well aware that like most grandparents I am always looking for opportunities to inject stories and pictures of the grandchildren. There is a reason they call them grand you know. And while I am posting a picture of my oldest grandson, and could profoundly boast about his character, personality, and reflect the joy he brings to this granddad’s heart, that is not the purpose of this blog or of this post. Instead, I want to boast in Jesus Christ, to bear testimony to God’s faithfulness, and exhort all my brothers and sisters to never give up the powerful posture and practice of fervent prayer.
From the moment we knew our daughter was expecting her first child I began to pray. My first prayers had to do with the health and welfare of our daughter and protection for the baby. As the days of her pregnancy passed by I began to pray beyond the physical and emotional issues and pray that this child would one day come to know Christ. It was the forerunner of the prayer that continues this day for each and every pregnancy and grandchild. Once our oldest grandson was born and the joys of holding him, watching first steps, laughing at every antic we deemed cute at the time, Ebbie and I were awestruck with how much meaning grandparenthood added to our lives. We talked about it (I know, we still do) a lot. We built a play-gym complete with sandbox in the backyard for cryin’ out loud. As time has gone on we have eventually surrendered the few Saturdays we have “free” to soccer, basketball, and t-ball, now baseball. All well worth every minute.
I have to admit, though, that I experienced a change about three years ago, and it began with my oldest grandson. When he visits our house overnight we have a routine of reading Bible stories, then telling stories, saying prayers and (eventually) going to sleep. Of course, I loved the hugs, the laughter in response to my hokey antics, and sense that I was endearing myself to my grandson. All good things. As I considered the real essence of life lived as worship, however, I was convicted that worship has priority in familial relationships as well. Prayers for Coen’s salvation in God’s timing grew more intense. I was highly sensitized to questions, attitudes, and opportunities to speak of what Jesus has done for us. I will never forget one Sunday at First Baptist in Nashville when the ordinances were observed in worship. That night’s bedtime was a windfall of seed-planting, and spirit nurturing. Too young to understand, yet not too young to have a sense of faith awakenings. What’s more, my own faith was in God’s sovereignty and timing.
About a month ago I got a call from my daughter. Sharing joyful tears over the phone I heard the news. My grandson had prayed a prayer for salvation. He was trusting in Christ and asking that Jesus be Lord of his life. Glory! I must admit I was thrilled (and proud) that he wanted his “Poppy” to baptize him, and it was no doubt last Sunday was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was also, however, a reminder of God’s absolute faithfulness, and of the need to pray without ceasing. It was a refresher on what is important in this life, and how worship is an all the time posture in life and living, not just a weekly event. I am grateful to Pastor Tim Stutler and the people of Goodlettsville Cumberland Presbyterian Church, where our son-in-law serves as youth pastor, for their support and joining the celebration of praise. I am also thankful to be reminded of my own baptism as a young child, and find my heart singing today the hymn of baptism;
And as we rise with You to live,
O let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The joy of life, the fire of love.
Come, Holy Spirit Dove Divine
Words by Adoniram Judson
Lord, may we stir the baptismal waters more and more as the message is problaimed “that wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory!”
There is little disagreement among Tennessee Baptists that we have churches in desperate need of revitilization. Reports are now telling us that 90% of our churches are either plateaued or declining. Now having pastors, other church leaders, or church members say, “Here’s one!” is a different matter. Strangely, it seems that there is a disconnect between recognizing a problem, and recognizing our problem. In other words, we have a very difficult time owning this issue of needing transformation in our own church. Yes, statistics tell us there is a problem in our churches. However, I am hopeful that you, like I, desire an evaluative look beyond statistics. I am convinced that looking differently at these matters will yield far different results. The really difficult thing is that measurability is much less attainable when we begin to explore aspects like a change in the spirit of worship services, deepening relationships, meaningful fellowship, biblical follow-ship, and other characteristics that are much more intangible. In the case of gathered worship it is in this less tangible arena that assessment takes place. Relentless numbers-minded folks will still turn to statistical measurements and rely first and foremost, if not solely, on questions answered by how many. How many attended? How many visitors? How many? How many? I was once working with a statistician on a worship project related to congregational singing involvement, and the first words from his mouth were, “How many are singing?” Please do not misunderstand. The “how many” questions are important and undoubtedly display some reflection on deeper matters. In matters of transformation and renewal, however, we simply must plough more deeply to try and discover more of the thick description, if you will, of what is happening among members of the congregation. Along the way, there may well be points at which we become dependent on what might be simply called, “a sense of things.” In the long run we may even find that some churches who show numerical strength are not necessarily experiencing renewal. Likewise we may find that some churches without significant numerical increase are nevertheless in the throes of great revival as the Spirit takes hold in the spiritual transformation His people.
This is where music and response and participation come into the picture. Worship music leaders may not be able to definitively say following a worship service, this many or that many people were singing. They may not be able to numerically compare one week’s experience to the next. With heightened awareness and timely questions, however, those responsible for planning and leading in worship services are quite likely to be able to offer some sense of the spirit of congregational worship. Most important, these same leaders including preaching pastors and music leaders can make comparisons as to how well a congregation is following admonitions of God’s Word. Pastors and Worship Ministry leaders should be relentlessly attentive to the design of biblical corporate worship, and provide some grasp of how well a congregation is participating in that worship. By expanding this group of assessors to include other staff ministers, deacons and elders, and other church leadership for open and honest evaluation as to how a congregation is following the claims of Christ we may begin to get a stronger sense of where a church is in relation to being renewed.
Please note I am not saying that because a congregation raises its decibel level in its worship singing it is therefore in transformation. What I am saying, however, is that a congregation showing clear signs of renewed commitment to remaining true to biblical demands including faithful worship on terms and in ways revealed in God’s Word is a mark of renewal. And for those who question the centrality of worship in this question of revitalization of a church, consider these quotes from author, pastor, and theologian, Warren Wiersbe from his book, Real Worship: It Will Transform Your Life.
On the priority of worship in transformation:
Separation apart from worship can become (and usually does become) a brittle piety that breeds arrogance, legalism, and an isolation from both the world and the church that, in my thinking, is not biblical. (15)
I began to realize that evangelism divorced from true worhip can become merely a program tacked on an already overloaded ecclesiastical machine, or, even worse, a struggle for statistics and results. Isaiah became an evangelist after attending a worship service in the temple and seeing God ‘high and lifted up.’ Evangelism is an essential part of the church’s ministry, but it must be the result of worship, or it will not glorify God.” (16)
How did the missionary venture begin? Even Paul’s missionary call came to him while he was sharing in worship in the church at Antioch. When missions is divorced from worship, the human need can become more important than the divine glory.
Worship is at the center of everything that the church believes, practices, and seeks to accomplish. (17)
Genuine revitalization in our churches will center in genuine Christian worship. Furthermore, genuine renewal of the church’s worship is a sure sign reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit of God.
In recent weeks I have had the privilege of being involved in events that focused on renewal. From worship renewal weekends with individual churches to a regional bivocational pastor and wives retreat the theme of revitalization is as prevalent as the equivalent need for its effect. I am grateful to be assigned to the Church Revitalization Task Force team at TBC, because renewal is very much a centerpiece of the ministry to which I believe I am called. I must hasten to say, however, that this should not in any way be construed to imply that I have lots of experience, I know a bunch about what to do and how to do it, and therefore I am some kind of renewal expert. To the contrary, I am convinced that one of the very shortcomings that has us in such need of revitalizing is that we too often search for the proverbial magic bullet that will bring about new life among our people, and we begin to stare at other churches, other leaders, even other fields of vocation. Before we know it we may begin to busy ourselves in activities that are like the quip, “rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic.” If churches could be revitalized by changing the music, preaching more sermons, developing new marketing strategies, reworking the website, or engaging in social media presence, then most of our churches would be renewed already.
A cardinal principle of renewal is well-stated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in the reminder that worship renewal is not something we achieve, or for which we strive, but rather is a gift of God, and thus it is something for which we pray. The natural instinct of our Puritan work ethic tends to fight against this reliance principle. Senior Pastors and Worship Ministry Leaders feel a responsibility to what is and/or is not happening in the worship service. Coupled with an ambition to succeed, we can find ourselves striving at quick fix methodology that is rooted in marketing strategies, entertainment enticements, and lose our place in understanding our complete dependency on the only power able to bring about true transformation and renewal, the Holy Spirit.
In 2009 New Orleans Seminary President, Dr. Chuck Kelly led a chapel service and released a paper calling Southern Baptists “The New Methodists.” At its heart the contention of the address proposed that Baptists lost our way by our focus on methods to reach while letting discipleship take a back seat. Kelly’s remarks are in no way a slur on another Christian denomination, but they do point out our penchant for trusting our own efforts rather than relying upon the Spirit’s power while remaining faithful at the basic activities of evangelism and discipleship. While we in worship ministry might add gathered worship to the short list, I believe such can also be the given that undergirds all efforts of the church’s mission and ministry. In worship, gathered and in solitude, we re-orient to the proper perspective upon which evangelism and discipleship will be built. That is to say we re-position ourselves to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), and we remember our complete dependency on the finished work of Jesus, and in the face of our needs we are reminded of the centrality of the Gospel and pray for faithfulness in taking up the mantle of our place in God’s great story of redemption. It is in the midst of our praising and rehearsing the story that we stoke our grateful hearts to burn anew with zeal for the mission God has called us to in our context.
Sunday is Resurrection Day, and church pews will likely be more full than normal. I pray you and your church will find great celebration in the music and message of Easter. Let’s sing and proclaim the Resurrection message in a power beyond our loudest amplifier, biggest organ stop, full orchestra dynamic. Let’s pray the transforming power that raised Jesus from the dead to turn lives around, breathe new life into our willing souls, and free us to lives of worship that prepare us for the worship of eternity in which we will sing the everlasting song and crown Him Lord of all! Should that resurrection power permeate our ranks we will then see the revitalizing of our churches for which we hunger.
I once heard a friend say that one of the Baptist theme songs was “Anything You Can Do We Can Do Twenty Years Later.” That is usually good for a chuckle or two even when I tell it, at least from leaders who have engaged in the challenging task of trying to assist churches through change. There are lots of ways that we find ourselves trying to help our churches in and through changes, whether as a staff member serving an individual church, or one engaged in ministry assigned to assist lots of churches in an association, region, or state. Like it or not, we all face change. Greek philosopher, Hiraclitus is credited with positing that change is a central force in the universe. Plato quotes this dude with memorable quotes like “everything changes and nothing stands still,” or a favorite of mine, “you could not step twice into the same river.” Have to think a second on that last one.
So, let’s go with the idea that change is a given. In fact, when it comes to church music and worship the truth is that we have always been in a state of change. I contend that in relation to styles we have always been morphing into something new and incorporating new and different material, adding to what already is. Granted, those changes at times may have seemed to come oh so slowly, and it may have seemed along the way we found ourselves woefully behind the times, but it also seems to behoove us to always be asking what that even means, and what values concern for such implies. Seems to me the church may be too ready to assume that being “behind the times” is automatically bad, inferring that catching up to the times is always what we need. With cultural change steamrolling at mind-numbing speed there is hardly time taken by church leaders for true assessment of our context and to prayerfully determine how abrupt and to what extent our environments need to change. When we adapt to accommodate the culture by bringing aspects of the culture into the church and its worship, then we also bring the value systems associated with those adaptations. Let’s take, for example, the adherence to marketing strategies based upon commercial models focused on prospective consumers. We seek to give people what they want in music, environment, casualness, and then are surprised when they continually expect to have their wants met in those same areas. Someone has said, “What you use to win them is what you must use to keep them.” If change is the constant, then I guess that means continual change becomes our driving force. And so we have conferences and resource materials with titles like “What’s Next,” and “Next Level,” or “Push Forward.”
Obviously, part of keeping up with the times has to do with the music we use in worship. We change from the old to the new which quickly becomes old. The snowball effect is overwhelming. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the rate of new songs. Likewise, demonstrating our prowess of the almighty new, the people we are trying to lead cannot learn and incorporate the number of new songs at the rate they are given. And so we are confronted with the law of diminishing returns. In the effort to keep up with the times and give people what “they want” (which is really what we, or a marketer thinks they want), we are experiencing less singing participation. We have now begun training children up in this same pattern by giving them more choreography than singing. As I work with churches in relation to worship renewal a challenge is to get past assumptions that if we just modernize the music and overall environment then renewal will come, and lots of new people with it. I often hear “we have just not kept up with the times,” or worse yet, that sentiment as an accusation pointed toward others in the church.
Lest you think I am sitting here in my office with dialup internet service, or an IBM Selectric typewriter – younger guys it’s a 1960’s thing – I am not calling for return to days of old, there is no going back. What I am trying to do is call for a very careful, thoroughly prayerful, assessment of methods and materials that come our way, and intensely thoughtful theological scrutinizing of those materials and methods. As you review lyrics and run into questions remember this mantra, “when in doubt ask your pastor and/or other theologian.” If written song keys or melody lines present challenges for your musicians, they will surely present bigger hurdles for a congregation to grasp. That does not mean throw them out necessarily, but it may well mean you take plenty of time to teach them to congregation.
Here’s the bigger thing. If not careful we give the impression that updated environments, methods, and materials including songs and music can bring life transformation to the church and by extension individuals. It cannot! No song ever changed a life. Only the Holy Spirit can change a life, and send renewal. New songs and other changes may come with the renewal, but Spirit is always first.
I recommend you read Trevin Wax’s thoughtful blogpost titled, “The Disciples’ First Assignment: Do Nothing,” an excerpt from a book by J.D. Grear, Jesus Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You Is Better Than Jesus Beside You
I simply must tell you about last weekend’s joyful experience with Pastor Gregory Lindsey, Worship Leader Linda Mabe, and the Mill Springs Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee. A few months ago I agreed to come to Mill Springs to lead one of the Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing Weekends that I have been promoting and conducting for the last few years. From the moment I met Pastor Greg I was impressed that he was an under shepherd with a burden for his church family to know the renewed joy of singing their worship. Last weekend that sense was confirmed as I was immediately struck with his clear desire to offer his people an opportunity for revived worship through singing. We began immediately to discuss many of the variables that affect the congregation’s capacity to engage in song.
I will not extend this blog by expounding a play by play description of the weekend, but rather I want to focus on the high value of a pastor’s role in fostering healthy worship singing which I am convinced is a critical component of any effort toward renewal in Christian worship. The experiences of last weekend with Pastor Greg have just re-emphasized to me how crucial and filled with prospect is the enthusiastic involvement and support of a senior pastor to the congregation’s participation in congregational singing in worship. What’s more, I have been reminded that singing both fuels worship on one hand, and reflects that genuine worship engagement is taking place on the other.
Let me brag a bit about Pastor Greg. Here is a senior pastor who gets it! First off it is crystal clear that Greg loves the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Secondly, it is clear that he has a deep abiding love for the people of his church that he is called to serve, and the community in which he lives. It is likewise clear that springing from these deep commitments this pastor remains devoted to God’s Word, and to functioning and leading within the teachings of holy scripture. He understands that this is a hedge of protection not only for him, but for the people he leads. Secondly, from that teaching Greg understands the high value of biblical music-making. It helps that he is a musician himself, but this pastor actually demonstrates a clear grasp of the high value of congregational worship singing, and it shows. For example, he demonstrates a grasp of what congregational singing sounds like. He knows the difference in energy generated by electronic devices verses the power of a roomful of believers engaged in passionate worship singing. He knows the difference in a song that may make us feel good and those that help to engage head and heart. (1 Cor 14:15) He understands that listening to a worship band does not equate to God’s people singing His praise together. I shared with Pastor Greg and with Ms. Linda the handout we had received in a Breakout session at last year’s Tennessee Baptist Convention Summit from our friend and passionate hymnist, Keith Getty. What Keith has to say in that piece, “Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing,” begins with something that struck Brother Greg.
Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.
Keith’s call for pastors to “be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live,” is a clarion call that I fear far too many pastors too easily shelve, preferring to figure out a shortcut to entrepreneurial success. The quick fix world of our day and our culture pushes us to look for a new trick, some adornment that we convince ourselves will change the demographics of our congregations, fill our pews and enliven sad and sick souls and their interest in offering praise to the Triune God. Instead we are often fostering abject disengagement, music that is too loud for the human voice to be heard above it, “leaders” who give off vibes of performers looking more for acclaim than to facilitate the song of the redeemed on the lips and in the hearts of God’s people gathered.
At Mill Springs the music leader is a young lady who grew up a P.K. (Preacher’s Kid), does not profess to read music, but has a lovely voice, plays chord on the keyboard, has pulled together a band of singers and instrumentalists, and demonstrates a kind and gentle loving spirit, and people follow. In the relationship of pastor and music leader there is a patient and appropriate work of unity seeking to help the people of Mill Springs to express their song of worship. In this environment I am convinced the Lord is renewing the sounds of His praise to ring loud and clear from a hillside close to Cherokee Dam, outside Jefferson City, Tennessee. Thank you, Pastor Greg, Ms. Linda, and Mill Springs Baptist Church for allowing me to come alongside for awhile and see the work of the Lord in your midst. You have reminded me again that the Lord will indeed “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”
Early in my tenure with TBC I perceived a decline in active worship participation in many of our churches. Through that assessment I sense that the Lord put me on a path of prayer, study, and concern that we have a serious need for worship renewal in many of our churches. I do not think it coincidental that our churches have been tagged with the “plateaued or declining” status reportedly attached to more than 80% of TBC churches and the subsequent need for revitalization. One of the Five Objectives in the vision adopted at the Annual Meeting last November addresses revitalization of 500 TBC churches over the next ten years. Given my ministry trajectory it is little wonder that my heart so readily and fiercely resonates with the that objective. While priority is placed on seeing these churches baptize new believers, I am also convinced that renewed worship will be both an aspect of the revitalization process and also an evidence that rejuvenation is taking place as we see the Lord at work. I believe churches will once again sing the sweet, sweet song of salvation, and we will know it.
Last Thursday I got to sit in on one of Wayne Causey’s class discussions at Belmont with his undergraduate students. He shot me a text message inviting me to join, knowing that I had been in doctorate sessions with Constance Cherry at the Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Wayne’s class discussion Thursday centered on readings from Dr Cherry’s book, The Worship Architect. I jumped at the opportunity because I am adapting some of my metaphors in worship renewal discussions to match up with her four structural walls of worship, and plan to use this in efforts toward worship renewal. I wanted to hear the students interact with the material, and I wanted to interact with them. Plus I got to hang out with Wayne a little while on a Thursday. It was very informative and encouraging to hear 18 -21 year olds’ observations of some of what happens in worship. As has been the case every time I have had similar opportunities to address and interact with students at Union, Carson Newman, our seminaries, and other schools, I found plenty to garner hope for a bright future of thoughtful worship leadership.
The particular section toward the end of the book that was being addressed at length in Wayne’s class was the section on style. As we discussed these I felt they deserved to be highlighted for those of us leading churches in worship and praying toward renewal. The premise in Constance’s thinking is her definition of worship style.
Style in worship is the way a certain faih community expresses the content of its worship (liturgy) as a result of a its given context.
She gives Five Myths about Worship Style that merit prayerful review by every Worship Leader. She prefaces these myths by emphasizing that “style alone cannot carry the weight of worship renewal. Style isn’t big enough or important enough or universal enough to do that.”
Myth 1: Style Is Content
Content is the material of worship, the essence of Who it is for and about, and the materials and actions that facilitate our corporate conversation with God in Christ – things such as reading and hearing Scripture, praying, singing, witnessing, affirming the truths of the Christian faith, communing at the Table, presenting offerings, presenting ourselves, silence, and so forth. Style, on the other hand, is not what we do, but the manner in which we express what we do. It may deliver content, but is not content itself. *Renewal in worship is never accomplished by changing the style.
Myth 2: Style is Structure
Structure has to do with ordering the content of worship. It is the shape of the communion with God in Christ. It gives logic and order to our gathered conversation with God. Style, however, is the language and manner with which we converse. *Renewal will never come from restructuring worship or changing the style of the structure used. The historic structure (gathering, Word ,Table ,sending) can be done in a myriad of styles.
Myth 3: Style Has Only to Do with Music
Style is much broader than music style alone, but rather encompasses many aspects of worship. It includes the version of scripture used for readings, and the language of prayers. Style includes atmosphere, architecture, technology, accepted attire, and so forth.
Myth 4: Style Has the Potential to Bring People Together
Nothing related to worship has been quite as divisive as style issues in the last several decades. Finding the right style will not bring people together in unity and peace. What draws people together is being in community with other Christians – the gift of God’s grace.
Myth 5: Style Impacts Church Growth Positively
This is a myth promoted with millions of dollars through an industry developed in an effort to capitalize on financial opportunities of churches experiencing decline and hungering for a “magic bullet” to grow their church like someone else’s church in someone else’s context. There is no study that shows that the use of a certain worship style will result in church growth. Studies of growing churches worshiping in various styles resulted in demonstrative responses expressed in words like exciting, celebrative, joyful, expectant, warm, spirit of revival, exuberant, spirit of revival. This was the case in formal and informal settings indicating the spirit of the worship is more important than its style or the type of music used. *Church growth will not be accomplished simply by a change of style in music.
For full explanation and rich material on worship planning and structure I highly recommend this book by a wonderful thinker and excellent communicator. Meanwhile, pray for renewal in our worship and in our churches.
 Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics 2010) 227.
 Ibid., 223
Facebook pages this week are adorned with beautiful pictures of the Winter Wonderland that is Tennessee and most all areas of the country…..If this is your annual trip to Hawaii it is probably best keep your photos to yourself for awhile. With all the ice and snow across our great state schools are closed and church services are being cancelled in the interest of safety. I was looking forward to leading for an Ash Wednesday service at First Baptist Lebanon, but alas, it has been postponed to a time I will not be able to participate, and I am sure it will be led by interim music ministry leader, Karen Fisk. But Wednesday is still Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. This begs the question, “What do we do when we cannot all get together for worship?” I’m glad you asked.
I know that most of you have answered this question in different ways, but I want to use it first to revisit the importance of gathering for worship in the first place, especially as a local church body. In her book on worship structure Constance Cherry uses the metaphor of a building to beautifully demonstrate the importance of worship structure as foundational to Christian worship. The first “load bearing wall” as she calls it is Gathering. She reminds us that God has invited us, and He is the one calling us out (ekklesia) to come apart and worship Him together. Obviously, when we join together we form the worshiping body, we “admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16), we “spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:23), we “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16). What? Not at your church? Well, you see the point I hope. Biblical worship includes regular (Lord’s Day) gathering of the church for worship. Gathered worship includes things that happen when we are together in person. In addressing the way the body informs the mind and emphasizing the importance of gathered worship, writer/researcher Rob Moll states,
Worship can lead us into experiences of God, whether sublime or profound, that shape our hearts. Worship can give us an experience of God himself, in unity with fellow worshipers, and in a theologically rich, multisensory environment full of meaning. It forms our desires and shapes our emotions, making us more like Christ, uniting heaven and earth, creation and Creator. But it’s not until we get off the sofa and into the pew that we are able to experience these things.
I wanted to lay that groundwork, reiterating the obvious even though it is not so fashionable these days to go to church. Nothing replaces the physical gathering of the body of Christ for worship as manifested in a local congregation. Far too long we have created our own problems, engineering worship that divides the worshiping body by convenience, preference, age, and ethnicity. While attempting to “grow the church” (meaning grow our church) we have committed ecclesial division, thwarting biblical models in favor of consultant-driven marketing theories. If all we wanted was more people, perhaps some have achieved that goal. If our aim is making disciples? Not so much. The evidence of this is frightening.
OK, as you might observe, gathering as a body is a big deal to me as I believe it to be the clear teaching of scripture, and reflection of an answer to Jesus’ prayer for us, His disciples, in John 17 (“that they might be one, Father, even as you and I are one”). I believe gathered worship is the primary function of the church, and the only activity that will last into eternity after all other activities have ceased. We are saved to worship and crafted into a body of baptized believers; we join the eternal stream of worshiping. That said, the question lingers as to what we do when it is not possible or wise for health or safety reasons to gather? The digital age in which we live offers us tools that can be used to aid in our dilemma. At the very least, leaders can offer worship music for listening and singing, Bible teaching or preaching for hearing, and guides for in home conversations or personal reflection. People much more internet savvy than I am can guide toward means of meeting online in real time or through delayed means for interactive participation.
Today is Ash Wednesday. I was going to be leading music for First Baptist Lebanon tonight for their Ash Wednesday service, but it has been iced out. But it is still Ash Wednesday. I will dedicate time to prayer and worship as the observance of Lent begins. In this way I know I am joining with Christians around the world whose affections and thoughts will turn in the direction of Jesus’ journey to the cross. When physical presence is not possible, bowing before the same throne of grace in confession, adoration, petition, instruction, and commitment in like manner as others is a next best thing.
 Rob Moll, What Your Body Knows About God: How We are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive (IVP 2014)
Search for books on Church Renewal at Amazon.com yields more than 8,000 results. More narrowly, Worship Renwal yields more than 1,300 titles itself. Wow! According to most research entities 80% of evangelical churches are plateaued or declining. Whether or not we agree with quantifying a church’s health, declining numbers of participating church members and visitors serve as some kind of indicator as to what is and/or is not happening in our churches. For those of us in worship ministry leadership there are obvious alarms that affect us directly, and that should awaken us to address a need for revitalizing our churches’ worship.
As many of you know I have been asked to serve on the Church Revitalization Team as part of my work and ministry with Tennessee Baptists. That assignment makes sense. I have been interested in, studying about, praying over, and researching actions and disciplines that would serve in a movement of renewal in the church and its worship for a long long time. I wrote a book on worship renewal through congregational singing. I have consulted on issues related to worship renewal with hundreds of churches over the last fifteen years, not to mention the ones I served as a staff minister for twenty-six years prior to coming to TBC. So, looks like I should be an expert, right? Not only that, but our team includes members who have also been working at some aspect of renewal for many years as well. Our team leader is a senior pastor who has just recently joined the TBC staff, and has a special passion in renewal. The team includes a seasoned bi-vocational pastor with many years experience in revival efforts, and we also have two younger leaders who serve with children, youth, and college students. We have an experienced discipleship development ministry leader, and even our state newspaper editor who has written about sparks of renewal in individual churches during his years with the TBC, is on our team. There is a lot of experience gathered in the room when this team meets. And yet we cannot really say, “Here! Do these five actions and your church will be renewed.” As a matter of fact, there is a bit of question over exactly what is the right word for the area in which we are engaged. As I speak with other staff ministers I hear words like reboot, reignite, reengage, restart, renew, and the word that has been used in our TBC Five Objectives vision as the objective toward which we are striving, revitalize.
The fact is that all of these words point toward a central need for many of our churches. It has to do with vitality – life itself. The “re” part indicates a return to something we have known previously, and therefore we naturally tend to look back to see what we had before, how we lost it, and how it can be recaptured. No doubt that contemplation can help. However, there are dangers involved in such reminiscence, and my guess would be that most all reading this post know these dangers all to well, either by personal experience or observation. Our churches can find themselves wanting to live in the past, or discounting the need for change. They and we can too quickly embrace change for the sake of change itself without recognizing we have done little more than window dressing. Too often churches have been led to put proverbial lipstick on the pig, and journeyed down a path of misleading people to think renewal has come because we built a new worship center, added the latest technology, and/or enticed an American-idol worthy worship leader. The challenge is great! And it seems the answer is beyond us. Perhaps that is most challenging of all. I may serve this purpose, but I cannot make it happen. The end of our efforts can look a lot like the place we began with us sensing emptiness in the spiritual life of our worship and by extension in our churches themselves. We could easily become discouraged, or do endless searches for more material and technique. It seems to me that at the end of these roads lies a foundational truth, that only God can bring renewal, and our deep need is for God Himself. Surely whatever efforts we affect must serve the purpose of revealing Him, proclaiming His truth, presenting the Gospel message, and nurturing healthy community that gathers around the assurance of His promised presence.
The following statement articulates the core of our need in revitalizing worship in our churches. I find it a healthy reminder of our need.
Vital worship is not something that human ingenuity or creativity can produce or engineer, but is a gift of God’s Spirit. It is a gift for which we pray, rather than an accomplishment we achieve.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 ESV)
Making music with teenagers that encourages their worship of God in Christ is a critical part of the ministry of the Worship Music Minister or Worship Pastor, and I believe an important responsibility for the church itself. Whether through youth choir ministry, or through development of worship bands, orchestral or instrumental ensembles, or some other means of music-making, the thoughtful Worship Pastor will understand these opportunities as building blocks for making disciples, developing worship leaders, and fostering Christian community and service. What’s more, providing music-making activities with teenagers places them in a position to experience firsthand ways that the art of music touches the spirit and speaks to the soul. Making music together stirs connections that can implant notions of Christian community that bear fruit for years to come. Try as we might to articulate what it is like for music-making to touch the depth of your soul, adequately communicating such is surely impossible. All the more reason it is crucial to give students an opportunity to actually make music designed for worship expression. Surely we should pray they will sense the spiritual depth as part of their own experience and their own spiritual encounter during music-making. In the midst of it, often the Lord speaks His truth to a group, and/or to an individual soul.
As students and leaders from more than twenty churches gathered at Union University’s Grant Center on Friday night and at West Jackson Baptist Church on Saturday for Youth Project 2015, they came with some expectation that they would sing and learn some choir songs, have some fun, hear some others sing and share about music-making, and enjoy the time with other teenagers. The songs selected for this year’s event, directed by Dennis Allen, carried an overarching theme and message of resting our trust in the Lord. A triumphant tone underscored the musical expressions as well as the lyrics. Assurance secured in the strength of the Lord resonated through the sanctuary of West Jackson Baptist Church on Saturday as the students proclaimed psalm texts, declared their living “By Faith” and harmonized beautifully in expressing to the Lord thanksgiving for, “Your Awesome Love for Me.”
As the strains of 200 students singing in four-part harmony touched my own spirit, confirming a deep commitment to continue these kinds of opportunities despite all the distracting obstacles that come our way, I whispered a prayer for the words and music to find fertile soil in the hearts of these young people. With the exception of a handful of students that I knew a little about personally, the life situations of all the rest singing up there in the loft were a mystery. Certainly, their future life scenarios are unknown to all of us leaders. Nevertheless, the universal truths of scripture and biblical truth expressed through poetic song lyrics have eternal significance when the Spirit breathes them into the soul of the believing singer.
As I made my way around to several leaders, I heard of individual students who had special need for a message of assurance to be rooted in their spirit. One had recently experienced the death of a close friend, one had gone through the challenge of parents ending their marriage, and another who had been deeply disappointed by discovering a family member with substance abuse issues. On the one hand, these situations break my heart. As a dad and granddad it disturbs me when adults’ problems effect youth and children. Then again, thanks be to God for adult leaders who offer their time and energy to provide for students to be involved in things like Youth Choir and Youth Project, where strains of phrases like “He cannot be shaken,” and psalms like “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my strength, my refuge, my fortress.” Thank the Lord for hearing Dennis Allen try to describe being sheltered under the wing of the Most High God. What a sound of the formed community of worshiping students singing in biblical order the revelation of creation, prophets, the Messiah, and the church and to respond resolutely with the refrain, “We will stand as children of the promise; we will fix our eyes on Him, our soul’s reward, ‘til the race is finished and the work is done. We’ll walk by faith and not by sight!”
It takes concentrated time and effort to develop and maintain a ministry through music with youth, but I am deeply convinced it is part and parcel of what it means to make disciples, and especially to “raise up a generation of praise.” (Youth Project’s permanent theme and intention) Far too often worship music ministry leaders get caught up striving to have “a great Sunday” to the exclusion of ongoing ministry through music with children and youth. Stringing together a bunch of “great Sundays” may seem like an appropriate strategy for positive ministry, but I believe it can, in fact, be very misleading and certainly shortsighted. I say misleading in that we could easily receive thunderous applause and enthusiastic kudos for cliché songs wrought with weak theology and pseudo spirituality, and still feel that we have had “a great Sunday.” Of course, I am not saying such would be the intention of anyone, but fixing our gaze on weekly experiences for attraction, is likely to lead us toward those things. I say shortsighted because when the applause dies down, the need goes on. It takes a broader view and a longer vision to build music and music-making into the lives of children and teens. Some years the youth choir looks more like an ensemble. Sometimes the only ones who can work it out to go to outside music events like Youth Project are a handful of teens.
I believe it is worth it, music minister! How I appreciate and affirm the efforts of those who help children and students make music, even at the most elementary level, so that they continue to grow toward ministry and mission using their gifts and talents. What a powerful community is being raised up, guided by loving hands of leaders who see past the big anthem or song of Sunday to weeks and years to come when children and youth become adults and leaders. Let us all sing along with these students with great enthusiasm and full meaning and intention, “We’ll walk by faith and not by sight!”