A week ago Sunday I joined the Middle Tennessee members of the Tennessee Mens Chorale worshiping and leading in a time of open discussion with a Baptist Church in Rome, Italy, Teatro Valle Baptist Church. Of course, we sang as chorale members, as did East and West Tennessee music ministers in other locations across the city and area. We presented several of our songs as seemed appropriate to the liturgical flow of the service designed by Pastor Herbert. Wayne Causey led our Middle Tennessee group. A favorite part for most of us was when we sang together with members of the congregation, we Americans either trying our best to read Italian words, or sometimes each singing in his or her native tongue. Worshiping with brothers and sisters in another part of the world, even though understanding may be limited, is non-the-less effectual in that we know we are praising and worshiping in Jesus’ Name. The pastor spoke some English, as did a few congregation members, but communications was a challenge through the day. However, extra effort was given by all as we worshiped, fellowshipped around the table, and then entered a time of open discussions – which, by the way, takes longer when everything is repeated in two languages.
It was not long into our discussion time that animated voices speaking Italian sounded eerily like voices I have heard in many of our churches in Tennessee. Of course, I could not understand the words these folks were saying until the pastor interpreted for us. Nevertheless, I could tell we had stepped upon the tender spot of talking about differences regarding worship music styles. Let me hasten to say it is not exactly the same in Italy as in the U.S., though many components come down to the same personality and sensibility issues as we often see at home. One of the aspects of this entire project has been the joy of getting to know and encourage, as well as be encouraged by Carlo Lella, who serves as the Minister of Music for the Italian Baptist Union. We got to compare notes, share common issues and pray for one another in our work. We both strongly desire that the church would renew her song of worship in unity and fellowship. The primary word Carlo used to describe the situation in Italian churches was “complicated.” Indeed, it is. We both noted that it is less problematic to sing and worship in two languages foreign to the ear than it is to try and resolve issues of personality and musical language differences.
Our trip was so filled with blessings and answers to prayers of people praying at home, as well as fulfillment of desired outcomes and prayers there on the field. Time and again the Tennessee Mens Chorale began to warm up in empty rooms or street locations, only to begin singing and see those spaces fill with people. We literally ministered and witnessed to people from all over the world through our time in Italy. As I reflect back over the days together I am more determined than ever to the mission and ministry to which God has called me and I believe has called us. I was profoundly reminded how effective it is when brothers in Christ lay aside any differences of language and style to defer to Christ and one another and the mission at hand above any personal preference of musical taste. I was reminded just how attractive servanthood is as brothers and sisters demonstrate Christlike care. We saw it in so many ways. All this makes the music just that much more beautiful and effective. The Prayer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was more than just great devotional material as Michael shared it with us, and/or song lyric as we sang it in those different settings. It was an effectual prayer that I believe the Lord answered. I pray that the effects will be lasting including settings like that mentioned above in the churches where differences over styles and sensibilities continue to plague God’s people. Our worship wars must cease to be battles over what music we sing, and instead become the battle against powers of darkness that would distract us from raising up Jesus, gazing upon Him, and placing our full trust In Christ Alone!
For those of you unable to make the trip, whether TMC, TLC, or interested Tennessee Baptist, we thank you for your involvement through prayer and concern. Please continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Italy, even as we also pray that we will be effective and bold witnesses to Christ’s saving love here in Tennessee.
On Tuesday, October 7, fifty-seven of us depart from Tennessee airports to make our way to Naples, Italy to begin a ten-day mission project that will also take us to Rome and Florence, as well as outlying towns surrounding these three major cities in Italy. Our IMB missionary, Charlie Worthy, will help guide our time in the country and introduce us to pastors and church leaders where we will serve to engage in training, singing, and what we pray will be inspirational encouragement for believers, and clear presentation of the Gospel of Christ’s saving love to those we meet. In a budget planning meeting one year I was asked, “How many churches are represented by the Tennessee Ladies Chorus and Tennessee Mens Chorale?” I initially answered that question in a manner that was in keeping with the way the question was posed. As I recall, I said, “about two to three hundred churches.” As the meeting went on, however, I continued to be bothered that this reply in no way reflected the effective mission and ministry of these two choirs filled with church music leaders from churches all across our state. Nor did it reflect the thousands of lives that have been touched either directly through the powerful music ministry of the groups in concert or musical worship leadership, or indirectly through those inspired and encouraged by that ministry. It did not in any way indicate the depth of relationships developed among and between these leaders as they share mutual experiences of ministry, mission, and life through their involvements. The longer the meeting went on, the more unsettled I felt with the response I had given. Finally, before the meeting was dismissed I requested to correct my short-sighted response from earlier in the proceedings. I re-stated the question and updated my reply.
The initial question was something like, “How many churches are represented by these two singing groups?” to which I replied, “somewhere between two and three hundred churches.”
That answer was wrong and I would like to correct it before we dismiss. The correct reply to “How many churches are represented by the Tennessee Ladies Chorus and Tennessee Mens Chorale?” should be “All Tennessee Baptist Convention churches are represented as these ambassadors engage in mission and ministry, whether in a concert given in one of our TBC churches, whether leading worship music in an annual meeting of the convention, or boldly singing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the streets of a partnership foreign country.” This is certainly to be the case in this trip to the beautiful and musical country of Italy. So, as we represent all of us in expressing our love and concern for the people of Italy, would you please join the mission by way of praying daily for the events and mission of our travelers?
Keep up with our trip and pray regularly for this mission to our partnership country Italy.
I had an unusual assignment Sunday in assisting a church whose worship service is broadcast via internet. The request was to offer comment on how the worship service comes across and to suggest means of upgrading quality (non-technical, Eddie Hodges) in how the service might come across to those at home. I have viewed lots of videotape of worship services in my adult life, so I have learned to set aside those technical aspects that were such an irritant when I was leading and being captured by obsolete cameras and poor sound mixes myself. In one church where I served I would not watch the videotape until at least Wednesday after a Sunday, because I wanted the live experience to predominate my own thinking about how a particular Sunday went. Technology is both wonderful and distracting at the same time. But I digress. Because the church I was helping was in the Eastern time zone I finished my observation in time to call up a few other services of churches around our state. I did this partially as comparison, partly from curiosity, and a whole lot just because I wanted to check in on worship at the churches being served by pastors and worship pastors that I love and whose ministries I care about deeply. In each case as I viewed one of our brothers standing to lead music for worship I whispered a prayer for strength, confidence (some in the midst of storm), and holy unction of the Spirit. I also noted some common concerns I had for several of these settings – not all. I also noted a surprisingly consistent liturgical ethos among all, regardless of congregation size or location. Perhaps these are patterned after one or more large church formats, with a little added local flare. As a lifelong learner and student of worship study, I would love for fellow worship pastors to have more time to converse with one another regarding the order and piety of worship in our churches.
I will neither disclose the names of the churches (consultation confidentiality is a priority trust ingredient), nor the cities in which they are located. I will note some items that may be of common interest to all who broadcast services in any format, and an item that concerns all of us, whether our worship service can be seen on a screen or not. Consider these questions:
- Is worship always focused on the platform?
- Where cameras are present, do they show worshipers worshiping other than the Worship Leader, band, praise team, and choir? How about pastor singing? How about Worship Leader listening to spoken word? Are camera shots appropriate to where choir and other musicians are located and do they remain aware when being “on camera?” (sometimes nosepicking is part of life)
- Is lighting such that encourages an understanding that all present are to be engaged in participative worship? (more than once in past consultations Worship Leaders have expressed disinterest in “shooting the congregation” because of non-participation)
- What would it take to create a climate of genuine participation in all aspects of worship on the part of the whole congregation?
- Is the flow of worship understandable to the point that worshipers grasp where they are in the communion/conversation with God?
- Does pastor and other leadership encourage an atmosphere of full participation? (can people see him engaged?)
When working on a project regarding congregational singing I engaged some camera operators to work incognito to record some of what was taking place in sections of the congregation during congregational singing. These extra pairs of eyes helped me to grasp a bit more of the dynamics taking place past the visible front rows of the congregation in a large sanctuary. They also displayed some surprises, good and not so good, regarding engagement in what is intended to be a corporate act of worship. While none of us can either cheerlead or police our people into full participation, we can be aware and help others be aware of the shared spiritual responsibility that is corporate worship. God looks upon the heart, and just because someone is not visibly opening mouth and singing may not mean they are completely disengaged in the worship at any given point in a service. I have noticed, though, that often-time someone who is standing passively will suddenly open mouth when they realize I am looking right at them. It reminds me of one of my former mantras I used in Youth Choir rehearsals when a student was not singing. I would approach them and say,
“Here’s how it is suppose to work. I lead, the pianist plays, and you sing.”
Although it feels a bit snarky as I type it here, I was always surprised how well it worked and how often other students would help boost up the erring child so as to pull him or her in to the group effort. Quick praise always followed such a corrective, and I believe helped build the choir espri décor. While we cannot go all around the congregation calling out non-singers, we can offer unapologetic encouragement toward the biblical commands to “sing unto the Lord!” After all, He IS always looking.
Sisters, will you join and help us?
Moses’ sisters aided him;
George Atkins’ words from the Southern Harmony hymn, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship, that is sung as an opening at nearly all shaped-note singings, carries a colorful combination of southern cultural influence and liturgical potency as a Call to Worship on the one hand and a reflection of Southern song, harmonies, and lyrical emphasis common to churches in the South on the other. The reminder of dependency upon the Holy Spirit balances the call for worshipers to worship and pray in light of the plight of those who are lost and “sinking down.” A powerful line for me is “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.” Lest we ever rest our confidence in our selves, hymn lyrics such as this one remind us that only He can spread sweet manna all around.
The stanza that begins “Sisters, will you join and help us? Moses’ sister aided him” has often provided an opportunity to highlight the ministry roles that women fulfill in our churches, and like many of you, I have sometimes asked men of a congregation to sing the verse to help feature the high value of women’s service in ministry. Egalitarian and complementarian perspectives aside, we surely recognize the incredible contribution women play to life and ministry in our lives and our churches. I can honestly say that some of the strongest Christian influences in my life have been and are women. I use to quip that if it were not for my mom, I wouldn’t be here. I also like to point out that Moses’ sister, Miriam, was the first Praise Chorus singer, since she took the song of Moses in Exodus 15, and repeated four lines over and over again, taking a group of ladies to dance and play tambourines in the repetition. Joking aside, it is fact that beginning with my own family and broadening out to include so many singers, choir officers, fellow ministry leaders, staff members, and friends from college and seminary days, the Lord has blessed my life richly through the lives of women. They have modeled Christlikeness to me and toward me in appropriate, caring relationships. 1 Timothy 5 provides a biblical foundation for healthy relationships with women as we serve in ministry.
How wonderful it is for me to be serving this week at First Baptist Church Whitwell, Tennessee, where Allison Leding serves as Minister of Music. It has been a special treat to be with several who have been and continue to be strong influences and partners in ministry. Dr. Jerry Massey serves FBC Whitwell as pastor in his “retirement.” Pat and Jerry are longtime friends, prayer supporters, and Jerry has served in numerous roles in Tennessee Baptist life. Dr. Phil Glisson is preaching, and although we have not been together all that much in our “more mature” years, we were actually at Union University at the same time in the 1970’s. Phil is a preaching machine and has served in fulltime evangelism for his entire ministry. The fellowship is great each and every time we get to be together.
When Tennessee Ladies Chorus went to Montana 10 years ago, I first got to know Allison (“Alli”) Leding. It seems like when we loaded up vans or cars for travel during ministry there, we ended up in the same vehicle. Likewise, eating at food courts or area restaurants during our trip we were frequently at the same table. I discovered during that trip that Alli likes to have fun, and has the great sense of humor that goes with it. I remember laughing a lot, just as we also prayed and of course, sang and worshiped. She has been a part of every ministry activity of TLC sense. Not only did she serve as TLC President (TLC members will remember the Tiara Retreat), but she has been Charlotte Hanson’s first phone call when help is needed to staff an event or ministry activity. That is the kind of servant spirit that is Alli Leding in my estimation. In speaking with Pastor Jerry and others here at Whitwell, I have heard consistently about the contributions she makes, and the heart with which she makes them to the life and ministry of First Baptist Church. She is loved deeply and appropriately, and that spirit carries over into service in her association of churches, and her community, just as we have experienced it at the state level in TBC life. She is not only a great model for women in ministry. She is a great model for any of us in ministry, even as she is a good model for those in the church she serves so well. I am honored to call her my sister in Christ, and deeply appreciate her faithfulness to our Lord, her church, her community, her association, and our state. I know that serving in fulltime ministry as a woman in Southern Baptist life must be challenging, but it is servant leaders like Alli Leding who demonstrate effectively that despite all odds the Lord uses His children that He calls to serve in ministry.
In 1994 I was serving as Minister of Worship & Music for Jackson’s First Baptist Church, when a guy moved to town with my same last name. It would take a special guy to fill the musical pulpit at West Jackson Baptist Church, given that the previous Minister of Music, Bob Brian was so well loved and whose untimely sudden death had left a hole in the church’s conscious and dealt a dramatic blow to the music ministry. It would take someone deeply committed to ministry beyond singing inspirational songs and implementing organizational techniques. That guy who had come to town with my same last name, my younger brother, Ricky Clark, was that guy. His qualifications to fill that bill were a testimony to God’s sovereign hand on the church, its music ministry, and on the sensitive spirit of Rick and wife, Sandra. I was excited to have my brother in town. Those three years of serving together in the same town at two sister churches were very special. Regular lunch outings, phone calls for sharing advice and materials, and of course occasional catch-up on all things family. We even actually played tennis together when schedule and weather permitted. We put our choirs together to perform music of praise that may have been a bit beyond either group’s capacity alone at the time. These were very special days that I still cherish.
Alas, however, the city of Jackson determined that three Clarks in ministry in the same town, and living in the same subdivision, was just too much. Seriously, Ebbie and I felt the Lord was leading us to serve the Briarlake Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. One of the struggles to leave was the thought of losing that regular fellowship with my brother and closest friend. The opportunity to return to Tennessee and sense that this was somehow in the Lord’s plan all along has continued to be a rich reminder of His sovereign hand. Ricky does not show up to one of our state events (or line us up to sing), but what I am reminded of this blessing to lean into our relationship, the joy of trust we share as brothers in ministry and brothers in Christ as well as blood brothers. It is a very good thing when family relationship stirs your heart to worship and give thanks.
Saturday night and Sunday were special days as West Jackson’s music ministry surprised Ricky with a grand celebration, complete with Rick’s longtime friend and fellow Unionite, Kevin Hamilton, doing the things as only Kevin can do (or would do for some of them). It was a raucous good time, and was appropriately sprinkled with laughter and tears. Sunday worship with a choir loft packed with current and former choir members accompanied by orchestra of like making, was powerful testimony to twenty years of faithful ministry. Most notable to me were comments from numerous attenders that reflected Ricky’s passionate and consistent ministry of presence. Hospital visits, pre-op prayers, phone calls, notes and emails at birthdays and other celebrations….these are all hallmarks of Ricky’s ministry. Knowing him as a brother and close friend, I know that these acts are not motivated by duty or obligation. They are truly acts of love, and deeds of spiritual investment. Private words spoken to me from parents of youth choir members were powerful statements of effective ministry. Especially meaningful to me, of course, were comments of Ricky’s willingness to encourage students to be involved in broader participations like state music functions. That, of course, did this state music leader’s heart good.
Most importantly, I believe, in this celebration is the evidence of a man’s ministry always focused toward connecting lives to the One Who has given gifts and talents, and Who deserves the best each of us have to offer. We heard this spoken in testimonies offered, and saw it in the singing of a group formed by Ricky during early days of a worship service begun to reach out to community. We also saw and heard this testimony through the powerful ministry of choir and orchestra and rousing congregational singing on Sunday morning through grand hymn arrangements of May Jesus Christ Be Praised, How Great Thou Art, How Deep the Father’s Love, When I Survey, and the moving anthem, To Love Our God. While these events were one weekend of celebration and worship, they hint of representation of twenty years worth of personal investment and sacrifice in service. To my knowledge, there is not a more loyal and faithful minister through music anywhere than Ricky Clark. West Jackson Baptist Church has been wise and blessed to encourage the establishment of a legacy that has continued in the trajectory of Bob Brian, and has continued to make strides amidst all the changes brought on in cultural shifts, leadership changes, and uncertain economies. This legacy is a testimony to the faithfulness of our Lord, and a shining example of disciple-making through the ministry of music.
Proud of you, Bro!
Our friend Mike Harland at Lifeway is known among Worship pastors for lots of things (I will resist my juvenile jokester tendencies at this point), but one of many that I am grateful for is a biblical sermon I have heard him share in devotionals, as a conference leader, and from pulpits often. It is a message rooted primarily in 2 Chronicles 20 where Jehoshaphat, preparing to march to the battlefront, places the singers and musicians out in front of the warriors. As a result of my ministry with worship pastors and other church musicians this message always strikes me at the heart of what happens in the lives of so many of us when we get discouraged. Worship music ministry in our day is characterized far too often by battles (some of our own making) and storms when it surely should be among the most unifying and edifying rally points in the lives of our congregations. The refreshing and encouraging reminder that Mike has shared resounds with rightful confidence available to us as we place our faith in the One Who is powerful enough to win the battle. It is most encouraging to be reminded of our place of faithfully responding to His call, a place to be more concerned with faithfulness and obedience than success.
There is a song that was written in 1984 (I know, ancient, right?), The Battle Belongs to the Lord. Written by Jamie Owens-Collins in what might arguably be called either the early or even pre-contemporary Christian music (CCM) wave. The song was titled by its refrain, a reference to scriptures such as 1 Samuel 17:47, . Its minor tonality connotes a seriousness, and evokes a kind of plaintiff, battle-like motif. I have found it to be sometimes powerful in the most acoustic and simple of settings, such as the song was recorded by John Michael Talbot with only single acoustic guitar. That recording that includes group singing reflects a Taize` like character. I remember using an arrangement of the song with youth choir in a simple choral setting to good effect. The message provides important reflection opportunities for teens who face plenty of battles in their spiritual walk. The song was also later recorded by Christian rock (insert oxymoron jokes here) band, Petra. For those of you too young to know about these names or their music, therein lies a whole opportunity for discovery. Google and/or Wikipedia away. By the way, the song is included in six hymnals including Lifeway’s 2008 Baptist Hymnal (#662).
I am running on about Mike’s message, and about this song because they have both been brought to mind as I have reflected on our Tennessee Ladies Chorus and Tennessee Mens Chorale retreat this past Thursday thru Saturday. Those who were present know that I shared about some challenges we face as ministry organizations for coming days. Your response to that sharing is such an encouragement of the kind of servants you are in Kingdom work. It is no wonder I so love the opportunities we have to come together and share burdens, share joys, openly share needs, and be nurtured and encouraged by the shared experiences of music-making and worship through praying, singing, praising, hearing.
I love and appreciate every member of our Tennessee Mens Chorale and Tennessee Ladies Chorus. Those who participate regularly in these groups know well of my inability at times to control my emotions that can be overwhelmed with the realization of that love as well as the blessings of our Heavenly Father that has called me into this ministry. I really do wish every worship music ministry leader in the state would avail themselves of this fellowship. I truly believe your ministry in your setting will be positively effected by involvement with others who serve in a variety of kinds of settings, urban, suburban, rural, mega church, small church, medium church, full-time, bi-vocational, or volunteer.
There are fruitful days of shared mission and ministry ahead. It is exciting to see what the Lord has in store. One thing is for sure, as we are serving in Great Commission work He is with us always. When we face trials and tribulations along the way, we have this truth to hold onto, “The battle belongs to the Lord!” What a joyful privilege to share the pilgrimage with you!
In heavenly armor we’ll enter the land;
The battle belongs to the Lord!
No weapon that’s fashioned against us will stand;
The battle belongs to the Lord!
And we sing glory, honor, power and strength to the Lord.
We sing glory, honor, power and strength to the Lord.
When the power of darkness comes in like a flood,
The battle belongs to the Lord!
He’s raised up a standard, the power of His blood;
The battle belongs to the Lord!
And we sing glory, honor, power and strength to the Lord.
We sing glory, honor, power and strength to the Lord.
Words and Music by Jamie Owens-Collins, Fairhill Music, Inc. ©1984
Webster seems to think retreat has to do with getting away from the front line of battle. First definition indicates that maybe the enemy is winning and thus the “run and flee” mentality would be needed, RETREAT!!! The next meaning he gives is getting away from a situation because it is dangerous or unpleasant. Hmmmm…. Dangerous? Unpleasant? RETREAT!!! Well, how about the third definition which has to do with changing your opinion because something is unpopular. Great….not exactly what I hope for this weekend’s gathering with Tennessee Mens Chorale and Tennessee Ladies Chorus.
Anyway, Tennessee Baptist Church Musicians – whatever you call yourself, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Ministers of Music, Pianists, Organists, Children’s Choir Leaders, Children’s Music Ministry Workers, Worship Singers, …. Or whatever…. Thursday and Friday is the RETREAT for Tennessee Mens Chorale. I surely wish that every man who serves in worship music ministry leadership were a part of this wonderful organization of music-making, mission-minded, Lord-loving, Kingdom-serving men! Serving together in this group enhances ministry and nurtures fellowship that helps us all to be more effective together and separately. Likewise I wish that women who serve in worship ministry leadership would participate as part of our Tennessee Ladies Chorus for the same reasons. Besides being so encouraging and great fun and inspiration, these groups make some beautiful music together and engage in important projects of mission and ministry. This year alone we will have the TMC on the mission field in Italy, TLC and TMC together singing and serving at the Nashville Rescue Mission, TLC and TMC singing at the Tennessee Baptist Summit joined by Keith & Kristyn Getty to lead in worship, the TLC and TMC on stage at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the third time behind the Gettys for Joy! An Irish Christmas, the TLC singing in Gatlinburg before 2000 women at the On Mission Gathering of Tennessee Women on Mission, as well as other possible smaller group engagements.
I know the list itemized in the above paragraph does not sound much like run and flee, or withdraw from….anything, but I can tell you that it is just possible that serving together and joining common inspiration through singing praise and praying for one another does the heart good, renewing minds and hearts to head back to the front line of ministry and lift high the name of Jesus week in and week out.
So, hurry and get your name on the list if it is not there already, it’s time to
Music Ministry leaders, how do your church members respond to your attempts at enlisting participants in worship music ministry functions? While it seems there was once a time when music leaders in the church were the “fair-haired children” whose ministry area was popular for those inside and outside the church, it certainly is not the case anymore. Days of announcing youth choir rehearsal and anticipating a full loft Sunday afternoon are long gone. Over the past thirty years something has drastically changed. Worship Ministry leaders can no longer presume that everyone has some understanding of the value of music and the arts in the life of the church. Subsequently, enlisting singers, players, and leaders for the work of the ministry presents a sizeable challenge for those responsible for fielding the proverbial worship ministry team. So back to the opening question, how do people respond to your enlistment prompts? While experience indicates there are many kinds of responses and responders, here are two categorizations of kinds of responses. Perhaps you will identify with these and even be able to place names and faces from your congregation in your own mind.
#1 – Exuberant Joiners. These are the first-in folks. When it is time to sign-up for music ministry activities, whether in the church’s worship life, or musical missions projects, you can count on them. They are ready to find out what needs to be done and get busy doing it. These folks will bless you by their enthusiasm. Those whose motivation is pure will keep you challenged as a leader. You may find yourself wondering whether you are doing enough to keep them occupied and satisfied in their enthusiasm for worship music ministry.
While the exuberant joiners are very encouraging to be around, and the kind of participants most all of us want to have in our ministries, leaders must also exercise caution that we do not drift into pleaser-mode where we become less spiritually intentional about our ministry and mission. Offering good leadership to appropriately channel the energies and enthusiasm of these people can be more challenging than we might think at first glance. As with leading all of our flock, we will need to pray for wisdom in sorting thru those things that are stimulated by the emotional buzz of pleasing the exuberant joiners. Guarding our own motivational center can serve to help us guard theirs as well.
#2 – Doubting Pragmatists. This group awaits the demonstration of what’s in it for them. Depending on the culture of your church, they may not ever openly reveal that motivational center, but you will either highly suspect it to be the case, or perhaps be fully convinced of it. But just as they may be trapped in their masquerade, neither can you let on that you suspicion that their motives are anything less than the best, either. Bless their hearts. These are the folks that may agree to participate in the big special seasonal programs, but are just too busy to commit to weekly involvement. The bigger the show-factor or crowd-component, the more likely they are to somehow “work it out.” They might even consider working in a children’s or youth music ministry if they feel it might benefit their own little darling’s shot at getting a solo part, or secure their spot as a leader. Of course, the child may need to miss half the choir year for soccer, baseball, and school play, but these things are just further grooming them to be the American idol mom and dad want them to be. “And we just knew you would understand.” Any attempt to help them consider the value of the church side of their child’s development will likely be met with either overt or covert pushback that sees little Johnny or Susie as a sure-fire star “Christian athlete,” or “Christian artist” musician. You sure would not want to get in their way, would you?
The doubting pragmatists probably deserve more patience than we may initially be tempted to afford them. I say that for two primary reasons. The first is that our churches (and dare I say, we in leadership) have created the very atmosphere (ethos) that has fed their kind of thinking. We have done it by constantly adapting schedules to the convenience of people’s harried and fractured lives. Perhaps we have too highly revered celebrity in our own music practice, and elevated iconic “star Christians” over the diligent faithful servants. Sometimes we have ignored misplaced priorities, rather than taking the hard stands to grow disciples, and instead have marketed to consumers. We have reaped what we have sown in this regard. The second reason we owe these doubting pragmatists patience is that the challenge of leadership that we have accepted includes shepherding these brothers and sisters. Their coldwater committee ways are quite likely to stir up cynicism and even anger in us in response to them. If we are not careful we can get caught up in building entire systems around the futile enterprise of trying to thwart their ways. What they more likely need, instead, is truth presented in love.
Let’s face it, folks! You and I are serving in immensely challenging times in the life of the church. Culture no longer affirms much of our work of ministry. The church itself for that matter, even here in the sunny south, may do more to bolster celebrity idolization that leads to competitive dynamics uncharacteristic of Kingdom service. Worship Ministry leaders can find themselves betwixt and between exuberant joiners and doubting pragmatists, trying to determine how to lead toward a unified vision of Kingdom mission and ministry. Whew! No simple task. All the more reason we need to be of all things most diligent in constant prayer and devotion to scripture. Perhaps we should join the spirit of Martin Luther who in his testing wrote to his collaborator and friend, Melancthon,
“Only pray for me that my faith in the Lord does not fail.”
Let us listen more intently to the call of the Lord than the push of the brethren.
 Edwald Plass This is Luther (Concordia House 1948) 289.
The Lord is faithful! Great Is Thy Faithfulness is one of my favorite hymns. It is one of about 100 “favorites” for me I think. The hymn has significance in my faith walk with God. I have noted previously a distinction between meaning and significance in hymns and songs. It may be somewhat arbitrary, but it just helps me think about a different way of attaching value to how a hymn or worship song works in expressing our worship through singing. The simple distinction is that meaning has to do with what an hymn author or songwriter originally intended when a song was written. As such, when we sing the hymn or song we may attempt to re-mean what it was originally intended to say or mean. It is important for us to sing worship meaningfully – important stuff. Significance, on the other hand, has to do with something that may happen for a particular congregation or person when a hymn or worship song finds attachment to either a particular event or season in the life of a church or family or individual. Congregations may have a song that is significant because it was sung during the loss of a member, a pastor or other leader, some victory or tragedy in the church, etc. Some event becomes identified with the song or hymn, or the other way around, and thus the idea of significance.
Well, Great Is Thy Faithfulness has significance for me. It has a particular significance because it is the first hymn I tried to sing with my church family at Forest Hills Baptist Church following my 2008 stroke experience. I will never sing the song the same again as it is associated in my mind with standing at Forest Hills on a Sunday night and trying to join the congregation in singing. Every phrase was difficult to voice and I finally just kinda gave up and listened to the congregation around me, and allowed my heart to sing what my voice would not. My voice was too weak to make a sound. My emotions were overwhelmed with the severity of all that had happened, but my heart was simultaneously flooded with joy as I had lived through scary days. I was not sure what all the future would hold, but I felt I would see more days of sharing in the lives of my family, more music-making with people I love, and more worship on this side of eternity. I was and am convinced there was and is more the Lord wants to do through the ministry He has given. The phrase “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” continues to be especially powerful in my hymn-singing vernacular. Thanks be to God! He is our hope! And He is faithful
When days are dreary and grim, or when pessimism visits my psyche due to circumstances beyond my control, I find this classic hymn often comes to mind and that phrase, “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” in particular, is significant. Fact is, the song lyric also may come to mind when all seems well also. In those times it serves as celebration just as well as it does as inspiring reminder of God’s faithfulness to me – to us – to the world He made. One reason I am so deeply committed to fan the proverbial flame of children’s and youth choirs is to promote the learning of great hymns of the faith as well as the best of the newer worship songs. I want to be certain that our children and grandchildren have songs in their heads when they come upon the challenging days of their lives, and that they can join with fellow believers to lift their common voice in songs of praise. The Lord IS faithful! His mercies are there every single morning! All we have needed His hand has provided! I want to do my part to be certain the song goes forward, and that we pass along the joy of praising Him for Hs faithfulness to the next generation. Those preschool – children’s choir leaders who have attended our training sessions these last few weeks give good reason for hope. I pray the Lord will continue to raise up adults who will be willing to spend an hour or two each week teaching children hymns and worship songs, and who will avail themselves of training opportunities just like those of the last few Saturdays, and like the one to be held in Morristown at First Baptist there this next Saturday. I pray blessing on those who are involved in such training, and hope the Lord will give you songs of special meaning and significance through it all. Perhaps you will join me in one of my favorites as you recognize in the eyes and voices of these precious children that indeed there is reason to believe we will have “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside
Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness Lord unto me.
–Thomas O. Chisholm
At the heart of worship is agreement. That may sound wildly out of sync for those who have been fighting over music styles, environments, etc. for a long time, or worse yet, have been released or demoted from your worship ministry position because of disagreements having to do with worship. In fact, I sometimes quip that in consulting with churches I often feel that I need a black and white striped shirt and a whistle, so I can referee some of the disagreements that characterize talk about worship in churches. Way too often, these “discussions” uncover underlying frailties that have become high hurdles too big to climb for worship minister, pastor, other staff personnel, other musicians, or church members. Well, as they say, there’s a song about that. It is now an “old” contemporary song….is that possible? Oxymoron? If it is an old song, what is it? A traditional song? Or has it risen to the level of hymn? But I digress. The song is The Heart of Worship. It is surely not fleshed out much theologically, but the motivation behind it and the core of its lyrical meaning seems to clearly apply. The heart of worship really is Jesus. Back to the agreement thing in a minute. We have gotten so comfortable with our me-worship that we have fooled ourselves to thinking it is about Him, especially if we feel good about it. So why am I writing about this?
There are several reasons. One is that it pains me to see you hurt! So many fine ministers have been and/or are being tossed to the trash heep of so-called irrelevancy. Dismissals, ongoing turmoil, relegation to lesser value, and/or little input into decision-making – these are disturbing trends. Another reason is that many youth and children’s choirs have been halted due to shortsightedness on the part of leaders who have had their vision of worship confiscated by the tyranny of falling attendance and collection figures, popular misperceptions of what worship looks and feels like, and childish congregants, who use straw-man arguments about what millennials want in worship in order to get their own way. Just hearing the words, “youth” and “choirs” in the same sentence causes eyes to roll for many. Please do not mis-hear me. There are issues within these situations that desperately need to be wrestled to the ground. Any of us can become stale in our ministry skills or need an upgrade in our musical skillset. Updates and adjustments within our developmental ministries through music are an ongoing reality. Leader decisions about all things of the church need to be made that are biblically and theologically sound, and that truly benefit (edify and strengthen) the church over the long term. But none of this progress is likely in adversarial environments where the theme of worship that should be the highest uniter has been allowed to become the primary divider.
It seems to me that in the best situations the leaders find a way to come to agreement. Often this means give and take on all parts. Unfair fighters have all kinds of fraudulent tools at their disposal: positional power, popularity, passive aggressive behavior, gossip, secrecy and withholding information, etc., etc. Sadly, many are more adept at using these hellish techniques than have the patience and determination to pray through decisions such that harmony can demonstrate gospel effect. The spirit of genuine agreement provides a great model for how believers treat one another (Romans 12, John 17, Ephesians 4, Philippians 2 and 4).
What’s more – back to my first statement. Agreement is at the heart of worship. Here is what I mean. Worship rehearses our relationship with God, which is rooted in covenant agreement. Consider the roots of Worship, our relationship with Holy God:
God’s Covenant with Israel – I will be your God, you will be my people
God’s Covenant with the Church – Jesus does for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves forgiveness of sin. We are to be faithful believers.
In every situation God has been faithful. He has kept His covenant. The story of Israel and of the Church is a story of breaking the agreement through disobedience and disbelief. Worship in our own power always falls short. Worship in God’s power rehearses the story of God. It is the Gospel, all about Jesus. In an ongoing manner we renew our relationship with Him. He is God, we are His people because of the satisfying finished work of Jesus! As Robert Webber reminds us “through worship our relationship with God is maintained, repaired, and transformed.”
Worship that renews our agreement with Jesus places in that position afresh to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) What joyful refreshment of soul and spirit to live in peace with God through Christ by the Spirit!
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
 Robert Webber, Learning to Worship with All Your Heart: A Study in the Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 18.